As Vladimir Putin dismantles Ukraine building by building, many people have expressed amazement at his barbarity. But the slightest glance at history shows he is merely the latest in a long line of brutal dictators who place no value on the lives of the people of other nations or their own.
The cities of Israel were sacked numerous times throughout biblical history, as invading armies swept north from Egypt or south from Assyria and Babylon. The afflicted knew what their lot would likely be: flight, slavery or death.
Understandably, they got furious about it, just as Ukrainians (and much of the world) are bitterly angry with Putin. We can see this in the Old Testament book of Hebrew poems, the Psalms.
The 150 psalms have been described as Israel’s theology sung, not spoken, and they are human voices directed in prayer to God. Some 15 of them are known to theologians as the “imprecatory” psalms because they plead for God to judge and punish those who have devastated them. For example, in Psalm 69, David writes of those who persecute him and disdain God: “Pour out your wrath on them; let your fierce anger overtake them.”
God’s wrath is mentioned often in the Bible, especially directed against those who exploit the weak.
In Psalm 83, with Israel ringed by enemies, the poet Asaph prays: “O my God, make them like the whirling dust, like chaff before the wind … Fill their faces with dishonour, that they may seek thy name, O Lord. Let them be ashamed and dismayed forever.”
Then there is the poignant Psalm 137, written after the sack of Jerusalem and deportation of the Jews by the Babylonians in 587 BC: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion … O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, how blessed will be the one who repays you with the recompense with which you have repaid us.” And indeed, Babylon suffered the same fate at the hands of the Persian Cyrus less than four decades later.
This is the lesson: we are supposed to be motivated by injustice, and sometimes blind fury is the only response open to us. It is alright to be angry, it is not un-Christian; sometimes, as with Putin’s brutality against Ukraine, it would be wrong to be unmoved. God’s wrath is mentioned often in the Bible, especially directed against those who exploit the weak.
Vengeance, of course, is another matter – that is God’s prerogative, not ours. The psalmists call on God to act, not Israel. According to Moses, “vengeance is mine”, says the Lord. “I will repay.” The Apostle Paul repeats this, telling Christians “never take your own revenge”.
So fume away, but rather than it merely raising your blood pressure, let it motivate you to help as you can.
Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared in The Age.