May 3, 2007

Imprecatory Psalms

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

As his tribute to James Philip in Serving the Word of God, David Searle presents an article entitled “The Imprecatory Psalms Today,” as a reminder to “those who minister the Word of God that we may not select what we think will please our congregations, but must, like James Philip, be preachers of the whole Word, however unpalatable its message might seem to modern ears.”

I appreciate that reminder.  Many books about church planting give me the impression that their authors think we should do nothing in our services that would disturb unbelievers who might happen to attend.  Few things in the Bible are as disturbing as the imprecatory psalms.  And yet God wants His people familiar with these psalms.  In fact, the psalms are songs and so we can say that God doesn’t just want His people to hear these psalms read or preached; He wants His people to sing them.

Searle points out something I had never heard before.  People often say that these psalms don’t reflect the fulness of the grace and love of Christ.  They are sub-Christian, and their authors weren’t fully “Christian” as we ought to be today.  But Searle objects:

If we argue that the believers of the Old Testament dispensation were not Christians as we understand the term, then we should expect their attitude to be much the same as that of other “non-Christians.”  We would expect them to have the same attitude toward their enemies as any other writers who had not come into the sunshine of Christ’s smile and grace.However, in pagan literature there is a complete absence of the sort of cursings which are so manifestly present here.  Non-Christian literature certainly contains plenty of violence and brutal material; it also contains plenty of explicitly sexual sensuality and even sadism and other very unsavoury excessess.  But we also find to our astonishment it does not contain the kind of imprecatory statements which are in Psalm 109.

Is that not both significant and remarkable?  In Holy Scripture alone are such curses uttered — uttered by members of a nation specially chosen by God to be the cradle for the incarnation of his own Son (pp. 172-173, emphasis and paragraph breaks mine).

Searle goes on to talk about how these psalms reflect the psalmist’s deep sense of evil, his commitment to God and not to his own vengeance, and his confidence in God as the just judge in spite of all appearances.  Some older commentators, he says, “called these psalms not psalms of malediction or imprecatory psalms but judicial psalms” (p. 175, emphasis mine).  In the midst of sin and evil in our world, we need justice: “Ultimate justice matters enormously, and this Psalm is about that ultimate justice” (p. 178).Searle does raise an interesting question about hyperbole in these psalms.  He points to Jeremiah 20:16-17, where Jeremiah curses the man who told his father that his son had been born:

May that man be like the towns which Yahweh overthrew without pity.  May he hear wailing at morning, a battle cry at noon, because he did not kill me in the womb, with my mother as my grave, her womb enlarged forever.

Searle asks:

Did he really want the midwife’s husband to be cursed like that?  Surely this is hyperbole.  Jeremiah demands that we listen to him.  He is deliberately shocking us and riveting us into attention.  We have to listen.  His words shake us out of any complacency (p. 176).

Reading this, it strikes me both that Searle is probably right and that hyperbole is one of the hardest figures of speech to reckon with in the Bible, perhaps because it seems strange to us to say that part of God’s Word is exaggerating for effect.  (I suppose another option is to say that Jeremiah was sinning when he uttered this curse, but that option doesn’t satisfy me either.)

The very violence of these psalms, even if they do contain some hyperbole, ought to be instructive to us, Searle says.

The imprecatory psalms say this to us: there is really no place in the Christian church for armchair discussions about morality.  Christians are not arm-chair theologians.  They have their say in the common rooms of fellows and students in many of our theological faculties.  We are called to be soldiers of Jesus Christ, servants, bond-slaves of our wonderful Master.  Our commission is to get out there, with jackets off and sleeves rolled up, to engage in the real world.  I have yet to find an armchair theologian in Scripture.  But I find plenty of men and women of God at the coal-face, toiling for their Lord, spending themselves and being spent in his royal service (pp. 177-178).

Perhaps the rise of armchair theologians, Searle seems to be suggesting, is due to our unfamiliarity and our discomfort with these judicial psalms.  If we sang them regularly, they might jar us out of our armchairs and back to the front lines:

While it [Psalm 109] may make our hair curl, and our hearts miss a beat, this man knows no apathy….  God preserve us then from being lukewarm, eitiher towards sin, or towards God (p. 178).

Posted by John Barach @ 1:33 pm | Discuss (0)

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