Calvin Theological Journal  36 (2001): 22-33.

       Copyright © 2001 by Calvin Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.




                Voice as Counter to Violencel


                                             Walter Brueggemann


            Professor Bosma suggested in our correspondence that what I should do

this afternoon is to try to take up a particular psalm and then talk about some

of the practical, pastoral implications. That is what I will try to do. Before I do

that, I want to make some comments about why I deal with this psalm under the

rubric of voice as an alternative to violence, and I think you will see the direc-

tion of my thinking.

            I tried to argue this morning that the lament psalms insist upon Israel's find-

ing voice, a voice that tends to be abrasive and insistent. The lament psalm is a

Jewish refusal of silence before God. This Jewish refusal of silence is not cul-

tural, sociological, or psychological, but it is in the end, theological. It is a Jewish

understanding that an adequate relationship with God permits and requires a

human voice that will speak out against every wrong perpetrated either on

earth or by heaven. That is where I left it in our earlier reflection together.

This afternoon I want to talk about imposed coercive silence. I assume that

the verse in Habakkuk 2:20b, "Let all the earth be silent" (NIV), was written by

a librarian. Coercive silence is always a transaction between a powerful agent

and a weaker subordinate. That is, it is an unequal transaction between the

powerful and the powerless, and such silence (this is my thesis sentence) gen-

erates and legitimates violence on the part of both. The silencer thinks he

(I use that pronoun advisedly; it is generic) is free to do whatever he wants; the

silenced who is reduced to docility by the silencer eventually will break out in

violence either against self or against the silencer. I do not need to cite exam-

ples. I consider this matter of voice and violence not to be a theoretical issue but

a concrete, practical, pastoral issue because we live in a violent, abusive society

in which there is a terrible conspiracy in violence that can only be broken when

the silence is broken by the lesser party.

            The lament psalms, I propose, constitute either the breaking of silence

against the enemy by summoning God or the breaking of silence against God

when God is perceived to be unjust or fickle. It is clear in these psalms, more-

over, that finding voice from underneath to speak against the hegemony of


1  A lecture delivered at Calvin Theological Seminary on April 22, 1993.

23                                VOICE AS COUNTER TO VIOLENCE


God or the hegemony of the enemy does indeed cause things to change. It is

simply astonishing that when the powerless find voice, done at great risk, things

must happen differently among the powerful, including God. I do not know, as

Claus Westermann does not know,2 how one characteristically moves from plea

to praise in the Psalms. But I have no doubt that the plea with all of its compo-

nent parts is a necessary prologue and preamble to praise, and that the situa-

tion would never have gotten to be one of praise had there not been this protest

and petition/complaint at the outset.

        Before I consider the Psalm that I have selected, I want simply to catalog for

you a number of studies about silence and speech. I will do this rather quickly.

First, I want to mention Job. Job's friends encourage submissiveness but Job

refuses; the entire drama of the book, including the whirlwind speeches,

depends upon Job's refusal.

         Second, in 1985, Elaine Scarry wrote a book entitled The Body in Pain: The

Making and Unmaking of the World.3 The book is in two parts. The first long part

is a description of torture. Her thesis is that when governments or movements

torture people they never do it in order to obtain information. They do it to

unmake persons so that they cease to exist as identifiable agents. The most

remarkable thing about Scarry's book is that the second half, partly informed

by the Bible and partly informed by Marx, claims that the only counter to tor-

ture is speech. As torture unmakes persons, so speech makes persons.

       Third, Judith Lewis Hermann has recently written a book titled Trauma and

Recovery4 that is enormously important. She studies a number of cases of people

who have suffered the violence of war (including soldiers) , and she studies vio-

lated women. The title of the book, Trauma and Recovery, is a statement that all

of these people have experienced trauma; recovery from trauma has to do, in

case after case, with speech in a safe context, which is the only way to get past


       Fourth, Carol Gilligan, in a series of studies beginning, as you know, with In

a Different Voice,5 has now documented the way in which twelve-year-old, thir-

teen-year-old, and fourteen-year-old girls grow silent because they have figured

out that in a male world the only safe role is to cover over your competence and

withdraw and be silent. Her study recognizes that such imposed silence is dev-


        2 Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, trans. Keith R. Crim and Richard N.

Soulen (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981).

        3 Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York:

Oxford University Press, 1987). More recently see William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist:

Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), who develops Scarry's general

thesis in quite concrete ways.

