There are many passages in scripture that I find deeply troubling. One example is Psalm 137:8-9:
Oh Babylon, you will be destroyed. Happy is the one who pays you back for what you have done to us. Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Smashing babies against rocks.
Exactly what are we supposed to do with a Psalm like this? Granted, it’s an extreme example, but it can’t rightly be ignored. How can we reconcile it with the nonviolent teachings of Jesus? There are many others like it, in which the Psalmist asks God to avenge them by punishing their enemies.
There’s good news for people like me who can’t overlook problems like these. When we read a Psalm, we shouldn’t assume that every word is righteous and Godly in its expression, and meant to be ‘followed’ by us (in fact, in the light of Jesus’ teaching on enemy love in Matthew 5, it’s impossible to defend a prayer like this one as ‘Godly’).
In scripture, the kind of book we’re reading at any given time is a matter of critical importance. Not all of scripture is prescriptive, telling us how we should live or follow God. Very large chunks are instead descriptive, simply retelling for us the story of God’s perfect love for his imperfect followers throughout history.
Rather than instructing us on exactly how we should pray in the 21st century, the Psalms inform us of what the prayers of the people of Israel were like at this time in their history. (To say that this is all they do is to sell them short; they also have deeply prophetic moments, being later quoted by Jesus in Matt 22:41–46; Mark 12:35–37; Luke 20:40–44 and Peter in Acts 2:14–36, among others.)
It’s strange to assume that these deeply personal and honest songs must be perfectly righteous and Godly in every utterance. The Psalmists were normal people like you and I. When I pray and worship, are all of my most honest words perfectly righteous and Godly? Or are they sometimes selfish, even worthy of correction? These are presented in scripture as the songs of men, not books of history or law. And they are, despite these darkest moments, glorious examples of authentic worship.
Keep it Deep
The fact that we need to discuss the nature of these passages at all suggests that somewhere along the way, we’ve gotten something very wrong in how we think about the Bible.
For one thing, we seem to reduce Bible stories into those about ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ (maybe so that we can tell our children simpler bedtime stories). Many of us (myself included) too easily accept all of the words and actions of ‘God’s people’ (the good guys) as being righteous, unless we’re specifically told otherwise. This ‘flattens’ the Bible stories, making them simple and two-dimensional. While they’re easier to both hear and retell this way, they’re also less realistic and more difficult to reconcile with each other (and, far more importantly, with the person and teachings of Jesus).
If we’re honest, we all know that scripture is deeper and more nuanced than this. It’s made up of stories about real, flawed people. When we read about David, we know that we’re not supposed to kill a man and sleep with his wife, just because Israel’s great king did (2 Sam 11). This example is too easy, though, since the Bible explicitly tells us his action was wrong in 2 Samuel 12 (just in case we were confused…)
What about the story of Samson in Judges 16, which begins with him sleeping with a prostitute? There is no comment about his behaviour in the chapter, but no reader would assume that just because Samson did it and the Bible stays silent, God is fine with prostitution.
Instead, we get trapped by more subtle passages, like the Psalms. For some reason, we believe that all of their contents must be perfectly ‘Godly’, simply because they’re found in the Bible. Never mind that their contents are presented as songs of men – they are still holy writ, and must be flawless and perfect. Are they even allowed to contain ungodly thoughts and feelings?
I believe they are. The Bible is a very honest book, laying bare weaknesses in almost every ‘good’ character that it depicts, never hiding awkward truths or skirting around the apparent ‘failures’ of God. Instead, it respects our intelligence, trusting us to make up our own minds about whether the words and actions of its characters reflect the heart of our God or not. Ultimately, King Jesus is the lens through which the Bible should be interpreted, with precisely zero exceptions. If we find things that directly contradict his teachings, it’s our responsibility to seek the matter out.
If we forget this distinction between prescriptive and descriptive texts in the Bible, and try to ‘follow’ everything we read, we are likely to get confused, frustrated, or even leave the Christian faith altogether, since troubling contradictions and issues seem to abound. All of this pain is common despite the fact that the Bible never even claims to be a book of instruction from beginning to end. So how on earth did we come to think that it is?
Too Much Respect?
If you’re an Evangelical Christian, you’ve probably been raised with a teaching that all of scripture is divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit. While I’m not disputing this teaching at all, it does seem to have an unfortunate side-effect for many of us. It has programmed us with a default assumption when reading scripture that, unless stated otherwise, the stories and events described have a strong ‘mark of approval’ applied to them. While in one sense this is true (the Bible is made up of faithful and true stories of God’s loving collision with the earth, and his grand redemptive plan), we must be very careful to not understand it as a blanket endorsement of all Biblical moments.
The inspiration of scripture is far too large a topic to tackle in this post, so I won’t go further. But the issue is not that Evangelicals have ‘too much respect’ for scripture. Is it even possible to have too much respect for the true story of God’s entanglement with humanity through history? To have too much awe for the glory of Jesus and the details of his story? No — the problem is in how we think about the Bible. You might even say that we have too little respect for it, since we often ignore its third dimension, seeing it as too troublesome and complicated. We squeeze it instead into a lazier, flatter story.
The simple solution, I believe, is to simply care more about what we’re reading when we open our Bibles. Pay more attention to what kind of book you’re dropping into (genre), and which part of the grand story you’ve entered (timeline). Read up on the context of the day and geek out on commentaries (and even atlases) when you have the time. Flesh out the scriptures in your imagination and let them come to life in a more detailed way. It’s the golden age of Biblical study, and you have mountains of free resources at your disposal. Check out The Bible Project to get ahead fast (it’s the most helpful Biblical resource I’ve ever used) or BiblicalTraining.org (for deeper study).
For some reason, these habits seem to be reserved only for Bible college nerds or seminary students, but in the end, if the Bible story is true, it’s the most important book in the world. Best to treat it that way. Strangely, most of us seem far more inclined to geek out on Lord of the Rings lore, or the backstories of our favourite actors or videogame characters. It’s time to apply that same fascination and google-ey rigor to the greatest story ever told.
C.S. Lewis once said of following Jesus,
Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, is of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.
The same is true of the words that reveal him.