A Song for Our Enemies // Soundtrack Part 1

I love music.
I’ve played it in symphonic as well as rock bands. I’ve listened to it (currently on one of my SEVEN turntables). I’ve collected it from cassettes and CDs, to mp3s and now back to vinyl – I missed 8 tracks all together I suppose.  I’ve witnessed it both in the recording process and in numerous live shows.  I’ve been moved by it to run faster, cry harder, and laugh louder.
Perhaps I love music so much because
“Music often expresses what the soul cannot speak.”
So, over the next few weeks I hope to join two of my life long loves together: the music I listen to, and the Scriptures I read – in a series I’m calling Soundtrack, because each piece will explore the music that has often marked the various chapters in my life with the soundtrack of Scripture, the Psalms.
Below is part 1 of this installment – Enjoy!


Somebody get my shotgun

Somebody get my blade

Sally’s been laying with another man

And he’s sleeping in my place

Somebody get my shotgun

Gonna shoot him sure as rain

You can run as fast as you want to boy

I’ll kill you just the same.

The Avett Brothers, “I Killed Sally’s Lover”

Music has this long, dark history of Murder Songs – songs that revel in the deadly details of murdering another, more often than not, for some form of infidelity.  Think of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” where he shot a man once “just to watch him die” or Cash’s rendition of “Delia’s Gone,” a song of a young man who drove into town and compassionately shot his girl twice because the first shot failed to deliver it’s fatal blow.  Then there’s Knoxville Girl, perhaps the most dark and twisted of all Murder Songs in part because the songs is accented with such beautiful harmonies.

Here’s a QUICK STORY about me and murder songs! I joined a friend of mine, almost 4 years ago now, to listen to The Avett Brothers – one of the bands that helped pioneer the Alt-Country/Folk/Americana banjo strumming, foot stomping and hand clapping music scene popularized by Mumford and Sons.  The concert was one of their best I’d ever seen (it was my 3rd one at the time).  The place was surprisingly electric for a band that prides itself on acoustically driven songs surrounded by tight harmonies, and was on the verge of a fever pitch when they broke into “I Killed Sally’s Lover!”  The place went crazy and with smiles on our faces, while singing at the top of our lungs, the entire arena participated in the long and dark musical tradition of singing murder songs.

Why would we do this? Why would I do this?

Why do Murder Songs persist in our progressive age?

I wonder if it isn’t because in our best moments we progressively long for justice.  We ache for the wrongs of this world to be made right sometimes wanting “each person to get their due.”

I also wonder if it isn’t because, in our less than right-hearted moments, there is no amount of progression where songs like these don’t also reveal the hate hidden in the dark corners of our hearts.

Hatred is such an uncomfortable idea that it might surprise some that The Psalms (and several other places throughout scripture) include a similar genre of Murder Songs called the Imprecatory Psalms. These are the songs in which the author expresses his or her desire for God to injure (break arms, smash their face, pull their teeth) or even kill (drown, bash heads against rocks, strike dead) an enemy who has wronged them or stood in opposition to God’s way.


“Break the teeth in their mouths, O God;

    Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions!

Let them vanish like water that flows away;

    when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short.

May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along,

    like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.”

Psalm 58:6-8

But hate-filled words writ as sacred Scripture are puzzling in our progressive age.  In a time where the idea of evil is redacted from our social consciousness and hate speech is rightfully criminalized we are left to wonder what are these words doing in the Bible and what, for heaven’s sake, are we to do with them?  Isn’t this the same Bible that encourages followers of Jesus to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them?

Yes, it’s true, we are to lean toward love, not hate.  Yet this broken world, full of broken people, still gives way to hate bubbling up within us – especially, if not ironically, because of our acute longing for justice.

So what are we to do with hate?

Well, we could act on it!  This is what Murder Songs sing of – men (and sometimes women too – remember the Dixie Chick’s “Goodbye, Earl”?) who take action because of their hatred toward another.

We could also just choose to ignore it.  This is what our culture most often encourages – deny the existence of hate and suppress feelings that might be characterized as hate toward another.  Here’s what we know to be true though – suppressing anger and hate, while it may lead to us not taking action toward our enemies, has a way of expressing itself or acting out toward those we love most.

