Today Jerry Shepherd offered a comprehensive reply to a number of his interlocutors (moi included). It is of sufficient conceptual weight and length to warrant being in a blog post. I am grateful to Jerry for the time he invests in the blog, and given the amount of material here I thought I would take the liberty of putting what amounts to a formidable treatise on the main stage. So now without further ado … Jerry!
Applause; lights lower, the curtain pulls back, and the man himself walks out onto the stage; Jerry raises a single hand and in a moment his commanding presence has brought the hall to a hushed silence. With his stentorian voice he begins…
Okay, here it is at last, my promised post where I respond to Randal and also answer some questions from others about the use of the imprecatory psalms by Christians today.
First, a few quick corrections to material in this post of Randal’s. As has happened quite often in this interchange, Randal has over-read either a statement I have made or a question I have asked. And in the process he as has actually dodged the real implication of the statement or the real import of the question. For example, Randal says:
“But this doesn’t mean I don’t want God’s kingdom to come in its fullness. And yet, Jerry inexplicably seems to have thought that in some sense this was the case. And now he wants to know how somebody who doesn’t hate the reprobate and relish their impending destruction should think about the passages that describe precisely this destruction. This is what he says: “I want to know what the implications are for you that these passages are not just about being grudgingly satisfied, but about praising, worshiping, exalting God with loud and exuberant songs for carrying out these judgments.”
I never said that Randal doesn’t want the kingdom of God in its fulness. And I said absolutely nothing about hating the reprobate or relishing their destruction. What I did do was refer to the words of Old Testament scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier that to pray for the kingdom of God to come is to be automatically engaged in imprecatory prayer. To ask God to come in his kingdom is to ask him to come and put down all opposition to his reign. So, Randal, are you willing to pray that imprecatory prayer, “Lord, come”?
Second, prior to this article, with regards to himself, and in his illustrations, Randal has only ever used the word “satisfied” to describe his reaction to God’s execution of justice against the wicked. In this current article, Randal has expanded that and referred to a “glimmer of joy.” But my response to the earlier “satisfied” and the current “glimmer of joy” is that it still falls far short of the scenes in Revelation where the people cry out in loud song:
“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments. He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries. He has avenged on her the blood of his servants. And again they shouted: “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.” The twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God, who was seated on the throne. And they cried: “Amen, Hallelujah!” Then a voice came from the throne, saying: “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, both small and great!” (Rev 19:1-5)
“The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” And the twenty-four elders, who were seated on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying: “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and have begun to reign. The nations were angry; and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great– and for destroying those who destroy the earth.” (Rev 11:15-18)
“Rejoice over her, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you.’ ” (Rev 18:20)
This is not being “satisfied”; this is not a “glimmer of joy.” So, Randal, I’ll rephrase the question: “Do you see yourself one day as being part of the great throng, the saints of all the ages, who praise God loudly, exuberantly, with great rejoicing for the execution of his judgments?
Also, this does not mean that this praise cannot be accompanied with great sadness as well. Randal, asked me in one post:
“Do you think it is possibly true that you and or I might, as resurrected beings fully conformed to the will of the Father, extract pleasure from the damnation of our children such that their torment would elicit no sadness on our part but only joy?”
In his next article, “The Joy of Hell,” Randal remarks in response to my “no” answer, “I was a bit surprised by Jerry’s response: “No”. He doesn’t think it possible that a fully sanctified parent derive joy from the damnation of their children. I agree with Jerry of course. But how does Jerry hold this position?”
The reason Randal was surprised is his apparent inability or refusal to let other people exist or think outside the world of his own syllogisms. But I don’t live in the world of Randal’s syllogisms, or in his illustrations. I live within the world of the biblical text. And that text leads to me believe that the day of God’s judgment will be a day of great rejoicing and a day of great sadness; and those two things will coexist within each sanctified heart. As a sanctified saint I will rejoice greatly (not with just a glimmer) over God’s destruction of the wicked, and I will be deeply saddened at the destruction of men and women who were created in the image of God.
There are other problems with Randal’s post, but they are best covered with some additional material.
