Theme Party for June 25 (’14)
Ever heard of the “imprecatory psalms”? They shock the sensibilities of post-Victorian societies that have made Self the only true Almighty and the only real blasphemy any stray remark which diminishes Ego. In a nut-shell, they call down curses upon God’s enemies, cry out for judgment to befall the enemies of the righteous, and make us all wonder if this part of the Bible is even relevant in an era of Free Grace and Jesus Talk.
These psalms and verses are so inflammatory and easily misunderstood that 14 years ago, as John Piper and the people at Desiring God were creating Fighter Verses (which is now an excellent and free App from the App store), they left these verses out. Let that sink in: the folks at Desiring God—an extension of Piper’s ministry—left these verses off the list of “to be memorized”. John Piper did, however, write a public explanation of why they would do this. You can read it here.
Ten4Word’s Daniel Hoffman, however, in keeping with a principle that all Scripture is beneficial for our growth in righteousness and faith (2 Tim 3:16-17), offers the below article as today’s reflection on the appropriateness of these Psalms for Christian worship. In a world where Christian persecution is nowhere diminishing, perhaps it’s time we revisit the imprecations of a righteous man—so made by faith—surrounded and harassed by enemies. Perhaps we should expand our hymnbooks by about 150.
For most of church history and in every quarter of Christendom, the book of Psalms has been the staple of Christian worship. The book of Psalms was the songbook of Israel (the old church) and were expressions of hope in the coming reign of Israel’s God and of his Christ. Thus, it only made sense that, when Christ appeared, the new church re-founded in his blood would sing these same songs with even greater joy and deeper understanding. Add to this the fact that many have recognized in the Psalms the godly expression of practically every conceivable emotional state—from exuberance to near-suicidal depression, from debilitating fear to confident boldness—and it only makes sense that the inspired songbook would provide the center and backbone (if not the sufficient and often exclusive content) of the church’s corporate praise.
For some reason or other, the modern evangelical church in America has turned, more or less exclusively, to the latest Christian-themed pop-songs, for which it has been noted that the word “boyfriend” could often be substituted for “God” and the songs would still make perfect sense. In some quarters, older hymns have been revived. In other quarters those older hymns were never abandoned. Old hymns are often rich and glorious, and I have no interest in seeing them shoved aside. But all this is really introduction to the more specific point of this article.
I wanted to write an article about singing the Psalms in corporate worship, and I was going to write this article as a response to an article by Donald Poundstone in New Horizons Magazine, which argues that not all the psalms are actually appropriate for public worship. In Poundstone’s view, some of the Psalms express sub-Christian sentiments. Chief on his list of these sub-Christian bits is the imprecations—the expressions of hatred or curses placed on the heads of the enemies of the king, Israel, or God. Psalms containing these curses are called “imprecatory psalms”.
Instead of addressing all of Poundstone’s concerns, I want to focus on this issue of imprecation. As it happens, I stumbled across this blog post by Peter Leithart, a pastor in Idaho. Leithart references John Walton’s book, Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context, which points out that the Psalmists’ imprecations have no real parallel in other ancient hymns from that era and place. Walton suggests that the reason for this is that in the pagan systems of Israel’s neighbors, the sufferings of the righteous (and therefore the reputation of a God who has righteousness and justice as the foundation of his throne) was never a problem. In other words, the imprecations are first of all expressions of faith in a God who is a righteous and just judge. Far from being pagan or “sub-Christian”, it’s the lack of imprecation that might signify a sub-Christian understanding of the divine.
Certainly in that regard, nothing has changed for the New Testament church. God is still righteous, and the materialistic universe which is governed in all its parts by time and chance, believed in by so many moderns, is no better at dispensing justice than Baal was. In fact, in that regard, it’s probably worse than Baal. Baal might at least wake up or get off the toilet some time (I Kings 18:27).
So there is that to consider. But of course, Poundstone doesn’t think God’s character has changed. His true concern is that the Psalmists’ desire for vengeance runs contrary to Christ’s command that we should love our enemies. But the fact is, the New Testament itself does not refrain from imprecatory expressions (Gal. 5:12; 1 Thess. 2:15-16; Rev. 6:10, 19:1-3; etc.) and, actually, Psalm 69, which contains some of the curses, is a Psalm put into the mouth of Christ himself (v.4, for example).
Yes, we are to love our neighbors and bless those who curse us. No one is claiming the biblical ethic is simple, much less that it’s easy to practice consistently. What I would claim is that the ethic in this regard is the same in the New Testament and Old Testament. If the apostles can express imprecatory sentiments in their inspired writing, Christ’s command is evidently not in ultimate conflict with Psalms that say similar things. Remember as well that Jesus himself summarized the Old Testament ethic with the command about loving one’s neighbor as oneself. I don’t think this ethic has changed in the way Poundstone seems to assume. We should remember that David, when faced with the opportunity to kill Saul, refrained from exercising himself the justice he prayed for in many of these Psalms. He did not avenge himself, but left it to the righteous judgment of God, because he knew that vengeance was the Lord’s. It’s an attitude that sounds remarkably like what Paul commended to the Roman Christians in Romans 12. The imprecatory psalms are precisely prayers for God to avenge in order that the Psalmist might refrain from vengeance himself.
To sing imprecatory psalms with understanding, a pure heart, and in a way that honors all of God’s revealed will for us and our relations with our enemies and his enemies is difficult. It’s as difficult as…well, as God-honoring worship is, and requires the work of the Holy Spirit. I can’t pretend to try to sort out all the complexities here. But I do think it’s clear that the mere presence of imprecation does not make the Psalms sub-Christian or unfit for public worship. What they do demand is clear and thorough teaching, and much self-examination.
There is another quite practical aspect of this to consider. Today, we’re told there is more persecution of Christians in the world than at any other time in history. The imprecatory psalms are about the suffering of the righteous. Are we really to think that they should not be a major theological resource for us today?
Consider these truths on the Psalms and the history of their inclusion in the Church’s worship through history as you watch this video. Bearing in mind this is unaccompanied Gaelic human voice, it is astonishing to us, at least, that our churches prefer the exclusive use of instrumentality and non-psalm singing.