Friday, August 14, 2009

What do we do with some of the nastier verses in the Bible?

How are we to take Psalm 58 with its prayer to God to smash in the mouths of their enemies (verse 7), and the expressed wish of the psalmist to have the righteous bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked (verse 11)? Or of Psalm 109 with its prayer that God would make the children of the wicked man fatherless and his wife a widow (verse 9)? And what of the author of Psalm 137 rejoicing at the thought of the little ones of Babylon being dashed against the rocks (verse 9)? How are these psalms to be reconciled with the teachings of Jesus to love one’s enemies and to forgive them?

Several things need to be considered. First, it must be remembered that these are prayers for divine justice, not human grudges.[1] The petitioners are asking for God to take direct action; they do not ask for the power to take things into their own hands and to be able to personally punish their foes, nor is permission ever granted for them to do so.[2] In these petitions, the psalmists pour out their pain, anger and hurt. The tone is indicative of the horrors that they have faced.[3] They startle us into feeling something of the desperation that produced these words.[4] But the psalmists do not hide these less "noble" sentiments from us, and God, in His sovereignty, inspired them to record them for our good. Among the lessons we may learn from their inclusion in the canon is the fact that God is less shockable than we are, looks beyond the words to the heart of the supplicant and is afflicted in all our afflictions.[5] Hence, He is pleased when His people pour out their hearts to Him in their entirety.

Additionally, it should be noted that forgiveness of enemies and gaining God’s perspective is not found in concealing these emotions, but in acknowledging them to God, which is what these writers do.[6] As Bonhoeffer writes, "It would mean much if we would learn that we must earnestly pray to God in such distress and that whoever entrusts revenge to God dismisses any thought of ever taking revenge himself."[7]

To rejoice in the fall of our enemies is also not strictly an Old Testament sentiment. The fall of Babylon in Revelation 18, for example contains language reminiscent of the imprecatory psalms.[8] Jesus instructed His disciples to curse cities that did not receive them (Matt.10:14). He, Himself, called down judgment on Bethsaida and Capernaum (Matt. 11:21-24). Paul declared a curse on anyone who did not love the Lord (1 Cor. 16:22) and on anyone who preaches another Jesus (Galatians 1:8-9). The martyrs in heaven cry out for vengeance on those who killed them (Rev. 6:9-10). Hence, the desire to see justice is not strictly a reflection of a less graceful Old Testament disposition corrected in the revelation of Christ.

The imprecatory psalms also challenge the reader to identify with the oppressed and suffering, even though he, himself, may be quite comfortable.[9] They invite us to pray on behalf of others, as they evoke in us an awareness of the wickedness that is in the world. They may not, as Tate, reminds us, be our prayers, at the present moment, but they are the prayers of our brothers and sisters who are trampled down by persons and powers beyond their control.[10] The Christian church has long seen these psalms as the prayers of Christ on behalf of the suffering and needy. Bonhoeffer revived this old tradition in his small book Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible[11] and his sermon on Psalm 58.[12] The incarnate Son of God, knowing all of our weakness, is able to stand in our place before God and pray these prayers on our behalf. Hence, they really truly are our prayers, as well as His.[13] As the perfect Son of God, He is able to pray these prayers without guilt, which we cannot do for we are liable to be reminded of our own guilt and how we often act as those against whom we are praying. Hence, these psalms may awake in us an acute awareness of our own violent sins and hatred for others, and of our need for confession and repentance.[14]

[1] Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Skeptics Ask. Victor Books, 1992: 242.
[2] Marvin E. Tate. Psalm 51-100. Word Biblical Commentary, Word, 1990: 88-89.
[3] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72. InterVarsity Press, 1973: 27.
[4] Ibid.: 28
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid: 88.
[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "A Bonhoeffer Sermon." Theology Today 38, 1982: 469.
[8] It may also be helpful to note that God is mentioned as a God of love more often in the Old Testament than in the New (cf. Geisler and Howe: 242).
[9] Tate: 89.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible. trans. James H. Burtness. Augsburg Publishing Co., 1970: 20-21.
[12] Bonhoeffer, "A Bonhoeffer Sermon"
[13] Bonhoeffer, Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible: 21
[14] cf. Tate: 90


Anonymous said...

What about 1Samuel 15:1,2,3.
Saul was ordered to destroy the Amalekites,men,women,babies, cattle,everything living.And he did(not totally!).Just picture in your mind the awful scene of total slaughter including children.There is a difference in thoughts,wishes and actions.What is your view on this?Suzanna Meyer

Anonymous said...

I've been reading Isaiah in my devotions. I've read it before, but true to form, the Lord is opening up passages that I've never seen in this way before.

I've found chapters 18 and 19 particularly interesing in light of the Lord's overall message through the prophet Isaiah. I'd like to backtrack to a nugget that particularly impressed me before that, though. Isaiah 8:13, 14a states,
"The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
He is the one you are to fear,
He is the one you are to dread,
and He will be your sanctuary;..."
In the middle of calling down judgments and curses, God gives His heart cry for those on whom He pours out His anger; that His justice will bring about restoration and rest.

