Princeton Theological Review 1.4 (1903) 537-53

                                                Public Domain.

 

                                                            II.

   THE IMPRECATIONS IN THE PSALMS.

 

                                                Chalmers Martin

 

            It is usual to speak of "the imprecatory psalms," but it may

well be questioned whether the phrase is not a misleading

one, in so far, at least, as it seems to imply that there is a body of

psalms in which imprecation forms a chief element. For this, of

course, is far from being the case. There are in the whole Psalter

not more than eighteen psalms that contain any element of impre-

cation, and, in most of these this element is a very minor one,

embodied in a single line, it may be, or in a single verse. These

eighteen psalms contain three hundred and sixty-eight verses, of

which only sixty-five include anything that can be called an im-

precation. Even in the case of the three psalms which show the

largest measure of the imprecatory spirit, only twenty-three verses

out of a total of ninety-five can be properly said to be imprecations.

It is, therefore, more true to the facts of the case to speak of "impre-

cations in the psalms" than of "imprecatory psalms." But, of

course, the real question is one, not of quantity, but of quality.

It is not, How can we account for the presence of so many impre-

cations in the psalms? but, How can we justify it that there are

any at all? And since this latter is the real question, it is fortunate

rather than otherwise that the phenomenon with which we have to

deal is one common in some degree to eighteen psalms instead of

being confined to three or even to one. For we thus have a much

wider basis for induction, and a much better chance, consequently,

of arriving at the truth. Let us recall some of these expressions

which have caused so much difficulty to readers of the Bible, not

to say to many learned interpreters. Thus, for example, in Ps. v.

10, after describing the wickedness of his enemies, the psalmist

prays:

            "Hold them guilty, O God;

            Let them fall by their own counsels:

            Thrust them out in the multitude of their transgressions

            For they have rebelled against thee."

In x. 15 he says

            "Break thou the arm of the wicked;

            And as for the evil man, seek out his wickedness till thou find none."



538     THE PRINCETON THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

In xxvii. 4:

     "Give them according to their work, and according to the wickedness of their

            doings:

     Give them after the operation of their hands;

     Render to them their desert."

xxxi 17, 18, sounds still more harsh:

      "Let the wicked be ashamed, let them be silent in Sheol.

       Let the lying lips be dumb;

       Which speak against the righteous insolently,

       With pride and contempt."

In xl. 14, 15, we read:

      "Let them be ashamed and confounded together

       That seek after my soul to destroy it:

       Let them be turned backward and brought to dishonour

       That delight in my hurt.

      Let them be desolate by reason of their shame

      That say unto me, Aha, Aha."

 

            Identically the same expressions are used in lxx., which is one

with the latter part of xl. and language closely similar occurs also

in lxxi. 13. In lviii. 6ff. the psalmist cries:

     "Break their teeth, 0 God, in their mouth:

      Break out the great teeth of the young lions, 0 Lord.

      Let them melt away as water that runneth apace:

      When he aimeth his arrows, let them be as though they were cut off.

      Let them be as a snail which melteth and passeth away:

      Like the untimely birth of a woman, that hath not seen the sun."

And he adds in ver. 10:

     "The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance:

      He shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked."

In cxl. 9, 10, other but equally dreadful figures are made use of:

     "As for the head of those that compass me about,

      Let the mischief of their own lips cover them.

      Let burning coals fall upon them:

      Let them be cast into the fire;

      Into deep pits, that they rise not up again."

 

            But it is in Ps. xxxv., lxix. and cix. that the difficulty presented

by the seemingly malevolent expressions used appear in its most

acute form. These three psalms constitute, as Delitzsch has ob-

served, a fearful climax in this regard. In xxxv. 4-6, for example,

David prays:

     "Let them be ashamed and brought to dishonour that seek after my soul:

      Let them be turned back and confounded that devise my hurt.

      Let them be as chaff before the wind,

     And the angel of the Lord driving them on.



                        THE IMPRECATIONS IN THE PSALMS. 539

 

     Let their way be dark and slippery,

     And the angel of the Lord pursuing them."

In lxix. 22ff. he says with regard to his enemies:

     "Let their table before them become a snare;

      And when they are in peace, let it become a trap.

      Let their eyes be darkened, that they see not;

      And make their loins continually to shake.

      Pour out thine indignation upon them,

     And let the fierceness of thine anger overtake them.

     Let their habitation be desolate;

     Let none dwell in their tents.  . . .

     Add iniquity unto their iniquity

     And let them not come into thy righteousness.

