Different Approaches to the Imprecatory Psalms
Why Christians Should Sing the Imprecatory Psalms
The Promotion of Imprecatory Principles in the New Testament
The Treatment of the Imprecatory Psalms in the New Testament
1. Case Study: Psalm 69
2. Case Study: Psalm 109
New Testament Imprecatories
How Christians Should Interpret the Imprecatory Psalms
1. Personal Vengeance
2. An Assertion of Righteousness
3. Kingship and Kingdom
4. The Hatred of God
5. The Warnings of God
How Christians Should Apply the Imprecatory Psalms
Appendix: Exclusive Psalmody and the Imprecatory Psalms
The Bible is a book that deals seriously with sin. Thus it does not ignore it or tolerate it, nor does it cover it up or excuse it. Rather the Bible deals with it head on so that every person reading or hearing it will discover that he is guilty before an Almighty and holy God (Romans 3:19). He will also learn that God’s wrath abides on him as long as he continues in sin and resists the message of the gospel of reconciliation (John 3:36). The wrath he is heaping up for himself through his iniquity will be held against him at the final judgment, when it will be poured out unmitigated.
Since this is the consistent message of scripture, we should be not be surprised that when singing the Psalms, though they be those tender and well-beloved songs of the Bible, we would somehow avoid being confronted with this painful reality. Nevertheless, as Christians approach the Psalms, including those who sing them regularly, they may be uncomfortable with statements that strongly condemn sinners, and especially those which consign them to temporal and eternal judgment.
If that is the case with us I would argue that our discomfort is, however, not merely with the Psalms but with all of God’s revelation. Thus rather than finding these songs of the Bible to be a stumbling block, the reader and singer of the church’s book of praise should be aware that the scriptures not only share the Psalmist’s understanding of justice but also praises God’s righteous and vengeful fulfilment of it.
Different Approaches to the Imprecatory Psalms
The manner in which people react to the imprecatory statements in the Psalms are varied. Some will say that the statements are morally reprehensible for the time they were written, as well as -or perhaps especially for- our time. Those who would object in this fashion would be scoffers, unbelievers and liberal-minded Christians. To those who have such a low view of God’s word so as to nullify it with their worldly wisdom, I have nothing to say in reply other than “but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? (Romans 9:20).”
Others, though holding to some degree the inspiration and infallibility of the word of God, would say that while it was proper for David and others to make these statements, it is not appropriate for believers in our time. This would include those who think that the old covenant holds to a lower ethical standard than that demanded by Jesus of his followers and, in particular, it is a revelation where love was not the key requirement of God. These would generally avoid, if not purposely reject, singing the Psalms altogether for they are not befitting a meek, loving and Christlike spirit. In short, our reply would simply be to assert that David and his fellow authors had the Spirit of Christ (Matthew 22:43 cf. 1 Peter 1:11), and that Christ has come to reign on his father, David’s throne (Luke 1:32 cf. Romans 1:3). Moreover, as we will see, the imprecatory Psalms also speak of Christ and his people.
Some would say that the authors of the Psalms were right to make such statements because they did so in a prophetic way but they are not proper for us to take on our lips because we have no such gift. Many, if not all of these, are glad to sing the Psalms, but would avoid singing the imprecatory Psalms as a general rule. However, it must be pointed out there is an inconsistency with this position in that they would read the imprecatory Psalms in public worship but they will not sing them. Furthermore, it is difficult to see how a prophetic statement in a Psalm invalidates the singing of it, particularly as we will discover how many of these prophetic words were fulfilled in Christ’s acts of redemption for us.
Others would hold that Christians should sing all of the Psalms but they are not entirely at ease with the notion of petitioning God for his judgment to fall upon the wicked. One would not so much advocate for this position as they would practice it by tending not to sing the imprecatory Psalms, though also not dissuading others from doing so. This may be due to a weakness in their faith or it may simply be due to an unfamiliarity with how these Psalms are to be understood and applied.
The fifth position, and the one I am arguing for, is that Christians should sing all of the Psalms without apology. I intend to shore up this position by presenting sound reasons to regularly and vigorously sing these songs of righteousness.
Why Christians Should Sing the Imprecatory Psalms
The most basic reason is they form part of the authorised book of praise that the Lord Jesus has given to his church for all times and all places. This requires a rather intense examination of the unique place or role of the book of Psalms in the biblical canon, but as I have argued for this elsewhere, I will not do so in detail here. In short, what Jesus, as the only Lord and Head of his church commands for his public worship is sufficient for that assembly (Matthew 28:19-20; Hebrews 2:12). If this includes aspects that we find troubling or unsettling, the problem is with the state of our hearts, not our head of state.
Consistent with this, we should expect that our book of praise would sing about all the themes and truths of scripture, including a frank and honest assessment of our fallen nature. Thus secondly, the imprecatory psalms cause us to face sin, even in a way that many other parts of scripture do not. Although the Bible often speaks of our rebellion against God in theological ways, the Psalms speak very emotionally and subjectively about it because the whole man must be confronted with the heinousness of sin. So the Psalmist catalogues wicked man’s crimes against his sovereign. For example, Psalm 10 shows us how far and deep man’s rebellion can go insofar as he not only attacks the godly but God himself. In a sense, we are given a window into the soul of ungodly. He boasts of his sin (vs. 3) and blesses those who are wicked like him. He practically challenges God to judge him, considering himself to be immune from prosecution (vs. 6). Worst of all, he mocks his creator (vs. 10) and despises him (vs. 13). Should we then be surprised or offended that the Psalmist asks God to intervene and judge? (vs. 15).
Third, the imprecatory Psalms prepare us for the gospel. It is true that many of God’s people were never as depraved as the wicked people described in various songs but, as Psalm 14 & 53 explore, every person is capable of great wickedness. To hear and sing of persons who incur the righteous judgment of God humbles us to know that grace is truly grace.
Fourth, we must remember that the gospel, in its first presentation, is not only about justice, it is in a word, violent: “it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” Genesis 3:15. Salvation is many things but it is no less than a breaking of the bond between sinful man and his godless masters. The chains that hold us to sin, death, hell and Satan are broken by a righteous act by a righteous man who came to overcome, spoil and (eventually) destroy the unrighteous enemy and his followers (Luke 11:20-22). The terrible and destructive judgment on those whom God reserves for his wrath reminds us of what occurred to the powers on the cross (Colossians 2:15) as well as, in some sense, to Christ himself as the lamb of God.
Notice how the Psalms capitalise on this theme. In Psalm 44:5, we read “Through thee will we push down our enemies: through thy name we will tread the under that rise up against us.” We may misread this to think that the animosity originates amongst God’s people. But in Psalm 60:12 David says “he [i.e. God] it is that shall tread down our enemies” (emphasis mine cf. Psalm 108:13 & Romans 16:20). Indeed, in the midst of a “pure gospel” psalm, the Christ is said to destroy the kings of the earth: Psalm 110:5-6 (cf. Psalm 2:2,6,10ff.). And such antagonistic statements are even found in the most peaceful Psalms (such as Psalm 8:2 & Psalm 23:5) to remind us that we are ever at war with our enemies because God has ever been at war with our enemies.
