The Psalms as Liberation Theology

As a part of my prayer practice I've been praying through the psalms on a four-week cycle. And it has, to say the least, been very eye opening.

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?
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?
That's good sad, depressing stuff. Love it! But where is the sorrow coming from? The very next line:
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, 20-23
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.
Again, 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:
Psalm 35.1-10
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.”
Notice 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."

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.

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12 thoughts on “The Psalms as Liberation Theology”

  1. I've wondered about the "spiritualization" of the enemies, snares, and swords mentioned in the Psalms is the result of American Evangelicalism's need to make everything about our "heart" and our "personal relationship with Jesus" and miss the larger picture of social responsibility, the real price of living in a broken world (as opposed to "speaking to the mountain" and naming and claiming your ______). Thanks for moving my throughs forward.

  2. Thanks for the post... on a parallel note I've been mulling over the ethnocentrism of the Psalms. Which, I think, results in Jerusalem, Mount Zion, the Temple featuring highly in them. All of which is understandable in light of the role which these objects played in the lives of the people and what these objects came to represent during exile.

    Of course the New Testament takes some of these concepts and re-imagines/re-defines, perhaps "spiritualizes"(?), them in light of Jesus and all that follows.

    So I agree that the Bible should be read from a context/perspective of the poor/marginalized. However, following the example above I would argue that people should be allowed to appropriately re-imagine aspects of the Psalms (e.g. re-define who/what the enemy is) and in doing so allow the song/prayer to give voice to their fear/bitterness/grief/whatever.

    In this way the Bible continues to be subversive, not just against a limited identifiable "enemy" but against all that seeks to dampen the light.

    Just a thought...

  3. I find myself liking both David and EV's comments. I think of Peter J. Gomes' statement that the Bible has to be a "LIVING context". What that may mean for me is interpreting the enemy as the diseases and depression that have mangled and devastated my family over the years; while African Americans, and other people of color, reading the same Psalm may interpret the enemy as the racists powers and politics that have mangled and devastated theirs.

  4. This is good. I am not biblically literate but I have dabbled in the Psalms in a monastic prayer of the Hours kind of way. But I seem to get lost (trapped) in my own ego interpretation. I do know something about prisoners and have a few as good friends and just reading the Psalms you have written above from their perspective opens a door for me. I CAN pray the psalms after all, and with personal passion. Thanks for this.

  5. I've been discovering the same thing. I originally decided to pray through the Psalms of lament for Lent to help me mourn my mother's recent passing. They do help me give voice to that - but I've also found they help me give voice to the anger, sorrow and frustration I have as I see unarmed men get murdered by cops who are never held accountable, or see schools get closed while millions are poured into tourism projects, see the empty lots and sharp poverty of my neighborhood. That I can find a validating voice in the Psalms is making me fall in love with Scripture all over again.

  6. Perhaps because I've been reading your work for years now my thought often runs in a similar direction to yours. I put this up last Wednesday:

  7. It's an interesting perspective on the psalms. It was always very hard for me to relate to the psalmist when I was depressed and angry because of the presence of the enemy element. I wasn't facing that kind of oppression and sometimes the psalmist seems to hate his enemy. Doesn't Jesus teach us to love them?

    What about when the oppressor uses the psalms for his own sake. He believes he's the victim while the people he's been oppressing are the oppressors. I see it sometimes.

    In my country, in Latin America, it's very often among Pentecostals and neopentecostals what someone could call "neurotic liberation theology." They use the psalms, especially in songs, to talk about themselves as victims, and their enemies are colleagues from work, people from their families or neighbors who are jealous or talk bad about them and doesn't help them in their need.

    If you heard some of these songs you'd be appalled. In one them, they sing 'those who didn't help you are going to regret when they see you blessed. They'll be in the audience while you'll be in the stage. They'll see Jesus shining in your face.'

    It's just awful. It seems that it's all about us believers being personally successful despite the 'persecution' of others. The other is generally the unbeliever and the persecution is happening in a country where the majority are practicing Christians.

    This stands in great contrast to the catholic liberation theology that, thank God, is growing stronger again in our country recently, even among evangelicals.

    I think maybe the psalms are more Christ-centered when we read them seeing the victims in the others and the oppressors in the powerful and selfish people.

  8. Does God do any deliverance in this life time? I can't pray the psalms for any length of time for the psalmist's highs and lows are beyond my ordinary experiences of an even keeled life

  9. Thanks for this... Curious, what is the four week cycle of Psalms you are working from? Are you working through them in order? By type?

  10. Yes, the book of Psalms is liberation the Lord lifts us from our miseries and provides great hope, peace, rejoicing and deliverance. As contained in one of the Psalms...this profound quote "Be still...and know that I am God."

    Let's continue to stay blessed and remain so grateful!

    Christie Gregor
    Say It With God’sWord

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