“Hostility and Malice in the Psalms,” by Andrew J. Schatkin
The bible is a very old and ancient book. The Psalms are also a very old book and stem from antiquity. How old we do not know precisely. This much can be said: that when we read the Psalms, or rather listen to them, as we should listen to lyric poetry, we look down the throat of antiquity. We hear and see homicidal, manic Hebrews dancing and singing before the temple, a place of animal sacrifices. We do not know how old the Psalms actually are nor do we know who the author or authors are although tradition has ascribed them to King David. Psalms 72 and 110 have been traced to persons and events in the Hellenistic age. Psalm 46 has been connected with the raising of the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC and Psalm 74 has been connected to the Fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC.
The Psalms were probably written by many poets at different times. C.S. Lewis in his book “Reflections on the Psalms” stated that Psalm 18 may be from King David himself. The Psalms are lyric poetry and many of them may be denominated as hymns. One of the most distressing motifs or subjects or expressions throughout the Psalms is the constant reiteration and repetition of hostility and malice. Let me add that my knowledge of Hebrew is amateurish and I approach this subject lacking in expert knowledge and with the perspective of a novice.
Let me take a walk through the Psalms and examine this or rather these reiterated expressions of malice and hostility mainly directed to the Psalmist’s enemies. In Psalm 2 verse 9 the Psalmist states of the Heathen that the Lord will “bruise them with a rod of iron and break them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” In Psalm 5 verse 6 it states of the foolish, “you destroy those who tell lies. The bloodthirsty and deceitful you, Lord, detest.” In Psalm 6 verse10 the poet says that his enemies will be confounded, vexed, turned back, and put to shame suddenly. In Psalm 7, verses 13 and 14, the writer says that if a man will not turn the Lord will whet his sword, and in verse 14 the writer goes on to say that God has prepared for this man the instruments of death. In Psalm 9 the poet states of his enemy that “destructions come to a perpetual end even as the cities which thou has destroyed their memorial is perished with them. In verse17 of that same Psalm, the poets says that the wicked should be turned into hell and all people that forget God. In Psalm 11 verse 7 the poet says of the Lord that upon the ungodly he shall rain snares, fire, and brimstone and this shall be their portion to drink. In Psalm 18 verse 37 the Psalmist says that he will follow upon mine enemies and overtake them and neither will I turn again till I have destroyed them. In verse 38 the poet says of his enemies that I will smite them that they shall not be able to stand but fall under my feet. In verse 39 the poet says of his enemies that thou shalt throw down mine enemies under me and in verse 40 the writer says thou has made mine enemies to also turn their backs upon me and I shall destroy them that hate me. In verse 42 the poet concludes of his enemies that I will beat them as small as the dust before the wind: I will cast them out as the cay in the streets. In Psalm 21 verses 8-10 the Psalmist says of his enemies that they will feel thy hand; that they will be made like a fiery oven; that the Lord will destroy them; the fire will consume them and that their fruit will be rooted from the earth and their seed from among the child of men.
Psalm 23 is one of the most familiar and beautiful of the Psalms. In the midst of these beautiful lyrics that present a picture motifs of the Lord feeding and walking the believer and righteous man through the valley of the shadow of death, the Psalmist says that he exalts in having a feast prepared on his behalf before and in he presence of his enemies. The exaltation in personal vengeance on the part oft he poet stands out in the midst of this most beautiful of lyric poems. He is happy and while his enemies look on the feasts and he take his pleasures in and before them.
In Psalm 41 verse l8 he poet states of his enemies “let the sentence of guiltiness proceed against him: and now that he lieth let rise up no more.” In Psalm 35 verses 1-8 the author speaks at great length of what will happen to his enemies saying bring forth a spear; fight against them; stop the way against them that persecute me; let them be confounded; let them be turned back and brought to confusion; let them be as the dust; let their way be dark and slippery; and let sudden destruction come upon them.
