Revenge Psalms

Afghan fighter
I don’t think any commentary on the book of Psalms will actually have a section entitled Revenge Psalms, but they exist. I decided to memorize one last year. Mind you, I didn’t realize at the time that it was a revenge Psalm. It starts out so innocently, so sweetly: “I love you, O Lord, my strength.”

Yes, I thought, that’s a Psalm for me. I had underlined a few other verses further down such as “He makes my feet like hinds feet/And sets me upon my high places.” Well, who wouldn’t want to memorize that verse? Or how about “The LORD lives and blessed be my rock/And exalted be the God of my salvation.”

Great! So I settled down to memorize Psalm 18. Except, the strength David was talking about and the salvation he was referring to were quite literal. He wanted physical strength to overcome his enemies and he wanted God’s intervention to save him from people who wanted to kill him. If I’d read the intro, I would have realized this.

For the choir director. A Psalm of David, the servant of the Lord, who spoke to the Lord the words of this song in the day that the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. And he said…

I think verse 3 encapsulates the Psalm: “I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised,/And I am saved from my enemies.”

No doubt about it. David had enemies and he needed to be saved from them. But the Psalm gets pretty graphic later on:

I pursued my enemies and overtook them,
And I did not turn back until they were consumed.
I shattered them, so that they were not able to rise;
They fell under my feet.
For You have girded me with strength for battle;
You have subdued under me those who rose up against me.
You have also made my enemies turn their backs to me,
And I destroyed those who hated me.
They cried for help, but there was none to save,
Even to the LORD, but He did not answer them.
Then I beat them fine as the dust before the wind;
I emptied them out as the mire of the streets.

I don’t know about you, but I confess to having problems with the not turning-back-until-they-were-consumed part, the shattering-so-they-were-not-able-to-rise, the destroying-those-who-hated-me, the beating-them-fine-as-the-dust-before-the-wind, and the emptying-them-out-as-the-mire-of-the-streets. It’s all so vengeful.

It reminds me of the modern Middle East with the ongoing battles between Jews and Palestinians, Sunnis and Shiites, insurgents and government forces. People are hating and fighting and praying for rescue, only to turn around and destroy those who were trying to destroy them.

I get that, when we’re talking about peoples who haven’t heard of the love of God, I ought not expect them to act according to the grace and mercy God gives. But when the same kind of attitude crops up in the Bible, it throws me. It’s one thing for God to exercise His just judgment against sinners, but when David talks in such unforgiving tones, I feel a little shocked.

But then I remember the short verse tucked in the midst of all the shattering and destroying: “They cried for help, but there was none to save,/Even to the LORD but He did not answer them.”

I find that verse shocking on a different level. People cried to God for help, but He turned away from them! The Psalm starts out with David being the one who called for help. God didn’t turn a deaf ear to David:

In my distress I called upon the LORD,
And cried to my God for help;
He heard my voice out of His temple,
And my cry for help before Him came into His ears.

The next verses describe God acting, as a result, on behalf of David to rescue him. But those enemies who later cried for help, God didn’t answer.

I’ve got this impression of God that He’s always there for us, that He’ll always answer the cry of the needy, but apparently there are needy wicked who He will ignore. I mean, how could he hear and answer David and at the same time hear and answer those who were trying to kill him? Apparently God takes sides.

David, in this same Psalm, credits his righteousness with bringing God on his side:

The LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness;
According to the cleanness of my hands He has recompensed me.
For I have kept the ways of the LORD,
And have not wickedly departed from my God.
For all His ordinances were before me,
And I did not put away His statutes from me.
I was also blameless with Him,
And I kept myself from my iniquity.
Therefore the LORD has recompensed me according to my righteousness,
According to the cleanness of my hands in His eyes.

I emphasized the phrase “in His eyes” because that’s what I think is significant for today. In God’s eyes, those of us covered by the blood of Jesus Christ are righteous. It seems then, that we can call upon the Lord to save us from our enemies.

