Sing a New Song, Chapter 7: Prayers for God’s Glory

Imprecatory psalms have always been a sticky wicket for Christians.  Here at URC Psalmody we’ve already devoted several posts to discussing these prayers for vengeance on the wicked.  Such psalms are difficult to understand; they just seem so harsh, so hateful, so—well, “un-Christian.”  But we can’t just skip them.  For one thing, they are part of God’s Word.  For another, about ninety of the 150 psalms contain imprecatory language, making them a significant force to be reckoned with.  So what are we to do?  How can we sing these psalms?

With this preface we return to our ongoing study of Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm Singing for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Joel Beeke and Anthony Selvaggio.  In Chapter 7, entitled “Christian Cursing?”, David Murray approaches the perplexing topic of imprecatory psalms from a practical, pastoral perspective.  He first essays to examine some wrong solutions to the problem of imprecatory psalms; then he proposes ten helpful reminders to shed light on the real nature of these songs.

JDO: This was a helpful chapter to me.  I’ve never chosen an imprecatory psalm at a “requests night” psalm-sing.  I tend to feel awkward when I get to an imprecatory psalm in my own devotions.  While I don’t skip them, I tend to read them faster than usual, just “taking them for information,” rather than seeking to pray, sing, and live the words myself.

MRK: I’m very much the same way.  Unfortunately, I haven’t often heard the imprecatory psalms thoroughly explained during Scripture readings or approached in sermons either.  They certainly are a bugbear for many Christians.

Murray begins his analysis of incorrect views by debunking the myth that the imprecatory psalms are applicable to the Old Testament only, and irrelevant to the New Testament—in other words, “that these psalms are included in the Scriptures only to show the contrast between the two eras” (p. 112).

JDO: This is a mistaken approach towards God and the Scriptures.  We know that God is consistent and that His standards do not change.  He commands us to love our enemies in both Old and New Testaments; he also curses sinners in both Testaments.

The second wrong approach is a position held by C. S. Lewis.  While my approach to Christianity has been shaped significantly by Lewis, in this case we have to firmly reject his argument: that David was showing his sinful human side in writing the imprecatory psalms.  That is, these psalms are not divinely inspired.

MRK: Quite simply, Murray responds, “We reject this explanation because it raises questions about the inspiration of Scripture.”  After all, II Timothy 3:16 doesn’t read, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God…well, except for the imprecatory psalms.”

What about the third interpretation—that imprecatory psalms are directed at demons, not people?

JDO: Murray rightly points out that this is a legitimate answer.  Ephesians 6:12 says that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but…against the spiritual forces of evil.”  Spiritual warfare is very real, and it’s something we should think about more often.  However, this particular explanation has a problem because it limits the imprecatory psalms to speaking exclusively about spiritual warfare.  Such a view fails to realize that there is also legitimacy in praying against real human enemies, as evidenced by the fact that the Apostles used Psalms 69 and 109 against Judas in Acts 1:20.

The fourth wrong way to understand the imprecatory psalms is to regard them simply as predictive prophecy about the end times.  In other words, these psalms aren’t prayers—they don’t represent something that their authors desired or that we should desire.  Instead, the imprecatory psalms merely state what will happen to the wicked at the final judgment.

MRK: This argument is incorrect for two reasons: (1) the Hebrew doesn’t support this interpretation; and (2) Revelation tells us that even in heaven we will desire God’s vengeance upon his enemies (Rev. 6:10; 16:5,6; 18:20).

Lastly, Murray considers the claim that the imprecatory psalms are just examples of “hyperbolic language, or purposeful exaggeration.”

JDO: He writes this off as patently ridiculous.  The imprecatory psalms have such a sense of real prayer in desperate times (think of Psalms 58 and 59) that this explanation is “stretching too far” and merely shows an attempt to “explain away” the imprecatory psalms.

Murray continues his chapter by proposing “some helps that will improve our understanding and motivate our singing” of the imprecatory psalms (p. 114).

MRK: Firstly, Murray points to God’s “gospel curse” on the serpent and his seed in Genesis 3:14,15.  Imprecations against the wicked are actually a plea for God to fulfill his gospel promise to believers.

JDO: The second help Murray offers is a reflection on David’s forgiving character.  The Bible portrays David as a merciful and gracious man who often prayed for his enemies. The imprecatory psalms he wrote, then, sprang not from a vindictive temper, but from a heart on fire for God’s glory.

