Friday, August 14, 2009

What to do with the imprecatory psalms (part 1)

As part of my doctoral studies on suffering for righteousness in the book of Psalms (before I had to abandon them because of health issues), I had to wrestle through what biblical scholars call "The Imprecatory Psalms." These are the psalms that cry out to God for vengeance on their enemies. They call down curses on their foes and look forward to their destruction. Psalms like 137 that declares, "Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (verse 9)." Or Psalm 58:

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. (verses 6-10)

Many Christians are uncomfortable with these verses. The Anglican Church of Canada's Book of Common Prayer actually removes them from the Psalter as being inappropriate for Christians to pray such sentiments.

Recently, however, I came across an excellent discussion on the Imprecatory Psalms by John N. Bray, pastor of the Bellewood Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, Washington. Entitled, "Crying for Justice" (Kregel, 2005). In this concise exposition, Dr. Bray demonstrates conclusively, I believe, that these words are the prayers of God's people today as well as they face extreme suffering and oppression. In page 13, he summarizes his position with the following observations:

But the question may yet be asked, "How can it be right for Christians to cry out for divine vengeance and violence, as in the imprecatory psalms?" Four observations from Scripture address this question.

First, the vengeance appealed for is not personally enacted. Rather, God is called upon to be the Avenger.

Second, this appeal is based upon the covenant promises of God, most notable of which are "He who curses you, I will curse" (Gen. 12:3), and "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay" (Deut. 32:35). If God has so promised, then it would not seem wrong for his people to petition him (even passionately) to fulfill these promises!!

Third, both testaments record examples of God's people on earth calling down curses or crying for vengeance. Yet there is no literary or theological intimation of divine disapproval over such sentiments being expressed. Indeed, the implication is that, in its appropriate place, such utterances are commendable (cf. the imprecatory psalms and the Pauline and Petrine curses of Gal. 1:8-9 and Acts 8:20).
Fourth, Scripture further records an instance in which God's people in heaven, where there is no sin, cry out for divine vengeance and are comforted by the assurance of its impending enactment (Rev. 6:9-11). Since these martyred saints are perfected, their entreaty would presumably be "right."

Of course, Day develops his thought much more completely in the rest of the book. But I thought that I might just whet your appetite for more. I would highly recommend this valuable resource. You can order one from most online book stores like Chapters, Amazons or Abesbooks.


Post a Comment