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Should Christians “Unhitch” from the Imprecatory Psalms?

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The imprecatory psalms represent a legitimate challenge for contemporary Christians. Jesus told us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. How does a teaching like that go with a psalm like this:

O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!
Let them vanish like water that runs away; when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted.
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime, like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.
Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns, whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!
The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked. (Psalms 58:6–10 ESV)

The Anglican Church decided long ago to bracket out of their Psalter verses and sections like this; given Andy Stanley’s recent suggestion that Christians “unhitch themselves” from the Old Testament, perhaps it is time to let go of the imprecatory psalms. [1]

On the other hand, the Apostle Paul said in one of his New Testament letters that:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16–17 ESV)

When Paul wrote that the words “all Scripture” would have been understood primarily as referring to the Old Testament, Paul seemed to think that the Old Testament was inspired and useful in its entirety and I think that ought to give us pause.

It ought to make us reconsider what value there might be in the imprecatory psalms.

I would argue strongly for their retention. I think their loss would be a tragedy that would diminish and impoverish the church of Jesus Christ. I think a Christian can and should pray psalms like Psalm 58 and I believe that for the following reasons:

Because similar prayers can be found in the New Testament

Psalm 58 is not that different than the prayer prayed by the souls of the martyrs in Revelation 6. Deep into the New Testament we read about saved people who:

cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10 ESV)

To state the obvious, Revelation 6:10 sounds a great deal like Psalm 58:10.

Therefore it cannot be “sub-Christian” to pray a prayer like that.

It must be possible to “leave it to the wrath of God” (Romans 12:19) and to love our enemies while still praying for judgment, recompense and vindication. It might be helpful here to observe that in both cases – Psalm 58 and Revelation 6 – we are talking about prayers, not plans. The psalmist does not say: “Help me slay my enemies” nor do the saints say “give us leave to pursue our adversaries” – they leave all in the hand of God.

Old Testament and New, that is what the Bible tells us to do.

The Bible tells us not to waste time in our short lives pursuing personal grievances. It tells us to forgive and to love and to show mercy and to invite all people into covenant relationship with God through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But it does not tell us to be indifferent towards matters of justice.

Far from it.

It promises that at the end there will be judgment. No one will get away with anything. God will keep track and all sin will be dealt with – in the body of Christ on the cross or in the body of those who refuse repentance.

To pray for what is promised is in no sense sub-Christian.

Thanks be to God!

Because they remind us that God is holy

There is a great deal of talk these days about the unconquerable love of God – and so there should be.

God is love.

And he is also holy, holy, holy.

We mustn’t ever speak of one aspect of God’s character as if it obliterates any other. God is all of who he is in everything he does. His love does not defeat or overpower or in any way obscure his holiness, and therefore we must study the entirety of his self-disclosure in order to ensure that our thoughts and statements, prayers, sermons and songs conform to the fullness of his revelation.

According to that revelation – Old Testament and New – God will judge the wicked and vindicate his covenant people. The imprecatory psalms keep that aspect of God’s character fixed in our view.

Gordon Wenham puts it well when he says: “These psalms can serve to wake us up from our structural amnesia about God.” [2]

The human heart is an idol factory. Left to our own devices; unhitched from the fullness of God’s self-disclosure, we will make God something less and we will make him something other than he is. The imprecatory psalms put his words in our mouths and in doing so correct and reform our prayers.

Because they align us with the persecuted church

It may be that our current dissatisfaction with the imprecatory psalms owes largely to the fact that we struggle, thankfully, to identify any real enemies or adversaries in our lives. We’ve never been surrounded by foes who seek our destruction. Our words are not daily twisted and contorted. We are not on the run, living in a cave, one step ahead of those who want to kill us.

We are at home – perhaps too at home – in our largely peaceful, prosperous and accommodating culture and so we feel no particular attachment to these desperate and bloody psalms.

Yet I imagine they seem a little more comprehensible to Christians hiding from the authorities in mainline China.

I imagine they flow right off the tongue in the labour camps of North Korea.

I imagine they bring comfort, hope and resolve in the basement of Evin prison in Tehran.

If you can’t pray Psalm 58 for yourself, then try praying it for someone else. Perhaps you can pray it for your brothers and sisters in Pakistan. Perhaps you can pray it for the saints in Egypt, Libya or the South Sudan.

Erich Zenger argued that eliminating prayers like those provided for us in Psalm 58 “would reduce the biblical God to a spectator uninterested in this world.” [3]

That is precisely what the saints in Revelation 6 are praying against.

Because they amplify our gratitude and expedite our mission

The imprecatory psalms foretell the wrath of God against all those who remain his enemies. Indeed many scholars believe that they function both as prayer and prophesy. Thomas Scott for example said:

It cannot be denied that the form of imprecation is often used, implying that the impenitent enemies of God and Christ will perish, with the approbation of all holy creatures; and that the very prayers of believers for themselves and the church will be answered in the destruction of their enemies. [4]

When we read these psalms we are reminded of the punishment we have been saved from by the cross of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul said that: “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10 ESV).

Had Jesus not done what he did then we would receive the punishment for which David prayed.

Every time you read a psalm like Psalm 58 you should remember that.

You should remember that you were an enemy of God and yet he had pity on you. That should motivate you to gratitude, worship and praise. It should also motivate you to mercy.

In Romans 12 the Apostle Paul encourages Christians to “leave it to the wrath of God” but then he also goes on to say:

if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. (Romans 12:20 ESV)

Mercy towards an enemy inspires repentance.

As you have received, go and do to others.

The imprecatory psalms remind us of what is at stake. They remind us that: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”(Hebrews 10:31 ESV).

Therefore let us be urgent, prayerful and instant in our evangelism.

Let us be as clear and compelling as the psalms themselves.

Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psalms 2:12 ESV)

That is our message. These are our psalms. And this is the Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God!

Paul Carter

N.B. To hear a full length podcast on Psalm 58 by Pastor Paul Carter see here. To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes.

[1] Imprecatory psalms are those that pray for judgment against those who oppose God, his Anointed King in specific and his covenant people in general.

[2] Gordon Wenham, The Psalter Reclaimed (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 141.

[3] Erich Zenger, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath as cited in Gordon Wenham The Psalter Reclaimed (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 140.

[4] Thomas Scott as cited by W.S. Plumer, Psalms  (Edinburgh: The Banner Of Truth Trust, 2016), 15.