Posts Tagged 'Imprecatory Psalms'

Singing Our Sadness

We’ve spoken in the past about how Christians ought to view psalms of lament and imprecation. Are these sentiments worthy of a believer’s lips? Rev. Daniel Kok of Grace URC in Leduc, Alberta, shares his thoughts on this matter, and emphasizes the unique value of the Psalter.


Grace Reformed Church of Leduc

A wise elder in a congregation I once served told me that I should select the first song in worship to be a joyful song of praise. His concern was that I, having chosen a sadder song to begin our Sunday worship, would bring to mind and heart the feeling of a funeral service rather than the glad celebration it was meant to be. Thus the tone of the entire service would be ‘off’ from the very beginning. I appreciated his point and, to this day, have striven to follow this ‘rule’ for the order of worship. And clearly there are many  appropriate songs to choose that have aided me in doing so.

Since that time I have grown in my appreciation and reverence specifically for the biblical Psalms. One of the reasons for my attraction to them is their capacity to express a wide range of emotions that God…

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Psalm 137: The Lord’s Song in a Foreign Land

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.

–Psalm 137:1-2 (ESV)

"By Babel's streams we sat and wept..."

“By Babel’s streams we sat and wept…”

Sandwiched between two joyful psalms of unrestrained praise, Psalm 137 is shocking in more ways than one.  It gives voice to the passionate emotions of the faithful exiles of Israel as they pine over the ruin of their nation.  The psalmist vows never to forget Jerusalem (“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!”), and pours righteous imprecations upon the godless nations (“Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”).  In the midst of these vehement words, we find the key to the entire psalm in verse 4: “How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?”

Today we consider Psalm 137 as versified in the blue Psalter Hymnal.

285, “By Babel’s Streams We Sat and Wept”

Although the 1912 Psalter (the source for much of the Psalter Hymnal) has a notorious tendency to dull the powerful language of the imprecatory psalms, “By Babel’s Steams” is an impressive exception.  The text errs on the poetic side, but still carries the original meaning and flow of Psalm 137 surprisingly well.  The third, fourth, and fifth stanzas particularly stand out to me:

Not songs but sighs to us belong
When Zion’s walls in ruin lie;
How shall we sing Jehovah’s song
While in an alien land we die?

O Zion fair, God’s holy hill,
Wherein our God delights to dwell,
Let my right hand forget her skill
If I forget to love thee well.

If I do not remember thee,
Then let my tongue from utterance cease,
If any earthly joy to me
Be dear as Zion’s joy and peace.

What should be done with Psalm 137:9 is a matter of some debate.  Is the imagery of infants being dashed against the rocks un-Christian, unworthy of our lips?  I’m not sure I have the answer to this difficult question, but I am more than satisfied with the synopsis given in the sixth stanza of this setting:

Remember, Lord, the dreadful day
Of Zion’s cruel overthrow;
How happy he who shall repay
The bitter hatred of her foe.

The tune of number 285 is a poignant lament associated with the Good Friday hymn “’Tis Midnight, And on Olive’s Brow.”  When playing OLIVE’S BROW, be sure to bring out the harmonies, which are much more varied and interesting than the chant-like melody line.  Playing this tune too fast would be an atrocious crime.  Most importantly, think of (and, if possible, sing) the solemn words of this psalm as you play.  Consider this beautiful arrangement of “By Babel’s Streams” combined with another versification of Psalm 137 from the 1912 Psalter.  (Note that for the last stanza the choir just sings “Ooo”—a nice stylistic touch, in my opinion.)

You may still be asking, “But how does Psalm 137 apply to the Christian life?  Can it?”  Indeed, I believe it can.  Perhaps an extreme example would be the situation of believers in overtly anti-Christian nations.  How it must grieve these brothers and sisters in the Lord to be tortured, imprisoned, or just prevented from the possibility of worship!  These saints have set God’s Church above their highest joy, and are willing to sacrifice their liberty and even their lives for its sake.

Even in countries like our own, where Christianity (though mocked) is still tolerated, Psalm 137 speaks to the believer.  Are we reminded as we interact with our secular culture that we are indeed in an alien land?  Does it grieve us when circumstances prevent us from worshiping with God’s people on Sunday, or are we instead quick to forget Zion?  Psalm 137 ought to serve as a vivid lesson in living in the world, but not of the world.  Furthermore, we can take comfort in the knowledge that all wickedness is “doomed to be destroyed,” that in the end the God of peace will crush Satan under our feet (Romans 16:20) and give his Church the complete victory.  All glory to his Name!

O Zion fair, God’s holy hill,
Wherein our God delights to dwell,
Let my right hand forget her skill
If I forget to love thee well.


Psalm 64: Deadly Shafts

Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint;
preserve my life from dread of the enemy.
Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked,
from the throng of evildoers,
who whet their tongues like swords,
who aim bitter words like arrows,
shooting from ambush at the blameless,
shooting at him suddenly and without fear.

