The Imprecatory Psalms
Of late there has been some renewed discussion about the imprecatory psalms, particularly as they relate to congregational singing. Some feel these psalms should not be sung by God's people today. Others maintain, rightly I believe, that they ought to remain part of the treasury of the singing congregation today.
In a more general sense, many Christians in the past and present have had and still have trouble with the so-called imprecatory psalms in the Bible (cf. e.g. Psalms 35, 58, 137, 139, etc.). In a way that is understandable, for the tenor of these psalms appears to conflict with the biblical teaching that we must love our enemies (cf. e.g. Matthew 5:38-48). How does one harmonize these seemingly contradictory emphases?
It is not my intention to discuss the subject at length, but only to point out what I view to be wrong solutions to the problem, and then suggest what I consider to be a better direction.
I came across one such "solution" the other day, one that I had heard many times before. In discussing Art. 36 of the Belgic Confession, Dr. C. Plantinga, in his. A Place To Stand, says that the wording of Art. 36 "is neither charitable nor accurate." Agreed. Then he says: "We know from the teaching of our Lord (that) detesting other persons — even enemies — is gross sin. We may hate what people do or say. But we may not hate any people" (p. 123). Now I grant that we may not hate or detest other Christians, in this case the Anabaptists. No quarrel there. But the statement as a whole is misleading, not to say wrong. I don't believe our Lord contradicts the psalms of David, and David said he hated "those that hate Thee," in other words, persons who were enemies of the Lord, and by virtue of that fact, also his enemies. Therefore, the "solution" "hate the sin but love the sinner" doesn't hold water, and is, to my way of thinking, not the solution to the problem. Sin can never be separated from the sinner perpetrating it. Sin is personified, so to say.
A somewhat less popular "solution," especially in Reformed circles, is to say that David, in uttering these sentiments, was not speaking the Word of God, but only venting his own sinful thoughts. But this "solution" is in conflict with the Bible's own view of inspiration. The Psalms, though written by sinful men, are nevertheless the authoritative words of God. They are not just subjective utterances of some saints, but a normative response for God's people also today.
A third "solution" has been to say that these psalms were Old Testament in character, but that the New Testament supersedes this teaching, and that only the New Testament is now normative in this respect. This idea is also a completely wrong "solution." Not only does it fail to see the unity of the Scriptures in making such an unwarranted distinction between Old and New Testament, but it also overlooks the fact that the New Testament has similar injunctions for believers. Revelation 18:6, 7 is a very close parallel to Psalm 137; in verse 20 of that same chapter the saints are explicitly told to rejoice over the destruction of Babylon. Moreover, in Revelation 6:10 the martyred saints pray for God to manifest his justice on their enemies. The reader should also refer to passages such as Acts 13:10, 11; Galatians 1:8, 9; Philippians 3:18, 19. Thus our problems are not only with the Psalms and not only with the Old Testament.
Toward a Solution
I believe the solution lies in patterning our love and hate after God's love and hate. God is love (1 John 4:8), but He hates all evildoers (Psalms 5:5; 11:5; Romans 9:13; Hosea 9:15). He makes his sun shine on the just and the unjust, but at the same time his wrath remains on those who do not repent (John 3:36). In other words, God is a jealous God. His wrath is the reverse side of his love; it is a result of love being spurned. We may not drive a wedge between God's love and his hate.
In a somewhat similar way we must both love and hate. We must not see these as opposites, but as necessary components. One cannot really love unless he can also hate. God is jealous of his covenantal love. Covenantal love spurned means covenantal wrath. And as God's people we are called upon to be God's image-bearers in this respect too. We hate our enemies because they are God's enemies. God's cause is our cause. We have staked our lives on that cause; we are jealous for the honor of God's name. And when we see that Name spurned and rejected, when we see enemies opposing the kingdom of God, then we can't help uttering the words of David in Psalms 139. That then becomes a righteous prayer, much like the prayer of the saints under the altar (Revelation 6). Then something of God's holy jealousy fills our breasts too. And then love and hate are intertwined. Says C. Van der Waal:
In the Scriptures God is not presented as "our sweet God" (onze lieve Heer), but as the God of the covenant. And then you know that in His firm covenant he comes not only with His covenant promise, but also with His wrath...
In the Bible we are instructed not to have personal hate: avenge not yourselves, beloved! It does not concern our right and it is not against our personal enemies, but it concerns the right of the Lord, the God of the covenant, and it is against His enemies! "The enemies of the Son must also be your enemies."