Thus, fifth, we should sing the imprecatory psalms because they remind us that God’s mercy and justice are not in any way contradictory. In Psalm 99:8 God forgives and takes vengeance – there is no dichotomy any more than there is in that God’s name is great and terrible (vs. 3). Throughout Psalm 136 we are told again and again that “his mercy endureth forever” and this is applied not only with respect to God’s love towards his people but expressed in the judgment and utter destruction of their enemies (vs. 10,15-21).
Sixth, we should sing the imprecatory Psalms because they prepare us for the return of Christ and the final judgment of all men. David declares that his enemies “shall fall and perish at thy presence” (Psalm 9:3). He speaks in the indicative because it is in God’s presence before whom they shall fall (cf. Revelation 6:12-17). For God will “judge the world in righteousness” (vs. 8), having “prepared his throne for judgment” (vs. 7).
David desires that God gives men according to their deeds & wickedness (Psalm 28:4), and scripture reveals a day that will come when that will be fulfilled: Revelation 18:6. David asks for destruction to come upon his enemy (Psalm 35:8) and Paul concurs that it is coming: 1 Thessalonians 5:3. David requests that God “be not merciful to any wicked transgressors” (Psalm 59:5) and there will come a day of judgment on which there will be no mercy given to those who have had no mercy: James 2:13. Indeed David himself confidently says that this judgment is coming to condemn men for their wickedness (Psalm 109:7 cf. 1 Corinthians 11:32). The Psalmist holds out hope that even the saints will be used by God to execute this judgment (Psalm 149:5,7&9). Preeminently this should be understood to be about Christ (Numbers 24:17 & Revelation 19:14-21) but he is also described as coming with thousands (Jude 14-15), even those who will “judge the world” (1 Corinthians 6:2). Far from being unfair, cruel or unjust, the imprecatory Psalms are portents of a righteous and eternal judgment that is yet to be.
The Promotion of Imprecatory Principles in the New Testament
As this entire work will endeavour to prove, the imprecatory statements of the Psalter are compatible with the scripture’s theology in its entirety and not some isolated corner of the Old Testament. This is significant in that it belies the notion that the imprecatory Psalms (if not the Psalms themselves) are a product of a lower ethic as that espoused by Christ.
In Psalm 55:9, David writes “Destroy, O Lord, and divide their tongues.” That this is applicable to a real life situation, we need only read 2 Samuel 15:31 & 17:7,14. As David faces a united opposition to his throne as headed by his son Absalom, he requests God to “turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness.” This the Lord does in answer to David’s request. Indeed in this Psalm, to destroy does not seem to mean mere destruction but destruction through the division of tongues (i.e. words, counsel and doctrine). Something similar seems to have happened during Jesus’ ministry (John 7:40-43) as well as Paul (Acts 23:7,8) when both our Lord and his servant preach the truth but also, by doing so, provoke division in the ranks of their hearers.
David also expresses a kind of righteous anger in Psalm 140 when he says: “Let burning coals fall upon them: let them be cast into the fire; into deep pits, that they rise not up again” (vs. 10 cf. Psalm 11:6). His opponents are not bothersome critics of the king or naysayers who will not fall in line with the new regime. These are men who want to destroy David (Psalm 140:4,5) and so he is appealing to God for help. Though the original referent is Proverbs 25:21&22, Paul expresses a similar sentiment in Romans 12:20 when he claims that when our enemy comes to us that we feed and supply them with their physical needs and, in doing so, we “heap coals of fire on his head.” Clearly, in both cases, if there is no repentance, this destruction is punitive and irreversible. And though Paul’s exhortation is in the context of loving our enemies, God’s judgment is never in doubt, nor in any way mitigated by our service to those who hate us. Moreover Paul’s argument demonstrates that God’s judgment and our love for our enemies are not incompatible.
In Psalm 129:5 the Psalmist requests that God’s righteous judgment come upon the persecutors of his people: “Let them all be confounded and turned back that hate Zion.” Notice that the Authorized Version, along with other translations, renders the Hebrew in the jussive “let,” expressing an unfulfilled desire on the part of the Psalmist. Paul, however, actually strengthens this sentiment in 2 Thessalonians 1:6,8&9 when he writes that “it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you…in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.” Similar statements are found throughout the New Testament. See, for example, Luke 18:7&8, and Revelation 6:10.
David in Psalm 141:10 applies the so called lex talionis (or law of retaliation) which is required in the law of Moses (Exodus 21:24): “Let the wicked fall into their own nets, whilst that I withal escape” (cf. Psalms 7:15,16 & 35:8). Now it is often understood that Christ has cancelled this principle, as appears from Matthew 5:38. However, it is essential to understand that our Lord appeals not to scripture, as if to say “it is written” but to tradition as in “ye have heard.” Thus it is an abuse of the appeal to retaliation that is being spoken against, not the righteousness of the law itself. Otherwise, how could Christ invoke the vengeance of God on behalf of the afflicted believer (Luke 18:7,8) or threaten the same judgment on his enemies that they plan to inflict on him (Matthew 21:38-41)?
Furthemore, consider also how Jesus applies this principle to his own disciples when he says in Matthew 7:2: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” Note that the apostle Paul also alludes to this law in Galatians 6:7 “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” Similar applications of the lex talionis are scattered throughout the New Testament. See, for example, Luke 16:25, 2 Corinthians 9:6.
The Treatment of the Imprecatory Psalms in the New Testament
The imprecatory psalms not only agree with the basic theology of scripture but are approvingly cited and quoted in the New Testament. So in Luke 13:27, our Lord quotes Psalm 6:8 to tell us what parting words he will give to the “workers of iniquity.” These words were originally penned by David to deal with the attack of his enemies who doubted his godly cause and standing (vs. 7&8). Our Lord uses them to warn his hearers that if they “do not strive to enter in” or, we might say, serve the cause of master of the house (Luke 13:25), he will address them in such a fashion on the judgment day.
Psalm 2 warns the rulers of the world who take the reign of God’s king lightly or receive it dismissively. In the New Testament, this is applied to the enemies of the person and work of Christ: Acts 4:23-30 & Hebrews 1:2. That this Psalm is not only relevant to his lordship but also the warnings and threatenings in that Psalm we need only read Revelation 2:26&27 (cf. Psalm 2:8-9), 19:15 (cf. Psalm 2:9) & 19:19 (cf. Psalm 2:2).
But the most significant citations of imprecatory Psalms in the New Testament are those of Psalm 69 and 109. Since they figure so prominently in several places in the New Testament, I will attempt to explain their relevance to the life of Christ and the preaching of the apostles.
