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Saturday, February 24, 2018

Imprecations and Maledictions

There’s an old eighties dirge about an abused child that starts, “My name is Luka. I live on the second floor …”

In the real world the writer’s name was not Luka, it was Suzanne. She was majoring in English Lit. at Barnard College and performing regularly in Greenwich Village when she penned that hit, and the little boy she wrote about was neither abused nor even named Luka.

So much for verisimilitude.

Walk a Mile …

But the nature of poetry or songwriting is that we sometimes put ourselves in the shoes of others and write about the world from the perspective of people we are not. That’s not a recent thing either; the great writers have always done it, and some pretty awful ones have done it too.

The psalmists definitely do it. Not every time, of course. Aspiring authors are told, “Write what you know,” and there’s almost always a good deal of personal experience in any given psalm. Still, there are also elements of many (if not most) psalms that are demonstrably outside the writer’s personal experience.

That’s one question to consider when analyzing any psalm: How much of this is actually the writer’s own experience, and how much is poetic (or prophetic) license?

Bad Stuff for Bad People

A second is this: How are we to think about the imprecatory psalms?

An “imprecation” is basically a curse or a malediction. It’s wishing bad stuff on people who have done bad things to you; the sort of thing the Lord Jesus told his followers not to do. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” he said. Or, as the apostle Paul put it, “Bless and do not curse.”

Some people therefore conclude that the imprecatory psalms reflect a lower or “less developed” morality and suggest that as Christians we ought to largely dismiss their sentiments:
“Such expression of hate and calls for violence do not reflect God’s will revealed in Jesus. This is a point that is seldom made, and frankly it needs to be made more often.”
Actually, it’s a point made all too frequently without due consideration for other possible explanations.

King David, Venting

In any case, Derek Flood figures the only way to account for Psalm 109 is to assume David was merely getting something off his chest. Venting. On his more spiritual days, Flood would argue, David didn’t really mean any of that stuff he wrote. He sees virtue in David’s candor, but none in the sentiments he expresses.

That explanation just doesn’t work for me. I find it unsatisfying. See, this wasn’t David vomiting out his unspiritual nastiness on parchment and tucking it away in a drawer. These were psalms, written for and sung by the people of God corporately. Like hit singles, only if your parents paid attention to them too. It’s as if David took all his personal bile, plastered it on a giant billboard, then left it looming over downtown Jerusalem for several centuries.

So, no, I don’t buy that Psalm 109 and its ilk were mistakes, or that David’s sentiments failed to live up to his personal faith and his knowledge of God. That interpretive dog won’t hunt. When Jesus said, “Until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished,” I think he was using the term generally. He was talking about the entire Old Testament, including the imprecatory psalms.

Easy Answers and Possible Solutions

That doesn’t mean, of course, that every sentiment expressed by every individual in the Old Testament is morally correct, commendable or worthy of repeating. Sometimes bad people said bad things, and accurate historians, carried along by the Holy Spirit, wrote them down for us to rightly deplore.

On the other hand, bad people didn’t generally write psalms about their rotten personal sentiments for other people to sing. I think we can be fairly confident that had they done so, pious priests and devout students of God’s word would not have preserved them for us with such diligence. How many “Psalms of Ahab” have you come across recently?

In short, Flood’s answer is too easy for me. We need a better and more biblical way to think about Psalm 109 and others like it.

One possible answer is projection: the “Luka” solution. Maybe David wasn’t really writing about himself. Maybe the sentiments he expressed were spiritually legitimate in a different context.

There’s something to that idea, I think, though I don’t believe it’s the whole answer.

A Betrayer and a Crucifixion

The psalm is most certainly prophetic, and we know who at least some of it applies to: Judas, the betrayer of Christ, the man who did pretty much the worst thing ever. Peter appropriates the language of Psalm 109 in the book of Acts when he declares about Judas, “Let another take his office.”

Likewise, there are aspects of the psalm that sound more like the Lord Jesus than David personally:
“I am an object of scorn to my accusers; when they see me, they wag their heads.”
Surely there we have the cross, as the gospels confirm.

