What Are We To Do with the Imprecatory Psalms? (Psalm 35)

For without cause they hid their net for me; 
     without cause they dug a pit for my life. 
Let destruction come upon him when he does not know it! 
And let the net that he hid ensnare him; 
     let him fall into it—to his destruction! 

Then my soul will rejoice in the LORD, 
     exulting in his salvation. 
All my bones shall say, 
     “O LORD, who is like you, 
      delivering the poor 
      from him who is too strong for him, 
      the poor and needy from him who robs him?”

—Psalm 35:7–10

What are we to do with the imprecatory psalms? I’m afraid the most common answer is to be embarrassed by them. Hide them in the closet. And should any nosey guest pry, pull them out, hold them up with disgust and ask “What is this?”, then respond with profuse apologies. Excuse them saying “Oh those! Those are Old Testament. We don’t use them anymore.”

I hope you find such embarrassment embarrassing. This may be what many do with the imprecatory psalms, but what should we do with them? Sing them! If that thought makes the modern church uncomfortable I’m certain the reason isn’t because she’s become so loving but because she’s become so soft. As odd as it may seem to some, what a soft church needs is more poetry; more of what James Adams calls the War Psalms of the Prince of Peace (highly recommended).

The problem is that we don’t know how to read poetry anymore. Luckily for us, Hebrew poetry doesn’t major on meter rhyme. God in His wisdom laid down a structure that translates well. It is the thought that rhymes. We call this thought rhyme structure parallelism. Translatable as this is, we still can’t read the stuff. Something more significant than a tire alignment is needed. The ignition timing is off. If you’re uneasy with the imprecatory psalms, your heart is off rhythm with the meter of heaven because your thoughts are inharmonious with the wisdom from above.

So how are we to read God’s poems? Less us. More Him. Poetry is meant to evoke strong emotion. Where we go wrong is that we make it more about expressing our emotion rather than that which is to evoke the emotions. The psalms are meant to train the affections. If there is a rub, your affections are off. You need training. Your heart must be timed. We read the psalms the same way we read modern worship lyrics off the screen. We never get past the warm up. “Do-Re-Me, me, me, me, me, me, me.” Our eyes are on our expression. Theology hasn’t given rise to doxology. We’ve become experience-expression junkies.

To read God’s poetry we must read it covenantally, and the chief covenant in view is the Davidic covenant. When you take up the psalms, think king and kingdom. The second psalm sets you up to understand all the imprecatory psalms.

Why do the nations rage 
and the peoples plot in vain? 
The kings of the earth set themselves, 
	and the rulers take counsel together, 
	against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, 

“Let us burst their bonds apart 
	and cast away their cords from us.” 

He who sits in the heavens laughs; 
	the Lord holds them in derision. 
Then he will speak to them in his wrath, 
	and terrify them in his fury, saying, 

“As for me, I have set my King 
on Zion, my holy hill.” —Psalm 2:1–6

If we are embarrassed by the “war psalms of the Prince of Peace” the reason is that we are more concerned for our own name than we are zealous for the Name of our God and His King. The name of Christ is blasphemed, do you not long for this ultimately to be righted? 

When a serial rapist or a molester of children is justly sentenced, and just sentencing would mean the death penalty, would you say it is categorically wrong for the victims to rejoice?

When Nazi leaders involved in the Holocaust were charged guilty and sentenced to death by hanging, was it wrong for survivors to rejoice at justice?

Should the pro-choice movement be exposed for the lie that it is and humiliated, the Democratic party seen to be bowing before the god Molech, and the abortion of fetuses recognized as the murder of the innocent children made in the image of God so that abortionists are charged with multiple counts of first degree premeditated murder—saints, should this be so, and God that it would be, would it not be righteous and holy and good for the saints to rejoice at such a thing?

When God’s King was humble and man was proud, would it have been wrong to long for resurrection and vindication?

With God’s King risen from the grave and now seated in glory, is it wrong to rejoice at the thought of Him returning in majesty to inflict “vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” so that “they will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away form the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:5)?

Is it wrong for God to be God? Is it wrong for the saints to long for God to be God?

No! May all of our bones say, “O Yahweh, who is like you?” (Psalm 35:10).

Yes, we should long that every enemy might come to know the salvation of our Lord. Yes, pray that the persecutor may become a Paul. Pray that the abortionist may repent like Manasseh of his worship of Molech. Pray that when the justly executed criminal breathes his last, he, like the thief on the cross, awakes to paradise in the presence of Christ. But let none of this curb your desire for God to be fully God, to manifestly be all who He has revealed Himself to be—“Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6–8). With all your bones say, “O Yahweh, who is like you?”

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