The Imprecatory Psalms – Some Introductory Issues
I would like to share with you this morning the first of a three part sermon series addressing the Imprecatory Psalms. The Imprecatory Psalms are those, how shall we say, those “troublesome” Psalms. They are the Psalms that say things like “Pour out your wrath on them; let your fierce anger overtake them” (Ps. 69:24) or “If only you would slay the wicked” (Ps. 139:19) and “happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Ps. 137:8-9)….These aren’t exactly the verses we like to meditate upon in our devotions are they??? No, not at all. In fact, if those of us who are Christians are honest with ourselves, we tend to slide over these pesky verses. After all, isn’t Christianity about the love of Christ and the mercy of God? Didn’t Jesus tell us to pray for our enemies and to bless those who curse us? For those of us who are not Christians, these verses may seem to represent a contradiction and an irreconcilable difference within the Bible. For those of us who claim to be Christians, these verses present us with what seems to be a conflict in the Scripture and in our experience as followers and believers in Jesus Christ.
How, then, are we to understand these difficult Psalms? I would like to suggest that these Psalms are built upon some very fundamental truths and that these truths have the power to bring healing to those of us who have experienced heartache, brokenness and abuse. So, far from being passages to avoid, these Scriptures can become a source of sincere expression and insightful into some of the most real aspects of human experience.
The first thing I would like to suggest is that the imprecatory Psalms are built upon a foundation. Now, think about a building. If a building does not have a foundation, the entire structure is shaky, at best, and simply cannot stand; it crumbles and crashes to the ground. I believe that a similar fact is at work with the imprecatory Psalms. There are certain foundational truths, which, if not properly understood, will result in our understanding of these Psalms to crumble and crash – leading to confusion and misunderstanding.
The first of these truths is that God is just. (pause) This phrase, to me, is very interesting. In the past it would have been a “no brainer.” By “the past,” I’m referring to a days gone by when pretty much everyone had pretty much the same concept of both God and morality. Now, that is not to say there was ever a time when everyone agreed with each other – heaven’s no! – it was just that the disagreements were about much different things. In other words, your common “man-on-the-street” would probably agree that there was a God and that given such a God there were certain things that were definitely right and definitely wrong. The burden of proof, if you will, rested upon the individuals who would say, “There is no god.” That is, there was a general assumption that the evidence, by and large, pointed us to the fact that there was a God, and further, that this God was The One who would uphold what is right and wrong. All this is to say that in days-gone-by saying something like “God is just” would have been a good starting point for discussion.
However, today, I think, things are a bit different. You see the whole concept of a “god” is, basically, all up in the air. That is, your common “man-on-the-street” will no longer be so confident to say either “God exists,” or “There is truly things that are right and truly things that are wrong.” The technical term for this general outlook on life is called “Relativism.” Relativism simply means that what is right or what is wrong is relative to each person. That is, what is right has to do, mostly, with what I believe is right. And what is wrong has to do, for the most part, with what I believe is wrong. And it is not so much that people do not have personal beliefs about God and about right and wrong; it is just that there is a lack of certainty about such things and a general idea that these beliefs can not be imposed upon anyone else.
Now, I am not going to spend my time saying what I believe is good or bad about such ideas. What I want to do today is simply bring out the contrast between the Bible and the prevailing views of the day; and I believe that as we follow through on the philosophy of the Bible the contrast will become more clear and even compelling. Not so much because I hope that the Bible will razzle you with rationality – it very rarely attempts to do that – but because I hope that you will be compelled by how the Bible speaks to a certain intuitive understanding of reality and human experience.
So, what are these foundational issues that are so key to understanding the imprecatory Psalms. Well, the Bible demonstrates first, that there is real evil in the world, and that this evil has real consequences. Consider Psalm 94:
“Who will rise up for me against the wicked? Who will take a stand for me against the evildoers? But the Lord has become my fortress, and my God the rock in whom I take refuge. He will repay them for their sins and destroy them for their wickedness; the LORD our God will destroy them.”
Notice the language and the tone of this passage. The Scriptures are almost militant as they speak of the “wicked.” But why this militancy? Why such harsh language? I would like to suggest two things. The first is that evil has consequences towards others. We as human beings have been built – designed, if you will - in such a way that the actions of others have profound impact upon us. This is particularly true when we are young; but the impact of others remains upon our lives all throughout our living years. The result of this is that if someone chooses to hurt or abuse you, this choice will have a profound impact upon your life. This is because we were not created to be isolated from others. Your actions affect mine, which in turn affect others, which in turn affects others and so on. And this is what makes these statements from Scripture so profound: God is deeply concerned with how you and I are treated – and with how we treat others. This is the first reason, I would say, for the militant terms used by God in the Bible.
I am not sure that I can philosophically establish this point, but I believe that if a lesson is taught to us through cartoons, then this lesson is more than likely true. Let’s consider this issue in light of those two famous character figures: Sylvester the Cat and Tweety Bird. Sylvester, being a cat is always on the prowl for Tweety Bird because Tweety, after all, is a Bird. Hence, whenever Grandma wanders from the house Sylvester chases Tweety Bird around in circles until finally Sylvester is forced to conclude that his chase is futile.
But what does this teach us? Surely, even the smallest of children realizes that Sylvester is wrong. That is, there is something built within us that instinctively and intuitively recognizes that no one has the right to try to chase down and devour an innocent little tweety bird. I believe this illustrates in a very simple way the profound truth that we all can recognize that each person is valuable, and that when we are abused or molested that something has gone wrong in the world. This is the truth to which the Scriptures, and particularly the book of Psalms, point to.
Another reason for strong language in regards to the “wicked” is that there really are things that are evil and wrong in this universe. More than just being an invasion of who we are as people, evil comes about when we violate the laws of the universe. But more than simply violating an impersonal “law,” we are violating the very essence of goodness and purity; and when we violate the essence of goodness and purity, we violate the very person of God; for God is, at the core of his nature, good, pure, righteous and holy.
But we can boil all of this philosophy and theology down to a simple point today: God takes it very personally when we, as people, are sinned against. This is what we mean when we say that God is just, and this is the point that is foundational to understanding the imprecatory Psalms. These Psalms, and the whole of Scripture, reveal a God who is deeply concerned with you and how you are treated. When someone messes with you they are doing more than meddling or pestering you, they are violating the laws of the universe and, by default, they are violating the very person of God.
You see we cannot read and study the Bible, and the Psalms in particular, without realizing that the events of this earth are all related and ultimately trace back to God Himself. Back-of-it-all is a God who upholds what is right and works against what is wrong. This is a job that he takes very personally; so personally that Psalm 89:14 says, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne.” Do you hear this word - the “foundation” – the “foundation” of the throne of God is righteousness and justice. As a house without a foundation is merely a pile of wood and rabble, so it is that God without justice is no god at all. God is just and He is here to account for the evil in this world. Understanding this will take us a long way to understanding, appreciating, and learning from the imprecatory Psalms.
[Next Sermon: Cries of the Heart]
A LOVE SUPREME
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Tuesday, September 13, 2005
The Imprecatory Psalms – Some Introductory Issues