We all tend to look at life through rose-colored glasses, at least rose colored where our own assumptions are concerned. As I noted last time round, this is certainly evident in the way that Christians tend to read the psalms, meditating on the praises, thanksgiving and wisdom while screening out all the imprecations. And I provided a couple examples to illustrate the point including the comparatively mild wish of Psalm 23:5 and the much harsher hatred of one’s enemies in Psalm 139:1-2.
If these were isolated instances we might be able to conclude that the psalmist just got up on the wrong side of the bed, but in fact there are a number of psalms that express similarly disturbing attitudes toward the enemy. Here are some examples:
A litany of ugliness
11:5 “the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion.”
37:13 “the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming.”
52:6 “The righteous will see and fear;
they will laugh at you [the wicked],”
69:23-24, 28 “May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever. Pour out your wrath on them; let your fierce anger overtake them. May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous.”
79:6 “Pour out your wrath on the nations
that do not acknowledge you”
83:16-17 “Cover their faces with shame, LORD,
so that they will seek your name.
May they ever be ashamed and dismayed;
may they perish in disgrace.”
109:9-10 “May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.
May his children be wandering beggars;
may they be driven from their ruined homes.”
Nor does this even exhaust the imprecations for similar attitudes are also to be found in psalms 5, 6, 12, 35, 36, 40, 137, 139, and 143. Wow. I don’t recall learning all this in Sunday school.
God-breathed? Are you kidding?
Some Christians of a more “liberal” persuasion have no problem admitting the morally problematic dimension of these texts and getting on with their day. For them scripture is a fallible human collection that we can pick and choose at will much like we might pick through a collection of memorabilia at an estate sale, discarding the junk as we look for that Tiffany lamp.
But the problem is very different for those Christians who affirm 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God's people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” How is it possible that texts such as these hateful wishes of the psalmist could be God-breathed?
Reading the psalms to the tune of a pied Piper
Pastor John Piper offers a short and succinct response to the problems with the psalms which you can read here. For those not so inclined, Piper basically says that the psalmist expresses a morally noble voice which is not incompatible with the texts being God-breathed because (a) the judgment and hatred only follow after the psalmist had initially extended love to the enemy, (b) the hatred can be construed as a general moral repugnance rather than a personal vindictiveness and (c) there comes a point when mercy must become wrath. In addition, Piper points us to places in the New Testament where aspects of the imprecatory psalms are quoted with approval.
I am unpersuaded by the claims I summarize in (a)-(c), but even if we grant these it hardly redeems the voice of the psalmist. To recap, the psalmist says that he hates the enemy and anticipates the enemy’s coming judgment. What is more, he adds that God also hates his enemy and anticipates visiting his wrath upon the enemy. How is this supposed to be reconciled to the claim that God loves the sinner? The psalmist also hopes the enemy does not seek repentance and thus that he is lost forever. Finally, the psalmist expresses the same hatred toward the children of his enemy, hoping that they too see destruction.
When you summarize all the wishes of the imprecatory psalmist, it just does not appear to be defensible in any way. Even if the psalmist did begin with love for his enemy how could anybody seriously defend his attitude as expressed in these psalms, one that longs with sadistic relish to see the enemy and his progeny see destruction?
Good thing that Piper’s views are not the only game in town. Next time we’ll consider a completely different approach to the imprecatory psalms which is also consistent with their affirmation as God-breathed.