      4 Judith Lewis Hermann, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 1992) .

      5 Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theology and Women's Development

(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).

                        CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL                                            24


astating, She considers how older women can find the voice that at twelve years

of age they surrendered to survive. It is an astonishing study!

       Fifth, Alice Miller, in a series of books of which I mention the one titled Thou

Shalt Not Be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Child,6 has studied the way in which

powerful institutions, by which she particularly means the church and the psy-

chotherapeutic community, have crushed children to insensitivity and have

taught them not to notice or to value self. Thus, her title, Thou Shalt Not Be

Aware. It is clear in Alice Miller that one antidote for the recovery of a sense of

self is the speech that is necessary to selfing.

      Sixth, I simply mention and will not comment on a book by Rebecca S.

Chopp titled The Power to Speak.7 This book is a study of biblical texts in which

women gain speech.

     And finally, I dare to mention alongside these important studies my own lit-

tle piece in my book Praying the Psalms.8 It is an attempt to study the lament

psalms, in which I have asked the question: What do you think we ought to do

with the anger and the yearning for vengeance that is so powerful among us?

I proposed in that study that what the lament psalms do is show Israel doing

three things. First, you must voice the rage. Everybody knows that. Everybody

in the therapeutic society knows that you must voice it, but therapeutic society

stops there. Second, you must submit it to another, meaning God in this con-

text. Third, you then must relinquish it and say, "I entrust my rage to you."

      I do not want to make too much of my own little scheme except to say to you

that all of these books, one way or another, propose the same grid of speech.

Observe about these studies that I have named, first of all, that they all have to

do with the brutalized powerless gaining enough speech to make a claim for

themselves against a power that is seen to be ruthless and indifferent. And

notice second (I only noticed this after I had written all of this down, but you

noticed it) that the great preponderance of authors are women who are speak-

ing out of a world that is silenced by the hegemony of male power. This fact is

immensely important because you know that there are now feminist inter-

preters who say that in much prophetic metaphor Yahweh is portrayed as a sex

abuser. I mention particularly that odd text in Jeremiah 20:7 where Jeremiah

says, "0 LORD, you have seduced me," and, as you know, htAPA (patah) is capable

of being translated "to rape" (Ex. 22:15).9


      6 Alice Miller, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Child, new ed., trans.

Hildegarde Hannum and Hunter Hannum (London: Pluto, 1998).

     7 Rebecca S. Chopp, The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, God (New York: Crossroad,

1989) .

     8 Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms (Winona Lake, Ind.: Saint Mary's Press, 1982) , 67-80.

     9 See Renita J. Weems, Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets,

Overtures to Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), and Carol J. Dempsey, The

Prophets: A Liberation-Critical Reading (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000).

25                     VOICE AS COUNTER TO VIOLENCE


        I once put that comment about Jeremiah 20:7 into a little exegetical study,

and I had a wonderful Roman Catholic secretary who cared about things.

When I did not give her enough to do, she helped me do my work. She was a

very pious lady, and she typed in the margin of that manuscript, "God may

deceive and God may seduce but God does not rape." Well, it is a hard question.

I do not want to pursue that, except to say that, as these studies are about a voice

of self against hegemony, they suggest that pastoral work must be enormously

attentive to power relations and the ways in which hegemony is imposed and

what it costs to break out of that hegemony.10

        In this regard, I should insist that the theological breaking of God's hege-

mony, that the sociological breaking of the hegemony of the power class, and the

psychological breaking of deformed ego structure are all of a piece. All require

the daring assertion of the lesser party, which is done at great risk. I simply

mean to suggest that in these lament psalms we have a script for how the com-

munity has practiced that subversive activity of finding voice. I suggest, more-

over, that in a society that is increasingly shut down in terms of public speech,

the church in all of its pastoral practices may be the community where the

silenced are authorized to voice.

       The Psalm that I want to talk about is Psalm 39. I have no shrewd suggestion

to make about this psalm, except to walk you through it.

       I have selected this psalm because it is generically a lament psalm, but this

classification is not easy or obvious. It is one of the few psalms—Westermann

says that there are none but that is not quite right—along with Psalm 88 that

seems to have no positive resolution and that seems to leave things dangling.

This psalm is in a general way always listed as a lament psalm, except that it

does not follow the usual grid that you will find in every introductory book on

the Psalms.11  Psalm 39 seems to be more reflective and perhaps reflects some

sapiential influence. It is close enough to the general genre of lament psalms,

however, for our purposes, and we can, if we want to, then extrapolate from it

to other psalms.

