13. Psalm 109: A Prayer for the Punishment of the Wicked
A very difficult text from Judges 19 which I preached several years ago describes the gruesome account of the attempted homosexual rape of a Levite, the brutal rape of his concubine, and the dismembering of her body into twelve pieces, which were sent to the twelve tribes of Israel by her husband. Several who were asked to read this scripture passage in our teaching hour declined. The one who did consent asked to pray before the text was read rather than afterward as was our custom!
Psalm 109 is a similarly unpleasant passage for many. If classified as movies are today, it would hardly receive a “G” rating. Some psalms are soothing, such as Psalm 23. Others like Psalm 91 are comforting. There are soul-stirring psalms which inspire us to worship and praise such as Psalm 103. Psalm 109 is very troubling to most because it is perhaps the strongest imprecatory183 psalm in the psalter. David, the author of the psalm as indicated in the superscription, calls upon God to destroy his enemies in the most horrible ways. According to Perowne, there are no less than 30 anathemas pronounced upon David’s enemies in this one psalm.184 David not only seeks the punishment of his enemy but also the painful consequences brought on his family: “Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children wander about and beg; and let them seek sustenance far from their ruined homes” (vv. 9-10).
The problem we face in Psalm 109 is not restricted to this psalm, however. Other Psalms contain similar prayers for the punishment of evildoers: “Do Thou add iniquity to their iniquity, and may they not come into Thy righteousness. May they be blotted out of the book of life, and may they not be recorded with the righteous” (Ps. 69:27-28).
To some the beauty of Psalm 139 is shattered by these words:
O that Thou wouldst slay the wicked, O God; depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed. For they speak against Thee wickedly, and Thine enemies take Thy name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate Thee, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against Thee? I hate them with the utmost hatred; they have become my enemies (Ps. 139:19-22).
In Psalm 137 we find a cry of vengeance against the Babylonians:
Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom the day of Jerusalem, who said, “Raze it, raze it, to its very foundation.” O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, how blessed will be the one who repays you with the recompense with which you have repaid us. How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock (Ps. 137:7-9).
The problem we face in Psalm 109 is one that is far broader than just one passage, or even one book of the Bible. Prayers of imprecation for the destruction of the wicked are to be found throughout the entire Word of God. Moses (the “meekest man on the face of the earth,” Num. 12:3) prayed, “Rise up, O Lord! And let Thine enemies be scattered, and let those who hate Thee flee before Thee” (Num. 10:35).
The prophet Jeremiah spoke stinging words of imprecation which parallel the prayers of David and others in the psalms:
Do give heed to me, O Lord, and listen to what my opponents are saying! Should good be repaid with evil? For they have dug a pit for me. Remember how I stood before Thee to speak good on their behalf, so as to turn away Thy wrath from them. Therefore, give their children over to famine, and deliver them up to the power of the sword; and let their wives become childless and widowed. Let their men also be smitten to death, their young men struck down by the sword in battle. May an outcry be heard from their houses, when Thou suddenly bringest raiders upon them; for they have dug a pit to capture me and hidden snares for my feet. Yet Thou, O Lord, knowest all their deadly designs against me; do not forgive their iniquity or blot out their sin from Thy sight. But may they be overthrown before Thee; deal with them in the time of Thine anger! (Jer. 18:19-23; cf. also 11:18ff.; 15:15ff.; 20:11ff.).
There are numerous imprecations in the New Testament also, such as that of the saints who were slain for their righteousness:
And when He broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:9-10).
Imprecations such as those found in Psalm 109 have caused some Christians to question the value of the imprecatory prayers of the Bible for New Testament believers:
It is surely a debatable question as to whether the church should retain the whole Psalter in its worship, including these troublesome passages, or whether the Psalter should be censored at those points which seem to be inconsistent with God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. It would be interesting to check the responsive readings included in modern hymnals or books of worship, to see the degree to which the Psalms have been edited for Christian worship.185
No matter how perplexing the problem of imprecatory psalms may be, we cannot easily dismiss them. Imprecations, as we shall later point out, are also to be found in the New Testament. We know also that “all Scripture is profitable …” (2 Tim. 3:16) and therefore these prayers have a lesson for us to learn. In addition we must remember that all the psalms were recorded and preserved for public worship. The imprecatory psalms were not merely the passionate pleas of one man (spiritually or carnally motivated), but were rather a pattern for the worship of Israel. Can you imagine coming together to worship and singing a psalm like Psalm 109? Because ancient Israel did so, we must look very carefully at this passage to learn its message to us.
This lesson is intended to accomplish two purposes. We will seek to understand the message of Psalm 109, both as it related to the saints of old and as it applies to men today. In addition this psalm will be used to address the broader subject of imprecatory prayers. We will strive to understand the purpose of such prayers, and the principles which underly them, that apply equally to the saints today. Because of this two-fold purpose, our exposition of Psalm 109 will be more general to allow space for addressing the broader issues involved. Let us look first to the God to whom these prayers were addressed and His Spirit who inspired them, and then to the text itself for His message to us. May we not quickly disregard the stern warning of this psalm.
