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Imprecatory Psalms (Part 1) [Podcast]

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Tim Kimberly (TK): Fellas, it’s super good to be back together again today, and we are talking about the imprecatory Psalms; which, just that name ‘imprecatory’ doesn’t really sound overly nice.

It’s not like “Hey, Mom, I want imprecatory for my birthday!”

It’s…imprecatory itself is…these are the psalms where basically we are asking God to destroy people.

Michael Patton (MP): What does imprecatory mean?

Sam Storms (SS): It means, “Get ’em, God!”

Imprecatory Psalm (Part 1 of 2)

TK: Get ’em, God. Let me throw out an example, and then we’re going to spend our time hashing this out, but Psalm 58 verse 6 is just an example.

Here, David is praying, and his prayer is, “Oh, God, break the teeth in their mouths. Tear out the fangs of the young lions, oh 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.”

All right? Okay, so there’s this calling on God to do this to people that David knows, and when we approach Scripture, and this is what I would love for us to hash it out about, as we approach Scripture, if my coworkers, or my boss, or my mother-in-law, if I’m having conflict with them, like can I confidently…the Word of God never changes, God never changes…can I pray Psalm 58 verse 6 towards my mother-in-law? Even though…

MP: It just doesn’t seem right.

SS: Well, let me give you another example. It’s also a colossal case of what I call ‘selective Bible reading.’ After Psalm 23, what’s the most famous Psalm? 139, most likely; 139. So you have this great and glorious description of God knowing us, and we can never escape His presence, and we’re formed in the womb, and He knows us from birth, and then everybody reads the last two verses of the psalm. It’s their prayer:

“Search me, oh God, and know my heart. Try me, and know my thoughts.”

And it’s very interesting how they conveniently ignore verses 18 through 22.

So, right after David says, “How precious to me are your thoughts, oh God.” (I’ve got to change my tone of voice when I say that).

“How vast is the sum of them,” and then he says in the very next breath, “Oh, that you would slay the wicked, oh God. Oh men of blood, depart from me. They speak against You with malicious intent. Your enemies take your name in vain.” And then listen to this, “Do I [David] not hate those who hate you, oh Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred. I count them my enemies.”

And then he closes again with this very well-known passage. How many people actually read and pay attention to verses 19 through 22?

MP: Yeah, they’re not memory verses.

SS: And what does that do to the old “love the sinner, hate the sin”?

Here’s David: “Do I not hate those that hate you, oh Lord? I loathe them.”

MP: Can you imagine somebody coming up and having those as memory verses?

And what you would think of them, saying, “My favorite verse in all the Bible is this”?

And you’d be like, “I hate those who hate you…”

SS: “I hate them with complete hatred,” he says.

TK: But, if we had asked David, maybe he was like, you know, “Hey, what were some of your favorite things that God had you write in Scripture?”

He might have said that verse, you know? He could approach that, and I think when we look culturally, you know, many Christians interacting with Planned Parenthood and what’s happening with them. You think about ISIS and all the beheadings and stuff.

SS: And Boko HaramKidnapping and sexually using girls, you know, hundreds of them; I read the imprecatory Psalms in light of those events and I say, “Yeah.”

MP: Well, I would read it in light of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and where he says, “Hate, hate, hate, double-hate, loathe entirely.”  He’s the Grinch! He’s supposed to say that kind of stuff. Is it the Grinch?

TK: Well, but are you supposed to say that stuff?

MP: Are we supposed to be the Grinch?

SS: Well, are these inspired texts? I mean, I was looking back through some of the things I’d read on the imprecatory Psalms, and it’s amazing how otherwise seemingly really Evangelical authors say things like, “These are cold-blooded expressions of malignant cruelty and must never be regarded as inspired.”

C.S. Lewis called these Psalms devilish.

Peter Craigie, one of the great Old Testament commentators, said, bluntly, “These Psalms are not the oracles of God,” So, what are we to do?

Are these just psalmists and Old Testament, otherwise seemingly Godly people, having a bad day, and just blurting out their most venomous reactions, and we’re supposed to say, “Okay, maybe these are like some of the stories and speeches in Job: they’re only there, they’re recorded, because that’s what they said and felt, but they’re not prescriptive, or normative, for us?”  How do we approach these kinds of texts?

