May I Sing All the Psalms?

Michael S. Horton
Wednesday, August 31st 2016
Sep/Oct 2016

One of the treasures of worship in the Christian church is the Psalter: one hundred and fifty inspired songs, many of them written by David. But is it appropriate to sing all of the psalms? The ones I have in mind are the “imprecatory” psalms—the ones calling down God’s judgment on our enemies. Here are a few examples:

Let death take my enemies by surprise; let them go down alive to the grave. (Ps. 55:15)

How blessed will be the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. (Ps. 137:9)

Oh God, break the teeth in their mouths. (Ps. 58:6)

May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous. (Ps. 69:28)

May his children be fatherless and his wife be a widow. (Ps. 109:9)

R.C. Sproul observes in Dust to Glory, “Imprecatory psalms are one of the most controversial genres within the Psalter” (144). Indeed, they are. On the one hand, we know that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). On the other hand, Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies, even those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). Several views have been put forward concerning these imprecatory psalms:

  1. The Marcionite View. This interpretation says that the psalms express the vengeful attitude of the Old Testament rather than the loving message of Jesus and the New Testament. It essentially stems from the ancient heresy that pitted the evil Creator God of Israel against Christ who delivers us from a vengeful Yahweh. The holy wars in the book of Joshua, for example, cannot be justified from a Christian perspective–they were wrong, and therefore imprecatory psalms are wrong as well.

  1. The Subjective View. They express David’s personal feelings, even if they were in appropriate. They are descriptive, not prescriptive. They express the proper attitude of Christians toward enemies of Christ and his church. They should be sung heartily by us today because we should call down God’s wrath on ungodly rulers and sinners.

  1. The Eschatological View. They express an eschatological longing for an ultimate divine assize that lies beyond this present age. When we sing them, therefore, we are not calling down God’s immediate judgment on particular sinners today; rather, we are anticipating the day when we will witness the final judgment and join our Lord in the last battle.

  1. The Old Covenant View. They express the proper attitude of believers under the old covenant, where God’s kingdom was a geopolitical state called by God to execute limited holy wars against the violent and idolatrous peoples who occupied God’s holy land. This was but a preview of the final judgment that Christ will bring when he returns to cleanse the whole earth of evil.

The first view is easily set aside by orthodox Christians—the God of the Old Testament is the loving and gracious king as well as the wise, just, and righteous judge of the earth. The Father “so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son” (John 3:16). We dare not judge God’s commands by our standards of morality; the holy wars of Israel were not acts of arbitrary human terror, but divine judgment upon those who were corrupting God’s land and people.

The second view seems more plausible at first take. Charles Spurgeon saw the imprecatory psalms as expressive of David’s emotion but not necessarily as normative expressions of a godly attitude. The problem with this, though, is that the very curses these songs call down are also promised by God in the law. If these are mere expressions of one person’s understandable but inappropriate feelings, then are the curses that God pronounces on the ungodly nations and the commands he issues to drive them out by the sword inappropriate as well? David was not taking vengeance into his own hands but entrusting his plea to God’s wisdom.

The third view has the merit of accepting imprecations as a legitimate stance of believers. It assumes, however, that we are in the same position as Joshua and David, that we can invoke God’s curses on particular people today just as David did. In fact, one pastor recently announced concerning a well-known political figure, “If he does not turn to God and does not turn his life around, I am asking God to enforce imprecatory prayers that are throughout the Scripture that would cause him death, that’s correct.” He added, “Imprecatory prayer is agreeing with God, and if people don’t like that, they need to talk to God. God said it, I didn’t. I was just agreeing with God.” But this view displays no attempt at reconciling the psalm with Jesus’ admonition to love our enemies:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt. 5:43-45)

When Jesus tells us, “You have heard that it was said,” he is quoting a rabbinical tradition that expresses the attitude God expected his people to have toward those for whom his judgment was ripe. “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?” (Ps. 139:21). When Jesus tells them, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’” he is quoting Exodus 21:24 and Leviticus 24:20. “But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:38–39).

This is not to set Jesus over against Moses and the law. Rather, it is to reckon with the wonderful truth that Jesus fulfilled the law and is now repealing the terms of the old covenant treaty. The theocracy is over. God’s kingdom is no longer identified with a geopolitical state, but with an international kingdom of priests (Rev. 5:9). In the imprecatory psalms, David is invoking the sanctions of the covenant, not simply expressing his private vengeance. But he is invoking the Mosaic covenant, which we are told is now “obsolete” with the coming of Christ (Heb. 8:13). The Westminster Confession describes Israel under the theocracy as a specific administration of redemptive history: “To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other, now, further than the general equity thereof may require” (Ch. 19.4). We are now in an era of the common curse (sin and death) and common grace (God’s gracious providence in restraining the effects of the curse). We are not in a state of holy war with a holy land. In this time between Christ’s two comings, there is space for repentance and faith, when not only Jews but Gentiles are streaming to Zion. Even the enemies of Christ and his church are being converted around the world.