     Verses 1-3 [2-4]12 are a retrospective on what the speaker had done. It is look-

ing back on a longstanding piety. In verse la[2a] the speaker says, "I said." It is

a soliloquy in which he says aloud, "I said," and then reports on what he had

said, "I will keep silent. It is a sin to speak out." Just listen to that! "It is a sin, to

speak out in front of the wicked." One ought not to express pressure against

God among the nonbelievers because you will sound like a nonbeliever.

Perhaps such speech, where you dare to utter it, would expose doubt or anger


     10 See David R. Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Louisville:

Westminster/John Knox, 1993).

      11 Cf. Westermann, Praise and Lament, 64.

      12 The numbers in square brackets refer to the verses of the Hebrew text.

                        CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL                                            26


or give the appearance of diminished faith. Calvin says that such speech would

be an occasion for blasphemy.13

      However, the speaker's intention to keep silent turns out to be too costly. In

verses 2-3 [3-4] he says, "My distress grew worse and I got a hot heart. And when

I thought about it, the fire burned so I spoke. I tried to be silent but then I

worked my tongue because I couldn't do otherwise."

      Verses 4-6 [5-8] contain a unique combination of speech forms. Verse 4 [5]

seems like a more reflective statement because it does not seem to follow from

verse 3 [4]. Verse 3 [4] really is hot, whereas verse 4 [5] is rather cool. Verse 4 [5]

is in a deferential tone, saying to God, "LORD, why don't you tell me what I don't

know about the limits of my life?"

      In verse 4 [5], the speaker names Yahweh for the first time. In that moment

of bold address, things already begin to change. The cause of trouble has now

become an open question in the relationship.14

      The NIV and NRSV have a colon at the end of verse 3 [4], suggesting that

verse 4 [5] is what this speaker said when he finally got his tongue. I do not

know if that is right. Artur Weiser thinks not.15 Verse 4 [5] is quite reflective.

Verse 5 [6], which continues this speech, is of a different kind. This verse

begins with the Hebrew word hn.ehi ( hinneh), "behold," which the NIV and NRSV

have left out. Then notice that in verse 5b [6b] the speaker claims that God has

nullified him. He says, "My lifetime is as nothing (Nyixa, ayin) in your sight." This

claim is followed by three clauses, each of which begin with j`xa (‘ak) , "surely":

  5cSurely every man stands as a mere breath! MdAxA-lKA lb,h,-lKA j~xa 6c

  6aSurely man goes about as a shadow!                  wyxi-j`l,.hat;yi Ml,c,B;-jxa 7a

  bSurely for nought are they in turmoil....                           NUymAh<y, lb,h,-j`xa b

It is important to note that in verse 5c [6c] and in verse 6b [7b] the psalmist

employs the Hebrew word lb,h, (hebel), which means "vanity," "zero," "bubble."

It is the same word as in Ecclesiastes: "mere breath," "shadow," "nothing."

     Most interesting about verses 5-6 [6-7] is their dissimilarity from verse 4 [5].

Verse 4 [5] is kind of a serene, trustful petition. However, verses 5-6 [7-8] are in fact

an accusation. And if my life is lb,h, and lb,h, and shadow, it is, claims the

psalmist in verse 5bc [6bc], "because you have made it so."

     Observe about verses 4 [5], 5, and 6 [6-7] that they are a strange combination

of deference and accusation, saying to God, "You have reduced all human life and

my human life to meaninglessness." Israel speaks in this psalm on the convic-


     13 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson (Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1949) , 2:73.

     14 Walter Brueggemann, "The Costly Loss of Lament," in The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D.

Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995),109.

     15 Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, trans. Herbert Hartwell, OTL (London: SCM Press, 1962), 328-29.

27                    VOICE AS COUNTER TO VIOLENCE


tion that to speak seriously about meaninglessness is to render meaning.

Speech turns meaninglessness into meaningfulness!

       Verse 7 [8] marks a major turning point that is introduced by the conjunc-

tion hTAfav; (we’attah), "and now" (Ps. 2:10). This verse signals a crucial rhetori-

cal move from past reflection to present intensity, from meditation to active,

insistent hope:16

     7a And now, what do I wait for, 0 LORD,  ynAdoxE ytiyUiqi.-hma hTAfav; 8a

       b My hope is in you.                                               :xyhi j~l; yTil;HaOT b

The speech in this verse grows bolder. Remarkably, through the course of

Psalm 39 this silent speaker gets more and more voice. Calvin says predictably

about verse 7 that now begins right prayer.17  This means that the first six verses

are not so hot.