Keep in mind that I have already put up a rather lengthy post using data derived from a biblical-theological investigation to argue for the use of the imprecatory psalms by Christians today, and even that material was only a fraction of what I present when I lecture on this in my Psalms class. That material comes from my own work and from the work of other Old Testament scholars, including Bruce Waltke, probably the dean of evangelical Old Testament scholarship in North America. While I appreciate the comment I got in reaction to that post, “There is a lot of good content here Jerry, as I knew there would be. And I will engage it more fully in a subsequent post,” what I fail to appreciate is the lack of follow-through. The material has not been engaged; instead, it’s just the same ol’ barrage of questions, completely ignoring the biblical material, in particular, the New Testament material that clearly shows an imprecatory element in the New Testament. If one does not want to seriously engage the answer, one should probably not ask the question. So my plea is, engage the material; else the “tireless pursuit of truth” starts to look pretty old and pretty tired and pretty dodgy.
The additional material I have to share comes from after consulting a fairly recent commentary on the book of Psalms by John Goldingay. Volume 3 (Psalms 90-150) came out in 2008, and I have not yet had the time to make my way through the nearly 2500-page set. Now John Goldingay is certainly no flaming fundamentalist; and probably within the evangelical spectrum of conservative thought, he would probably be somewhere on the left side. I do not know whether he is Calvinist or Arminian, though I suspect somewhere on the Calvinist side of things, but probably not very far. Here are a few observations from Goldingay’s work, in particular, on Psalm 137 (mingled with some observations of my own).
(1) First, as far as the formal imprecatory part of the psalm is concerned, it is remarkable to note how restrained the psalmist is. The only actual request in the psalm comes in v. 8 – “Remember, O Lord, what the Edomites did . . .” In the light of the numerous places in the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Obadiah) where Yahweh talks about the destruction he will bring on Edom (the entire prophecy of Obadiah is given over to it), this simple “Remember” is actually quite tame.
(2) Nevertheless, this “Remember” is fully consonant with that prophetic material and with the God who has revealed himself in those books. If God has promised to repay Edom for their crimes, and the psalmist asks God do what he said he would do, this is simply praying in accord with God’s revealed character and his express statements. There is, therefore, absolutely no justification whatsoever for faulting the imprecatory psalmist on this count.
(3) When we come to verse 9, it is important to remember again the form of the speech. Maybe it is not all that significant, but it is important to note that no actual request is made in the verse. The psalmist does not ask Yahweh to do this; rather he declares the fortunateness of the one who gets to carry out this judgment. It probably won’t be him; more probably it will be some Medean or Persian soldier. This does not, of course, change the sentiment; but the idea, again, is that there is actually some measure of reserve here.
(4) Again, it is important to note that there is prophetic justification for this sentiment. Yahweh says, concerning Babylon, through the prophet Isaiah:
“I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless. I will make man scarcer than pure gold, more rare than the gold of Ophir. Therefore I will make the heavens tremble; and the earth will shake from its place at the wrath of the LORD Almighty, in the day of his burning anger. Like a hunted gazelle, like sheep without a shepherd, each will return to his own people, each will flee to his native land. Whoever is captured will be thrust through; all who are caught will fall by the sword. Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be looted and their wives ravished. See, I will stir up against them the Medes, who do not care for silver and have no delight in gold. Their bows will strike down the young men; they will have no mercy on infants nor will they look with compassion on children. (Isa 13:11-18)
Thus, as Goldingay says, “the psalm develops no new ideas for the way Babylon might be punished. Every word in this chilling declaration takes up Yhwh’s own promises (as the closing declaration in a prayer psalm sometimes does) and envisages them as being fulfilled. Then justice will have been done.”
The imprecatory psalmist’s words are based on Yahweh’s own revealed character and express promises. And that is never a bad thing to do.
(5) Within the context of the ancient Near East, allowance has to be made for the possibility, not only of hyperbole, but also of symbolic speech. Goldingay cites the Old Testament scholar Othmar Keel, to the effect that ancient Near Eastern writings “like to express things concretely rather than abstractly,” in terms
“which frequently signify a reality for larger than their concrete meanings. . . . We need to consider . . . whether these ‘little ones’ ought not to be understood just as symbolically as ‘Mother Babylon.’ The inhabitants of the oppressor-city or the children of the ruling dynasty concretize the continuation of the unrighteous empire. . . . One might translate: ‘Happy is he who puts and end to your self-renewing domination!’
I’m not convinced this is necessarily the case, but it is at least a very plausible suggestion.
