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Since time immemorial, music has swirled around warfare.[1] Soldiers, commanders, and politicians have all used music to motivate both soldiers and civilians. From the earliest days of recorded history,

Soldiers wrote their own lyrics, and occasionally even the songs themselves, which they sang and played to pass the time while marching into war. Civilians at home wrote and sang popular songs to support or oppose the war effort, and composers wrote instrumental or vocal works dealing with the subject of war, often long after a war was over. In this century as well, composers have created music to be a part of films and television shows dealing with war.[2]

Of personal interest to me has been how contemporary culture appropriates ancient biblical texts. One of the characteristics of any quality literary work is that element that allows it to be bent and shaped into new situations. While new wine may not be put into old wineskins, old words can be fashioned and molded into new contexts. With this background, I would like to offer a preliminary look at how texts from the book of Psalms have functioned in various military contexts throughout Western history. I will begin by exploring the role of war in the Psalms and then will conclude with an abbreviated look at the role of psalms in war.

The Militant Use of Psalms in the Canon
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, psalms are used for purposes of warfare. Exodus 15 (The Songs of Miriam and Moses) and Judg 4 (Song of Deborah) are each poetic retellings of narrative events. In both cases, the topics are attenuated to the practice of warfare. The transmission from heroic retelling of armed conflict migrates from the campfire to the congregation as these psalms not only narrate a story of military struggle, but also provide an example of divine involvement in the outcome. Victory in battle is commemorated in song, not unlike martial hymns today.[3] The difference, of course, is that it continues on in the Judeo-Christian tradition and functions within a worship setting.

One example illustrates the close relationship between the material in and out of the Psalter. Second Samuel 22 contains another victory psalm. In its present location, it commemorates the words of David, spoken to the LORD "on the day when the LORD had delivered him from the hands of all his enemies, and from the hands of Saul." This psalm begins: "Yahweh is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; The God of my strength, in whom I will trust; my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge" (2 Sam 22:2-3). The distinctive feature of this psalm, appearing outside the book of Psalms, is that it duplicates Psalm 18 almost completely. Thus, we have the association of the warrior David from the books of Samuel with the poet David of the Psalter.

Lest we think that these texts are exclusive to the violent Hebrew Bible, we should hasten to add that violent psalms make an appearance in the New Testament's terminal book.[4] In the book of Revelation, there is a close connection between songs of praise and the ultimate victory that Yahweh executes upon the earth. Revelation chapter 15 introduces the final distribution of wrath in the book. The seven bowls of wrath are poured out on the world. Each bowl incorporates a different method of destroying the earth: death, water to blood, illnesses. The final destruction bears what Robert Wall calls a "family resemblance to the plagues of Egypt."[5] This connection is made explicit in 15:3, where the remnants "sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb." This Revelation remix of the Song of Moses again has the effect of emphasizing the military victory of God. Chapter 16 then delineates the contents of these bowls (sores on those marked by the beast, water throughout the world turning into blood, outcome assessment requirements by various accrediting organizations, etc.).

Accompanying these bowls, the faithful begin to celebrate their ultimate victory. Wall continues, "The remnant plays its harp rather than Miriam's tambourine; but nonetheless it sings the song of Moses like the victorious Israelites of old."[6] This final celebration is a celebration of victory, but specifically a military victory — as the various militant images throughout Revelation attest. In summary, the musical texts found throughout the Bible, outside of the Psalter, underscore a strong connection between military action and musical psalms.[7]

But it is within the Psalter that we find the closest connection between hymns of praise and military action. As we explore the poetics of war, we note that many of the psalms deal with the subject of war, with either the king or Yahweh portrayed as the warrior. This no doubt reflects the cultural context in which these psalms were written. It also expresses the fact that the psalms are associated so completely with the Davidic monarchy. David is primarily known for two things: his poetry's composition and his enemies' decomposition.