1. Case Study: Psalm 69
Psalm 69 was written by David in a time of great affliction and suffering. He asks God to save him, “for the waters are come in unto my soul” (vs. 1). Such a graphic description of the depth of his troubles is indicative of the desperate nature of the imprecatory statements found within: they are not concerning trifles, but of the highest importance, not only to the well-being of the beloved saints of God but for “thine house” (vs. 9 cf. John 2:27) and thus his focus is on the glory of God.
Thus the opposition that David receives is not just; it does not savour of God’s righteousness but of an intent to persecute and destroy out of malice and hate (vs. 4). As always, the intensity of man’s hatred and opposition is thus justly returned or reciprocated by the inspired writer. Towards the end of the Psalm (vss. 22-28) he turns his attention towards his haters and asks God to intervene. Far from simply venting his anger, David looks at his persecutors from the perspective of what they have done to the one whom God has smitten and wounded (vs. 26). In other words, just as Jerusalem would experience generations later, when God’s judgment was poured out on her, some of her enemies came alongside that judgment and added insult to injury (Psalm 137:7). Their persecution, as much as it outwardly suited Israel’s apostasy, however, did not work the righteousness of God and for that they were severely judged.
And note that the suffering of David is predictive of Christ’s suffering as we see from the use of a number of verses in this Psalm in the New Testament: vs. 4 cf. John 15:25 & vs. 21 cf. Matthew 27:34,48. We can also see this more broadly in vs. 7 cf. Psalm 22:6, vs. 8 cf. John 1:11 & vs. 20 cf. Matthew 26:37,38 with John 12:27. These verses in Psalm 69 resonate with the spirit of our beloved, suffering servant.
This is seen in the life of Christ in the betrayal of Judas, his co-conspirators, and many of the physical descendants of Abraham. Indeed Christ’s death (which atoned for sin) did not satisfy for the offence and grievous sin that they committed. So we see, vs. 25 applied by Peter to Judas in Acts 1:20 “For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick let another take.” That this is prophetic is plain to see, but it would also seem that Judas is paradigmatic of the unbelieving Jew, seeing as how Paul uses these verses to apply to his own people in Romans 11:8-10. These are those still “blinded” (2 Corinthians 3:14 cf. Psalm 69:23) & upon whom God will pour out his wrath on the final day of judgment (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15 cf. Psalm 69:24).
Christ’s forgiveness of his enemies on the cross (Luke 23:34) did not, it would appear, apply to each and every person who had a hand in his destruction. Certainly Judas himself was “the son of perdition” (John 17:12), and our Lord had already warned his contemporaries they would die in their sins (John 8:21,24 cf. Matthew 23:30-). Surely then this Psalm is so intimately tied to the person, life and work of Christ that to exclude it from our Psalm singing would be a blow to the gospel itself. To think of these imprecatories as beneath a servant of Jesus is to place ourselves above our master who has in part will in full, fulfil them to the letter.
2. Case Study: Psalm 109
Psalm 109 is very similar to Psalm 69 insofar as it is also written by David and reveals a pained and desperate heart, seeking God’s help for his poor child. In particular, David writes about the lies of the wicked, who hate and oppose him “without a cause” (vs. 3). David not only here echoes some of his own statements from Psalm 35:19 & Psalm 69:34 but is cited by Jesus who applied these words to himself in John 15:24,25.
But David was not merely inoffensive in conduct but resolutely defended his attitude towards his adversaries as one, like Christ, who was given to love and prayer (vs. 4&5). It is only then, in response to this wickedness, that David (and Christ speaking prophetically through David) pronounces his imprecatories (vss. 6-20).
This is, in part, due to the vile nature of his opponent’s sin. He not only joined with the conspirators in speaking ill of him, but had also taken advantage of the poorest and weakest of his brethren (vs. 16). Thus the punishment fits the crime, as per the Mosaic pronouncement against those who took sinned against orphan and widow (Exodus 22:22-24).
Second, as mentioned above, David’s defence is entirely consistent with God’s revelation in both testaments. For example, vs. 12-14 speaks of the punishment of generational sin. This was not only a Mosaic concept (Exodus 20:5) but Christ’s understanding as well (Matthew 23:31,32) along with that of his followers (Acts 7:51). Indeed, as David’s opponent has shown no mercy, so James concurs that no mercy will be shown to him (vs. 16 cf. James 2:13).
Notice that while David begins speaking of “adversaries” (plural), his imprecatories focus on one person: “over him… his right hand… let his days be few… etc.” Many are his enemies but only one has David’s righteous anger vented upon him with such terrifying words of judgment. His words are not like the careless soldier who swings his sword aimlessly, trying to hit as many of his enemies as possible, and possibly innocent bystanders as well. Rather, his words are sharp and pointed, which indicate that he not only thought carefully about whom he was targeting, but was able and willing to distinguish between sinners in terms of the heinousness of their rebellion. So we should not receive this portion of the Psalm to refer to just any enemy of the church, nor any particular grievance but a particular individual for a particular betrayal.
In all of this, however, we are not left to wonder about the identity of this man as the New Testament plainly and particularly reveals that it applies to Judas, as we see in vs. 8 when compared with Acts 1:18-20. For there Peter says “it is written in the Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick let another take” (vs. 20).
Thus if we were of the mindset that certain words or convictions were best left to the Old Testament saint, it would be expected that the New Testament would have nothing of use from this Psalm but, as we see, this is far from the case. And taken together, Psalm 69&109 present a remarkable view of God’s justice and righteousness as fittingly applied in the case of his own, dearly beloved Son, especially as fulfilled in the judgment upon the son of perdition (John 17:12). And should not an adopted son of God feel righteous indignation on behalf of their heavenly father towards such insufferable opposition to him and his anointed (Psalm 2:2)?
New Testament Imprecatories
We have already considered how the New Testament applies the imprecatory Psalms to its times, specifically with reference to fulfillment in the life of Christ. But it is also important to recognise that the New Testament contains its own imprecatories which presents a united front against sin.
David Murray notes three instances of such a kind in the New Testament: Matthew 23, Galatians 1:8-9 & 1 Corinthians 16:22. In Matthew 23:23-33, Christ announces a series of woes and condemnations against the clerics and religious experts of his day. In particular, he states that they are guilty of “all the righteous blood shed upon the earth” (vs. 35) and are left a desolate house (vs. 38), implying as he states in the following chapter, the very fall of Jerusalem itself (Matthew 24:2). Perhaps we might say that Christ’s words are stronger than many of the imprecations of the Psalms since our Lord is not imploring God for personal relief or intervention, but is pronouncing certain judgment upon the wicked generation of his own time. This is underscored by the announcement of the last judgment which will be presided over by Christ himself (Matthew 24:27, 44ff.) and of which the fall of Jerusalem is merely a portent.
