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Trade Paperback
200 pages
Aug 2005
Kregel Publications

Crying for Justice: What the Psalms Teach Us About Mercy And Vengeance in an Age of Terrorism

by John N. Day

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt



Unsatisfactory Solutions

Across the centuries, much has been written about the relationship of the Christian to cries of imprecation as are found in the Psalms. Yet even in modern treatments of this vital issue, there have been little more than cursory efforts to integrate imprecations holistically into the larger trans-testamental biblical theology. As a result, the solutions proposed have proven theologically inadequate. Some of these solutions are

  1. Imprecatory psalms express evil emotions that should be suppressed or confessed as sin.
  2. They are utterances consonant with old covenant morality but inconsistent with new covenant ethics.
  3. Such words may be appropriately spoken only by Christ in relation to his work on the cross and only by his followers through him.

Evil Emotions Not to Be Expressed

The esteemed C. S. Lewis, whose works have been a well-spring of inspiration, finds that “in some of the Psalms the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth,”—and “perhaps the worst is in 109.” But “even more devilish in one verse is the, otherwise beautiful, 137 where a blessing is pronounced on anyone who will snatch up a Babylonian baby and beat its brains out against the pavement.”1 Lewis uses such phrases to describe these psalms as “terrible or (dare we say?) contemptible,”2 “wicked” and “sinful,”3 “ferocious” and “dangerous.”4 He further believes with regard to them that “we must face both facts squarely. The hatred is there—festering, gloating, undisguised—and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves.”5

To embrace this position, however, is questionable on several counts.

First, to contend that imprecatory psalms pulsate with malice and revenge—unfit in those trained in the school of Christ to “love your enemies”—runs counter to the distinguishing feature of David. This principal author of at least twenty-three of the thirty-two psalms in question is styled in Scripture as “a man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14; cf. 16:7).6 It would seem inconsistent that his character would receive such unqualified endorsement if he were to exhibit in these psalms a heart that is fundamentally far from the character of Christ.7

Scripture is not reticent to note the passions and sins of David. He succumbed to the temptation for rage and revenge (e.g., 1 Sam. 25:21–22). He committed heinous crimes—including adultery, deception, and murder (2 Sam. 11). These failings did not, however, express his prevailing character, which was rather revealed in his repentance (cf. Ps. 51; 1 Sam. 25:32–34).8

Moreover, David was quick to exhibit a Christ-like spirit toward enemies, in particular, King Saul.9 Indeed, his imprecations in the psalms are against enemies who had repeatedly returned “evil for good” or who had taken part in gross—and frequently sustained—injustice. In Psalm 35:12–14, for example, David relates this core practice of love in action:

    12They repay me evil for good—

    what bereavement to my soul!

    13Yet I, when they were sick, I clothed myself in sackcloth;

    I humbled myself in fasting,

    but my prayers returned unanswered.

    14As though for my friend or brother, I paced back and forth;

    as though mourning for my mother, I bowed my head in grief.

A second problem with the view that the imprecatory expressions are evil is that the purposes governing them and the principal themes running through them are of the highest ethical plane. These purposes and themes carry

  • a concern for the honor of God (e.g., Ps. 74:22, “Rise up, O God, and defend your cause; remember how fools mock you all day long!”);
  • a concern for the realization of justice amid rampant injustice (e.g., Ps. 58:11, “Then men will say . . . ‘Surely there is a God who judges in the earth!’”);
  • a concern for the public recognition of the sovereignty of God (e.g., Ps. 59:13, “Then it will be known to the ends of the earth that God rules over Jacob”);
  • a hope that divine retribution will cause the enemies to seek Yahweh (e.g., Ps. 83:17, “Fill their faces with shame so that they may seek your name”);
  • an abhorrence of sin (e.g., Ps. 139:21, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Yahweh?”);
  • a concern for the preservation of the righteous (e.g., Ps. 143:11–12, “For the sake of your name, O Yahweh, preserve my life! . . . And in your lovingkindness annihilate my enemies and destroy all my foes, for I am your servant”).

A third problem with maintaining that the expressions in the imprecatory psalms are evil, exuding a spirit far distant from the Spirit of God, is that this view implies a denial that the Psalms are inspired.10 By the testimony of both David and David’s greater Son, the Psalms come under the purview of divine inspiration. David’s own attestation in 2 Samuel 23:2 is that “the Spirit of Yahweh spoke through me.” As noted above, this same David wrote a large portion of the imprecatory psalms. In Mark 12:36, Jesus stated that “David himself spoke by the Holy Spirit,” using this clause to introduce a quotation from the Psalms. Perhaps most pertinent, Peter quotes from both Psalms 69 and 109—two of the most “notorious” imprecatory psalms—preceded by the statement that these Scriptures “had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas” (Acts 1:16, 20; cf. Pss. 69:25; 109:8 emphasis added).

