Let God arise

Psalm 68

Let God arise,
and let his enemies be scattered,
let them also that hate him flee before him.
Like as the smoke vanisheth,
so shalt thou drive them away
and like as wax melteth at the fire,
so let the ungodly perish at the presence of God.

But let the righteous be glad and rejoice before God
let them also be merry and joyful.
He is a Father of the fatherless,
and defendeth the cause of the widows,
even God in his holy habitation.
He is the God that maketh men to be of one mind in an house,
and bringeth the prisoners out of captivity.

     Ps 68.1–3, 5–6a

This text was set by Herbert Howells as the last of his Four Anthems (1941, originally entitled In Time of War). Though two of the Four (‘O pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ and ‘Like as a hart desireth the water-brooks’) are among his most popular works today, this one is relatively rarely sung, not least, I think, because of the difficult nature of its text. Likewise, though Psalm 68 appears in the Eucharistic lectionary of bcp1979, it is only one option for Mass on the Sunday after Ascension Day (and in the rcl, it is appointed on that day in Year A alone), and though it appears twice in the Daily Office Lectionary, on one of those occasions it is – very unusually for this lectionary – truncated.

The merest glance at the Psalm reveals its imprecatory nature: that is, its curses and prayers for the harm or even destruction of an enemy. If we do not hear this, or we hear it and are not disturbed by it in some way, then we are not paying attention at all. We must indeed be ever so careful how we interpret our Scriptures in this tinderbox world. We need no kindling, no incitement to violence of any sort. Nor does the Lord have need to wage war or send plague or famine, as we seem quite capable of bringing those upon ourselves.

So what can we do with it?

One answer is to ignore or omit this Psalm, or parts of it, and simply not deal with it at all. Though the Prayer Book Psalter includes the whole text of the Psalms (minus the introductory inscriptions and directions for performance), our Eucharistic lectionaries do not appoint the entire Psalter, and even the Daily Office lectionary, which is predicated upon the recitation of the entire Psalter over a given period of time, gives the option of skipping precisely these kinds of passages. Some other Psalters for liturgical use do not print these passages at all – and after all, the liturgy, like the Scriptures out of which it grows, is largely a dialogue with, or commentary upon, selected portions of earlier Scripture. So perhaps – perhaps – it is appropriate, or wise, or at least an understandable concession, to omit these difficult portions from public worship as being less obviously edifying, just as we do other parts of Scripture, and always have done. Perhaps this is analogous to treating the parts of the body we think less honorable by clothing them with greater honor, as the Apostle has it – by hiding them away from public view.

Yet this Psalm is part of Holy Scripture, and just as ‘the members of the body that we think weaker are indispensible’, however we may struggle with this Psalm, we may not discount it, for whether we believe God has handed it down from on high or simply that our forebears in the faith found it to speak with authority and handed it on to us, in either case it is part of our tradition (that which is handed over), and it would be arrogant at best for us to turn away from it. As the hymn has it, ‘the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from His word.’

And so to the text. Who, we might ask, are the enemies of God?

Many have answered this question in the most straightforward fashion from the time of the Psalm’s composition to our own: the enemies of God are the enemies of one’s tribe, however that tribe might be defined, and if one believes oneself righteous, religious, and so forth, it could be easy to see the other as an enemy. Our world is teeming with violence cloaked in ragged piety, whatever its true or other motives, perpetrated by supposed adherents of every major religion, most of whom likely claim to be on the defensive.

A somewhat more nuanced response to these imprecations to violence is to take the occasion to recognize that there are very, very many desperate people in the world who truly are beset by enemies and circumstances most of us can barely imagine. Closer to home, this understanding might afford us the opportunity to admit to these feelings in ourselves: who among us has not felt or been offended, slighted, persecuted, threatened, even attacked? Women, people of color, sexual minorities, other actual and potential victims of violence have every reason to wish harm upon those who wish or do them ill, and even the safest among us have our moments of reacting rashly to ill treatment, even on the slightest scale. ‘Goddammit!’, which some of us utter all too frequently and casually, is no different from the language of this Psalm, and hearing that wish unpacked in detail can convict us of the violence in our own hearts.

But very many in our religious tradition, going back to the Fathers of the Church and probably further, have seen the difficulty in reconciling an ethic of love with military action against a political or religious other, or even a wish that anyone should ‘perish’; after all, the Son of God came ‘not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved’, and Our Lord taught that to wish anyone ill is already to have committed murder.

Thus the need arises to interpret the text.

A first attempt might lead us to read the text metaphorically within the framework of postexilic Judaism. Though this Psalm, more than many others (but with some notable companions), is couched firmly in the language common to ancient Cana‘anite religions, it is difficult to believe that, even if this particular text is quite old, the authors and compilers of the Psalter as we know it, capable of such subtlety and working well into (and even past) the prophetic era, did not see a meaning behind the grossest literal one.

Rather, just as the events, institutions, and scriptures of ancient Israel were reinterpreted during this period, in the midst and wake of destruction and diaspora, perhaps within or between the conventional terms and style these authors, editors, or compilers saw or intended not personal revenge (vengeance belongs to God), but rather a zeal for God’s righteousness and justice, which seemed to be delayed or obscured when evil was ascendant. At the time of the development of the Psalter, eternal life and final judgement were not part and parcel of Jewish religion; therefore there was concern for God to act in the present to punish, overthrow, prevail.

