Theme: The Last Imprecatory Psalm
In this week’s lessons we are reminded that God will act justly and punish evildoers for their wrongs against the Lord and his people.
Scripture: Psalm 109:1-31
Psalm 109 is the last of the imprecatory psalms.1 Imprecation has to do with praying for or calling down curses on one’s enemies, which followers of Christ are not supposed to do. So for that reason the imprecatory psalms are among the most troubling parts of Scripture for Christians and Christian sensibilities.
But Psalm 109 is not only the last of the imprecatory psalms. It is also the strongest, most intense or worst. In his excellent and very fresh study of the psalms, C. S. Lewis speaks of those in which a spirit of hatred “strikes us in the face… like the heat from a furnace mouth” and calls Psalm 109 “perhaps the worst” example.2 And Lewis is not the only writer to claim this. J. J. Stewart Perowne, an English commentator of the last century (1823-1904), wrote, “In the awfulness of its anathemas, the psalm surpasses everything of the kind in the Old Testament.”3
Many psalms have an occasional prayer for God’s judgment on enemies. But by my count there are twenty-four curses in the imprecatory section of this psalm, and it is the main section (vv. 6-20). The imprecations are bracketed by prayers for God to hear and save the psalmist from his enemies (vv. 1-5, 21-31).
Since this is the last of the imprecatory psalms, regular readers of God’s Word Today have already read a good bit about how these curses should be understood. So while I do not need to repeat here all that I have written earlier,4 let me briefly review some of what we have studied before, just to put Psalm 109 in perspective.
1. All the imprecatory psalms are by David, and in these psalms David is writing as a king and not merely as a private citizen. It is true that prayers for judgment on the incorrigibly wicked occur in psalms by writers other than David. But it is significant that the specific and most intense of these curses are by a king whose responsibility as king was to see that justice was dispensed to evil persons. Moreover, David was God’s “anointed” ruler in a way rulers of other kingdoms are not. So attacks on David were also attacks on God, God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. The curses do not flow from a feeling of resentment for personal hurts or wrongs.
2. David leaves vindication and judgment in the hands of God; he does not take vengeance into his own hands. David was well known, even praised, for being a nonvindictive, long-suffering and merciful man. We have only to think of the two occasions when his great enemy King Saul was within his power and David could have killed him if he had wanted to (1 Sam. 24:26). David did not even think of killing Saul. He said instead, “I will not lift my hand against my master, because he is the LORD’s anointed” (1 Sam. 24:10). All the imprecatory psalms have this flavor. They know that “‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). They leave the execution of justice in God’s hands.
3. It is right to desire the punishment of evil and the triumph and reward of good people. True, as Christians we desire first that those who are doing wrong might repent of their sin and find forgiveness through the work of Jesus Christ. But if they fail to do that, if they persist in doing harm to others, the only right thing is to desire their punishment—that they might be stopped and their victims be protected. We could hardly ask God to reward evil people, could we? Besides, this is how we actually do think. We want evil to be judged, though in our hypocritically sentimental age we are usually careful about saying this openly in words.
4. Finally, although we live in an age in which the wicked still have time to repent of their sin and come to Christ, the judgments described in these psalms are nevertheless exactly what will come to them eventually, and worse. They will come at the final judgment when Jesus himself will be the judge. One use of the imprecatory psalms, therefore, is to warn people how seriously God takes sin and to seek grace while grace is available.
1The other imprecatory psalms are 7, 35 and 69, though individual imprecations are found throughout the Psalter. James E. Adams lists 104 imprecatory verses beginning with Psalm 5:10 and ending with Psalm 143:12. See James E. Adams, War Psalms of the Prince of Peace: Lessons from the Imprecatory Psalms (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1991), p. 116.
2C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958), p. 20.
3J. J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), pp. 285, 286. Original edition 1878, 1879.
4Particularly in our study of Psalm 35. See also James Montgomery Boice, Psalms, vol. 1, Psalms 1-41 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), pp. 299-306.
What is troubling about an imprecatory psalm? What distinguishes this one?
How does knowing the identity of the author of this psalm affect your understanding of it?
With whom does retribution belong? Why?
Reflection: How do you distinguish true evil from personal hurts or wrongs?
Application: How can you apply David’s response to Saul to your life?
Prayer: If you have bitterness toward someone in your life, ask God to help you forgive that person.
For Further Study: Download and listen for free to Philip Ryken’s message, “Vengeance Belongs to the Lord.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)