In You I Take Refuge: The Political Vision of the Psalms

The Psalms aren’t generally the first place we think to look in the Bible for a political vision, perhaps because they are so often used as a source of private consolation or words of praise or thanksgiving apart from larger social realities.  Yet the fact that so many of the Psalms make reference to “the king” (the “royal psalms,” as they are sometimes called) should indicate that these ancient songs are every bit as political as the prophets.  Even in modern times, music has often played a powerful role in constructing a social vision, so we should not be surprised that, even beyond the powerful expressions of human emotion that they contain, the political message of the Psalms is an important one for our age.

Though generalizations about the Psalms as a whole may be misleading (even apart from historical-critical considerations), I think it is possible to identify several characteristics of a political vision according to this collection of songs.  My attention here is (somewhat arbitrarily) focused on the first “book” of this collection (Psalms 1-41), though these observations are also consistent with later chapters.

First, though the author often seeks victory over enemies and desires that the wicked should be punished for their evil—often in brutal ways—God is the primary agent of deliverance and retribution, not the author:

You strike all my enemies on the cheek;

you break the teeth of the wicked.

Deliverance belongs to the Lord;

May your blessing be on your people” (3:7-8)

This is perhaps especially significant in light of the fact that, at least according to tradition and legend, the psalms were written by a king, a person in a position of authority and power.  Whatever the reality of the historical David may have been, the Psalms are remarkably critical of human violence: “I have avoided the ways of the violent,” the author writes, “My steps have held fast to your paths,” (17:4).  “The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and his soul hates the lover of violence,” (11:5).  Even when the author does speak of pursuing and striking down enemies (e.g., Ps 18: 34-45), it is clear that he attributes victory to God rather than his own strength or superior armaments. “A king is not saved by his great army,” he writes.  And “a warrior is not delivered by great strength; the war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save,” (33:16-17).

How different our politics might be if we took this message seriously and did not turn to violence—whether that of guns or armies—as a first resort in dealing with enemies!  The Psalms do not deny the real and present danger that exists in the world, but nonetheless turn to God for deliverance rather than assuming that they are the arm of God’s justice.  As it stands, America’s intoxication with guns is as strong as ever despite tragedy after tragedy due to the ubiquity of firearms in our society.  One needn’t adopt a thoroughgoing pacifism to acknowledge the persistence of an American “myth of regenerative violence”: “In this story, war is how we show ourselves that we’re heroes.  Whom we are fighting against or why doesn’t matter as much as the violence itself, our stoic willingness to shed blood, the promise that it might renew the body politic.”  In contrast to a politics in which violence and deception are often the means to “greatness,” the Psalms proclaim that

The boastful will not stand before your eyes;

you hate all evildoers.

You destroy all those who speak lies;

the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful, (5:5-6)

Furthermore, though the author does not present a simplistic picture of the world in which the righteous prosper and the wicked suffer (e.g., 10:5-11), he maintains that ultimately victory comes “according to the cleanness of my hands” (18:10, 24; cf. 7:3-5, 34:15-22).  The Psalms offer a profoundly moral vision, in which God’s vengeance is just and true, giving what is due to those who have been oppressed and bringing deception into the light.  “For the needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor perish forever,” (9:18).  As with the law and the prophets—and the gospel—the Psalms are “good news to the poor” (Isa 61:1-2; Luke 4:18-19) and those who suffer “for righteousness’ sake” (Matt 5:10).  God will judge those whose power is acquired through deceptive or violent means and vindicate those who are oppressed (see e.g., 37:1-40).  For this reason, the author’s confidence that God will prevail over his enemies is on the condition that he remain on the side of justice and truth, walking with “integrity and uprightness” (25:21, 26:1).

Therefore, O kings, be wise;

be warned, O rulers of the earth.

Serve the Lord with fear,

with trembling kiss his feet,

or he will be angry and you will perish in the way, (2:10-11)

Certainly, the acquisition of power through deception is nothing new, nor is forgetfulness of the poor uniquely American, but here again, the Psalms challenge the status quo of politics and plutocracy by calling for truthfulness, transparency, and consideration of the poor (e.g., 34:12-14, 41:1).

Finally, again and again, the Psalms refer to God as a “refuge” (2:11, 5:11, 7:1, 9:9, 14:6, 16:1, 18:1-3, 25:20, 27:1, 28:8, 31:1-4, 36:7, 37:39, et al.)—a term with political implications in its own context as well as ours.  The one who seeks God knows herself to be a refugee: lost, broken, without a home, and at the mercy of others.  While I don’t want to unjustly spiritualize this idea—now more than ever, the plight of actual political, economic, and environmental refugees must remain always before us—it does call us to let go of the illusions of control and self-sufficiency that undergird American politics. 

“The helpless commit themselves to you,” the Psalmist writes. “You will hear the desire of the meek,” (11:14, 17).  “You deliver a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down,” (18:27; cf. 25:9) he counsels.  Such statements call to mind the prominence of arrogant rhetoric about “taking back” American greatness from the very masses yearning to breathe free at our door.  Refugees (and immigrants more generally) have been maligned as we have forgotten not only the highest ideals of the nation but also that we live in dependence on God, who is “a stronghold for the oppressed” (9:9) and “near to the brokenhearted,” (34:16).  At the very least, the political vision of the Psalms calls us to identify with those who are not in control, not trying to grasp at greatness—particularly not through deceitful and violent means. For

Happy are those who make the Lord their trust,

Who do not turn to the proud,

To those who go astray after false gods.

Happy are those who consider the poor;

The Lord delivers them in time of trouble.

The Lord protects them and keeps them alive;

They are called happy in the land (40:4, 41:1-2)