“The Psalms are dangerous”

Richard Beck is Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at Abilene Christian University, as well as author and blogger.

His blog Experimental Theology explores the interface of Christian theology and psychology, with a particular focus on how existential issues affect Christian belief and practice. For example, he has spent enormous amounts of time writing about the theology of Calvin and Hobbes.

Beck’s most recent blog post is “The Psalms as Liberation Theology.” He writes:

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….

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….

Psalm 82:3

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….

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….

Notice the liberation theology themes. The psalmist sings: “My soul will rejoice in the Lord and delight in his salvation” (Ps.35:9). 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” (Ps. 39:10).

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.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,

Image source: RetroFit Ministries, “Outer Freedom, Inner freedom,” by Ken Andrews,Jan 22, 2013

2 comments On “The Psalms are dangerous”

  • Gail Rogers

    Mike, there was a message in the Meeting I attended last Sunday about learning not to divide ourselves from oppressors – that peacemaking begins with not dividing people into categories, and reaching for our commonality with people who are different from us, oppressive or creating violence. Definitely a challenge for someone who is oppressed or wronged, or someone angry to see these things happening to others.

    • Michael Austin Shell

      Yes, Gail. One of the reasons I’ve often found the Psalms difficult to deal with. They tend to be so full of desire for revenge.

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