Raging Against the Machine? The Surprising Relevance of the Imprecatory Psalms for the Church in an Outrage Culture

Overwhelmed by Outrage

We’ve all been there. You get hit in the face by yet another media attack on a Christian leader; another bill denigrating the Christian way of life; another artwork desecrating Christian symbols; another post denouncing Christians as homophobes. And before you know it your heart sinks, the outrage rises and you’re throbbing with a desire to retaliate. We all know that if we indulge it we will only become a monster in order to defeat a monster[1]. But what on earth can we do about it other than simply try to repress it?

Christians have been seriously embarrassed by these passages of Scripture … We almost never read them in church

Surprisingly, an important part of the solution may lie in dusting off the so-called Imprecatory Psalms. For years now Christians have been seriously embarrassed by these passages of Scripture because of their authors’ graphic descriptions of the revenge they long to see exacted on their enemies. We almost never read them in church: the Revised Common Lectionary leaves them out almost entirely. Many Bible translations try to soften them by putting quotation marks around the most offensive bits so that it is not God’s people saying them. Non-Christians point to them as proof of how barbaric and immoral Christianity is. Even C.S. Lewis described them as ‘unabashed a hymn of hate as was ever written’[2] and concluded they could have only been written by a non-Christian. But if ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable … that the man of God may be … equipped for every good work’ (2 Tim 3:16) then surely these too are an essential part of the ‘whole armour of God’ we need to ‘resist the schemes of the devil’ (Eph 6:11). And when we blow the cobwebs off the longest of them that is precisely what we discover.

An Outrageous Admission

David begins Psalm 109 by recounting an all too familiar situation. While he, the king and head of God’s people, had been using his mouth to glorify God (v1), other people who David had been pretty nice to were using their mouths to smear and slander him (v2); even inciting mobs against him (v3). This was a persistent and calculated ‘attack’ (v3) designed to snuff out his faithful witness to God entirely (v16). And the whole time it was going on, God seemed painfully silent (v1).

David is candid about the effect of this prolonged campaign against him. He is deeply wounded by it (v22); so fixated by it that he feels weak (v23-25). And he is outraged as well: it is so wrong and unfair that he longs for retribution and justice against those who’ve perpetrated it (v6-20).

We might suppose such a desire may be legitimate for the uniquely anointed king of God’s people but surely not for us. But David wants the people to join him. Rather than locking this confession of his feelings away in a drawer somewhere never to be seen again, he gives it to the director of music at the temple for the whole of Israel to recite regularly during their public worship (see the title of the psalm). By doing so David demonstrates his conviction that where the head leads the body must follow: when the kingdom of God is persistently and unjustly attacked it is entirely right and natural for the people of God to feel as deeply grieved and desperate for retribution as he does.

Of course, David’s precedent doesn’t license every desire for retaliation we may have. This side of the general resurrection our hearts remain tragically deceitful (Jer 17:9) and many of our desires illicit (Rom 7:15-19)[3]. David’s example gives no grounds for harbouring resentment over mere personal grievances or legitimate complaints. But it does for the persistent unwarranted harassment of God’s people: David wants us to feel as outraged and desperate for justice about that as he himself does.

A Revolutionary Response

David is the King of Israel … If he wanted he could have satisfied his desire for vengeance both legitimately and effectively by carrying it out himself.

What David does with his desire to get even is often misconstrued as vengeful. But it is nothing short of revolutionary. David is the King of Israel with vast power and armies at his disposal. If he wanted he could have satisfied his desire for vengeance both legitimately and effectively by carrying it out himself. But instead, he entrusts the responsibility for it entirely to God in prayer (v6-31).

David begins by asking God to repay those who assail him in a manner which, despite its bloodthirsty appearances, is in fact remarkably restrained (v6-20). In Deuteronomy 19:16-21, God’s law prescribed the fitting punishment for those who falsely accuse another is for all the harm their lies would have caused their victim to be inflicted on them instead. And in these verses, David merely asks God to make good on this threat. If those who falsely accused and condemned David succeeded in their endeavours the sentence would be devastating. They would not only destroy the king of God’s holy people on earth but by doing so, effectively wipe out his kingdom as well: his people, possessions and even his dynasty. And so in these verses David simply asks God to fulfil his promise to visit this same fate upon them: a plea for clinical, exact and so entirely just compensation.

David asks God to turn the tables on his enemies in this way not simply for his own sake but ultimately for God’s glory: so that David can declare—and the world will see—that the LORD is the true living God (v21) who can be counted on to bring justice on earth (v30-31).

An Enduring Legacy

Almost a thousand years after King David, an even greater leader of God’s people emerged from his family line who Psalm 109 itself foreshadows: King Jesus (Luke 24:44). He endured much worse. But 1 Peter 2:23 shows that he responded to his persecutors in the same way that David did:

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

And the Apostle Paul calls God’s people today to follow exactly the same example as well.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.‘ (Rom 12:19).

But doesn’t this notion that we can want and even pray for revenge against our enemies totally contradict Jesus’ command for us to love them (Matt 6:14; Luke 6:27-28)? Paul answers this question with the words that follow:

To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.‘ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom 12:20-21).

Paul here envisages that there is to be no final conflict in us between our obligations to justice and love but instead a beautiful harmony between them which is itself a distant reflection of the cross. It is precisely by not acting out our desire for revenge but submitting it to God in prayer that we free up our heads, hearts and hands to continue the work of loving our enemies. Michael Allen puts it like this:

Because we know God says ‘‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,‘ we are freed from vigilante-like responses to mistreatment and freed for denying our own rights for the sake of loving others[4].

Outrageous Riches

The Imprecatory Psalms may prove just the vaccine the Church needs to resist the current pandemic of outrage fever.

For a long time, Christians have assumed that when we face unrelenting and unwarranted harassment we are left with only three options: retaliation, resignation, or repression. But there is another alternative which is both more biblical and achievable—the one which King David and King Jesus model to us: ‘redirection’. When we find ourselves ready to go full ‘avenger mode’ because of the injury done to the church, we don’t need to give in to that impulse, resign ourselves to it nor even repress it. Instead, we can redirect it to God and then use our free heads, hearts and hands to keep on loving our enemies instead.

We needn’t do that in such candid detail as David does in Psalm 109, although we certainly may. We can simply utter one of the prayers Jesus taught us which implies it: ‘Thy kingdom come’ (Matt 6:9-13) or ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (Rev 22:17, 20). In this way, coupled with the good news of God’s forgiveness which moves us to gratefully forgive others (Eph 4:32), the Imprecatory Psalms may prove just the vaccine the Church needs to resist the current pandemic of outrage fever.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. H. Zimmern (Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1911), aphorism 146.

[2] C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 146.

[3] See Augustine, Enchiridion, chapter 118.

[4] M. Allen, Grounded in Heaven: Recentering Christian Life and Hope on God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 11-12.