Week 87: Psalms Part 9
In these psalms the psalmists ask God to visit their enemies with judgement.
- Let the heads of those who surround me
be covered with the trouble their lips have caused.
Let burning coals fall upon them;
may they be thrown into the fire,
into miry pits, never to rise.
from Psalm 140
One of the best known imprecatory psalms is Psalm 137, which was composed in Babylon:
- By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
Remember, O Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
‘Tear it down,’ they cried,
‘tear it down to its foundations!’
O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays you
for what you have done to us –
he who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
This is not pleasant. There is no forgiveness for the enemy and certainly no recognition that what is being said might be inappropriate. It is understandable that some people should ask whether Christians should use these psalms at all.
Can Christians use imprecatory psalms?
First, we must remember that the Jews only had the Old Testament. Hence, we mustn’t expect the Old Testament to feel fully Christian. They had no knowledge of Jesus, who said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’.
Secondly, these psalms are good models of honesty in prayer. If we feel a certain way, then it is appropriate to tell God how we feel. It is just as bad to feel the way the psalmist does and not say it, as it is to say it. In fact it is worse, because we are trying to hide it from God.
I remember a Christian lady who had been in a terrible car crash. For 20 years afterwards she was dreadfully handicapped; she could only stagger around on crutches and was in constant pain. One night, as she was going into her bedroom, she cursed God for her agony. But then she caught her foot on the carpet and fell over, knocking herself out. She was unconscious for many hours, and when she woke up it was morning, and sunlight was coming through the window and shining directly into her eyes. She was convinced that she had died and was now facing the Lord, and with horror she remembered that the last thing she had done in life had been to curse God. She assumed that she would have to go to hell because of this. But then she realized that the bright light was in fact just sunshine and she was still in her bedroom. The relief was enormous. Then she suddenly noticed that she had no pain. She got up and discovered that she was totally healed. She could move every limb! She dashed out into the street and told everybody she met that she had cursed God but he had made her well! Of course, this is not a good model to copy, but the point is that because she was honest with God, this lady received healing from him. How gracious he is!
Thirdly, the enemies of Israel were also God’s enemies. The imprecatory psalms do not just ask for vengeance on the psalmists’ personal enemies; they also remind God that the psalmists’ enemies are His enemies. For Christians today, the enemies of God are not flesh and blood, but the principalities and powers. If we really love God, we will hate the devil and all evil. The Old Testament saints did not have the knowledge that we have about the Day of Judgement and heaven and hell, so they had to pray that the wicked would be punished in this present world. They believed that after death everyone went to a place called Sheol – a kind of railway station waiting-room where no trains arrive. They had to pray for God to be vindicated in this life. They were crying to a good God for justice.
Fourthly, in every case the psalmists refuse to take revenge themselves, but leave it to God. This is a principle that Paul teaches in Romans 12: ‘Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath’. He will take vengeance on the wicked.
Finally, it is important to note that in this matter the New Testament is no different from the Old. There are also imprecatory prayers in the New Testament. In Revelation 6 the souls of the martyrs in heaven are praying, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’. These prayers are no different from the imprecatory psalms, even though they are made ‘in heaven’. The Christian martyrs are asking God to vindicate himself and to bring justice.
So if we do it in the right spirit, we have no problem using these psalms today. One day every sin will be punished, the righteous will be vindicated and the martyrs will sit on the very thrones that condemned them to death.