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)

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). 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.

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