Posts Tagged 'imprecations'

Psalms of (Divine) Justice

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It’s important to know that the Bible doesn’t distinguish between the terms righteousness and justice. In both Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) righteousness and justice are seen as the essentially the same. In fact, in the Greek there are no separate words for righteousness and justice and in Hebrew there are separate words yet they are used interchangeably.

Today, the church draws a distinction between the two words. Many churches are very big on personal righteousness; holiness, Pentecostal, and Wesleyan churches emphasize the holiness of the individual. In these types of churches, the idea of righteousness is stressed in relation to a believer’s morality and behavior. Their goal is for the individual to live up to God’s standard of righteousness.

But other churches are very big on justice, as in “social justice.” Mainline denominations like the Lutheran church, Anglicans, Methodists, and some Presbyterians preach about an almost utopian ideal where society is free from all forms of injustice, whatever their ideas of injustice may be, and they work to make this happen, often using the political system and the courts. For these types of churches, justice is what they think God’s vision is for society and they are the tool to implement that vision.

But from the Bible’s standpoint, righteousness and justice are the same. The Bible holds equally to both terms, demonstrating once again that perfect balance is always found in Scripture. Yes, God is very concerned about personal morality, but personal morality at the expense of the proper treatment of others is wrong – it’s imbalanced. And if all you’re concerned about is your vision of “social justice” and changing the culture (people, in other words) to fit your vision at the expense of changing yourself, then your imbalanced, too.

In the end, the Bible must be our guide in such matters. There are numerous psalms that speak of God’s justice, and these psalms form what we call “psalms of divine justice.” Very often in these psalms, the psalmist prays to God to right some wrong – a wrong in the land or a personal wrong. We also refer to some of these psalms as “imprecatory psalms” because they contain imprecations, or prayers calling down God’s wrath on the wicked. In fact, you can find imprecations in both the Old and the New Testaments. Some people see a conflict with the many imprecations found in the Bible, especially in the psalms, and the Biblical ethic of love. In both Testaments we read admonitions about loving our neighbor and even our enemy. Jesus Himself refused to exercise divine vengeance during His earthly ministry because, in His own words, He didn’t come to judge the world but to save it. He even rebuked His disciples on one occasion because they wanted to call down fire from heaven upon a city that rejected their message.

When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. (Luke 9:54, 55 NIV)

However, ultimately in God’s plan, vengeance does indeed belong to Him.

But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you. (Matthew 11:24 NIV)

So, it’s not that God won’t exercise justice, only that it is postponed. Paul noted this:

God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. (2 Thessalonians 6, 7ff NIV)

God’s righteousness demands justice among His creation, but that will happen in His time, not ours. In the meantime, though, there is no prohibition against imprecations. Nor are they encouraged. They merely are one type of prayer worthy of study. One Bible scholar who noticed this made an interesting point:

It would be unreasonable to expect to find in the Psalms the Christian ideal of man’s attitude toward his enemies, but in [Psalm 140] we have the next best thing to it; for there is no hint of the desire of personal retaliation against the vindictive enemies of the psalmist. All is left in the hands of God. That there should be some words of bitterness is natural enough; but the passive attitude of the victim of oppression himself reveals a spirit of true godliness.

Psalm 140

Psalm 140 is a psalm of divine justice. It is one of many psalms that deal with the existence of evil and persecution within the borders of Israel. It’s bad enough to suffer persecution from outside, but from within presents an intolerable situation! Some of these evildoers were Gentiles who lived among the Israelites, but most of the persecution came from fellow Jews whose apostasy not only involved rejecting the worship of Yahweh, but also of persecuting those who remained true to Him.