And we wish for this too: to halt the descent into non-being, the unraveling of the divine oikonomía, the relapse into the chaos or nothingness out of which creation is made and to which we would revert without God’s constant attention. And even in the face of the annihilation (literally, ‘making into nothing’) which the Lord seems to threaten in the various apocalypses, and which in passages like this we wish upon our enemies, we may dare to hope that no one may be wholly and irredeemably apart from God, who preexists unbeing, who has traveled to it as a man and returned as a man.

The contemplative approach to reading the imprecatory Psalms, by contrast, has been to see them as an allegory for resistance to evil in oneself or malign spiritual powers in the world. Who are the enemies of God? Our own evil thoughts; the forces we still not quite entirely allegorically call our ‘demons’; any power, whether we deem it to come from without or within, that drives us further from God and from our truest, best selves. Let those enemies indeed be scattered, slain, melted down and burned away.

This is good practice – good prayer – so far as it goes – and one which we would all do well to make very much more our own. Nor is it mere ‘spiritualization’, mere fantasy, for the contemplation of our own sinfulness leads directly to an apprehension of the systemic or institutional sin in which we are all involved. Evil is real, and it is manifest in real people and in the real world, and we are all perpetrators and all victims of it in our several ways. Howells’s anthem, after all, was written in the thick of war, and whether we imagine the composer writing directly against the members of the National Socialist regime and its armies, or more generally against the ‘forces of evil’, we must acknowledge that the British, American, Russian, French, and all other empires no less than the German are guilty of massive expansionism, exploitation, and extermination. Perhaps we shy away from these imprecations not only because they sound unloving or unliberal, but because we are afraid they might well be directed against us, that we will have our own false selves melted like wax in the flame of the one who is ‘like a refiner’s fire’, who shall purify.

But Psalm 68 is not only about imprecation. Our faith tradition calls us to care for the widow and orphan, the stranger and foreigner, the powerless, disadvantaged, disenfranchised, downtrodden and marginalized, and even claims that such concern is nothing less than a divine attribute. It was the genius of Israel and her prophets in particular to take this ancient attribute of a tribal deity and to see it, through the lens of Israel’s own experience of powerlessness and exile, as a cardinal virtue which must be characteristic of a universal Father, creator and savior.

Psalm 68 thus affirms that the majestic, kingly, cosmic, triumphant God is also precisely the ‘Father of orphans, defender of widows’, the one who ‘gives the solitary a home and brings forth prisoners into freedom’, who ‘sent a gracious rain’ and ‘made provision for the poor’. God looked out for those who were His ‘inheritance’. And though the role of the kings and nations in this Psalm is at face value that of subjugation, it is at least a foreshadowing of what it was the prophets’ gift to see, a vision of all nations streaming to the holy mountain of the Lord:

Jerusalem shall be inhabited like villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and animals in it. For I will be a wall of fire around it, says the Lord, and I will be the glory within it.
     Zc 2.4b–5

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, the inhabitants of many cities; the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, ‘Come, let us go to entreat the favour of the Lord, and to seek the Lord of hosts; I myself am going.’ Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to entreat the favour of the Lord.
     Zc 8.20–22

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
     to minister to him, to love the name of the
     and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
     and hold fast my covenant –
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
     and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices
     will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
     for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord
     who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
     besides those already gathered.

     Is 56.6–8

Christians, though they ultimately dare not ignore the historical or literal meaning of Scripture, or its status within the Jewish understanding, interpret everything through the lens of Christ’s Incarnation, Life, Passion, Resurrection, Ascension, and coming again. And this, I think, gives us the final key to not only interpreting but also appropriating this Psalm, and in so doing also takes us back through the Psalm’s origins. The Apostle is our guide:

He quotes the Psalm –

‘When he ascended on high he made captivity captive;
he gave gifts to his people’

– and goes on to comment –

(When it says ‘he ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)
     Ep 4.8–10

This emphasis on ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’ may lead us to note, if we have not done so already, that this Psalm is organized around three mountains. We mentioned earlier that this Psalm draws heavily upon common Cana‘anite religious imagery; both ’El and Ba‘al, the two main Cana‘anite deities whose traditional attributes were subsumed into those ascribed to yhwh, were gods of the heights. Thus it is no surprise that a number of mountain theophanies feature prominently in the sacred geography of our tradition: at Horeb Moses receives the revelation of the Divine Name, at Sinai that he meets the Lord again to receive the divine Instruction, on Zion that the Temple is eventually built, and where, in the prophetic vision, the restored and universal Israel will be established. To this we may add Tabor, site of the Transfiguration of Our Lord.

We must also add the hill of Golgotha and the Cross, for Christians the ultimate theophany, the revelation of God’s total, self-emptying love in extremis. Here was the only way for the living God to enter fully into our mortality and yet to defeat Death – the wound in the side of Our Lord becoming the mouth with which God might swallow up Death, the great Swallower – might defang and disarm and render utterly impotent every enemy. And here is the key to interpreting the militaristic imagery so prevalent in the Scriptures: God’s arising is only a celebration, a triumph in the technical sense, of the victory wrought on that mound, the victory of love, of the One who, ‘having loved them, loved them to the end’, usque ad mortem, all the way to ‘it is finished’. Only by unceasing, unflinching, unfailing love could the Lord ‘lead captivity captive’.

And so indeed,

Let God arise,
and let his enemies be scattered.