     Let them be blotted out of the book of life,

    And not be written with the righteous."

And once more, in cix. 6-15, we come upon these terrible words

     "Set thou a wicked man over him:

      And let an adversary stand at his right hand.

      When he is judged, let him come forth guilty ;

      And let his prayer be turned into sin.

      Let his days be few;

     And let another take his office.

     Let his children be fatherless,

     And his wife a widow.

     Let his children be vagabonds, and beg;

     And let them seek their bread out of their desolate places.

     Let the extortioner catch all that he path;

     And let strangers make spoil of his labour.

     Let there be none to extend mercy unto him;

     Neither let there be any to have pity on his fatherless children.

     Let his posterity be cut off;

     In the generation following let their name be blotted out.

     Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the Lord continually,

     That he may cut off the memory of them from the earth."

            What shall we make of such expressions as these? It has, indeed,

been contended by some that they are just what they seem at first

sight to be, the language of a heart that cries for vengeance. David,

it is said, was a man of like passions with ourselves, as more than

one incident in his history amply proves. And if ever a man had

provocation to speak unadvisedly with his lips it was he. Innocent

of any crime, deserving on account of his talents and character,

as well as of his splendid services both to Saul and to the nation,

of the highest honors that the king could bestow, he found himself

an outlaw upon whose head a price had been set; he could find

safety only in the rocks of the wild goats: and while his own con-

science testified his absolute loyalty to Saul, he knew that the king's



540         THE PRINCETON THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

jealous hate was daily being fed by the lying accusations of syco-

phants and intriguers such as Doeg, the Edomite and Cush the Ben-

jamite. What wonder, it is asked, if even a good man should, under

such circumstances, be betrayed into occasional outbursts of fierce

desire for vengeance upon enemies so mean, so false, so cruel!

Such utterances were sinful, of course, but the sin was one for which

much excuse may be made. The fact that David was guilty of it is

to--be put into the same category as the dissimulation of Abraham

and Isaac with respect to their wives, or the anger of Moses when

he smote the rock. Not everything is commendable which the

Bible records; no more, it is suggested, is all the religious experience

that finds expression in the psalms necessarily endorsed as pleasing

in God's sight and meant for the imitation of those who read.

Now while we may admit the greatness of the provocation which

David had to anger against his persecutors, we can by no means

accept this explanation of the expressions under consideration.

For one thing, the psalms do not present us with an account of

what David felt and uttered in the moment of extreme provocation.

The psalms are literature, and literature of highly wrought, artistic

form. However manifestly some of them may embody the thoughts

and feelings begotten by such cruel experiences as David's outlaw

life or his flight from Absalom, it is plain that they must have been

composed at leisure; and while we may make excuse for harsh

words uttered in the heat of anger, we cannot excuse the embodi-

ment of the same words in permanent literary form. Imprecations

on one's enemies should be repented of, not written down for others

to read.

The explanation under review also fails in that it ignores the

distinction between a lyric poem, not to say a hymn intended for

use in the public worship of God, and a historical narrative. The

latter may well claim to be a colorless, objective recital of facts

(though in reality the Scriptural histories for the most part give

clear intimation of the estimate proper to be put upon the facts

which they record); but the former is in its very nature an expres-

sion of the poet's personal feeling, and involves an implicit claim

that this feeling is in some sense true and right, such as others

should sympathize with and, it may be, adopt as their own.

The attempt has also been made to account for these harsh

expressions on the ground of the lower standard of morality which;

it is alleged, obtained under the Old Testament dispensation.

There were many things permitted, it is said, under the Old Cove-

nant which are no longer allowable under the fuller light of the



THE IMPRECATIONS IN THE PSALMS. 541

 

New. The polygamous arrangements of the Patriarchs, the exter-

minating wars waged by the Chosen People, are adduced as illus-

trations of the prevalence of such a lower standard. The injunction

"Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do, good to them

that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you,and

persecute you," had not been given. This was one of the "But I

say unto yous" of Him who was also to pray for His murderers,

"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

But this explanation also falls to the ground in view of the

fact that even the law of Moses forbids private vengeance, yes,

commands kindness to enemies, witness Lev. xix. 18, "Thou shalt

not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people,

but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," and Ex. xxiii. 4, 5,

"If thou meet thine enemy's ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt

surely bring it back to him again. If thou see the ass of him that

hateth thee lying under his burden, and wouldest forbear to help

him, thou shalt surely help with him."

And it has been well pointed out that when Paul, in Rom. xii.

