VIOLENT PSALMS

Violent psalms seem to run contrary to the teachings of love and peace found in the Bible.

QUESTION: Some of the psalms seem to be downright nasty, asking God to do terrible things to certain people (like break their teeth)! How does this square with "God is love"?

ANSWER: What you are looking at are what are known as the imprecatory psalms (psalms of cursing). Several of the psalms belong in this category (Ps. 35, 52, 55, 58, 59, 79, 109, and 137), though Psalm 109 is perhaps chief among them. William MacDonald calls it "the king of the imprecatory psalms." He notes, "No other calls down the judgment of God with such distilled vitriol or with such comprehensive detail." These passages are cries for the vengeance of God to be meted out against His enemies–who are therefore also the enemies of the righteous.

The Bible certainly contains both, blessings and cursings, the grace of God, and the wrath of God are plainly revealed there. Interestingly, the royal anthem honouring the Queen of England combines both a prayer for God's blessing on the monarch, and a strongly worded call for His judgment on her enemies. The song begins, "God save our gracious Queen; / Long live our noble Queen..." but later moves on to, "O Lord, our God, arise, / Scatter her enemies, / And make them fall; / Confound their politics, / Frustrate their knavish tricks, / On Thee our hopes we fix, / O save us all."

That being noted, the tone of the imprecatory psalms is disturbing to some, and several explanations have been offered for them.

1) If one rejects the inspiration of Scripture, these may be seen as simply ancient rants of less than perfect men. The present writer, however, is convinced the Word of God is verbally inspired and trustworthy. We cannot simply shrug of the imprecatory psalms as the result of human bigotry and temper tantrums.

2) Some who believe the Bible to be the Word of God view the imprecatory psalms as indeed being part of inspired Scripture, but as passages that express an attitude God does not condone. In other words, the idea is that they are part of the historical record, but not something that comes from the Lord.

Certainly there are instances where the animosity of the ungodly is expressed in Scripture (cf. Ps. 2:2-3). But never in such an extended way, and not from one like David (here), whom God describes as "a man after My own heart" (Acts 13:22). The book of Psalms was the hymn book of Israel, and of the early church as well. It would hardly do for the saints to be singing such things if they were contrary to God's will and purpose.

3) Another suggestion is that they belong to the more violent Old Testament atmosphere of law and judgment, and are not appropriate today in the Age of Grace. The problem with that is that we do have instances of cursing and condemnation on this side of the cross too. When Simon the Sorcerer tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter exclaimed, "Your money perish with you!" (Acts 8:20). And Paul, distressed by the false gospel of the Judaizers, twice pronounces a curse on them as enemies of grace (Gal. 1:8-9). Later, he declares, "If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed!" (I Cor. 16:22).

4) The above New Testament examples also weaken the claim that the imprecatory psalms are relevant only to God's concern for the nation of Israel, His chosen nation on earth. That because of the Jews' unique position, their enemies were God's enemies. While this is true, it does not seem to fully explain the case. The body of Christ (the church) is uniquely loved by God as well. "Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her" (Eph. 5:25).

He so identifies with the church as to declare that those who oppose believers today oppose Him too (Acts 9:4-5). Speaking to the church at Thessalonica, on God's behalf, Paul says, "It is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you" (II Thess. 1:6). Indirectly, we ask for the same thing when we pray, "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6:10).

5) It should be noted that the imprecatory psalms are not voiced out of personal and petty vindictiveness. The psalmists in their imprecations have a righteous purpose in view. They place vengeance in the hands of God, as they should (Deut. 32:35), and are desirous of God's character being vindicated, to His greater honour and glory.

The psalmists were speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as God's representatives on earth, and reflecting His anger over sin. (And "God is angry with the wicked every day," Ps. 7:11.) This seems much closer to the mark. If we see wrongdoing through the eyes of the Almighty, and from the perspective of the white-hot purity of a holy God, this is the response that such a view will engender. And it is compatible with the New Testament exhortation not to avenge ourselves, but to put vengeance in the hands of God, and His appointed instruments (Rom. 12:19; 13:1-4).

6) The righteous indignation of the saints is justifiable and appropriate, as it views wickedness and injustice from God's perspective. And God Himself has declared He will punish sinners. "The wicked shall be turned into hell" (Ps. 9:17). Seen in this vein, these passages become almost prophecies of how God will deal with unrepentant sinners. MacDonald states that "many of these passages could just as correctly be translated in the future tense as in the imperative."

There is some merit to this idea. Over a dozen times in vs. 6-31, the psalmist uses the word "let" to indicate his desire for God's justice. "Let him be found guilty" (vs. 7). The NIV often uses the word "may," instead (e.g. "May his prayers condemn him," vs. 7). But Young's Literal Translation simply states each as a fact, indicating what a just God will do. "His days are few" (vs. 8); "His sons are fatherless" (vs. 9), and so on.

The New Testament speaks clearly of "the wrath to come" (II Thess. 1:10), when "the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power" (II Thess. 1:7-9). The imprecatory psalms represent an expression of God's wrath, and His just punishment of sin. Such attitudes are neither alien nor inappropriate to a holy God. Uncomfortable though we may feel about that, God's will in the matter is exactly what we would want if we had all the facts.

In fact, just that attitude was expressed at Calvary. It was a place of terrible judgment. And that God would pour out that wrathful judgment upon His own beloved and sinless Son, dying in our place, reveals His amazing grace toward us. There is the other side of it. We must not turn away from the Bible's revelation of God's absolute holiness, and His righteous dealings with sinners. But those qualities must also be balanced with His mercy, compassion, love, grace, patience and so on.

For ourselves, there is a place for righteous indignation at the malice and cruelty of the wicked. (Does the record of the Nazi's treatment of the Jews not appal us? Are we not disturbed and angered when we hear of the perverted abuse and murder of a little child?) However, we must also reflect the grace and love of God in reaching out to the lost. We speak up for those who are oppressed, and do what we can for them, leaving the ultimate judgment of the wicked in the hands of God, and meantime do all we can to win them to the Saviour.