Lewis himself recognized that his own view demanded that he make a certain compromise in his acceptance of the divine inspiration of the Psalms. Since he believed that the imprecatory psalms were “so full of that passion to which Our Lord’s teaching allows no quarter,” he courted the middle territory “that all Holy Scripture is in some sense—though not all parts of it in the same sense—the word of God.”11

A fourth problem with condemning the imprecatory texts is that this view is contrary to the nature of the Psalms as a book fashioned for the worship of Yahweh by his people. To explain the imprecatory psalms as outbursts of evil emotion, not to be emulated, may well account for the initial writing of the Psalms, but it does not adequately explain why these texts were incorporated into the canon—indeed, the book of worship for God’s people. George Gunn is perceptive in observing that to regard the imprecatory psalms as wholly vindictive may be a sufficient explanation for the writing of them, because anyone in certain given circumstances of distress and provocation may have surrendered to this dark spirit. What we have to account for, however, is not the writing of them but their incorporation into the Psalter at the time when it was compiled, and in view of the purpose for which it was compiled. It is as nearly certain as can be that there was a higher reason for their inclusion in a collection that was intended solely for use in the worship of God.12

Indeed, these troubling curses and cries for vengeance appear with such frequency that they form an integral part of the canonical Psalter,13 and this without any literary or theological indication of divine disapproval at the expression of such sentiments.14 Nor was there felt any need for later copyists and compilers to expunge such material as unbefitting the Book of God. Gunn further muses that there must be some thought—albeit vivid and painful—in these psalms. The compilers regarded them “as seemly and necessary in the people’s approach to God in worship; and they took the risk—a very large one—of the misunderstanding which would arise and has constantly arisen from the type of language in which that thought was clothed.”15 Readers of Scripture must grapple with this reality.

Indeed, these cries’ prevalence in the book of worship lends credence to the opinion that they are to be embraced as the believer’s justified appeal to divine justice, rather than utterances to be desperately avoided.

To Be Expressed and Relinquished

Walter Brueggemann understands the imprecatory psalms to be hateful cries for revenge. Christians must move beyond such cries, he asserts. Yet this way beyond the psalms of vengeance “is a way through them and not around them.”16 He wrote that, rather than disowning them, Christians ought fully to embrace these harsh psalms as their own. These texts voice a common sentiment, for humans are vengeful creatures. “Our rage and indignation must be fully owned and fully expressed. Then (and only then) can our rage and indignation be yielded to the mercy of God.”17

Rather than proposing to ban such rage from the worship of God and the life of faith, he nobly insists that this “rage is rightly carried even to the presence of Yahweh,”18 to be relinquished there.19

Brueggemann’s position is commendable. First, it seeks to maintain the rightful place of the imprecatory psalms in the life of the Christian and in Christian worship. Second, it brings all of life to God in prayer as petitioners bow before his lordship. Brueggemann does not, however, get beyond his impression that the imprecations are “evil,” and he fails to reckon fully with the presence of similar imprecations in the New Testament. Nor can he dismantle the Old Testament foundations upon which New Testament sentiments are voiced. Indeed, the larger trans-testamental testimony appears to exonerate and, in limited and appropriate circumstances, even commend the texts. These “curses” are based upon the covenant promises of God. It seems apparent, then, that it would not be inherently evil for his people to petition him—albeit passionately—to fulfill these promises.

This yearning for God’s just vengeance on the inveterately wicked is far from evil. Jesus himself displayed rage at stubborn sin: “He looked around at them in anger, deeply grieved at their stubborn hearts” (Mark 3:5). “Snakes! Brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to Gehenna?!” (Matt. 23:33). In both cases Christ reacted against the hardened unbelief and opposition of religious leaders.

