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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Problem Features in the Psalter.


James Russell Lowell's comment that ‘Time makes ancient good uncouth’, applies as much to truth as to goodness. One change of attitude in modern times, the rejection of patriarchal society and language, has already been noted (A.9). So strong are feelings about this, that the psalms have been rewritten in all the most recent translations in order that ‘masculine-oriented language should be eliminated as far as this can be done without altering passages that reflect the historical situation of ancient patriarchal culture’ (NRSV: XV). Two other features often cause distress to Christians today: attitudes towards enemies and assertions of innocence.

2. Attitudes towards ‘Enemies’.

The most striking form of the hostility and even outright cruelty towards enemies is found in Ps 137:7–9 and 139:19–22 , where psalms which have great appeal are wrecked by calls for vengeance (cf. Ps 104:35 , with its call for the destruction of the wicked). Ps 69 and 109 contain long imprecations against the psalmist's enemies, Ps 35 and 52 are largely taken up with an appeal to God against an enemy, Ps 58 describes the wicked in violent terms and seeks divine punishment that is even more violent, Ps 83 contains a long section seeking vengeance, and other psalms contain similar expressions. Several of these psalms also find pleasure in contemplating the punishments and disasters that befall the wicked and the enemies (e.g. Ps 52:6–7; 58:10–11 ). Various devices have been adopted to deal with this.

3. Editing out.

Frequently in worship the offending verses (in the case of Ps 137 and 139 ) are deleted, or the psalm is never sung (in contrast to BCP, where the practice of singing through the whole Psalter is followed). Modern hymn-books, such as the Methodist Hymns and Psalms, severely limit the number of psalms they include, and even edit these with deletions.

4. Quotations.

Some modern translations try to alleviate the difficulty by their punctuation. Thus NRSV, REB, and NJB express the view that the curses in Ps 109:6–19 , or some of them, are those of the psalmist's enemies, not his own (the first two even insert ‘They say’ at the beginning of v. 6 ).

5. The Nature of the Psalms.

But these expedients are no answer to the problem, which concerns the way in which Scripture is understood and interpreted. Six general comments about the nature of the psalms may be made first. (1) In some psalms the words may be the defence of those maintaining their innocence against criminal charges and thus be part of the legal setting. (2) Even if ‘workers of iniquity’ is not a technical term for sorcerers, sometimes the psalmist may feel threatened by sorcery, and the curses may have the character of counter-spells. (3) If some psalms were actually composed by men who were seriously ill and not by priests for them, the mental strain of the illness must be taken into account. (4) The easiest answer is to interpret most of the individual laments as the king's psalms, when his enemies will be the enemies of Israel and ultimately of God, so that the curses are an expression of the psalmist's opposition to evil, and part of the cultic expression of Israel's faith. (5) In the absence of any hope of a happy life after death, evil has to be defeated in the present world if right is to be triumphant. Illness and misfortune are regarded as signs of the psalmist's sin, and only restoration and the discomfiture of his ‘enemies’ will prove his innocence and God's just rule over the world. (6) It is sometimes also observed that the psalmists make no distinction between the sin and the sinner, whereas Christians are often taught to do so. (See Zenger 1996 .)

6. Morality and the Culture.

Behind these comments lies a recognition that ethical decisions cannot be made without reference to the society in which the actors live. Morality is part of the overarching culture. This means that ethical ideas change over the years as societies change, and moral judgements cannot be absolute. Even if complete relativity of morals is rejected, it can hardly be maintained that human ethical standards at any one time are the immutable will of God. This means accepting that we too are children of our age; and our consciences are also imperfect and moulded by the society in which we live. The psalmists belonged to their own age, and part of the problem of Scripture lies in the fact that it is the very human word of very frail and sinful human beings. No longer is it possible to defend a view of biblical authority which sees it as the infallible word of God, and attempts to do so lead to grotesque apologetics (see Kaiser 1983: 292–7, with its conclusion that ‘neither Ps 137 nor any of the other seventeen imprecatory psalms present a sub-Christian…ethic’).

7. Assertions of Innocence.

An older and more morally sensitive age was troubled by the way in which many of the psalmists claimed that they were righteous, and demanded divine support on this ground (cf. Ps 7:8; 17:1–5; 18:20–4; 26 ). Now, in an age of advertising, self-assertion, and the ubiquitous curriculum vitae, perhaps this is viewed less harshly—indeed, it may even pass unnoticed. Yet it stands in stark contrast to the humility and recognition of human sinfulness that the NT and much of the OT teaches.


One answer lies along the lines of the previous section. In some psalms the plaintiff may be presenting a legal case that he is innocent of some particular charge, and the declarations of innocence are not to be taken as assertions of complete sinlessness. Or the king may be confessing his loyalty to the covenant and seeking God's help in the ritual combat with his (and God's) enemies. Moreover, the underlying belief that reward and punishment have to be worked out in this life increases the urgency of the plea.

9. Confession and the Penitential Psalms.

It has to be admitted that the psalms are rather short on confession. Of the church's seven ‘penitential psalms’, only two (Ps 32; 51 ) clearly express a sense of the psalmist's own sin, with brief glimpses in Ps 130:3–4; and 143:2 , and less certainly than NRSV suggests in Ps 38:18 . They are mostly to do with the afflicted ones, rather than with those confessing their sins (Snaith 1964: 12). All the psalmists are much more ready to impute evil to their enemies and to castigate ‘the wicked’. That we expect to find all the religious emotions in the Psalter is perhaps an inheritance from an age when the Psalter was sung in its entirety as the centre of monastic prayer (Bradshaw 1995 ).

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