TK: Well, because then if you do that, I mean, you are on a slippery slope, because then what you’re basically saying is, “If it feels good to you, it was probably written by God; but if it doesn’t feel good to you…”

MP: Well, not necessarily not written by God, but things that aren’t prescriptive, possibly, that aren’t telling us, “This is what we’re supposed to do.” That’s the common interpretation.

TK: Okay, well, let’s go there, then. Are the prescriptive things only the things that you feel good about being prescribed those?

So you would say, “Well, that’s descriptive because I don’t want to say that to anybody because that’s not politically correct.”

SS: Well, what about Job’s friends? I mentioned that. Job’s friends…none of us, I don’t think any evangelical, would say that their perspective on Job’s suffering, or their concept of God, is one that we’re supposed to embrace.

TK: Well, because God comes at the end and calls them out.

SS: Yeah, that’s true.

MP: Yeah, and we have an easier time discerning because they’re Job’s friends. Even though some of what Job’s friends say is correct, and I’ve even heard people quote Job’s friends from memory, as memory verses; but at the same time, they are Job’s friends, and it’s easier to discern, but this is David.

SS: He’s probably one of the least vengeful men in the entire Bible, if you think about it. All the opportunities he had to get Saul and other things. And was a very peaceable man.

MP: And he was very passive as well, especially when it comes to his own problems, and his own sins, and dealing with those in the past, and, you know, how he dealt with Absolom; and was very passive with him, which ended up being a bad thing because he would not give any imprecadation [sic] toward Absolom. He was not forthright; but here he is being forthright with his enemies, and maybe it’s earlier in his life when he felt a little bit more self-righteous. I don’t know.

TK: But you see very early in his life where he’s refusing to kill Saul, though, and he has every right to pray these and act this way against Saul, as well. So…

MP: Well, now I’m more confused than ever! Sam, why did you bring this up?

SS: Well, I just am  glad that you coined a new word, and you didn’t even know itimprecadation. I guess that’s what you do when you pray an imprecatory Psalm, you just imprecadated somebody. I’ve got to be careful; that’s a dangerous word!

TK: Well, guys, let me pose a question that I’m chewing on: is there a difference with Jesus’ arrival, His life, His death, His resurrectionis there a difference in how we look at this chapter pre-Jesus coming and post-Jesus coming?

JJ Seid (JS): Absolutely, there needs to be. I mean, this is highlighting one of the great weaknesses of American Evangelicals. We’re not great with Biblical theology, defined as reading the Bible in order, you know? We’re pretty strong on systematic theology: what does the whole Bible say about prayer? What does the whole Bible say about hell? We’re weak on: what’s the significance of the fact that Isaiah comes before 1 Peter, and why should I care? And how does that change the way I read Isaiah?

MP: I’m just impressed you finally spoke up.

JS: I was exercising my listening gifts, which aren’t really commendable on a radio broadcast.

SS: Would it surprise anyone to know that Jesus basically spoke words of imprecation? You remember Matthew 23, when He’s denouncing the Pharisees?

He said things like, “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites,” and then He says, “Fill up then the measure of your fathers, you serpents, you brood of vipers. How are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”

Pretty serious.

JS: Those of us who have a robust awareness of how jacked up humans are, I don’t know that we have a huge sticking point with God making judgmental pronouncements. I think we probably have a bit of a sticking point with a fellow worm doing it to his fellow worms. I mean, where does David get off making these pronouncements?

MP: And what does Paul later on say about what we’re to do to our enemies?

Christ says, “Bless those who curse you.”

And Paul says in Romans chapter 12, that we are to “heap coals upon their head” by leaving judgment to God, by basically staying silent and staying out of the judgmental businesswith our enemies, at least.

JS: What’s the significance of Israel being a theocracy, you know, and somebody making physical war upon the nation of Israel and what that meant about those people’s intent against the God who founded this nation? I think we’ve got to get to this whole idea of the Retributive Principle as well. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with that term.

SS: That and imprecadation, I got.

JS: The Retributive Principle has been very helpful for me, and several Old Testament scholars have pointed out that there was this dynamic where there was a Biblical truth that forand you guys tell me if you agree with this interpretation that several scholars have put forwardbut, is that people of faith, like David, took a truth, and then added a half-truth to it, and all of a sudden ended up with a lie.