(6) One must also take into the account the all too unrecognized provisional character of these prayers and prophecies. Many of Yahweh’s prophecies of promised destruction do not come true. They are not carried out. There are several reasons for this. Sometimes the people against whom the destruction was prophesied repent. Sometimes Yahweh relents, not because there was any repentance, but just because he has compassion and decides not to carry out the threat. In fact, for the two countries mentioned in this psalm, the threat was not carried out to the extent that the prophecies or the imprecations might have suggested. This further reinforces the point made above, that there may well be a more hyperbolic and/or symbolic character to both the prophecies and the imprecations. Yes, Yahweh can engage in hyperbole; yes, the imprecator can engage in symbolic speech. So, in the next article, when reference is made to the imprecatory psalms expressing “undiluted anticipation and excitement at the coming destruction of God’s enemies. Every indication is that the imprecatory psalmist would smile if he got word of Babylonian babies being killed and his once proud enemies having their teeth broken,” this kind of conclusion can only be reached by failure to do the requisite exegetical investigation or failure to consult with those who have done that investigation.
(7) I have repeatedly stated in these posts (but these statements have been repeatedly ignored or contradicted), that the imprecatory psalmist has no Ray-ban or otherwise special glasses to allow him to see God’s special decretive will with regards to the ones against him whom he utters his imprecations. The only data he has to work with are the data that come from observation of behavior, for which no special glasses are needed. His imprecations are against those who do evil. And in accord with the point I just made in (6) above, that imprecation is necessarily provisional. There is no contradiction in the Old Testament world between praying an imprecatory prayer against an individual who might actually later repent and change his ways. This was always a possibility.
(8) Just this morning, I prayed an imprecatory prayer. This is January 7, so in my devotions this morning, I prayed Psalm 7. And, therefore, I prayed an imprecatory prayer. Interestingly, however, I prayed this imprecation against myself! I prayed:
“O LORD my God, if I have done this and there is guilt on my hands– if I have done evil to him who is at peace with me or without cause have robbed my foe– then let my enemy pursue and overtake me; let him trample my life to the ground and make me sleep in the dust.” (Ps 7:3-5)
I also prayed the imprecations of this psalms against my enemies. And when I came to verses 11-12, I said, “God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day. If he does not relent, he will sharpen his sword; he will bend and string his bow.” So, when I prayed the imprecation, I prayed it provisionally; and I even prayed that God might relent.
This is what is involved in praying an imprecatory psalm.
(9) I was actually pleasingly surprised that Goldingay, just as I did in that previous lengthy post, turned to the New Testament material in support of the possibility of using these imprecatory psalms today, both in corporate and individual worship. He even refers to passages that I had not referred to. So, going back to my previous posts, and incorporating some other material, here is that evidence again:
(a) Christ uttered a not-so-veiled threat of coming judgment during his trial before the high priest
(b) Christ cursed the fig tree. This may not seem analogous, but as several commentators point out, this was really a symbolic action announcing the judgment to come against the nation of Israel.
(c) Jesus pronounces the coming destruction of Jerusalem in Matthew 23:31-36, and as I said in a post to B. P. Burnett, “Jesus declares that this destruction will come upon the current generation for an entire history of persecution of the righteous and of God’s servants the prophets. In other words, in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the imprecatory prayers of Jeremiah are answered.”
(d) In answer to another post from drwayman, where he had brought up the idea of the Hallel psalms (113-118) which Jesus and his Apostles may have sung during the Last Supper, while there are no clear formal imprecations in these psalms, there are certainly motifs of the destruction of one’s enemies.
(e) The Apostles use the imprecatory Psalms 69 and 109 against the person of Judas in Acts 1. Psalm 69 is especially important in this regard because of its strong messianic elements. As I have argued in my dissertation on the messianic psalms, and as has been also advocated by a number of scholars, such as Richard Hays, the New Testament writers seem to have reasoned that if Christ is the speaker in one part of a psalm, he is to be regarded as the speaker throughout the psalm. It is very possible then that Peter’s use of the imprecation in Psalm 69 is regarded there as an imprecation used by Christ himself.
(f) Peter uses an imprecation against Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8. It literally reads, “Your silver with you – may it be to destruction.” But notice something else interesting that happens in this passage. Peter goes on to say, “Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.” Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.’” Imprecations are provisional. So when I was asked how I could pray an imprecatory prayer against someone when they might actually be one of the elect – well here it is. Imprecations are provisional.
(g) Paul pronounces judgment against Elymas in Acts 13.