Rescue me, Lord, from evildoers; protect me from the violent, who devise evil plans in their hearts and stir up war every day. (Psalm 140:1, 2 NIV)

All was not well among God’s people, to be sure. It seldom is. Within the Church today there are worldly factions who have it in for those who wish to live according the teachings of Scripture. They are mocked and made fun of. In regard to how the psalmist handled the situation in his day, after several verses of complaint and declarations of trust in God, he takes a sharp turn with verse 10 –

May burning coals fall on them; may they be thrown into the fire,into miry pits, never to rise. May slanderers not be established in the land; may disaster hunt down the violent. (Psalm 140:10, 11 NIV)

If you don’t detect a lot of love in those verses, you’re right. There isn’t. This is the imprecatory part of the psalm. It’s not easy to explain and apply verses like these to modern Christian life in light of what our Lord taught:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… (Matthew 5:43, 44 NIV)

That the psalmist loved God and wanted to serve Him is obvious. He loved God and hated wickedness, not just because wickedness was harmful to himself and to others, but because it’s very existence was a offense to God. This is why he prayed for death of those who practiced it. As New Testament believers, however, we should be able to, as they say, “separate the sin from the sinner,” “the act from the actor.” Robert Alden makes in invaluable contribution that helps us modern believers in God deal with the situation –

If we cannot maintain composure while hating evil, or hate it apart from the one who practices it, then perhaps we had best withdraw from the fray, repeat verse 12 of this psalm, and wait for God to judge.

That’s excellent advice. We need to always remember that in this war against sin, the righteous will be vindicated and the upright will be blessed. There is no doubt.

I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy. Surely the righteous will praise your name, and the upright will live in your presence. (Psalm 140:12, 13 NIV)

Psalm 109

Psalm 109 is the last of the pure imprecatory psalms, and the strongest. The whole psalm has a courtroom feel to it, with the psalmist pleading his case before the judge.

Sinful people who lie and cheat have spoken against me. They have used their tongues to tell lies about me. (Psalm 109:2 NIrV)

The psalmist isn’t whining here, he’s presenting his case as the plaintiff and he is surrounded by false witnesses. The odds are against him prevailing. To whom can he turn for help? Of course, in a desperate situation like this, God is the only Source of real help. The opening words of this psalm represent the psalmist’s earnest plea for help.

The contrast between him and his enemies couldn’t be more stark.

They gather all around me with their words of hatred. They attack me without any reason. They bring charges against me, even though I love them and pray for them. They pay me back with evil for the good things I do. They pay back my love with hatred. (Psalm 109:3 – 5 NIrV)

You can’t help but notice the similarities between the psalmist and the Lord Jesus. Truly this writer had a godly disposition.

Verses 6 – 19 are chock full of maledictions. Indeed, this group of verses contain “some of the most vituperative, invective, and vitriolic vengeance found anywhere in Scripture.” These are powerful verses. The question, however, is this: Who is speaking? Is it godly King David? Or is it somebody else? The Hebrew is unclear. If you think it’s David, as some translations would have it, then it sounds like he’s just given up on being godly. In fact, he actually contradicts himself with some of his statements. Consider in verse four how he declares that he prays for those who are against him, but then in the following verses he calls down curses upon them!

So, if it isn’t David saying these things, then who is it? Many scholars believe that David is writing about what his accusers are saying about him! The accusers think they are in the right and it is they who are calling down curses upon him. In Hebrew there is no way of indicating a quotation, as we have in English, with quotation marks. There are no quotation marks in Hebrew, so the Psalmist simply has to run on. But there are several things which give us clues that David is not the one calling down curses, but his accusers.

First, there is the whole change in tone as already noted. David was a godly man, and he wrote as a godly man. The change of attitude at verse 6 is worse than jarring. It seems almost impossible that a sane man, from one breath to another, can go from a lover to a hater with such ease!

Second, notice how the grammar changes. The NIV makes this very clear; other translations do not, but the NIV hedges its bets and does. We move from “they” in verses 1 – 5 to “him” in verses 6 – 19. David had been talking about “them,” his accusers, now they are talking about “him,” King David.

