Be Angry Yet Sin Not
A Jewish musician wrote this Psalm in Babylon, reminiscing with sadness on their pre-exilic freedom in the Holy City, in comparison to their present captivity. Amidst the sorrow, the underlying tone discloses a collective bitter simmering anger against their treatment by their captors and past betrayal by their Edomite brethren. The exile stretched over two generations (i.e., 70 years), and provides us the background for this imprecatory song.
The psalmist first draws our attention to the incessant taunts from their Babylonian vanquishers; often taking a form that directly belittles their faith in Yahweh (vv.3-4): as Zion is a common reference to Jerusalem, where God’s presence protects the nation. Rather than giving in and singing the Lord’s songs disrespectfully, their anger galvanized and stiffened their resistance to their captors (v.4). Although, we are not told the outcome for such rebellious infractions, retaliatory beatings and other punitive punishment would not be uncommon. The point being that with such unending provocations and ridicule, it produced in them a righteous anger in the face of injustice, prejudice, betrayal, and evil as the Babylonians are distinguished for their cruelty. What follows indicate that the anger he possessed has passed from a collective level, which he identified with his compatriots in exile, to a question of personal rectitude. The pronoun changes suddenly (vv.4-6), from the plural to the singular person, as he begins to speak for himself in the righteous disposal of his anger. His identification with Yahweh forbids him to ever forget God’s faithfulness to him: to do so would be akin to loosing his own giftedness and ability to praise his Lord (vv.5-6). His sense of equity in what is right or wrong remains unprejudiced by his own personal leanings, as he acutely acknowledges his Creator’s universal standard of righteousness. There is nothing negative about anger when it is acknowledged, well controlled, and positively directed, as it is in this case. It is how anger is expressed that determines its sinfulness or righteousness (Mark 3:5; Eph 4:26).
Owning his anger but still holding it in, he comes into God’s presence – ‘remember’ (v.7) implies a recalling of evidence that would satisfy the eternal Judge in a court of law. In his prayer, he addresses one of the most heinous aspects of the Babylonian invasion of the Holy land – the killing of young children, imploring God to deal with the perpetrators according to their crimes. Unless we have been through similar experiences, it is well nigh impossible to identify with the depth of anger and pain suffered. However, by bringing his just pain into Yahweh’s presence, the writer is not seeking vengeance but His certain justice. We know from historical records in these instances that judgment was swift, for God times His justice according to His purposes.
It is significant that the psalmist brings his anger to God, although we are not informed of its outcome. This needs to happen more regularly with us in all circumstances where anger is present, so that we do not irrationally justify it or blame another for our anger; otherwise, the propensity to sin again with capricious and violently expressed anger may be repeated, and its long-term catastrophic results impacting the physical, emotional and spiritual integrity of both the abuser and the object of his/her recurrent tantrums. It is pertinent to reinforce that the forgiveness extended to an abusive person cannot be immediately coupled with trust in him/her again, until certain healing and restoration has been accomplished: to do so too soon often leads to further repetitive mistreatments. Taking responsibility for one’s anger and working through it by getting to its roots is essential for healing to occur.
Note: Even though the development of illnesses is complex, having seen a fair share in practice of anger management cases between couples and within families, it is not unusual over an extended period of time as a result of abusive anger, for psychiatric and psychological maladies like depression, psychoses, anxieties, personality disorders (especially in children), gastric illnesses, heart diseases, and even cancers to be prevalent in these situations.