(h) Paul pronounces an imprecation against false evangelists in Galatians 1.
(i) Paul pronounces a curse against those who do not love the Lord in 1 Corinthians 16.
(j) The martyrs in Revelation 6 ask for vengeance, and are assured that vengeance is coming.
(k) Jesus assures the overcomers in Revelation 2 that they too, just like himself, “will rule them [the nations] with an iron scepter; he will dash them to pieces like pottery” (using the words of Psalm 2).
(l) As well, there are several other passages in Revelation that presuppose an imprecatory context. One in particular, that I did not mention in the passages above at the start of this post is in Revelation 18:
“Then I heard another voice from heaven say: ,Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues; for her sins are piled up to heaven, and God has remembered her crimes. Give back to her as she has given; pay her back double for what she has done. Mix her a double portion from her own cup. Give her as much torture and grief as the glory and luxury she gave herself. In her heart she boasts, ‘I sit as queen; I am not a widow, and I will never mourn.’ Therefore in one day her plagues will overtake her: death, mourning and famine. She will be consumed by fire, for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.”
It’s not exactly clear who speaker of the words that I have emphasized are, but if the speaker is still the voice from heaven, then this voice is actually telling the people of God to carry out this action. The saints of God are called upon to take part in answering their own imprecatory prayers.
As Goldingay very aptly remarks, “In light of the way the NT speaks, it is therefore not so surprising that Ps. 137 seems not to have troubled Christians in ancient contexts.”
This material from the New Testament cannot be ignored in theological constructions or in the formulation of implications to be drawn from the presence of imprecatory material in the Old Testament.
(10) Finally, Goldingay refers to contemporary discussion and use of the imprecatory psalms. I have already referred to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (flaming fundy that he was) and his belief that the imprecatory psalms could be prayed through Christ. Goldingay also refers to a couple of articles by a Nigerian theologian, David Tuesday Adamo (“The Use of Psalms in African Indigenous Churches in Nigeria,” and “The Imprecatory Psalms in African Context”). Goldingay remarks:
“Adamo comments on the fact that the prominence of prayer for God’s punishment of one’s enemies in such a psalm troubles Western Christians but does not so trouble African indigenous churches. Rather than psalms of violence and hate, these are psalms of protection and defense. People are aware that enemies will use spiritual means such as curses to cause harm to them, and traditional religion gives people charms and recitations to counteract these. When people came to believe in Christ, these means of protection became forbidden, but they discovered the imprecatory psalms and came to use them in this way.”
With reference to contemporary use, let me also point out that there have been a number of ruthless leaders and personifications of evil in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Hitler, Pol Pot, Hussein, Ghaddafi. I know for certain that among Christians there were many imprecatory prayers offered up against them There were also many prayers offered up for their salvation. To all apparent indications, God chose to answer the imprecatory ones.
Two final comments I’d like to make. The discussion above raises a number of issues and even tangential implications. So, for example, the exegetical insights above actually have very interesting implications for those who would regard themselves as universalist or having universalist leanings. I’ve actually given you something to work with here. The fact that not only imprecations, but also prophecies of destruction in the Bible, are provisional, and perhaps hyperbolic, raises the possibility of the provisional and hyperbolic character of even New Testament statements about Hell and eternal lostness. I do not think that this possibility is something that can be banked on, and it certainly cannot be proclaimed as a “Thus says the Lord”; but perhaps it can be hoped on and prayed for. I don’t know. But notice that this possibility arises, not from abstract philosophical reflection, but from concrete exegesis. To hold out this possibility may draw fire from some quarters; I’m okay with that.
Finally, there have been a lot of words flying from both sides about the use of the imprecatory psalms and sanctification. I believe that my growth in sanctification and conformity to the image of Christ is enhanced through the praying of the psalms, with all their elements, in solidarity with Christ and with the saints of all the ages, both those who are on earth now and those who are in heaven. I join with the martyrs in heaven in asking for their deaths to be avenged. I believe when I do this, I do so in conformity to God’s will. I come to this conclusion as the result of, what I think, is a fairly close examination of the biblical text in the context of the entire canon of scripture. If someone else cannot see their way to come that conclusion, that’s okay with me. I pass no judgments; nor do I want to be judged for what I think does count as a means of grace. So I’d like to have entertained a moratorium on comments on other persons’ sanctification with regard to this issue. I think it would be the sanctified thing to do.