Anger in Psalms is raw, and reminds us to forgive

An angry face, illustrating anger in Psalms[1]

Anger in Psalms is undisguised and natural

In some of the Psalms the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth.

Examples… can be found all over the Psalter, but perhaps the worst is in Psalm 109. The poet prays that an ungodly man may rule over his enemy… (v. 5). When the enemy is tried, let him be convicted and sentenced, ‘and let his prayer be turned into sin’ (v. 6). This again means, I think, not his prayers to God, but his supplications to a human judge, which are to make things all the hotter for him (double the sentence because he begged for it to be halved). May his days be few, may his job be given to someone else (v. 7). When he is dead may his orphans be beggars (v. 9). May he look in vain for anyone in the world to pity him (v. 11). Let God always remember against him the sins of his parents (v. 13).

Even more devilish in one verse is the otherwise beautiful Psalm 137 where a blessing is pronounced on anyone who will snatch up a Babylonian baby and beat its brains out against the pavement (v. 9).

Ancient and oriental cultures are in many ways more conventional, more ceremonious, and more courteous than our own. But their restraints came in different places. Hatred did not need to be disguised for the sake of social decorum or for fear anyone would accuse you of a neurosis. We therefore see it in its ‘wild’ or natural condition.

It seemed to me that, seeing in them hatred undisguised, saw also the natural result of injuring a human being.

Anger in Psalms is not to encourage our revenge

The reaction of the Psalmists to injury, though profoundly natural, is profoundly wrong.

‘Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart thou shalt not avenge or bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,’ says Leviticus (19:17, 18).

In Exodus we read, ‘If thou seest the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden thou shaft surely help with him,’ and ‘if thou meet thine enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him’ (23:4, 5).

‘Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth’ (Proverbs 24:17).

And I shall never forget my surprise when I first discovered that St Paul’s ‘If thine enemy hunger, give him bread’, etc., is a direct quotation from the same book (Proverbs 25:21).

Anger in Psalms reminds us we need to forgive

There is no use talking as if forgiveness were easy.

We all know the old joke, ‘You’ve given up smoking once; I’ve given it up a dozen times.’

In the same way I could say of a certain man, ‘Have I forgiven him for what he did that day? I’ve forgiven him more times than I can count.’

For we find that the work of forgiveness has to be done over and over again. We forgive, we mortify our resentment; a week later some chain of thought carries us back to the original offence and we discover the old resentment blazing away as if nothing had been done about it at all. We need to forgive our brother seventy times seven not only for 490 offences but for one offence.

Anger in Psalms reflects that sin is hateful to God

If the Jews cursed more bitterly than the Pagans this was, I think, at least in part because they took right and wrong more seriously. For if we look at their railings we find they are usually angry not simply because these things have been done to them but because these things are manifestly wrong, are hateful to God as well as to the victim. Sometimes it comes into the foreground; as in Psalm 58: 9, 10, ‘The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance … so that a man shall say … Doubtless there is a God that judgeth the earth.’

For we can still see, in the worst of their maledictions, how these old poets were, in a sense, near to God. Not, we trust, that God looks upon their enemies as they do: He ‘desireth not the death of a sinner’. But doubtless He has for the sin of those enemies just the implacable hostility which the poets express. Implacable? Yes, not to the sinner but to sin. It will not be tolerated nor condoned, no treaty will be made with it.

Against all this the ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that it (if not its perpetrators) is hateful to God.[2]

  1. “Anger.” Accessed 10 June 2017.
  2. Lewis, Clive Staples. Reflections on the Psalms. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1958, pp. 17-28.

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