     In verse 7a [8a] the speaker first asks about his hope, "for what do I wait?"

Significantly, he addresses this protesting question directly to Yahweh.18 This is

only the second time that the speaker names Yahweh. The focus on Yahweh is

an insistence that things need not and will not stay as they are, for the very

utterance of the divine name constitutes an act of hope.19  Strikingly, the

psalmist answers his own question, "My hope is in you" (vs. 7b [8b]). This is a

statement of incredible trust, even though uttered by the one who has recently


      After this remarkable expression of trust in Yahweh, there follows a series of

powerful imperatives addressed to Yahweh in verses 8-10a [9-11a]. We grow so

accustomed to these stylized imperatives that we do not notice their rhetorical

force or their theological daring. However, think what it means for a petitioner

to address an imperative to "the maker of heaven and earth." In much of our

rather conventional prayer, we trivialize prayer imperatives. You know: "Help

us, 0 Lord, to care about each other, and remind the elders that we meet

Tuesday night in room 206 and all this kind of business." Characteristically, in

the lament psalms these are big imperatives. They are life-and-death impera-

tives. They voice an urgency to God because everything is at stake for the peti-

tioner. The urgency of imperatives matches the helplessness and need of the


      The innocent looking statement in verse 7b [8b], "My hope is in you," is a

strategy for leveraging Yahweh about the imperatives: "It's all up to you and

you better fulfill my hope." You can see whether you think that is an over-read-

ing of the text.


    16 Brueggemann, "The Costly Loss of Lament," 109.

    17 Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms, 2:81.

   18 The Hebrew text reads ynAdoxA but some evidence suggests a second reading of Yahweh.

    19 Brueggemann, "The Costly Loss of Lament," 109.

                        CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL                                28


    At any rate, with powerful imperatives the psalmist pleads in verse 8 [9]:

    8a Deliver me from all my transgressions.  ynileyci.ha yfawAP;-lKAmi 9a

      b Make me not the scorn of the fool!    :ynimeyWiT;-lxa lbAnA tPar;H, b

There is, as you may know, a growing literature about the power of shame,

about being embarrassed and therefore wanting to conceal self. One of the

things we are discovering in light of attention to shame is that the church is all

tooled up to deal with guilt and now we are discovering that guilt is a secondary

kind of phenomenon that is built on top of shame and we do not know how to

deal with it very well. Israel is "a shame society." Israel understands the social

power that makes one crawl into a hole and become invisible. Israel seeks pro-

tection from God against the negating power of humiliation.

      Verse 9ab [10ab] is an odd statement of deference that looks back to verses

1-2 [3-4]:

     9a I am silent.                                                           yTim;lax<n, 10a

       b I do not open my mouth....                  yPi-HTap;x, xlo b

But then it is as though the audacious yKi clause of verse 9c [10c] reverses the


       9c because [it is] you, you have done it [to me].         :tAyWifA hTAxa yKi 10c

Hans Joachim Kraus' comments on the tension in this verse are very percep-

tive.20 One can see the tension without Kraus: This psalmist is voicing an incred-

ible contradiction in vs. 7b [8b] and vs. 9c [10c]: "My trust is in you" (vs. 7b [8b] 

and, "You, you have done it to me" (vs. 9c [10c]). The prayer voices a terrible

ambiguity. On the one hand, this psalm reflects a kind of conventional defer-

ence and piety, but, on the other hand, the speaker is beginning to discover

that the very God upon whom one must rely is the great problem in one's life:

"Because you have done it" (vs. 9c [10c] ) .

     When I read this psalm, it occurred to me that this situation of the speaker

is very much like the situation of a small child who gets very angry at mother

but who has nowhere to go to get succor and embrace, except to mother. When

that happens a good-enough mother embraces the child, even while the child

is still beating on the breast of mother in anger. This psalm, so it seems to me,

voices a situation of faith that is fraught with incredible ambivalence. The very

God upon whom we must rely is identified as the very God who really has done

us in.