It is interesting that when Jesus takes to himself the fulfillment of Isaiah 61 in his first sermon (Luke 4:17–19), he leaves out “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isa. 61:1–2) as part of his mission. When James and John wanted to call down God’s judgment on the Samaritan village that rejected the gospel, Jesus “turned and rebuked them and they went to another village” (Luke 9:55–56). Why wouldn’t Jesus have encouraged his disciples rather than rebuked them? It is not because Jesus is the “good God” over against the wrathful God of the Old Testament. Rather, it is because we are now in the new covenant, in the time of reprieve before final judgment of the Lord, whose vengeance will be global and absolute. Those who have trouble with the holy wars and imprecatory psalms of the Old Testament will fare no better with Jesus’ descriptions of the last judgment and the apocalyptic visions of the book of Revelation.

Nevertheless, for now, we proclaim the good news, and we call undeserving sinners like ourselves to repentance and faith. There is still evil, and we plead for Christ’s return to set things right, which will ultimately be realized in the last judgment. But who are we to call fire down on our enemies when we were the Canaanites whom God welcomed to the table of Abraham with Jesus himself being our food and drink? We are not called to holy war for a holy land:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:12)

Psalm 69, full of imprecations—calls for covenant curses—is quoted by Jesus at his crucifixion (John 15:25)—but without the imprecatory statement: “They hated me without a cause” (v. 4).

There are imprecations in the New Testament. Jesus invoked the covenant curses on the Pharisees as a body in his “woes” (Matt. 23). When Simon the Magician sought to buy Peter’s power to perform wonders, the apostle replied, “May your money perish with you!” (Acts 8:20), and encouraged him to “repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you” (v. 22). The Apostle Paul also issued an imprecation upon anyone who preaches another gospel (Gal. 1:8–9). The souls of the martyrs in heaven “cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’” (Rev. 6:10). But it’s crucial to note that none of these imprecations call down God’s judgment on particular individuals without also offering a way out through repentance and faith in Christ.

If imprecations were appropriate for anyone, it would be for the cruel Roman emperors and their subordinates. Yet in the spirit of Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 5, Peter and Paul called Christians to pray for the good health and conversion of their rulers (1 Tim. 2:1–3; 1 Pet. 2:19–25): “Do not repay evil with evil. If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head” (Rom. 12:20–21).

I’m sympathetic to the fourth and fifth views above, and I’m inclined to say that the imprecatory psalms are so tied to the shadows of the old covenant (namely, the geopolitical theocracy with holy war and holy land) that they can be sung only by Christ at his return and by us in his train of victory. Today is the time of prayer for our enemies and bringing the good news to the ends of the earth. I also, however, sympathize with the view of those who maintain that we sing these songs only in anticipation of the last day, while not calling down God’s vengeance here and now before the door of the ark closes.

John Calvin received a letter from his loyal friend, René, princess of France and duchess of Ferrara, in which she asked if she could hate her son-in-law who was cruelly persecuting the church in France—she even wanted to know if she could consider him reprobate. No, Calvin replied:

Since we cannot distinguish the elect and the reprobate, it is our duty to pray for all who trouble us; to desire the salvation of all men; and even to be careful for the welfare of every individual. At the same time, if our hearts are pure and peaceful, this will not prevent us from appealing to God’s judgment, that he might cut off the finally impenitent.

C. S. Lewis was correct when he wrote: “The ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that . . . is hateful to God.” There really is evil in the world. It is not simply a subjective judgment but a statement of objective fact—there are evil powers, people, states, and systems that torture their victims and seek to erase their humanity. We are reminded of this with the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. We face ominous threats to humanity in our day as well; it should not surprise us that many pioneers of radical Islamic movements and states have been steeped in Nazi ideology.

Regardless of the direct and indirect genealogy, tyrants who threaten the relative peace, order, and justice in the world today can be found in Moscow, Pyongyang, and across Africa. With daily reports of the brutality with which ISIL and Boko Haram spread their terror, there should be no doubt about the existence of “cosmic powers over this present darkness…the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Yet, as Paul exhorts in that passage, our weapons are spiritual: the Word of God, faith in Christ, the protective armor of his righteousness, and shoes that are ready to spread the gospel.

Michael S. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido).

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Wednesday, August 31st 2016

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology