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Politics of Scripture

Whose Sword?

Psalm 149 is not a blank check for our passionate pursuit of personal vengeance. Quite the contrary! It places a sword in the hand of only those who have recognized YHWH’s ultimate kingship.

1 Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song,
   his praise in the assembly of the faithful.
2 Let Israel be glad in its Maker;
   let the children of Zion rejoice in their King.
3 Let them praise his name with dancing,
   making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.
4 For the Lord takes pleasure in his people;
   he adorns the humble with victory.
5 Let the faithful exult in glory;
   let them sing for joy on their couches.
6 Let the high praises of God be in their throats
   and two-edged swords in their hands,
7 to execute vengeance on the nations
   and punishment on the peoples,
8 to bind their kings with fetters
   and their nobles with chains of iron,
9 to execute on them the judgement decreed.
   This is glory for all his faithful ones.
Praise the Lord!

Psalm 149 (NRSV)

I had just spent a semester with my students reading the Psalms. I tried to make the case that we need to recover them. Pray them. Sing them. Learn them. The Psalms are a mainstay in Jewish worship and have long been called “the prayer book of the church.”

But as we read the Psalms carefully together, many students were surprised at how violent some of them sounded:

“Rise up, O LORD! Deliver me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.” (Psalm 3:7 NRSV)

“Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers;
seek out their wickedness until you find none.”  (Psalm 10:15 NRSV)

Didn’t Jesus tell us to love our enemies? To turn the other cheek? How are these psalms compatible with Christian theology? What are we to do with them?

I don’t think Christians should throw them out, or set aside these psalms as “pre-Christian.” As a matter of fact, the New Testament authors quoted them often, even the violent bits. They did not seem embarrassed by the psalms we call “imprecatory” because they call upon God to bring harm. After all, Jesus himself said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34 NRSV). 

Trevor Laurence makes a good case in his book Cursing with God that these psalms are fully compatible with Jesus’ ethic. When we pray for God to stop the wicked in their tracks, we are loving them because the longer they sin the more they’ll incur judgment. We are also loving others because we’re praying for the wicked to be stopped so fewer people will get hurt.

I’ve often told my students that the imprecatory psalms are essentially non-violent because they take revenge out of our hands. They instead call upon God to bring justice. God is the one who wields a sword:

“If one does not repent, God will whet his sword;
he has bent and strung his bow;
he has prepared his deadly weapons,
making his arrows fiery shafts.” (Psalm 7:12-13 NRSV)

“Rise up, O LORD, confront them, overthrow them!
By your sword deliver my life from the wicked.” (Psalm 17:13 NRSV)

This is all true, but at the end of the semester it was my turn to be surprised when we reached Psalm 149. It complicated my picture of the imprecatory psalms. Instead of asking God to judge the wicked, speaking of the righteous, the psalmist prays:

“Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands,
to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron,
to execute on them the judgment decreed.
This is glory for all his faithful ones. Praise the LORD!” (Psalm 149:6-9 NRSV)

Wait. Humans are to bear swords? What happened to “beat your swords into plows”?

It’s a surprise plot twist at the end of the Psalms. Perhaps we hear it only now because the rest of the book must first shape us as people who properly recognize YHWH’s kingship and our role as his subjects (e.g., Psalm 2). The Psalms have formed us to recognize our dependence on God’s provision, God’s protection, and God’s rule. Ideally, by this point we’ve absorbed God’s priorities as one who works on behalf of the oppressed (e.g., Psalm 113).

In that light, this sword is not a weapon to be used at will against anyone who rubs us the wrong way. The sword is to be wielded against nations and peoples who have set themselves against the LORD and the LORD’s anointed (Psalm 2). The point is to highlight Israel’s anointed king on the world stage.

That means Psalm 149 is not a blank check for our passionate pursuit of personal vengeance. Quite the contrary! It places a sword in the hand of only those who have recognized YHWH’s ultimate kingship. Those with the high praises of God in their mouths are uniquely qualified to carry out God’s bidding in the justice department.