     Verse 10a [11 a] issues one more forceful imperative. The psalmist just said in

verse 9c [10c], "you have done it to me." In verse 10a [ 11 a] he says, "Remove

your stroke from me! Why don't you stop it now? It is enough." The speaker is

a jumble of conflicted emotions, all of which are voiced in trusting candor to



      20 HansJoachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59: A Commentary, trans. Hilton C. Oswald (Minneapolis:

Augsburg, 1988), 418.

29                    VOICE AS COUNTER TO VIOLENCE


     Verse 11 [12] returns to a more reflective tone. It seems like a distancing

statement, not so particular and personal. Instead, it offers generalizing wis-

dom: "you chastise mortals in punishment for sin." This verse sounds like verse

4 [5], which, as we noted above, is also reflective. The last clause of verse 11 [12],

MdAxA-lKA lb,h, j`xa ("surely every man is a mere breath!"), looks back to verse

5c [6c] with another j`xa ('ak), "surely," and another use of the word lb,h,

(hebel). This psalm uses the word hebel three times, a primary accent on this

"conversation of the heart addressed to God." When a therapist says, "Did you

notice in the last three minutes you used this one word seven times? Do you

think it's important?" "No," you reply, "I just have a limited vocabulary."

       This reiteration of the term lb,h, (hebel) sounds to me like somebody who is

at the brink of ceasing to be. The speaker can just barely get the words uttered.

When one finally speaks, there is such desperation that it comes out as frantic

anger. I must speak to you, because you are my only hope. There is a double

mindedness of scolding and trust. This dread-filled ambivalence is about where

this speaker is positioned in front of God.

     Verse 12abc [13abc] is the most conventional part of the psalm. It is a pas-

sionate plea for a hearing that sounds much more like a regular lament and

consists of vigorous imperatives that name Yahweh for the third time:

     12 Hear my prayer, 0 LORD;                      hvAhy; ytilA.pit;-hfAm;wi 13a

        b give ear to my cry.                                               hnAyzixEha ytifAvwav; b

        c Do not hold your peace at my tears.   wriH<T,-lxa ytifAm;Di-lx, c

The problem in this verse is not that I have kept silent, but the problem is that

God has kept silent. "Hold your peace (wraH<T,)" means, "You don't say any-

thing." At the beginning of the psalm, the speaker noticed what has happened

to him because he has kept silent too long. Now, at the end, he is noticing that

what happens to him is because God kept silent too long.

     The last clause of verse 12 [13] offers a motivation to God. Very often in the

lament psalms when there is an imperative issued to God, it is as though God

says, "Why should I do that?" And then one gives a reason why God should hear

prayer and speak out.

     The NRSV translates the last clause of verse 12 [13] as follows: "For I am your

passing guest, a sojourner, like all my fathers." The NRSV's translation of verse

12d [13d], "I am your passing guest" (j`m.Afi ykinoxA rge yKi21), is very weak.

Together with the Hebrew noun bwAOt, rGe forms the word pair "resident alien-

sojourner."22 This word pair is a social category for an alien who is given per-

mission to live in another people's land without the rights of citizens (Gen.

23:4) . In other words, "I am your problem. I am exposed and dependent and vul-


       21 Cf. Ps. 119:19.

       22 Cf. Gen. 23:4; Lev. 25:23; and 1 Chron. 29:15.


                        CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL                                30


nerable and you are responsible for me." The NRSV's translation of the Hebrew

noun rge as "passing guest" is too sweet.

       The concluding verse, verse 13 [14], ends in a strange petition: "Look away

from me, that I may know gladness, before I depart and be no more!" This clos-

ing entreaty sounds like Job.23

       Calvin has a wonderful phrase for this unusual plea. He says that the

speaker's despair is forced to exceed the proper limits of grief.24 There are, to

be sure, conventions for grief. This psalmist, however, is in such deep despair

that he violates the conventions of grief. In this last verse he says, "Quit staring

at me, quit watching me in order that I can have peace and exist. Because if you

keep watching me, I am going to cease to exist."25 It is a very odd ending in

which the prayer asks for distance from God, weary of endless surveillance.

The most poignant point about this psalm is, as Kraus writes, that "Psalm 39

is permeated by two sensations that are at war with each other"26 and "therefore

it is wrong to neutralize the tension by means of text corrections or transposi-

tions. "27 Just let the tension persist.

