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Is there any book of the Bible more beloved than the Psalms? Many people, when asked, “Which is your favorite book of the Bible?” gladly (in some cases almost proudly) reply: “The Psalms!” Perhaps the best-known and most-quoted Bible verse, even for the unchurched and unconverted, comes from this book. Who doesn’t know and can’t quote “The LORD is my shepherd”?
The popularity of the Psalms is hardly surprising. There we find exuberant doxology, from which many of today’s widely used praise songs have sprung. The Psalms exhort all humanity to “Make a joyful shout to the LORD!” (100) and give Christians a wealth of examples as to how to “Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy name!” (103). There, too, by contrast, we hear David’s wrenching heart cries to God for help and forgiveness. These prayers strike such a common chord with us that we readily make them our own.
But those who read more systematically in this precious book soon encounter those “un-Christian-sounding” prayers for vindication, begging God to rain down hideous judgment and unrelenting fury on the wicked people of earth (see examples in Pss. 5, 7, 9, 10, 13, 16, 21, 23, 28, 31, 35, 36, 40, 41, 44, 52, 54, 55, 58, 59, 68, 69, 70, 71, 137, 139, etc.). Then, if we’re thinking at all honestly, we wince, back off a few steps, and reflect: “But I am wicked, too. What can this mean?”
The church needs the whole of Scripture in order to learn how to practice its supremely important mission of prayer, and there’s no better book on prayer than the book of Psalms. It was the prayer book of Jesus Christ, our example, and has been used by the church as such throughout its history. Since these prayers of cursing are included (actually pervading the Psalter, with examples in nearly one of every five psalms), we must set aside our revulsion or fear and establish essential principles to enable us to profit from this part of God’s Word, which was given to teach us how to pray that His kingdom would come.
First, we must settle clearly that however hard they may be for us to understand or accept, these prickly imprecations are the inspired Word of God. Sadly, and to their loss, many Christians and even whole churches are so swayed by their personal feelings that they deny the inspiration of these psalms. The popular Halley’s Bible Handbook has led many into error on this issue, deprecating the imprecatory psalms with these words: “In Old Testament times God, in measure, for expedience’ sake, accommodated Himself to men’s ideas. In New Testament times God began to deal with men according to His own ideas” (p. 191).
Fellow pastors, we must lead our flocks by showing them that this blatant rejection of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is not only a resurgence of the ancient heresy of Marcionism and an anti-Semitic ideology, but a current example of idolatry. Since our sinful condition disposes us to be more fond of our own ideas than of God’s revealed truth, we must be warned and reminded that whoever rejects the God of the Old Testament rejects the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Second, we must recognize that these psalms are the prayers of Jesus Christ Himself.
The question, “Who is praying for God to destroy His enemies?” is really the critical issue with the imprecatory psalms. If you were to ask God to destroy your personal enemy, that, in essence, would be cursing that enemy and, therefore, sinful. But if the King of Peace asks God to destroy His enemies, that is another matter (read through Pss. 18 and 101).
The whole of the Psalter is prayed in the spirit of Christ, who was in David as the Lord’s anointed one. Jesus used the Psalms as His own prayer book in the Jewish synagogue and sang from it at all the temple festivals. He spoke the Psalms as fulfilled in Himself.
Third, these prayers are for our use as the church of Jesus Christ today. In order for us to pray these prayers, it’s essential that we realize that these are not expressions of personal vengeance, which God’s Word elsewhere prohibits. Rather, they are an evidence of the psalmist’s zeal for God’s glory. He’s deeply grieved that evil men are not honoring God. With a biblical perspective on all of life and history, we see that the glory of God is central. This enables us to forgive our enemies for His name’s sake, show Christ’s love and mercy when it is humanly impossible, and leave the results in His just hands.
The necessary balance was preached and lived by one of the great modern theologians, with whom I enjoyed a treasured personal friendship and with whom I prayed as he wept with grief over the lost condition of his neighbors. Dr. Cornelius Van Til taught: “It is at all times a part of the task of the people of God to destroy evil. Once we see this we do not, for instance, meanly apologize for the imprecatory psalms but glory in them.”
We often deplore the lack of vigor in our churches. Where has the glory gone from Christ’s church today? We see even many Reformed churches in a deplorable state of anemia, basely apologizing for the Scriptures. Is there joy in the Christian community? How can we regain the glory of the saints? We’re given the answer by the psalmist, who spoke by the Spirit of Christ (1 Peter 1:11) in his prayer recorded in Psalm 149:5–9:
“Let the saints be joyful in glory;
Let them sing aloud on their beds.
Let the high praises of God be in their mouth,
And a two-edged sword in their hand,
To execute vengeance on the nations,
And punishments on the peoples;
To bind their kings with chains,
And their nobles with fetters of iron;
To execute on them the written judgment—
This honor have all His saints.”
The glory will come as we obediently return to praying the imprecatory psalms for His kingdom to come: that evil men bow to the Lord Jesus Christ or be destroyed as His enemies. Let us fervently pray the inspired prayers of Christ, prayers that are the Word of our holy God Himself given for our instruction and use.