Can we sing all the Psalms? The author specifically looks at Psalm 137 and Psalm 139 and the imprecatory Psalms, and how we should view them as New Testament Christians.

Source: Clarion, 2013. 5 pages.

Should We Sing All the Psalms?

Can we sing all the psalms in public worship or at home? I am not referring to those psalms that have tunes which some find difficult. Rather, are the contents of all the psalms appropriate for us to sing today? From time to time people ask me, can we today still sing songs implor­ing God to judge the wicked? In this context a reference is often made to Psalm 137:8-9,

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us — he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

Surely this is not Chris­tian. Does the New Testament not say "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44)?

To address this issue we must consider the unity of Scripture and the meaning of the psalms that raise such questions. In a second article we will consider whether we should sing these psalms and if so, how are we to use them.

Scripture is One🔗

When discussing the topic of the so-called impreca­tory psalms, one cannot set the New Testament up against the Old. God's Word is a unit, inspired by one and the same Spirit (cf. 1 Peter 1:11). The Bible cannot contradict itself. It is therefore not surprising that the message to love one's enemy is also found in the Old Testament. "If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord will reward you" (Proverbs 25:21, 22). Furthermore, speaking ill of one's enemies is not only found in the Old Testament, but also in the New. The Lord Jesus who taught us to love our enemies proclaimed seven woes over the Pharisees in no uncertain terms as recorded in Matthew 23.

How do we make sense of what may seem to be con­tradictory statements? It should be noted that the injunc­tions to love one's enemy refers to one's personal foes. For example in Romans 12 there are several admonitions to bless your enemies and not to curse them; not to repay evil with evil; and not to take revenge (vv. 14, 17, 19-21). But in the very next chapter, government as servant of God and as agent of his wrath must have zero tolerance and punish the evil doer (Romans 13:1-4). It is the task and office of government. When Christ denounced the Phari­sees and proclaimed a complete number of seven woes over them, he did that not because they were his personal enemies, but he followed the example of the Old Testa­ment prophets who denounced the sins of God's people (e.g. Isaiah 5).

So what would justify our singing psalms which call upon God to punish the wicked? To answer that ques­tion, let us first take a closer look at Psalm 137 and 139 which are often used in discussions of this nature. They can serve as examples of the types of psalms that people sometimes object to.

Psalm 137🔗

Psalm 137 recalls how by the rivers of Babylon the Jewish exiles sorrowfully and with tears remembered Zion and its destruction by Babylon. Although this psalm is known as an imprecatory psalm, that is, a psalm ut­tering curses, it should be noted that it is in the first place a song of love, love for the LORD and Zion. That devotion and affection for Jerusalem is understandable. After all, Jerusalem was the place where the temple stood. There on Mount Zion, God himself lived (Psalm 74:2) and there the Most High had established the ministry of reconciliation. To destroy Jerusalem as the Babylonians and Edomites had been eager to do is to destroy God's work on earth. How the faithful wept when Jerusalem was razed and torn down to its very foundations.

Because of his great love for the Lord and his dwell­ing place, the poet invokes the most horrible punishment over himself should he forget Zion. "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy" (vv. 5-6). Notice that the psalm not only contains some terrible words about Babylon, but the poet first places a self-im­precatory oath on himself. If he should forget Jerusalem, may I have a stroke with all the terrible side effects! The fact that the poet invokes terrible judgment over himself first before he speaks of Babylon is often forgotten. He is sensitive to the covenant curses and blessings. Did God not say that those who do not revere the Lord God would receive terrible illnesses (Deuteronomy 28:59-61)? He applies that truth very concretely to himself.

Since the poet first places a self-imprecatory oath on himself, this psalm is clearly not a personal vendetta against Babylon. No, he is thinking of God's honour and the divine wrath for those who do not reverence him. By keeping God's honour central, the poet speaks in accordance with God's Word. Even those horrific lines about Babylon doomed to destruction 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" are consistent with what the prophets had already said. Had Isaiah, for example, not earlier conveyed God's mes­sage about Babylon that "their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes" (Isaiah 13:16; also see Isaiah 47 and Jeremiah 50-51)? In other words, the poet is simply asking God to fulfill his own prophecies. To criticize this psalm as inappropriate leads one to criticize God and his justice over against his enemies.

Psalm 139🔗

This psalm is often used in the ongoing battle against abortion to show that God is the giver of life in the womb. That is not an abstract truth because David, the author, recognizes that God made him in the womb.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days or­dained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. Psalm 139:13-16

Shortly after these words, David suddenly, it seems, says:

If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men! They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name. Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD, and abhor those who rise up against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies. Psalm 139:19-22

Is such sudden vehemence called for? Is this not out of place? Indeed, I have heard Psalm 139 read in its entire­ty, but the Reformed reader left out these words, appar­ently because he felt they jarred and were inappropriate in the context.