In Galatians 1:8-9, Paul pronounces imprecations against the Judaizers who “preach any other gospel to you…” “Let them be accursed” he says twice in these verses. The Greek word for accursed is anathema and, amongst Christian writers and speakers, is only used by Paul in the New Testament. It is particularly reserved by the apostle for apostates and heretics, which is to say, within the church. Clearly it is the very opposite of God’s blessing, and is a fitting rejection of those who wilfully trouble the church with not only errant teaching, but a false gospel.
At the end of 1 Corinthians, Paul’s ends his letter with customary greetings and commendations of brothers and sisters who have helped him as well, as those who bring the Corinthians Christians greetings. It may shock us then, to read that “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha (16:22). What accounts for this diatribe, especially seeing it is followed, and the letter concludes, with a benediction (vs. 23&24) and a warm word? Although we may not have access to Paul’s inspired reasoning, we can see that it is consistent with similar warnings throughout the book (3:17, 4:14, 5:6, 6:9, 10:1ff., 11:30-34). The Corinthians, after all, were still quite fleshly and worldly in their walk (1 Corinthians 3:1ff.) and in many ways strove against the authority of Paul and his fellow apostles. Lest, however, they think that Paul was merely concerned about his own standing amongst them, he ends his letter by focusing on their professed love for Christ, and warning them that by their confession of this Lord they stand or fall. Consistent with the Old Testament record, our future & eternal happiness very much depends on our glad reception of God’s anointed (Deuteronomy 18:15-19 & Psalm 2:12).
To these three examples we might also add Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 4:14: “Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works.” This Alexander might be the person mentioned in Acts 19:33, but is most certainly the Alexander of 1 Timothy 1:20, whom Paul says he has excommunicated for his heresy.
But how, we might wonder, can we reconcile this with Paul’s teaching, moreover our Lord’s, about loving our enemies? First of all, Paul’s words are part of the conclusion to his second letter to Timothy. Like his other letters, they contain exhortations and greetings that give us a glimpse into some of the personalities of the earliest New Testament churches. We see that Paul is, in part, warning Timothy of this man who may do him harm as well (vs. 15). Indeed, when Paul speaks of those who forsook him he is gentler, and mentions no names (2 Timothy 4:16) sparing them from shame and the defaming of their reputation. With Alexander, however, Paul has nothing good to say about him and must tell Timothy to be on guard for his “evil.”
Furthermore, loving our enemies does not mean that those who actively seek to tear down his church and its ministry are not to be opposed. As in Galatians 1:8-9 and 1 Corinthians 16:22, Paul is mostly concerned about the gospel, of which he is a minister. In a sense, the very salvation of men hangs on his preaching which is ever at stake when men within the church seek to withstand “our words” (2 Timothy 4:15). Thus Timothy himself is to “reprove, rebuke [and] exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (4:2), which at times meaning rejecting heretics after “the first and second admonition” (Titus 3:10).
Strikingly Paul requests “the Lord reward [ed. or repay] him according to his works.” The word rendered “reward” is in the optative mood, expressing a strong desire on the part of the one speaking it. Indeed we must not overlook that Paul takes this evil personally (“did me much evil”) because, just as the insults and attacks on David, it was personal. If Paul, however, is expressing a certainty of judgment it is clear that he, as Matthew Henry suggests, speaks as a prophet: “It is the prophetical denunciation of the just judgment of God that would befal him… God will reward evil-doers, particularly apostates, according to their works.”
More generally, we may also consider the teaching of Christ about the coming of the kingdom. For as J.G. Vos argued “thy kingdom come” assumes that the “kingdom of sin and Satan” (WLC, Q&A 191) will be destroyed and, even if only from the perspective of what is to come, naturally includes unbelievers.
In short, the imprecatories of the New Testament underline the fact that their Old Testament counterparts cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to or beneath the Christian. Whether spake in time past or in these last days, they reflect the unchanging character of God and his coming judgment.
How Christians Should Interpret the Imprecatory Psalms
Having established the lawfulness of singing the imprecatory Psalms in the church, we must go further and ask: how do we understand these songs? Is there a right interpretation of the imprecatory psalms and what are some possible misunderstandings of them?
1. Personal Vengeance
By singing the imprecatory Psalms are we seeking God’s permission that our personal enemies may be destroyed by our own hands? In short, no. Not only would this be a misapplication of God’s word but it also would be a misinterpretation of its original meaning.
We know this because the law forbade any form of individual vengeance. The sixth commandment plainly says “thou shalt not kill.” God’s said of himself in Deuteronomy 32:35: “To me belongeth vengeance, and recompense…” Though earthly governments are charged with executing murderers, no private person was given authority or permission to take a life. Moreover, this is affirmed in the Psalms themselves (Psalm 18:47 & Psalm 94:1 et. al.).
Furthermore, personal vengeance is far from the mind of David when he asks God to destroy his enemies. Why? “for they have rebelled against thee,” (Psalm 5:10) thus justifying his animus and belying a spirit of revenge. It is God that is mocked, spited and goaded (Psalm 10:4,11,13) and who will cause his enemies to reap the whirlwind (Galatians 6:7).
In Psalm 83:15 David asks God to “persecute them with thy tempest, and make them afraid with thy storm” & we see what the Psalmist requests he affirms that God will, in fact, do (Psalm 11:6). It is the Lord who cuts off (Psalm 12:3) and it is God that will make his enemies as chaff in the wind (Psalm 35:5 cf. Psalm 1:4). And when David declares in Psalm 54:7 that “mine eye hath seen its desire upon mine enemies” he is simply reiterating the promise of God as we see from Psalm 112:8 & Psalm 118:7.
In summary, vengeance in the Psalms is never merely personal, it is divine; for it is the LORD that is known by these judgments, not David (Psalm 9:16). Far from unleashing anger & hostility upon those who hate us, the imprecatory Psalms teach us to give place to God’s wrath (Romans 12:19).
2. An Assertion of Righteousness
Secondly, these Psalms are not about whatever injury or slight that was occupying David’s attention or bothering him at the moment. Rather, when David speaks of himself and his honour, he is concerned with establishing righteousness. For example, he declares in Psalm 55:15: “Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into hell: for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them.” He says this because the enemy had “broken his covenant” (vs. 20). David had even called imprecatories down upon himself if he had acted similarly (Psalm 7:3-5). In other words, the Spirit inspired writer was animated by a principle of justness and fairness.
In Psalm 35:13 we see that David’s attitude was not, initially, adversarial. Indeed, he was for peace, they were for war (Psalm 120:7). This is also reflected in the many titles of the Psalms that recount the persecution of his enemies. They suggest that the aggression originated with his antagonists, and his response is to flee and plead God’s merciful intervention, not to take up arms.
Thus in Psalm 7:17, after acknowledging the inevitable judgment upon the impenitent, David praises God for his righteousness. Paul echoes this very concept in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, when he speaks of the “everlasting judgment that is coming upon those who persecute believers and refuse to obey the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Such too is the language in heaven of God’s people when the whore of Babylon falls (Revelation 19:2).
