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Imprecatory Psalms (Part 2) [Podcast]

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Sam Storms (SS): Jonah was happy to bring down judgment on the Ninevites…

Michael Patton (MP): We are recording.

SS: Oh, and then angry when God forgave them. I don’t think David falls into that category.

MP: I’m not listening. You’re going to have to restate that.

Imprecatory Psalm (Part 2 of 2)

Tim Kimberley (TK): All right fellas, we’ve been coming off of a heated conversation on the imprecatory Psalms. Should we call down fire from heaven on our enemies? How does that square with what we know about what Jesus did on the cross, what His resurrection accomplished, what He’s coming back for? We’re really stirring the pot, bringing up all these things. Sam, do you want to lead us into a little bit of how you’re bringing all these things together?

MP: Well, wait a minute, I think one thing that’s clear is that…

SS: He does not want to hear my…

TK: He does not.

MP: None of us have said clearly yet, I don’t think, what our positions are, and I think that this is one of those things that we would all be willing, outside of Sam, to morph and change. Sam is always set in his direction, and he knows what he’s going to say, and he’s got all his notes, and he can’t go away from those notes—they’re too good.

TK: I feel pretty set in my ways on this one, too.

MP: You do?

TK: Yeah.

SS: Tim’s written in the margins of his Bible. He’s got his observations; I can see them right there.

TK: I’ve got a list of people’s names next to this verse.

SS: All right, let’s start out by revisiting Psalm 139, all right? A lot of people will be surprised to discover that right in the middle of this incredibly beautiful, heartfelt, tender Psalm are these words: “Oh, that You would slay the wicked, oh God.”

Now, right there, can we today pray that? “Oh, men of blood depart from me. They speak against You with malicious intent. Your enemies take Your name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate You, oh Lord? Do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with complete hatred. I count them my enemies.”

Now, it’s interesting, I’ve read this passage so many times; there’s something here that a lot of people don’t notice, that just jumps off the page when you look at it carefully. Nowhere does David portray these individuals as his own isolated, individual enemies. They are his enemies because they are, first and foremost, God’s.

Listen to it again: “They speak against You with malicious intent. Your enemies [God] Your enemies take Your name in vain.” It’s not like they’re going around slandering David in the streets—they’re slandering my God. “Do I not hate those who hate You, oh Lord? Do I not loathe those who rise up against You?” So, when he then says at the end, “I hate them with complete hatred. I count them my enemies,”—why? Because they’ve done bad things to me? No, but because they’ve done bad things to God. So there’s a huge difference between vindication and vindictiveness, and David’s praying for vindication; he wants God’s name to be revered, he wants God’s ways to be honored and acknowledged, but he’s not vindictive in the sense of saying, “Well, I’ve been slandered, and I’ve been treated with injustice, and I’ve been brutalized; therefore, that’s why I hate them.” It’s always because of how they have responded to God. Now, does that change the nature of that kind of prayer? Does that make it feel a little more appropriate for us today?

JJ Seid (JS): I feel like it goes back to the illustration of the embassy; you know, when someone bombs the embassy, an American embassy, the borders of the United States are not actually, physically threatened, but it’s a declaration of hostile intent, right? It’s a lack of respect. It has all sorts of implications, and so that person, that embassy, will be angry on behalf of war being declared against the United States. So, here’s David, as an ambassador, saying, “You know, I’m not taking this personally because I’m thin-skinned, but you’re disrespecting my God.”

TK: It seems to me, though, that it would make you pray those imprecatory Psalms more often, as opposed to less often, because it would make you think, “Okay, who are all the people that don’t like God, as opposed to just people that I don’t like.” Then, I think that that list would get a lot bigger and would lead me to actually pray this more often.

MP: But doesn’t our prayers include the forgiveness of the sins who are against God?

TK: Never, never.