Except, Paul says our enemies are not flesh and blood:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:12)

So I’m thinking, maybe a revenge Psalm for the Christian wouldn’t be so shocking if we had a clear idea of who the enemy is. What if we prayed for God to rescue us, our families, churches, communities, states, countries, from Satan and his schemes, in the same way that David prayed for physical rescue? I think that would necessitate us viewing God in the same way David did:

The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer.
My God, my rock in whom I take refuge;
My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

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Published in: on January 7, 2014 at 6:32 pm  Comments (16)  
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16 Comments

  1. Honest commentary. It’s a tough passage, hard to wrap our minds around the Sovereign God. He not only takes sides, He makes the sides. True, everyone on His side wants and loves to be there, and everyone on the other side has chosen that team. But God ordained it so. Grace made the call and faith accepts it willingly.

    • Grace made the call and faith accepts it willingly.

      I’ve always wondered whether the “other side” can ever come to a place of faith in the sovereignty of the God who condemns. I know that I can never believe, and that’s okay, because my utter failure and eventual damnation is for the ultimate good and for the revelation of God’s grace. Then, I’ve always been somewhat fatalistic.

      • But the paradox is that you can believe. Whosoever believes will be saved. It’s still a choice. Make yourself a chosen one.

      • Bainespal, I’m confused. Are you saying you don’t believe in the sovereignty of God if in fact “he condemns”?

        If that’s your position, I think I should be clear that none of us holding to the sovereignty of God, a la Job, are saying God condemns the innocent. Rather, we are agreeing with Jesus when He said, “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (The emphasis in the quote is mine). In other words, we’re all on the Titanic, but some of us will be saved and God, rather than condemning some to destruction, is rescuing some who were headed for destruction.

        It’s a huge difference, I think. The first position basically says, God is taking innocent people and casting them into hell on his personal whim. The latter says God in the form of Christ came to people marching their way to hell to stop them and turn them by taking on the destruction they deserve.

        Well, not they. We. We deserve, all of us, every person born, deserve eternal life separated from God because we have separated ourselves. This separation isn’t God’s doing. It’s our doing. We sinned, walked away from Him, and many continue to do so by their rejection of Jesus.

        That’s really the “side” aligned against God–those who refuse to put themselves under His lordship. They would rather do it their own way, not His way. They refuse to accept His declaration that all have sinned, that Jesus is the Way back to God, and that God, in His sovereignty, has every right to set the standard of perfect obedience as the means by which we can be in relationship with Him–a standard only Jesus fulfilled, a standard to which the rest of us, by nature and by practice, fall short.

        Becky

        • Bainespal, I’m confused. Are you saying you don’t believe in the sovereignty of God if in fact “he condemns”?

          Sorry for not being clear. The second sentence of that comment was mostly a hypothetical example, although I have felt that way from time to time. There have been times that I’ve felt that I can’t fully believe, that I can’t force myself to believe no matter what I may affirm.

          The nature of belief is a different discussion, especially since David was apparently pretty clear that it was his own good works that put him on God’s side. (Or at least, it was his own good works that kept him from departing God’s side, which might be an important distinction in some way that I can’t think of.) That’s actually the most troubling aspect of the Psalm, the part that seems to contradict the New Testament most directly.

        • Heh heh heh, color me confused again, bainespal. You said

          There have been times that I’ve felt that I can’t fully believe, that I can’t force myself to believe no matter what I may affirm.

          Can you actually state something as a fact and not believe it? I mean, of course, it’s possible to lie, to say such and such is true, all the while thinking it’s unlikely to be true. But if you affirm it, isn’t that believing it?

          I think we Christians sometimes think we believe something. We give mental assent to it, but when we come face to face with living it out, our actions say we don’t really believe what we’ve been saying. Maybe that’s what you mean.