Neither Matthew 23:33 nor Mark 3:5 is imprecatory, but both bear an imprecatory sense and intensity that fit the cornerstones of what Brueggemann sees as evil. These two texts certainly convey a yearning for divine vengeance,20 expressed through the emotion of rage. And if such characterizes the sinless Savior, then a righteous “rage” has been reclaimed.21

Old Covenant Morality

Inferior Morality

Approaching the issue from a dispensational and progressive-revelational standpoint, Roy Zuck seeks to alleviate the difficulty aroused by the imprecatory psalms. He claims that “the unfolding of revealed truth in the Word of God is accompanied by a similar advancement of morals”22 and that “the Old Testament is on a lower moral plane than the New Testament.”23 Of principal support for his thesis is the observation that, “though there are many passages which speak of tenderness and kindness toward others, even toward enemies, the Old Testament never speaks of forgiving or loving avowed enemies of God.”24 This assertion is placed opposite the words of Christ urging his disciples to “love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44).

Zuck finds two passages in the Old Testament that speak of consideration for one’s enemy—but that consideration does not perhaps, in his view, equal love. Exodus 23:4–5 rules as part of the law, “If you happen upon the stray ox or donkey of your enemy, you must surely return it to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you fallen under its load, do not fail to help him; you must surely help him with it.”

Proverbs 25:21 adds the ethical injunction, “If one who hates you is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.”

To this perspective that the Old Testament lacks a concept of enemy love, two principal objections can be offered. First, the narrow understanding of love placed upon the Old Testament (or the New, for that matter) is countered by the broader teaching and example of Scripture. In both testaments, love is expressed tangibly in acts of kindness, so a deed of kindness is viewed as an act of love.

Leviticus 19, for example, from which the “second great commandment” arises, is replete with various “actions” that reveal a heart of love for one’s neighbor—whether a native or an “outsider.” These actions include such things as “intentionally leaving the edges of the harvest field for the poor and the foreigner” (vv. 9–10); “paying your workers in a timely fashion” (v. 13); “showing respect for the elderly” (v. 32); “treating the foreigner as if he were a native” (v. 34). Indeed, in this latter passage, Yahweh goes on to command the Israelites to “love him [the foreigner] as yourself, for you were foreigners [µyrIgE] in the land of Egypt.”25 This last passage helps us to understand that the reference to “loving your neighbor” in Leviticus 19:18, although parallel to “one of your people,” is by no means meant to be confined there. Rather, that dictum is intended to apply to anyone nearby whose need you are able to meet, to whom you can show tangible love.

Such a dictate, in many ways, laid the foundation for Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in answer to the query, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29–37).

Furthermore, in Matthew 5:45 (cf. Luke 6:35), Jesus established the command for loving one’s enemies upon the example of the kindness of God, who “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” alike. This kindness toward one’s enemies is without question both commanded (Exod. 23:4–5; Prov. 25:21) and modeled in the Old Testament (e.g., Naaman’s slave girl in 2 Kings 5;26 Elisha in 2 Kings 6:15–23;27  and Jonah’s reluctant witness to Nineveh in Jonah 3–428).

To distance deeds of kindness from the definition of love would be to limit without warrant the intent of Scripture. Thus, the Old Testament does indeed speak of loving one’s enemies—but this enemy-love is placed in the language, command, and example of enemy-kindness, which is love in action.

Second, the attempts to explain the ethics of the imprecatory psalms as inferior to ethics of the new covenant runs counter to a proper understanding of progressive revelation, that God’s withholding from one age what he has bestowed upon a subsequent one. F. G. Hibbard offers an insightful explanation for the nature of progressive revelation: “But what the Holy Spirit actually commanded, or inspired the Old Testament writers to utter, on moral subjects, is, and must be, in harmony with absolute morality.”29 There is indeed a degree of difference in the progress of the testaments; but it is a difference in degree not in kind. For “in essence there is only one principle in regard to morals pervading the Scriptures.”30

This essential moral principle is articulated by Jesus, who asserted that the two “great commands” given in the Old Testament are the same two “great commands” reinforced in the New. When he was tested by one of the Pharisees with the question, “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:36–40). From Jesus’ own testimony, then, the morality of the new covenant in its highest expression is constant with that of the Old Testament.31

The way that morality is expressed within the varying dispensations, however, may indeed vary. This is due, among other things, to the centralized status of God’s people in the Old Testament versus their decentralized status in the New. In the Old Testament, God’s people were surrounded by enemy nations: the necessity of their survival and the fulfillment of God’s promises required a prevailing posture of caution or defense.32 But with the coming of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit as the culmination of the ages and the climax of promise, has come a more explicit embrace of enemy-love and enduring abuse33 and the opening of the nations to the gospel of grace.