SS: Michael, yes, and that’s very good, and we need to make sure today that we do not end our talk until we address a critically important issue: you don’t just lift imprecatory prayers out of the Bible and isolate them. Where, if, or when these kinds of prayers are valid for us, they have to be placed in a certain context of our relationship with unbelievers. So, my first response to an unbeliever isn’t to pray an imprecatory prayer! My first…I said we were going to do this later, I’m doing it right now…my first response is, I’m going to reach out to them. I’m going to appeal to them. I’m going to explain the love of God to them. I’m going to explain, tell them how they can receive forgiveness. I’m going to persevere, I’m going to endure their abuse, endure their ridicule. I’m going to pray that God would bring repentance to them, that God would open their eyes to see the Gospel.

But if after prolonged resistance, and hatred of God and His ways, and ridicule, then perhaps I might, in a sense of, certainly not of self-righteousness, or smugness, or as if somehow I’m holier-than-thou, I might say, “Lord, if this individual persists in their rebellion; if they persist unrepentantly in defying You, in denying you, then may Your judgment righteously and justly fall upon them.”

MP: But would you ever publicly state something like that? I mean, like, I remember a recent pastor who was very prolific in his statement that “God hates you, unbelievers,” and made that a very, kind of public statement to the unbelievers that “He hates you.”

TK: Well, isn’t it amazing how people can say things that are technically true, and lack all winsomeness and wisdom?

You know, I could walk up to someone on the street and say, “Hi, tell me your name!”

“Oh, nice to meet you, Joe! Did you know you’re going to hell?”

You know, that may be sort of true, on the face of it, but it’s an idiotic statement in strategy, and so…

SS: Yeah, needless to say, somebody would say that and wouldn’t even bother to stop and say, “Hey, folks, you do realize that when the Bible says that God hates, that doesn’t mean the same thing as when you and I hate?” We’re talking about a holy, righteous God Who sees all things completely, and Who’s not insecure, as over against those of us who feel violated, and we’re insecure, and we have to defend our own turf. Somebody who says that sort of thing hasn’t talked about how the Bible uses the word “hate.”

TK: And they’re misrepresenting God; that’s exactly right. You know, you would be able to say to that person, you know, “Were you abused as a child?” Well, to say that God hates evil, means that He cares deeply about the abuse that happened to you, and He’s not saying, “Ah, everybody has a bad day” about your abuser. You know, you want a God who is horrified by evil, and hates evil, and doesn’t sweep it under the rug.

SS: Psalm 5:6, here’s David saying this about God, said, “The boastful shall not stand before Your eyes, You [God] hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies. The Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.”

Now, that raises the question we left off in the last program: how do we reconcile that with the New Testament love ethic? “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.”

Is there a point at which…maybe let me put it this way. Here’s a toughie. Michael, you’re going to answer this; I’m just putting it before you. Is it possible, simultaneously and consistently, to love and to hate the same individual without being in contradiction?

MP: I would say, it’s hard for me to say yes to that. The reason why is because my interpretation, maybe I’ll use this as a little, short way to build my case that Sam stepped on in the last broadcast, but I think that when we’re talking about interpretation of different types of literature in the Bible, there’s going to be different ways that you interpret it. It’s not always straightforward; it’s not always like the book of Job we mentioned last time, and with his friends. You don’t always…it’s all inspired, but it’s not all prescriptive, as we said.

And when I look at the Psalms, I look at some of them, like when David says in Psalm 10, “Why do You stand so far off from me? Why do you hide Yourself in times of trouble? In pride, the wicked hotly pursue the afflicted,” and he’s calling upon God and saying, “Why are you far off…away from me?” He calls on Him all the time, “Why have you taken the Holy Spirit away from me?”

SS: He’s describing his feelings, but not necessarily fact, is that what you’re saying?

MP: That’s right, and so when I look at these and say, “Are some of these his feelings, not really the way in which we should interpret theology, and the straightforward manner we should understand it?”