          I think trials or suffering often show us what we do or don’t believe, a la Abraham when faced with God’s command to sacrifice Isaac.

          I think the only answer is to pray what that one New Testament man prayed: Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.

          But back to the discussion about this Psalm, I can’t say what was going through David’s mind. I mean, he committed adultery and conspired to murder a man, so how could he call himself righteous? We know he repented–Psalm 51 shows us that–so I speculated that his sense of righteousness came from his sense of forgiveness. Of course other people told me that this Psalm, though positioned in 2 Samuel as if it was written toward the end of his life, might actually have been written earlier. Well, who knows.

          But if that was the case, then perhaps David was actually measuring his behavior up against the Ten Commandments. It seems the concept of being a worshiper of Yahweh was closely tied to obedience to Him. Look at Saul. He lost relationship with God because he did not obey God’s command. (The only thing I see different between Saul and David is the act of repentance.) So David may have thought at the time he wrote the Psalm that his righteousness was his obedience.

          The book of James kind of bears this up as legitimate, though. Real faith has legs. Someone doesn’t say they think Israel will conquer Jericho, then turn away the two Israelite spies. No, if you think God is going to give Israel the victory, you work to help the Israelites. Hence, James gave Rahab as an example of someone who showed her faith by her works.

          I can see now how David may have been working from that same point of view. He showed his faith by obeying the Ten Commandments–until he didn’t. Then he confessed his sin, received God’s forgiveness, and obeyed … until the next time he didn’t and had to confess again.

          But truly, I think it’s a moot point for Christians, because as I said in the article, we have a greater understanding even than David did, of the line “according to the cleanness of my hands in His eyes.” The key is how God sees us, and we know that He sees Jesus when He looks at a believer. He sees Christ’s righteousness, not our filthy rags.

          David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, could easily have been writing prophetically there, not understanding the weight of what he said. We get it, though he didn’t.

          Becky

    • He not only takes sides, He makes the sides. True, everyone on His side wants and loves to be there, and everyone on the other side has chosen that team.

      Bob you succinctly said what I wanted to say. Every time I tried to expand on the “God takes sides” statement, I got bogged down in the explanation. Your statement encapsulates the issue. Thanks!

      Becky

      • I think this is true, put the balancing counterpoint is that God’s “side” has nothing to do with our human perception. In the Old Testament it was sometimes true that God took sides in human affairs, but the external human conflict did not indicate the lines between God’s allies and His enemies.

        Citation: Romans 2:6-11

        • I agree. Example include God sending Assyria against Israel and Babylon against Judah. Also, He allowed Rome to conquer and rule the Jews. If “God is on the side of the winner,” then it would appear God was opposed to His chosen people. In fact, He was discipling as a father does, to bring them back to Himself.

          Becky

  2. Yes, this verse is not easy to fit into a Christian framework, as I understand it.

    I can interpet the verse as David’s point-of-view, though maybe doing so strains Biblical inerrancy. It was true from David’s perspective that God did not hear the prayer of his enemies, because he destoryed them. David was an ancient man of the ancient world, and the ancients measured salvation by physical reality. But do we know for sure that God did not hear David’s enemies at all? That He might not have given them some manner of grace, even in death and defeat?

    • Certainly we can’t know what their dying moments held. Did some of them say, the God of Israel is Lord after all? Perhaps. But in this Psalm, though it is written by David, from his perspective, it’s also inspired by omniscient God. So when the verse says they cried for help, even to the LORD, but He did not answer them, then I think it’s pretty categorical–a statement from a position of knowing.

      I suspect they were crying for physical help to overcome David much the same way he was crying for help in his distress or in the day of calamity (They confronted me in the day of my calamity/But the LORD was my stay.), rather than for spiritual salvation. Would God have answered a cry for spiritual salvation? I think the rest of Scripture would say, Yes, most certainly He would.

