I'm biblically literate. So I felt I knew the psalms. And yet, I'd never read the psalms through in a consistent and concentrated way. And when you do that there is a message in the psalms that is revealed to you, a message I've never heard preached about or that I've read about.
Basically, the sum of the matter is this. The psalms are dangerous.
Let me put it this way. If you were an oppressor you would ban the reading of the psalms. You'd burn them. You wouldn't want an oppressed group to be reading the psalms.
The psalms are a crash course in liberation theology.
The rubric I have tended to apply to the psalms is praise/lament. On the one hand there are songs of praise and on the other hand there are songs of lament. And using this framework I've often encouraged "Summer Christian" churches to explore the material of the lament psalms, the poetry of the "Winter Christian" experience. (See my discussion in The Authenticity of Faith if you're unfamiliar with the Summer vs. Winter Christian distinction.)
I definitely think the praise/lament framework is a good way to get people to read more of the psalms, but I've come to think that the praise/lament framework is inadequate.
First, while the praise/lament framework does get people to read more of the psalms, it still leaves too much material unread. Second, the praise/lament framework can obscure the source and cause of the lament in the lament psalms. The lament psalms aren't just sad songs, "the blues" as it were. The "sadness" in the lament psalms is very often of a particular sort.
For example, Winter Christians often turn to the lament psalms during times of grief and mourning. And yet, if you look at them, most of the lament psalms aren't about loss and grief. Death isn't what the lament psalms are about. And yet, that's the way we tend to use the lament psalms, turning to them during times of mourning.
But here's what we tend to miss in the praise/lament framework, where we have happiness on one side and sadness on the other. We miss "the enemy," "the foe," and the "oppressor."
There are three main characters in the psalms. YHWH, the psalmist and the enemies.
The thing that strikes you about the psalms when you read them straight through is how oppressed and beleaguered is the psalmist. Enemies, hecklers, back-stabbers, two-faced friends, violent oppressors and economic exploiters abound.
This goes to the source of lament in the psalms. Rarely is the lament about, say, the death of a loved one. The lament is generally about oppression, about the victory of the oppressor.
The lament is about the bad guys winning and the good guys being trampled underfoot.
Consider a classic lament psalm, Psalm 13. Here's how it starts off:
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?That's good sad, depressing stuff. Love it! But where is the sorrow coming from? The very next line:
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?See? The sorrow isn't about grief. The sorrow is about oppression.
Time and time again that's what you see in the lament psalms, that the source of the lament is due to violent oppression and economic exploitation.
Consider Psalm 55:
Psalm 55.1-3, 9-11, 20-23Again, the three characters: YHWH, the psalmist and "the enemy"--violence, oppression, fraud in the marketplace, a backstabbing friend, the bloodthirsty and treacherous. The Psalms is full of this stuff. Consider Psalm 35:
Give ear to my prayer, O God;
do not hide yourself from my supplication.
Attend to me, and answer me;
I am troubled in my complaint.
I am distraught by the noise of the enemy,
because of the clamor of the wicked.
For they bring trouble upon me,
and in anger they cherish enmity against me.
Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech;
for I see violence and strife in the city.
Day and night they go around it
on its walls,
and iniquity and trouble are within it;
ruin is in its midst;
oppression and fraud
do not depart from its marketplace.
My companion laid hands on a friend
and violated a covenant with me
with speech smoother than butter,
but with a heart set on war;
with words that were softer than oil,
but in fact were drawn swords.
Cast your burden on the Lord,
and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
the righteous to be moved.
But you, O God, will cast them down
into the lowest pit;
the bloodthirsty and treacherous
shall not live out half their days.
But I will trust in you.
Psalm 35.1-10Notice the liberation theology themes. The psalmist sings: "My soul will rejoice in the Lord and delight in his salvation." And what characterizes this "salvation"? This: "You rescue the poor from those too strong for them, the poor and needy from those who rob them."
Contend, Lord, with those who contend with me;
fight against those who fight against me.
Take up shield and armor;
arise and come to my aid.
Brandish spear and javelin
against those who pursue me.
Say to me,
“I am your salvation.”
May those who seek my life
be disgraced and put to shame;
may those who plot my ruin
be turned back in dismay.
May they be like chaff before the wind,
with the angel of the Lord driving them away;
may their path be dark and slippery,
with the angel of the Lord pursuing them.
Since they hid their net for me without cause
and without cause dug a pit for me,
may ruin overtake them by surprise—
may the net they hid entangle them,
may they fall into the pit, to their ruin.
Then my soul will rejoice in the Lord
and delight in his salvation.
My whole being will exclaim,
“Who is like you, Lord?
You rescue the poor from those too strong for them,
the poor and needy from those who rob them.”
And it's well known that in the face of violence and exploitation the psalms at times express murderous thoughts about oppressors.
Historically, all this content makes sense. Many, if not most of the psalms, were written after the fall of Jerusalem and were sung during the time of exile. Once again, this highlights the liberation theology content of the psalms. These were the songs of an enslaved and exiled people. Oppression is the ecosystem of the psalms.
Which goes to my assessment at the start. The psalms are dangerous. If I were an oppressor I'd ban the psalms. No way I'd let people sing these songs.
The psalms are liberation theology.