Lecture 12: Imprecatory Psalms
Course: Psalms by Dr. Bruce Waltke
Lecture 12: Imprecatory Psalms
We have been in the form critical approach for the last few lectures. In the last lecture we looked at the petition psalms, a massive amount of material by Gunkel. We saw that most psalms are petition or lament psalms. This is abnormal and neither do we grow out of it nor go beyond it. We will be in a state of lament until we die, trying God, even in death. It is there for the praise of God where he demonstrates through us his triumph over sin, death and the devil. Through our despair God triumphs over evil and he chose us for the purpose of praising him as a living God. It is a privilege to be in this position. We reflected on the situations in which psalmist find themselves. They were prepared for and at the temple for the congregation there, but not always. He is oriented to the source of his spiritual life. One of the situations is the enemy and who he is. We conclude that the enemy is a spiritual enemy; he is the enemy of God’s people, opposed to the Kingdom of God. It becomes a spiritual warfare. We concluded with Gunkel’s wrong interpretation of having assigned it to the second temple era. He says that there was no king, no political enemy and he thinks that the palmist is actually sick and the idea of an enemy was only in their minds. Thus Gunkel thinks that the palmist was ruled by his emotions and not by rational thought. It is astounding that Gunkel can draw such a conclusion. We also considered different motifs, namely the address and it is sinful not to turn to God when you are in distress. You either turn to God or something else and we saw in Psalm 4 that it is sin to depend upon anybody other than God. The Christian intuitively turn to God for salvation.
The major section was the petition itself. We looked at the lament also. The major petition is that you will be delivered. God does this because it is right for us. We said that some psalms are penitential, a protest of innocence. So in the salter, the psalmist is never in ambiguity about whether he is right or wrong with God. If he is wrong with God then he prays that God will forgive him and he will also pray that God will protect him from wrong and save him; therefore he stays in a right relationship with God. The other side of that is a protest where he declares that he is innocent and there it is right that God should intervene and save him, therefore, having confidence in that situation. We also look at the confident section and the reasons he has confidence and that confidence comes from knowing who God is, being holy, righteous and just. He has confidence because he knows who he is and he knows that he is a king and we know who we are. Not only do we know God’s attributes, we also know our history; God’s people have been here since the Garden of Eden and we are still here. We didn’t do anything with communal lament but we will consider Psalm 44 later on in regards to this. I said that I would be doing something with the theology of the psalms; perhaps I will approach this after the Imprecatory Psalms which we will deal with next.
II. The Imprecatory Psalms
A. Definition and Problem
Here, they are not praying down curses on their enemy but instead praying that God will take vengeance for the wrong being done to them by the enemy. As we noted there were about fifty petition psalms and almost all of them are petitioning God for deliverance of their distress. About thirty five of them go beyond the positive of deliverance to punish the enemy. It is those psalms that we are now concerned about; this whole motif that God will avenge and punish the enemy. As far as a definition, the psalmist prays that God will avenge the wrongs done to him by the enemy by punishing him. They are not prayers for revenge. For the Christian, these are inconsistent with Jesus’ teachings. But the issue here is justice and it is to right the wrong, to avenge them and justice demands evil be paid back. I would rather define it that way. We see in the Sermon on the Mound was given to the disciples for the Kingdom of God, not to the state. The mistake comes from liberals who try to take the ethics of the Sermon on the Mound and try to apply it to the state so the state will turn the other cheek and will not use the sword. The ethics of the church and the state are very distinct. The ethics of the church is the cross where you die for your enemy, whereas the ethics of the state is the sword (Romans 12) to avenge the wrong and this leads to confusion. There was no such distinction in the Old Testament because it was a theocratic state, so there you didn’t separate Kingdom of God from the Kingdom of Israel. They were co-extensive with one another unlike today where the church is a spiritual body and no longer a political organization and thus we live together with the state and depend upon the state to right the wrongs; we don’t take it into our own hands. We expect the state to uphold justice. This is Romans 12 and 13.