MRK: Thirdly, and in connection with some of the themes of Chapter 6, Murray points out that the Old Testament king represented God, and that “David was God’s anointed in a particularly special, christological way” (p. 115).  As an anointed and divinely inspired psalmist, David “did not cringe from praying prayers that had God’s glory, not human welfare, as their ultimate end.”  As Martin Lloyd-Jones explained it, “It’s just the zeal of the psalmist.  He’s grieved and troubled because these people are not honoring God as they should be.”

JDO: The fourth help is simply how often the New Testament quotes the imprecatory psalms.  After the messianic psalms (like 2, 22, 110, and 118), the imprecatory psalms are next most often referenced.  So we should keep this in mind when we struggle with the imprecations: the New Testament was “not the least embarrassed” to quote them—in fact, it quotes them with approval.

MRK: Fifthly, Murray notes the many imprecations found in the New Testament itself.  He points to the modern “over-emphasis on the love of God at the expense of the justice of God,” which tends to gloss over New Testament references to God’s justice while completely ignoring the Old Testament.  Says Murray, “God’s justice and God’s love are found in both testaments, despite repeated attempts by many to ignore this important truth” (p. 116).

JDO: Right.  Among the New Testament’s imprecatory passages one might think of II Timothy 4:14, where Paul says of Alexander, “May the Lord reward him according to his works.”  Related to this is the sixth help, which is that the imprecatory psalms are based on the justice of God.  Murray says the theme of the imprecatory psalms is “that justice be done and the innocent righteous vindicated” (p. 117).

MRK: More than that, Murray explains that “the foundation of biblical justice was retribution: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”—a principle to which the psalms often appeal (“Let the net that he hid ensnare him,” Ps. 35:8).  “If the idea of retributive justice is lost or devalued,” says Murray, “then the imprecatory psalms will never be properly understood.”

Seventhly, Murray teaches that our desire to see God’s kingdom come must include a desire to see the kingdom of the wicked overthrown.  “Christians are to love their personal enemies and bless those who curse them and spitefully use them.  Nevertheless, they will desire at the same time the downfall of all evil and will pray for such.”

JDO: This relates a lot to what we’ve shared before from William Gurnall: the imprecatory psalms are not to be directed against our personal enemies but against their wicked actions.  Says Murray, “We may love [our enemy’s] soul while at the same time praying that God would defeat him in his persecution of God’s people” (p. 118).

The eighth help is a reminder that “vengeance is the Lord’s.”  To pray the imprecatory psalms is to deny one’s own right to vengeance and leave it to God’s wisdom.  It’s hard in our context to relate right away to these psalms, since we live easily in a land with no imminent persecution.  But God’s Kingdom is still at war, and these are war psalms.  By praying them, we rely on the justice of God to conquer for us.

MRK: In the ninth place, Murray notes that “an imprecatory prayer will often have the good of the sinner at its heart, because God will often use judgments to bring sinners to Himself” (p. 119).  The imprecatory psalms often request God to stop wickedness and convert the wicked at the same time—kind of a “push-and-pull” effect.

JDO: Finally, the imprecatory psalms point us to Christ, who at the end of time will return to punish the wicked and vindicate His people.  Ultimately the imprecatory psalms will be answered and fulfilled in the return of Christ and the last judgment.

MRK: As we emphasized in our last installment, the key to understanding the psalms (particularly the imprecatory psalms) is to see Christ praying and singing them himself.  Murray brings this point home in a quote from War Psalms of the Prince of Peace by James Adams (p. 120):

When we understand that it is this merciful and holy Savior of sinners who is praying, we will no longer be ashamed of these prayers, but rather glory in them.  Christ’s prayers lead us to give God the honor and trust now because we know that God answers His prayers.   Therefore, we are assured that the powers of evil will fall and God alone will reign forever!

In closing, perhaps we can summarize the Christian’s proper response to the imprecatory psalms in one word: Maranatha—Lord, come quickly.

Next time in our Sing a New Song series, we plan to tackle Malcolm H. Watts’s mammoth chapter on “The Case for Psalmody.”  We hope you’ll join us then.


1 Response to “Sing a New Song, Chapter 7: Prayers for God’s Glory”

  1. 1 Sing a New Song, Chapter 8: Singing Sufficiency « URC Psalmody Trackback on November 8, 2012 at 6:02 am

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