Why do the Psalms talk about enemies and the wicked so much?
The Psalms often speak of enemies—in fact, they show up quite frequently. The book of Psalms is a worship book that interacts with real life in the real world, and the world is at odds with the ways of God. This means that enemies, both physical and spiritual, will be a part of our lives as God’s people. When we encounter such challenges, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us the testimony of others who have experienced difficult times. See more about enemies in question 5 below.
The two ways of the righteous and the wicked in the Psalms should not be interpreted as “the sinless and the sinful,” for we know that none are sinless. Rather, the “righteous” ones in the Psalms are those who are humbly turned toward God, looking to him and trusting in him. They are in relationship with, and oriented toward, the righteous God, who has reached out to us in covenant love, and made provision for all those who trust in him. The “wicked” ones are those who stand opposed to God and to God’s people; they have chosen to orient their lives away from God.
The New Testament gives further insight. In Romans 3:9–20, Paul applies the descriptions of the wicked in five different psalms to the entire human race. Here, we come face-to-face with the realization that the line between righteousness and wickedness runs right through the human heart, and none are exempt. Thus, the Psalms, like all of the Old Testament, point us onward to God’s further revelation. The “two ways” of the Psalms find their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ, who is the Way and the only true righteous One. (John 14:6) When we abide in Christ, we can walk in the way of the righteous, and follow the narrow path. (Matthew 7:13-14)
Why do some Psalms speak about hate, when Christians are commanded to love?
Like the two ways of the righteous and the wicked, a similar distinction in the Psalms is that of love and hate. Some psalms speak of God loving the righteous and hating the wicked (Psalm 5:4–6 and 11:5–7, for example). The psalmist himself is also found voicing hate against the enemies of God (see, for example, Psalm 139:21–22). These words have been so invested with emotional weight, that we are uncomfortable with saying that God “hates” anyone. Yet, we know that God does, indeed, hate wickedness and is committed to putting an end to all evil. This hate, however, is not primarily an emotion, the way we typically perceive it; nor is God’s love a sentimental feeling that God has, which is how we often understand the word love. When you come upon these terms of love and hate in the Psalms, understand them as actions—God loves by taking action on our behalf. And when God hates, it means that he stands opposed to the wicked, and takes action to defeat their schemes. Again, the New Testament sheds light by defining love as an action in 1 John 3:16. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” Love is defined as an action. Biblical love is “acting on behalf of,” and hate is “standing opposed to” those who stand opposed to God.
How should we understand the Psalms’ emphasis on God’s judgment?
The concept of biblical judgment is not the unfortunate caricature that has sometimes been painted of a capricious, arbitrary being exerting raw, unrestrained power upon those he does not like. Rather, biblical judgment is God “setting things right” in his perfections of righteous justice and compassionate mercy. Judgment in the Psalms is always a good thing, and is something that we long for in a broken world of oppression and violence. It is important to remember that redemption (or mercy/grace) and judgment are not two things, but one thing. They are two sides of one reality, for there can be no action of mercy on behalf of the oppressed without judgment upon the oppressor. The ongoing cry of the psalms is for God to set things right, because we are created with a longing for justice as part of God’s image in us.
As Christians, we know from the New Testament that this longing will be fulfilled in a way that the psalmists could never have imagined: God’s wrath and judgment will be poured out upon his own Son. Jesus will become the very curse that the Psalms voice, and he will drink the cup of wrath that the psalms sometimes articulate. This is God’s first (and costliest) answer to the psalmist’s cry for vengeance and judgment, and it is in this answer that redemption and mercy and forgiveness can be found. But for those who will not embrace this redemptive insertion, the reality of final judgment still stands, and the cries for justice in the Psalms keep us mindful that Jesus will indeed (in the words of the Apostles’ Creed) “come again to judge the heavens and the earth.” He will finally make all things right, and that is our great hope.
What does going to the temple or Zion have to do with Christians today?
For the Hebrew people, the temple always represented the place of God’s presence among his people. Thus, when the psalmist expresses a longing for Zion and for going to the temple, this is a longing for the presence of God. In Jesus Christ, the presence of God has been made fully manifest among us. All of the verities of the temple, which the psalmist had longed for, were finally made perfect in Christ’s incarnation and redemption—the priesthood, the sacrifice, and the presence of God in our midst. So, when the psalmist sings of his longing for the temple in Zion, remember that this is a longing for the presence of God, which we, as New Testament Christians, know supremely in Jesus Christ, who was the new temple. Moreover, the apostle Paul reminds us that we (corporately as the church) are the new temple, where God resides by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16). Consequently, though we sing the very words of the Psalms as they were written, we sing them with a New Testament lens (as we read all of the Old Testament), and so join our voices with theirs in a longing for God’s presence, through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
We’re not supposed to sing those psalms, are we? (A reflection on curses in the Psalms)
This brings us to one of the most difficult parts of singing the psalms in light of the New Testament, namely, Jesus’ teaching about loving and forgiving our enemies. As stated above, the Psalms are filled with references to enemies. They show up in a majority of the psalms, and there is no way to avoid the very real laments that the enemies cause, nor the curses (imprecations) that come forth from the mouth of the psalmist. How are we to sing these psalms in the light of Christ? Jesus commands us to “love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us]” (Matt. 5:44). Jesus modeled this himself on the cross when he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Paul commands us in Romans 12:14 to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” So, if we are truly New Testament Christians, how do these psalms continue to have a place in our prayer life, or our worship life?
