Let’s begin with the question we ended off with last time: “why did God include the voice of the imprecatory psalmist along with that of Jesus?” To answer that question (or at least provide one possible, and to my mind very plausible, answer), we should look first at another text: 2 Samuel 12.
Here’s the set-up: David, the apple of God’s eye, has committed adultery and murder and has so deceived himself that he has not come to terms with his crime. (Ain’t the self-deceptive potential of the human heart impressive? It is like a Jeep rolling along on difficult terrain: a mechanism of nearly infinite capacity.)
So how is one to break through David’s self-deceptions and bring him to a place of encountering his own sin? The prophet Nathan has a way: tell him a story, and not just any story but one in which David is the main character. Nathan begins:
“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”
Of course we know David’s furiously indignant response:
“David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
And then in one of the great dramatic moments in the whole Bible Nathan raises a finger to David and fiercely replies “YOU ARE THAT MAN!”
Wow. Wouldn’t you like to have been a fly on the wall in that exchange? Now here is the thing to note about the situation: it is ironic. Irony comes first of all in language when words are used in a way that runs counter to their standard meaning. For instance, guests at a party that goes terribly wrong might sarcastically comment “What a great party!” That would be ironic.
But irony can also come in situations as in the present story: it is an irony that David condemns others for his very own crimes. In this case events come together in a way which captures an individual off guard in a surprising way. And that illustrates an important dimension of irony both in literary and situational forms. As Carolyn Sharp comments in her excellent monograph Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009), “Irony in ancient Israelite literature serves as a many-edged tool for the destabilization of the overconfident subject….” (240) Look at how the over-confident figure of David is “destabilized” by being caught within an ironic situation.
I would suggest that the imprecatory psalms can be read ironically in a similar way. In the light of Jesus in particular the heart of the imprecatory psalmist is exposed as one in need not of an apologetic defense but rather of redemption and forgiveness. Consider the infamous Psalm 137 against this backdrop. The psalmist begins by longing for redemption from his oppressors, but then by the end of the psalm he longs to visit judgment on his Babylonian oppressors to the extent even of splitting open the heads of their infant children. (Never mind that this is likely a hyperbolic expression, it is still a morally indefensible one. For an analogy, I once heard a father threaten to hit his child so hard that he would “send him into orbit.” Hyperbole no doubt, but also a morally indefensible expression.)
So the psalmist is condemned by his own words. He ironically longs to oppress others even as he seeks deliverance from oppression. He hates others even as he protests their hatred of him. It is a vicious cycle and one that can only be broken definitively by the cross.
Far be it from us then to judge the psalmist. Rather, we fail to read the psalms of cursing adequately until we can find ourselves in there, righteously indignant, seeking deliverance, and then quick to deliver oppression to others. Remember Jesus’ revealing parable of the ungrateful servant who is forgiven a great debt and then refuses to extend a much lesser grace to another. How can Christians read these psalms but as an indictment of how we fail to forgive others when we too have been forgiven so much? Just as Nathan pointed to David and said “You are that man!” so when we read these words God points to us and says “You are that man!”
(Politically correct gender inclusive footnote: I know some of my readers aren’t men, but the fact remains that the psalmist was a man and insofar as we express his vindictive spirit we are just like him.)