Friday, August 14, 2009

What to do with the imprecatory psalms (part 2)

imprecatory-psalm-smashing-baby How are we to take Psalm 58 with its prayer to God to smash in the mouths of their enemies (verse 7), and the expressed wish of the psalmist to have the righteous bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked (verse 11)? Or of Psalm 109 with its prayer that God would make the children of the wicked man fatherless and his wife a widow (verse 9)? And what of the author of Psalm 137 rejoicing at the thought of the little ones of Babylon being dashed against the rocks (verse 9)? How are these psalms to be reconciled with the teachings of Jesus to love one’s enemies and to forgive them?

Several things need to be considered. First, it must be remembered that these are prayers for divine justice, not human grudges.[1] The petitioners are asking for God to take direct action; they do not ask for the power to take things into their own hands and to be able to personally punish their foes, nor is permission ever granted for them to do so.[2] In these petitions, the psalmists pour out their pain, anger and hurt. The tone is indicative of the horrors that they have faced.[3] They startle us into feeling something of the desperation that produced these words.[4] But the psalmists do not hide these less "noble" sentiments from us, and God, in His sovereignty, inspired them to record them for our good. Among the lessons we may learn from their inclusion in the canon is the fact that God is less shockable than we are, looks beyond the words to the heart of the supplicant and is afflicted in all our afflictions.[5] Hence, He is pleased when His people pour out their hearts to Him in their entirety.

Additionally, it should be noted that forgiveness of enemies and gaining God’s perspective is not found in concealing these emotions, but in acknowledging them to God, which is what these writers do.[6] As Bonhoeffer writes, "It would mean much if we would learn that we must earnestly pray to God in such distress and that whoever entrusts revenge to God dismisses any thought of ever taking revenge himself."[7]

To rejoice in the fall of our enemies is also not strictly an Old Testament sentiment. The fall of Babylon in Revelation 18, for example contains language reminiscent of the imprecatory psalms.[8] Jesus instructed His disciples to curse cities that did not receive them (Matt.10:14). He, Himself, called down judgment on Bethsaida and Capernaum (Matt. 11:21-24). Paul declared a curse on anyone who did not love the Lord (1 Cor. 16:22) and on anyone who preaches another Jesus (Galatians 1:8-9). The martyrs in heaven cry out for vengeance on those who killed them (Rev. 6:9-10). Hence, the desire to see justice is not strictly a reflection of a less graceful Old Testament disposition corrected in the revelation of Christ.

The imprecatory psalms also challenge the reader to identify with the oppressed and suffering, even though he, himself, may be quite comfortable.[9] They invite us to pray on behalf of others, as they evoke in us an awareness of the wickedness that is in the world. They may not, as Tate, reminds us, be our prayers, at the present moment, but they are the prayers of our brothers and sisters who are trampled down by persons and powers beyond their control.[10] The Christian church has long seen these psalms as the prayers of Christ on behalf of the suffering and needy. Bonhoeffer revived this old tradition in his small book Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible[11] and his sermon on Psalm 58.[12] The incarnate Son of God, knowing all of our weakness, is able to stand in our place before God and pray these prayers on our behalf. Hence, they really truly are our prayers, as well as His.[13] As the perfect Son of God, He is able to pray these prayers without guilt, which we cannot do for we are liable to be reminded of our own guilt and how we often act as those against whom we are praying. Hence, these psalms may awake in us an acute awareness of our own violent sins and hatred for others, and of our need for confession and repentance.[14]

[1] Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Skeptics Ask. Victor Books, 1992: 242.
[2] Marvin E. Tate. Psalm 51-100. Word Biblical Commentary, Word, 1990: 88-89.
[3] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72. InterVarsity Press, 1973: 27.
[4] Ibid.: 28
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid: 88.
[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "A Bonhoeffer Sermon." Theology Today 38, 1982: 469.
[8] It may also be helpful to note that God is mentioned as a God of love more often in the Old Testament than in the New (cf. Geisler and Howe: 242).
[9] Tate: 89.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible. trans. James H. Burtness. Augsburg Publishing Co., 1970: 20-21.
[12] Bonhoeffer, "A Bonhoeffer Sermon"
[13] Bonhoeffer, Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible: 21
[14] cf. Tate: 90


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