So the truth was, “God will punish the wicked and He will reward the righteous.”

That’s clearly taught in Scripture. God explained that to the Jews. He explained to them that, ultimately, that’s the way the world works. Now, of course, because of the unfolding of Revelation, He then explained to them exactly how He was going to make that all work.

And so you get things like Psalm 73: “What’s going on, Lord? The wicked are flourishing and the righteous are not. It’s going to stumble me; it’s going to make my foot slip,” and what does he ultimately say? “It wasn’t until I went into the temple and I saw their end: ‘Behold you’ve set them in slippery places’.”

And so, he had to get sort of a peek behind the veil, that God wasn’t letting people off the hook. He wasn’t some bamboozled, senile grandfather on the porch; nothing was getting by Him, it just wasn’t happening yet.

MP: So are you saying that after David came to this revelation, and the peek behind the veil, that he no longer wrote imprecatory psalms?

JS: Well, first of all, David didn’t write Psalm 73, but my point is…

SS: Boom!

MP: Golly, I’m just sinking low right now.

TK: Michael, get off the floor! It’s okay, you can join the conversation.

JS: So, the truth is that “God blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked.”  So then, what they extrapolated from that—the scholars argue, and I find this persuasive—is that, therefore, anyone who’s suffering is being punished by God, and anyone who’s prospering is being blessed by God.

Well, so now you begin to understand some of the outrage: “God, this is actually maligning Your reputation. If the righteous continue to be kicked to the curb, and the wicked keep flourishing, isn’t that bad on You God? Don’t You want to rise up and vindicate Your own name? If the wicked keep getting away with stuff, doesn’t that affect Your reputation?”

MP: Are you saying, then, that there’s no direct application to where we can say the same type of things to people?

JS: Well, and again, see…I don’t want to be cute and dodge that question, it’s just we tend to ask that one first and we should ask it last because, again, we’re weak on Biblical theology, so we need to understand this Psalm and its place.

MP: It’s coming close to being last.

JS: You know, and its place in unfolding narrative of redemptive history, and David’s place is different than our vantage point.

SS: Yeah, but…how’s that for…yeah, but…

TK: Yeah, nice transition.

JS: Push back, push back.

SS: What about Paul’s prayer, or statement, in 1 Corinthians 16: he closes the letter by saying, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.

That’s a prayer request, and the word there is anathema, ‘let him come under the wrath and judgment of God.’

Same thing we find in Galatians 1:8, everyone knows this: “If anyone should preach a gospel contrary to the one that we preach, let him be anathema;” or Paul in 2 Timothy 4:14, when he says, regarding Alexander the coppersmith, “The Lord will repay him according to his deeds.”

We have a number of these kinds of declarations in the New Testament as well. They’re not obviously as graphic as the ones we’ve read from the Psalms, but the principle of imprecation is even…I mean, think about something as simple as the Lord’s prayer. When you and I pray, “Thy kingdom come,” we think of that in glowingly positive termsoh, the expansion and the growth of God’s kingdom and His sovereign rule. Well, guess what: those who resist it are going to be crushed when God’s kingdom comes. So, when you’re praying, “Thy kingdom come,” you are implicitly, indirectly asking for God to judge, and to overcome, and vanquish those who oppose it.

MP: Well, and the difficulty is, though, coming back to the difficulties, is looking at Jesus once again and people will bring up, and my thoughts get brought up, is: what did He say from the cross about His enemies?

“Forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”

There was no imprecadation at that point coming from Christ.

JS: Well, and I think that would be more significant if that was His first and only coming, right? You know, so I mean, He very deliberately explained that He had two comings that had two very different purposes; and when He appears with a sword and words written on His thigh and the blood goes up to the bridles in the book of Revelation, then all of a sudden, you’re right Sam, you have something that people like to think of as an Old Testament picture, and there it is smack in the New Testament, you know, of a great battle scene, of people being slaughtered.

SS: But I don’t think…and you read in Revelation 19, “all of heaven is rejoicing” about the judgments that are being poured out upon the unbelieving of the earth.

