A Plea for God’s Justice: Preaching the Imprecatory Psalms

godAs preachers who are called to deliver the Word of God to the masses, we must be mindful of the Apostle Paul when he commands to, “Preach the whole Counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). When preaching the whole counsel of God one is at the same time assuming that Scripture, the final revelation of God’s actions in written form, is completely authoritative over the lives of those who hear. As preachers of God’s Word we must seek to apply the unified whole of Scripture to the lives of our people. This is what they, and ultimately us as well, need desperately. However, what course of action must the expositor of Scripture take when faced with an apparent contradiction in the Word of God?

My goal in writing is to focus one particular concern where Scripture seems to contradict itself. My intention is not to develop an apologetic addressing the issue of inerrancy proper, but while assuming it, to offer a pastoral perspective on how to approach the potential problems when dealing with the so-called imprecatory psalms.[1] Simply, the Imprecatory Psalms can be described as a cry for God’s vengeance or justice in light of a particularly traumatic situation. For example, the psalmist in Psalm 109 makes the following declaration,

For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me, speaking against me with lying tongues. They encircle me with words of hate, and attack me without cause…Appoint a wicked man against him; let an accuser stand at his right hand…May his days be few; may another take his office! May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow! May his children wander about and beg, seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit…Let there be none to extend kindness to him, nor any to pity his fatherless children! (Psalm 109: 2-3, 6, 8-10, 12)

Though Psalm 109 is just one of many imprecatory psalms (Psalms 58 and 137 to name a couple), as one will notice, the problem with preaching the Imprecatory Psalms is that they seem to contradict what our Lord commands of us in the Gospel of Matthew, “But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). And also, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 Cf., Luke 6:27-28; Romans 12:14). So then, in light of Jesus’ authoritative words on how to deal with an enemy, as preachers of God’s Word, how must we deal with this genre of psalms in our preaching?

However, before attempting to provide an answer I desire to offer some brief responses from various Bible scholars on how they purpose we approach the Imprecatory Psalms.

The Critical Response

  • Alfred Martens- “Ultimately of course, Christians at prayer will keep in mind that, in praying [the psalms] they find themselves within a pre-Christian and sub-Christian ethos, on a level far surpassed in the Sermon on the Mount.” (Zenger, A God of Vengeance?, 14)

Summary- These texts are offensive, sub-Christian, Old Testament Jewish ideas which need the New Testament corrective.

The Conservative Critical Response

  • CS Lewis- “They are indeed devilish.” (Reflection on the Psalms, 25). Here Lewis takes the approach of allegorizing the Imprecatory Psalms.
  • Peter Cragie- “The sentiments are in themselves evil” and “These psalms are not the oracles of God” (WBC 41).

Summary- These parts of the Old Testament are inferior to what Jesus had in mind in the New Testament, they are full of carnal passion that are inexcusable in which some would label as repulsive.

“Psalmectomies”

  • This bizarre phrase can be described as the implicit ignoring of the Imprecatory Psalms by genuine believers. The attitude held in this case is that unless singing these particular psalms, believers have no interaction with them specifically. This is to remove these particular psalms from the pulpit.

Though numerous responses are offered as to how Christians ought to handle the imprecatory psalms, none of the above responses, or others like them, ultimately does justice to the problem. So then, if we are to maintain a healthy doctrine of Scripture’s unity, we must come to find some method of solving this seeming contradiction. To this, we must keep in mind three things:

  1. The imprecatory psalms are profitable. This is to view them in light of the Apostle Paul’s testimony in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”
  2. The Old Testament speaks against the notion of personal revenge (Leviticus 19:18; Proverbs 25:21-22).
  3. The Old Testament recognizes that vengeance belongs exclusively to the Lord (Psalm 94:1; Jeremiah 11:20).

Given this information, as preachers of God’s Word, we must first consider each imprecatory psalm in its Old Testament context. If done correctly, readers will notice that these cries for vengeance arise from situations of great distress in which the psalmist feels as if a great atrocity has happened. Furthermore, the psalmists commit their situation into the just hand of God, knowing that God’s justice will prevail as is evident in Psalm 109:21. There is a specific plea to see the establishment of God’s cause in the outpouring of justice on the purposed offender.

Moreover, these psalms are not in contradiction with what Jesus commands of His people in the New Testament. The passage from Matthew 5:39 is quoted with the implication of condemning personal revenge. As stated above, the Old Testament does not condone the fulfillment of personal vendettas any more than the New. Our approach, then, in thinking through how to preach the imprecatory psalms must be with this information in mind. We must be able to distinguish between Scripture’s condemnation of personal revenge and the crying out of God’s justice to be made known. As preachers, we are able to instruct our congregations in utilizing the imprecatory psalms during times of great distress in which God’s justice is necessary. For example, one might have employed this type of prayer during the unfortunate events of 9/11 or the actions taken by the Nazi’s during World War II. Also, though we may be justified in praying a prayer of imprecation, this does not mean that we are exempt from praying for the conversion of our enemy, or loving him—or them—all the same (Matthew 5:44). We may pray that God’s justice be met but with the understanding that if God so desires, He may dispense saving grace to the individual(s) in which His justice will still have satisfaction. Whether it is through the just punishment of the sinner or the wrath of God poured out on our Savior, God will have His justice (2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 5:8; Revelation 20:11-15). It is because of these truths that we as preachers can employ and teach the imprecatory psalms in our local congregations.

 

Dylan Rowland is an elder at Grace Community Church in Waverly, OH. He is also President of The Southern Ohio Pastors Coalition. He is currently a student at Reformed Theological Seminary (MA).


[1] I am heavily reliant on course notes from a recent seminary class. The class was entitled Poets and was instructed by Dr. Richard Belcher at Reformed Theological Seminary.

Comments
5 Responses to “A Plea for God’s Justice: Preaching the Imprecatory Psalms”
  1. Excellent article. I am a solid user of Old Testament with the New Testament. All items point to Jesus. The fulfillment of the law. God is clear that Vengeance belongs to Him. Jesus teaches us to pray with a loving heart. Actually we don’t know what to really pray for so Jesus introduces to pray according to thy will oh Lord God. Thy will be done. Love your article. Well written. Much needed.

  2. Jason Boothe says:

    Too many pastors choose to shy away from texts because of apparent contradiction. While all portions of Scripture are not equally plain (this must be understood as well), pastors and teachers must follow St. Paul’s admonition to “preach the Word!” Another timely article post, Dylan.

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