Or, we could follow the lead of the Psalms and sing (or pray) through our heart’s hatred.

Here’s what happens when we choose to sing with Murder Songs of the Psalms after hate enters our heart:

1. When we sing the Imprecatory Psalms we deposit our hate of another into God’s hands, because God’s hands are more loving and just than our hearts.

2. When we sing about our enemies in the presence of God we are reminded that we were once enemies of God and God’s love conquers a multitude of sins – including our own enmity.

3. When we sing the Psalms we entrust our untrustworthy feelings about our enemies to God, and over time it frees us to love our enemies, not hate them.

So, the next time we feel ourselves welling up with anger, or even hate, remember – Jesus is right.  We shouldn’t hate our enemies. And the Psalms are right.  When we do hate our enemies, this is a way of dealing with it.


7 thoughts on “A Song for Our Enemies // Soundtrack Part 1

  1. Gilbert Kerrigan

    If I am being honest, I really wrestle with these types of psalms. They seem so un-Christlike. I recently had another pastor friend share these same ideas that you have mentioned in your blog. I get it, but it still doesn’t sit well with me. Sometimes I think, “What if the psalmist was just wrong?” I know that messes with some people’s idea of inspiration, and some may even call it heretical to suggest such a thing. But, what if? What if Jesus was referring to these very psalms when he said, “You have heard it said… But I tell you…”?

    I really like point #3. It sort of turns the psalm into a confessional psalm. By being so open and honest with God, we are actually confessing to God our hate and seeking inner transformation, rather than requesting that God actually do something to our enemies.

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughts. This is a cool series. As a fellow musician, I’m with you when it comes to music speaking to us in powerful ways.

    • TH

      Part of writing about the Imprecatory Psalms allows me to wrestle through all of this right along with you, Gilbert. I appreciate your honesty and willingness to say such “heretical” things in order to grapple with the nature of these types of things. I’ve often wondered if Jesus isn’t directly referring to these Psalms when he says “you’ve heard it said that we should hate our enemies.” These Psalms are ripe for misunderstanding.

      I suppose my overall goal has been to say that Jesus is right – we shouldn’t hate our enemies. And the Psalms are right – when we do hate our enemies, this is a way of dealing with it. I see these types of Psalms as an invitation to safely deal with a dangerous substance; similar to that “sharps” box in a hospital room. The imprecatory Psalms are a place to deposit something dangerous wherein it can be contained and prevent further harm or infection.

      Thanks for stopping by, Gilbert!

      • Gilbert Kerrigan

        “I suppose my overall goal has been to say that Jesus is right – we shouldn’t hate our enemies. And the Psalms are right – when we do hate our enemies, this is a way of dealing with it. I see these types of Psalms as an invitation to safely deal with a dangerous substance…”

        Yes, I like that!