These words beseeching God to slay the wicked, how­ever, fit within this psalm and should not be excised. In this psalm David had extolled God as the One who is present everywhere, knows all, and sees all things. David had applied all that very specifically to himself. God had made him in the secret place and knows him thoroughly, inside and out, so to speak. Then David exclaims: "How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would out­number the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you" (Psalm 139:17-18). From all this David then concludes: God, if you are such as I know you are, should you not kill the wicked who speak evil of you, hate you, and rise up against you? They are your enemies and mine also for they come after me for my blood (Psalm 139:19-22). David says all this with integrity and so concludes the psalm asking the Lord to search his heart and mind and to lead him into the way everlasting (vv. 22-24). David's cry to God that he slay the wicked shows that the entire psalm is driven by a deep love for God and a pure hatred of those who despise the Lord. These verses therefore form an integral part of the psalm and help us appreciate his profound affection for God.

But how does all of this impact us today? What do we do when we sing psalms such as Psalm 137 and 139? Should we sing them?

Questions about Life's Focus🔗

It is obvious that our love for God and his work should be just as central to our lives as it was for those who first sang Psalm 137. True believers wish above all that God be recognized for what he is, as Lord and Sav­iour of life who makes all things new. A deep love for God also means longing for the day of Christ's return when all knees will bow to give him glory. But longing for that great day also means yearning for the day that God's righteous wrath will be poured out over a sinful world and over the enemies of the church. The two are closely connected. They cannot be separated.

And so as we look forward in anticipation to the day of our Saviour's return, we are in fact also yearning for the judgment and destruction of the Babylon of today that sets itself in opposition to the living God and his will for his creation. And we may look forward to that judgment with a clear conscience. Does God's Word not exhort: "Rejoice over her, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you" (Revelation 18:20)? Can we not therefore still sing Psalm 137? After all, what Zion was to Israel of old, namely God's dwelling place, so the church is today for us. The church is the temple of the living God where God dwells (1 Corinthians 3:16) and he gathers for himself his people. Woe to those who hinder this work! We too are called to remember Zion in the fullness of life in this post-modern age. "If I forget you, O Jerusalem..." (cf. Psalm 137:5-6).

For similar reasons one can ask why all of Psalm 139 should not be sung. Those beautiful sections describing God's great work, including his work of giving new life in the womb, do they not give the necessary justification for the death of those who would destroy such life before the unborn child can emerge from its mother? It is God's work that the ungodly are attacking! Do we not yearn for the day when abortion clinics which destroy God's beautiful handiwork are history? Is it not incongruous that God should allow the wicked who are ultimately thirsty for the blood of the church to live in his world? "If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!" (Psalm 139:19)

So, does getting upset about the opposition against God's work mean that we now hurl curses at the world and seek out songs that fit our mood? What is involved in singing the so-called imprecatory psalms?

The Nature of Imprecatory Psalms🔗

To understand what we are actually doing when we sing imprecatory psalms, we must first take note of some key features in these psalms. Using the example of Psalm 137 one can observe that the poet asks God to remem­ber Edom, implying that God should punish that nation. Nothing further is said. When it comes to Babylon, no curse is uttered, just the sentiment that "happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us — he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks." The poet is greatly distraught and that is his sentiment, but he does not call curses upon Babylon. Rather, he alludes to prior prophecy (Isaiah 13:16).

Other psalms do, however, explicitly call upon God to kill the wicked. As noted above, this is the case with Psalm 139. "If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men! They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name. Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD, and abhor those who rise up against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies" (Psalm 139:19-22). How­ever, do note that this prayer is motivated by a zeal for the Lord and it is consistent with God's justice. The cry for retribution is really a call to God to exercise his jus­tice. This is especially clear in Psalm 79, which beseeches God: "Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge you" (v.6). The context is the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem (vv.1-4). The rationale is God's honour and glory.

Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for your name's sake. Why should the nations say, 'Where is their God?' Before our eyes, make known among the nations that you avenge the outpoured blood of your ser­vants.Psalm 79:9-10

It is important to note, however, that in the above examples and in the rest of the Psalter as well at no point does the poet personally curse the enemy. The psalms are prayers to God and the psalmist asks God to make things right. It would be abhorrent for a sinner to call curses upon another sinner as if he were better than his lost neighbour. What we have in the psalms are prayers reminding God of his honour and his justice and the need for God to act lest his Name be dishonoured (e.g., Psalm 59:13; 109:8-21). The poet never takes justice into his own hands or seeks to satisfy a personal vendetta. Rath­er, he asks God to deal justly in response to the situation in which he and other believers find themselves (e.g., Psalm 55:9-15; 69:23-28). Such a prayer may not be answered in a way one might hope and one may have to wait a long time. Indeed, in the vision of Revelation 6 the souls be­neath the altar who had been slain because of the Word of God and the testimony they had maintained called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (Revelation 6:9-10).