      Becky

      • I suspect they were crying for physical help to overcome David much the same way he was crying for help in his distress or in the day of calamity

        Agreed, that sounds highly likely. The conflation of loss and failure with wickedness is troubling, though.

        But Jesus became the ultimate loser, so David’s confidence in righteousness as the vehicle of victory and survival was at least partly wrong. He was an ancient man in an ignorant, violent world.

      • I’m not sure David was conflating loss and failure with wickedness. He saw himself as the servant of the LORD, and these others were trying to kill him. It’s hard to think that they, then, were also servants of the LORD. And David had Samuel’s anointing and prophetic word to back up what he believed, so it wasn’t just his imagination.

        But Jesus became the ultimate loser, so David’s confidence in righteousness as the vehicle of victory and survival was at least partly wrong. He was an ancient man in an ignorant, violent world.

        David concluded that section of the Psalm by saying, “Therefore the Lord has recompensed me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in His eyes.”

        I think it is we Christians today who want to take those lines and turn them into a principle: therefore, if I am righteous, God will reward me. And that may be true, but it doesn’t have to be true in the same way for me, or for Jesus, as it was or David. In fact, God did reward Jesus: His obedience will bring every knee to bow before Him and every tongue to confess that He is Lord. The thing is, the end is yet to come when we will see how what David said can apply to us all.

        Since I don’t have people trying to kill me, it’s not likely that it means the same to me as it did to him, but that doesn’t mean what he said wasn’t true.

        Same in regard to Jesus. The application wasn’t escape from death, but Jesus’s enemies weren’t the Romans who nailed Him to the cross. His enemies were Satan, sin, and death. And those, He did conquer because of His righteousness.

        Becky

  3. God’s Word is God’s Word. It is what it is and it says what it says. We have trouble with these imprecatory Psalms because we just don’t want to see God as a God of vengeance — for vengeance is His, alone — God hates sin and in the end He will judge the unrepentant sinner. This is not a popular theme today. The imprecatory Psalms call upon the Lord to rise up and crush evil. I once heard a Christian minister proclaim “Jesus won’t let us pray like that.” However, the same sort of thing is prayed even in Heaven itself in Rev. 6:9-11 in the very Presence of God Himself — how long, O Lord? Before you arise and avenge us? If the martyrs under the altar can pray this before Almighty God, appealing to His righteousness, holiness and truth, then I won’t balk at the imprecatory Psalms. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the Living God. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. With good reason. This side of God’s nature understandably frightens us, and well it should. It should frighten the wicked even more. Much more.

    • HG, it’s been a long time since my formal study of the book of Psalms, and I may not have heard the word “imprecatory” since. ;-)

      I agree with all you say, but I wonder if Psalm 18 falls into this category. David, it would seem, was crying to God for help rather than for vengeance. He faced the “snares of death” and he cried for help. I think it’s interesting that in the introduction, he even separated Saul from “all his enemies.”

      Clearly, according to this Psalm, God heard his prayer and acted, but the significant thing, I think, is that God strengthened David to act as an instrument for his own rescue. God girded him with strength, trained his hands for battle, and gave him His shield of salvation. Then David went out and did the pursuing and shattering and beating and destroying.

      I think my tendency is to say, if God is going to bring down the wicked, that’s His sovereign right. But the thought of me going out and doing what David did is so foreign and seemingly so contradictory to “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile,” never mind “forgive your enemies.”

      But God’s definition of who our enemies actually are makes it all come together for me. I can take up my sword and shield and head into battle when I am clear that I am not fighting atheists or false teachers. I am fighting spiritual forces of wickedness. That’s a fight that makes sense to me and one I want to be a part of.

      Becky

  4. Well done! You helpfully reflected that we need to know what the ‘enemy’ is. Yeah, we can certainly agree with David’s conclusions about God being his ‘rock’, ‘fortress’ and ‘deliverer’. He indeed is our salvation and stronghold against sin and death.


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