Those Troubling Psalms of Imprecation (2) (Psalm 35, etc.)
I love the Psalms. No book in all of Scripture has ministered to me as powerfully as this collection of inspired prayers and praise. Any suggestion that they are less than the inspired Word of God is deeply troubling to me. So how are we to make sense of these imprecatory outbursts in which the psalmist pleads for God’s wrath and destruction of the wicked?
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 7:23 Jesus declares that on the day of judgment he will say to hypocrites, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” 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 against you [God] with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain! Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?” (Psalm 139:20-21; cf. Psalm 5:10; emphasis mine).
(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) We must keep in mind that in most instances these prayers for divine judgment come only after extended efforts on the part of the psalmist to call the enemies of God to repentance. These are not cases of a momentary resistance to God but of unrepentant, recalcitrant, incessant, hardened and haughty defiance of him.
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.
It’s important to remember that there often comes a time in human sin when God withdraws his merciful hand and gives over the human heart to its chosen path. Paul described this in Romans 1. Jesus envisioned a pattern of sin so persistent and calloused that he declared it unforgivable (see Matthew 12:32; see also 1 Cor. 16:22).
(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” (“The ‘Imprecatory Psalms,’” Psalm-Singers’ Conference [Belfast: Fountain Printing, 1903], 94).
(10) John Piper makes the following important observation:
“The apostle Paul quoted the very imprecatory words of Psalm 69:22-23 in Romans 11:9-10 as having Old Testament authority. This means Paul regarded the very words of imprecation as inspired and not sinful, personal words of vengeance. . . .
Paul read the imprecatory Psalms as the words of Christ, spoken prophetically by David, the type of Christ. We can see this from the fact that David's words in one imprecatory psalm (69:9) are quoted by Paul as the words of Christ in Romans 15:3, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’ The implication, then, is that David spoke in these Psalms as God's inspired anointed king, prefiguring the coming King and Messiah, who has the right to pronounce final judgment on his enemies and will do so, as the whole Bible teaches” (“Do I Not Hate Those Who Hate You, O Lord?” October 3, 2000, http://www.desiringgod.org/.).
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 motives and protect his heart:
“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous 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.