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I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul”; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.
That’s Calvin on the Psalms. I’ve long considered the Psalms as holy writ in part because its poems are also human writ, which is to say the psalms are us, made of the same stuff we are.
You want joy? There’s a psalm for that. The darkness around you impenetrable? It isn’t–there’s a psalm for that. You’ve got peace like a river? There’s a psalm for that too. When we’re most sure no one else on the planet has a clue about the tumult inside, the psalms tell us plainly that there is, which is a wonderfully comforting way of saying that we’re never alone.
But the truth is, I’ve always felt there’s even more in the Psalms than what we are, because I’ve found it impossible to feel the bottomless depth of hate David holds and expresses for his enemies. The context of Psalm 137 makes the wretched sadness of the song somehow understandable, even though I’ve never looked back to see my home burning, my children dead, never been brutally pushed along on a trail of tears. I can understand the Israelites’ weeping when they hung their harps in the trees, and I can taste the gall when their butchering enemies demanded they play “songs of joy.”
I can feel all of that.
But I’ve never quite come to feel this: “O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, How blessed will be the one who repays you/With the recompense with which you have repaid us./ How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock (137:8-9).”
Babies against stones.
But today, I’m 67 years old, and today, like never before in my life, I’m coming closer to feeling in me something approaching David’s righteous anger. Sunday night, ISIS released a slick video meant to enrage billions of people across the globe. In an act unlike anything anyone has seen, ISIS zealots butchered 21 perfectly innocent Egyptian Christians, on camera, by cutting their throats, men whose only crime was that they weren’t ISIS zealots.
For years, I couldn’t imagine David’s rage: “Give them according to their deeds, and according to the wickedness of their endeavors: give them after the work of their hands; render to them their desert (Psalm 28).” I was born after WWII, long after the camps had been liberated. The only enemies we’ve fought in my life were those in wars something in me says, even today, we shouldn’t have fought. Not in all the years of my life have I felt such a wholesome portion of David’s overwhelming wrath.
Now I do–or at least I’m coming treacherously close.
Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth: break out the great teeth of the young lions, O LORD. Let them melt away as waters which run continually: when he bendeth his bow to shoot his arrows, let them be as cut in pieces. As a snail which melteth, let every one of them pass away: like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun (Psalm 58).
These murderers are not just butchers, they’re religious butchers, their hate fueled by an intense, insane faith that their god has appointed them to rule in some bloody apocalypse about to happen. “They believe that they are personally involved in struggles beyond their own lives,” says Graeme Wood in the Atlantic, “and that merely to be swept up in the drama, on the side of righteousness, is a privilege and a pleasure—especially when it is also a burden.”
I’m not alone. Astoundingly, almost half of the American public is ready, once again, to send ground troops into Middle Eastern deserts, despite the fact that the two longest wars in this country’s history are barely over.
For the first time in my life, I come woefully close to feeling the intensity of David’s hate. I get it. I feel it in me when I come almost to believe that there is no other way to deal with these religious butchers than to dash their babies’ heads against the stones.