In Psalm 55 verse16 the poet writes of his enemies that he wishes death to come to them and let them go quick down to hell. Psalm 83 verse 13-17 also speaks of the psalmist’s enemies asking they be made as a wheel; as he stumbles before he wind; like the fire that burns wood and like the flame that consumes the mountains; persecute them even with thy tempest; and make them afraid with thy storm; make their faces ashamed; let them be confounded and put to shame and perish.
In psalm 56 verse 9 the Psalmist says of his enemies that they be put to flight. In Psalm 69 verse 22-29 the Psalmist says of his enemies that their table be a snare; let their eyes be blinded that they see not; and bow thou down their backs; let their habitation be void and no man to dwell in their tents; pour your indignation upon them and let they wrathful displeasure take hold upon them.
In Psalm 92 verse 8 the Psalmist states of his enemies that they shall perish and all workers of wickedness shall be destroyed. Psalm 109 is the most distressing and perplexing of the malice and hatred reflected in the Psalms I have just referred to. The Psalmist in verse 6 says that his prayers should be turned into sin. In verse 7 he wishes that his days be few. In verse 8 he states that he wishes his children to be fatherless and his wife a widow. In verse 9 he wishes for his enemies’ children to be vagabonds and beg for their bread. In verse10 he wishes that the extortionist consume all that they have. In verse 11 he says that that should be no man to pity him or have compassion for his fatherless children. In verse 12 the poet wishes his posterity be destroyed and in the next generation his name be put out cleanly. Finally, in verse13 he says that the sin of his enemy’s mother be not done away with and that wickedness of his fathers be had in remembrance in the sight of the Lord. In verse 14 he poet says and wishes of his enemies that the Lord may root out the memorial of them from the earth.
In psalm 110 the writer says that he wishes that the Lord make his enemies God’s footstool. In psalm 132 the writers states that in verse19 as for his enemies I shall clothe them in shame. In Psalm 140 verses 9 and 10 that poet says and wishes of his enemies that burning coals shall fall upon them and let them be cast into the fire and into the pit that they may never rise up again.
Analysis and Conclusion
The hostility and hatred and malice expressed in this lyric poem and hymn which comes under the rubric of sacred poetry is astounding, shocking and, to the casual and modern reader, is beyond comprehension.
This brief overview of the motif of wishing the worst upon those whom the poet feels persecute and hurt him is perplexing to the believing Christian or any decent person, whether religious or otherwise. How can we explain in the bible which constitutes the revelation of God’s love in Christ, this vitriolic hatred? How did this hate, temper, and hostility find its way into the most sacred of books?
First, the world is no different than it was 750. It a place or struggle, dominance, power, egotism, selfishness, and hate. The world is a place in which love has little or no place. It is a place of survival. It is the beast in the jungle; it is making one’s way through a hostile morass. When the Psalmist speaks of his enemies and wishes them as ill as he can he speaks of those who even today conspire against others to damage, hurt and devour them. The poet’s experience in the depths of antiquity mirror our experiences in the world today whether in Bosnia; Nazi Germany; Darfur; or Iraq.
Second, I offer another theory or explanation. Many of these Psalms are ascribed to King David, who had many enemies and was persecuted by many. Thus, these cursings upon enemies may be ascribed possibly to events in King David’s life.
Third, I offer another view and perspective. God, who is love, abhors sin and wickedness. He does not hate the individual sinner but hates malice, negativity, taking, destroying, and seeking to get the better of others to and gain ground for oneself. This hatred of sin is reflected in the hostility and malice which is so perplexing tin the Psalms. One cannot understand Psalm 109, which wishes so much harm upon the ungodly, sinner without understanding that God who is light, goodness, and holiness abhors sin and its horrible manifestations
This essay is taken with alterations and modifications from my book entitled “Essays on the Christian Worldview and Others Political, Literary and Philosophical,” p. 21-25, published by Hamilton Books in 2011.