Theme: Appealing to God for Justice
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
When we pass from the opening stanza to the second, central portion of the psalm (vv. 6-20) we find an interesting change—quite apart from the curses. The references to David’s enemies change from being plural (“they”) to being singular (“he,” “him” and “his”). This continues until verse 20 where the references become plural once again (“accusers”). What are we to make of this? It may be a Hebrew idiom meaning “each and every one of them,” which verse 20 seems to support since its return to the plural seems to be a summary. But it is more likely that David is speaking of a specific individual. The Apostle Peter took it this way when he viewed verse 8 as a prophetic reference to Judas Iscariot (in Acts 1:20).
The only reason why this change is important is that some commentators have used it to argue that the imprecations are not something that David is saying about his enemies, but rather what these evil men are saying about David, as if these verses began with the words: “They say ….,” that is, “They say, ‘Appoint an evil man to oppose him…. When he is tried, let him be found guilty…. May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership.’” And so on. This is the way Leslie C. Allen handles the psalm in his study for the Word Biblical Commentary. He places verses 6-19 in quotation marks followed by verse 20, reading, “May this be the way Yahweh punishes my accusers.”1 In other words, “May the curses they speak against me fall on them.” Another who interprets the verses this way is G. Campbell Morgan: “The passage…contains the singer’s quotation of what his enemies say about him, rather than what he says about them.”2
This approach would remove the force of the curses as being from David and make them more acceptable to our sensibilities, which is why these writers like it. But it is not a good explanation. For one thing, it runs against Peter’s use of the words in Acts 1:15-20. Peter said these are words “which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas” (v. 16), and he quoted verse 8 specifically, as we have seen: “May another take his place of leadership” (v. 20). For another thing, we are hardly helped by this approach if in verse 20 David says, in effect, “May the curses they have pronounced on me fall on them,” which is what it requires. He would still be wishing his enemies great harm.
Although we might like to get out of difficulty in this way, it is best to take the curses as David’s and accept them as being spoken against one or more of his foes.
1. An accuser’s accuser. It is helpful to begin with verses 6 and 7, because their setting is that of a court of law and this gives the entire passage a legal or judicial tone. In other words, the curses that follow are not to be seen as David merely striking out in a personal way against a person who has harmed him. On the contrary, he is appealing to God to give justice to a person who has been extremely harmful, making sure that the one who has damaged others might himself be harmed.
In verse 6 the word “accuser” is important. It occurs throughout the psalm (in vv. 20, 29, and as the corresponding verb in v. 4). The one who ought to be standing at the right hand of the defendant is his advocate or lawyer, not an accuser. But here the psalmist imagines a scene in which his enemy is hauled into court by an evil man and, while there, discovers that his lawyer is also an evil man who accuses him rather than defends him. He has no defenders at all, in fact, because his actions are defenseless.
And there is this interesting point. The word that is translated “accuser” is the Hebrew noun satan, which is also the name and title of the devil, Satan, the accuser of the brethren. (This is going to be important when we get to the end of the psalm.) Of course, I do not know whether David was thinking of Satan explicitly when he wrote, “Let an accuser stand at his right hand,” but he may have. In any case, it is a perceptive point, for it reminds us that although evil persons may imagine in their evil course that the devil is somehow with them to protect them and prosper them, they will find that he is actually their accuser at the last. I think of the Faust legend and of those terrible final words in Christopher Marlowe’s drama by that name:
O lente, lente, curite noctis equi!
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The Devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.3
1Leslie C. Allen, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 21, Psalms 101-150 (Waco, TX: Word, 1983), pp. 70, 71.
2G. Campbell Morgan, Notes on the Psalms (Westwood, NJ: Revell, 1947), p. 212.
3Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, in The Harvard Classics: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part 1, Egmont, Hermann and Dorothea, and Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus (Norwalk, CT: The Easton Press, 1993), p. 241.
What change occurs in the central portion of this psalm? What did the Apostle Peter make of this?
How do some commentators interpret this psalm to suit modern sensibilities? Why is this wrong?
Why is the legal setting of verses 6 and 7 important? Why is it significant that David makes the accusation?
Observation: New Testament uses of Old Testament passages can clarify the meaning for us.
Key Point: Although evil persons may imagine in their evil course that the devil is somehow with them to protect them and prosper them, they will find that he is actually their accuser at the last.