Psalm 149 – Praise and Punishment

Church stained glass windows sword dividing

Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the faithful.
Let Israel be glad in its Maker;
let the children of Zion rejoice in their King.
Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.
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.
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! (NRSV)

The initial question that arises with me is this: Is this a psalm of praise to the Lord, or an imprecatory psalm encouraging the punishment of the wicked? Well, perhaps the obvious answer is “yes.” I suppose what I am really struggling with is that out of all the one-hundred fifty psalms in the psalter, only this one has this unique combination of vocal praise and punishing action.

The psalm begins much like many psalms of praise but takes the unexpected turn of a call to a war-like operation to execute vengeance on enemies. I freely admit that I do not know quite what to make of this strange amalgam. I wonder along with the venerable Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann who said, “One cannot tell whether this is a responsibility to fend off oppressors or a temptation to gather imperial power.”

Perhaps my wrestling with this psalm is really the struggle with history itself. The Holy Scriptures do not shy away from the realism of its times and often offers historical events and human attitudes with unvarnished narratives. The Bible, and especially the psalmist, will not let us sanitize the past as some idyllic bygone era of divine drama to be envied. Instead, we receive the liberation of God’s people with all its harsh truth.

So, it could be that is why I also loathe seeing some mass market crosses which look ornately beautiful, as if Christ’s death was some pleasant affair. Deliverance from sin, death, and hell came at an awful price. Jesus absorbed all the foulness and degradation of a tortuous ignoble death. In other words, he was a bloody mess, publicly displayed for all to jeer at and be repulsed by.

What is more, for the Christian, perhaps the sagest approach to today’s psalm is unabashedly choosing to view it through Christocentric lenses. Christ is the strong man who has bound the ruler of this dark world with iron chains and secured our liberation from a hellish existence. And the Lord will return, the nations of the earth will be judged, and the faithful will reign with Christ forever.

Even if I read a bit too much into the psalm by interpreting it Christologically, it still leaves the intention of the imprecation open as to its true nature. In other words, the psalm simply does not tell us the trajectory of the curse which comes out of the praise. We are left to wonder in what kind of direction it goes. The Christian tradition of reading psalms and seeing Jesus in them might be our best guide.

Whichever way we choose to examine this unique psalm, the thing which we do know is that it unequivocally stands as a defiance of the nations and peoples of the earth who oppose the living God. Resistance to injustice, unrighteousness, and evil is encouraged by this psalm. The only ruler of this earth who has absolute power is God; and, anyone or any group which attempts to gain and grab such power for themselves is to be resisted. For the harsh reality of living on this created yet fallen earth is that violent and insolent people still desire total control and will do just about anything to get it and keep it.

Almighty and sovereign God, we, your people, ask in the Name of your most precious Son, Jesus Christ, our risen and ascended Lord, to look upon the good desires of your humble servants, and stretch forth the right hand of your power to be our defense against evil in all its insidious forms. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

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