Mar 29, 2017

Can Christians Pray the Imprecations of Psalm 69?

7 Min Read

Psalm 69 presents familiar elements of lament and praise, but in a particularly pointed and vivid way. The suffering is poignant, the praise strong, the imprecations severe, and the anticipations of Christ detailed. The psalm is primarily a series of supplications with elaborations explaining the circumstances that have produced these prayers (vv. 1–29). The psalm concludes with a call to praise God as the One who hears and answers prayer (vv. 30–36).

The first prayer is an individual cry for rescue: “Save me, O God!” The psalmist presents his need in the poetic image of a man who is drowning. The waters surround and threaten him so that his life seems at its end (vv. 1–2). Added to the imminence of death is the sense that God has not heard his prayers. He is worn out in calling on God. His misery is highlighted by the irony that although he is drowning, he is thirsty (v. 3). As another poet said, “Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.” The psalmist clarifies the danger he faces by speaking of enemies of great number who hate him for no reason (v. 4 NIV). By “no reason,” he does not mean that the enemies have no allegations against him, but only that they have no valid accusations. Yet the psalmist does acknowledge that he is suffering for his sin against God (v. 5).

The second prayer is for the people of God, that the psalmist’s suffering would not bring shame and confusion to God’s people (v. 6). The psalmist recognizes that he is scorned and abused and that he is alienated even from those closest to him (vv. 7–12). But he knows that he suffers for God’s sake (v. 7) and in His service. He is zealous for God (v. 9) and sincerely repentant for his sins (vv. 10–11), yet he is ridiculed by many, from the exalted judges in the gate to the most contemptible members of society: “I am the talk of those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me” (v. 12). But this abuse is malicious and unfair. He hopes it will not deceive those who love God.

Third, in verses 13–18, we find a series of intense, repeated supplications for rescue. The psalmist, more briefly than in the earlier part of the psalm, offers the reasons for his appeal for help. He mentions again his need for help in light of the dangers that surround him, but even more, he appeals to the character of God as a reason for God to help. God is the God of “steadfast love” (v. 13) and of “abundant mercy” (v. 16). So the psalmist prays for his “saving faithfulness” (v. 13), which he believes will help him because “your steadfast love is good” (v. 16). These verses express the kinds of passionate prayer that the psalmist alluded to in verse 3. As the psalm has developed, however, he seems to be growing in confidence that the Lord will hear and answer his prayers because of who God is.

Still, he returns to his present suffering in the face of the scorn of his enemies (vv. 19–21). He says that he is alone and friendless, and that where he expected some comfort or sympathy, he finds none. In light of the complete antipathy on the part of his enemies, he offers prayers of imprecation (vv. 22–28). These imprecations are the most terrifying in the Psalter. He prays that his enemies may be impoverished and oppressed, that they may lose home and heritage. But even more, he prays that they may be damned: “May they have no acquittal from you. Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous” (vv. 27b–28).

But the severity of the imprecation here calls for some further comment. Many commentators are content simply to say that the New Testament and the Old Testament are at odds at this point, that in the New Testament love and forgiveness have replaced a desire for vengeance. But if we think carefully, we will see that this is a completely inadequate response for several reasons. Indeed, we will see once again that those parts of the Bible that are initially surprising or offensive may be parts that we particularly need.

Psalm 69 cannot conflict with New Testament religion because it is often quoted in the New Testament. It contains some of the clearest anticipations of Christ and His work. Jesus explained His utter commitment to the cause of God, even to death, by quoting this psalm: “Zeal for your house has consumed me” (Ps. 69:9; John 2:17). Part of His suffering on the cross is prophesied in Psalm 69:3: “After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), ‘I thirst’” (John 19:28). The psalm also prophesies the mockery and scorn that Jesus will suffer and in particular prophesies that He will be offered vinegar to assuage His thirst. The suffering one of Psalm 69:20–21 says: “Reproaches have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none. They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.” In Matthew’s gospel, we read an allusion to this passage: “And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink” (Matt. 27:48). Christ in His suffering fulfills and sanctifies all the suffering of God’s people through the ages.

Paul quotes Psalm 69 to teach us how Christ lived and how we should live. And immediately after quoting Psalm 69, he makes a sweeping statement about the value of everything in Scripture for us: “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written: ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me’ [Ps. 69:9]. For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:2–4).

Someone may still suggest that whatever use the rest of the psalm may be to the Christian, the imprecations are foreign to us. But the New Testament contradicts this suggestion too. The imprecations themselves are quoted to explain Christian experience.

Acts 1:20 quotes and applies Psalm 69:25 to explain the loss of Judas: “May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it.” Paul in Romans 11:9–10 quotes Psalm 69:22–23 to explain the loss of the non-elect in Israel: “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever.”

In thinking about the imprecations, we must not be wiser than God. He shows us in the New Testament as well as the Old that imprecations have their use. What we do need always to remember is that imprecations apply to those who intransigently and unrepentantly persevere in evil against God. They apply especially to those who have known the covenant of God and have knowingly spurned it. Here the book of life refers not to the number of God’s elect but to those who have been part of God’s covenant community. The “book of the living” of Psalm 69:28 derives from Exodus 32:33: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book.’” This book is the record from which the names of the false prophets are removed: “Thus says the Lord God: ‘Because you have uttered falsehood and seen lying visions, therefore behold, I am against you, declares the Lord God. My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and who give lying divinations. They shall not be in the council of my people, nor be enrolled in the register of the house of Israel, nor shall they enter the land of Israel’” (Ezek. 13:8–9a). By contrast, the names in the book of life, or “the book of remembrance,” are of those “who feared the Lord and esteemed his name” (Mal. 3:16; cf. Rev. 20:12–15; 21:27).

Imprecations against the enemies of God are not the only prayers we are to pray, or even the first prayers we should offer. Our Lord indeed teaches that we must first pray for their conversion. Psalm 69 itself points us in that direction, at least implicitly. In its closing section of praise to the God who hears and saves, we are reminded, “You who seek God, let your hearts revive. . . . Those who love his name shall dwell in it” (vv. 32b, 36b). The Old Testament too knows repentance: “But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him” (Ezek. 18:21–22a). We should pray and work for the conversion of the wicked. But for those who are confirmed in sin (see Heb. 6:4–6; 1 John 5:16), God has promised judgment, and surely it is right to pray for that which God has promised to do. Paul utters such an imprecation in the New Testament: “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed” (1 Cor. 16:22). We must also always remember that if we diminish the necessity and righteousness of judgment, we will diminish the work of Christ on the cross.

This excerpt is adpated from Learning to Love the Psalms by W. Robert Godfrey.