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How to read Psalms that appear to glorify violence


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Philip Kosloski - published on 05/20/19

What is a Christian to do when reading Psalms that rejoice over the killing of other people?

While the Psalms often present beautiful images of a soul united to God, they also can relate some disturbing images. For example, Psalm 137 states, “Blessed the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock” (Psalm 137:9).

Hold on a second! Did the Bible just condone the killing of innocent human children!

Out of context, that particular verse is very disturbing and appears to contradict the entire Christian faith! How is a Christian to read this and other passages like it?

First of all, it must be stated that the Psalms are to be read according to their literary genre. The Catechism of the Catholic Church spells this out plainly when it talks about the author’s intention.

In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. “For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression.” (CCC 110)

The Psalms were not meant to be an historical retelling of events, nor were they designed to be a theological treatise. Often the Psalms simply highlight the struggles of the human heart, as the Catechism further explains.

The Psalter’s many forms of prayer take shape both in the liturgy of the Temple and in the human heart. Whether hymns or prayers of lamentation or thanksgiving, whether individual or communal, whether royal chants, songs of pilgrimage or wisdom meditations, the Psalms are a mirror of God’s marvelous deeds in the history of his people, as well as reflections of the human experiences of the Psalmist. Though a given psalm may reflect an event of the past, it still possesses such direct simplicity that it can be prayed in truth by men of all times and conditions. (CCC 2588)

Keeping this in mind, the Psalmist is clearly expressing his fierce anger at an injustice he received. The Psalmist feels dejected and defeated, desiring that his enemy would be completely conquered. This is a common feeling that many of us experience when suffering an injustice. In this way we can identify with the Psalmist and understand the anger he holds.

At the same time, this particular Psalm should also be read in context. Immediately before this verse the Psalmist writes, “Desolate Daughter Babylon, you shall be destroyed,
blessed the one who pays you back what you have done to us!” (Psalm 137:8)

While historically this referred to Babylon and the Jews’ undying hatred for the nation that enslaved them, spiritually it contains a secondary meaning, which points to one reason why it was included in the Bible.

It is true that God does not “delight in the death of a sinner,” but he does fiercely desire the death of sin. This can help clear-up the above passage when you see in the verse before how the “little ones” the Psalmist is talking about are in reference to the “daughter of Babylon.” Babylon is often associated with Satan and evil in the Bible, as the book of Revelation points out, “Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth” (Revelation 17:5)

In this case, Babylon has a secondary spiritual meaning that refers to evil and can rightly believe that God seeks the destruction of Satan’s influence on us. If there is an enemy in this world that we should desire to see destroyed, it should be the devil and his demonic children.

As the Psalms were written as poetry, a variety of interpretations and meanings is acceptable, as it was never intended to be a “catechism” of moral theology. It contains the writings of an inspired individual, who wrote his honest feelings. We can learn much from the Psalms, but should always keep in mind the original intention of the author.


Read more:
Why are the Psalms numbered differently?


Read more:
4 Psalms everyone should memorize

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