Thirdly, singing about righteousness does not equate to self-righteousness or affirming that we are without sin. Even in one of the most intense, imprecatory Psalms, David can say: “O God, thou knowest my foolishness; and my sins are not hid from thee” (Psalm 69:5). He complained that his persecutors attacked him unlawfully while, at the same time, he confessed his own unrighteousness. Similarly, in Psalm 143, David acknowledges that if God enters judgment with him, he cannot be justified (vs. 2). In a sense, he is like any other man, completely dependent on God’s mercy but at the same time he is not ashamed to ask God, out of mercy, to cut off his enemies and to destroy those who afflict his soul.
Finally, if we are to bless God at all we must acknowledge these sentiments to be right. Otherwise we could not sing any Psalm which glorifies this God (let alone glorifying him in any way) knowing that he approved of the men (David et. al.) who spoke these words and asked him to act accordingly.
3. Kingship & Kingdom
The vast majority of imprecatory statements in the Psalms originate with David, including the very strongest (namely Psalms 69 & 109). This is not simply because he is author of more than half of the book but also because he was no private person, but the very anointed king of Israel.
Even before he took the throne, David wrote of “those that seek my soul, to destroy it, shall go into the lower parts of the earth. They shall fall by the sword: they shall be a portion for foxes. But the king shall rejoice in God…” (Psalm 63:9-11a). David understands that an attack on himself is not just an attack on a citizen who should be protected from harm, nor on an Israelite who should come under the protection of the magistrate, but one who, like Saul, was the “Lord’s anointed” (1 Samuel 26:9). Indeed, though he had occasion and provocation, David would not raise a hand against the king, and thus would in a consistent manner see the brutality of others towards him in the same vein.
Therefore David’s deliverance as king, even that which would result in the destruction of his enemies is Israel’s deliverance. In Psalm 144:10, David notes that God promises salvation unto kings, and in a personal way to David “his servant,” which includes deliverance from the sword. But as he goes on to say (vs. 12-15) this for “our” benefit or that of the people, “whose God is the LORD” (vs. 15).
Something similar is asserted in Psalm 20. In the first part of the Psalm God’s people ask him to save and help the king as a person and in his office. David confesses that God will save his anointed and help him (vs. 6) but not by earthly means, but through his own intervention (vs. 7). Yet this help from God is not just for the good of the king but for all, as indicated in the first person plural: “They are brought down and fallen, but we are risen, and stand upright” (vs. 8 – emphasis mine). And the salvation of the LORD will be seen in the king’s desire to hear his own people as they call upon him for help. To attack David is to attack God’s sacred monarchy, as we also hear echoed in Psalm 2 regarding Christ himself.
Finally, David not only represented Israel as a monarch, but is also representative of a covenant: Psalm 18:50, 89:3-4, 20-36, 132:10-18; Isaiah 55:3; Jeremiah 33:17-26, Luke 1:69, Acts 2:30. In fact, according to Paul in Romans 1:3, the very gospel is Davidic in nature. To attack David is to attack not only Israel and her king, but God’s promises (or the fulfilment thereof) regarding the eternal salvation of all of his people in David’s greater Son, Jesus Christ.
4. The Hatred of God
The subject of God’s hatred is complicated not only by the delicate nature of the subject matter but by the very notion of attributing emotion to God at all. After all, does not our Confession say that we worship a God “without passion” (Westminster Confession of Faith 2.1)? So what does scripture mean when it speaks of this hatred, and what does this have to do with the imprecatory Psalms?
First of all, when we think of God’s hatred, we ought not to lower it to the level of bigotry, irrational and blind opposition to a person, place or thing, which is often how the word is expressed today. Rather, God being righteous and holy, his hatred is fixed on that which is contrary to his nature, not some prejudice informed by ignorance or superstition. For example, God is said to be a jealous God (Exodus 34:14). This is not merely because he happens to have a jealous nature (regardless of the consequences), but that he is jealous for his own glory (Ezekiel 39:25). Indeed his jealousy is consistent with his character or attributes which, among others, are goodness, righteousness and holiness (Nahum 1:2&3).
So in Psalm 5:5, it is said of God that he “hatest all workers of iniquity.” Though we may be more accustomed to say that God hates the sin but not the sinner, here we see that God hates the one who works iniquity or does sin. That is because he does not take pleasure in wickedness, and does not tolerate evil. It does no good to say that God only hates sin when the one who has committed sin is left to his own devices. Few if any would be satisfied with a judge who would condemn the wrong that a thief, murderer or rapist committed without also condemning and sentencing the person.Similarly in Psalm 11:5 we read that his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. Here is an utter rejection of the sinful person so much so it goes against God’s soul, or the very heart of his being.
But note too that the phrase “the hatred of God” also mean man’s hatred of God. For God’s hatred is, in part, motivated by the unbeliever’s hatred to God. In other words, the worker of iniquity and the one who loves violence does so as an expression of their hatred to God. Speaking to God, David says: “thine enemies make a tumult: and they that hate thee have lifted up the head” (Psalm 83:2). Described here is a concerted, arrogant and bigoted opposition to God himself, not just that which is associated with him (cf. Psalm 68:1). These are “the haters of the LORD” who do not merely oppose the God of creation but the LORD, the God of Israel, which means they knew him whom they should have submitted themselves to but militantly resisted because, in their hearts, they sought to overthrow him (cf. Psalm 2:2&3).
Not surprisingly this hatred spills over to others who are covenanted with God (John 15:18). This brings us into the particular territory of the imprecatory Psalms. For David often prays against those who hate him, as we have discovered in Psalm 69:4 & Psalm 109:2-3. He is troubled by them (Psalm 9:13), as they seek to hurt him (Psalm 41:7). David recognises that they also hate all of God’s people (Psalm 44:10), even as another says, Zion itself (Psalm 129:5).
Yet it is an opposition that is even older than David himself, for God himself commenced it after the fall when he “put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed” (Genesis 3:15 – emphasis mine). This word is used in scripture to contrast a complete and total separation and conflict between two parties. So James uses it to describe those who are friends with the world as being enemies of God (James 4:4). Indeed, it is indicative of the fallen mind to be at “enmity against God” as proven by its rebellion to his law (Romans 8:7).
Thus the point is not merely to note that this enmity exists, but that God ensures this enmity (or hatred) continues. This is not simply due to him being against sinners, but because he is saving & redeeming a people for himself through that enmity. Therefore this opposition is carried over to Christ himself and his disciples, as we see in John 7:7 & 15:18. It is an opposition that is carried over to the New Testament church in every age as we see from 1 John 3:13 because God will always have a people for himself (Romans 9:6-15).
So as we consider the imprecatory Psalms, we should understand that David and others are not merely expressing their own, unwarranted feelings towards others, but are singing about a conflict that will continue until the end of time. When we say that God hates we do not mean, then, the same thing as the hatred of men. Man’s hatred is tied to the idea of anger, or a burning and consuming passion that is soon put out, either because they are pacified or because they perish. God’s hatred is eternal and does not arise by reacting to something (justly or not) but from his eternal plan of redemption and rooted in righteousness. It is not an venting of his feelings at the moment, but his determined opposition to evil which is wholly consistent and always consistent with his character.
