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?”

Smelling Roses in a Mine Field (Psalm 26)

Vindicate me, O LORD,
for I have walked in my integrity,
and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering.

O LORD, I love the habitation of your house
and the place where your glory dwells. —Psalm 26:1, 8

Modern worship choruses have picked up on “How lovely is your dwelling place,” but I don’t hear anyone singing “Vindicate me for I have walked in my integrity.” Our beef with this psalm is our beef with the psalter, and it goes all the way back to the beginning.

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish. —Psalm 1

The first thing to settle as you come to the psalms is that there are righteous men as well as wicked men. True, all righteous men once were wicked men. Those who are now trees were once chaff and the change has happened by the monergistic, merciful, and mighty act of regeneration. The saints are not self-righteous, nor are they yet perfect, but they are righteous. They not only have the righteousness of Christ imputed to them, but are being continually conformed to Christ’s righteousness. There is light, and there is darkness.

This division, and the resulting war, goes all the way back to the promise of the gospel concerning the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent and the enmity between them; which was soon vividly manifest in wicked Cain murdering righteous Abel (Matthew 23:35). We open the Psalms expecting them to smell like a floral shop. Instead, they smell like a battlefield. The line has been drawn in the sand and you are either on one side or the other.

Too many professing Christians are trying to play Switzerland. We’re scared to offend God, but we still desire to trade with the world. There can be no neutrality. Do you want righteousness to win and wickedness to fail? If so, then here you may learn how to pray. If not, you’re smelling roses in the middle of a mine field and will soon find that your naiveté doesn’t neutralize the threat.

Whining or Lamenting (Psalm 12)

“Save, O Lord, for the godly one is gone;
for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man.” —Psalm 12:1 (ESV)

Like a drowning man, David urgently pleads “Save!” The petition comes abruptly, almost rudely. There is no address. There is no explanation. Just an urgent plea. What could distress David so? There are two answers in our text: the vanishing of the godly and the words of the wicked. I want to focus on the first.

The godly have vanished. David hasn’t been Left Behind. There are not a lot of nicely folded clothes lying around after a mini-rapture rehearsal. Having done away with any dispensational theories, we might conclude David is being a bit dramatic; overreacting. This is nothing but hyperbole. We recall Elijah whining in the wilderness, “I’m the only one left.”

We’re prone to discount hyperbolic statements. Overstatements are overused. Was that cheese burger really awesome? Delicious maybe, but isn’t awesome too strong a word? If the burger is awesome, how are we going to describe the Aurora Borealis? Likewise, the media exaggerates everything—even the weather. However, hyperbole in the Scripture communicates truth. What is exaggerated in one sense is understated in another. Concerning lust, Jesus says that if our eye offends us, we are to tear it out. This isn’t meant to be taken literally. The left can lust just as well as the right. Still, sin is to be attacked with this kind of violence. Sin isn’t less than Jesus makes it out to be; it is this serious.

David wasn’t alone in this thought. Micah later exclaimed, “The godly has perished from the earth, and there is no one upright among mankind; they all lie in wait for blood, and each hunts the other with a net” (Micah 7:2). A couple of songs over David sings, “there is none who does good, not even one.” He would return to this meditation in Psalm 53. David isn’t having a temporary crisis of faith like Elijah; this is a sustained and repeated meditation. Paul will use David’s words as the capstone of his argument for the total depravity of man. Have you never beheld the total depravity of the totality of humanity?

Unlike Elijah’s lapse, David receives no rebuke when God answers him here. What gives? What makes the difference? No doubt, Elijah had David’s virtue, and David Elijah’s vice at times in their pilgrimage, but what is being brought to the fore in these instances that makes the difference? Elijah is selfishly whining, whereas David laments the situation itself. Elijah fails to see, where as David is seeing, though the same reality is in view.

The media often exaggerates, but though the news is filled with horrid events, they’re  far from communicating just how wicked and vile humanity is. If the news merely makes you sad, concerned for the future, or fearful for your grandchildren, then you’re probably in league with Elijah. You’re seeing the bad, but you’re not yet seeing just how bad things are. You’ve got the horizontal dimension of evil in view, but don’t perceive the vertical height or depth of it. But if you lament the wickedness of this world before God, if you sense something of the moxie of man’s arrogance against the heavens, then you can sing this song. A song, that once God speaks (v. 5), turns to praise and confidence (vv. 6–7).

Poetry and Masculinity (Psalm 7)

I’d wager that if you asked a large number of evangelicals what their favorite books of the Bible were, a significant percentage, would include the Psalms among them. And, I’d wager, that just as large a number as said so, are unfamiliar with the Psalms.

I would want to ask them, “Have you ever really read the Psalms?” Sure, they love the 23rd Psalm, and that verse on their coffee mug; they enjoy their devotional literature with excerpts from the psalms, and they “like” those picturesque memes with psalm references making their rounds on Facebook—but have they ever studied the Psalms.

