One thing is certain about this evening’s psalm: no one fully understands it. There are textual difficulties, there are translation difficulties, and anyone who tries, it seems, struggles to find a category within which to place Psalm 68. It is cyclical in nature, but is it a communal hymn of praise? Is it an individual recounting of God’s grace and love? Does it simply recount Israel’s victories and God’s favor found within them?
It’s unclear, but what is certain, is that God is continually present in the psalm. Psalm 68’s movement is clunky and the method by which it tries to achieve whatever it tries to achieve. From the beginning to the end, this psalm (and the history of God’s people) begins and ends with the proclamation of God’s power and might over the world. The ark, the wilderness journey, and Israel’s victory all get accounted for in this psalm.
The psalm then takes a turn and becomes a violent recount of God’s victory over Israel’s enemies. It is graphic, but war often is. This psalm is the harried, disorganized victory song of a people oppressed who have suddenly found freedom. It is not the quite gratitude list of last evening’s psalm and it’s certainly not the communal lament that cries out to God, Psalm 68 is somewhere in between.
This psalm has particularly resonated with oppressed people throughout history; this psalm is a good word for folks who have prayed for God’s redemption of their people and for the retribution of their enemies.
Some psalms are especially challenging in their use of violence and violent imagery (Psalm 137, thankfully, is not an evening Psalm set during Lent), and it could be easy to do a few things with these violent psalms. We could entirely dismiss them as unholy and unfit for our Christian hearts and minds. We could entirely claim them, using them to support our own violent acts. Or, we can take the violent psalms and allow them to give us pause.
We can allow them to make us feel uncomfortable; we can let them drag our imaginations to a place and a people in which the only path out of their misery seemed for God to become as violent as humans. These psalms can give us an opportunity to see the world through a situation that many of us have likely never faced. Verse 21 (which is optional – probably likely because we’d rather not read it) strikes me this way: “But God will shatter the heads of his enemies, the hairy crown of those who walk in their guilty ways.”
I cannot imagine praying this prayer, singing this song, or asking God to act such a way in this world, but this is a psalm that lasted the test of time. It is still with us for a reason. While I’m unsure and uncomfortable with us adopting this language for our prayers, my mind is drawn to a contemporary issue.
I look at this photo of Syrian children who sit waiting for treatment in a makeshift medical clinic to be treated for issues related to a chemical attack, and I cannot help but to wonder if the prayers of these people is the prayer of verse 21, and I can’t do much else than sit with the uncomfortableness of this reality, even as my own cries of “Lord have mercy” give rise.