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.

Jesus lived, died, and lives to be our way to God

Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast."
Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee.
Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”[2]

Jesus taught and healed, then was sacrificed, rose, and sent his Holy Spirit

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”[3]

The canonical gospels combine stories about Jesus with records of his teaching. Despite important variations between them, they share a common narrative thread and a common purpose. The narrative falls roughly into two halves.

The first establishes Jesus as a teacher and miracle worker in Galilee (the northern province of Israel). Though baptized by John the Baptist, he launches an independent career and wins his own followers. Jesus works amongst his people, the Jews, and acknowledges their God and scriptures. He offers an interpretation of the Jewish faith that is critical towards the religious elite but favourable to those who are destitute, humble, of no account.

The second part of the narrative shifts to Jerusalem in Judea (the southern part of Israel), where Jesus’ provocative ministry alarms the governing authorities (the Romans, supported by Jewish leaders) and leads to his arrest, trial, and execution. He is crucified as a criminal and buried in a tomb. When some of his followers visit the grave three days later, they find it empty. Miraculous appearances by Jesus convince his followers that God has raised him from the dead. The Book of Acts (written by the author of Luke’s gospel) continues the story in the New Testament, recounting how Jesus, having ascended into heaven, pours out his Spirit on his followers at Pentecost and brings into being the Christian community.[4]

Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit so we can live close to God

“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”[5]

…the Pauline view presents human beings not with the challenge of realizing their own divinity by going within, but with the duty of looking upward toward ‘the Lord’ (Paul’s preferred title for Jesus and for God) who alone can save them from their destiny of sin and death.

For although human beings have no natural ability to become a ‘Son of God’ like Christ, by supernatural grace they may be transformed into new beings – ‘sons by adoption’ in Paul’s terms. Humans are saved not by their own power or potential, but by being ruled by Christ and living in, through, and for him rather than for themselves.

For Paul, the ritual of water baptism symbolizes the death of the old self and the birth of a new Christ-like self. After baptism, as Paul puts it, ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’. The baptized do not become gods in their own right, but members of ‘the body of Christ’ – parts of a divine collectivity under the headship of Christ. Their transformation begins on earth, but will culminate in their resurrection from the dead.[6]

  1. Jesus appears to Disciples in, Accessed 25 Feb. 2017.
  2. The Bible. New International Version, 2011. John 21:1,12.
  3. The Bible. New International Version, 2011. Luke 4:16-21.
  4. Woodhead, Linda. Christianity: a very short introduction. OUP Oxford, 2004, p. 10.
  5. The Bible. English Standard Version, Crossway, 2001. John 16:7.
  6. Woodhead, Linda. Christianity: a very short introduction. OUP Oxford, 2004, pp. 20, 22.

The Bible is about real people with real faults

Bible study covers history, wisdom, prophets, and Gospels in a continuous loop.

…the Hebrew Bible just isn’t a theological textbook. It contains a lot of narratives and its narrative materials are an account of the odyssey of a people, the nation of Israel.

…the Bible is not for naïve optimists. It’s hard-hitting stuff. And it speaks to those who are courageous enough to acknowledge that life is rife with pain and conflict, just as it’s filled with compassion and joy.

The Bible is a library… wonderful narrative stories… all kinds of law… texts that prescribe how some ceremony is supposed to be performed… the messages of prophets… lyric poetry… love poetry… proverbs.. psalms of thanksgiving and lament…

The Bible clearly had many contributors over many centuries, and the individual styles and concerns of those writers, their political and religious motivations, betray themselves frequently.

…the Bible… treats issues… It uses the language of story and song and poetry and paradox and metaphor.

Each book, each writer, each voice reflects another thread in the rich tapestry of human experience, human response to life and its puzzles, human reflection on the sublime and the depraved…

…the Bible’s not for children. 

…biblical characters are real people with real, compelling moral conflicts and ambitions and desires, and they can act shortsightedly and selfishly.

There are episodes of treachery and incest and murder and rape.

Jacob is a deceiver; Joseph is an arrogant, spoiled brat; Judah reneges on his obligations to his daughter-in-law and goes off and sleeps with a prostitute…

But they can also, like real people, learn and grow and change…

There are… all kinds of paradoxes and subtle puns and ironies…

…the Bible… makes its readers work… The conclusions have to be drawn by the reader.[2]

  1. “Advanced Reading Loop – Reading Method.” Accessed 11 Nov. 2016.
  2. Hayes, Christine. “1. The Parts of the Whole.” RLST 145: Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). Yale University, 2008, Accessed 11 Nov. 2016.