But the church is persecuted and the question is: how do we respond to this persecution? Do we respond asking God to punish our enemies? This doesn’t seem to relate to the sermon on the Mound to me, where Jesus says if they slap you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. Jesus also says not to resist the evil, but instead pray for them who persecute you for their salvation. The prayer on the cross was to forgive them for they didn’t know what they were doing. That was the prayer of Stephen as they stoned him; these people were fools and blind and self-centered, not thinking through what they were doing in the heat of the moment. This is difficult, it hard to put all of this together in turning the other cheek, praying for them and loving your neighbor. Yet, this should be our response. So how can we solve this problem? This is what I want to do in the remaining part of the lecture; how we are Christian harmonize the Old Testament with the New Testament and how we need to understand this particular motif of these thirty-five psalms.
B. Unacceptable Solutions
These unacceptable solutions involve the imprecations of these motifs to be prophetic; that God will punish them instead of saying, may the Lord punish them. So some people read it as a promise or prophesy; so they don’t read them as a petition. This is one solution to the problem from Barnes, Augustine, and Spurgeon and others who hold to this from the history of Christian doctrine. The reason comes out of the Hebrew language where you can’t distinguish between a command form verses a specific future. The difference is ‘may he punish’ verses ‘he will punish’. There is ambiguity in the language in regards to this and often the translator has to make a judgement whether it is a wish or a statement of fact. However, there are some forms that are clearly justice, which are wishes with no ambiguity. In this case, most of them are wishes that God would do this and praying that God would do it.
Other solutions are simply non-Christians and not right and we should reject them. This includes words like devilish to non-sanctified. Some would agree and say how wrong they are while others would that they are partially wrong. Kittel from the Scientific Study of the Old Testament says that the imprecations are composed by mean spirited individuals who thought only of thirst after conquest and revenge. This is a fairly strong statement. More surprising is C.S.Lewis who says, ‘even more devilish in one verse is the otherwise beautiful 137 where a blessing is pronounced in anyone who will snatch up a Babylonian baby and beat its brains out against the pavement. They are indeed devilish, but we must also think of those who made them so.’ C.S.Lewis certainly has trouble with these psalms. This is not a high view of inspiration. I have a lot of respect for C.S.Lewis being one of the great apologists in the church, but he doesn’t have a solid enough view of Scripture. More moderate are statements such as ‘David being in the twilight spiritually.’ This of course is metaphorical language and so we are not clear what Beardshlee means by this. John Bright in his Authority of the Old Testament says that ‘God’s wholly committed man, yet a man who was estranged from God’s spirit.’ If he is estranged from God’s spirit, he is certainly not speaking in God’s spirit. This is simply a nice way of saying that it is wrong. Now from Barnes’ Notes on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms says ‘what actually occurred in the mind of the Psalmist and are preserved to us is an illustration of the human nature partially sanctified.’ This is a moderate way of saying that they are really not sanctified, not of the Holy Spirit. It seems to place us in a twilight zone and thus it isn’t decisive enough for me.
My objectives will show the doctrine of inspiration to be a bit disregarded and there is no indication in the psalms themselves that the Spirit censored these portions of them. Destroying the enemy is part of the holy war motif in the Old Testament. God commissioned them to go to war and they had an obligation to go to war, to establish the Kingdom of God. I don’t see this apart from the idea where Moses prayed that God would scatter enemies. These kinds of prayers are also found in the Prophets. This is all part of God eliminating the enemy. The New Testament cites these imprecatory prayers approvingly. For example in Acts 1:20, we read for it is written in the Book of Psalms, may his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it, and let another take his office.’ This is cited in reference to Judas approvingly and he also justifies another taking his place from the Book of Psalms. There are similar prayers in the New Testament, Revelation 6:9-10: ‘when he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the Word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, how long, sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ These are those who have gone into glory; they are praying that they will be avenged.
