I was recently reintroduced to the imprecatory psalms at a memorial service, of all places. By imprecatory psalm, I mean those in which the psalmist asks God to bring vengeance on his enemies, often using extremely harsh and vindictive language. The particular psalm in this case was Psalm 139 (see verses 19-22).
As I have noted before, the Psalms are rightly classified as poetry. They are a stylized expression of the full range of human emotion, in the midst of the eternal human search for meaning and divine connection. This type of writing is the very definition of poetry.
With that poetic classification in mind, the fact that we encounter words reflecting some of our darker, less edifying thoughts and desires is not at all strange. None of us, I suspect, has ever completely avoided a vengeful desire. The psalmists were as human as anyone.
The intriguing question though for me is this- In what sense are these calls for vengeance divinely inspired? Are they the result of verbal inspiration, as some would insist, meaning that God placed every word in the mind of the psalmist, leaving him only to transcribe them.
It seems strange that God would see words such as these as beneficial and instructive to later readers. Would divine inspiration mean that God’s purpose was to instill hatred of those viewed through human eyes as evil? Was this human expression of hatred supposed to demonstrate the psalmist’s great piety? Why would God seek to encourage hatred of any sort, seeing how destructive that emotion has been throughout human history?
If however, we accept that some words in the Bible reflect the purely human side of the writers, then the emotion behind these violent words and the motivation for them present no problem. The psalmists were simply displaying the emotional wavering that we all experience minute to minute, day to day. Sometimes they were energized by a passion for righteousness and the divine. At other moments they were driven by less noble feelings. As the memorial service speaker astutely noted, there is no reason to believe that any psalm was written in one sitting; so mood swings are to be expected.
I personally reject the idea that God encourages us to hate. I say that with the full understanding that many in Christianity believe fervently that they are called by God to hate evil in all its forms and manifestations. In fact, this hatred of people, who are seen as evil, is a key motivation for what many in the institutional church say and support. Inevitably, however, our human notion of righteous hatred in the service of God turns us into hateful and less godly people.
The human ego hates out of perceived necessity, requiring no divine prompting by ordinary poets or divine psalmists. So a purely divine message has to promote something different. Love thy neighbor, maybe. Overcome evil with good?
Humility. Love. Forgiveness. Not Hatred. These are the pathway to righteousness and the only antidote to evil.