It’s inspired, and God wants us to look at this and see even the godly have these feelings. They feel as if You’re far away, and I’ve gained comfort from that many times where I feel as if God’s far away, and I see that David even felt that way; but it doesn’t make it true. And so, I look at some of these imprecatory Psalms, and I see the same thing: sometimes, I feel this way, and even David felt this way. It doesn’t make it necessarily true for us to feel this way and to call imprecadations [sic] upon people; but at the same time, it is something that I can identify with.

JS: Well, and there is a complexity to what we’re talking about, and I think, in our age, people want simplistic answers, and I don’t think you’re going to get a simplistic answer to this. I mean, I look at 2 Timothy chapter 2, and you hear Paul say, on one hand, “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance, lead them to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil.”

And then at the end of his letter, he says, “And Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm. The Lord will repay him according to his deeds.” I mean, you know, it’s in the same breath, and those are not contradictory statements.

I think there’s a sense in which, tell me if you guys buy this, you know, you picture a hostage standoff in the NICU of your local hospital, and what we would pray is, “Lord, bring that man to his senses, to repentance, that he would not harm any of those helpless children, and rescue him as well, and preserve him. But if not, save the babies, and if the snipers have to take him out to do it, so be it. Preserve the babies.”

You know, and so I think we long for people to repent, but sometimes they become Alexander the coppersmith, and then we say, “Lord, save the babies.”

SS: You weren’t just advocating assaults on abortionists, were you?

JS: Heavens, no!

SS: Okay, just wanted to make sure.

JS: Yeah, all the implications of my illustrations.

TK: I’m with JJ on that one.

SS: Okay, so let’s say, I’m just speculating here, if I’m standing in front of my congregation, and we have just read a report that morning that Boko Haram has just taken captive another 150 girls ages 6 to 16, and we know what’s happening behind closed doors, and I say, “Folks, let’s pray,”  What’s legitimate? What’s not just my feelings, but what am I authorized by Scripture to say? Could I say, “Lord, I pray for their protection. I ask for Your providential intervention. I plead with You that Your Spirit would restrain the sinful impulses of the members of Boko Haram, that no harm would come to these girls. Lord, use whatever means possible to do so, but if not, would You take their lives? Would You cause them to drop dead of heart attack? Would You bring in a coalition of UN troops to slaughter them where they stand?” Is that a legitimate way to pray?

JS: I think we probably just don’t need to go that far—the implications of it are built into the prayer. You know, where we can say, “Lord, preserve the lives of these children however You have to do it, and if these men will repent—because they make choices that matter, God is completely sovereign, and yet the choices that these evil men make matter—and You can bring about their willing, free choice to repent and be sovereign in the midst of it,both those things are compatible in Scripture, do it. And if You can’t do it that way, do whatever You’ve got to do to save those girls,” and you probably don’t need to spell it out much more than that. You know, it’s like, God knows what He’s doing.

SS: So, it’s a little bit like Jonah. We had talked off-air about Jonah, who was absolutely gleeful at the prospect of Nineveh being destroyed; and the reason why he turned and ran away is because we find at the end of the book, he said, “I knew You were going to do this. You’re just the sort of God Who’s going to forgive these incredible jerks, who are pagans. I didn’t want them to receive Your mercy. That’s why I went to Tarshish.” And Jonah would have been happy to have pronounced the judgment of God on the Ninevites, and he was furious when God forgave them.

JS: And God could have said to him, “I thought what you wanted was for them to stop being a violent, warring people, persecuting everyone. I accomplished it through bringing them to repentance. Why isn’t that good enough for you?”

TK: Yeah, Sam I think I would, if I were you, be totally comfortable praying that prayer. It would not make me feel like you’re violating Scripture if you prayed that prayer, even though you got a little into it, you know? You got a little passionate, descriptive, into it; but here’s my biggest caution, would be confusing Christianity and America. The kingdom of God and the kingdom of America, so are you only praying that toward the enemies of America, or are you praying that about the enemies of God? And I think that that’s a big difference that a lot of people miss.