C. Moral Indignation
But the question still remains, what do I do with the Sermon on the Mound and the words of Jesus on the Cross? You can see why you can’t say that they are devilish, etc. Paul says in your moral indignation to be angry and not sin. The key word here is moral indignation and it is appropriate, but it doesn’t mean that we should just whack them. My problem is the fact that there isn’t more moral indignation by evangelicals. In regards to political and warring nations, we need to wear two hats: one for the state and one for the church. We need to pray for people’s salvation first and foremost and we need to pray against the evil that is happening. We don’t resist evil doers because we are Christians and loving them comes first. In saying this, I also expect the state to protect the people with its role as keeping law and order and justice. I expect those countries involved uphold a righteous order along with organizations like the UN and others to force peace and order and protection. These organizations should punish those who are enacting the evil and unlawful actions. We need to vote for people who will uphold righteous and moral indignation. Those in the government should punish the enemy so that they are no longer capable of doing anything. So prophecy is not the answer as I have said and if we do not supply the idea or moral indignation, we are left with praying that the Lord will kill the enemy. But this just doesn’t match up with the Sermon on the Mound and the way we should think and act. Some evangelicals pray that damnation and fire would come down on certain people, especially certain non-Christians and even some Christians. I have heard this myself from evangelical leaders and it is very un-Christian. This is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus and the practice of Jesus and I do not fine this in the church.
D. Toward a Solution
We should realize that these petitions are by God’s people who are suffering for the Kingdom of God. They are suffering gross injustices; so before we criticize them we need to step into their shoes and see what they are facing. Rory Prest says that most commentators read the Psalms from the comfortable perspective of security and economic affluence. Few have experienced the agony of utterly unprovoked, naked aggression and gross exploitation. It is questionable whether such a detached discussion on responding to enemies would take place in the face of people with manifestly evil intentions. We need to enter into that world to appreciate what they are up against.
1. Prayers of the Righteous
The prayers of the righteous and just, they help us with this; in other words, that God would right wrong is righteousness and justice. These prayers assume that the civil courts either will not uphold justice or cannot as in war. But what happens in David’s case when the king or in Saul’s case when he doesn’t uphold justice? What does he do and where will he turn? He is looking to the God of justice to uphold justice. So these prayers are asking God to uphold justice. I don’t find fault with that; in fact, I must affirm that that God upholds justice and he does punish evil and these prayers are consistent with the very character of God to set an upside down world right side up. I find this profitable for doctrine and helpful. They are consistent with the Old Testament concern for retribution for an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. So these psalms entail a very high view of justice. They really believe that God is just and they are offended when justice is not enacted upon. C.S.Lewis says such expressions are lacking in pagan literature because Jews had a firmer grasp on right and wrong. He writes, ‘if we are to excuse the poets of the Psalms on the ground that they were not Christians, we ought to be able to point to the same sort of thing, and worse, in Pagan authors. Perhaps if I knew more Pagan literature I should be able to do this. But in what I do know of a little of the Biblical languages, I am not all sure that I can. I can find in them lasciviousness, much brutal insensibility, cold cruelties taken for granted, but not this fury or luxury of hatred. One’s first impression is that the Jews were much more vindictive and vitriolic than the Pagans.
So the pagan’s literature was not morally indignant. Our literature today is the same; it is full of lasciviousness, brutal insensibility and cold cruelties and violence. There is a lack of moral indignation due to a lack of belief in a God who opposes right and wrong. The Godly standards in which the west was created, have by and by, disintegrated. Nobody is sure what is right and what is wrong anymore because of this. People no longer know what sin is anymore. Even churches have stopped talking about sin. If you don’t have absolute standards then how can you have moral indignation? So what Lewis says about the pagan religion is true in society today. Thus the absence of anger, especially that sort of anger which we call indignation, can, in my opinion, be a most alarming symptom. If the Jews cursed more bitterly than the Pagans this was, I think, at least in part because they took right and wrong more seriously. We find they are usually angry not simply because these things have been done to them but because they are manifestly wrong, are hateful to God as well as to the victim. The thought of the ‘righteous Lord’ – who surely must hate such doings as much as they do, who surely therefore must (but how terribly He delays) ‘judge’ or avenge, is always there, if only in the background. Therefore, we must have moral indignation that comes from a clear sense of right and wrong, but in our age of relativity people no longer know what is right and what is wrong anymore.
