Theme: A Balanced Appraisal
In this week’s lessons we learn how to handle slander and mistreatment in a righteous way, both against ourselves and others.
Scripture: Psalm 35:1-28
When I was preaching through the Psalms on Sunday evenings at Tenth Presbyterian Church it was my pattern to close each service with a hymn based on the psalm we were studying. I was surprised at how many such hymns there were. Most psalms have at least one hymn based on them, and some have several, sometimes as many as six or eight. But there was no hymn for Psalm 35.
There is an easy explanation for that, of course. Psalm 35 is one of the so-called imprecatory psalms, psalms in which the writer asks God to pour out judgment on his enemies, and psalms which do that do not seem to have been written in a right spirit to be sung by Christians. Here David says, “May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame; may those who plot my ruin be turned back in dismay. May they be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the LORD driving them away” (vv. 4, 5). We have been taught by Jesus to pray, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus said, “I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be the sons of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44, 45).
We find these prayers for God’s judgment on the psalmist’s enemies in four psalms especially, Psalms 7,35, 69 and 109, though imprecations like these are also found elsewhere. They seem to grow in vehemence. Psalm 7 is the mildest. Psalm 109 is the worst. Commentators have counted at least thirty anathemas in that one psalm alone.1
How are Christians to think about these imprecations? It is usual for commentators to say that there is a difference between the spirit of the Old Testament and the spirit of the New, to say that a whole new attitude of forgiveness and patient endurance was introduced by Jesus Christ. There is something to that, of course. Jesus did tell us to forgive our enemies, and there is nothing exactly like his teaching in the Old Testament. That is true of some of his other teachings too. Yet I am not satisfied with this somewhat easy explanation, if for no other reason than that the Bible is a whole, given by God himself, and we should not therefore easily set one part of it against another.
Consider this: First, the author of each of the imprecatory psalms is said in their titles to be David. Yet in spite of the tone of these psalms, David was known personally, not for exacting vengeance on his enemies but rather for forgiving them. His treatment of Saul was exemplary. His treatment of Saul is probably the best Old Testament parallel to Jesus’ attitude toward his enemies at the time of his arrest and crucifixion.
Second, in the imprecatory passages David claims to be innocent of that for which he is being attacked or charged. He was not always innocent, and when he was not, the psalms written under those circumstances have an entirely different tone. They confess the sin and ask for forgiveness.
Third, although the tone of the New Testament is somewhat different from that of the Old Testament, the rejoicing of the righteous at the fall of the wicked is nevertheless not entirely absent from it. The chief example is the joy of the righteous at the fall of mystical Babylon, recorded in Revelation 18 and 19. The text says, “Rejoice over her, O heaven. Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you” (Rev. 18:20). The hosts of heaven actually rejoice that “the smoke from her goes up for ever and ever” (Rev. 19:3). As far as Jesus himself is concerned, we must remember that the One who said, “Father, forgive them,” also pronounced a terrible catalogue of woes upon the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, recorded in Matthew 23.
So what is the solution? I suggest that what we need is a balanced view of this subject, tempered by knowledge of our own sin and frequent hypocrisy.
What is an imprecatory psalm?
Where is there evidence of imprecation in the New Testament?
From what we know of David, how did he show a balance between imprecation and mercy?
1See J. J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 1, p. 305. Original edition 1878-1879.