When you view the Bible as a book that fell out of heaven, then the Psalms become nothing more than abstract theological, scientific and historical statements. It is crucial that when we read different parts of the Bible we read them in the context and style that they were written in. Let me give you an example. Many of you have read or at least heard of the Songs of Songs. It is the shortest book of the Writings and its main characters are a woman and a man. The man gives descriptions of this woman that allegorize her features and how beautiful she is. Now let’s say, you believe that the Bible was a book that fell out of the sky. You believed that it was a literal, word for word truth statements about what you were to believe. Here is a drawing that someone drew up about what this woman would have looked like.
This picture doesn’t really do justice does it? For some reason this picture, even though taken literally, directly from our Bible somehow misses the point of what is actually going on in Song of Songs. This in a lot of ways has been what has done with the Psalms. It has been brutally taken out of context and used to support all sorts of crazed theologies about God, the world and humanity. I remember back in youth group, we were in some kind of small group and we were arguing about the salvation of sinners. I said something along the lines of God loves everyone, no matter what they’ve done. My youth leader at the time said, “No he doesn’t, in Psalms 5:5 it says that “God hates doers of inequity.”” I was confused. Here I was taught to memorize the most crucial verse of Christianity, John 3:16 and then I find out God actually hates all these people that do wrong.
This picture of course is just a joke, but it highlights some serious errors of how we read the Bible and what we do with it. The Psalms can be taken any which way we like. Just look at some of the violent Psalms, some call them Psalms of cursing. They are brutal, asking for horrible things to happen to the people they are cursing. Now if you believe that the Bible only speaks true things and every word is meant to be imparted into your life as direct wisdom and direction, then we have a problem on our hands. However, if you treat the Psalms like you are eavesdropping on a radio station from a few thousand years ago. Watching humanity struggle with their ideas of God, injustice and politics: putting these struggles into words and songs. Some songs are written out of lament, some out of anger, and some out of happiness some are political, others are theological and some are simply poetry. They are not written by God. They are written by humans.
There is a reason we have all of our journal entries hanging next to Psalms all over this space. We are doing it as a reminder that your cries, questions and rejoicing are no different than the ones that are hanging next to them. The difference is the time period they were written in. Yours are just as valid as the ones in the Psalms. There is no right or wrong way to write Psalms. They are what they are; tidbits of conversation between God and humanity, from humanities point of view. This is why doing the Psalms worked for the summer. The past summers we’ve done pop culture type things. Like song lyrics, movies, books etc. All these things are part of the expression of our culture today. We open them up, peer into them, find the bits of truth throughout it, use them as our own stories and use them as lessons of what not to do. The Psalms are no different. We look at them and peer into them. We try and figure out what is going on, use them as analogies, and learn what we can by snooping on someone’s life that was experiencing God thousands of years ago.
With that, let’s jump into the Psalm that I picked for today. Psalm 9-10. There is a good chance that Psalms 9-10 was originally one single acrostic poem, so that is how we are going to read it.
Scriptural texts, like all texts, grow out of socioeconomic-political realities and voice those realities, and they cannot be understood apart from those realities
– Normal Gottwald
We’re going to keep this quote in mind as we go through this Psalm. Let’s, if we can, try and get a better view of what was happening, or at least what it was like during the time of this Psalm being written.
This Psalm begins with thanksgiving. The speaker of this Psalm is using a first person pronoun over and over again in the first few verses and then again later in verse 14. The speaker is celebrating something, something that is present and something in anticipation for what is coming.
The subject of this Psalm is Yahweh (LORD) and in the first few verses he is directly spoken too six times. Yahweh is celebrated in two different ways. First, it is for his various destructive actions, like destroying, blotting out, rooting out etc. Then in the same Psalm, there is a sense of celebrating Yahweh because he has given righteous judgment. It is almost as the speaker here was on trial, and Yahweh stepped in and stuck up for the speaker and put his accusers to shame.
Then we have Yahweh being spoken about from a distance, where he is spoken about in third person (moving away from the first person from the first few verses). Yahweh here is a good judge, who makes good decisions. He is not in the influence or control of the wicked but acts separate from them and chooses to act on the behalf of the weak and the oppressed. Yahweh is the one who makes the decisions and seems to determine the outcome of this court case.