2. God Must Avenge
However, God will answer the prayers for justice (Luke 18:6-8). Jesus says ‘and will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?’ So, we see that God will uphold justice and this is what the prayers are about. Jesus is not censoring these psalms and he knows that these prayers will be upheld. In comparing Matthew 7:23 with Psalm 6:8, one thing to be driven out by David, another by Jesus Christ; ‘then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.’ In saying this, he projects that the judgement is in the future. So again, to be clear, Jesus upheld the notice of justice. This is not contradictory to the prayers for their salvation before this justice comes about. All of these prayers are prayers of faith. They are not of avenging themselves. They are depending upon God to avenge them and thus great statements of faith. The Bible will not tolerate the person who avenges himself. We see this in Psalm 8:2 to eliminate the self-avenger who takes it into his own hands instead of depending on God. They trust that God will avenge them because they can’t avenge for themselves. David did not avenge himself but trusted in God to do it, even with Saul and his gross injustice. So just to remind you, we can’t call down curses on someone but through prayers and petitions we depend upon God for his justice. This is totally consistent with Old Testament Theology. Kinder says in regards to the life of David, there have been few men more capable of generosity under personal attack than David, as he proved by his attitudes toward Saul and Absalom, to say nothing of Shemei. We see even in Sarah’s situation with Haggai in Genesis 16:5 where she says, ‘the LORD will judge between me and you.’ This was a woman of faith, giving the situation over to God. In Genesis 4:23 Lamech said to his wives, ‘listen to me, I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.
3. The Prayers are theocratic, theocentric, covenantal, political and evangelistic
So far I have said that they are faithful, they are just and that their prayers will be heard by God and he will right the wrong. They are ethical, asking God to distinguish between right and wrong. In Psalm 7:8-9 we read, judge me, O LORD, according to my righteousness, according to my integrity, O most high, O righteous God, who searches minds and hearts, bring to an end the violence of the wicked and make the righteous secure. So they are edifying because they are ethical; they distinguish right from wrong which is in contrast from what we have today; people are no longer able to distinguish right from wrong. These prayers are theocratic; that is they are looking for the establishment of the kingdom of righteousness by the Moral Administrator of the Universe, Psalm 82. God told the king to uphold justice, to deliver the oppressed and punish the oppressor. Prayers are also theocentric; they aim to see God praised for manifesting his righteousness and justice in the eyes of all. Psalm 25:27-28; 58:10-11. They are praying that all the world will see that by punishing the wicked, the world will see that Israel worships a righteous God. ‘May those who delight in my vindication shout for joy and gladness; may they always say, the LORD be exalted, who delights in the well-being of his servant. My tongue will speak of your righteousness and of your praises all day long.’ They are also evangelistic, aiming for the conversion of earth by letting all people see that the Lord is most high over all the earth. Psalm 83:17 & 18: ‘May they ever be ashamed and dismayed, may they perish in disgrace. Let them know that you, whose name is the LORD – that you alone are the most high over all the earth.’