David Clines is has recently explored the concept of the warrior in Psalms. His conclusion is concise: "The speaker in the Book of Psalms is a warrior."[8] He supports this simple assertion by citing multiple examples from a warrior's context throughout the book of Psalms. In particular, the superscription to Ps 60 addresses this theme of warfare: "To the Chief Musician. Set to 'Lily of the Testimony.' A Michtam of David. For teaching. When he fought against Mesopotamia and Syria of Zobah, and Joab returned and killed twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt."[9] Clearly this depicts a military victory. Note also the mention of Joab, David's military chief of staff.

In addition to the specific superscription, a warrior could himself be clothed from references in the Psalms themselves: these hymns speak of helmets (Ps 60:7), swords (7:12-13), shields (7:10 and 19, and other occurrences), arrows (91:3 and 15, and other occurrences), bows (Ps 7:12), and shoes.

Clines notes the frequency of these warrior references:

In 2 the king will be smashing the nations like pots, in 3 the psalmist is surrounded by ten thousands of foes and Yhwh is his shield. In 18 Yhwh trains his hands for war, so that his arms can bend a bow of bronze (v. 35 [34]), and Yhwh has girded him with strength for the battle (v. 40 [39]). The psalmist in consequence has pursued his enemies and overtaken them, thrust them through so that they could not rise, destroyed them and beat them fine as dust before the wind (vv. 38, 39, 41, 43 [37, 38, 40, 42]). In 20 the speakers hope that they will be able to shout for joy over the king's military victory and set up their banner of triumph (v. 6 [5]). In 21 the king's hand will find out all his enemies and he will put them to flight and aim at their faces with his bow (vv. 9, 13 [8, 12]). In 44 the speakers do not trust in their bow or sword, though they clearly have them, but through God they push and tread down their foes (vv. 6-7 [5-6]).[10]

Not all of these texts presuppose the imagery of battle or of God as a warrior. Sometimes, Yahweh may be destroying the wicked as a matter of executive justice. But the military language is strong and pervasive, and there can be little doubt that the rhetoric of the (male) warrior has deeply influenced the image of the deity in the Psalms.

Historical Use of the Psalms
Space constrains me from exploring this topic in great detail, but I want to offer four snapshots from various conflicts that illustrate the wide use of Psalms in times of war. These disconnected military situations illustrate how the Psalter has been used over an extended period of time in a variety of contexts.

First Snapshot:
In the eleventh century, Pope Urban II called for the military rescue of Jerusalem from the Seljuk Turks. During the war, Western crusaders sang Ps 137 while they marched into conflict. This psalm is a meditation on Jerusalem by Hebrews who were being held in captivity by their Babylonian captors. It begins, "By the rivers of Babylon we gathered and wept when we remembered Jerusalem." But it ends with the horrific beatitude: "Blessed are those who take their little ones and dash their heads against the rocks." Of course, the application was changed from the Edomites to the Turks.[11]

Second Snapshot:
In the religious battles of the sixteenth century, the Psalms played a key role in their location as battle hymns. This was particularly true for the Calvinists. As William Holliday notes, among the Protestants, the Calvinists fought the longest.[12] After the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, the Lutherans and the Catholics no longer fought. The Anabaptists, being pacifists, didn't fight. So the Calvinists were involved in the most conflicts. W. Stanford Reid notes that the Calvinist Protestants often faced their opposition by singing militant psalms.[13]

Oftentimes, imprisoned French Hugeuenots would sing psalms to irritate their captors. The French laity was also motivated to gather around these prisons, singing psalms of defiance. These psalms were also utilized by the Huguenots in battle. Psalm 68 was a popular psalm sung by the Huguenot armies. It starts out, "Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; let those also who hate Him flee before him. As smoke is driven away so drive them away" (68:1-2).[14]

In additional to Ps 68, Ps 118 was a popular refrain for Huguenot forces. It includes the verses: "It is better to trust in Yahweh than to put confidence in princes. All nations surround me, But in the name of Yahweh I will destroy them. They surround me, yes, they surround me; but in the name of Yahweh I will destroy them" (8-11).