–Psalm 64:1-4 (ESV)

While Psalm 64 is a lament (or, as it calls itself, a “complaint”), its author is far from hopeless.  David petitions the Lord to protect him from the evil plans of wicked men.  He describes their bitter words as arrows, and their malicious actions as “shooting from ambush.”  But he further states, in keeping with the metaphor, that God will also shoot his arrow to destroy the wicked.  When the Lord’s vindication is made manifest, “then all mankind fears; they tell what God has brought about and ponder what he has done” (v. 9).  The psalmist ends with a declaration of praise and trust:

Let the righteous one rejoice in the LORD
and take refuge in him!
Let all the upright in heart exult!

–Psalm 64:10

113, “Hear, Lord, the Voice of My Complaint”

The Psalter Hymnal contains only one version of Psalm 64: “Hear, Lord, the Voice of My Complaint.”  It’s not as thorough as could be desired, but it’s hardly inaccurate or softened; in fact, I think it preserves the original meaning and flow of thought of Psalm 64 quite well.  The first stanza is particularly notable for its similarity to the  ESV text.  Overall, a first-rate versification!

Although the tune MONORA might be fitting for the last stanza of Psalm 64, I’m not convinced of its appropriateness for the more imprecatory stanzas 1 and 2.  I might be tempted to play around instead with the tunes of Psalter Hymnal #100 (VOX DILECTI) or #161 (AUDITE AUDIENTES ME), which combine a somber minor section with a more uplifting major section.  There exists a dizzying array of C.M.D. tunes from which to choose.

Like most of the imprecatory psalms, Psalm 64 is helpful for just about any situation in which a Christian suffers oppression at the hands of unbelievers—from workplace problems to physical persecution.   It speaks especially of the caustic words of hate and mockery with which so many of us are acquainted.  Even in situations like these, however, the believer can be assured that God will soon vindicate him.

The just shall triumph in the Lord,
Their trust shall be secure,
And endless glory then shall crown
The upright and the pure.


Sing a New Song, Chapter 10: Setting the Soul in Tune

“I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately,” said John Calvin famously of the psalms, “‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul.’”  Through our discussions of Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm-Singing for the Twenty-First Century over the past several weeks, we’ve seen that the psalms are God’s inspired songbook for his people, why they should be sung in corporate worship, and how they should shape our understanding of Scripture.  Today’s chapter, however, has a different focus.  Diving directly into the soul of the psalms, Chapter 10 by Derek W. H. Thomas explores the relationship between “Psalm Singing and Pastoral Theology.”  Commenting on Calvin’s above description of the psalms, Thomas explains, “Many of the psalms are written from the first-person perspective.  They are, therefore, highly personal, and we read them as descriptive of our own spiritual journey.  They speak of highs and lows, covering the entire range of human experiences—even some that we might find uncomfortable” (p. 162).

MRK: With this understanding of the personal component of the Psalter, can we gain any insight into why the psalms are so seldom sung in today’s churches?

JDO: In his book The Wages of Spin, referenced here in Sing a New Song, Carl Trueman points to our modern culture’s desire for constant happiness.  In today’s “health, wealth, and happiness society,” to admit to feelings of despair, torment, brokenness, and sadness would be “tantamount to admitting that one has failed.”  Our culture is obsessed with a trouble-free, pleasure-driven life.  Sadly, our churches have been influenced by that thinking.  We repress our sense of brokenness and ignore spiritual malaise.  Since we certainly don’t want to talk about such things in church, we naturally gravitate to “feel-good” worship.  I think Trueman and Thomas are right in their diagnosis: the psalms become exceedingly “uncomfortable” amidst our general desire for worship to be cloyingly “happy.”  For the Psalms are real.  They deal with all the mess of human life and spirituality with no holds barred.

MRK: Says Thomas, “Without a regular familiarity with the Psalms in the liturgy of public worship, many Christians find themselves at odds with their experience of what the Christian life means to them.”  In our “frequently too exclusively positive and upbeat” worship culture, a dangerous crevasse develops between what we sing about and how we feel.  “This often leads to cynicism, a loss of assurance, a schizophrenic experience of Christianity, and experiences of guilt that find little or no resolution” (p. 163).

JDO: Churches oriented only toward the “positive and upbeat” pave the way for drastic alienation.  Suppose I’ve had a tough week.  Maybe I’m depressed, or maybe I’ve been persistently hounded by my own sins and temptations and the forces of evil.  Where can I fit in amidst all the disgusting saccharine sweetness in this kind of worship?  The psalms, I think, serve to ground the worship of the church in reality.  There are explosive psalms of praise, but there are also laments.  There are psalms of quiet peace as well as battle cries. The psalms contain something for everyone, regardless of an individual’s situation.

Psalm 23, probably the most familiar psalm, is a case in point.  It’s personal (notice the use of “my” in verse 1), pastoral (the very fact that we use the word “pastoral” to describe the work of the church points to shepherd imagery), and realistic.  Life is full of both green pastures and valleys of the shadow of death.  We’re called to feast at the table of Christ, but we must often do so in the presence of our enemies.  This psalm is not just sentimental feel-goodery; the comfort it gives is grounded in the reality of the Christian struggle.

