Psalm 76: Warrior God?

How do we know we are doing God’s will? Just because we think we are doing God’s will doesn’t mean we are. This came to mind last Sunday while listening to the reading from Genesis where Abraham prepares to kill his son, Isaac, doing what he believed to be God’s will. God intervenes and stops him just in time. Was it that God told Abraham to kill his son to test him or did Abraham get it wrong so God intervened?

There have been times in my life when I have prepared to embark on a particular course of action, thinking it was what God wanted of me, yet have said to God, “Stop me if I got this wrong, if this isn’t what you want me to do.” Determining God’s will remains a challenge throughout the ages. When God told Francis of Assisi to build his church, Francis thought he meant a building, not the people of God. If saints get it wrong, what chance do the rest of us have?

I thought about this when reading this week’s psalm. Psalm 76 extols the power of a conquering God. God is “glorious and terrible” – two translations of the same Hebrew word. “Glorious are you, more majestic than the everlasting mountains.” (4) “But you, terrible are you!” (7a) “Who cuts off the spirt of princes, who is terrible to the kings of the earth.” (12)

This is a hymn sung in praise of God after victory. God destroys the enemy, “The stouthearted were stripped of their spoil; they sank into sleep; all the men of war were unable to use their hands. At your rebuke, O God of Jacob, both rider and horse lay stunned.” (5-6) At God’s anger even the earth is afraid, “Who can stand before you when once your anger is roused? From the heavens you did utter judgment; the earth feared and was still.” (7b-8)

The one saving grace is in verse 9. “When God arose to establish judgment to save all the oppressed of the earth.” God is on the side of the oppressed, not just out to wreck destruction.

This is but one image of God out of 150 psalms, one small aspect of God who is loving, kind and full of mercy in other psalms. There is a side of God that brings terror to those of evil ways. This, too, is an aspect of God. God isn’t an “anything goes” God but one who demands certain behaviors and attitudes from his followers. Still this is but one part of the mystery which is God.

Some may use this psalm to justify war and destruction, claiming to be doing God’s will, just as some extremists in the Muslim faith claim to be doing the will of Allah in their destruction, ignoring other passages in the Koran.

For the Hebrew nation, victory came from God, as well as defeat. And so they justified their own acts of war as being from God. Was it God that slayed the enemies or the Hebrew sword?

This is nationalist hymn. God is on their side, giving them victory. This is the stuff that holy wars are made of, that fueled the Crusades. But was it truly God’s will or mistaken understanding of what that will is?

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