David’s Indictment of His Enemies:
His Innocence and Their Iniquity
1 For the choir director. A Psalm of David. O God of my praise, Do not be silent! 2 For they have opened the wicked and deceitful mouth against me; They have spoken against me with a lying tongue. 3 They have also surrounded me with words of hatred, And fought against me without cause. 4 In return for my love they act as my accusers; But I am in prayer. 5 Thus they have repaid me evil for good, And hatred for my love. (NASB)
Verses 1-5 are crucial, not only to this psalm, but to our understanding of imprecation. In this introductory section David makes two claims: (1) his innocence and (2) the iniquity of his enemies. The God who is the object of his praise (v. 1; cf. also Deut. 10:21; Jer. 17:14) is also the One who receives his petitions. David’s plea that God not remain silent in verse 1b is a cry for help, as elsewhere (cf. Ps. 28:1; 35:22; 83:1). The basis for David’s petition is then given in verses 2-5. David is accused by his enemies but is innocent of their charges. He has done good to his enemies, which they have repaid with evil.
I believe that verses 1-5 are crucial to a correct understanding of imprecatory prayers because they inform us about the prerequisites for imprecation. The requirements are rigorous for those who would thus pray. Likewise, those who are worthy of divine wrath are carefully defined. Only the innocent dare pray as David does, and only the wicked need fear the fate which David petitions God to execute.
Let us first consider the innocence of David, which qualifies him to pray as he does. David is, first and foremost, a worshipper of God. He dares not petition his God apart from being a man given to the praise of God (v. 1). While the accusations against David by his enemies are many, they are without basis (cf. Ps. 69:4). He not only has refrained from evil toward the wicked, he has done them nothing but good (v. 5; cf. Ps. 35:12). They hate, but he loves (v. 5). They accuse him, but he prays (for them, it would seem, v. 4).186 The underlying assumption is that David is suffering, not for his sin, but “for righteousness sake”:
Because for Thy sake I have borne reproach; dishonor has covered my face. I have become estranged from my brothers, and an alien to my mother’s sons. For zeal for Thy house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach Thee have fallen on me (Ps. 69:7-9).
David does not claim to be sinless here, but he is a worshipper whose heart is right before God.187 Often in the psalms David confesses his own sins: “For I confess my iniquity; I am full of anxiety because of my sin” (Ps. 38:18). “O God, it is Thou who dost know my folly, and my wrongs are not hidden from Thee” (Ps. 69:5; cf. 32:5; 51:5). If he has sinned, David asks God to deal with him accordingly:
O Lord my God, if I have done this, if there is injustice in my hands, if I have rewarded evil to my friend, or have plundered him who without cause was my adversary, let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it; and let him trample my life down to the ground, and lay my glory in the dust (Ps. 7:3-5).
In Psalm 139 while David prayed that God would “slay the wicked” (v. 19), he immediately opens his own heart to God, so that he may have his sins exposed and cleansed: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way” (Ps. 139:23-24).
David makes his petition to God as one who is dependent on Him for righteousness (cf. Ps. 130:3-8; 143:2). While he is not entirely free from sin, he is right with God by His grace, and he is righteous with regard to the charges of his opponents.
No one dare implore God to act as David does in Psalm 109 unless he himself is innocent in the sense that David was: innocent of the charges of the wicked, and in right standing before God. Let those who would pray for the destruction of their enemies be as quick as David to have God search their own hearts and to deal with them in justice, just as they would have Him judge their enemies. Imprecatory prayers must only be made by the righteous.
Second, let us give due consideration to the wickedness of David’s enemies, which made them worthy of God’s wrath. In Psalm 109 the sin of David’s enemies is expressed almost entirely in terms of the wrongs they have committed against him.188 Elsewhere, however, it is shown that how the wicked treat the righteous is symptomatic of their rebellion against God (cf. Ps. 37:12; 139:19-20).
The nature of the sin of the wicked against David is especially informative. The primary instrument of evil is the tongue of the wicked. They have “opened the wicked and deceitful mouth” and spoken with “a lying tongue” (v. 2). They have surrounded the psalmist with “words” (v. 3) and have “accused” him of wrongdoing (v. 4). I believe that Derek Kidner has best captured the essence of this evil by the title, “The Character-Assassin.”189
In most churches there is some kind of written or understood list of sins which its members are forbidden to commit. For some it may be smoking, drinking, dancing, going to movies, cursing, or perhaps (though less frequently) immorality. I am not trying to challenge here any of the items which may be on your particular list (though they made need challenging!). What I want to stress is how seldom the sin of backbiting is included in those lists. In fact, we have developed very subtle and spiritual-sounding means of committing the sin of character assassination. We “share” the problems of others as prayer requests. This sounds so pious, but frequently it is simply gossip by another label. Let us learn from this psalm that the most severe judgment is called down (and rightly so) upon the sin of character-assassination.
