Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Imprecatory Psalms and God's Grace

Today is "hump day" in Week six, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures are  Exodus 22-24; Ephesians 6; Psalm 109.

This morning, I want to focus on Psalm 109.  This style of Hebrew is called an Imprecatory Psalm.  In these verses we hear David crying out his complaint at the maltreatment he has received at the hands of his enemies.  We also hear how in his frustration, David prays that God will bring destruction upon his foes.  Of this scripture, Matthew Henry writes:
"Whether David penned this psalm when he was persecuted by Saul, or when his son Absalom rebelled against him, or upon occasion of some other trouble that was given him, is uncertain; and whether the particular enemy he prays against was Saul, or Doeg, or Ahithophel, or some other not mentioned in the story, we cannot determine; but it is certain that in penning it he had an eye to Christ, his sufferings and his persecutors, for that imprecation (Ps. 109:8) is applied to Judas, Acts 1:20. The rest of the prayers here against his enemies were the expressions, not of passion, but of the Spirit of prophecy."

Personally, I do not agree with Matthew Henry when he says that David was prophecying--and I have two reasons for believing so.

First, 109:8 simply says, "May his days be few; may another take his office!"  It's hard to make a strong case for any specific prophecy being made here.  Henry's reason for declaring this to be prophecy is because in Acts 1, Peter stands up among the brothers as they are waiting for the coming Holy Spirit, and decides that they must replace Judas.  He draws from Psalm 109:8 in order to make his case, saying that they must fulfill scripture.  But Peter has taken this verse completely out of context.  It isn't a prophecy about Judas at all--Peter is merely employing the scriptures to suit his own purposes.  (Note that the narrator of the book of Acts, Dr. Luke, never agrees with Paul--he simply states that Paul made this argument.)  In fact, the Acts 1 story of Matthias' selection as a replacement for Judas isn't even a positive thing.  They employ a method of divination in order to determine God's will (even though they have already been given the Holy Spirit in John 20:22).  Then, they take the initiative to force a fulfillment of prophecy that God never intended, forgetting that God fulfills His Word, and doesn't rely on people's manipulation of events in order to accomplish it.  As a result Paul, whom I believe was Judas' true replacement, struggled his whole ministry to get the other apostles to recognize his apostleship.  After all, Judas had been replaced, so membership was closed!

Second (and more importantly), the things that David says about his enemies are anything but words that would come from the mouth of God.  In Matthew 5, Jesus says:

 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven."   

The venom which David spits out of his mouth are anything but the spirit of God.  They are the angry words of someone who simply wants vengeance for the wrongs he has suffered.   It's clear that David has been hurt in some way--that is clear.  It begins as follows:

Be not silent, O God of my praise!
For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me,
    speaking against me with lying tongues.
They encircle me with words of hate,
    and attack me without cause.
In return for my love they accuse me,
    but I give myself to prayer.
So they reward me evil for good,
    and hatred for my love.

Boy, I know how David feels!  I've had wicked and deceitful people lie about me, encircling me with words of hate and attacking me without cause, rewarding me evil for good and hating me even though all I did was love them...

Haven't you?

In verse 4, David shows that he knows what the solution really is to this kind of situation.  He gives himself to prayer.

And when I'm treated that way, that's my solution, too.  I give myself to prayer.

But David takes his prayer to a very dark place.  He wishes calamity to befall his enemies.  Though he won't lift a hand or a sword to strike them, he wants God to deliver the blows he wishes he could deal out himself.  And the words of David's prayer are pretty merciless!  Here are just a few:

May his children be fatherless
    and his wife a widow!
10 May his children wander about and beg,
    seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit!
11 May the creditor seize all that he has;
    may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!
12 Let there be none to extend kindness to him,
    nor any to pity his fatherless children!

As we read Psalm 109, we must understand two things.  

First, we have to understand what we mean when we say that the Bible is God's Word.  Some would say that every word that we find in the Bible was dictated from the speech of the Father, by the prophets who wrote them down exactly as God said it.  If this is true, then God is spewing evil out of His mouth when He says these things, or as in Psalm 137:9 when the psalmist says of the Babylonians,
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
    and dashes them against the rock!

No--these are not the words of God.  Not the God that I serve, anyway.  

You may argue, "But the Bible is the Word of God!"  Yes--and we need to assert that the Bible is God's Word, whenever it is called into question.  But what do we mean when we say that?  Do we mean that every word in the Bible expresses God's true feelings?  No.  What we see here are David's true feelings, expressed in his own malicious words.  So what do we mean when we say that the Bible is God's Word?  In passages like this, God intends for us to get a glimpse into human nature, into David's suffering and anguish and even his vengeful thoughts.  The human experience isn't a sanitary thing, filled with halo-haberdashed saints who bear their suffering without complaint.  No, it's full of real people with real trials, who struggle with feelings of anger and the desire for retribution.  God includes verses like this in His holy Word so that we can get a glimpse into the pained heart of a sinful man--not so that we can presume that this is the way God feels.

Second, we have to understand the way God wants us to deal with our enemies, in contrast to the way David deals with his.  In Romans 12:14-16a, Paul writes:

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another.

In Matthew 15, Jesus says:

11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.

So, how do you handle the situation when people misuse you, mistreat you, slander you, revile you, lie about you, and plot evil against you?  In Psalm 109:4, David has the answer right.  You go to prayer.  But not all prayers are created equal.  Give yourself to prayer--but make sure that you're praying according to the spirit of Christ.  Pray God's blessings for your enemies.  Then, follow the advice of the apostle Paul, who was mistreated many times over for the sake of the gospel.  Quoting Proverbs 25:21-22, Paul says, 
To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by doing so you will heap burning coals on his head."
Understand these coals not as a way to torture your enemies by making them feel bad with your goodness.  See these coals in connection with Isaiah 6, which says:
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

In other words, let your prayers and good deeds towards your enemies serve as purifiers, cleansing agents, and healers of the relationship.  Let them atone for sin and restore a right spirit between you.  When you do this, you'll be free from the anger and vengeance that grips your heart, and you will be able to share the spirit of God with your enemies.

*All scripture references are taken from the ESV.

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