Chalmers Martin distances the Christian from imprecatory prayers when he asserts that the “distinction between the sin and the sinner was impossible to David as an Old Testament saint.”34 He adds that this distinction must now be made. According to Martin, the progress of revelation alters the Christian’s stance toward the enemies of God from one of enmity against the whole being to one of mere hatred of the governing principle of sin operating through the sinner.35

However common this sentiment may implicitly be in modern Christendom,36 it insufficiently characterizes the broader theology of Scripture. It seems to be a paradox that the position of Scripture is not only “Love the sinner but hate the sin,” but also amounts to “Love the sinner but hate the sinner.” At the fullness of revelation’s progress in Revelation, it is sinners—not just sin—who will be destroyed, suffering the eternal torment of hell.37 McKenzie rightly observes that “sin as an abstraction has no existence. The sin which we hate has its concrete existence in human wills.”38 He then perceptively muses,

There is a lawful hatred of the sinner; and indeed there must be, since such a hatred is the obverse of the love of God. The love of God hates all that is opposed to God; and sinners—not merely sin—are opposed to God. And if such a sentiment is lawful, its expression is lawful; and one may desire that the evil in another receive its corresponding evil—provided that this hatred is restrained within the limits of that which is lawful. These limits are: 1. Hatred must not be directed at the person of one’s neighbor; he is hated for his evil quality. 2. One may desire that the divine justice be accomplished in the sinner; but it must be a desire for divine justice, not a desire for the personal evil of another out of personal revenge. 3. The infliction of evil may not be desired absolutely, but only under the condition that the sinner remains obdurate and unrepentant. 4. It must be accompanied by that true supernatural charity which efficaciously desires the supreme good—the eternal happiness—of all men in general, not excluding any individual who is capable of attaining it. In a word, the sinner may lawfully be hated only when he is loved.39

On the part of God, this seeming paradox of “loving yet hating the sinner” is seen at work as God rains both judgment and blessing upon the unrighteous. It is seen in the comparison of Psalm 11:5–6 (“the wicked and him who loves violence his soul hates. He will rain on the wicked coals of fire40 and sulfur”) to Matthew 5:44–45 (“Love your enemies . . . so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he . . . sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous”). Isaiah 63:3–4 (“I trampled them in my anger . . . their blood splattered my garments . . . for the day of vengeance was in my heart”) can be compared with Ezekiel 33:11(“I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live”). As John Piper ponders upon this paradox, he observes that “God is grieved in one sense by the death of the wicked, and pleased in another.” This is evidence of what he labels “the infinitely complex emotional life of God.”41 God is able simultaneously to both love and hate unbelievers—loving them in the sense that He lavishly distributes his common grace, and hating them in the sense that they stand as rebellious sinners before a holy God.

And this life of God is a life the Christian is to emulate—albeit in a vastly inferior manner.42 As far as the finite Christian is able to reflect the image of the character and sentiment of God, he or she is called to do so.43 The pattern for this endeavor is Christ, who lived pervasive love yet did not shy away from denouncing  the unrepentant wicked—even the “religious” one.44 On the Christian’s part, then, this tension is lived out practically and particularly with regard to hardened sinners deemed “beyond the ken of repentance.”45 Imprecations of judgment against them are uttered “on the hypothesis of their continued impenitence.” 46 Under such circumstances, “to wipe out the sins results in the destruction of the sinner.”47 This is most often seen in the necessity of public justice executed against flagrant criminals. And it is against men such as these—“bloodthirsty men”—that David cried, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Yahweh?” (Ps. 139:21).49

Differing Dispensations

In a distinct but related dispensational approach, J. Carl Laney sees the issue as one not of progress in ethics, but as one simply of differing dispensations. He astutely observes that “the fundamental ground on which one may justify the imprecations in the Psalms is the covenantal basis for the curse on Israel’s enemies”50 as found in the Abrahamic covenant of Genesis 12:1–3, which promised blessing on those who blessed Abraham’s seed and cursing on those who cursed them. But because he views Abraham’s seed as including solely those of the race and nation of Israel, he asserts that “it would be inappropriate for a church-age believer to call down God’s judgment on the wicked.”51

This position, however, ignores the manifest presence of imprecations on the lips of saints in the “dispensation of grace.” To, it runs counter to the testimony of the New Testament, which affirms the enduring validity of the Abrahamic promise for those who embrace Christ through faith (cf. Gal. 3:6–29).52 Laney’s restriction of the Abrahamic promise to “Israel according to the flesh” (1 Cor. 10:18) is parried by Paul’s proclamation in Galatians 3:29 (cf. Rom. 2:28–29) that “if you belong to Christ, then you belong to Abraham’s seed, [and are thus] heirs according to the promise.” And if one is an heir of the Abrahamic covenant through Christ, one is an heir—in some fundamental measure at least—to its related promises of blessing and cursing found therein.53

