I have often heard the leaders of ECPC say to people, “Pray the Psalms!” If you heed this counsel, you will find it fairly straight forward so long as you happen upon prayers like Psalm 5, wherein your participation involves personally adopting the words, “Through the abundance of Your steadfast love, I will enter Your house. I will bow down toward Your holy temple in the fear of You. Lead me, O Lord, in Your righteousness because of my enemies; make Your way straight before me.“
But what happens when you come across prayers like those found in Psalm 109!? How are you supposed to make sense of, let alone personally adopt, the language of such a Psalm? In Psalm 109 David refers to wicked liars who open their mouths against him. David says that he is encircled by words of hate, attacked without cause, ‘rewarded’ evil for good, and hated for his love. Then David says, “Appoint a wicked man against my enemy, and let an accuser stand at his right hand. When he tried, let him come forth guilty; and let his prayer be counted as sin! May his days be few; and may another take his office! May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow! May his children wander about and beg, seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit! May creditors seize all that he has; and may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil! Let there be none to extend kindness to him, nor any to pity his fatherless children! May his posterity be cut off; and may his name be blotted out in the second generation! May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord, and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out! Let them be before the Lord continually, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth! …Let curses come upon him! Let curses soak into his body like water, and like oil into his bones! May curses be like a garment that he wraps around himself, and like a belt that he puts on every day!“
Knowing that the leadership team of ECPC regularly, and emphatically, encourages and exhorts people to pray the Psalms; and with the anathema’s of Psalm 109 ringing in your ears – it comes as no surprise that I received a text message yesterday with the following question, “Do you think we should have imprecatory aspects in our pastoral prayers?” It’s an excellent question! I think I will be percolating on this question forever. In one sense, the answer is easy, “Yes!” But like any good answer, it is full of inscrutable wonder, layers of astonishment; and ultimately it confirms our calling as stewards of mystery.
As I contemplated the question of praying imprecatory Psalms – 3 primary thoughts came into focus:
- We are timid & overly-conservative. Whether imprecation or elation, we are bumptiously apprehensive, timorous, and prude. For example, we are commanded to, “Clap our hands, and shout to God with loud songs of joy.” But we take ourselves too seriously. We opt for conservatism and call it “decency” and “decorum.” We reject childlikeness, and demonically deem ourselves “mature.” David was a man of robust emotions, and whether it was a season for celebrating or cursing – his manifest desires were more than most people could tolerate. For instance in 2 Samuel 6 we see David leading and dancing before the Lord, and David’s wife despises him in her heart. We must repent of our tepid aspirations. When it comes to joy we must seize upon the words of C.S. Lewis when he says, ““It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” When it comes to justice we must lay-hold of John Piper’s words where he says, “We live in a very soft, easily offended, emotionally fragile culture that unfits us to grasp what most of history has been like, and what most of the world is still like. …we are spoiled, cocooned, overprotected, and coddled; and therefore our emotional and mental capacities to grasp utterly crucial realities in the Bible and in the world seem to have atrophied.” The fact is, evil is real; and God’s joy cannot coexist with evil. Joy and evil are like light and darkness; the intrinsic truth, goodness, and beauty of God requires the comprehensive destruction of evil.
- Joy is the bedrock of imprecation. The reason David pleads for God’s vengeance is because he is substantively and sincerely acquainted with God’s glory. Having tasted the glory of God, David’s jubilation and ecstasy are uncontainable (e.g. 2 Samuel 6); and likewise having experienced the unparalleled goodness of God, David’s indignation at evil is irrepressible. In a nutshell, once you’ve tasted the goodness of God; you cannot quench the urge to aggressively ask for the vengeance of God against all that does not align with His goodness.
- The main event of history was imprecation. The preeminent, predominant, and pervasive theme of God’s Word is The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Highly educated, stoutly credentialed people – like Saul of Tarsus – say, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Saul of Tarsus (a.k.a. Paul) could decidedly know all kinds of neat and worthwhile things, but he commits to not knowing any number of intelligent, insightful, clarifying, logical, and/or pragmatic tidbits in wholesale, and exclusive, favor of KNOWING Jesus Christ and Him crucified! Paul goes on to put more emphasis and force behind his commitment saying, “For our sake God made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” You might be tempted to rebuke Paul for failing to be clear (for the thing he is most emphatic about is an inescapable mystery), to which Paul would say, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” And this mystery is so potent, it cures of our delusional quest for “formulas” and “solutions,” which are fueled by our fear of man, and demonic desires to feel in control – for the very next sentence out of Paul’s mouth is, “it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself.” In other words, freedom is found in fixating on this mystery of God’s Son becoming the curse (John 3:14-15; Hebrews 12:2)! This is not merely a way of freedom …it is the only way (John 14:6). Johnny P. sums it up real nice by saying, “All thoughtful Christians know that at the center of our faith and at the foundation of our salvation is one of the grossest, most violent and gory events in the history of the world — namely, the crucifixion of the Son of God. There is no salvation without this violence.”