Imprecations in the Psalms
The following verses in the Psalms present us with a very real problem. I encourage you to read them closely.
Pss. 5:10; 6:10; 7:6; 9:19-20; 10:2,15; 17:13; 28:4; 31:17-18; 35:1,4-8,19,24-26; 40:14-15; 41:10; 54:5; 55:9,15; 56:7; 58:6-10; 59:5,11-14; 63:9-10; 68:1-2; 69:22-28; 70:2-3; 71:13; 79:6,10-12; 83:9-18 (cf. Judges 4:15-21; 5:25-27); 94:1-4; 97:7; 104:35; 109:6-19,29; 119:84; 129:5-7; 137:7-9; 139:19-22; 140:8-11; 141:10; 143:12.
There are more than just a few who believe these "prayers" (if it is even legitimate to call them "prayers") are beneath the dignity of the Christian and are not to be viewed as examples for us to follow. They are, rather, the expressions of man's sinful desire for vengeance on his enemies. For example,
these "forms of expression are of such cold-blooded and malignant cruelty, as to preclude entertaining the idea for a moment that they were inspired of God" (John Owen [not the Puritan]).
these psalms "are not God's pronouncements of His wrath on the wicked; but are the prayers of a man for vengeance on his enemies, just the opposite of Jesus' teaching that we should love our enemies" (Halley's Bible Handbook).
"So with this [Ps. 35] and other imprecatory psalms, they give us, not God's precept, but man's defective prayers" (The Pulpit Commentary).
"The hatred is there---festering, gloating, undisguised---and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves" (C. S. Lewis).
These prayers of the psalmists "are indeed devilish" (C. S. Lewis).
Lewis's opinion of Psalm 109 is even more to the point: "Psalm 109 is as unabashed a hymn of hate as was ever written. The poet has a detailed programme for his enemy which he hopes God will carry out. . . . What makes our blood run cold, even more than the unrestrained vindictiveness, is the writer's untroubled conscience. He has no qualms, scruples, or reservations; no shame. He gives hatred free rein, encourages and spurs it on in a sort of ghastly innocence. He offers these feelings, just as they are, to God, never doubting that they will be acceptable: turning straight from the maledictions to 'Deal Thou with me, O Lord God, according unto Thy Name: for sweet is Thy mercy' (v. 20)."
These passages are "the real and natural reactions to the experience of evil and pain, and though the sentiments are in themselves evil, they are a part of the life of the soul which is bared before God in worship and prayer" (Peter C. Craigie).
"The psalmist may hate his oppressor; God hates the oppression. Thus the words of the psalmist are often natural and spontaneous, not always pure and good" (Craigie).
In sum, Craigie states bluntly that "these Psalms are not the oracles of God."
"Perhaps there is no part of the Bible that gives more perplexity and pain to its readers than this; perhaps nothing that constitutes a more plausible objection to the belief that the psalms are the productions of inspired men than the spirit of revenge which they sometimes seem to breathe and the spirit of cherished malice and implacableness which the writers seem to manifest" (Albert Barnes).
"To some minds, these imprecatory psalms and passages are perhaps a more difficult obstacle than any other in the way of a settled confidence in the Divine inspiration of the Scriptures" (J. Sidlow Baxter).
Don't try to dismiss the problem by insisting such prayers are found only in the Old Testament or that they reflect a sub-standard morality inappropriate to the NT Christian. Both testaments present the same perfect and exalted standard for life (cf. Rom. 2:6-10; 3:31). God's moral law is immutable and is everywhere the same. We must be careful never to pit Scripture against Scripture, as if to suggest that the OT calls for a different, perhaps inferior, ethical response to one's enemies than does the NT. Furthermore, one must address the fact that in the NT similar "imprecations" on the enemies of God are found:
Galatians 1:8; 5:12
1 Corinthians 16:21-22
2 Thessalonians 1:6-10
2 Timothy 4:14
And remember, to pray "Thy kingdom come" (Matthew 6:10) is to invoke divine judgment on all other kingdoms and all those who oppose the reign of God. "When we pray as Jesus taught us, we cry out to God for His blessings upon His church and for His curses upon the kingdom of the evil one" (James Adams, War Psalms of the Prince of Peace, 52).