We would like to propose four lenses that may be helpful to use in approaching these psalms. It is still true today that following Christ will not be kindly regarded by those in the world, and that enemies of both body and soul are just as rampant in the world as they ever were. We need to engage these psalms, to wrestle with them, to pray for the Lord’s understanding of why they are in the inspired Scriptures, and to seek the understanding and deepening of faith that they will bring to us if we are willing to pursue God’s wisdom about them. Let’s consider, then, these four lenses that provide a starting point for approaching these turbulent psalms.
Lens 1: Spiritual Warfare
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:12)
This first lens for the imprecatory psalms is perhaps the easiest to understand. We acknowledge, with Paul, that behind all of the flesh-and-blood agents of evil and wickedness in this world lie powers of darkness, spiritual forces, and Satan himself. When we consider the evil spiritual power that is at work in this world, we can cry out with the psalmist for the Lord to put an end to these principalities of wickedness, and to break their hold in the lives of people in this world.
The imprecations of the Psalms can thus be directed to the spiritual forces that lie behind all of the evil that we encounter, the spiritual powers that attempt to enslave those we love with addictions or to haunt us with unbelief. The ravages of depression in the lives of friends or family, the tyranny of poverty and injustice willfully imposed by wealthy dictators upon the poor, the horrors of rape and torture enacted upon innocent victims, the bondages of all kinds that entrap and destroy healthy lives—all of these “enemies” are the tangible outworking of principalities and powers, which we can passionately denounce with all the fervor of the psalmist. Evil has many expressions, but there is no doubt that behind those tangible agents is the Evil One, who is at work in this world (1 Peter 5:8), and it is right to pray for his demise with all of the robust imprecations that the psalms can muster.
Lens 2: Vengeance Transferred
“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Rom. 12:19 esv)
The second lens arises from the Lord’s declaration in Deuteronomy 32:35, which was then quoted by Paul in Romans 12:19. As those created in the image of God, we are “hardwired for justice.” We have an inner sense of right and wrong implanted in our conscience, and when wrong is done, we feel the need for it to be set right, for righteousness to be vindicated, and for evil to be punished. We want the real, flesh-and-blood perpetrators of evil to be punished, and the Lord has provided the avenues of government for just that purpose. However, there are times when wrong goes unpunished, when wickedness flourishes unrestrained, or when human systems of justice fail. When that happens, we can be tempted to take matters into our own hands, striking back with retribution upon those who have wronged us. But our desire for vengeance and vindication must be transferred into God’s hands; for taking vengeance brings us into the very evil we would destroy. Only God can dispense justice with true righteousness. When the psalmist calls upon God to curse, this transfer is precisely what is happening. He is asking the Lord to take vengeance rather than taking it himself; he is pouring all of the anguish of reprisal into a prayer rather than into actions of his own.
When one has experienced unspeakable horror, seen family members raped and slaughtered, or been the victim of unmitigated violence or slander, there must be a channel for the anguish and anger to pour out. If there is not, the rage will burst forth into reciprocal violence, and the escalation of evil will continue. But if anger and anguish and retribution can be unleashed before God in all of their rawness, uncensored and unrestrained, then they can be released and left there, in the hands of the One who has also suffered and who we can trust to bring proper vindication. These psalms are, after all, prayers—not the actions themselves. They provide the necessary and healthy channel for anger to be vented without erupting into violence, and they provide for the transference of that anger into the hands of God, who has promised to bring about his holy judgment with perfect equity. When Jesus tells us to “turn the other cheek” (see Matt. 5:39; Luke 6:29), he is not ignoring evil; rather, he is instructing us to do precisely what these psalms do—put our response of striking back into God’s hands to set right. Yes, Jesus calls us to forgive as we have been forgiven. But sometimes, it is only through the anguished channel of expression and transference that we can emerge into the light of forgiveness and wholeness and lay hold of the power of the Holy Spirit to walk in newness of life. These difficult psalms are given to us as a “means of grace”—the very means of getting through the anger to the other side of gospel forgiveness.
Lens 3: The Curse Absorbed
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” (Gal. 3:13)
This verse from Galatians provides the third lens for understanding the imprecatory psalms. Just as the second lens enables us to transfer our anger and need for vengeance into the Lord’s hands, this lens reminds us of the terrifying reality that all of the curses that belong upon the wicked are transferred onto Christ. As we encounter the vivid descriptions of the curses that are called forth in the psalms, we are suddenly caught off guard by the stark reality that these, even these terrible curses and so much more than we could ever fathom, have been laid upon Christ in the crucifixion. God hears every curse that we voice, receives every cry for vengeance that we sob, and holds every wrong that we suffer in his cup, which Christ drinks and absorbs upon the cross. All the punishments that the wicked deserve fall upon Christ. All the curses that the fall brought into this world come upon Christ. Every imprecation that is directed to an enemy (whether a spiritual force or a physical agent) is borne by Christ.