Two lessons should be learned from verses 1-5 concerning those against whom imprecations are made: (1) The imprecations which God hears are those which are made by those who have clean hands and a clean heart. Imprecations are effective only when we see sin as God does and when we ask Him to deal with sin as He has promised to deal with it in His Word. (2) Those against whom imprecations are effective are those who are truly wicked, those who are not just our enemies, but God’s enemies. Psalm 109 is vastly different from a “voodoo” curse. Imprecations are prayers for the punishment of the wicked. While the psalmist is innocent, his enemies are not. This is the basis for his petition for the punishment of the wicked. We are taught in Proverbs that a curse without basis has no effect: “Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, so a curse without cause does not alight” (Prov. 26:2).
Let us not leave these introductory verses without learning that those who would pray a prayer similar to David’s must be like David—they must be those who praise God (not just petition Him), and those who are right before God and men. Those who seek God’s wrath on the guilty should be innocent. Imprecations are only effective against the guilty. In this context and many others, their guilt is the offense of the tongue. God takes our words seriously, and so should we.
A brief word should be said about the identity of the wicked. They apparently were closely associated with David. According to verse 5, they had been the recipients of David’s love, which they had spurned and showed him hatred instead. Examples of David’s enemies include Doeg the Edomite (Ps. 52:1; 1 Sam. 21:7), Shimei (2 Sam. 16:5-8), and Saul (1 Sam. 18–31).190 While it is tempting to try to identify the name of the culprit, it seems obvious that the psalmist did not intend for us to know the individual’s identity. There are good reasons for this. First, the psalmist is committing the wicked to God’s judgment, not man’s. Why should he name the individual when God knew who it was? David, unlike his enemies, was not willing to engage in character-assassination. Secondly, David may have wanted his readers to give more thought to the one behind all accusation, Satan.191 Since the Hebrew word rendered “accuser” is translated satan, Satan’s role may well be indicated. We will return to this subject below.
Third, since the psalms were intended for general use, David did not identify his enemies so that the righteous could supply the names of their adversaries, so to speak.192
David’s Imprecation Against His Enemies
6 Appoint a wicked man over him; And let an accuser stand at his right hand. 7 When he is judged, let him come forth guilty; And let his prayer become sin. 8 Let his days be few; Let another take his office. 9 Let his children be fatherless, And his wife a widow. 10 Let his children wander about and beg; And let them seek sustenance far from their ruined homes. 11 Let the creditor seize all that he has; And let strangers plunder the product of his labor. 12 Let there be none to extend lovingkindness to him, Nor any to be gracious to his fatherless children. 13 Let his posterity be cut off; In a following generation let their name be blotted out.
14 Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the LORD, And do not let the sin of his mother be blotted out. 15 Let them be before the LORD continually, That He may cut off their memory from the earth; 16 Because he did not remember to show lovingkindness, But persecuted the afflicted and needy man, And the despondent in heart, to put them to death. 17 He also loved cursing, so it came to him; And he did not delight in blessing, so it was far from him. 18 But he clothed himself with cursing as with his garment, And it entered into his body like water, And like oil into his bones. 19 Let it be to him as a garment with which he covers himself, And for a belt with which he constantly girds himself. 20 Let this be the reward of my accusers from the LORD, And of those who speak evil against my soul. (NASB)
Verses 1-5 are the basis of David’s imprecation. David is innocent, yet his enemies have accused him of wrong-doing. They have engaged in character-assassination. David appeals to God, the object of his praise and adoration, to come to his rescue and to punish his wicked opponents. Verses 6-20 spell out the form which David believes this punishment should take. David’s imprecation is certainly fierce and forthright, but I believe that it is not excessive. The details of David’s imprecation and its doctrinal basis will be the primary aim of our study of these verses.
There is a change in the reference to David’s enemies in the plural (vv. 1-5) to that of the singular in the following verses (vv. 6ff.). The most plausible explanation is that David is moving from the general to the specific. In verses 1-5 his enemies are described as a group, but in verse 6 and following the punishment for which David prays is viewed as occurring individually. Some have suggested that the person singled out in these verses is the leader of David’s opposition.193
Verses 6-13 concentrate on the consequences for sin which are sought both for the man and his family. David asks that a wicked man be set over his foe and that an adversary accuse him (v. 6). If Saul were the enemy in mind, the punishment would simply be to receive in return what he had meted out to David. Let those who oppress those under them taste what it is like to have an evil man over them. Verse 7 seeks a verdict of “guilty” when his enemy is brought to court. David asks God to look upon the prayers of his enemies as sin (v. 7b). David can pray thus because it is consistent with the teaching of the Old Testament that the prayers (and indeed all religious acts) of the wicked are an abomination to God (cf. Prov. 28:9; Isa. 1:15).