It’s like a person who encounters a pet tiger, and as a result, concludes that tigers are the most wonderful of animals and that everyone should have one as a pet. How many tigers have you met? Do you really know tigers?

The reason I conclude that evangelicals are largely ignorant of the Psalms is this, evangelicalism is effeminate and emasculated. Doubt me? I dare you to walk into a Christian bookstore with open eyes or look around the average evangelical church observing the programming and try to continue deluding yourself.

This is to say nothing against femininity, for femininity not only complements, but encourages masculinity. To be effeminate is against both the masculine and the feminine—it is a marring of both. When men act like women, you’ll find women acting like men, and the result is that you have neither true masculinity nor femininity.

Oddly to some, a cure for this limp-wristedness is poetry. Not poetry like that which you see coming out of the Romantic period, so bent on emotion, but something closer to the Iliad and the Odyssey or Beowulf. David would retch to see his lyrics associated, nearly exclusively, with floral prints and pristine scenery. Not that such imagery is always inappropriate, but that it fails to capture the sweat, blood, fear, and war of the Psalter.

If you could juice the psalms you’d readily know a chief ingredient to be tears, sweat, and blood.

A clear indication of the effeminacy of the church is her refusal to face up to the reality of the psalms. When we come to the imprecatory psalms, those which speak a curse upon enemies, we’re altogether uncomfortable. We’re confused. Thus, we either ignore, them, perhaps naively brushing them off as Old Testament and irrelevant, or, we reject their inspiration altogether. One theologian, J. Sidlow Baxter, has written, “To some minds, these imprecatory passages are perhaps a more difficult obstacle than any other in the way of a settled confidence in the Divine inspiration of the Scriptures.”

A great deal of clarity can be brought to the issue with this question, “Whose side are you on?” While we herald the good news of Jesus Christ longing for the repentance of all men, we also long for the day of His return and the vanquishing of His foes. Jesus is King. Ultimately, may all who refuse to repent of their rebellion perish. The imprecatory psalms are not Old Testament. They’re so new they’ve yet to fully be.

“This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed (2 Thessalonians 1:5–10 ESV).”

A Maturing Praise Palate (Psalm 5)

I’ve a fear that we choke when we should swallow, and swallow when we should spew.

I hope every Christian has had the experience of willfully abstaining from singing some lines of a particular hymn or chorus for conviction’s sake. Not because I want poor songs to be sung, but because they too commonly are. I appreciate many of the lyrics of Paul Baloche’s “Above All.” It begins so well.

Above all powers above all kings
Above all nature and all created things
Above all wisdom and all the ways of man
You were here before the world began

Above all kingdoms above all thrones
Above all wonders the world has ever known
Above all wealth and treasures of the earth
There’s no way to measure
What You’re worth

Christ, supreme and lifted above all. Almost.

Crucified laid behind the stone
You lived to die rejected and alone
Like a rose trampled on the ground
You took the fall and thought of me
Above all

Jesus above all, and then, above Him, me. Huh? With no intention to shame Paul or question his intentions, this is worse than simple self-idolatry. It’s ascribing idolatry to Jesus. Jesus makes it very clear, that though He was thinking of His people as He went to the cross, the thing He thought of above all was His Father. I tremble at the thought of singing and celebrating that Jesus thought of me above His Father. Sadly, many modern songs of worship are full of this kind of sappiness. How many churches are full of zealous worship, of self, inviting God to esteem us above all?  In the psalms, God invites us to worship Him, the modern writer has returned the favor, inviting God to worship us.

I wonder, if we began singing the psalms, would we choke on them? “We can’t sing that!” The psalmists had a mature palate. They hungered for God, all of Him, above all. There wasn’t anything of God they found embarrassing or disgusting. They loved the full course of His glory. They sang, praising not only His mercy, but his justice; not only His grace, but His wrath. They tasted God’s every attribute, saw them as being in perfect harmony, and swallowed exclaiming, “Good!” The psalms aren’t a steak with which you can trim away any undesirable fat. When God makes the plate, we must clean it. In the psalms, God invites us to feast on Him,  all of Him. In the psalms God taught His people to sing; in them, He teaches us still. Lord, grant us the grace to swallow, and beyond that, to savor.

Prosperity Theology is Prosperity Worship (Psalm 4)

“Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.” —Psalm 4:5

David calls for his enemies, those who are trying to shame his honor (Psalm 4:2), to offer right sacrifices. I believe the implications is that they were offering sacrifices—to YHWH! But, they were not right. Why? Their sacrifices made in the temple and according to the law, were expressions of rebellion and idolatry.

I also take the “many” referred to in v. 6 to be these same enemies. David goes on to contrast himself with them in v. 7.

“There are many who say, ‘Who will show us some good? Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!’ You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.