      In a society that is increasingly silenced, this terrible ambivalence about

more silence and some speech is enormously important. There are of course

people in marriages in which the silent member cannot bear the relationship

anymore. The silenced knows she must speak, but she also knows that if she

speaks everything will all fall apart. Indeed, we all know about social situations

in which the silenced and marginalized dare not speak out, but they must or

they will continue to be lb,h,.  The amazing thing about this psalm and about

Israel's characteristic speech is that this drama of silence and speech is understood

as a theological transaction. In a world that is unjust, where Yahweh is one of

the workers of injustice, Yahweh's serious devotees who hope in Yahweh must

ponder when it is time to wait, when it is time to hope, when it is time to

knuckle under, and when it is time to issue a loud imperative in order that I

shall not pass away in nonbeing. The same writer who famously celebrated hebel

(vanity; Eccl. 1:2) also knows there are many different times (Eccl. 3:1-8). It

matters what time it is, for one who prays must know when to say what. . . and

when to keep silent.

     I want to conclude with some reflective comments. The first comment is to

question: Does a lament psalm do anything? Or, is it simply cathartic activity?

We know of course that we cannot answer that from inside the psalm. We


     23 Cf., Job 7:19; 10:20-21; 14:6.

     24 Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms, 2:88.

     25 This concluding petition ends with the terse,yxe (cf. Nyixak;, vs. 6).

     26 Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 419.

     27 Ibid.

31                    VOICE AS COUNTER TO VIOLENCE                             


answer that according to our theological presuppositions. I simply want to cite

for you two answers that I think are deeply important.

     The first answer is found in Harold Fisch's wonderful book, Poetry with a

Purpose.28 In this book, Fisch claims that the psalms are not monologues but

insistently at all times dialogue poems. He writes, "We are not speaking of an

encounter merely for the sake of discovering the existence of the other and the

self in the relationship to the other. The ‘thou’ answers the plea of the ‘I’ and

that answer signals a change in the opening situation."29

      He is saying this really does compel God to act; except, of course, in Psalm

39 there is not any hint of that. I want to suggest to you that Psalms 39 and 88

pose for a pastor the acute problem of theodicy, the problem of the justice of

God. Of course, I know all of that discussion about speculative answers to the

problem of theodicy. But I suspect that Israel's primal, pastoral theodicy is not

apocalyptic or creation or life after death. Instead, Israel's primal strategy for

theodicy is to pray the psalm again and again and again. Israel's faith is finally

not a cognitive operation, but it is a dialogue in which this voiced partner insists

that the too-long silent partner in heaven must come to voice. It is possible, for

example, to conclude that the whirlwind speech crushed Job; but the truth of

the matter is that Job got an answer. If faith is essentially conversation, what

Israel most craves is an answer.

     There is a second, alternative answer to the question: Do these psalms do

anything? Gerald T. Sheppard is an evangelical scholar who teaches at the

University of Toronto. He has written about this matter in two publications. He

first wrote about it in the journal Interpretation30 and then expanded this alter-

native answer in the Gottwald Festschrift.31 He suggests that the lament psalms

that are ostensibly addressed to God are, in fact, designed for the overhearing

by the human oppressor. That may strike you as reductionist. Sheppard wants

to say that these speeches are always political and that they are always aimed at

the rearrangement of earthly power.

      One could of course say of Sheppard's claim, "That's a very interesting way

to handle the psalm if you do not believe in God," except that Sheppard is an

evangelical scholar. My own judgment is that it is not an either/or but proba-

bly a both/and: the prayer is serious theological discourse engaging God but at

the same time serious political discourse as well.


     28 Harold Fisch, Poetry with a Purpose: Biblical Poetics and Interpretation (Bloomington:

Indiana University Press, 1990).

     29 Ibid., 109.

     30 Gerald T. Sheppard, "Theology and the Book of Psalms," Interpretation 46 (1992): 143-55.

     31 Gerald T. Sheppard, "Enemies and the Politics of Prayer in the Book of Psalms," in The Politics

of Exegesis: Essays in Honor of Norman Gottwald, ed. D. Jobling, P. Days, and Gerald T. Sheppard

(New York: Pilgrim Press, 1991), 61-82.

                        CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL                                32


      By way of consolidation, I want to make some obvious, quick reflections of a

theological kind. The first one is this: Israel understands that life consists in

speech, and if you do not have a voice in the community, you do not exist. Every

silenced part of a community knows this fact deeply and painfully.

