I have been having a very interesting conversation with David Houston (https://randalrauser.com/2011/12/does-love-of-ones-spouse-require-hatred-of-all-others/) which is very illuminating as it touches on some deep issues. The matter of discussion concerns the cursing psalms. I have decided to include some of that conversation here and then offer some further reflections.
It opens with David commending the singing of the entire psalter in worship:
David Houston: ‘In agreement with the Old Covenant people of God, Paul even commands Christians to sing the psalms in worship. (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16 – the latter reference equates singing the Psalms with the words of Christ!) The failure of modern churches to sing the Psalms is one of the main reasons for their poor theology and unwillingness to deal with the Biblical teaching on the justice and wrath of God. I’ve been blessed over the last few years to become a member of a psalm-singing church. It has been of tremendous benefit to my walk with Christ.”
Randal: “There are many pslams that are well worth singing. But all of them? Have you sung Psalm 58:10 or Psalm 137:9 in church? If not, then when do they come up in the rotation?”
David: “Yes. All of them are worth singing. God said so through the apostle Paul… twice! And yes, we do sing all of them, even the ones that offend modern evangelical sensibilities like Psalm 58:10 and 137:9. I’ve had the great privilege of (attempting) to sing both.”
Randal: “And what does it mean to you to sing a prayer about bathing your feet in the blood of the wicked and crushing the skulls of infants?”
David: “It means that one day I will partake in God’s victory over his enemies. That justice will reign on the earth. It’s actually quite comforting in a way. There is no sin that will go unpunished. He will right every wrong. God will restore order and harmony to his creation. It also makes me want to share the gospel with others so that they can avoid this fate and can glorify God in his justice through the cross rather than by spending an eternity in Hell.”
This surprised and frankly impressed me. I respect a church that is willing to take the psalms seriously, even if I think that part of their appropriation of the psalms is seriously wrong. But it prompted many questions in me. I listed a few:
Randal: “(1) Do you not find the image of bathing your feet in the blood of the wicked at all gratuitious? (2) How do you conceive infants as being wicked? (3) When you worship do you meditate on mental images like clutching an infant by the ankles and braining the child against the rocks as an integrated part of your worship experience? (4) If you believe that God’s people have been called to do things like massacre infants in God’s name in the past do you believe they might be called to massacre infants in God’s name in the future? (5) If you answered *yes* to (3) and (4) then does this worshipful mental visualization help prepare your heart for a possible future time when you may be called to such actions?”
Now I’d like to unpack these questions beginning with question (1). Remember that David said all psalms should be sung within the context of worship. A key part of worship is visualization. For example, when people sing Psalm 23 they may envision a bucolic scene with Jesus watching over them. If it is appropriate to sing the imprecatory psalms in worship then presumably it is also appropriate, perhaps even important, to visualize that which they describe in worship. And that means that a full-orbed picture of corporate Christian worship can (and perhaps should) include a meditative and worshipful reflection on bathing one’s feet in the blood of others and dashing the skulls of babies against rocks.
There are many other equally disturbing passages in the imprecatory psalms. For example, Psalm 37:13 says: “the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming.” What sort of meditative mental visualization does this picture suggest? The God who sent his Son into the world to redeem a broken humanity now laughs in anticipation at the suffering of people in the future? How do we integrate this picture into worship?
If David is correct then the problem must lie with us. We have a problem with integrating these images into worship because of our own sinfulness. Were we sanctified then we would see how wonderful it is to delight in the bloody fate of the wicked.
Here I am reminded of the scene in “Karate Kid” where Mr. Miyagi has Daniel do strange activities like waxing the car and painting the fence. These practices don’t make sense to Daniel at the time but Miyagi advises that Daniel do them anyway because he knows that this will make Daniel adept at Karate.
Likewise, it may not make sense for us now to meditate worshipfully on bathing our feet in the blood of others, and crushing baby skulls, and imagining God laughing at those he has not chosen to redeem. But we should engage in this kind of meditative reflection nonetheless because doing so will conform us to God’s image in Christ just like Daniel’s seemingly counter-productive exercises conformed him to the image of a great Karate fighter.
If you say so…
Alas, things get even more confusing the more you read. Christians typically think that they should always pray for the repentance of people even to the point of Paul’s cry to cut himself off that his fellow Jews might be saved. But the imprecatory psalmist would beg to differ when he prays that his enemies not repent:
69:23-24, 28: “May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever. Pour out your wrath on them; let your fierce anger overtake them. May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous.”
Now I have a very basic question. How does one do this? How does one worship God by oscillating between gentle compassion and sadness on the one handd and a hardened desire to see others destroyed on the other?
Forty years ago Bernard Nathanson helped found NARAL (then the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Law). Throughout the 1970s Nathanson performed thousands of abortions. After he became a Christian and renounced his commitment to the prochoice position, he reflected on the deep moral incoherence that he endured for years. On one floor of the hospital 25 week old fetuses would be aborted while on another floor medical staff would do all they could to save an even younger fetus born premature. How do you do that? How do you confess the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm and then go out and kill healthy fetuses?
I can’t help but see in David’s picture of worship a similar moral incoherence. Are we to be compassionate or vengeful? Are we to lament the loss of the unregenerate or delight in their destruction? Are we to envision Jesus holding an infant tenderly to his breast or smashing its skull against the rocks?