Thus in Psalm 31:6 David says “I have hated them that regard lying vanities: but I trust in the LORD.” There are a number of elements in this verse that are important to note. First, David hates those that worship idols. Second, his hatred of what is evil is contrasted to something good, namely his trust in the LORD (cf. vs. 1,14&19). But the contrast is not present because it is evil to hate idolaters (insofar as they are opposed to God) but because they are not trusting in God. Third, the verse that precedes it was cited by Jesus and Stephen in Luke 23:46 & Acts 7:59, respectively. Surely this text would not have been quoted if our Lord thought it wrong to say what David said in the following verse.
Yet it is one thing to speak of holy God’s hatred of sinners but how do we reconcile David’s statement about hating his enemies and Jesus’ command to love our enemies? Was David of a different spirit; one that was alien to Christ’s gospel? Perhaps in this we see that Jesus sought to convince his disciples to cast off the darkness and ignorance of the Old Testament saints.
First of all, as we have seen but must now remember, David states that he had loved his enemies (Psalm 109:4&5). Thus David truly had the Spirit of Christ. This is also proven in the way he treated Saul & Shimei. He spared both men when opportunity was given to harm them, and even allowed the latter to curse him believing that he was speaking for God (2 Samuel 16:5-13).
Secondly, in his discussion of Psalm 139:21-22, John Knox demonstrates how to carefully and faithfully divide the word of God on this point so that both portions of scripture harmonise:
“hate not with any carnal hatred these blind, cruel, and malicious tyrants; but that you learn of Christ to pray for your persecutors (Matt. 5:44), lamenting and bewailing that the devil should so prevail against them, that headlong they should run, body and soul, to perpetual perdition. And note well that I say, we may not hate them with a carnal hatred: that is to say, only because they trouble our bodies. For there is a spiritual hatred, which David calls a perfect hatred, which the Holy Ghost engenders in the hearts of God’s elect, against the rebellious contemners of his holy statutes (Ps. 139:22). And it is, when we more lament that God’s glory is suppressed, and that Christ’s flock is defrauded of their wholesome food, than that our bodies are persecuted.”
Furthermore, ever does David say he hates his enemy simply because his enemy hates him. Rather David’s hatred is perfect, that is brought to its right end or conclusion, because it terminates on the enemies opposition to God. By hating God’s enemies for their hatred of his God, David’s enmity centres on and fulfils God’s good plan of the gospel antithesis.
5. The Warnings of God
As I noted above, imprecatory statements are often translated with the jussive mood, indicating that the Psalmist is expressing a righteous desire for God’s intervention without pronouncing a final or irremediable judgment. In Psalm 59:11, David expressly says: “Slay them not, lest my people forget: scatter them by thy power; and bring them down, O Lord our shield.” Even though his motivation for desiring them to be spared is that they might be an object lesson for his people, the truth is that being spared they may also now repent of their sins.
Conversely, the imprecatory Psalms remind God’s enemies that his patience has an end and that he is not merciful to his enemies forever. We might say: consider these examples. Consider Oreb, Zeeb, Zebah and Zalmunna. Do you want to end up like them? (Psalm 83:11) Or as Paul says, “despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forebearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance” (Romans 2:4).
In Psalm 7:12-13, David says if the wicked “turn not, he [ed. God] will whet his sword; he hath bent his bow and made it ready. He hath also prepared for him the instruments of death; he ordaineth his arrows against the persecutors.” How much time does the wicked have? No one knows; today is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2 cf. Psalm 95:7).
Indeed Psalm 2 is a fair warning to conspirators (vs. 4-5,9) joined with a merciful call to faith for rebels: “Be wise therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little” (Psalm 2:10-12a). When we sing these words, we are saying to the powers that be: your effort to overthrow the rule of Christ is in vain. Come join us in our submission to the Lord Jesus, lest destruction be your fate.
As Matthew Henry writes of Psalm 54:5, so it could applied to any imprecatory statement: “This is not a prayer of malice, but a prayer of faith; for it has an eye to the word of God, and only desires the performance of that. There is truth in God’s threatenings as well as in his promises, and sinners that repent not will find it so to their cost.”
As we have already noted, scripture identifies David as a prophet of the Lord (Acts 2:29,30 cf. 1 Peter 1:11 & Matthew 22:43). Though this does not necessarily sanctify all of his actions as recorded in the historical books, it does mean that when he spoke by the Spirit we ought to receive those words as from the Lord. And of course this must be extended to every author in the Psalms (Luke 24:44).
The imprecatories of the Bible are not, then, static realities mired in the limitations of the time in which they were spoken, but vivid statements with present & future implications. This helps us to reconcile man’s words of condemnation with God’s mercy because, as we have seen, they mirror the coming judgment and justice of a righteous God.
Consider Psalm 137:8-9. These are some of the harshest and unsettling words in all of the Bible. It is most difficult to reconcile the idea of someone being happy with the death of little ones, let alone singing of it. However, we should note that the author does not say that we should be happy, rather the one who commits this heinous act. Furthermore, these words are prophesied in Isaiah 13:15-18. They are not a wish or desire of the Psalmist but a remembrance or affirmation of what Isaiah said.
Now we may not be entirely comfortable with singing or reading these things, but we must acknowledge they come from God. God knew this (for nothing is hidden from him cf. Isaiah 41:4), told Isaiah what would happen and his prophet spoke it. The Psalmist also knows that it would happen, and states it. And history too records that it happened.
Moreover, Christ knew similar events would occur in Jerusalem before & during the fall of the city and prophesied them too (Matthew 24). The description by Josephus is far more graphic, but our Lord warned the people by implication (Luke 19:43-44). Are we to reject these sayings because we might think he was not merciful to the people of that city? Do we have a right to accept what the Lord says only on the basis of what is most palatable to us?
Indeed, the judgment which will be executed has been “written” (Psalm 149:9). To write implies a record or prediction by which one can measure or examine. So Deuteronomy 32:41-42 predicts that very thing: God’s sword and arrows are drawn to “render vengeance to [his] enemies” (vs. 31). For “it is written before me: I will not keep silence, but will recompense, even recompense into their bosom” (Isaiah 65:6). Thus the book of Revelation describes in detail, the awe-ful nature of eternal judgment, so that men might know how terrifying it will really be for those outside of Christ.
This is true on an individual basis, but also on a global scale. For, as we have considered above, in the Psalms we have the judgment & salvation of the nations side by side. This is what God’s word promises: “for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and they that dwell therein” Psalm 98:9. The judgments this side of the final judgment reveal something of what is to come. And the final judgment revealed, though yet not fulfilled, warns us to flee from the wrath that is to come. Ultimately, to reject the imprecatory Psalms is to reject God, his justice and the authority of Christ himself, who is appointed to judge on the last day (John 5:22; Romans 2:16; 1 Corinthians 4:5; 2 Timothy 4:1).