Now let’s stop for a second and sidetrack. There is plenty of biblical criticism out there especially in the atheist circles. One of the major criticisms is the violence in the Hebrew Bible and how you reconcile that with a so called peaceful God of the New Testament. Psalms is one of the major books quoted on behalf of this argument. The Psalms are full of words that curse the wicked. Just read Psalm 109 for example, it is a pretty clear example of a Psalm that wishes violence and suffering on the enemies of the author. Or how about Psalm 139, where the author pronounces his blessing on anyone who snatches a Babylonian baby and smashes its head on rocks.
The criticism is that our Bible is actually more violent than the pagan texts that are similar. There is more violence in the Hebrew Bible than any ancient Greek story. This is typically used as an affront to the biblical text to show how it cannot be from a God of peace and love. In reality, they are right. The biblical story is full of violence. I took a class called Sex and Violence in the Hebrew Bible at York and it was a full year long. We studied story after story of rape and war and horrible detestable violence that we would never want to expose our children too. Now this isn’t to say that there isn’t violence in pagan texts, there is, but it is much more dumbed down, cleaned up and most importantly, it is always from the viewpoint of the victimizers. They had no problem rejoicing in their own deeds and making them seem like it’s not that big of a deal. For instance, let’s look at China for a moment. The Tienanmen Square protests of 1989 ended in quite a bit of violence in the Chinese government. Without getting into too much detail, if you were in China right now and your tried Googling the Tienanmen Square protests of 1989, nothing would come up. The powerful are very controlling and they like to make history seem clean and concise. China is trying to block the bad parts of this protest and pretend they never happened. This is how history books are written, almost always from the point of view of the winners; from those that came out on top. Rene Girard, on this topic points this out
“In mythology, the collective violence is always represented from the standpoint of the victimizers and therefore the victims themselves are never heard. We never hear them bemoaning their sad fate and cursing their persecutors as they do in the psalms. Everything is recounted from the standpoint of the persecutors…. No wonder the Greek myths, the Greek epics and the Greek tragedies are all serene, harmonious, and undisturbed. In pagan cultures, the persecutors are in charge. We never hear the victims. We only hear the persecutors who always have the last word, and who are unaware of their own arbitrary violence.”
So the Psalms is one of the most unique collections of writings that the world has ever seen. There is nothing else like it. Inside the Psalms we see lamenting, we see the world through the eyes of those that are oppressed.
“The psalms of execration or malediction are the first texts in history that enable victims, forever silenced in mythology, to have a voice of their own. These spontaneous scapegoats understandably feel horribly betrayed by their friends, their neighbours, even their relatives. And no wonder. They are victimized by everybody without exception inside their own community. These victims feel exactly the way Job does. The Book of Job must be defined, I believe, as an enormously enlarged psalm of malediction. If Job were a myth, we would only have the viewpoint of the friends.”
Psalms give us the viewpoint of the oppressed in the midst of all the violence that is around them. With this in mind, let’s keep going through the Psalm.
The voice we are hearing in this Psalm is the voice of the oppressed (v9), the poor (v12), the afflicted (v18), the one who suffers (v13) and the needs (v18). By seeing these groups of words it is more clear that what Girard is saying is actually true; the speaker represents the socially vulnerable, powerless and marginalized. Through this Psalm they have found hope in the decision making of Yahweh because as it seems he brings equality to the inequality that is there. Only in this courtroom with Yahweh in the room does the weak get a say.
Typically the powerful people dominate the courtroom right? Those that are in power can sway the jury, they are the jury, and they can make any verdict that they want. So the Psalmist here wants Yahweh to move into the court with him, because he believes that with Yahweh being the third party, it will be fair.
So the only way this poem can actually become true, that the poor are finally set free and that the oppressed get a fair trial is if Yahweh steps on the scene. This is why it feels so urgent in the Pslam where we hear words like remember, and don’t forget.
By this point in the poem, the author is starting to sound a little crazy. Look at 9:9 and then look at 10:1. The very thing that Yahweh is being praised for he is now being questioned. This is a way of saying that basically that everything depends on God’s presence and now he is hidden which doesn’t leave them in that great of a spot.