SS: Yeah, although…I’m glad Boko Haram is not in America, but we have equivalent perversity in various ways; which perhaps might evoke that kind of prayer. So here’s one other thing, let me just throw this in and see what you guys think: is it not the case that imprecations are, in effect, human prayers based on divine promises?

Let me give you an example: Jesus, at the end of Matthew 7, says of the wicked, “On that day I will say, ‘I never knew you. Depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness’.” So here’s a promise that Jesus is making, that those who are recalcitrant, unrepentant, wicked, persistent in their denial of Jesus as Messiah, on the day of judgment they’re going to come under the wrath of God. That’s a divine promise. Is it wrong for us to turn a divine promise into a prayer, such that we might pray, “Oh, God, if such people continue to persist in their rebellion, would You bring Your judgment and Your wrath upon them?” Is that not what an imprecatory prayer is? It’s turning a divine promise into a petition.

MP: Well it is, but you added a contingency there that really makes it a lot more palatable, and I do think that David does do this sometimes.

TK: Which is if they don’t turn from their ways, if they don’t come to Jesus…

SS: Sure, I would always throw that contingency in there.

JS: And the very God who is talking about the consequences of people who will not repent is the same God who says, “I take no delight in the death of the wicked. Why would you die? I’m not rubbing My hands gleefully because I can’t wait to reap vengeance upon you. I’m longing for you. Come let us reason together.”

TK: “I even sent My Son for you.”

MP: Well, listen to this. It says in Psalm chapter 5 verse 9, “There’s nothing reliable in what they say. Their inward parts are destruction itself. Their throat is an open grave. They flatter with their tongue. Hold them guilty, oh God. By their own deceits let them fall. In the multitude of their transgressions, thrust them out, for they are rebellious against You.”

But notice here in verse 11, it does just the opposite; it changes toward, kind of a Gospel-centered approach: “But,” in contrast, “let all who take refuge in You be glad,” and I would say that, you know, he’s saying this, but these people are not taking refuge in God, because if they were…

SS: He said, “Spread Your protection over them.” So in the earlier verse he said, “Let Your wrath consume them,” and then the next verse is, “If they take refuge in You, spread Your protection over them.”

MP: Yeah, so it does present that contingency that Sam introduced, but David doesn’t always have to necessarily put that contingency in every passage. I mean, sometimes they are these emotional outbursts that are self-contained, but we’re looking for it to be cleared up. We want it to be cleared up like Psalm 5 every single time so that that contingency is here and we say, “Yeah, but; yeah, but,” but David doesn’t necessarily feel the need, or the Psalmist doesn’t feel the need, every time, to make it nice and clean.

JS: So do you guys buy my hostage standoff illustration? In a sense, we’d love it if everybody walked out with their hands up, and nobody got shot; but at the end of the day, if innocent children are going to die at the hands of a mad gunman, everyone in society is going to say, “Take him out, if that’s what you’ve got to do.”

You know, I don’t know if it was a true quote or not, but the famous quote attributed to Lincoln, you know, “Why will you not destroy your enemies?Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?”

You know, it’s like, we’re not interested in vindictive responses. The goal is to destroy the enemies, but we’re happy for them to be destroyed by them becoming friends, by them setting down their gun and coming out with their hands up.

TK: Yeah, I fully agree with that.

SS: And we have to guard our hearts; that’s the bottom line. That’s what I hear you saying, Michael, about reading Psalm 5. These imprecatory prayers are not self-referential. It’s not…now maybe there might be, here and there, you sense that David and other of the Psalmists have reached the limit of what they can endure; but in virtually every one of them, they’re angry because of the way they see God being dishonored and blasphemed, and not held in high regard and blessed as He is worthy. And so, maybe, here’s just a thought, maybe David is as mad as he is about sin against God, and our problem is that we aren’t. Maybe he had a higher sense of the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man than we do. Maybe we’re offended by these prayers because we’ve grown comfortable with…

JS: We don’t think of sin as primarily against God. We think of it as being fundamentally horizontal.