How Christians Should Apply the Imprecatory Psalms
Christians are those “upon whom the ends of the world are come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). We have inherited the Old Testament and we are responsible to pass on its truth to the next generation (vs. 1,6 cf. Psalm 78:4-7). As we have seen, no matter the difficulties, this includes the imprecatory Psalms.
Now we have come to the hardest part of this essay. It is, after all, relatively easy to note the continuity between the Old and New Testaments, including a proper framing and understanding of these imprecatory statements. We have, I trust, answered important exegetical and doctrinal questions, but application (or living out the truth) is the most difficult thing of all. In this context, it is like the difference between preparing for war (with all the training and man hours committed to the fight at hand) and actually having to enter the battlefield, face your enemy and even your own mortality.
So what do we mean, in this time and in this place, when we sing these things? In short, how do we sing the imprecatory Psalms in faith?
First, we must sing them to ourselves (cf. Ephesians 5:19 & Colossians 3:16). In this there must be nothing but exceeding humility. As we have seen, the imprecatory Psalms are for God’s people as much, if not more so, than the world. The most intense Psalms of this genre were written about and to the traitor in the midst of the assembly (Psalms 69 & 109). Perhaps, in this way, they can function much like Asaph’s words in Psalm 50:16-23. That is to say, they remind us that not everyone who claims to be part of the body truly belongs to the church. And everyone must examine themselves, “whether ye be in the faith.” (2 Corinthians 13:5).
We must also sing them to ourselves in the midst of persecution. The imprecatory Psalms remind the church that oppression will not go on forever – however bad it may be or become, God promises an end to the suffering if those who trust in him. But consider how can this be without the destruction of the wicked? Thus in Psalm 9:9 we read that “the LORD also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble” which is coupled with the fact that God will arise and “the wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God” (vs. 19) lndeed, there is great comfort afforded here: God will avenge (Isaiah 35:4). One day the “how long, O Lord” (Revelation 6:10) will be the great day of the Lamb’s wrath (vs. 17).
In order to understand this we might consider the plight of other Christians who face a far more aggressive form of persecution than we in the West:
“I asked Kamran why he prefers the Psalms over our modern Christian songs. His response was truthful and straightforward, “When you endure such hardships and persecutions, you don’t want anything else. Modern Christian songs do not have what it takes to carry you through things like this. It is the pure word of God in the Psalms that help us keep our faith.”
Second we must sing them to our known enemies, but not so much wish them upon our enemies. As we have seen, the imprecatory Psalms warn the enemies of Christ of impending judgment. We too, out of love and concern for their souls, pray and sing these words to tell them of what is to come that they might turn from their sin. For it is certain that many of them will face judgment in the life to come, and some even (beginning) in this life. Undoubtedly, if they hear such things and do not repent, these words will even (and justly) be used against them on the day of judgment.
It may be we will have someone in mind when these words are sung. In many ways this may seem to be proper for us to do so, considering that these Psalms (as well as their New Testament counterparts) identify particular persons. But we must take care to allow the application to be of God, even as Paul says regarding his vengeance (Romans 12:19). I agree with those who say that we are not prophets, and thus we do not have access to the divine counsel. We must let time and providence take their course, and only then will we see the wicked swept away in the flood of their own making (Psalm 37:1-2,34-38). Saul, Judas and Alexander the coppersmith are people with whom God had a controversy. It is not always the case that our enemies will continue opposed to the church (as was the case with Paul) and not every unbeliever is actively seeking her downfall.
Third, we must understand the benefits of these words. For not only do the imprecatory Psalms warn the enemies of God’s people of a coming judgment, but judgment upon wicked people itself turns hearts to God as we see from Psalm 64. In verse 7&8 we read of David’s enemies upon whom sudden retribution falls. But in verse 9, we hear: “And all men shall fear, and shall declare the work of God; for they shall wisely consider of his doing.” This is corroborated in Acts 5:5-14 where great fear comes upon the church and all those who heard these things, due to God’s judgment upon Ananias and Sapphira (vs. 11). This fear likely played a part in hindering some from joining the church (vs. 13) but others were encouraged by it and were added to the Lord (vs. 14).
In conclusion, should we be embarrassed by these songs? Should we avoid them and sing of better and brighter things? To both of these questions, we must sound an emphatic no. And not only should we not reject them, but we should sing them often, boldly and with much rejoicing. I concur with J.G. Vos who wrote: “Instead of being ashamed of the Imprecatory Psalms, and attempting to apologize for them and explain them away, Christian people should glory in them and not hesitate to use them in the public and private exercises of the worship of God.”
Appendix: Exclusive Psalmody and the Singing of the Imprecatory Psalms
I have resisted bringing up the matter of the content of the church’s hymnbook in the main body of this work because I think the main subject matter is difficult enough on its own. Nevertheless, I think the inclusion of imprecatory Psalms in our worship argues in favour of exclusive psalmody, as I will briefly address here.
First of all, we are not equipped, but God equips us. Elsewhere I have explored the sufficiency of the Psalms for Christian worship and this is no less true when we consider the imprecatory Psalms. These psalms include something that is missing in all of our hymn books.
After all, have you ever heard of an imprecatory hymn? Perhaps the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” comes to mind. but this is a parochial song that reflects the attitude of embattled northerners in the American civil war. It is hardly the stuff of the war songs of Zion, which have been gladly sung by Christians in varying ages and places.
Furthermore we are impoverished because we have impoverished ourselves. This applies not only to our theology, but also to our public worship. Our vocabulary is stunted and our theology of justice is impaired because we have failed to sing God’s songbook. For it helps us to express proper and right emotions about injustice and persecution. It aids us in seeing that God will vindicate his people and that it is right for our enemies, if they do not repent, to be destroyed.
Finally, the inclusion of imprecatory Psalms in the Psalter assumes that it is not sufficient to sing about our salvation, God’s mercy or our common redemption in Christ. The whole counsel of God’s word must be poured into our song books and the Psalms do that for us, especially with this most neglected portion of that word.
-Daniel Kok © 2020
1. Thus the Psalms or Psalm portions we have in mind are not just those that deal with the subject of God’s judgment, but actively call down judgment from heaven on unbelievers and evildoers.
2. Therefore in this paper, we will not limit our focus on imprecatory statements in the Psalms but will expand our perspective to examine the book as a whole, especially in light of the scripture’s presentation of God’s justice.
3. Please note that it is not my intent to dismiss serious objections to or questions about the word of God but rather to render a judgment that this is not a serious query but an emotional or visceral reaction to an eminently, serious matter.
4. See the entirety of my “King’s Songs” project.
5. Note especially Paul’s use of these Psalms in Romans 3.
6. Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Volume 3: Job to Song of Solomon. Old Tappen, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, page 658.