When he is tried, let him be found guilty, and may his prayers condemn him. May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership. (Psalm 109:7, 8 NIV)

The “he” is David. His accusers are standing before the judge, as it were, presenting their libelous case. Reading verses 6 through 19 correctly, we can see two things. First, we should place quotation marks around them so we never forget a man of God would never pray like this. And second, we can see how the enemy of God’s people work.  Satan, the accuser of God’s people, stands before God, the Judge of all creation, accusing believers constantly. Here in the psalms we have a miniature drama on earth of what plays out in the court of heaven all the time.

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” (Job 1:9 – 11 NIV)

For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. (Revelation 12:10b NIV)

Those verses speak of Satan, whose very name means “accuser,” and what he is best at: making false accusations about God’s people in front of God.

David’s enemies want to kill him.

May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. (Psalm 109:9 NIV)

Ultimately we know that’s what the Devil wants to have happen to each one of us. That’s why he tries so desperately to keep us in sin because, “the wages of sin is death.”

David’s enemies wanted to take all that he had; to impoverish him and his family forever.

May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor. (Psalm 109:11 NIV)

If that sounds familiar, it’s because you are likely thinking about this verse:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10 NIV)

And at last, their hatred toward David was so complete, his enemies wished for his damnation.

May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord; may the sin of his mother never be blotted out. May their sins always remain before the Lord, that he may blot out their name from the earth. (Psalm 109:14, 15 NIV)

David speaks again in verse 20 –

May this be the Lord’s payment to my accusers, to those who speak evil of me. (Psalm 109:20 NIV)

The literal translation of verse 20 makes David’s mind a little more clear and is more in keeping with his godly character –

This is the reward which my accusers seek from the Lord, those who speak evil against my life! (Psalms 109:20 Literal)

The remainder of the psalm records David’s wonderful prayer to His God for deliverance. He commits his cause to God. Here is a man, unlike his accusers, who understood the truthfulness of the Word of God when it says things like this:

It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them.” The Lord will vindicate his people. (Deuteronomy 32:35, 36a NIV)

In verse 6, David’s accusers, in their vanity, wanted God to appoint an accuser to stand at his right hand to accuse him. The last verse of this psalm tells us a profound truth:

For he stands at the right hand of the needy, to save their lives from those who would condemn them. (Psalm 109:31 NIV)

PSALM 109: To Bless or Curse

To Bless or To Curse?

Psalm 109 is a psalm written by “David for the director of music,” although that is probably not totally accurate; it might be more accurate to call this “a psalm of David to God,” because this psalm is full of appeals directly to God. It opens with a prayer mixed with complaints, but pretty soon it roars full steam ahead with curses against sinners and bad people. It ends with a brief outburst of praise to God, but overall it’s hard to think of this as a psalm of worship! The nature of this psalm led one scholar to refer to it as “the dreadful psalm,” and many Christians, as they read it and study it, are not encouraged by it, nor do they find comfort in it; they are, in fact, perplexed by it. So, what do we do with psalm 109? Let’s break it down into smaller parts.

1. The invocation, verse 1

My God, whom I praise, do not remain silent…

This is the last of the “imprecatory psalms” and the strongest. You will recall that at “imprecation” is a like a curse. We might be surprised that David, the man after God’s own heart, wrote such strong statements as he did in this psalm against his enemies. What’s even more surprising is that David wrote this imprecatory psalm, pronouncing curses against his enemies while inspired by the Holy Spirit! But before he does that, he invokes God; specifically, David begins with “praise” to God. It’s odd, but “praise” as it is used here is not a verb, it’s a noun that David used as a kind of all-purpose word for all the good reasons why God is worthy of praise.

