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Volume 16, Issue 1: Tohu

Psalms, For Reals

Jared Miller

The revival of psalm-singing in reforming churches today is extremely positive. But especially among the newly reformed it can raise concerns in the congregation. Evangelicals may have sung "nice" pieces of the Psalms before, but when it comes to tackling them raw and unbowdlerized, they find themselves wincing. The New Testament tells them without qualification to sing psalms, and there would be rather few to sing if they cut the ones with imprecatory statements. When they only read them, one could skim over those difficult parts; but now one has to belt them out loud and clear. Being thus embarrassed of Scripture obviously has no excuse. The really serious objection is that Scripture is being inconsistent—imprecation versus loving one's enemies. (Incidentally, the issue is not even an Old/New Testament one; Solomon taught love of enemies and returning a kind word for an angry one.) How could we possibly love someone while at the same time praying for their downfall in language that some would classify as "hate speech"? We can tackle this by examining the context, content, and goal of imprecation.

Part of our problem stems from our complacent circumstances which are radically different from those of David and ancient Israel. Most decent, middle-class evangelicals have never had a personal enemy who (besides lying about them, oppressing them socially and economically, and unjustly taking them to court) has begun stalking them with a gang of armed henchmen. Neither have they gone to war against a savage, imperialistic national enemy that was trying to take over their country and reduce them to slavery. After putting oneself in this position, "Destroy them, Lord, and bring them down," has a rather more understandable tone.
In addition to that consideration, the context of imprecation is that of the authoritative courtroom and not personal revenge. A righteous party begs the Judge to deliver justice on an unrighteous party. The plea does not just call for help; it calls for just help—the self-proclaimed righteous party submits itself to examination and potential judgment as well if found guilty (cf. Ps. 7:4_5). Every imprecation is first against oneself and only secondly against another; there is no room for hypocrisy.
The sins that provoke imprecation in the Psalms are nearly always physical violence (Ps. 10:8, 94:5_6, 139:19), verbal violence with tangible effects (31:13, 35:11, 120:2), or oppression (9:9, 17:9, 72:12). The aggressor is unrepentant and ignores the appeals of his victims, so they cry to God for justice. Imprecation is reserved to serious situations such as this, in which unjust damage is being done, and the only court of appeal left is that of prayer.
The content of the imprecation varies. In the gravest instances, it calls for destruction of the enemy (5:10). This is the last resort against an adversary that will not stop destroying until he himself has been destroyed. In less extreme cases, it calls for the humbling, shaming, failure, confusion, and "de-fanging" of the adversary (6:10, 35:4). It is very common to request poetic justice—that wickedness would simply destroy itself (5:10, 9:16, 35:8). In all of this, it is God who does the judging and not us. Turning the other cheek is consistent with such prayers.1
Finally, the goals of imprecation are justice and peace. The biblical imprecation cries, from love of the victims, that destruction be destroyed and oppression be oppressed. Those who find themselves uncomfortable with imprecation should consider the alternative: standing by, and effectively asking God to stand by, while helpless people who trust in Him are harmed and left unvindicated. Of course, the best outcome is when the adversary ceases not because he is destroyed, but because he repents and becomes righteous. While he is successful, he believes he shall never be moved, and continues in his self-destructive ways. The fall of the wicked leads to their conversion; therefore to pray for their fall is not hate but love. "Fill their faces with shame; that they may seek thy name, O Lord" (Ps. 83:16). When God judges in this way, His character is efficaciously revealed (64:9, 83:18).
In this difficult subject, we should be informed by all the Psalms: "Cease from anger" (37:8); "I am for peace" (120:7); "They rewarded me evil for good. . . . when [my enemies] were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into mine own bosom" (35:12_13). Imprecation and biblical love coexist; why should we set them at odds? To love one's enemy while calling to God against them is perhaps the most powerful and complete form of love imaginable.
One of the most practical questions still remains: Why should we sing imprecatory psalms in worship when we have no specific adversary and thus no occasion for doing so? The primary answer is that the Church at large is always being persecuted, and so these psalms are offered as prayer on behalf of our suffering brothers and sisters around the world who are subject to violence and oppression. Another possible answer is that in such cases the psalms are being interpreted in a more complex way. The Church is the new Israel and Christ the new David; the enemy is that of unbelief, and the battle against it is spiritual. Our prayer is then that unbelief be brought low and conquered by God's power in the Church, freeing those in its bondage.

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