MP: And that’s true; but again, we look at Christ and we see He has every right to bring about judgment. He has every right to say things that are accurate about someone, but here’s David bringing about a curse on his enemies, and we think, “Hey, do you really know them? Do you get…are you trying to understand them? Are you trying to help them? Are you looking at it from their perspective?” I mean, it’s just…he is unable to see things from our perspectiveI know he’s inspired, but from our perspective it’s like, “He’s just coming down awfully judgmental.”

JS: Is it a little bit of this like an embassy bombing in the sense of, you know, to attack an Israelite, to attack the nation of Israel, is to declare war against God? I mean, aren’t those things sort of intertwined?

And here’s David as an Israelite king, saying, “Hey, you don’t understand. You’re not just fighting me. When you fight me, when we’re not in an unrepentant state as a nation, you know, pursuing idolatry, and we’re actually worshiping God, you know, you’re resisting the Creator of the universe.”

TK: Well, and to go back to David, you see that in David and Goliath, in that story as well, is that what David is so upset at is how this giant thinks that he can speak this way about God’s people.

You know, and so David is overwhelmed with this thought of like, “How can you speak that way?”

JS: What a great example. He seemed to have genuine, sort of righteous indignation.

TK: Yeah, he has righteous anger that, “I’m going to cut your head off, because how could you even dare speak this way against God?”

SS: Let me back up for just a second. Let’s get one thing settled as much as we can. I’m assuming we’re all going to agree on this, except for Michael.

TK: I’m going to say the definitive thing, you’ll all agree, and we’ll all live happily ever after.

SS: There are no fewer than thirty-six Psalms, out of a hundred and fifty, thirty-six, one-fifth, more than one-fifth that have extended imprecations, imprecatory prayers.

MP: Imprecadations.

SS: We have numerous other texts. Michael, you and I were talking earlier about this passage from Nehemiah, is it chapter 4?

MP: Yeah.

SS: Numerous others in the Old Testament as well. Are we in agreement that, obviously, they are inspired? God preserved them for us in Scripture, but do we agree, or not, that they are normative and prescriptive, in some sense, in some capacity? In other words…or are we going to take the side of those who say, “Look, we have to realize the psalmists were earthy, highly emotional individuals, who were living in a culture that was constantly under…engaged in battles and wars and pagans who were threatening them. And therefore, we just need to let them be human, and let them vent their own vitriol against their enemies.” Are we going to…

MP: He’s really demeaning my position right now.

TK: And JJ’s position.

JS: Oh, no! Don’t smuggle me into that. I agree with Sam. You’re right.

SS: What do we want to do with those?

JS: I want to contextualize them, but I don’t want to explain them away, and I don’t think we should be embarrassed by them, and I don’t think we should apologize for them, and I don’t think we get to selectively make them human only and not divine. I agree with you. I think it’s just important that we do still contextualize them.

TK: Okay, well let’s…could we go around, the four of us…

SS: And let me say, real quick, before…let’s just be clear about one thing: in saying ‘contextualize them’, and I know you’re not saying this, but I want our listeners to be sure, we’re not arguing that the God of the Old Testament is different from the Father of Jesus, because a lot of people think that.

They say, “Oh, that’s the God of…that’s the vengeful, vindictive bully of the Old Testament, but the Father of Jesus, well He’s a lovable teddy bear, a big Santa Claus in the sky.”

We’re not going anywhere near that. We’re talking about one God, the only God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

MP: And I think we would also say, all of us would agree, every bit of these are just as inspired as anything else in the Bible. It’s just a matter of interpretation.

JS: It’s not that we’re saying that these people don’t deserve judgment any more than we deserve judgment. What we’re saying is…I think what we’re dancing around is: should we pray like this?

TK: Yes.

JS: And I think that’s where we have to say, “Yes and no.”

MP: Or should we think like this?

SS: Well, Peter, in the book of Acts chapter 1 invokes the imprecation from Psalm 69 on Judas for his betrayal of Jesus. Paul, in Romans 11, invokes the imprecation of Psalm 69 to describe the hardening that has come upon Israel. So here are two apostles who are citing Old Testament imprecations, and applying them to circumstances in the new covenant.