Why were these men—Jews, not Gentiles—unhappy with David, God’s anointed? They wanted “good,” they wanted it as it came from YHWH invoking the Aaronic blessing (Numbers 6:22-27). They were prosperity theologians. They wanted the good, they would even render up service to God in seeking it, but they despised God’s king. They wanted God’s goods, but not His “son” (Psalm 2:7). David, in contrast, delights in God Himself. David is opposed, yet finds superior joy in God Himself. His enemies lack some good, and are disgusted with God’s king. Who is worshipping God?

These men treated sacrifices like quarters and God as a vending machine to dispense the goods they want. Likewise, much worship, in Christian congregations, is a rebellious act of treason against King Jesus (cf. Isaiah 1:12–20). You cannot by much sacrifice wield God to bless your unrighteous rebellion.

There’s an Ocean in Those Pints (Psalm 4)

“You have given me relief when I was in distress.”

David cries out to God to answer his prayer concerning his present. He asks God for grace in his now. Sandwiched between, he remembers the past. David doesn’t bank out of the past; he banks out of the future confident because of his past. David has reasoned this way before.

“Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God. …The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine (1 Samuel 17:31–37).”

It would be a poor decision to start making withdrawals from an account based upon old bank statements. But, if a rich benefactor has told you that he has a limitless money, there when you need it for the cause that he loves, then looking to past withdrawals assures you of the future. You wouldn’t banking out of the past, you’d be banking in hope of the future. The past would bolster your confidence in the availability of future funds. The past proves your benefactor is reliable concerning the future.

This is what John Piper calls living by faith in future grace. God has promised that there’s an infinite ocean of grace for us in Christ that’s ours to draw from by prayer. We cannot see this ocean of promises except by faith. We can see the collected pool of past grace and the river of presently flowing grace such that it builds assurance that the ocean is as big as He says. We cannot sustain today’s faith on yesterday’s grace, but recalling yesterday’s grace can strengthen our faith that the promises will not fail us today. Piper explains,

“The infinite reservoir of future grace is flowing back through the present into the ever-growing pool of past grace. The inexhaustible reservoir is invisible except through the promises. But the ever-enlarging pool of past grace is visible; and God means for the certainty and beauty and depth to strengthen our faith in future grace.”

This is part of the logic of Romans:8:23: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all [past grace], how will he not also with him graciously give us all things [future grace]?” It’s paramount to realize this doesn’t denigrate the past accomplishment of Christ crucified. All the grace that ever has or will flow into the Christian’s life flows from the crucified and risen Christ. Looking to the cross assures us of today and forevermore. If it doesn’t, we’re hopeless. We’re to be pitied. Our faith is vain (1 Corinthians 15:19).

Reminisce on the past grace poured into your life. Behold all the grace that has flowed from the fount of Christ recorded for us in both testaments of the Holy Scriptures. Read church history and see the pool swell further. Fellowship with the saints listening to the testimonies of you brothers and sisters. When you do, you will see a sea of collected past grace that dwarfs the Sun, and then Christ will turn to you and say that it’s as nothing compared to the universe of future grace that will one day swallow up that Sun, and all this future grace flows from His past wounds. When Jesus bled, those few pints of blood were the spilling of a infinite universe of grace—all the grace that ever was and forever will be for the redeemed.

The Holiest and Happiest Saints Go “Moo” not “Oink” (Psalm 1)

“[H]is delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” —Psalm 1:2

The clean animal chewed the cud. My intent is illustrative, not allegorical or interpretative: we must eat Scripture like a cow, not a pig. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we eat less, but that we chew more. We ought be constantly chewing. It isn’t the Christian who eats most, but who chews most that will prove most genuinely righteous.

“Remember, it is not hasty reading, but serious meditating upon holy and heavenly truths, that make them prove sweet and profitable to the soul. It is not the bee’s touching of the flower that gathers honey, but her abiding for a time upon the flower that draws out the sweet. It is not he that reads most, but he that meditates most, that will prove the choicest, sweetest, wisest, and strongest Christian.” —Thomas Brooks

The “counsel of the wicked” stands against the “law of Yaweh” in Psalm 1. You don’t have to outsource “the counsel of the wicked.” You’ll find a factory of foolishness close to home inside your own head. Everyone knows how to meditate. We do it constantly. Our minds are churning on something. It might be nonsense, haphazard, or illogical, but they are churning. What are they churning on? The counsel of the wicked is incessantly thrown at us from every angle. If we are passive, if we are on autopilot, then we default to a way that leads to death (Proverbs 14:12).

“Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you.” —D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

The righteous man is one who wants God’s voice to be the loudest, to drown the others out, and so, he meditates. He fixes his mind on the Word. He chews.

Meditation is for living. It is for bringing God’s Word to bear on all of life out of zeal for His glory and love for His being. If it for living the blessed life.