In some of the Psalms the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth. In others the same spirit ceases to be frightful only by becoming (to a modern mind) almost comic in its naïvety.
Examples of the first can be found all over the Psalter, but perhaps the worst is in Psalm 109. The poet prays that an ungodly man may rule over his enemy and that ‘Satan’ may stand at his right hand (v. ). This probably does not mean what a Christian reader naturally supposes. The ‘Satan’ is an accuser, perhaps an informer. When the enemy is tried, let him be convicted and sentenced, ‘and let his prayer be turned into sin’ (v. 6). This again means, I think, not his prayers to God, but his supplications to a human judge, which are to make things all the hotter for him (double the sentence because he begged for it to be halved). May his days be few, may his job be given to someone else (v. 7). When he is dead may his orphans be beggars (v. 9). May he look in vain for anyone in the world to pity him (v. II). Let God always remember against him the sins of his parents (v. 13). Even more devilish in one verse is the otherwise beautiful Psalm 137 where a blessing is pronounced on anyone who will snatch up a Babylonian baby and beat its brains out against the pavement (v. 9). And we get the refinement of malice in 69:23, ‘Let their table be made a snare to take themselves withal; and let the things that should have been for their wealth be unto them an occasion of falling.’
The examples which (in me at any rate) can hardly fail to produce a smile may occur most disquietingly in Psalms we love: 143, after proceeding for ii verses in a strain that brings tears to the eyes, adds in the 12th, almost like an afterthought, ‘and of thy goodness slay mine enemies’. Even more naively, almost childishly, Psalm 139, in the middle of its hymn of praise throws in (v. 19), ‘Wilt thou not slay the wicked, 0 God?’ — as if it were surprising that such a simple remedy for human ills had not occurred to the Almighty. Worst of all in ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ (Psalm 23), after the green pasture, the waters of comfort, the sure confidence in the valley of the shadow, we suddenly run across (v. 5) ‘Thou shalt prepare a table for me against them that trouble me’ — or, as Dr Moffatt translates it, ‘Thou art my host, spreading a feast for me while my enemies have to look on.’ The poet’s enjoyment of his present prosperity would not be complete unless those horrid enemies (who used to look down their noses at him) were watching it all and hating it. This may not be so diabolical as the passages I have quoted above; but the pettiness and vulgarity of it, especially in such surroundings, are hard to endure.
One way of dealing with these terrible or (dare we say?) contemptible Psalms is simply to leave them alone. But unfortunately the bad parts will not ‘come away clean’; they may, as we have noticed, be intertwined with the most exquisite things. And if we still believe that all Holy Scripture is ‘written for our learning’ or that the age-old use of the Psalms in Christian worship was not entirely contrary to the will of God, and if we remember that Our Lord’s mind and language were clearly steeped in the Psalter, we shall prefer, if possible, to make some use of them. What use can be made?
C.S. Lewis, ‘The Cursings,’ Reflections on the Psalms (1958) as republished within C.S. Lewis: Selected Books (London: HarperCollins, 2002) 319-320.