TK: Yeah, and I think where some people get really messed up on this too is what we’ve alluded to as well, is that too many Christians have a wrong view of the Old Testament; that the idea is that God is angry in the Old Testament, and He’s nice in the New Testament. And I would say, if that’s your view, you just haven’t read the Old Testament enough…

SS: Or the New!

TK: Or read the book of Revelation enough. Yeah, that’s a good point. You need to read both because you should be overwhelmed by God’s grace as much in the Old Testament as in the New Testament, because He is slow to anger, He’s gracious…

MP: And you’re not speaking about anything that’s far and distant. I mean, there are people from the very beginning of church history, Marcion, who has separated the Old and the New Testament, and people who are doing it even today in practical means to where they don’t read the Old Testament because it’s too…

I know a very good Christian who just says, “I don’t read the Old Testament because it’s just too hard.”

SS: Or too bloody.

TK: Yeah, and we need to grow up; we need to sit at the big kids table, and we need to realize that our God is so loving He reaches out His hand to us, but He is just and He is a consuming fire. And I think what these allow us to see is, I think these imprecatory Psalms lean towards us, realizing the vast sin that is committed against a Holy God, and that He is just. You know, so I’m going to offer a prayer that I pray, or that I feel. So, if I see ISIS beheading somebody, and I know they have some sort of a Muslim belief of IslamI’m not saying that they believe what all Muslims believebut if I see ISIS beheading someone, I know in my mind that the role of the Holy Spirit, one of the roles, is to convict the world of sin.

And so I’m praying, “God, please crush those people. Crush them so deeply that they can’t even sleep at night tonight. That they are thinking about what they’ve just done.”

MP: No, well you’re saying crush them spiritually so that they come to some type of repentance. You’re not saying…

TK: But it’s even physical in the sense of, I’m not saying, “God kill them right now,” but I’m saying like, “break their teeth in a sense that they feel ruined.” That they feel like…

MP: So you’re not saying that you would call upon God to kill them like David prayed?

TK: That’s correct, but because I would…because what I know is that Jesus offers them salvation, and at the very most…so, Jeffrey Dahmer, let’s say Jeffrey Dahmer, you know, you think of Jeffrey Dahmer, he’s been one of the most heinous serial killers ever. And we think…

SS: He was a cannibal.

TK: Yeah, he was a cannibal, horrendous, but in prison we have very reliable evidence that he trusted Jesus as his Savior, and he was beaten to death because he trusted Jesus as his Savior. And so, I believe he’s a Christian martyr, potentially, and may even be close to the throne of God.

And we could say, “That’s outrageous! Jeffrey Dahmer cannot be in heaven,” but it’s like yes, that’s the outrageous nature of what Jesus did on the cross.

So an ISIS person, I’m going to be praying that God crushes them to Jesus, knowing that if they don’t trust Jesus, they are fully responsible for their sins.

MP: But that’s a whole different interpretation.

TK: Well, no but I’m praying imprecatory…

MP: That’s a New Testament type of interpretation of trying to kind of filter it through the Old.

TK: But, I’m asking God to crush them, and I’m very boldly saying, “God, the leaders of Planned Parenthood, like, ruin their lives. Make is so that everything about their lives fall apart, and the only thing that they have when they look up is Jesus standing there, offering them salvation.”

SS: So, guys, we need to do something. We need to do another program. Obviously a sequel is coming.

TK: That’s right, I feel a sequel.

SS: We need to come back.

TK: And I want to hear from you guys.

SS: And here’s what we have to do: number one, we have to ask, “How do we reconcile the New Testament ethic of loving your enemies?”

I’m talking about Matthew 5:44: “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.”

How do we reconcile that with these imprecatory prayers? And then secondly, how, if at all, as Tim just made a good effort to do so, do we incorporate, or maybe not at all, this kind of sentiment, or thought process into our prayer lives? Should we speak those kinds of prayers? Under what circumstances? Is that legitimate for a New Covenant Christian?

MP: Are you going to give a preview of a yes or no?

TK: No, that’s…

SS: No, I’m just baiting our audience.

MP: Okay, well we’ll pick this up next time, Tim.

DISCLAIMER: All quotations are transcribed as spoken by the participants. They have not been checked for accuracy or citation.

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