So while the phrase, “My God, whom I praise” is itself very short, its shortness is deceptive for the word “praise” contains all the reasons for that praise. Why praise God? Honestly, how can a Christian not praise God? When we consider Who He is and what He has done, a Christian cannot remain silent! Carl Gustaf Boberg was just a man. You may not know the name, but you know his words. Boberg was a Swedish pastor, and member of the Swedish parliament, who one day was enjoying a nice walk when a thunderstorm suddenly appeared out of no where. A severe wind began to blow. After the storm was over, Mr. Boberg looked out over the clear bay. He then heard a church bell in the distance, went home, and wrote:

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

My God, whom I praise,” why wouldn’t you want to praise God? How can a Christian ever find it difficult to praise God? The second phrase of verse one gives us a clue to the answer:

…do not remain silent

Is God ever silent? God is never silent as far as His children are concerned. God never stops communicating to us. At times, it may seem like God is silent, but that’s an individual’s perception; it is not reality. As to why God may seem silent, the next few verses may provide the explanation.

2. What the ungodly do, verses 2—5

This is really David’s first complaint in the psalm and why it seemed to him why God was silent:

for people who are wicked and deceitful have opened their mouths against me; they have spoken against me with lying tongues. (verse 2)

When all you hear all day long is negative speech or hateful talk, God’s “still, small voice” is easily drowned out. Over the next handful of verses, David gives a number of reasons as to why these “wicked people” are what they are. Incidentally, the reason why David accuses these people of being “wicked” is not because he hates them so much, it’s because they are so cruel and so hateful toward him. The things that characterize these people as wicked include:

  • Untrustworthy speech. The word “mouth” is emphasized in the original, which means these people speak words of deceit, words of evil, and words of hurt. When people engage in that kind of speech, how can you trust them?
  • They are full of hatred. The untrustworthy words of the wicked come from their “hatred,” something deed down inside of them. David offered these people “friendship,” and in turn they returned “hatred” in the form of vile speech.

Verse four needs to be noted:

In return for my friendship they accuse me, but I am a man of prayer.

Even when David was “done wrong” by those to whom he extended friendship, David never stopped praying: he remained a man of prayer! Another way to look at this verse is: “No matter what they say about me, they can’t stop me from praying.” That sounds a lot like the teachings of Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount: pray for your enemies.

3. The curses: introduction, verses 6—15

Before we look at David’s five-part, let’s consider Biblical imprecations. In almost all of the psalms of lament—there are 67 in all or in part—there are curses or imprecations against the ungodly. In these psalms, the psalmist, often representing the people of God, prayed for vindication and that God’s promised judgment would fall on their enemies. The problem modern believers have is that these prayers of imprecations seem to be at variance with the New Testament teaching of “loving your enemies.” In fact, imprecations are not limited only to the psalms; they are seen in many of the prayers of Jeremiah and of Nehemiah, and so a lot of people see an apparent tension between the theology of the Old Testament and that of the New Testament. So strong is this apparent tension, that some Christians can barely read parts of the Old Testament without nagging doubts being raised; doubts that cause them to stop reading and ignore large chunks of the Old Testament. Preachers are not immune, either. To so many, the God of the Old Testament is not a God of love. He’s a God of vengeance. He is a God of violence. How do we reconcile the God of the Old Testament with that of the New?

The fact is, the requirement to “love your enemies” is NOT a teaching that originated with Jesus in the New Testament. Consider:

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:18)

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. (Proverbs 25:21)

God doesn’t change, nor do the expectations He holds for those who follow Him. God is absolutely constant through all the ages. His love for His creation is constant; He has never stopped loving any part of His creation; even sinners. He loves His creation so much, He sent His Son to save it through His death and resurrection (John 3:16).

So God’s expectation that His children should love their enemies has never changed. His love for sinners has never changed. However, the fact that He holds all people accountable for their deeds has also never changed. Because all human beings are responsible to the Lord for how they lived, all human beings are subject to God’s judgment and wrath. For believers, all that was taken care of in Christ Jesus. Not so for unbelievers; they are and will be subject to God’s wrath.

