Thursday 14 November 2013


War is the struggle against holiness, which will end when men submit to be taught by the saints, and to be subject to God. (Neale, Vol 2)
That question, so obvious, has been bothering me for 2 days now. Why should we read, study, or sing the psalms in liturgy when they are so violent?

How do I justify reading them when I cannot and will not justify violence? Yet we know we not only live in a violent world, but we live among violent people in societies that have laws maintained by violence.

For now I will just give a brief answer on how the psalms help me adjust and manage in a violent world among violent people.

First I recall the promise of the end of violence, rest, Sabbath, to enemy and avenger (Psalm 8), the cessation of war (Psalms 46, 76). The central words of the Psalms are battle, Selah. Think about it! And to pick the verse to support this promise, try 76:9-11. Verse 11 is a strange verse, and the psalm is not particularly famous:
From heaven you made sentence heard
earth feared and was quiet
when God arose to judgment
to save all the afflicted of the earth
For human heat will thank you
the residue of heat you will wear
Vow and pay to יהוה your God
all round about him bring tribute fearfully
he will enclose the spirit of aristocrats
he will be feared by the kings of the earth
Here we move from the corporate reign of God who shatters fire-brand of bow, shield, sword, and battle, to the reason for battle: human heat - whatever is meant by this metaphor, desire, violence, power, lust. John Mason Neale records this comment: 
There. He had four resting places in each of which he destroyed some weapon of the enemy. In the Virgin's womb, he cast down pride; in the manger, riches; in the cross, the power of the prince of this world; in the grave, death. (For more from this remarkable history of reception, see here.)
If you find my translation strange, check out other interpretations (yes translation is interpretation).

How does God wear our heat? One way is his presence with us in our prayer. David prays to be defended from violent persons (Psalm 140). The psalms address violence throughout. 

Psalm 7 uses a birthing metaphor for the evil of the wicked. Psalm 11 notes God's hatred of violence. The servant will be delivered from it (Psalm 18) and will as a result give thanks and sing a psalm. Violence peppers the psalms (25, 27, 35, 42, 55 and so on). Just look up chet-mem-samech in a concordance. (I won't spell it out.) I wrote (Seeing the Psalter p. 184) in direct response to my rector's question about clergy not liking the psalms:
The violent prayers of Psalm 55 anticipate a series of psalms (57-59) which are not popular with 20th and 21st century church service organizers. These psalms (with Psalm 75) are entitled: Do Not Destroy. Perhaps it is instruction concerning the music. But the preparation for their violence is already here in this psalm justly made famous by Felix Mendelssohn in the verse anthem Hear my PrayerIt is not difficult to find the rationale for the inclusion of violence in the Psalter. It is a recognition of the reality of violence and fraud in the city, and failure of governance, things that are not foreign to our time. This is the reality in which the elect prays.
I also made a footnote (p 190) of the work of Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt about Do Not Destroy: We need to be reminded not to destroy these psalms. They reflect reality.
via Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt, from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 67b: ‘One who covers an oil lamp [causing the flame to burn inefficiently] or uncovers a kerosene lamp [allowing the fuel to evaporate faster] violates the prohibition of bal tashchit / Do not destroy.’ 
In Sefer Ha-Hinukh, the Book of Education (Rabbi Pinhas haLevi of Barcelona, 16th century), we read: ‘The root reason for the precept [of bal tashchit/do not destroy] is known: for it is in order to train our spirits to love what is good and beneficial and to cling to goodness...’ It is good to be ‘distressed at every ruination and spoilage that they see; and if they are able to do any rescuing, they will save anything from destruction, with all their power.’
Psalm 72 continues the hope for delivery from violence. Solomon was not successful in fulfilling it. Psalms 73 and 74 begin the book that recalls the greatest violence to Israel, the destruction of the city and of the temple.

We recently heard again the Dixit Dominus of Handel. Here's another direct answer to the question of violence. It is in the second to last verse and the intimation of resurrection in the lifting up of the head after imbibing of the torrent of human destruction.
Psalm 110 has been among my favorites ever since I first sang Dixit Dominus by G. F. Handel. Handel’s setting is fierce and challenging youthful work, almost unsingable, and full of word painting and extreme of emotion. How do I translate ferocity into love? How do I prevent war mongering based on Scriptural justification? How do I challenge superiority and privilege justified by the divine right of kings? How do I understand the priestly and royal anointing without succumbing to the tyranny of too much power in the hands of one individual? I don’t know that I can find short answers to these questions. I do want, however, in interpreting this poem, to move away from violent overthrow to adoration, and an adoration that is not constrained but nourished by an abundance of joy from the knowledge of the torrent in the way. I want to find structural clues in the double use of the word מָחַץ (mxc) meaning wound used about 14 times in the Tanakh. 
Lessons learned are not passed from one to another in a few words. If words are useful, their reception into the body is an insemination that undermines the commonplace and in the mysterious working of the life of a human, gives uneasy birth to a new thing in the world. To what extent did the ancients of the first century reframe the violence of their tradition? If I pray for sudden shame on my enemies, I think it is only by the reality of shame that we can see the righteousness of God. So for God to destroy the wicked does not mean there is no follow-up. As one of his spokesmen said, he wounds, he makes alive. Much as I hate to agree with a Job’s comforter, Eliphaz (Job 5:18), he is only alluding to God’s word in the Torah, Deuteronomy 32:39. 
I think that death and resurrection are the subject of Psalm 110. God himself drinks of the torrent in the way, a torrent of death by which he wounds, and a torrent of life by which he raises up the head he has smitten (compare Psalm 3) and all of us in that head. In this way, violence is transformed into adoration by the one who tasted death for us, the king of righteousness and the high priest. This psalm gives the writer of Revelation permission to construct a theology of violence that is purely a meditation on the wounding of the Anointed, High Priest, King, and Lambkin. 
Glory be to the Father, who hath said unto my Lord, Sit Thou on My right hand; Glory be to the Son, My Lord, Who is a Priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek; Glory be to the Holy Ghost, the heavenly dew of our youth...
So ends a 15 page summary in Neale and Littledale of the opinions of the fathers on Psalm 110. My suggestion that verse 7 of the Psalm is of death and resurrection is confirmed by Bellarmine among others, who describes the torrent as:
the hurried, turbid, and noisy yet brief discourse of human life, to which the Lord bowed himself by his Incarnation, from His throne on the right hand of the Father; drinking of the troubles of our mortal condition, truly in the way, for He was a stranger and pilgrim on earth, far from his country; nay going down by His Passion into the lowest depths of the torrent... 
There is no further mention of violence after Psalm 110 until the recapitulating prayers of David beginning at Psalm 140. The Psalms encapsulate the quote from Neale and Littledale that is at the top of this post. They are the canonical story, a measuring rod, of what all nations are like. Israel's history is given as example. All nations are like them in their desire (Psalm 90 / 102) and in their failures (Psalm 89). Psalm 2 highlights the enemy of the sovereigns of the earth (and that includes us all). Psalm 149 shows the submission of the same sovereigns to the rule of steadfast-love or loving-kindness. The bonds of love are stronger than death.

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