SS: David was so vertical in his orientation, and maybe we have lost sight of the depths of human sin and the grandeur of God’s greatness; and therefore, the idea that we might ever pray that the enemies of God would be destroyed feels off-center to us.

JS: The man— through conspiracy, and adultery, and lies, and deception—sinned against practically every person in his kingdom, and then had the seeming gall to pray, as DA Carson loves to point out, “Against You, and You only, have I sinned.”

And you’re going, “What are you talking about, David? Who didn’t you sin against?” But that was a man who had a robust awareness that his sin was ultimately, and most importantly, against God.

SS: So if our listeners…I don’t know who wants to wrap this up, I’m looking across at Michael, Tim, JJ, anybody.

MP: We have four minutes to wrap it up.

SS: Yeah, if our listeners are saying, “Guys, I’ve listened to these two programs, and I’m confused; still confused. Tell me: am I free, am I justified in praying Psalm 139 verses 19 through 22? Or is that something that I just kind of need to wink at and pretend isn’t there, and just…is that legitimate? Can I incorporate that in an unqualified way? Do I have to nuance it, or should I just be safe and protect myself and never go there?”

JS: I think it’s been well pointed out that God’s justice and His mercy are sort of these parallel lines in the Old Testament; and the tension builds, and you don’t see them reconciled.

One minute He’s telling Israel, “I’m going to punish you if you do not obey My covenant,” and the next minute he’s saying, “How could I forsake My people?”

And you’re going, “Well, which is it, and how do those two work together?”

And the truth is, the reason it’s so confusing in the Old Testament is that the authors don’t bother to reconcile the two strands. The lines don’t converge until the cross where we finally see justice and mercy both able to fully flourish and be accomplished in the same place, intersecting at the cross, and so I think this needs to be cruciform, our solution needs to be cruciform, where we can see justice and mercy perfectly coexisting.

MP: Yeah, and Sam, you had asked me that earlier, about how do I…can I do both? And it’s like when you have these great quotes from Calvin and Spurgeon put up against each other.

And one of them says, from Calvin, “Defend God”, excuse me, “I would be a fool not to see my Master in need of defense and not coming to His aid,” speaking of God; and so Calvin would come to the aid of God and defend Him.

And then Spurgeon, on the other hand, says in one quote, “Defend God? I would sooner defend a lion.”

SS: Just let him out of his cage.

MP: Yeah, that’s right! And so, we’ve got this, that is a contrast right here, where we’re defending God at the same time, but we’re also letting God defend Himself. We’re looking to our own words and our own thoughts and saying, “Is it righteous to be angry at sin? Is it righteous to be angry at evildoers?”

And when once since we say, “Very much so!” But at the same time, we back off and we say, “But ultimately, the defense comes from God.”

The ultimate imprecadation comes from God Himself, who will bring about the destruction, and curse—which is what I saw that imprecadation means, is to curse. He will ultimately curse the evildoers for all eternity; and, as Sam said, we’re just looking forward to what God has already said is going to happen, and in belief, we are in faith making a statement about that. But it doesn’t represent the deepest longing of our heart; it’s not as if we decide deep down, “I really want these people accursed,” but there’s that contingency: if, as long as…

SS: Let me just throw this in at the end here, just kind of popped into my head. Revelation 19, this graphic portrayal of the second coming of Jesus: He slays the wicked, their blood runs wide, He slaughters the young and old.

On the one hand, I want to pray to the Lord, “Act in such a way in the hearts of all humankind that it precludes the necessity of Revelation 19. God, I plead with You. Use me, use the church to bring to salvation all mankind, and make Revelation 19 utterly unnecessary. And if otherwise, then may Revelation 19 come quickly, and may Your name be vindicated.”

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

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