The forces of Henry of Navarre sang this psalm shortly before the Battle of Coutras on 20 October 1587. In addition, numerous references to the Psalms fill the writings of Oliver Cromwell as he led the Puritan forces in the seventeenth century.[15]

Third Snapshot:
Several psalms references connect to the first World War. In 1911, when a young Winston Churchill was approaching the Prime Minister's residence, he wondered if he would be sacked or instead given a prominent position in the cabinet. His wife, Clementine, told him that he need not worry, that that morning she had been reading in the book of Psalms. In her reading, she noted in Ps 107:23 that "Those who go down to the sea in ships, who do business on great waters, they see the works of Yahweh and his wonders in the deep." "So you needn't worry," she said, "you will be offered the Admiralty." She was right, he was offered the Admiralty.[16]

One peculiar use of a psalm also occurred during this war. I am referring to Ps 91, which was often called the Soldier's Psalm. It contains the following in verses 7-8: "A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will look only with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked."

This text has seen increasing use as a talisman of sorts. Over and over again, there are accounts of its saving powers. Its putative ability to ward off danger is based in part on the following story:

Almost 100 years ago, during World War I, the 91st Infantry Brigade was preparing to enter combat in Europe. The Brigade Commander, a devout Christian, assembled his troops and gave each of them a little card on which was printed the 91st Psalm, the same number Psalm as their brigade. They agreed to recite that Psalm daily. After they had begun praying the Psalm, the 91st Brigade was engaged in three of the bloodiest battles of World War I — Chateau Thierry, Belle Wood and the Argonne. Other American units that fought in the same battles had up to 90 percent casualties, but the 91st Brigade did not suffer a single combat-related casualty.[17]

Despite the appropriateness of this compelling story, it is false.[18] The American 91st infantry division suffered mortality rates as did other divisions during this conflict. But it provides, much like the biblical superscriptions, a fascinating (and falsified) context for the saving powers of this psalm.

Another reference is found in the recent memoirs of Jim Baker (the former Secretary of State, not the former American television evangelist). He writes of his parents:

They married on August 4, 1917, about ten months before he shipped out as a young army lieutenant for the trenches of France. I remember mother telling me that in his absence she comforted herself every day by repeating a verse from the 91st Psalm: "A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.[19]

In the current conflict in Iraq, Ps 91 continues to be used. Jill Boyce of Plano, Texas had a dream to provide a bandana with Psalm 91 to every member of the military who wanted one. Now it has taken on a corporate setting. One can visit her website and buy the following:

Psalm 91 Desert Camouflage Bandana
Psalm 91 Pewter Dogtags
Psalm 91 Navy Blue Bandana, etc.

And there are of course the stories that reinforce the use of Ps 91 as a talisman. The Greensboro News-Record narrates the story of Jeremy Ackerson, a Marine from Oak Ridge, North Carolina, who was hit with several rounds of sniper fire. His Kevlar helmet saved his life and one bullet is still buried in the helmet. His mom had given him a green card with Psalm 91 printed on it. After she got in touch with him, she asked him where the card was. He said that he had actually worn it on his helmet, tucked into the band that went around his head. It was blown off in the attack.[20]

After sharing an earlier version of this paper with a colleague from one of the service academies, he showed me his Annapolis graduation ring. His Mother presented it to him after he received news that he would be traveling to Vietnam. Inside were inscribed the words Ps 91, "But it will not come for thee."

Snapshot Four:
In Vietnam, soldiers frequently included quotations or mottos on their clothes. In his work, Nam: The Vietnam War in the Words of the Men and Women Who Fought There, Mark Baker says that often soldiers wrote mottos on their flak jackets. At times, soldiers included biblical references on their uniforms: "Most men settled for writing some appropriate graffiti on the backs of their flak jackets. "Yeah [sic], though I walk through the Valley of [sic] Death, I will fear no evil, because I'm the meanest motherf***er in the valley."[21] In this psalm, the soldier shifts responsibility for his safety from Yahweh to self. In a godforsaken context, even the most famous psalm of all is refashioned.

Final Snapshot:
Lastly, in the twenty-first century, few things have affected the United States like the war on terror and the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq. These conflicts have provoked numerous discussions and have set into motion a series of events that we will not be able to evaluate fully for decades. At the center of this series of events has been George W. Bush, president of the United States. While there has been much conversation about how his religious convictions have affected his rhetoric, his use of the Psalter is striking.