Glory in the Congregation

Later, we find our Savior glorified:
“I will praise him in the midst of the throng.”
The writer to the Hebrews uses similar Old Testament language to describe Jesus in his glory, with a host of his “brothers and sisters” saved by grace. It seems to me that too is a fair use of this psalm.

Thus we have plenty of scriptural authority to apply certain parts of this psalm to other times and circumstances, to go beyond the poet’s own experience and acknowledge that the more precious and timeless aspects of his work are concerned with events considerably more significant to us than an Israelite king’s personal grudges.

That’s part of it, for sure. But I don’t think that’s a full answer.

Roles and Responsibilities

A better answer, in my opinion, might be arrived at by considering that even within his own life experience, David wore multiple hats, and was required to look at the world from more than a single perspective.

I can’t say with any certainty when it was that David wrote Psalm 109. It may have been long before he ever assumed the throne of Israel, or it may have been after years of bearing the responsibility of leadership. But David was young when anointed by Samuel, and from the very moment he knew he would one day ascend to the throne of Israel, he could hardly have avoided looking at the world, and especially his own fractured nation, with the eyes of a man tasked with ordering society for the glory of God.

That, after all, either was (or would be) his job.

Love Your Enemies … Within Limitations

In criticizing David, Flood confuses our individual responsibility to love and forgive with the duty of administering justice and running a nation.

When the Lord Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” he was not setting government policy. He was not saying, “Societies ought to let murderers go free, and you Israelites ought to be thrilled that the Romans have overrun the land I once gave you.” He was not setting a precedent that makes it incumbent on world leaders to send their bodyguards home and allow any villain who pleases to foment unrest or mount a successful coup against the state.

Further, he was also not suggesting that the inevitable judgment of God on such behavior was to be suspended or dismissed. He was not for a moment implying that since his Father makes it rain on the just and the unjust, that he will therefore one day justify the unrepentant wicked along with the righteous and usher them indiscriminately into heaven. Far from it!

He was speaking to individuals about how to respond to personal injury, personal insult and personal harassment. That should be obvious.

Father, Forgive Them

Likewise, when Jesus cried out, “Father, forgive them,” it should be evident he was not asking that those responsible for the monumental injustice perpetrated upon the Son of God be received joyfully into glory, all their sins forgiven, for no other reason than that he had just requested it.

I can certainly believe that in that moment the Lord Jesus graciously waived his claim to justice for the wrongs then being done to him personally. But I cannot buy for a second that he summarily dismissed the wrongs being done in that moment against the government of heaven, against his Father and against the Holy Spirit. If so, what then do we make of his assertion that those who witnessed his miracles and falsely attributed them to Satan “will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come”?

In that statement there is a sharp distinction made between waiving one’s opportunity for personal revenge and waving away the greater principal of heavenly justice. The first is incredible grace. The second is an abomination.

The men who crucified God’s Christ got a temporary pass — though the darkness, the earthquake and the torn temple veil testify eloquently that for God, restraining his righteous wrath in the face of such a brazen insult to his beloved Son was no easy thing. Who knows what might have happened to them were it not for the Lord’s word of intercession on their behalf? But be very sure that those present who remained intransigent have not escaped and will not escape their ultimate judgment.

Personal forgiveness and judicial forgiveness are two very different things.

The Man and the Crown

Sorry, back to David and his imprecatory psalms. David, in his own small way, was in exactly the same boat as the Lord Jesus. On a personal level, he knew well how to forgive, and how to withhold judgment. We see throughout his life that he did so regularly, sometimes to a fault.

But a king must of necessity also treat false accusations, baseless hatred, cursing the king and treason not as personal insults but as what they really are: crimes — no, capital offenses — against the people, against the crown, against the good of the nation, against God’s government and ultimately against God himself. To do otherwise is to abdicate one’s responsibility before God.

Yes, the follower of Christ must love his enemies. But that love cannot be expressed indiscriminately or eternally to those who repeatedly, unrepentantly and characteristically insist on clothing themselves with “cursing as a coat”.

Eventually God’s justice has to catch up. And David was not wrong to look forward to that day with great enthusiasm.

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