Jesus used imprecatory language in Matthew 23:13,15,16,23,24,27,29, and especially 23:33. See also his use of Ps. 41:8-10 in Matthew 26:23-24 as a pronouncement of God's judgment on Judas.
Harry Mennega pointed out that
"the New Testament appears not in the least embarrassed with the Old Testament imprecations; on the contrary, it quotes freely from them as authoritative statements with which to support an argument. The New Testament not only quotes passages which, though themselves not imprecations, are found in a Psalm with an imprecatory section; but also, and this is more remarkable, it quotes with approval the imprecations themselves" ("The Ethical Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms," master's thesis, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1959, p. 38).
One example of the latter is Peter's citation of the imprecatory section in Pss. 69 and 109 in reference to Judas Iscariot: "For it is written in the book of Psalms, 'Let his homestead be made desolate, and let no man dwell in it'; and, 'His office let another man take'" (Acts 1:20). "Peter is here quoting an invocation of judgment and a curse against the betrayer of God's Anointed One" (Adams, 12).
What we read in these OT Psalms are not emotionally uncontrolled outbursts by otherwise sane and compassionate people. Imprecations such as those listed above are found in high poetry and are the product of reasoned meditation (not to mention divine inspiration!). They are calculated petitions, not spontaneous explosions of a bad temper. Certainly there are examples in OT history and prose narrative of actions and attitudes that are sinful and not to be emulated. But the psalms are expressions of public worship to be modeled.
How, then, do we explain them? And how do we reconcile them with the command of Jesus to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44)? Let me make several suggestions that might help.
(1) We should remember that in Deut. 27-28 the Levites pronounce imprecations against Israel if she proves unfaithful to the covenant. Israel, in accepting the law, brought herself under its sanctions. She in essence pronounced curses upon herself should she break the covenant, and God looked on their response with favor. In other words, God's people were commanded to pray for God's curses upon themselves if they forsook Him! As Wenham has said, "The 'jealous' God of the OT is every bit as severe on His own covenant people when they are unfaithful to Him, as He is on the nations who have always served other gods."
(2) These prayers are not expressions of personal vengeance. In fact, most imprecations are in psalms written by David, perhaps the least vengeful man in the OT (consider his dealings with Saul, Nabal, Absalom, Shimei, etc.; see especially 2 Sam. 24:12). David never asks that he be allowed to "get even" with or "pay back" his enemies. His prayer is that God would act justly in dealing with transgressors. There is a vast difference between vindication and vindictiveness. David's passion was for the triumph of divine justice, not the satisfaction of personal malice. The OT was as much opposed to seeking personal vengeance against one's personal enemies as is the NT (see Exod. 23:4-5; Lev. 19:17-18).
(3) We also must remember that imprecations are nothing more than human prayers based on divine promises. One is simply asking God to do what He has already said He will do (often repeatedly throughout the psalms themselves). For example, in Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus declares that on the day of judgment He will say to hypocrites, "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!" Is it wrong for us to pray that Jesus do precisely that? Is it wrong for us to build a prayer on a promise? "Oh, Lord, cause those to depart from you who do evil," appears to be a perfectly legitimate petition.
In this regard, compare Pss. 35:5 with 1:4; 58:6 with 3:7; 35:8 with 9:15; and 35:26 with 6:10.
(4) Imprecations are expressions provoked by the horror of sin. David prayed this way because of his deep sensitivity to the ugliness of evil. Perhaps the chief reason why he wasn't bothered by prayers of imprecation and we are is that he was bothered by sin and we aren't! It is frightening to think that we can stand in the presence of evil and not be moved to pray as David did.
(5) The motivation behind such prayers is zeal for God's righteousness, God's honor, God's reputation, and the triumph of God's kingdom. Is our willingness to ignore blasphemy and overlook evil due to a deficiency in our love for God and His name? Could our reaction to the imprecatory psalms be traced to the fact that we love men and their favor more than we love God and His?