Although Meredith Kline approaches the problem from a covenantal perspective, he comes to a conclusion similar to the dispensational positions. He posits that the old covenant witnesses to “intrusion ethics,” so the ethics of the consummation have been “intruded” into the era of common grace. He believes that the ethics of the Sinaitic Covenant in particular are “an anticipatory abrogation of the principle of common grace”54 inappropriate for the New Testament age, but which will be realized as the ethics of the age to come. At that time, believers “will have to change their attitude toward the unbeliever from one of neighborly love to one of perfect hatred.”55 The imprecatory psalms, then, in their expressions of hatred and their cries for vengeance, belong to this divine abrogation of common grace and, as such, could not be legitimately echoed by the Christian church.

One of the principles of common grace, Kline asserts, is that “we may not seek to destroy those for whom, perchance, Christ has died.”56 Harry Mennega shares Kline’s sentiment, claiming that we do not by special revelation know who are and who are not reprobate, as the psalmists of old did. We can therefore never use these psalms to refer them to particular individuals or groups of individuals who at any specific time by their actions display enmity at God’s kingdom. Today’s enemies of God may be his choice vessels tomorrow.57

However true this latter statement may be, to the larger construction it must be objected that nowhere in Scripture is it affirmed that the psalmists knew by God’s Spirit who, in the divine decree, were reprobate.58 They did know, however, who were the inveterate enemies of God and his people. Neither does Scripture categorically forbid the cry for judgment against such people. Zuck rightly admits the presence of unmistakable imprecations in the present era. He cites 1 Corinthians 16:22; Galatians 1:8–9; 5:12; 2 Timothy 4:14; and Revelation 6:9–10. He explains these imprecations by saying that they are voiced against “those who are the avowed adversaries of the Lord” and “who are inexorably opposed and relentlessly antagonistic to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”59 Zuck’s point, it ought to be noted, is the very point of the Old Testament imprecations. They also are voiced against the hardened adversaries of God.

Christians are never called to make the unerring judgment delineating those who are “permanently identified with the kingdom of evil.”60 But Christ himself has given the guiding principle by which to detect, in a practical manner,61 the elect from the reprobate: “By their fruit you shall know them” (Matt. 7:16, 20).62

H. G. L. Peels also believes that, although it is incorrect to condemn the Old Testament imprecatory prayer from the perspective of New Testament ethics, “it is also impossible within the New Testament situation to raise the imprecatory prayer in the same manner as was done by the psalmists of the Old Testament.”63 He bases this perspective on the fundamental change that has occurred in the Cross. Indeed, the imprecatory prayer “must necessarily undergo modification because the cross of Christ is the definitive, visible revelation of God’s justice.”64 He argues that the imprecatory prayer, when properly transformed into a New Testament context, would be characterized by an eschatological and partially spiritualized focus. It “could take the form of a general anathema against all opposing powers”65—especially the kingdom and power of the Evil One.

Two objections to the position of Peels, however, can be noted. First, while indeed more explicit emphasis is placed on the spiritual warfare of New Testament saints and their eschatological hope, both elements, as expanded and clarified in the progress of revelation, were central in the experience of Old Testament saints as well. They had daily awareness of the opposing “gods” of the various surrounding nations66; they looked in hope to the age to come in its varied facets, as was repeatedly stated by the prophets.67

The second objection regards the presence of extreme, personal curses in the New Testament, with no implication of condemnation attached to them. Of particular note are Acts 8:20 and Galatians 1:9. Peter cursed Simon the Sorcerer when he sought to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit: “To hell with you and your money!”68 (Acts 8:20). Paul issued a vehement “anathema” against the Judaizers who had infiltrated the Galatian churches and proclaimed a “gospel” of legalism: “If anyone preaches a gospel to you other than the one you received, let him be damned!” (Gal. 1:9). These curses draw a definite conclusion about the opponents’ eternal status in the decree of God, while implying or offering hope of repentance (e.g., Acts 8:22).