When I moved on to the subsequent chapters, I found more of God's agony over judgment. Maybe I'm reading it wrong (I haven't looked into other translations yet), but it would appear that God grieved over Moab's judgment (Is. 15:5). He clearly grieved for His chosen people. There were at least some among the nations, however, that seemed to be responsive to God's call to repent. When it's all over, God says of the Cushites (Is. 18:7);
"At that time gifts will be brought to the LORD Almighty
from a people tall and smooth-skinned,
from a people feared far and wide,
an aggressive nation of strange speech,
whose land is divided by rivers -
the gifts will be brought to Mount Zion, the place of the Name of the LORD Almighty."

Of the Egyptians He says (19:21, 22),
"So the LORD will make Himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will acknowledge the LORD. They will worship with sacrifices and grain offerings; they will make vows to the LORD and keep them. The LORD will strike Egypt with a plague; He will strike them and heal them. They will turn to the LORD, and He will respond to their pleas and heal them."

I found it very interesting that God refers to Israel as a "third" in the people that He will use, along with Egypt and Assyria (Is. 19:24, 25).
"In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The LORD Almighty will bless them, saying, 'Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance'"

If it were up to me, the only thing the persecutors woulf face is annihilation with no hope of restoration. I have to keep in mind, though, that God has brought me to my knees in my rebellion against Him and He no less desires that for every persecutor. I find that a tough pill to swallow when it comes to the rape of children and the torturous death of God's servants; but He's in the business of calling all people to Himself and always has been.

Now I'd like to get a basic idea of who the Assyrians, Cushites and Moabites are as we know them today (I managed to figure out the Egyptians :) and look into what God has done and is doing in those areas.

Glenn Penner said...

Sorry, Suzanna. I won't be able to tackle that for a while. Kinda swamped with work right now and I haven't a quick answer right now. Anyone else want to give this a go?

Laurel said...

The following is from "John Gill's Exposition of the Bible":

I Samuel 15:
Verse 2. Thus saith the Lord of hosts,.... Of the celestial host of angels, and of the army of Israel, yea, of all the armies of the earth: this is premised to engage the attention of Saul:

I remember that which Amalek did to Israel; four hundred years ago:

how he laid wait for him in the way when he came up from Egypt; in the valley of Rephidim, just before they came to Mount Sinai, and fell upon the rear of them, and smote the feeble, and faint, and weary, see Exodus 17:8

Verse 3. Now go and smite Amalek,.... This was one of the three things the Israelites were obliged to do when they came into the land of Canaan, as Kimchi observes; one was, to appoint a king over them, another, to build the house of the sanctuary, and the third, to blot out the name and memory of Amalek, see Deuteronomy 25:19 and this work was reserved for Saul, their first king:

and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; all were to be devoted to destruction, and nothing remain to be made use of in any way, to any profit and advantage; living creatures were to be put to death, and everything else burnt and destroyed:

but slay both men and women, infant and suckling; neither sex nor age were to be regarded, no mercy and pity shown to any; they had shown none to Israel when weak and feeble, and by the law of retaliation none was to be exercised on them:

ox and sheep, camel and ass; though useful creatures, yet not to be spared; as not men, women, and children, through commiseration, so neither these through covetousness, and neither of them on any pretence whatsoever. Children suffered for their parents, and cattle because of their owners, and both were a punishment to their proprietors; an ox, or any other creature, might not be spared, lest it should be said, as Kimchi observes, this was the spoil of Amalek, and so the name and memory of Amalek would not be blotted out.

Anonymous said...

If you could kill Adolf Hitler as a child, would you?
To kill an evil before it has done said evil, when it is still innocent, is that good? or is it a necessary evil? Perhaps we need to look back at the beginning of time when man knew not of good and evil before Adam and Eve took of the fruit. Did good and evil exist? And in context with that, what was good and evil before they took of the fruit? God is good, and yet he orders and does acts which we would consider evil if anyone else did it. Perhaps good and evil is not as set in stone as we think.

God is the basis of what is Good, he is the Alpha and Omega, the almighty God. God said that killing somebody in cold blood is evil, but -IF- he said that it was good, it would be good. (I am not saying that it is, I am using a hyperbole)

Can a pot say the potter, "I do not think that you should do this with that pot over there, it is not a good idea" or can a painting tell the painter how to create a masterpiece?
God is good, What God wills, he does, thus what God does, is good.

Anonymous said...

I will not go on the defense for God,who am I?But this I know,I serve a God who is Holy in everything.According to His own character(and I say this with trepidation!)He has the right to destroy the wicked and that includes me.From the moment Adam and Eve rebelled against God that has happened.Starting with the slaughter of animals to close His rebellious children.The Flood in which countless people,young and old died,even family members of Noah,of his wife and family of the wives of his children.And so on in history.When the Israelites came into possession of the promised land,THOUSANDS were killed at God's command.God has not changed in the "New Testament".Accidents,floods,earthquakes,famines,volcano eruptions,epidemics,genocides...........God is in control of this world.His wrath and punishment over a sinful,rebellious world of people has to be feared.And yet Jesus is the beacon of hope in this world of sin.He is the Victorious King in whom we find salvation.
So finally for me I know what God said about himself:"My thoughts are higher than your thoughts".
So in humble adoration I bow down before God,believing in His Love that endureth forever ,worshiping Him who is Holy and to be feared.
Obeying His law to love God with all I have and love my neighbour as myself.
These are only a few words,I am not a theologian,just a redeemed sinner.
Suzanna Meyer