(6) Another factor to keep in mind is that David, being king, was God's representative on earth. Thus, an attack on David was, in effect, an attack on God. David's enemies were not his private opponents but adversaries of God. David's ire is aroused because they "speak of you [God] with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name. Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord, and abhor those who rise up against you? (Psalm 139:20-21; cf. Psalm 5:10).
(7) The prayers of imprecation are rarely, if ever, for the destruction of a specific individual but almost always of a class or group, namely, "the wicked" or "those who oppose Thee".
(8) All such prayers assume that the wicked are hardened and unrepentant. In other words, the psalmist calls for divine judgment against them so long as they persist in their rebellion. We love our enemies by praying for their repentance. But if they callously and consistently refuse, our only recourse is to pray that God's judgment be full and fair.
(9) It has also been argued that it is in fact the Lord Jesus Christ himself who is praying these psalms of imprecation. "David, by the Spirit of Christ in him, speaks far beyond his own understanding and experience. He anticipates the coming, suffering, deliverance, and exaltation of his Son and Lord, Jesus, the Christ" (Adams). But what about Christ's prayer from the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Lk. 23:34)? James Dick offers this explanation:
"There would, indeed be a great inconsistency if Christ had prayed in the same circumstances and concerning the same persons, 'Destroy them,' and 'Forgive them.' . . . It was fitting that when he was executing His great commission to give His life a ransom for sinners He should offer a prayer that would reveal His goodwill toward men, and would prove incontestably that He was long-suffering, slow to anger, willing to forgive iniquity, transgression, and sin. This, doubtless, and much more that cannot be dwelt on now may be found in the prayer for forgiveness. But there comes a time, and there come circumstances, when His long-suffering has an end, and when those who refuse to kiss the Son must perish from the way when His wrath is kindled but a little. It is equally fitting, then, that in His mediatorial character He should pray for their destruction. The Psalms themselves present both sides of His mediatorial character and work in these respects."
David knows that he needs spiritual protection lest he "hate" God's enemies for personal reasons. That is why he concludes Psalm 139 with the prayer that God purify his motive and protect his heart: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (vv. 23-24).
Therefore, when David speaks of "hatred" for those who oppose God's kingdom he is neither malicious nor bitter nor vindictive, nor moved by self-centered resentment. But he most certainly is jealous for God's name and firmly at odds with those who blaspheme.
Although it may sound contradictory, we are to "love" those whom we "hate". We love our enemies by doing good to them (Luke 6:27). We love them by providing food when they are hungry and water when they thirst (Romans 12:20). We love our enemies by blessing them when they persecute and oppress us (Romans 12:14). We love them by responding to their mistreatment with prayers for their salvation (Luke 6:28).
And yes, we are to "hate" those whom we "love". When they persistently oppose the kingdom of Christ and will not repent, our jealousy for the name of Jesus should prompt us to pray: 'O, Lord, wilt Thou not slay the wicked? Vindicate your name, O Lord, and may justice prevail in the destruction of those who have hardened their hearts in showing spite to your glory.'
Our love is to be the sort that cannot be explained in purely human terms. It isn't enough simply to refrain from retaliating. We are to bless and pray for those who do us harm. I don't know who said it, but I agree: To return evil for evil is demonic. To return good for good is human. But to return good for evil is divine!
That sentiment is certainly Pauline! The apostle said as much when he told us not to seek vengeance on those who do us dirty. However, many have misunderstood Paul, as if he's saying all vengeance is evil. But he says no such thing. The reason we are not to seek vengeance is because God has said He will (Romans 12:19), and He can do a much better job of it than we!
Enemy-love means that instead of responding to evil with evil of our own we are to do good. "In many cases," says Dan Allender, 'doing good' is simply being thoughtful and kind. It boils down to nothing more glamorous than pouring a cup of coffee for someone or warmly greeting them at church and asking about their weekend. Kindness is the gift of thoughtfulness ('Let me look for ways I can serve you') and compassion ('Let me know how I can enter your heart')."
Paul tells us that in loving our enemies we shall "overcome evil". Dan Allender has explained how this happens in his excellent book Bold Love. He points out that when your enemy receives good for evil it both surprises and shames him, both of which have the potential to transform his heart.