Those holding the sword are neither U.S. citizens nor the modern-day, secular state of Israel. Those singing Psalm 149 are the people of God in exile, awaiting their return to the land and the reestablishment of God’s kingdom. Psalm 149 is not a license to inflict violence on anyone that I think is living outside of God’s will. We’ve seen far too many examples of carnage fueled by white supremacy and other forms of racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia. The last thing I want is for someone to take this psalm as their impetus to mistreat others whose interpretation of Scripture differs from their own.

In Psalm 149, the sword is in the hands of the humble, God’s faithful people—that is, those who live by the covenant stipulations given at Sinai.

“For the LORD takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with victory.
Let the faithful exult in glory; let them sing for joy on their couches.” (Psalm 149:4-5 NRSV)

Israel’s laws are a righteous expression of God’s character. They show care for the vulnerable and concern to protect other people’s rights to life, marriage, property, and good reputation. The laws insist on hospitality to the foreigner and prevent the mistreatment of anyone who stands on the outside looking in. Those faithful to God’s decrees are the ones best positioned to participate in God’s work to execute justice because they are willing to speak truth to power.

Exodus offers historical precedent for a third party to carry out divine punishment on those who exploit and oppress others. 

One bloody night in Egypt, Hebrew families ate a hurried feast of lamb, bitter herbs, and flatbread, the stain of each lamb’s blood still dripping from their doorposts. They left Egypt the next morning with their families intact, walking away from an oppressive regime that exploited their labor, prevented the free practice of their religion, and attempted to slaughter their infant sons. The lambs’ blood protected their own from the sword of YHWH that brought just punishment.

Meanwhile, the divine warrior passed through Egypt to strike down the firstborn of every family who had aligned themselves with Pharaoh’s regime. Exodus 12:23 describes the one meting out punishment as “the destroyer.” We don’t learn in Exodus 12 what weapon, if any, was used to “strike” Egypt and its gods, but Exodus 5:3 spoke of God’s sword:

“Then [Moses and Aaron] said, “The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the LORD our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.” (Exodus 5:3 NRSV)

Who is wielding that sword on the night of the Passover? The text is mysteriously ambiguous about it. Is it YHWH? Or does YHWH dispatch someone else? Exodus 12:23 puts this fuzziness center stage:

“For the LORD will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over [or “protect”] that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down.” (Exodus 12:23 NRSV)

The translation “pass over” is unfortunate, because the Hebrew word pasach more likely means “protect” (see Isaiah 31:5). The resulting image is vivid: YHWH hovers over the doorway of each blood-stained home to prevent “the destroyer” from entering—a destroyer sent by God.

Still, Exodus 12 is clear that YHWH is the one who strikes Egypt (verses 13, 27, 29). Perhaps the key is to recognize that those dispatched by God to bring divine punishment act with God’s own authorization. The line between the two is fuzzy because YHWH is ultimately responsible.

Returning to Psalm 149:9, we notice that the sword is meant to “execute on them the judgment decreed.” The psalm leaves no room for personal vendettas or harmful ideologies. Those bearing the sword are on assignment to carry out God’s specific will.

Before we rush ahead to begin enacting vengeance ourselves, it’s worth considering how Jesus responded when his disciples tried to do this. Let’s set the scene: the anointed one, the Messiah Jesus, was in the garden of Gethsemane when a mob armed with swords approached him to arrest him. If there was ever a time when a violent response was justified, this would be it! Matthew tells us, “One of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear” (Matt. 26:51). This is precisely the kind of heroics I would expect with Psalm 149 ringing in our ears! But Jesus is not impressed. He says, “Put your sword back in its place, . . . for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). It was not the time for swords. I would argue that it still isn’t.

For Christian readers, the judgment of God was satisfied on the cross for all those who place their faith in Jesus as God’s Messiah. That does not preclude our future participation in holding the nations accountable for rebellion against God’s rule, but we await clear and specific divine orders when Christ returns for the final judgment. The nature of our participation in the meantime is constrained by a biblical vision of radical hospitality (e.g., Isaiah 2:1-5). 

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