7. Indeed it is exacerbated when having received kindness they repay it with evil.
8. And David knows something of how one ought not to express anger as we see in Psalm 4:4.
9. “These imprecations are not David’s prayers against his enemies, but prophecies of the destruction of Christ’s persecutors, especially the Jewish nation, which our Lord himself foretold with tears, and which was accomplished about forty years after the death of Christ” Matthew Henry, ibid., page 497.
10. Perhaps this is in line with Judas stealing from the money bag cf. John 12:6.
11. As opposed to, say, losing his temper like Saul, even to the point of threatening the life of his own son (1 Samuel 14:24ff.), not to mention David himself.
12. This quotation is actually a combination of Psalm 69:25 & Psalm 109:8. The word for “bishoprick” in the Greek is episkope and is used in the Septuagint’s rendering of the Hebrew pequddah “office.”
13. Murray, David. “10 helps on the Imprecatory Psalms.” Shall We Sing a Song for You? Stephen Steele., June 11, 2003. Web. Accessed: January 23, 2016.
14. Besides, ironically, those Jews who took an oath to slay Paul (Acts 23:12-14), the apostle hypothetically and emotively applies the term to himself (Romans 9:31), as well as to the believer but only in the negative (1 Corinthians 12:3). The third usage (from 1 Corinthians 16:22) I will discuss below.
15. Especially seeing as the verse in question is preceded by one in which he owns by penmanship (vs. 21).
16. Anymore than we can imagine that the aggression of the gates of hell against his church will receive no challenge from Christ himself (cf. Matthew 16:18).
17. Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Volume 6: Acts to Revelation. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, page 851.
18. “Even the prayer for the death of the wicked person who is a reprobate is not only not immoral but is in itself righteous and is, in fact, included in the pattern of prayer commonly called ‘The Lord’s Prayer” which teaches us to pray: ‘Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” God’s kingdom cannot come without Satan’s kingdom being destroyed. God’s will cannot be done in earth without the destruction of evil. Evil cannot be destroyed without the destruction of men who are permanently identified with it. Instead of being influenced by the sickly sentimentalism of the present day, Christian people should realize that the glory of God demands the destruction of evil. Instead of being insistent upon the assumed, but really non-existent, rights of men, they should focus their attention upon the rights of God (emphasis mine).” Vos, Johannes G. “The Ethical Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms.” Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. IV, No. 2 (May 1942), pp. 123-138.
19. Note that these questions are not only relevant to the proper teaching of the imprecatory Psalms but apply to all of the scriptures. As Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch: “Understandest thou what thou readest?” (Acts 8:30). Indeed, we must sing with understanding (1 Corinthians 14:15) in order to teach one another in song (Colossians 3:16).
20. Keeping in mind that the Law is identified as an integral part of the Old Testament canon, along with the Prophets and Psalms as we see from Jesus’ statement in Luke 24:44.
21. Notwithstanding family retaliation which was subsumed under a priestly administration: Numbers 35:23-34.
22. “It must be obvious to the attentive student of the imprecatory psalms, that their effect is to restrain us from sin, to make us love and value justice, to lead us to commit vengeance into the hands of the Lord, thus strongly deterring us from private and personal revenge, and to show us that God is to be praised for His justice as well as His mercy.” Webster, J.H. “The Imprecatory Psalms” in The Psalms in Worship (1907), Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1992, page 309.
23. Psalm 3 “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.”
Psalm 7 “Shiggaion of David, which he sang unto the LORD, concerningthe words of Cush the Benjamite.”
Psalm 18 “…who spake unto the LORD the words of this song in the day that the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul”
Psalm 52 “…when Doeg the Edomite came and told Saul, and said unto him, David is come to the house of Ahimelech”
Psalm 54 “…when the Zipphims came and said to Saul, Doth not David hide himself with us?”
Psalm 57 “…of David, when he fled from Saul in the cave”Psalm 59 “…when Saul sent, and they watched the house to kill him”
24. We must remember that David’s battles were largely reserved for Israel’s enemies, not for Israelites themselves.
25. Emphasis mine.
26. As Matthew Henry notes in his commentary. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Volume 3: Job to Song of Solomon. Old Tappen, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, page 262.
27. Clearly anticipating the help that God’s people receive from the king that David typified. See Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 45 for a more detailed exposition.
28. Even as he subsequently argues in Romans 4 that it is Abrahamic.
29. Especially considering how often scripture speaks of God being slow to anger: Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 103:8, 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2 & Nahum 1:3.
30. As if to say David hates idolaters because he trusts in God or that his hatred is proof of his faith in God.
31. This does not mean that David was never moved by a spirit of revenge. Consider his questionable plan to exact revenge on Nabal, which was abated by the advice of Abigail (1 Samuel 25:32-25). But it does mean that the inspired Psalms of the Bible were not written in spirit of personal vengeance.
32. Knox, John. Selected Writings of John Knox. “Epistle to His Afflicted Brethren in England.” Dallas, Texas: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1995, pages 212-213.
33. Matthew Henry, Volume 3, page 441.
34. As opposed to an arbitrary or ad hoc decree.
35. Cudal, Arnfield. “Persecuted Christians and the Psalms: Lessons We Can Learn.” The 1024 Project. May 15, 2015. Web. Accessed September 30, 2018.
36. “Evil is not abstract, but concrete; it is identified with particular persons. To destroy the evil, the persons must be dealt with by God’s mighty power and righteous judgment. Isaac Watts said he would make David talk like a Christian. He denatured the Psalms, and he sophisticated them. Watts quite failed to appreciate the real beauty and glory of the Psalter. Since Watts time, some Psalm-singing denominations have shied away from the proper names in the Psalter, and have tried to screen many of them out of it. Zion is changed to “the church,” and Jerusalem likewise; many of the others are omitted or smoothed over in some way. This yields us a denatured Psalter. No wonder the next step is to give up the Psalms in worship. They have already given up the real vigor and beauty and power of the Psalms by omitting the proper names.” Vos, Johannes G. “Ashamed of the Tents of Shem?: The Semitic Roots of Christian Worship.” The Blue Banner. Faith Presbyterian Reformed Church. PDF article. http://bluebanner.org/assets/pdfs/tenst.pdf
37. Vos, Johannes G. “The Ethical Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms.” Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. IV, No. 2 (May 1942), pp. 123-138.
38. https://tinyurl.com/y39mydh7 & https://tinyurl.com/y4ax9wvz
39. “[The] 68th Psalm was known among the Huguenots as the ‘song of battles,’ and was raised by them in many a bloody and desperate conflict… An old Camisard, as the hunted Protestants of the Cevennes were called, says, ‘We flew when we heard the sound of the psalms, we flew as if with wings. We felt within us an animating ardour, a transporting desire. The feeling cannot be expressed in words. It is a thing that must have been felt to be known. However weary we might be, we thought no more of our fatigue, and grew light as soon as the psalms reached our ear.’” Ker, John. The Psalms in History and Biography. Edinburgh: Andrew Eliot, 1887, page 95-96.