Blogging The Bible

Getting Really, Really Mad at God

Psalm 62“If force bears fruit, pay it no mind.” Huh? The psalm’s message is that we should divorce ourselves from the toils and pettiness of everyday life and consider the glory of God and the next world—that’s why we shouldn’t use force or worry about it. Even so, this piece of advice contradicts everything else in the entire Bible. The whole point of the Bible is that violence solves problems. For example, let’s check out the very next psalm …

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Psalm 63
… which proposes that the author’s enemies be “gutted” by the sword. Or the next psalm …

Psalm 64
… which rejoices when God’s arrows slay the enemy! And that’s not all: It also argues that massacre is a useful conversion tool: “All who see [the dead] will shake with horror. … They will tell what God has brought about, and ponder what He has done.” Psalm 62’s peaceful sentiments are sweet, but out of step.

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Psalm 65
The psalm of the farmer. What a beauty! It thanks God for irrigating the land, providing grains, “softening” the soil with gentle rain, providing grass for the flocks. “You crown the year with your bounty.” Amen to that.

Psalm 69
My enemies are “more numerous than the hairs of my head.” Given God’s affection for the bald, this is less dire than it sounds.

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This poem captures the radical, anti-family spirit that is at the root of both Judaism and Christianity. Back in Deuteronomy, I wrote about laws ordering parents to turn on their faithless children. A number of Christian readers mentioned that Jesus picked up this theme, and emphasized that if you have to choose between God and family, you better pick God. Psalmist David makes the same choice. “It is for Your sake that I have borne reproach. … I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children.” In a world saturated with religious talk about traditional family values, we forget how anti-family religion can be. 

The central theme of this psalm, and, perhaps, of the whole book of them, is: loneliness. Again and again, the psalms give us an embattled, solitary soul, clinging to love of God even as the rest of his world crumbles around him. In this case, he has broken with his family. In others, he is beset by enemies or disease. Always, he has no one to talk to except God. Several readers have rebuked me for ignoring this theme, and emphasize that they read Psalms for solace. Reading them on assignment, as I am doing, fails to capture their power and value. Rather, say readers, they’re best read when you’re feeling alone and seeking consolation from distress—comfort that only God can provide.

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Psalm 73
This is the start of Book 3 of Psalms, and we have a new author, Asaph. He’s an angry fellow, as we shall soon discover.

Psalm 74
The first of many Asaph psalms that rail against God (77, 80, 85, 88 …). The pleading, smug tone of David’s psalms has been replaced by rage. These are not prayers, they are diatribes. Asaph berates the Lord: “Why do you always reject us?” He wonders where the God of yesteryear—the God who plagued Egyptians and parted seas—has gone. Asaph tells God that His enemies are mocking Him, that He has become a laughingstock. The psalm strongly resembles the scene in the fight movie when the trainer goads the champ, who’s gone soft from hot girlfriends and stretch limos, to look inside and find his inner warrior. C’mon, God, remember your covenant! Remember who you are! You’re not some two-bit sandalwood idol! You’re the Almighty, King of the Universe, Creator of the Earth, Father of All, the Rock, the Redeemer, the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World

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Psalm 79
The psalmist begs God to grant clemency for those “condemned to death.” It’s the Bible’s first argument against the death penalty! (Uh, David, what about “Thou shalt not kill“?) OK, second argument against the death penalty.

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Psalm 80
Another psalm that at once pleads with and rebukes God. The chorus is, “Restore us, O God.”

Historians and Bible scholars, help me out here. I would guess that the triumphal psalms of David were written during the peak years of the kingdom of Israel, when Israel and Judah were powerful and confident. These psalms of Asaph, I presume, were written after the fall of Israel and Judah, while the Jews were exiled or under the thumb of the Babylonians or Persians. This would explain their negative tone and growing resentment against God—the authors were desperate, doubtful if God would ever rescue them. Am I right?

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Psalm 82
God answers our complaints. He says: I’ll only help you when you “give justice to the weak and the orphan … rescue the weak and the needy,” etc. Strong words, but fair!

Psalm 84
One day in God’s presence “is better than a thousand elsewhere.”

What is it about 1,000 to 1? It’s the magic ratio! Helen is the face that launched a thousand ships. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Psalm 89
This is one of the most subversive chapters in the entire Bible. The basic narrative of the Old Testament is: God redeems, then we break the covenant. We always wrong God, but He always relents and lets us back in His favor. But Asaph reverses that story. The poem begins by praising God lavishly, admiring Him for His strength and wisdom, and thanking Him for His goodness. Then—now pay attention here!—Asaph applauds God for making a permanent covenant with David and his descendants. All sounds good, right?

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Suddenly, Asaph turns on Him. He points an accusing finger at God. “You have renounced the covenant.” God has “exalted” Israel’s foes and shamed the house of David. We didn’t break the deal, God—You did!

Asaph reminds God of His younger and better days, and of His promise: “Where is Your steadfast love of old; which by Your faithfulness You swore to David?”

The last verse of the psalm reads: “Blessed be the Lord forever. Amen and Amen.” Perhaps this is a sincere attempt to assuage the Lord. I don’t know. You could also read it ironically, as a jab in the holy ribs.

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.) 

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