Wednesday, August 1, 2012

How do we understand the Psalms which curse our enemies?

DATE :  29th July 2012

There are a  number  of  Psalms  in the Bible which we call  the “Imprecatory Psalms”. They  are so called  because they include imprecations, or prayers  that curse  the  enemies  of God  and His cause  in the world.  Many  of us  would  naturally struggle with the thought  of praying like this, because  we  immediately would  think  of what  Jesus taught us, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk 6:27-28).  We also would remember  that  Jesus had  prayed for his enemies on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”. (Lk 23:34) .  

So what shall we do  with  Imprecatory  Psalms   such as  Psalm  69?[1]  I have  chosen  this Psalm as an exhibit,  because it  is quoted  7 times   in the N.T.  The NT is going to help us to see how  NT  authors use and apply  this Psalm, especially  vv.  22-28,  the part which contain  the  imprecations.  

Overview of Psalm 69
Psalm  69 is a Psalm of David. But  it  is also a Psalm about the greater Son of David! It is one of the most cited  Psalms in the NT.  We begin with  a simple  exposition of the text as face value.

Vv. 1-4: David feels overwhelmed  by the situation  at hand.  We do  not know what  the exact situation  is . We know that David had  many such  anxious situations in his life . We know that he is being attacked without  just cause. He is  badmouthed with lies . What I did not steal must I now restore?” (v.4)

Vv.5 -6: It is not that David  claims to be perfect. ( O God you know my folly…) and  he prays that whatever he has done wrong will not become a stumbling block to other believers.

Vv 7-12:  It appears  that  his suffering is not due to personal sin.  It is for the sake of God that he suffers!  It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that dishonour has covered my face.” (v.7) Again, in v.9 we read: “Zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.”  Even his  physical brothers  have  begun to resent him . (v.8) . And when he started praying and fasting about this(v.10)  , it seemed  to him  that  even he himself began to reproach himself .  And then  the mockery became  from others  became severe : “ I became a byword to them”. (v.11)  He was being talked about in the public places . They made rude songs about him  (v.12)

Vv. 13 – 21: He pleads  with  God in prayer to rescue him from this miserable situation. V.14 says : “Deliver me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.” And again …v. 18: “Draw near to my soul, redeem me; ransom me because of my enemies!” He knows that God knows how his enemies  have dealt with him. (v.19)  All these reproaches  have broken  his heart , and the worst was that he felt so alone .  He despaired . There was no one to comfort. In his hour of  greatest need  they gave him poison for food  and sour wine to drink (cf Jesus  in Jn 19:28-30) . He thus became like his greater Son.

Vv. 22–28: Here follows  a string of  imprecations or curses upon his enemies. Let their own table before them become a snare; and when they are at peace, let it become a trap. Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually. Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them. He  asks God that these enemies would experience  the full wrath  of God. (Notice: Let… let… let…). He essentially prays : remove them Lord … wipe them out!  David is not praying for mercy. He prays for their destruction – their  damnation!  

In Vv.29-36   David  closes this  Psalm with a repeated  reminder of his pain and suffering: “But I am afflicted and in pain; let your salvation, O God, set me on high!” (v.29), but  after  this  he ends this  Psalm of suffering and despair on a high note  with words of praise and assurance that God  will  redeem this difficult situation :  I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving.” etc.

Summary :   

This is  David, unfairly attacked  without  just cause.  He knows that he is not a  perfect man. But he knows that he does what he does for the zeal  of His God. The persecution which he experiences  is therefore unjust , and THIS leads him  to  utter  this imprecatory prayer in  vv. 22-28   in which  he calls upon God  to blot out  his  (i.e. God’s ) enemies!  