By 10:2 the poem has made clear that everything in social relations depends on if Yaheweh is around or not. When Yahweh is absent, social relations will take their inevitably destructive course, which the weak cannot resist.
So far, the enemy has not said a word, and now all of sudden in verse 3, they adversary is permitted to speak. Yet this is a peculiar way of speaking for the wicked. The words that are coming from the wicked are not words that they would probably say out loud. The way this Psalm is laid out, the wicked is required to speak what they truly intend, give a fair trial. The wicked say three different things. First, there is no God. Second they say that they shall not be moved and not meet adversity and third they say that they won’t be called to account.
All three of these statements do two things. One, they are dismissals of God and secondly they are assertions of self sufficiency and autonomy. For some reason the speaker of these lines thinks they are free to do what they will. As we talked about before, we have seen that social relations are powerfully different because Yahweh has showed up and has decisively intervened as a third party. These statements of the wicked dismiss that third party as an effective player at all. The statements are basically saying that there are only two parties; the wicked and the weak. No third party is needed to disrupt that simple direct and predictable transaction.
The statements by the wicked are actually more implied than anything, and they certainly don’t claim to be direct. Probably because no one would dare to speak like that. They are not speeches made by the wicked but by someone else. They are assigned to the wicked. The wicked, by this Psalm is not allowed to speak for themselves but are at the mercy of those who chose to speak for them. This is a little backwards of how the world usually works. Typically the wicked are used to speaking for themselves and this leads them to be more careful of what they say and withhold. They are able to keep the truth locked down about their actual intentions (China). Because the wicked (strong) can speak for themselves they are also used to permitting when or if ever the weak may speak and what they are permitted to say. Typically in strong/weak relations the strong govern both sides of the conversation. What this poem has done is taken the control of the social conversation away from the wicked. They will not decide what the weak will say. For the first time, the strong are at the mercy of the weak, who are free to construe conflicted social dynamics in a very different way. Instead of the usually self-justifying way of the wicked, we now get the critical interpretation of the intentions of the wicked. Their actual intent is now placed in their own mouths as a harsh self-indictment.
This poem brilliantly shows us that the ways of the wicked which is, violent action, manipulative speech and the removal of God work together for a certain kind of social world in which the powerful are free to do what they want for their own interest. This type of unbalanced social life is the result of there being only two parties involved. When there are only two parties involved, the weak have no chance against the strong. After removing God for long enough, the system is deep enough that it is quite natural for it to be normal that the weak are the way they are. Eventually the only imaginable way of doing things is for the strong to control the weak. The ideology of the strong continues to assault the weak over and over again until they as victims can see the world in no other way but through the eyes of the perpetrators. Eventually the power is accepted as legitimate.
We see this with the Native Canadian population in Canada today. The white Canadian population from the very beginning has been the more powerful adversary in this disagreement. We have assaulted them in every which way and especially now with our ideologies. The Native Canadians now have accepted a way of life that is well below what any of us would consider human. We throw money at them and quietly hold our racist views to ourselves as we define their roles in our country.
Now, we look at Native Canadians as failed Canadians. We look at their lives in disappointment and we struggle to not be racist towards them. But in reality, we look at them as failures. This is because we are convinced that our way of doing things, the direction we were taking the country was the right way. Our power is accepted as legitimate and the weak are forced to live the lives we dictate to them. We don’t even see it anymore.
From what you know about the story of the Native Canadians, how does this Psalm set us up as the wicked?
This Psalm is a brilliant act of counter speech and affronting the empire. It takes the unquestioned system of the wicked and strong and mocks it, and hyperbolizes it so much the poem itself becomes a moment of freedom, because those who are normally left without speech get it.
Let’s summarize. 1. The weak and marginalized have spoken first in celebration of the ‘third party’ who is Yahweh who helps change the balance in social relations. Then they plea for a continued presence of that third party. Then they mock the reiterated speech of the powerful, who try to reduce life to only two parties and eliminate the third party.
