I have trouble understanding the Psalms which cry out for vengeance (Psalm 109 and others).
You’re not alone in your difficulty in understanding the tone and language of some of the Psalms which cry out for vengeance and judgment. Critics of the Bible conclude that God is a “moral monster” who promotes such a destructive response by His followers. Believers struggle to reconcile such cries for revenge with the tone of the New Testament which instructs us to pray for our enemies (1Peter 2:20, 3:16-17, 4:19). The outstanding examples of the Lord Himself in His unjust sufferings, of Stephen in his bold defense and ultimate martyrdom, and of many others, stand in stark contrast to the seemingly vindictive cries of these psalmists. So how can we reconcile this vast apparent difference between the language of the Old and New Testaments?
Psalm 109 is likely the last of what is known as the “Imprecatory Psalms,” or psalms in which the writers appeal to heaven for vengeance upon their foes (see also Psalms 5, 58, 69, 83 and 137). The language is strong, the tones are harsh, and the cries are heartfelt. It would be easy to dismiss these passages as unspiritual “venting.” However, there are a number of factors which need to be considered within the context of these psalms.You’re not alone in your difficulty in understanding the tone and language of some of the Psalms which cry out for vengeance and judgment. Critics of the Bible conclude that God is a “moral monster” who promotes such a destructive response by His followers. Believers struggle to reconcile such cries for revenge with the tone of the New Testament which instructs us to pray for our enemies (1Peter 2:20, 3:16-17, 4:19). The outstanding examples of the Lord Himself in His unjust sufferings, of Stephen in his bold defense and ultimate martyrdom, and of many others, stand in stark contrast to the seemingly vindictive cries of these psalmists. So how can we reconcile this vast apparent difference between the language of the Old and New Testaments?
First, it’s important to see that the cries of the psalmists were not dictated by a spirit of personal revenge. Though they longed for justice, there was nothing vindictive about them. Psalm 109, which was likely written during the period of Absalom’s rebellion, brought tremendous grief to King David. His goodness had been rewarded with evil and his love had been met by hatred. Some have wondered why David didn’t show a spirit of kindness instead of such vehemence. The simple answer is that he had already done so, but it had been resisted. His enemies had come with determined rebellion and murder in their hearts and yet, despite all of this, David had appealed to his forces to spare the life of his son. Few men have shown the generosity that David showed. If revenge had been in his heart, his response would have been far different.
Second, another vital factor involves the psalmist’s national zeal for the purposes of God. Interestingly, many of the imprecations in the psalms were written by David, who understood that he was a “theocratic king.” He knew that he was anointed by God, and that he ruled for God and with accountability to God and so, could never be comfortable with injustice. Thus, he sought to rule with truth, mercy and justice, and never sought to use the law for his own purposes. Those who were betraying and seeking his life were ultimately assaulting God, and his desire was that God Himself would be vindicated. David was well aware that Israel was a covenant people to a God Who had promised to protect them as long as they were obedient to Him. From Abraham onward, God had promised to bless those who blessed Israel and to curse those who cursed them. Thus, when the psalmists appealed to God to deal justly with their enemies, they were simply asking Him to fulfill His covenant promise.
Third, in reading these psalms, we need to remember that the principles of God’s righteousness do not change with the times. Although the Lord shed tears over a rejecting city and graciously invited sinners to come to Him, He also sternly rebuked and warned religious hypocrites of their danger. John the Baptist thundered out similar warnings. Godly saints were deeply stirred by the rampant godlessness and unrighteous around them and they longed that sin might be judged and that God’s righteousness might reign. It is no wonder they expressed holy indignation at the rebellion and lawlessness which surrounded them. Our problem is that we have become desensitized to sin and that, as one writer suggested, “we don’t hate sin enough to get upset at the wickedness and godlessness around us.” David in Psalm 109 didn’t have that problem.
Perhaps the most important factor involves dispensational truth. As one commentator wrote, “in the psalms are Spirit-taught prayers, fully consistent with the period to which they belong, though not suited to the present Christian dispensation.” God answered Elijah’s prayer for fire at Carmel, but the Lord sternly rebuked His disciples who had suggested the same treatment for the Samaritans (Luke 9:54-56). God’s dealings with Israel were under Law, but today is a day of grace, not of judgment. The Christian is exhorted to bless and not curse, to do good to all men and to patiently suffer for righteousness sake. Our calling is heavenly but Israel’s is an earthly calling with an earthly government. Thus, these imprecatory psalms have a prophetic factor, for the day will come when Israel will cry for the Lord’s intervention in judgment for their national deliverance. However, we dare not forget that God will ultimately and finally deal with sin. Though the Lord closed the book before reading the phrase “the day of vengeance of our God” (Luke 4:18-20), He was not implying that that day would not come. Revelation 6 reveals the moment when “the great day of His wrath” will come. Though the New Testament reveals God’s amazing grace, refusal of that grace ushers in the righteous judgment of God against rejecting sinners. How solemn to ever hear the words “Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity” (Matt 7:23). Rather than minimizing retribution and judgment, the New Testament teaches us clearly of its reality and severity. Thus, the cries of these imprecatory psalms, though personal in their context, are a reminder and a foreshadowing of a coming Day when God will be vindicated and when righteousness will triumph eternally.
Arthur G Clarke, Analytical Studies in the Psalms, Appendix IV.
Jim Flanagan, Psalms – What the Bible Teaches, Psalm 109
J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book, The Book of Psalms (4).
Derek Kidner, Psalms, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries.