Angry Bible Songs

This weekend, I finished reading the Psalms. It was different this time through. There was a theme that shouted off the page louder than ever before.

Punishment for evildoers.

We like to focus, rightly so, on the Psalms that extol God for his matchless character and righteous deeds. And in recent years, there have been a spate of praise tunes that highlight the theme of social justice in the Psalms. But reading them this time, I noticed a hefty number of Biblical couplets that call on God to punish, to take vengeance, to violently strike the wicked.

Take, for instance, Psalm 109:

Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy;
    let an accuser stand at his right hand.
When he is tried, let him be found guilty,
    and may his prayers condemn him.
May his days be few;
    may another take his place of leadership.
May his children be fatherless
    and his wife a widow.
May his children be wandering beggars;
    may they be driven from their ruined homes.
May a creditor seize all he has;
    may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.
May no one extend kindness to him
    or take pity on his fatherless children.
May his descendants be cut off,
    their names blotted out from the next generation.
May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord;
    may the sin of his mother never be blotted out.
May their sins always remain before the Lord,
    that he may blot out their name from the earth.

Or Psalm 58

Even from birth the wicked go astray;
    from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies.
Their venom is like the venom of a snake,
    like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears,
that will not heed the tune of the charmer,
    however skillful the enchanter may be.
Break the teeth in their mouths, O God;
    Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions!
Let them vanish like water that flows away;
    when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short.
May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along,
    like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.

Or these horrific lines from Psalm 137

Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
    on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
    “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.

I don’t take these to be instructive. The Psalms are not teaching us who to hate and how to curse. But I do find these lines oddly comforting, because I can identify with the anger they express.

Lately, we have had our share of wicked plans realized and innocent lives lost. When innocents die and children are oppressed, it’s natural to get mad. Bur our culture is not the first to be mad as hell about injustice. Other followers of Yahweh had their share. Ancient Israel knew a thing or two about racial conflict.

And while we may find it unseemly for our Bible to include prayers about bashing in the heads of the children of our enemies, at least it is honest. It gives voice to the dread and hate that is driving much of our current cultural discord.

The arc of Biblical teaching vaults toward mercy, compassion, nonviolence, and grace. But that road is paved with sin-scared and hate-filled vessels. The Psalms don’t pull any punches. This time through, that has helped me sing them in a new way.