This is transference in reverse. We release our anger and vengeance into God’s hands, and Christ takes upon himself all of the wrath that we deserve (along with all that our enemies deserve). He becomes the curse. He carries our sorrows. He suffers on our behalf. He absorbs the weight of all of the wickedness, all of the evil, all of the demonic onslaught, all of the imprecations, and all of the righteous wrath due for sin. It is all absorbed and extinguished as he cries, “It is finished” (John 19:30). When we voice these imprecations, we see more vividly the depth of the love of Christ, who became a curse for us. And in some mysterious way, we experience a tiny piece of the undeserved suffering that he bore for us.
Lens 4: The Final End
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Rev. 11:15)
The fourth lens is that of eschatology—the final end of things. This lens is expressed in Revelation 11:15. Though Christ has taken the curse for all who trust in him, the judgment of God will still come upon all those who do not take refuge in him. Many of the worst imprecations in the psalms carry an element of finality to them; they evoke vivid images of total and permanent destruction. These curses seem very frightening unless we remember that the great hope of Christians is that God will set all things right in the New Creation and destroy evil forever. The ultimate goal toward which all of creation is heading is the joyous rule and reign of God, where evil is banished forever, never to rise again. The judgment of God that finally destroys all wickedness is not something to be feared—it is our greatest hope and comfort. Indeed, the judgment of God against the wicked is the very way God demonstrates his love and mercy for the world.
This is the great hope of the Christian faith. Someday there will be a final end to all evil, and it will never rear its head again. Someday there will be a final end to all suffering, and we will live in the New Creation with no tears, no sorrow, no pain, and no death. But this can only come about if the Lord puts an end to wickedness once and for all—a victory that was secured in the cross of Christ but awaits consummation at the final judgment. The imprecations, which cry out for this final destruction, this definitive end to evil, are pointers to that great hope. They should fill us with longing for that Day, and with great hope in the present that God’s victory is secure. Someday the enemy of our souls will haunt us no more. Someday the offspring of evil will be cut off so that evil can no longer reproduce. These psalms of ultimate destruction are pointers, reminders, and beacons of hope in our God, who has triumphed over sin and death, and who will bring both to a final end.
Love: The Ultimate Lens
Ultimately, Christ’s command to “love [our] enemies” (Matt. 5:44) is actually empowered through the summation of these four lenses. The pathway from anger or hate to love begins with releasing that anger and hate. The journey continues as we recognize that behind those enemies are powers of evil that are beyond our own power to deal with except by the Spirit of God. At the foot of the cross, all mouths are shut before the only truly innocent sufferer, who died for our sake and bore every curse. It is there that Love fully captures our heart, and we are empowered to love and forgive as God in Christ has forgiven us.
One way to remember these four lenses that help us journey toward loving our enemies is through the acronym LOVE:
Look beyond the human instrumentation to the real enemy of our souls (Eph. 6:12).
On the cross, Jesus himself bore every curse (Gal. 3:13).
Vengeance belongs only to God (Rom. 12:19).
Eventually, God will set all things right (Rev. 11:15).
All four lenses together provide a pathway through which we can embrace Jesus Christ’s great command to love.
Is it okay to ask God tough questions? How can the Psalms help when I am down or depressed?
There are many times that our experience does not seem to line up with what we know about God’s character. When this happens, genuine questions abound: How do I understand the silence of God? Why doesn’t God do something about evil? Where is God when I hurt? Has God forgotten me? Why did God let this tragedy happen? How is God both sovereign and loving?
A very similar list of questions appears in Psalms 13, 77, and 88. Many other psalms also direct difficult questions to God, and frequently ask “how long” deep suffering must be endured. The Psalms give us the interface of experiential authenticity wrestling with the unwavering character of God. They take evil seriously; they take lament and sorrow seriously; they recognize the raw human need to voice the questions that tear at our souls; and they provide the pathways for the journey of faith. The psalmists ask God many questions, and God has actually enshrined those questions in a prayer book for us. It is a book of authentic relationship with God. Lament is not despair—it is the language of faith. It is the language of faith in God, who is there, who hears us when we cry, and who expands our faith and our trust in the midst of anguish. In the midst of all of the questions, the one sure and constant refuge that the psalmists consistently declare is the steadfast love (hesed) of God. This is his covenant love, which never fails, and which is ultimately found in Jesus Christ, who suffered for us and with us.
However, the Psalms will never be able to give the substantive catechesis that we so desperately need in the church if we do not avail ourselves of this means of grace. By singing the Psalms, we learn the posture of the Christian life—humility and trust in the sovereign goodness of God, expression of lament as the voice of faith, and joy and delight in the certainty of God’s character. The psalmist pummels God with questions, but does not put God “in the dock.” The psalmist is determined to walk in communion with God, even when he does not understand what God is doing. In the midst of lament, and of unanswered questions, the psalmists learn to find an exceeding and unbounded joy that no force of evil or wickedness or lure of this world can shake. The church today desperately needs to be catechized in this way of life and trust. It is our prayer that this Psalter will facilitate exactly that.