Verses 8 and 9 petition God to shorten the life of David’s enemy. This is expressed in a variety of poetic terms. The days of his enemy should be few. His untimely death will require another to take his office (v. 8). It is this verse, you will recall, that was applied to Judas, the betrayer of our Lord, prompting the disciples of our Lord to choose a replacement for Judas among them (cf. Acts 1:20). The death of David’s foe would make his wife a widow and his children orphans (v. 9).
While it may seem unnecessarily severe for David to pray for his enemy’s untimely death and for his family to suffer for his sins, David’s petition is based upon the principles and practices of the Old Testament. God said that the sins of the fathers would be visited on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate God (Exod. 20:5; Deut. 5:9). Also in the Law of Moses God warned that certain sins would bring consequences on the families of the sinner:
“You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless” (Exod. 22:22-24).
This same principle was expressed in the Book of Proverbs:
The curse of the Lord is on the house of the wicked, but He blesses the dwelling of the righteous (Prov. 3:33).
He who returns evil for good, evil will not depart from his house (Prov. 17:13).
Proverbs 17:13 is especially relevant to David’s imprecations in Psalm 109 because it speaks of the penalty borne by those who return evil for good, precisely the sin of David’s foes (Ps. 109:5; cf. 35:12; 38:20). In addition, it warns that the consequences for sin fall on the house of the wicked, not just the individual.
What God taught in principle, He also practiced. God commanded the Israelites to destroy all the Canaanites, including their children (Deut. 20:16-18; Josh. 6:17,21). In response to the rebellion of Korah, God destroyed Korah, Dathan and Abiram, along with their wives, their children, their cattle, and their possessions (Num. 16, cf. esp. vv. 27, 31-33). A man’s sins not only have dire consequences for him personally; they also adversely affect his family (cf. also 1 Sam. 2:30-32).
David further prays for the financial ruin (vv. 10-11) and the family extinction (vv. 12-13) of his enemy. God’s blessing included both material gains and a posterity to benefit from the prosperity He gave (cf. Deut. 28:1-14). However, disobedience was to certainly bring about just the opposite result (Deut. 28:15-68). In praying for the financial ruin of his enemies and their family extinction, David was requesting God to act in accordance with the Mosaic covenant.
David, like the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 18:20-21), cried out to God, petitioning God to do what He had promised. David’s petition may seem harsh to us, but it is no more severe than what God taught and what He personally practiced in dealing with the wicked. Incidentally, the Israelites did not seem to think God’s principles and promises were unreasonable when it came to national blessings, nor when the curses were directed toward their enemies. David’s imprecations in verses 6-13, including the suffering of his enemy’s family, are based upon biblical principles and promises.194
In verses 14-20 David continues to seek the punishment of his foes, but his petition is based upon a slightly different argument. David requested retribution for his enemies.195 Retribution is simply getting what you give. Justice was based on the principle of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Exod. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21). Jesus reminded His hearers that this principle was never intended to encourage revenge, but was a principle governing judgment to be applied by the judges of Israel (cf. Matt. 5:38-42). David does not himself seek revenge, but he requests God to apply the principle of retribution to his foes. He asks simply that God return on the wicked what they meted out to others, and what they therefore deserve.
Rather than show his adversaries mercy, let God deal with them in the light of their own sins, as well as those of their fathers (vv. 14-15). After all, the sins of the fathers are visited on the children who hate God (Deut. 5:9). The wicked whom David wishes to see punished are those who have shown no mercy to others, but have instead persecuted the afflicted and needy man, even putting him to death (v. 16). They therefore deserve God’s retributive judgment. The merciless should receive no mercy (Prov. 21:13; cf. Matt. 5:7; James 2:13).
Since the wicked love to curse, let cursing come to them (v. 17a). They withheld blessing, so blessings should be withheld from them (v. 17b). Cursing was like a garment to the wicked (v. 18a), so let it become his only clothing (vv. 18b-19). Let all who would accuse David stand accused before God (v. 20). David has thus asked no more than for God to do as He has promised and as the wicked deserve.
David’s Request for Relief
21 But Thou, O GOD, the Lord, deal kindly with me for Thy name’s sake; Because Thy lovingkindness is good, deliver me; 22 For I am afflicted and needy, And my heart is wounded within me. 23 I am passing like a shadow when it lengthens; I am shaken off like the locust. 24 My knees are weak from fasting; And my flesh has grown lean, without fatness. 25 I also have become a reproach to them; When they see me, they wag their head.