One phrase has become distinctively associated with him, the phrase "evildoers." We might consider the following quotes, each from President Bush in the days and months following September 11, 2001:

On September 16, 2001 President Bush said,

Tomorrow, when you get back to work, work hard like you always have. But we've been warned. We've been warned there are evil people in this world. We've been warned so vividly," Bush said. "And we'll be alert. Your government is alert. The governors and mayors are alert that evil folks still lurk out there. As I said yesterday, people have declared war on America and they have made a terrible mistake. My administration has a job to do and we're going to do it. We will rid the world of the evil-doers.[22]

In the Spring of 2002, President Bush extended his discussion by contrasting good and evil people. In contrast to the evil doers abroad are those who live in America and practice good. While speaking to a group of workers at a manufacturing plant he said,

I ask all of you and all the good folks in Missouri, if you're already helping a neighbor in need, thank you, and continue doing it. But if you're looking for a way to make your life more full, more complete, mentor a child or help somebody who is shut-in, or go to a church or synagogue and mosque and say, what can we do to feed somebody who needs some food? I mean, there are all kinds of ways that you can help. And by helping, you stand squarely in the face of the evil doers that hate America.[23]

I note in passing the similarity of this tone to Ps 1, with the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked drawn in sharp contrast.

President Bush continued this contrast the following month when he expanded upon the theme of Americans hard at work doing good versus those practicing wickedness and evil around the world. He noted, "If you want to fight evil, do some good. And it's that gathering momentum of millions of acts of kindness which will have the American people stand squarely in the face of the evil doers. And that's happening in America. It is."[24]

I highlight these three comments because they each share something significant, and it is this anachronistic phrase "evildoers" that caught my attention. In his rhetoric following the September 11th attack, Bush repeatedly used this term. Its use was not incidental. It was deliberate and intended to invoke a particular worldview.

One of Bush's speechwriters has discussed Bush's use of this term. David Frum, who resigned about halfway through Bush's initial term, was on the president's team of writers. He was responsible for the phrase "axis of evil," which made its way into the world's lexicon after Bush's State on the Union Address in January of 2002. After he left the White House, Frum was asked to comment on the rhetoric that the president used to frame the discussions of war. In this interview, Frum indicates that the President's choice of words was intentional. He notes:

The language of good and evil — central to the war on terrorism — came about naturally . . . from the first the president used the term "evildoers" to describe the terrorists because some commentators were wondering aloud whether the United States in some way deserved the attack visited upon it on September 11, 2001. He wanted to cut that off right away and make it clear that he saw absolutely no moral equivalence. So he reached right into the Psalms for that word.[25]

This use of the terminology is intentional and specifically selected to resonate and demarcate the United States from her enemies. From the president's perspective, the Psalter provides a useful rhetorical model for this distinction.

There are at least three reasons why the Psalter has proven so useful to military contexts throughout history:

First, as noted above, the Psalms are filled with military imagery, and so they provide an immediate context for their use in warfare. Specifically, their association with the military leader David and the warrior Yahweh is significant. This identification provides a vocabulary that overlaps with military engagement.

A second reason why they are often encountered in discussions surrounding warfare is the widespread presence of enemies. Enemies play a key role in the Psalms despite the fact that they are rarely named. Thus they can be utilized in general ways. Anyone can read the Psalms and feel that the words were written specifically for them.

Part of the reason why there is this close association between warfare and the Psalter is the depiction of the enemy. The depiction is vague and shadowy. Konrad Schaefer describes the way that the psalms characterize the enemy. He notes that "the enemy [in the Psalter] spies, accuses, besieges, attacks. In its arsenal are offensive weapons, the sword, the bow and arrows."[26] In addition to these more traditional weapons of warfare, the enemies also employ a variety of weapons of entrapment, like "nets, pits, traps, and snares."[27] Thus the term enemies can apply to opposition from any perspective. It can be used to apply to the insurgents in Iraq from the United States's perspective, to the political opposition here at home, or to campus administration by faculty members.