Although the justice of God was definitively revealed in the cross of Christ, such revelation does not relieve the persistent injustices against God’s people nor wholly assuage their justification for calling down God’s justice (e.g., Luke 18:1–8). Nor do the words of Christ from the cross, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34),69 mute their plea. Rather, the New Testament continues to record petitions for divine vengeance on the lips of earth-bound and heaven-arrived saints alike (notably Rev. 6:9–10).70

Songs of Christ

The question is sometimes asked, “Who is the ‘I’ of the Psalms? Who is it that petitions the destruction of enemies?” Is it the individual believer or the covenant community? Is it David or the Davidic monarch? Or is it Christ himself who prays these prayers, and the Christian through him? Indeed, for Jay Adams, this “is really the critical issue with the imprecatory psalms. If you were to ask God to destroy your personal enemy, that would be in essence cursing that enemy and, therefore, sinful. But if the King of Peace asks God to destroy His enemies, that is another matter!”71 Adams further states that these psalms are not “the emotional prayers of angry men, but the very war cries of our Prince of Peace!”72 Indeed, these psalms “can only be grasped when heard from the loving lips of our Lord Jesus.”73

In this Adams concurs with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German martyr of World War II, who argues that, although David did, in fact, utter these prayers of imprecation against his enemies, he did so only as the “prototype of Jesus Christ,”74 who was to arise from David’s line. “Or better,” he refines, “Christ himself prayed them through his forerunner David.”75 It is only out of this relationship and understanding that the individual Christian may echo, “insofar as he participates in Christ and his community and prays their prayer.”76

Bonhoeffer views the imprecatory psalms as prayers, not so much for the execution of God’s vengeance on instances of gross injustice, as for the execution of God’s judgment on sin in general—a judgment in history that is fully and solely satisfied in the cross of Christ:

God’s vengeance did not strike the sinners, but the one sinless man who stood in the sinners’ place, namely God’s own Son. Jesus Christ bore the wrath of God, for the execution of which the psalm prays. He stilled God’s wrath toward sin and prayed in the hour of the execution of the divine judgment: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do!’ . . . God hates and redirects his enemies to the only righteous one, and this one asks forgiveness for them. . . . Thus the imprecatory psalm leads to the cross of Jesus and to the love of God which forgives enemies. I cannot forgive the enemies of God out of my own resources. Only the crucified Christ can do that, and I through Him. . . . In this way the crucified Jesus teaches us to pray the imprecatory psalms correctly.77

Divine justice toward the redeemed was fully satisfied in the Cross, however, divine justice toward the reprobate cannot be fully satisfied, except in the torments of eternal hell.78 And it is out of the scourges of injustice from such reprobates that the cry of the righteous arises. In addition, while David does, indeed, function as a forerunner of Christ, his words were spoken out of his emotions as a person who lived in the midst of history. Deferring all the significance of these Davidic psalms of imprecation until the cross of Christ, however, distances them from their historical setting and their meaning content in the mind of the speaker. Such deferral robs them of both their immediate and their significance  and power as archetypes.79

Adams’ and Bonhoeffer’s proposed solutions also do not adequately answer the problem that imprecations were included in imprecatory psalms that David, the type of Christ, did not write. Not all of the imprecatory psalms designate David as their author (notably Ps. 137),80 an objection that is not satisfactorily addressed by subsuming all of the Psalms under the aegis of his name.81 Nor does David as forerunner speak the cries for divine vengeance in other parts of Scripture. If imprecations against one’s enemies and the enemies of God are deemed morally appropriate in these other parts of Scripture, then not all of them can be rendered legitimate by placing them on the lips of Christ. Such a proposal offers no solution to the issues of imprecation in the Psalms or of imprecation in general.

Numerous other proposed solutions have been offered to relate imprecatory psalms to Christian ethics. Although these solutions address the issue from vastly differing perspectives, it is significant that each explanation82 ends up distancing the imprecatory psalms from legitimate prayers of God’s people today. This distance is fundamentally foreign to the use of the psalms as they were passed down through history. Indeed, the Psalter in its entirety was incorporated into the Christian canon with the tacit affirmation that it remained a book of worship for God’s people.83

If it was appropriate for an Old Testament saint to utter such prayers against the vicious enemies of God and his people, then it is appropriate for us to do so as well.84 In embracing the tensions inherent in this understanding, the Christian must maintain a peculiar balance. As Martin Luther expressed it, “We should pray that our enemies be converted and become our friends and, if not, that their doing and designing be bound to fail and have no success and that their persons perish rather than the Gospel and the kingdom of Christ.”85


Taken from Crying for Justice: What the Psalms Teach Us About Mercy and Vengeance in an Age of Terrorism
© 2005 by John N. Day.
Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI.
Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.