26 Help me, O LORD my God; Save me according to Thy lovingkindness. 27 And let them know that this is Thy hand; Thou, LORD, hast done it. 28 Let them curse, but do Thou bless; When they arise, they shall be ashamed, But Thy servant shall be glad. 29 Let my accusers be clothed with dishonor, And let them cover themselves with their own shame as with a robe. (NASB)
While God is a God of wrath, He is also a God of mercy. As the apostle Paul put it, “Behold then the kindness and severity of God” (Rom. 11:22). In the previous verses (6-20) David has made an imprecation against his enemies. The imprecation was based upon the promises of God and upon the evil practices of those who opposed David. David therefore pled with God to give men what they deserved. Now David appeals to God to deal graciously with him on the basis of God’s character and David’s pitiable condition. Not only did David ask justice for his foes, he now asks mercy for himself.
David’s petition is for God’s grace. It is rightly based on several truths concerning God’s character. First, God is a God who is characterized by “lovingkindness” (vv. 21,26). When David asks God to deal kindly with him for His name’s sake (v. 21), he means that since God is full of lovingkindness He can be called upon to be true to His character in showing mercy and kindness to His children. Secondly, God’s lovingkindness causes Him to be especially touched by the pitiable condition of those who trust in Him and are afflicted. Many of the Psalms reflect this aspect of God’s compassion for the “afflicted and needy” (v. 22), and appeal is often made to God based upon His concern for those in such straits:
When they are diminished and bowed down through oppression, misery, and sorrow, He pours contempt upon princes, and makes them wander in a pathless waste. But He sets the needy securely on high away from affliction, and makes his families like a flock. The upright see it, and are glad; but all unrighteousness shuts its mouth. Who is wise? Let him give heed to these things; and consider the lovingkindnesses of the Lord (Ps. 107:39-43).
I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and justice for the poor (Ps. 140:12).
The Lord supports the afflicted; He brings down the wicked to the ground (Ps. 147:6; cf. also 12:5; 18:27; 35:10; 69:33; 72:4).
Verses 23-25 move from the wounded spirit (v. 22) of the psalmist to his pathetic physical condition, which is a result of oppression at the hand of his enemies. Apparently as skinny as a shadow (v. 23), the psalmist also describes himself as one who is brushed aside as worthless, like a locust is shaken from a garment. His knees are weak from fasting and his body is lean. Rather than inspire pity from his accusers, they despise him and wag their heads in contempt (v. 25). The inference seems to be that they have chosen to interpret David’s suffering as the evidence of his sin, just as Job’s friends reasoned about his condition. A God whose very nature is to take pity on the afflicted can certainly be expected to hear the plea of the psalmist, since he is spiritually and physically miserable.
Verses 26-29 appeal to God for help on the basis of God’s lovingkindness (v. 26) and the fact that the deliverance of David will prove that God’s hand is on him to bless him, not to punish him (vv. 27-29). If the enemies of David have appealed to his suffering as the proof of his guilt, then let God come to his rescue and lift him up. This would show them that God has acted in his behalf. Because they have cursed David, they will be put to shame if God blesses him (v. 28). God’s blessing in David’s life will give him honor and make him glad, but it will reveal that the wicked have covered themselves with shame for their treatment of him (v. 29).
David’s Promise of Praise
30 With my mouth I will give thanks abundantly to the LORD; And in the midst of many I will praise Him. 31 For He stands at the right hand of the needy, To save him from those who judge his soul. (NASB)
A final reason is given for God’s intervening on David’s behalf. Since God is the “God of David’s praise” (v. 1), He knows that the punishment of David’s enemies and the rescue of the psalmist will result in praise. Verses 30 and 31 are David’s vow of praise. He will praise God for His deliverance in the midst of the congregation (v. 30). The basis for this praise is the psalmist’s experience of seeing God stand at his right hand to defend. The accusers will finally be silenced when God reveals Himself as David’s defender.
It is true, I suspect, that Perowne is correct when he writes, “In the awfulness of its anathemas, the Psalm  surpasses everything of the kind in the Old Testament.”196 Because of its fierceness, some scholars such as Kittel have gone so far as to speak of this psalm as containing “… utterly repulsive maledictions inspired by the wildest form of vengeance, which make this one of the most questionable hymns of cursing.”197 Kittel therefore ascribes all of the psalm to “carnal passion that is utterly inexcusable.”198
Others like Cross have questioned the value of such psalms for public worship:
We question the worth for Christian worship of such Psalms as express a spirit of vindictiveness. Christianity is meekness, gentleness, peace. Even the wicked should be regarded as objects of redemptive search. … The spirit of Jesus spoke of forgiveness even upon those who did him to death. As long as we retain in Christian worship material which breathes a spirit of aggression, self-assertion and vengeance, we are contradicting our faith. We cannot hope thus to make our doctrine clear to the world. With such contradictory elements in our worship, we shall not be surprised that the spread of Christianity is slow. We may well wonder that it propagates at all.199
Kidner has stated the problem more conservatively:
The sudden transitions in the psalms from humble devotion to fiery imprecation create an embarrassing problem for the Christian, who is assured that all Scripture is inspired and profitable, but equally that he himself is to bless those who curse him.200
The problems which the imprecatory psalms have raised for the Christian have been answered by a variety of explanations, most of which seem inadequate or inaccurate.201 Before we become too critical of the psalmist and this type of psalm, let us make several observations which must be taken into account.
