Hearing this metrical version of Psalm 3, from the Book of Psalms for Worship, prompted me to reflect on whether we ought still to be singing the so-called imprecatory Psalms, that is, those that call God's wrath down on his enemies.
I have thus decided to devote a page to this topic because it is basic
to our understanding of the Psalter as a whole. Moreover, because we
confess that Scripture is the Word of God, we need better to understand
God's purposes in inspiring the biblical authors to write these
Many Christians believe that such a gulf exists between the Old and New Testaments that the latter has entirely superseded the former with its preaching of forgiveness and love. Here are some historical examples that I mention in my Introduction to the Genevan Psalter:
At least since the Enlightenment many Christians have claimed to find the psalms something of an embarrassment. Even so indefatigable an apologist for the Christian faith as C. S. Lewis refers to some expressions therein as uncharitable and even “devilish.” The great Isaac Watts once wrote: “Some of them are almost opposite to the Spirit of the Gospel: Many of them foreign to the State of the New Testament, and widely different from the present circumstances of Christians.” In Dostoyevsky’s celebrated novel, The Brothers Karamazov, there is a scene in which the protagonist Alyosha’s recently deceased mentor, Father Zosima, is being memorialized prior to burial. Because Father Zosima was a “priest and monk of the strictest rule, the Gospel, not the Psalter, had to be read over his body by monks in holy orders” [thus implying the Psalter's inferiority to the Gospels].
Not all such expressions are based on an excessively sentimentalized understanding of Christianity. No one could accuse Lewis of wishing to water down the gospel. Yet he and many otherwise orthodox believers are troubled by the likes of the closing verses of Psalm 137:
O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall he be who requites you
with what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
even my own metrical versifications of this Psalm have toned down the
harshness of this section. So what do we make of such expressions? Can
we Christians continue to sing these, or should we retire them in light
of the revelation of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ? Many Christians
implicitly take the latter view, which may explain in part why the
Psalms have been completely replaced by hymns in much of protestantism
over the past two or more centuries.
I believe the place to begin is to acknowledge that God judges sin and those who commit sin. This is affirmed throughout the scriptures in both testaments. The entire biblical redemptive narrative, which takes us from creation, to fall, to redemption, and final consummation, makes no sense apart from God judging sin. If God does not judge sin, then there is nothing from which to be saved. God needn't have sent his Son into the world to die in our stead. If we move too quickly to God's mercy and forgiveness, neglecting to take seriously God's judgement, then we ignore the very reason for our need for these. The result is faith in a god who simply affirms who we are at the moment and makes no effort to transform our desires and to raise us to a life of holiness. This is not the God of the Bible.
God's judgement of sin is by no means negated or superseded in the New Testament. Jesus himself denounces the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 in unusually harsh terms. Here is an excerpt (verses 29-33):
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?"
All four gospels relate the episode of Jesus cleansing the Temple in Jerusalem of the money changers, whom he denounced as having made it into "a den of thieves" (Luke 19:46).
The Apostle Paul sounds a similar note at the end of Romans 12, a passage which I recently discovered that, as a boy, I had underlined in red pen in my old King James Bible:
Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (17-21).
Yes, we are to live at peace with all people. Yes, we are never to avenge ourselves on our enemies. We are to overcome evil with good. However, we do leave ultimate judgement to God himself, a necessary precursor to the final consummation of his kingdom in the new heaven and earth. This implies that we do not shrink from God's judgement but earnestly desire its accomplishment: "Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." In the meantime, we earnestly pray that people will repent of their sins and accept forgiveness in Jesus Christ before this promised judgement comes. Repentance necessarily accompanies mercy.
The biblical Psalter emphasizes both judgement and forgiveness in a balanced way. Psalm 72, one of several messianic Psalms, connects judgement with justice, as seen especially in the King James Version:
Give the king thy judgments, O God, and thy righteousness unto the king's son. He shall judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with judgment. The mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills, by righteousness. He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor (1-4).
Psalm 82 sounds a similar note:
God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” . . .
Arise, O God, judge the earth;
for to thee belong all the nations! (1-4, 8)
Here the desire for justice for the weak and the needy is rooted in God's judgement. If we desire vindication for those who are afflicted and destitute, we live in hopeful expectation of God's judgement. There is nothing amiss or pre-christian in this hope.So, yes, we heirs of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ can sing with a clear conscience all of the Psalms in their entirety, as long as we recognize that the passages some find troubling are not our own proposals for taking personal vengeance, but expressions of faith in the God who judges sin and forgives those who repent of their sins.