These prayers are also full of figurative speech, they are hyperbolic. We should realize that all punishment is conditional along with all prophesies and judgement. In Jeramiah 18 we also see that in the potter’s house that if the people indeed changes, then the prophecy changes and if the people change, then the prayers change. So we see that they are all conditional; if the enemy would repent, these maledictions would be lifted. So in Jeremiah 18:1 it says, ‘this is the word of the LORD that came to Jeremiah, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message. So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at the wheel, but the pot he was shaping was marred. So the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as he worked. Then the word of the LORD came to me saying can I not do with you as with Israel? Like clay in the hand of the potter’s, so are you in my hand, Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted and torn down and destroyed. And if that nation repents of its evil then I will relent and inflict the disaster I intended for them. If at another time I announce that nation or kingdom to be built up and planted and if it does evil in my sight and doesn’t obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.’ So prophesy is always contingent upon a person’s response. If a people repent, any declared doom will not come to pass. So promises and prophesies are always conditional. There is always mercy and grace in regards to repentance and forgiveness.
These prayers conform to sound doctrine and they are profitable to doctrine and for correction. They are an instruction for righteousness that we may be equipped for every good work. I thank God for these prayers which are ethical; they are faithful and trusting and God oriented. However, I do not think they are appropriate for our age in the light of Jesus’ teachings. Praying for justice apart from praying for forgiveness is inappropriate for the New Israel. The judgement is not postponed to the final day of judgement. The church does not enact judgement now. It trusts God for the future. Jesus explained this to us in Luke 4:18 comparing it with Isaiah 61:1-3.
Look at the following: Isaiah 61:1-3 ‘The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.’ Now look at Luke 4:18 and we see how Jesus uses this to identify this for himself. ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ This was his first sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus was accustomed to going to the synagogue there on every Sabbath. But this day he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. See the contrast with that of Isaiah 61:1-3 and where he cut it off. He didn’t include the day of vengeance of the Lord, for that will be for a later time. He didn’t come to bring God’s vengeance; this is not the day of vengeance, instead it is the day of God’s favor. This is the day when we offer salvation. This is the time for salvation; it is the day of salvation and we are still in that day. So, we pray that our enemies will find salvation. That they will be released from their prison and enter into God’s favor and we trust his vengeance for the future that he will do what is just. So now, we live in faith. So these prayers from Psalms are doctrinally sound but inappropriate for the church. The kingdom that has been established is spiritual, not earthly. We leave judgement in the hands of God.
IV. Psalm 137
So the question from a student is: what about Psalm 137 and how do I understand that in light of the prayers of vengeance we have been dealing with. Let’s read it:
By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the LORD'S song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!
Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!
In verse 1-4, we have the congregation of lament. They are refusing to sing a song in Babylon and the reason is because they will be throwing pearls before swine. Now they have three implications: God will punish again self, the Edomites and against the Babylonians. Self in that he will not have the skill to play and his tongue that he will not have the ability to talk and sing; against the Edomites for gloating over Zion’s destruction and against Babylon for destroying Zion. This is because Zion is the place of God’s saving presence on earth. It is the center of salvation and they mock the place God has chosen to bring blessings on the earth. That is the context of it. The passion here is for the zeal of God’s kingdom. So, yes, these prayers are for strict justice but there are exceptions if the condemned repent. So when the Babylonians destroyed Israel, they destroyed their babies. This was the nature of oriental warfare. But when the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations – the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebussites. When they have been delivered over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. You cannot coexist; you must destroy the evil totally. Show them no mercy. Rid the earth of evil. But notice what happens when they actually enter the land where Rahab, the prostitute Canaanite who hides the spies. She repents and acknowledges Israel’s God. The law did not have her in view. She obtained mercy by having faith in the Lord and not the Canaanite gods. She was brought into the covenant family. So we see that the Law is the entire narrative and you have to interpret the law in light of what happens. According to the law in Deuteronomy 22 David and Bathsheba should have been put to death but David repented; he could not have restored the situation. It was done. It was evil what the Babylonians had done to Israel but if they had repented, it would have changed everything. Thus, again, these maledictions are all conditional of repentance. Thus, we don’t bring the kingdom in with a sword, but instead we bring it in with prayer and grace. Note that the symbol of Islam is the sword unlike the symbol of Christianity which is the cross. This is a radical difference.
Transcribed by BT Ambassador Phil Smith