(1) We are all armchair theologians who have not walked in the shoes of the psalmist. It is easy for those who have not lived through the hellish experiences of saints who have suffered greatly for their faith to be critical of such imprecations. Let us not be quick to criticize those who have tasted the kind of opposition and oppression which David did. Let us learn from the severity of the David’s imprecations the intensity and the cruelty of his adversaries.
(2) The Old Testament saint had a dim picture of the afterlife, thus he was less informed concerning the judgment which will occur after death both for the saved (2 Cor. 5:10) and the unsaved (Rev. 20:12-15). Therefore the Old Testament believer would have been particularly eager to see God deal with the wicked in this life. Consequently a greater urgency is to be expected on the part of the psalmist.
(3) Whatever problems we may have with the imprecations of the Old Testament, the tension between justice and mercy, love and hate, is not a matter of law versus grace or Old Testament versus New Testament. The Old and New Testaments teach the same truths. For instance, the New Testament has much to say about judgment, justice and condemnation. Conversely, the Old Testament teaches us to love our neighbor and not to seek vengeance. In fact, when Paul instructs Christians not to take revenge (Rom. 12:17-21), he uses an Old Testament passage from the Book of Deuteronomy as his proof-text (Rom. 12:19; Deut. 32:35), as well as a quotation from Proverbs 25:21ff. (Rom. 12:20). When Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount he was not teaching a new law, but was reiterating what the law had always taught. The Jewish religious system had set aside this law, replacing the truth with their own traditions.
(4) The psalms are not hastily scribbled personal vendettas, but carefully penned poetry. The indignation is not that of a quick, volatile explosion but that of a smoldering fire. You will remember that God is not without anger, but rather “slow to anger” (cf. Exod. 34:6; Num. 14:18; Ps. 86:15).
(5) The psalmist claims to be “spiritual” in his petition that God take vengeance on his enemies. Either the psalmist is self-deceived, a hypocrite or a liar.
(6) Every petition for justice and divine retribution is based upon biblical principles, precepts and practices. The psalmist pleads with God to act on the basis of His character (just and righteous), His covenant promises (e.g. Deut. 28), His conduct (e.g., in the destruction of Korah and his entire family, Num. 16).
(7) It is perhaps incorrect to refer to any psalm as an “imprecatory psalm” for the simple reason that while imprecation is a part of the psalm, it is not the whole of it. We are thus judging the whole by one part. Judgment is one theme, one aspect of God’s dealings with men, but not the whole. As Paul put it, let us consider “the goodness and the severity of God” (Rom. 11:22).
(8) When David or any other biblical character prays an imprecation, you will observe that the matter is left entirely with God. Godly men and women prayed to God about their enemies, and they specified (on the basis of God’s word) what they felt should happen to them. Yet they committed the wicked to God to deal with according to His word, in His time and in His own way. I personally believe that just as God’s prophecies left room for repentance and salvation (e.g. Jer. 18:5-10; cp. Jon. 3:8-10), so the very severity with which the psalmist spoke may have shocked some of the wicked into facing the seriousness of their sin and turning them to repentance.
(9) While the prayers of David are severe, his personal actions toward his enemies was gracious and kind. Suppose for a moment that Saul might have been the subject of Psalm 109. Saul deserved everything for which David prayed. Saul also received much for which David prayed. Yet David absolutely refused to take personal revenge, even when he had the opportunity. When he had the chance to kill Saul, he cut off a piece of his robe instead (1 Sam. 24:1-8)—later he was conscience-stricken for the spirit which had prompted this act (v. 5). David may have prayed fiercely, but his actions were absolutely gracious and kind.
(10) The church discipline of the New Testament is not really that different from the imprecatory psalms of the Old Testament. The New Testament also contains curses. Paul cursed Elymas for resisting the gospel (Acts 13:6-11) and damned any who would pervert it (Gal. 1:8-9). Peter pronounced sentence on Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). Paul delivered Hymenaeus and Alexander over to Satan (1 Tim. 1:20) as he did the man living with his father’s wife (1 Cor. 5:5). I personally believe that the final step of church discipline involves turning the sinner over to Satan (under God’s sovereign control, cf. Matt. 18:17-20) so that he may be severely chastened, with the goal of his repentance and restoration (cf. 1 Cor. 5:5; 2 Cor. 2:5-11).