The enemy spews out his venom expecting you to respond in kind. Part of the wicked pleasure he derives from being an enemy comes from provoking you to act just as wickedly as he does. 'Goodness, though, trips up the enemy by foiling his battle plans. The enemy anticipates compliance or defensive coldness, harshness, or withdrawal. The last thing he expects is sustained kindness and steadfast strength. Therefore, when evil is met with goodness, it is apt to respond with either exasperated fury or stunned incredulity. Goodness breaks the spell the enemy tries to cast and renders him powerless.'
Goodness, empowered by God's grace, might even open a crack in his hard-shelled heart. Powerless to explain your response in terms of what he knows about human behavior, he is led to acknowledge the life-changing presence of divine love in and through you and your response to his malicious intent. Allender explains the impact of this "turning the other cheek":
"The enemy's real pleasure in striking out is the power he enjoys to intimidate and shame. He enjoys inflicting the harm, to some degree, because it gives him a sense of control and the fantasy of being like God. Turning one's cheek to the assault of the enemy demonstrates, without question, that the first blow was impotent and shameful. What was meant to enslave is foiled. Like a boomerang, the harm swoops around and smacks the back of the head of the one who meant harm. A sorehead may, with the working of the Spirit of God, ask, "Why did I strike that man"? and eventually ask of the one hit, "Why didn't you retaliate"? Again, a measure of astonishment and curiosity is stirred, and the path toward repentance becomes slightly less dim.'
Furthermore, goodness shames the enemy. It forces him to look at himself rather than you. When the light of kindness shines back in the face of darkness, the latter is exposed for what it really is. Attention is diverted from the abused to the abuser. The shame he feels upon being "found out" will either harden or soften his heart.
In the very early days of my ministry, I was interim pastor of a small church with a history of internal problems. The tiny congregation stood on the brink of yet another split. A congregational meeting was convened at which everyone was given an opportunity to speak his or her mind.
I was young and a bit uncertain of myself, but when the time came I rose to my feet and tried to speak words of encouragement and unity. Suddenly, quite literally in mid-sentence, I was loudly interrupted by a lady who proceeded to accuse me of trying to "steal" the church for my own selfish gain. Unknown to her, or to anyone else present, I had previously accepted an invitation to join the pastoral staff at another church in the same city.
Her words were sharp and cut deeply into my heart. I distinctly remember formulating in my mind a plan of attack, to be launched as soon as she quit speaking. Were it not for the grace of God I would have destroyed her (and perhaps, unwittingly, myself as well). But the Spirit silenced my youthful impetuosity. As soon as her verbal barrage ceased, I resumed my comments at precisely the point where I left off. I did not respond to her accusations. I made no attempt at self-defense. It was as if she had never said a word.
The outcome was stunning. My refusal to engage her in the verbal gutter (a decision I attribute wholly to God's grace) served to both silence and shame her. By declining to respond in kind, her baseless attack was exposed for what it was. Goodness acted like a shield that caused her venom to ricochet back upon her own head. My intent was not to humiliate or harm her in any way, but to lovingly compel her to own up to the motivation of her heart. For the first time I understood what Paul meant when he said, "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head" (Romans 12:20).
"But Sam, you don't know who my enemies are. You have no idea how vile and vengeful and irritating they can be. They take advantage of my goodness, they are unfair, they exploit the fact that I'm a Christian, they constantly embarrass me in front of others and lie about me behind my back.'
I don't doubt for a moment that what you say is true. I've still got a few enemies like that myself. But if Stephen could love those who viciously stoned him, what excuse do we have for not loving people whose attack on us is admittedly far less grievous?
And what of Jesus himself? Did He not lovingly pray for His executioners even as they drove iron spikes through His hands and feet? John Stott is surely on the mark: "If the cruel torture of crucifixion could not silence our Lord's prayer for his enemies, what pain, pride, prejudice or sloth could justify the silencing of ours"?
So, the next time someone starts throwing stones in your direction, remember the words of Peter:
"For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing what is wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 'He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.' When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly" (1 Peter 2:19-23).