In view of the above, describing certain psalms as imprecatory is actually misleading. To describe a psalm as imprecatory means that it issues a curse. But this is not so. These psalms pray to God for justice and that can include asking God to punish according to his justice (cf. Deuteronomy 28:15-68). The poet himself never curses. This real­ity has implications for using these psalms in worship.

Psalms and Worship🔗

The Book of Psalms is God's gift to his church. These poems are varied. For example, they praise God (Psalms 150), exhort others to praise the Lord (Psalm 96), ask God for for­giveness (Psalms 51), pray for God's help (Psalms 17), give instruc­tion (Psalm 1), and confess faith in God (Psalm 23). The Lord has included all these human prayers in his inspired Word and so appropriated them for his people to use in wor­shipping him. That appropriation includes the so-called imprecatory psalms. He allows us to say what is con­tained in them when we address him. We may therefore use them in worship and in our homes.

When using them, the following should be kept in mind. When we sing the so-called imprecatory psalms, we are addressing God in prayer. There needs to be a rea­son for such prayer, be it a sermon or personal circum­stances, and we are to be mindful of the proper context. To illustrate this point, let us go back to Psalm 137 and 139 again.

With respect to Psalm 137, there is in principle not a great deal of difference between the exiles in Baby­lon and our current situation. Ultimately, we too are in a strange land. At the end of the day, Christians as a new creation do not belong in this fallen world but look forward to the new creation. That longing for the new sharpens our sensitivity to the mocking of the evil one who has considerable strength in our world (1 John 5:19) and derides the living God. It is with good reason that Scripture characterizes the ungodly powers arrayed against the living God and his agenda as Babylon, the tormentor of God's people (Revelation 14:8; 17:5). Songs like Psalm 137 remind us of this reality. We cannot be at home in a world where God is mocked, but we must op­pose such blasphemy and pray for the triumph of God's name and kingdom, a triumph that will only come through the total destruction of the forces of evil in this world. When a sermon drives home this point or we feel hemmed in by the powers of evil and are grieved by the scornful disdain given to God, yearning for the Jerusa­lem above, then we can sing Psalm 137. "Remember, O Lord, what the modern Edomites have done to destroy to the foundations as it were of Christian moral principles in our land!" (cf. Psalm 137:7) We leave up to the Lord how he wishes to answer that prayer. But when he judges, the judgment will be terrible.

With respect to Psalm 139, again there is little dif­ficulty in placing ourselves in the poet's position. How wonderful is the Lord's greatness and how beautiful is his handiwork as he knits together a new person in the womb of his or her mother. And therefore how indignant we too can be when countless abortions take place and millions of human lives are ended in defiance of what God has given in new life. Then it is possible that we pray: "If only you would slay the wicked, O God! ... Do I not hate those who hate you?" (Psalm 139:19, 21) This is a prayer of an aggrieved person who sees God's work despised and comes to the defence of his honour. How God answers that prayer is out of our hands. But God allows us to ut­ter such words. They are part of his Word which can be used in worship whether in church or in our homes. Our Saviour also used, quoted, and alluded to the so-called imprecatory psalms (e.g., Matthew 11:23 (Isaiah 14:13-15); Luke 19:44 (Psalm 137:9).

When using these psalms, we must be very mindful that vengeance belongs to the Lord. He will repay in his time (Deuteronomy 32:35; Hebrews 10:30). It is not for us to take re­venge (Romans 12:19) and do what some ant-abortion vigi­lantes have done by taking the law into their own hands.

Our Testimony🔗

The so-called imprecatory psalms remind us of the seriousness of sin and the justice of God. However, these psalms also remind us of our need to testify of our Lord and Saviour, for God commands us to love him and our neighbour as our self. To pray for God's punishment on fellow humans is a thought that should not come up light­ly or without much forethought. It should not be done for personal reasons but always with a view to God's glory. We are by nature no better than those who hate God (Romans 3:9-18) and we must do everything possible to seek the good of our neighbour, including those we could count as our personal enemies. We are to bless and not curse those who hate us (Luke 6:27-28). And what blessing could be greater than to be God's instrument to win our neighbour for Christ. God does not delight in the death of a sinner (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11) and neither should we. All this ne­cessitates that we confess Christ and his redemption and seek our neighbour's eternal well-being, regardless of the opposition or consequences (cf. Matthew 10:32-33). As Christ said:

You are the light of the world ... let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.Matthew 5:14-16

At the same time, as noted above, there can be times and occasions when singing and praying for God's judg­ment on the ungodly is appropriate for the sake of God's glory, for restraining the powers of darkness, and for the coming of his kingdom in perfection. At such times we must resist the spirit of the age which denies the real­ity of sin and humanity's debt to God and only wants to speak of peace, refusing to admit that Satan is in a deadly war with God and his people.

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