Lastly, while the Psalms do bespeak of military contexts, they also provide reassurance that there is some sense of order and consistency in a chaotic environment. It is against this context that the American soldier has taken New Testaments into battle, often accompanied by the book of Psalms. The use of Ps 91 as a talisman is a graphic way to remind the soldier that there is in some sense a purpose or meaning to this existence. Reciting these texts, even against the backdrop of warfare, can help us (as Walter Brueggemann says) to engage in that significant act of making worlds.[28]

But the Psalter is primarily a book of praise. One of its many titles is simply "The Book of Praises." A declaration of praise to one deity might, by definition, provide contrast with competing worldviews. Offering up praise to one particular deity might constitute a part of what makes the Psalter so useful to a military context. Praise itself becomes a weapon. In the penultimate psalm, Ps 149:5-7, we read "Let the saints be joyful in glory; Let them sing aloud on their beds. Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hand, to execute vengeance on the nations, and punishments on the peoples; to bind their kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron; To execute on them the written judgment — this honor have all His saints. Praise the Lord."

John S. Vassar, Louisiana State University in Shreveport

[1] An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Southwest Commission on Religious Studies in Dallas, Texas, in March 2007.

[2] Ben Arnold, "Music, War and the Military in" The Oxford Companion to American Military History (ed. John Chambers; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 457.

[3] Each branch of the United States military has a designated hymn, some of which include martial images; e.g., "From the halls of Montezuma. . . ."

[4] See also the recent contribution to the discussion by Shelly Matthews and E. Leigh Gibson, eds., Violence in the New Testament (New York: T&T Clark, 2005).

[5] Robert Wall, Revelation, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 191.

[6] Ibid., 191.

[7] Other examples are also present in the text; see, for example, Mary's Magnificat and Hannah's song.

[8] Clines, J. David in "The Book of Psalms: Where Men are Men on the Gender of Hebrew Piety" [cited 15 June 2007]. Online . Cited with permission.

[9] All Biblical references are taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB).

[10] Clines, "The Book of Psalms."

[11] Although some historians debate this use of the Psalm. See Benjamin Z. Kedar, "The Jerusalem Massacre of July 1099 in the Western Historiography of the Crusades" Crusades 3 (2004): 15-76.

[12] William Holladay, The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1996), 209.

[13] W. Stanford Reid's "The Battle Hymns of the Lord: Calvinist Psalmody of the Sixteenth Century," Sixteenth Century Journal 2/1 (1971): 36-37.

[14] Holladay, The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years, 209.

[15] Holladay, The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years, 210.

[16] Mary Soames, Clementine Churchill: The Biography of a Marriage (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979), 97-98.

[17] "It's Just a Piece of Cloth" [cited June 15, 2007]. Online

[18] Mary Jane Holt "The Truth About the 91st Psalm," The (Fayatteville, GA) Citizen (March 9, 2003). Online .

[19] James A. Baker, III, Work Hard, Study . . . And Keep Out of Politics (New York: Putnam's Sons, 2006), 5.

[20] Greensboro News-Record (April 23, 2006): A1.

[21] Mark Baker, Nam: The Vietnam War in the Words of the Men and Women Who Fought There (New York, Morrow), 149. Forgive my bowdlerization of the quotation. I try to limit my use of the unexpurgated form to departmental meetings.

[22] "Bush Vows to Rid World of 'Evil-Doers'" (September 16, 2001). Online: . Emphasis added.

[23] Bush, George W. "Remarks by the President to Employees of Albers Manufacturing Company, Inc. Albers Manufacturing." Office of the Press Secretary March 18, 2002. Online: . Emphasis added.

[24] Bush, George W. "Remarks by the President at Connecticut Republican Committee Luncheon" April 9, 2002. Online: Emphasis added.

[25] Howard Fineman, "Bush and God," Newsweek141/10 (March 10, 2003): 25. Online: .

[26] Konrad Schaefer, Psalms (ed. David Cotter; Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2001), xxxvi.

[27] Schaefer, Psalms, xxxvi.

[28] Walter Brueggemann, Abiding Astonishment: Psalms, Modernity, and the Making of History (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991).

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Citation: John S. Vassar, " Reading the Book of Psalms in Days of War," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2007]. Online:


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