     Second, behind the rather obvious phenomenon of speech and power there

is also the deep problem of covenantal monotheism. That is, Israel in its faith-

fulness has nowhere to go except to Yahweh. Israel in need must talk to

Yahweh. If Israel wants to give up on Yahweh, Israel can do that, but we are talk-

ing about people who are not prepared to give up. I heard Elie Wiesel once

asked whether he believed in God. He said, "No." He could not believe in God

after the holocaust. "But," he said, "Yes, I'm aJew, I must believe in God, so what

I do is believe against God." That is taking God with utmost seriousness. I think

that that is what these psalms of complaint characteristically do in highly styl-

ized form.

   Third, I cite Terrence W. Tilley's book called The Evils of Theodicy.32 The argu-

ment of this book is that all the speculative theodicies are evil because they talk

people out of their legitimate pain by way of explanation. Pain does not need

to be explained. It needs to be honored and answered. One of the cases that is

cited in Tilley's book is George Eliot's Adam Bede (London: J. M. Dent, 1906).33

You recall the story of this peasant woman who falls in love with the son of the

manor. She must run away in humiliation and finally ends up in a prison where

she will rot, forgotten. Her good friend hunts her down, visits her in prison, and

urges her to cry out. It will not get her out of prison, it will not save her from

execution, but the last neighborly act is to get a voice.

     We now understand in sophisticated sociological and psychological and all

kinds of social-scientific ways about these psalms. But, in fact, our faith-family

knew long ago about the transformative processes intrinsic to these psalms; we

are the ones with the best script! Is it not strange that this best script has become

awkward to us, so awkward that the church mostly disregards these vehicles for


     Fourth, it may be that these psalms do indeed move Yahweh to new speech.

In Isaiah 42:14 Yahweh says, "I have kept silent long enough, I will speak for my

people that is in the Exile." And, in Isaiah 62:1 Yahweh says, "For Zion's sake I

will not keep silent." The end of the exile happens because Yahweh breaks

Yahweh's silence. Moreover, that break in the silence is a response to Israel's

demanding utterance.

     Fifth, I propose that Psalm 39 makes available to us the terrible ambiguity of

life with God. To legitimate the ambiguity, Israel knows deeply of wanting to


     32 Terrence W. Tilley, The Evils of Theodicy (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1991) .

See more recently Zachary Braiterman, (God) after Auschwitz: Tradition and Change in

Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).

    33 Tilley, "Giving Voice to the Victim," in The Evils of Theodicy, 189-216.

33                    VOICE AS COUNTER TO VIOLENCE


trust and having to speak. When one has long been silenced, the first speech

one speaks is likely to be anger. I dare imagine that Psalm 39 affirms that both

sides of the ambiguity voiced here are acts of faith. The trusting affirmation is

an act of faith; but so is the abrasive accusation an act of faith. I understand that

such a tension does not fit the kind of preaching that announces that every-

thing is settled. But then, biblical faith is not and never intends to be a state-

ment of outcomes. It is, rather, a dip into the drama of life and death that

continues to be underway.

     Sixth, I suggest (your experience may tell you otherwise) that very much

pastoral care and pastoral counseling has to do with helping the silenced find

a voice. I hypothesize that it is principally the silenced who seek help. It may be

the loud mouths who have learned to be silent about the precious things in

their lives or it may be the timid who have never dared speak. In either case, it

is a very hard thing in habituated silence to gain speech. But I imagine that very

many people seek out this kind of help when they become aware in their gut

that, if they don't speak soon, they are going to cease to exist. Hebel (lb,h,)!

Hebel (lb,h,)! Hebel (lb,h,)!

     Seventh, I think that the question before the liturgy of the church, if my gen-

eral extrapolations have merit, is that we must recover the sense that worship is

a covenantal drama in which both parties are at risk. I do not insist that the two

parties are fully commensurate. However, both parties are to some extent at

risk and that matrix of shared risk is the context for reselfing in the presence of

God. This is contrary to any enlightenment notion that the self is an

autonomous agent; it is also to oppose a one-dimensional deference that cedes

everything to God.

     Finally, theologically, where there is not speech from below, pain is charac-

teristically reduced to guilt. Psychologically, without speech the self is charac-

teristically reduced to lb,h, (hebel). Sociologically, without speech established

power goes unchecked. What this psalmist knows is that speech is indispensable

to survival and it is inordinately risky. The good news is there is an alternative

listener who characteristically—but not always—heeds and honors such abra-

sive petition.





This material is cited with gracious permission from:

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                        Grand Rapids
, MI  49546



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