I can’t remember the number of times that I have read something in the Psalms, or the Old Testament in general, and shuddered a bit. “Why is that in the Bible?” I wondered.
If the Bible is approached in a literal fashion, it will leave the reader confused as in one passage it appears God is blessing people who murder babies (Ps 137:9), and in a later passage He commands us to love our enemies (Matt 5:43-48)?
Inspiration or dictation?
While we Orthodox believe that the scriptures were inspired by God, we also believe that there is a human element in them that is unavoidable, which is why one can read books by different authors and recognize differing styles of writing. Contrast that to what some of the “Bible-believing” Christians teach that the scriptures were dictated verbatim to the biblical author.
One of the most troublesome parts of the Bible is the Psalms, which pretty well contains the entire spectrum of human emotions: everything from crying out for vengeance, expressing heartache, repentance, and joyous praise to God.
Bible-believing Christians stand on a shaky foundation though if they emphasize a literal approach to the Bible. They can very easily paint God as an irrational, and unstable Creature who is ready to smash his enemies at one moment, and then willing to die for them in the next.
Reading the Bible with the Church
For that reason, it is of the utmost importance that we do not attempt to interpret the Bible for ourselves. Instead, we read the Bible with the Church. God did not appoint us to become our own popes, and the tens of thousands of Bible-believing denominations (all of whom believe their biblical interpretation is superior) demonstrate the fallacy of western spiritual independence.
Throughout the ages, there have been many enlightened saints who have been given divine insight into the hidden, spiritual meaning of the scriptures. Below are a couple of examples.
Difficult Psalm #1
“Blessed is he who shall get the upper hand
And dash your infants against the rock.” Ps. 137:9
There’s no way to sugar coat that if approached in a literal fashion. Here is the interpretation given by St Theodoros the Great Ascetic:
“Every assent in thought to some forbidden desire, that is, every submission to self-indulgence, is a sin for a monk [and all Christians]. For at first, the thought begins to darken the nous [Greek meaning the eye of the spirit] …then the soul submits to the pleasure, not holding out in the fight. This is what is called assent…When assent persists it stimulates the passion in question. Then, little by little, it leads to the actual committing of the sin. This is why the prophet calls blessed those who dash the children of Babylon against the stones. People with understanding and discretion will know what is meant.” 2
In summary, St Theodoros is saying that the entertainment of a tiny, slightly-sinful thought is how every habitual sin begins. We must crush the thought before it has a chance to grow within us. St Paul writes of this in a couple of epistles as well including Phil 4:8.
Difficult Psalm #2
“Early in the morning I slew all the sinners of the land,
so as to destroy from the city of the Lord, all them that work iniquity.”
We must not only put bodily passions to death, but also destroy the soul’s impassioned thoughts. 3
He is speaking of taking captive every thought and holding it to the Light of Christ from the moment we awaken in the morning. It is similar to the quote above, but emphasizing that this nepsis (constant vigilance of the thoughts) begins at awakening. As St Peter writes,
“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walks about, seeking whom he may devour:” (1 Peter 5:8)
This psalm is important to me because I know the instant I step out of bed, the godless chatter of my mind begins and I must push it away with prayer. In doing this, I am slaying the sinners (that is thoughts that do not focus on God) of the land (the battlefield of my mind) and working with Christ to cleanse the city of the Lord (my entire self, the temple of the Holy Spirit) of all the evil thoughts that lead to sin.
A few final thoughts
It is important to remember that in the Psalms, and other OT passages, references to enemies are to be understood as the demons and the seemingly ceaseless chatter of our minds. In Orthodoxy, we are taught to pray without ceasing in order to sharpen our focus and bring about internal peace. Doing so not only keeps us from sin, but it draws us close to God’s ever abiding presence in our lives at every moment of the day. God is all around us, but when we are consumed with our own thoughts it is quite difficult to see Him.
We are taught that this spiritual journey is a fight. Hence the war language that we adopt in the Psalms. We have an enemy who is quite real and aggressive. If we are determined to be a Christian, then this enemy will try to defeat us in a multitude of ways. We are at war, and we must not ever forget it.
1. The Philokalia, Volume 2, translated by Palmer, Sherrard, Ware. ©1981 Pg 17-18.
2. ibid, page 163