All of the above observations lead me to the conclusion that the imprecatory psalms are far more relevant and applicable to Christians today than we would like to admit. Why then are we so uneasy about them? Essentially I think the answer is that we have a distorted view of God, perverted by our own sin. We want to think of God only in terms of love and mercy, but not in terms of justice and judgment. We are soft on sin. I think we have become entangled in a satanic conspiracy. We have adopted the thinking summarized by the expression, “I’m O.K., You’re O.K.” If you will pardon me for doing so, I could entitle Psalm 109, “I’m O.K., but You’re Not.” Such was the conviction of the psalmist. Most of us know that we are not O.K. Therefore we respond by going easy on others, hoping our laxity will make things easier on us. Let me tell you that if we had the courage and the conviction to pray as David did, we would be very ill at ease in regard to our own sins. Our greatest problem with imprecatory psalms is that the psalmist takes sin much more seriously than we do.
You may wish to challenge me by stressing that while we must hate sin, we should not hate the sinner. We want to think that God hates the sin, but He loves the sinner. I must ask you then, why does God send men to hell? Why isn’t hell a terrible place of torment for Satan and his angels and sin? Why is hell a place where people go? I don’t think it is as possible as we think to separate the sin from the sinner. This is not the solution to our problem.
I believe that in David’s case his enemies were God’s enemies whom God hated (cf. Rom. 9:13—in some sense, at least, God “hated” Esau). The solution was not to separate the sin and the sinner, but to commit both to God. This freed David from personal vengeance, enabling him to “love his enemies” (cf. Ps. 109:5) and treat them with kindness (as David did to Saul, Shimei, and the rest of his enemies). Let us not strive so hard to separate the sin from the sinner as to separate the sin from our attitudes and actions toward the sinner. I believe that David responded as he did to his enemies because he was a “man after God’s own heart.” Our problem is that we look at sin and sinners more from a human viewpoint than from the divine.
The amazing thing is that when we strive to conjure up human feelings of love and forgiveness, we really can’t love or forgive our enemies. The best we can do is to suppress our feelings of anger and hostility. When the psalmist prayed as he did in Psalm 109, he admitted his feelings and his desires (which were in accordance with God’s character and His covenant with men). He was thereby relieved of his hostility by committing the destiny of the wicked to God. Punishment and vengeance belong to God. By giving up vengeance we free ourselves to love and to forgive in a way that we cannot produce in and of ourselves.
Let us learn from the imprecatory psalms that a hard stand on sin is the best way to prevent sin. Let me tell you it must have been some experience to gather as a congregation in days of old and sing Psalm 109. Remember, the psalm was written for public worship. To sing its words was to remind the saints how the godly should respond to sin. In so doing each individual was reminded of the seriousness of sin and the dire consequences which accompany it. To be soft on sin is to give it a greenhouse in which to grow. To be hard on sin is to hinder its growth, not only in the lives of others but in our own as well.
My friend, the beautiful message of the Gospel is that the vengeance for which the psalmist prayed need not fall upon you. Jesus Christ came to the earth to take upon Himself our sins and our punishment. God placed upon His Son the punishment which David petitioned God to bring upon his enemies. No one who places his trust in the solution to sin—the Savior, Jesus Christ—need suffer the consequences of sin. It is only those who resist and reject God’s solution who suffer His temporal and eternal wrath. The psalmist who prayed for God’s justice for his enemies also petitioned God for His mercy and lovingkindness. God offers mercy and forgiveness to all, but He also promises justice and judgment to all who reject His Son. I encourage you to place your trust in Jesus Christ, the sin-bearer who died in your place and suffered even more than Psalm 109 describes.
183 In a more secular sense an imprecation is a curse on one’s enemies. In religious terms an imprecation is a prayer for evil or misfortune to befall another. In the Bible an imprecatory prayer is the prayer of a righteous man petitioning God to carry out justice by bringing punishment or destruction upon evildoers, especially those who have mistreated him.
185 Bernhard W. Anderson, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974), pp. 61-62. Anderson’s words here do not reflect his position, but are intended to bring the problem of the imprecatory prayers of the Bible into focus. His comments on the imprecatory psalms (pp. 60-67) are excellent.
186 In Psalm 35 David illustrates the wickedness of his enemies by contrasting his mercy with their cruelty. When they were afflicted, he fasted and prayed for them (vv. 13-14), but when he was afflicted they rejoiced, smiting and slandering him (vv. 15-16).
187 In the introduction to his commentary on the Psalms, Kirkpatrick addresses the subject of the innocence of the psalmists: “Some of these utterances are no more than asseverations that the speaker is innocent of particular crimes laid to his charge by his enemies (vii. 3ff.); others are general professions of purity of purpose and single-hearted devotion to God (xvii. 1ff.). They are not to be compared with the self-complacency of the Pharisee, who prides himself on his superiority to the rest of the world, but with St Paul’s assertions of conscious rectitude (Acts xx. 26ff.; xxii. 1). They breathe the spirit of simple faith and childlike trust, which throws itself unreservedly on God. Those who make them do not profess to be absolutely sinless, but they do claim to belong to the class of the righteous who may expect God’s favour, and they do disclaim all fellowship with the wicked, from whom they expect to be distinguished in the course of His Providence.” A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House [reprint], 1982), p. lxxxvii.