Psalm 69 in the New Testament

Now let us see HOW  the  New Testament quotes Psalm 69. We take particular note  in which Jesus  quotes this Psalm [2]
  1. 1. Rom 11:9-11  cf.  Psalm 69:22-23 : Let their own table before them become a snare; and when they are at peace, let it become a trap. Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually. Here  is the beginning of David’s imprecatory prayer in which he asks  that God would pour out His anger   upon his enemies  (v. 24). He prays that just as they gave him poison for food and sour wine to drink  (v. 21), so he prays in  v.22 that  their own table would become a snare  to them. He prays that they would be blinded (v.23). This is a prayer for their condemnation, their destruction, their damnation. Vv. 27–28:May they have no acquittal from you, O God. Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous.” David literally consigns them to  hell. Now let us consider the quote of this by Paul in Rom.  11:9-11. Here  Paul teaches that Israel  in general has rejected Jesus as her Messiah,  and for this  reason  has come under God’s judgment.  God has hardened  the hearts of the Jews  (Rom 11:8) so that they will not believe. This will continue until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in (Rom11:25). So,  this is the context against which Paul quotes  Ps 69 :22-23  to support his case : “And David says, ‘Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever.’”  But please note ! Paul interprets the words of David  here  not  in terms  of personal anger  but as an expression of what really deserves  to happen to the enemies  of God’s anointed Son. And now you must remember  that David is  also God’s anointed king, and here he  is being rejected and reproached!  And whilst David manifests a lot of patience in his life there comes a point when David speaks as God’s inspired prophet,  and by this imprecatory prayer  he  consigns his adversaries to darkness and hardness. They will experience this judgment  because David is speaking on God’s behalf. Paul does not hear merely emotional words of retaliation in David’s voice. He hears sober, prophetic words of judgment that God’s anointed wills to bring on his adversaries. This is God’s measured and patient , sure wrath!
  2.     Psalm 69:25  is quoted   by Peter in Acts  1:20  concerning Judas.  Again, it is not difficult to see  the point  here. Judas betrayed  the greater Son of David, and   for this  he  has inherited the eternal , unretractable wrath of God.  
  3.  . Jesus cleanses  the temple :  In  Jn.  2:13-17 we read  how Jesus drove the sellers out of the temple. V.16 says, “And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’”  When the disciples heard  this, (v.17 - His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” )  they immediately connected  this  with the words of Ps  69:9  David’s words and actions  typify  Christ’s words and actions.
  4.    Jesus is hated by His own :  In Jn. 15:24-25 Jesus is hated by the Jewish leaders just the way David was hated by his own people (cf. v. 8). Jesus  quotes Ps. 69:4  If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.
  5.   Jesus on the Cross:  On the cross,( Jn. 19:28-30)   Jesus intentionally fulfills  Ps. 69:21  where  David had said, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.” In  response  to Jesus word on the cross , “ I thirst” , they offer him sour wine. This, John says was to fulfil the Scripture. 
  6.    Jesus  endures  the mockery  for the  sake of others :  In v.9 David says to God, “The reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.” In Rom.15:3  Paul quotes  this verse in support when he calls Christians to be patient with those  who may  reproach us : “Let each of us please his neighbour for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’” He sees these  words fulfilled in Christ. Christ endured the reproaches of men willingly, and Paul calls us to imitate Christ in this regard.
So then – we find that there are  two emphases in the  way which the NT uses this Psalm.  One emphasis  is judgment - God’s just  retribution for sin.  The other  emphasis relates  to  the suffering of God’s anointed  king (King!)  who endures  this  suffering for God’s sake,  knowing that  it is God who will be the final  Judge in terms  of  those who abuse His servants.

How  then  do we  understand and  apply   the Imprecatory Psalms?

1.    We  need to understand  that  authentic  Christian living, and particularly  being a zealous Christian leader  brings with it challenging  circumstances  (i.e. such as the irrational  hate of people). We need to understand that such suffering  is a typical  accompaniment  of   life in a fallen world.
2.     God owns His  church  and  His called leaders,  and a continual abuse  of  the church and her leaders  will  result in God’s  certain judgements  (temporal and eternal).
3.  We  must be careful  not take the imprecations as  incentives to curse our enemies. In fact,  Paul quotes this  Psalm in Rom 15:3  to encourage us  not to seek for revenge, but to know that  Christ has already  borne the reproach that any Christian leader may now be bearing. This  does not mean  that there  is  no wrath, no punishment, or no judgment in Psalm 69. There is  a certain judgement  here , BUT  it is not our  duty  to execute that judgement . It is God’s  terrible wrath  that will finally take care of  this abuse of His faithful servants.  Rom.   12:19-21 says  this:  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.  

So, until  that day of judgment, we must  follow the words of  our anointed King: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. . . . You will be sons of the Most High (Lk. 6:27-29;35). Amen!

[1] John  N. Day  in his book “ Crying for Justice” (IVP 2005)  says that three of the harshest Psalms  are  Psalm 58, Psal  137 & Psalm 109
[2] Jesus regards the Psalms as inspired by God :  see Mk 12:36 ; Jn 10:35;13:18 . 

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