  2. I think we have to question is this consistent with Jesus’s posture toward His enemies? Is it consistent with His teachings on enmity and justice? Is my personal emotional response here consistent with Jesus’s teachings. Everything Jesus said, lived and taught was for the purpose of freeing us from sin through the Rule and Reign of Christ and King in His Kingdom, on Earth as it is in Heaven. But the reality is that it is not everyone’s choice at present to be complicit to those predilections. Is it wrong to get angry? No. Jesus certainly got angry. But, when does getting angry become an enslaving rather than a liberating emotional response? Since we do not live in the Old Covenant dispensation making a draw toward a Psalmist’s emotional response as appropriated toward us in the present age of Christendom misses the mark in that Jesus not only came to teach, to live the example, but also to remedy the condition of the heart that the Old Covenant, the laws of and the rule of Israel could not. Hence the Psalmist’s conditions, while similar are frankly not the same. That said, many eastern and misappropriated westernized approaches to Christianity and religion go from one extreme of denial of the affect of evil and even the presence of evil to the right toward Nationalism going to war in the name of God. When Jesus says to pray for our enemies and also when He points out how we stand toward them (Matthew 5:43-48) many have misunderstood and misinterpreted this to mean that we just “turn the other cheek” and give everything that is asked of us by our enemies without understanding that in historical context He was suggesting rebellious acts of defiance that would have been seen as social justice acts of Civil disobedience. (See Walter Wink’s, The Powers that be). I can’t see espousing anger as an indulgent entertainment consistent with Jesus’s teachings in Matthew 5:21-26. Nor can I espouse ignoring the desire for Justice as you have pointed out here consistent with Jesus’s teachings in Matthew 5:43-48 nor his response to the money changers in Matthew 21. What I do read about is some radical disciples who considered being persecuted a joy. What I do not observe is American art or Western theology producing any such materials. The Psalms were not written for the purpose of fulfilling, they were written to point out the insufficiency of the law and point toward Christ and Kingdom. Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, the Dixie Chicks and the Johnny Cash that I love are all in the same category of human condition. Jesus on the otherhand and the early disciples point us toward a life that is in this heavenly realm where we stand above and beyond in Christ to act in defiance to injustice, yet without becoming enslaved to being a victim through the notion that justice reigns through acts of human relation. But rather that they reign in the rule and the right of Christ and His Kingdom. I probably did a poor job of trying to explain what I have learned from N.T. Wright and Walter Wink. Hopefully it arouses enough curiosity for some to read their liberating commentaries.

    • TH

      Thanks so much for stopping by to weigh in on this. There’s a lot in your comment; more than I can get my arms around in one response and without you posing a question I’m not sure you’re really asking for a response. But here are a few thoughts in response.

      The issue my post was attempting to bring up (implicitly), but may have failed in doing so, is this – In light of the fact that Christians (and Jews as well for that matter) are to love and not hate their enemies, what is a Christian to do when (or if) she or he does experience hate? There is no question that Jesus is offering us a life free of bondage, but being broken as we are, and living in a broken world as we do what are we do IF/WHEN hate gets to us?

      By suggesting that one consider praying/singing through the Imprecatory Psalms is to suggest A way to deal with such an unwanted and undesirable emotion. A way, interestingly enough, NT Wright has recently pleaded for the church to return to in practice (of praying and singing the Psalms). Of course praying the Psalms, including these unseemly imprecations, have been part of Christian spiritual formation for the entire two millennia of Christian history until more recent years (which has prompted NT Wright’s A Case for the Psalms).

      I guess I don’t see tension that you see between the Psalms and Jesus. Again to lean on NT Wright’s argument, Jesus allowed the Psalms to shape his understanding of the ancient world, he quoted them, prayed them and of course ultimately Jesus fulfilled them. I wonder if this last part gets lost on us at times and leads us to the thought that maybe offers the kind of tension you sense here. Jesus doesn’t just pray the Psalms, he demonstrates what the Psalms long for – enemies and the world at large, to be dealt with once and for all.

      Mirslov Volf offers, in my estimation, the best reading of the Imprecatory Psalms in Exclusion and Embrace (1996, Abingdon Press). He suggests “For the followers of the crucified Messiah, the main message of the imprecatory Psalms is this: rage belongs before God.” He goes on to argue that when we exclude our hatred or anger over enemies from God’s presence (by not praying for them) we exclude ourselves as well (what he called double exclusion). By not praying, we deny our enemies and ourselves the opportunity and ability to experience/practice forgiveness and to receive and give God’s love over to our enemies. But – to his point – this only happens when we have a vehicle for recognizing, naming, and eventually desiring to handover our enemy to God. The Imprecatory Psalms are a vehicle for doing such.

      I’m not sure this helps to clarify my position any, so feel free to ask or push back on anything I’ve said or clarify where I’ve gone wrong in reading your comments.

      Thanks again for taking the time to read and respond, Jason.


  3. Taylor I always gain and grow from anything you write and respond. I do see more of where you are coming from when you state that “anger for enemies belongs before God” from Mirslov and I think we are on the same page here. Hence pray for your enemies as Jesus prescribed. I would like to hear your thoughts on Jesus’s charge for us to not indulge in anger as it applies in context of music for entertainment and prayer and worship with the imprcatory Psalms.

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