Be not silent, O God of my praise!
For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me,
speaking against me with lying tongues.
(Psalm 109:1, 2 ESV)
Psalm 109 is difficult to classify. It has elements of a lament, a song of thanksgiving, and a prayer for mercy. But Psalm 109 is probably best identified as an “imprecatory psalm”—a poem that calls for God’s judgment on the wicked for their sins against the righteous. Undeniably, it is often difficult to ascertain the proper use of imprecatory psalms in Christian worship. After a quick synopsis of the Psalter Hymnal version of Psalm 109, I’ll try to offer a few comments on this topic.
220, “O God, Whom I Delight to Praise”
While a thirteen-stanza setting of Psalm 109 may appear intimidatingly long-winded, the authors of this selection actually did a fine job of compacting the original 31-verse psalm. Poetic yet intelligible, literal yet personal, the text includes some particularly well-crafted lines and creative rhymes such as the following:
(2) Against me slanderous words are flung
From many a false and lying tongue…
(4) Against him let his foe be turned,
His sin be judged, his prayer be spurned.
(8) He cursing loved and blessing loathed;
Unblest, with cursing he is clothed;
For thus the justice of the Lord
My adversaries will reward.
(9) My need is great, and great Thou art
To heal my wounded, stricken heart.
(12) What though they curse, if Thou wilt bless?
Then joy shall banish my distress,
And shame shall overwhelm the foes
Who would Thy servant’s way oppose.
As these excerpts evidence, this setting often emphasizes the irony of the conflict between the righteous and the wicked—in some cases, even more strongly than the original psalm. The tune, PENTECOST, is equally thought-provoking; the 3/4 meter and leisurely tempo offer the congregation plenty of time to reflect on the words as they sing them. If a different melody is desirable, however, there are an abundance of other long-meter tunes that fit the text equally well (HAMBURG is one example that readily comes to mind).
Now, how should an imprecatory psalm be used in worship? With my limited knowledge of such matters, I can’t offer a thorough theological or pastoral recommendation. But I can comment on the following points:
- The imprecatory psalms never represent a sinful desire to inflict vengeance on one’s enemy (Romans 12:19). The psalmists are careful to point out that the offenders have sinned primarily against God, not merely against them. The judgment they seek comes from God, not from themselves. The Psalter Hymnal version of Psalm 109 captures this theme excellently: “The part of vengeance, Lord, is Thine;/To pray, and only pray, is mine” (v. 3).
- The imprecatory psalms serve as a warning to the Christian (Hebrews 10:26-31). We cannot read or sing these psalms without realizing that but for the grace of God, we would be in the place of the wicked, suffering under God’s righteous wrath. Imprecatory psalms should encourage us to flee what is evil and cling to what is good (Psalm 34:14).
- The imprecatory psalms reassure the Christian that vengeance belongs to God, and that he will certainly judge the wicked (Psalm 73:27, 28). As surprising as it may sound, we can actually obtain comfort from these words, because our confidence in our Judge and Advocate is sure. At the end of the world, it is the righteous, not the wicked, who will obtain God’s favor.
Although these guidelines aren’t specific enough to determine how a song like Psalter Hymnal 220 should be used in a church service, I hope they are at least a little helpful in understanding the place of imprecatory psalms in the Bible. In the case of singing this Psalm 109 versification, even if you decide to omit the middle section, stanzas 1 and 9-13 are still undoubtedly appropriate for congregational worship.
I hope to devote a longer article to this topic in the future. For now, though, I leave you with these thoughts. If we believe the Bible is the inerrant, infallible Word of God, we must also realize that God had good reasons to include the imprecatory psalms. For one, in beholding God’s judgment on the reprobate as shown here in Psalm 109, the Christian can come to more fully appreciate the unmerited deliverance he has bestowed upon his elect. These Scriptures serve to convict and assure us that God is our righteous and merciful Judge.
Thanksgiving to the Lord I raise,
The multitude shall hear my praise,
For by the needy God will stand
To save them from oppression’s hand.
For a more complete treatment of the topic of imprecatory psalms, check out this article on Psalm 109 from Bible.org. (Since I haven’t read the entire essay, I can’t attest to anything beyond the fact that it looks interesting.)