Now it looks like the weak are starting to take to heart some of the oppression of the strong. It looks they are giving up. They start saying similar things that they were attributing to the wicked. Now here, we are starting to have access to the hidden thoughts of the vulnerable and oppressed. Look at 9:18, and then look at 10:11.
Exactly what we thought was happening, the ideology of the strong and the powerful have now infected the poor and the vulnerable. The world without God, who is apparently hidden, is a hopeless world for the poor and the marginalized. If the Psalm ends here, it would end in defeat and resignation. But verse 12 takes us elsewhere.
Then with almost a sudden burst of energy, the poor break forth crying out to God. The strong may have thought they won, and indeed, if the Psalm would have ended there, they would have, but this Psalm is a move forward for the marginalized. The Psalm is a psalm of hope; a hope that surely Yahweh will step in and be the third party again. This poet negates the false ideologies and liberates the minds of the marginalized with a new idea. This new idea, this new imperative is one of hope, a conviction that they will not be forgotten.
“There is no other way to explain this imperative in verse twelve except as an act of political counter imagination rooted in theological passion. ”
The name of Yahweh is never once on the lips of the wicked, but called upon plenty of times by the vulnerable. The wicked refer to a ‘god’ but never to Yahweh. Verse 12 brings back Yahweh into the picture and keeps him there for the rest of the Psalm. The vulnerable address God directly, where the wicked can only address him as a remote third party who they are convinced that he is not around. The rest of the Psalm is a call to Yahweh to act decisively against the wicked; a call to act in favour of the afflicted, fatherless, the meek, and the oppressed. This text is a practice in alternative politics. It’s not necessarily a description of what has happened. Every time it is read or uttered it criticizes the empire and redefines the power structures of the world. It’s imaginative of a new way of doing life and a new way of seeing humanity.
“This reading of Psalms 9-10 suggests that the (repeated) utterance of the poem is indeed a political act. The psalm asserts a shaping of the social process that contradicts the conventional ideology of the powerful. Although the psalms man indeed make a theological point-namely, that there is a God to whom one can appeal against the nullification of that God be the ideology of the powerful-the practical, and I believe intended, effect of the psalm is to create a zone of social possibility outside the ideology of the powerful.”
What are modern day examples of creating a social possibility outside the ideology of the powerful?
Joe came up with a great example here in talking about the protests in Iran. Twitter became a huge medium for many Iranians to voice what they were seeing. No one was able to hide their voice and cover the truth to what was happening, because the system of communication was subverted.
In this Psalm, you have a deep struggle that happened thousands of years ago written down for me to read and reflect on today. It is beautiful. This is what I believe we are called to do as the church; help narrate a new story that flips the current power structures on its head. We read parable after parable of stories Jesus told that did exactly this. He gave a new way to look at the world, new rules to live by and a new kingdom to serve. This Psalm does exactly this. It acknowledges and exposes the oppressive systems of their time. It shows them for what they really are and then it cries out in hope for Yahweh to step in and set things right. Should this not be our cry today? We are surrounded by some of the most oppressive systems known to man. They are so oppressive and so controlled by those in power, that even those oppressed think it is the normal way of going about life. Nothing we do anymore is apart from these systems that claim there is no third party to make it stop.
Deep within these systems, we are to be voices of a new way to look at the world. We are to be voices constantly appealing the third party to step in and make things right fully willing to be used as an agent of this new way of looking at the world.
If we can learn anything from this Psalm, it is that we should not be silent. It is that the systems of oppression all around us are constantly forming an attack on our senses so we think there is no way out, no other way to see the world and no way to change it. But we know, as followers of Yahweh, that this system will end and we will be part of bringing it down. Even when we feel disheartened and frustrated there is still hope. Even when we are convinced that the wicked are right, that there is no way to change it, there is still hope. Even when we are convinced that there is nothing wrong, and this is just the way there is, the grass is greener on the other side. Instead of writing a prayer this week, I thought we would read this Psalm over again, with a little more insight and make it our prayer today.
Most of the exegesis of this text came from Walter Brueggemann’s book “The Psalms: The Life of Faith“
I found my Rene Girard Quotes from this link.
Some of the thoughts were taken from C.S. Lewis’ book Reflection of the Psalms.