190 Perowne refers his readers to an article by Rev. Joseph Hammond entitled “An Apology for the Vindictive Psalm,” contained in the Expositor, vol. ii. pp. 225-360, in which that writer attempts (convincingly, in Perowne’s mind) to show that Shimei is the one referred to in Psalm 109. Cf. Perowne, II, pp. 287-288.
191 “The word accuser, or adversary (satan), is prominent in the psalm, coming again in verses 20 and 29, while the corresponding verb has already appeared in verse 4. In those verses he is the enemy’s man; so this prayer wishes the enemy a taste of his own medicine. It is the word, incidentally, from which Satan derives his title and name, since he presses the case against the righteous with relish and with every artifice (cf. Jb. 1:6ff.; 2:1ff.; Rev. 12:10). In Zechariah 3:1 he is seen standing at the right hand of the man on trial, as the accuser does here …” Kidner, Psalms 73-150, pp. 389-390.
192 After surveying the possibilities for identifying the “enemies” referred to in the imprecatory psalms, Anderson has some excellent concluding remarks: “None of these interpretations is completely satisfactory. The plain truth is that we really do not know who the enemies were, for the psalmist expresses his distress in stylized language which had been employed for centuries in cultic situations. … This explains why the enemies in the individual laments are so faceless, and it also helps to account for the fact that these psalms are usable by many different people in times of trouble. The psalmist does not talk boringly about the details of his personal situation (like the proverbial person who inflicts the story of his operation on his friends); he does not turn introspectively to his own inner life. Rather, by using conventional language he affirms that his situation is typical of every man who struggles with the meaning of his life in the concrete situations of tension, hostility, and conflict. That is why these psalms have been used down through the centuries by suppliants who cry to God out of their concrete situation. They seem to leave a blank, as it were, for the insertion of your own personal name.” Bernhard W. Anderson, Out of the Depths, p. 60.
193 “The singular (‘over him’ &c.), which now takes the place of the plural, may be collective, the Psalmist’s enemies being regarded as a whole; or distributive, each one of the mass being singled out: but more probably it fastens upon the leader of the gang (v. 2) upon whom rests the real guilt. Cp. for the sudden transition lv. 12ff., 20ff.” Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, p. 655.
195 Derek Kidner says of verses 17-20: “The terrible logic of judgment, whereby what a man chooses he ultimately and totally receives, and indeed absorbs and is enfolded in, is expressed nowhere else with quite this vivid intensity.” Kidner, Psalms 73-150, p. 390.
199 A quote by Earle Bennett Cross, Modern Worship and the Psalter (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1932), p. 29, as cited by Rupe Simms in an unpublished article entitled, “The Imprecatory Literature of the Psalms: A Study in Moral, Biblical and Theological Tensions.”
201 There are many explanations for the “severity” of the imprecatory psalms. Some of the most frequently used are: (1) David didn’t write Psalm 109. (2) David wrote this psalm but in a carnal state of mind (cf. Kittel, above, fn. 16). (3) The words of this psalm are not a wish, but a prophecy. (David is not praying that these terrible things will happen to his enemies, only prophesying that they will be punished for their wickedness.) (4) The words of verses 6-20 are actually the words of David’s enemies, which David quotes as evidence of their evil attacks against him. (5) The expressions used are poetic and figurative, and not to be taken literally. (6) The “enemies” David prays against are not his personal enemies, but spiritual forces (e.g. Ephesians 6:10-12ff.) against whom such prayers are justified. (7) The prayers of Psalm 109 and other imprecatory psalms were correct for a saint who lived in the dispensation of the Law, but are not appropriate for those living in the Age of Grace: “… whilst we need not suppose that the indignation which burns so hotly is other than a righteous indignation, yet that we are to regard it as permitted under the Old Testament rather than justifiable under the New. Surely there is nothing in such an explanation which in the smallest degree impugns the Divine authority of the earlier Scriptures. In how many respects have the harsher outlines of the legal economy been softened down by “the mind that was in Christ Jesus.” … As in the Sermon on the Mount He substitutes the moral principle for the legal enactment, so here He substitutes the spirit of gentleness, meekness, endurance of wrongs, for the spirit of fiery though righteous indignation. The Old Testament is not contrary to the New, but it is inferior to it.” Perowne, I, p. 64.
For a study of imprecatory psalms and a fuller explanation of the views mentioned above (and others) consult: Bernard Anderson, Out of the Depths, pp. 58-66; Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72, pp. 25-32; Leupold, Psalms, pp. 18-20; 763-765; J. B. Payne, “The Book of Psalms,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975, 1976), vol. 4, pp. 938-939; Perowne, The Book of Psalms, I, pp. 62-65; 305-306; 541-544.