It might surprise you to know that Jesus wasn’t all about love! Here’s another side to our Savior:

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you. (Matthew 11:21—24)

There isn’t a whole lot of love in those verses, but there is an imprecation! In the parable of the unjust judge, Jesus taught that believers should keep on praying so that God would act justly on behalf of them:

And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? (Luke 18:7)

In the midst of evil, Christians are to keep God as their focal point, not the evil. We are to hate evil NOT for sake hatred alone! The psalmists, writing and praying under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, were literally so drunk on God’s holiness and righteousness that anything contrary to Him was so offensive to them, they cried out to God for vindication and to justify Himself. They were not so concerned about themselves as they were about God manifesting His righteousness, holiness, and justice on earth, thereby putting the wicked in the position of having to reap what they have sown.

C.S. Lewis’ observations on the existence of evil in the world and our reaction to it are very helpful:

Against all this, the ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that it is hateful to God.

Living in the shadow of grace, we tend to forget how repugnant sin is to God. Because we have been so gloriously and freely forgiven our sins, we take that forgiveness for granted to the point where many of us flirt with sin and evil because we have come tolerate that which God could never. The imprecations in the Bible should illustrate God’s attitude to all that is not of Him.

The five-part imprecation breaks down like this:

(a) Against the guilty, verses 6—8

David asks God for evil to be punished by evil; he prays that the days of the wicked will be few. Even in this imprecation, lies hope:

may another take his place of leadership. (verse 8)

(b) Against their family, verses 9—10

Not only should the enemy be treated without mercy, the same fate should fall on his children! That’s a little hard for we gentle souls of the 21st century to take, but the end of a family line was among the greatest tragedies that could befall a man living in the ancient Middle East. In effect, David was praying for the evil one to suffer to the maximum extent possible, even the point of losing his children. We think that’s awful; but as awful as that seems to us, it cannot compare to what sin looks like to God.

(c ) Against their possessions, verse 11

David wants his enemy to lose everything of meaning in his life; all his possessions.

(d) Against those who help, verses 12—13

Again, the psalmist prays against the family by asking that no one help them in any way so that they might just die out.

(e) Remember the guilty, verses 14—15

Finally, David wants God to act justly by never failing to remember the guilt of the entire family. This is very powerful stuff: Even when they are dead and gone, may God never forget their sins. Here is side of God His children have never seen and will never see! Forgiveness is available to all, and to all who have been forgiven, God has promised never to bring up those sins again. But the hard-hearted are beyond salvation (see Psalm 51) and their sins are eternal because they have been committed against God, who is Himself immortal.

4. But…

Verse 20 is almost a relief:

May this be the LORD’s payment to my accusers, to those who speak evil of me.

It concludes the “ferocious” part of the psalm, and not a moment too soon! David now comes to God for himself, turning away from the evil and heartlessness of his enemies to the goodness of God. His prayer borders on desperation as he pleads for God to act on his behalf:

help me for your name’s sake; out of the goodness of your love, deliver me. (verse 21)

Here is a man who has the proper perspective. He recognizes the greatness of God and his own pitiful state. Verse 22 is surprising considering David was king over Israel:

For I am poor and needy…

By any measure save heaven’s, David needed nothing; he was far from poor. But David’s poverty was spiritual; the spiritual battle had taken its toll on David to the point where he was literally done in. It was as though David could feel his life pouring out of him as he prayed for deliverance. The things of the world, even his own body, could not sustain him. He needed the kind of help only God could give.

Perhaps this is one reason why modern believers don’t experience miraculous deliverances the way previous generations have. Our own prosperity and warped sense of self-worth have driven God to the very fringes of our faith. We try anything and everything before turning to God. He has become the cure of last resort. That was never how He intended our relationship to be. God should be the very Person we turn to in times of need, not the last! It’s perhaps long past time for modern Christians to humble themselves, as David did, and see their true state in the light of God’s presence.

Psalm 109 is full of curses but also full of blessings. To Christians belong a wonderful heritage. Though we be surrounded by evil and the odds against us, because we are hidden in Christ Jesus we have nothing to fear as long as we remember to acknowledge His greatness.

For he stands at the right hand of the needy, to save their lives from those who would condemn them. (verse 31)

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

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