MRK: Incidentally, I’d like to point out that Psalm 23 must be taken as a whole if it is to impart this genuine comfort.  If its references to the “valley of the shadow of death” and the “presence of my enemies” are removed, it too becomes saccharine, unsubstantial—and void of reassurance for the anxious Christian.  This happens to be a great reason to sing entire psalm versifications as opposed to “hunt-and-peck” paraphrases, but the main point is that we must realize the uncomfortable sincerity of the psalms in order to truly benefit from them.

JDO: The benefit of the psalms is that “they address us at points of need and, more importantly, points of failure,” as Thomas points out (p. 164).

MRK: At this point, Thomas takes a moment to address the clear “elephant in the room” when it comes to discussions about psalmody: imprecatory psalms.  We’ve treated this topic several times before here on URC Psalmody, so we won’t delve into too much detail here.  Suffice it to say, however, that the imprecatory psalms should form a critical part of our worship, because “every Christian has experienced to some degree or other an example of terrible injustice; in such circumstances, the desire for the wrong to be right must form the basic language of Christian piety and worship.  If it does not, serious pastoral problems ensue that are as difficult as the imprecatory desires” (p. 166).

JDO: The imprecatory psalms provide a model for what to do with the boiling, pent-up feelings that all of us have over injustice and sin. Our response should be the natural recourse of the Christian: taking them to God in prayer.  We don’t just pray when we’re happy, or when we “feel like it,” or when we have our scheduled devotional time.  The psalms teach us to go to God with every feeling, emotion, and situation, drawing us away from bland prayers and teaching us to pray realistically.

MRK: As I read through the psalms, I’ve sometimes been a little shocked by the sheer number of laments. “Why are they here? Why are there so many of them?”  Thus, I especially appreciated the fact that Thomas takes time here to explain the benefit of psalms of lamentation.  In a nutshell, he says, “Because so many psalms fall into the category of lamentation, their use as pastoral guides and templates is particularly fitting.…Such psalms evoke an emotional response that opens the door to some tough questions” (p. 167).  The psalmists never shy away from saying exactly what’s on their minds–questions like “Does life make sense? Is there any real purpose to my pain? Why must every relationship end? Is God good?”

JDO: Unless we are remarkably self-deceived, these are the sorts of questions that we and every single human being will face, constantly and repeatedly.  Instead of denying ourselves the opportunity of wrestling with these questions, instead of ignoring them, instead of answering them wrongly by ourselves, we ought to look to the psalms as templates for our journey through these unavoidable spiritual crises.

MRK: Now, as always, there’s the need for discernment.  Thomas points out that “such emotion-based use of the Psalms may result in an abuse in interpretation.”  Our understanding of the psalms must be framed within the understanding of God’s sovereignty and providence, the fallenness of man and nature, and the process of sanctification.  Nevertheless, the psalms were written and designed to function in some ways “as release valves for pent-up feelings.  They enable the worshiper to engage in, for example, the grief process in a way that honors the integrity of the psalm and a biblical anthropology.”

JDO: Thomas concludes his discussion of the lamentations by commenting on Jesus’ use of Psalm 22 while he was on the cross.  As Hebrews reminds us, Christ has gone through the worst that this earth has to offer.  What words did he use to express his feelings while in the darkest of all experiences?—the words of the psalms.  Following our Head, we too can find expression for our every experience in the words of the psalms.

MRK: In his last section, Thomas references Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s classic allegory of the Christian life, as an example of proper uses of the psalms in pastoral situations.  In every sort of illustration, Bunyan constantly relates Christian’s journey to the psalms, “dealing with issues of assurance, fear, bravery, courage, and faith.”  This, according to Thomas, “demonstrates how the Psalms, though written in specific contexts, can help us too in our own specific circumstances” (p. 171).  Bunyan himself, through the character Mr. Great-Heart, paints a beautiful picture of the role of lamentation in the believer’s life:

Mr. Fearing was one that played upon the bass.  He and his fellows sound the sackbut, whose notes are more doleful than the notes of other music are: though indeed, some say, the bass is the ground of music.  And for my part, I care not at all for that profession which begins not in heaviness of mind.  The first string that the musician usually touches is the bass, when he intends to put all in tune.  God also plays upon this string first, when he sets the soul in tune for himself.

In concluding our conversation on this chapter, we can do no better than to quote Thomas’s closing words:

The Psalms, then, are a portion of Scripture with which Christians should be familiar.  Digging from these mines will yield treasures of inestimable value.  Whatever the issue may be—loneliness, bitterness, helplessness, melancholy, anger, frustration, joy, contentment, faithfulness, or a hundred other issues—the Psalms address them all.  Calvin was correct: they are an anatomy of all the parts of the soul.

Amen!  One more chapter remains for us to discuss in Sing a New Song: “Psalmody and Prayer” by J. V. Fesko.  We hope you’ll join us next week for the grand finale!


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.


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