Solo Scriptura, II, pp. 55, 58
I conclude with a couple of quotations from Dr. K.J. Popma in his Levensbeschouwing:
We need the imprecatory psalms like we need bread ... Exegetically one can perpetrate no greater folly than when one explains a princely song like Psalm 35 as an expression of Oriental hotheadedness: he who cannot pray along with this Psalm has not yet understood anything of the gospel.
Vol. V, p. 23
A sweetened (versuikerd) humanism which deems itself elevated above this hate, and what is more, is brutal enough to still call itself the Christian faith, knows nothing of these things...
Christian wrath, but also Christian hate, are an indispensable component in life and at times serve clearly as the salt of the earth ... If there is no Christian hate living in the Christian heart anymore, then our fallible judgment must declare that in that heart there is no Christian faith anymore either.
Vol. II, pp. 395-6
I think Popma is right. We need more vibrant Christianity today. If we can no longer get angry at sin and sinners, and hate those who perpetrate evil against God and his people, then we have to ask whether the flame of God's love is still burning brightly in our hearts.
Is it dangerous to talk this way? Indeed, for hate so easily turns into something ugly, so easily becomes personal hate for personal enemies. And that is wrong. Remember David speaks of those who hate the Lord, but who for that reason have also become his enemies. We must not turn that around. Maybe David himself realized how easily God's people are tempted to have the wrong kind of hate. Perhaps that's why he prayed the prayer found at the end of the Psalm: "Search me O God and know my heart!" That must be our prayer too. No doubt the psalmist felt the danger of the imprecatory utterances also. But that did not keep the Holy Spirit from including them in his Word. And neither must it keep us from exercising a godly hate. Here too we must not be wiser than God.
As a kind of postscript, for an apt, concrete and modern-day illustration of the difference between a sweet, sentimental Christianity and a vibrant Calvinism, compare Corrie Ten Boom's The Hiding Place with Anne De Vries' Journey Through The Night. How refreshing and Calvinistic the latter is!
In The Banner of June 22nd, you find a good example of an approach to the imprecatory psalms (and actually to the Scriptures as such) to which I refer, an approach which is disallowed by Scripture itself. The Rev. Michael De Vries, in his meditation on the last verses of Psalm 139, writes:
…this outburst is also appalling to me. In his zeal to be a loyal follower of God, this psalmist became, however temporarily, a religious fanatic. He is ready to slay the wicked. He wants to call down fire from heaven on anyone who is less religious than he is. He seems to know with accuracy who the wicked are and what they deserve.
A bit later: "The psalmist seems to have become aware that there was something radically wrong with his hostility."
Now I submit that this is a total misunderstanding of what the Psalmist is really saying, and actually calls into question the fact that the Psalmist is here speaking under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He is not just venting his own feelings; he is not calling God's curse on those who are less religious than he. No, he is identifying himself completely with God and His cause, and in a sense we might say that he is identifying himself with the Lord Jesus who said, "Zeal for your house has eaten me up," and who drove out the money-changers with a whip.
This is not an isolated incident in the Psalms or in the entire Scriptures. One finds it again and again. What would De Vries do with Psalms 10:12ff, 43:1, 69:22-28, 137 etc.? More examples of "religious fanaticism"? But Psalm 69 is applied to Christ in the New Testament, and Paul applies part of it to the Jews who would not hear the gospel (Romans 11:9, 10). Peter applies v. 26 of the same Psalm to Judas (Acts 1:20). Were the New Testament writers mistaken too? Didn't they understand that this "fanatic" Psalmist was mistaken in using these words? No, they didn't, for the Psalmist was not mistaken, but De Vries is mistaken in his views of the Psalmist.
I conclude with quotations from three commentators on this Psalm:
He hates the enemies of the Lord, and whatever their personal stand over against him might be, he will nevertheless hold them as his personal enemies because they are enemies of his God. Their relationship over-against God shall be for him the only standard for his relationship to them.
Dr. A. Noordtzij in Korte Verklaring
He shall hate those who hate the Lord, that is, he shall oppose them. He shall further the coming of the kingdom of God, be an enemy of all those who put themselves in the service of Satan.
Dr. F.W. Grosheide in De Psalmen
The poet remains, notwithstanding his zeal for God's house, below that which the New Testament asks of us, so it is often stated. Indeed, so speaks our feeling. But at the same time, this judgment is not according to the Scriptures ... Thus, when Psalms 139:23, 24 prays: "Search me, O God, ... see if there is any wicked way in me," then we must not dissociate this "edifying" prayer from that "hating" in the previous verse. The church, which does not covenantally (verbondsmatig) dare to "hate" that which Jelle Tuininga her King hates, is on a disastrous course (heilloze weg).
Dr. C. Van Der Waal in Sola Scriptura