19ff., would forbid this very sin of a revengeful spirit, he does so

by means of two quotations from the Old Testament--one from the

Song of Moses (Deut. xxxii. 35), "Vengeance is mine, and recom-

pence," the other from the Book of Proverbs (xxv. 21, 22)

If thine enemy hunger, give him bread to eat;

And if he be thirsty, give him water to drink:

For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head,

And the Lord shall reward thee."

     Nor can we hardly doubt that David knew and understood these

injunctions of the Law. The psalms everywhere bear evidence that

their authors' minds were saturated with the thought and language

of the Thorah. Moreover, it is to be remarked that in two of the

three psalms in which the strain of imprecation is most pronounced

David protests the kind feelings he had for those who were perse-

cuting him. Hear him in xxxv. 12ff.:

They reward me evil for good;

To the bereaving of my soul.

But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth:

I afflicted my soul with fasting;

And my prayer returned into mine own bosom.

I behaved myself as though it had been my friend or my brother:

I bowed down mourning, as one that bewaileth his mother."

And so in cix. 4, 5:

“For my love they are my adversaries:

But I give myself unto prayer,

And they have rewarded me evil for good,

And hatred for my love."



542     THE PRINCETON THEOLOGICAL REVIJW.

 

Now, so far as David is concerned--and it is he principally among

the authors of the psalms that comes into consideration, since

thirteen of the eighteen psalms in which any imprecatory element

is found, and all three of those that are the loci magni in this regard,

are on good grounds ascribed to his pen--we can easily accept these

protestations as true. Rarely has a man of equal strength of char-

acter and warmth of feeling shown himself so far from the spirit

of revenge. The man who twice spared the life of his deadly enemy,

and that, too, when others urged him to smite; who uttered the

touching "Song of the Bow" when at last that enemy fell on Gilboa;

who put to death the Amalekite who so far misjudged him as to

think that the son of Jesse would rejoice in his rival's death; who

treated honorably with Abner while he was still the mainstay of

Ishbosheth's cause, and publicly avowed his horror at Joab's

treacherous deed of blood; who visited a quick but just punishment

upon the assassins who brought him Ishbosheth's bloody head; who

would not suffer Abishai to carry out his purpose to cross the ravine

and take off the head of scurrilous Shimei; who charged his cap-

tains as they went out of the gate of Mahanaim to deal gently with

the guilty head of the rebellion, the young man Absalom--was this

a man who would treasure up injuries in his memory, and breathe

out his desire for vengeance in elaborate and many-sided maledic-

tions? And if any one is disposed to find proof of such a savage

temper in David's purpose to revenge himself on churlish Nabal,

it is sufficient answer to point out that a few well-chosen words

of remonstrance on the part of Abigail were enough, not merely to

turn him from his purpose (since a comely and tactful woman with

a handsome present at her back might well lead him to lay aside

his intention of violence), but to prick his conscience and bring him

to a solemn admission of his error. And if it still be urged that

though David, after the overthrow of Absalom's revolt, spared

Shimei and formally forgave him, he nevertheless afterward gave

evidence of his lasting memory for injuries by charging Solomon to

put the Benjamite to death, it may easily be shown that in giving

this command David was acting not as a private person but as a

king, who, as Neil says, "while he had forgiven the personal

injury, had not forgiven, and as representative of the divine right

in the theocracy could not forgive, the crime of high treason of

which Shimei had become guilty by reviling the Lord's anointed."

That David had faults, both as a man and as a king, is a fact which

the Biblical writers take no pains to conceal; but surely, if they

have given us a description of his character at all approaching the



THE IMRRECATIONS IN THE PSALMS.             543

 

truth, a revengeful and implacable spirit was not one of those

faults. 

Nor ought we to overlook one further consideration which serves

to show that these so-called "imprecations" are not mere outbursts

of the spirit of veangence. It is that the poems which contain

them have the form of direct addresses to God; in other words,

they are prayers, or if regard be had to their adaptation to use in

public worship, they are hymns. These very psalms are full of

earnest pleadings with God for help, with acknowledgments of

dependence upon Him, with appeals to His mercy, His truth, His

faithfulness, with thankful recognitions of past favors, with vows

of grateful thanksgiving for deliverance, with humble confessions

of sin, with professions of zeal for His honor. Let any one take

Ps. lxix, for example, and omit from it vers. 22-28, and ask

himself whether any other psalm strikes more squarely the note of

real piety. Is it believable that words such as these, words of

supplication, confession, adoration, are in truth only prelude and

postlude to a horrid discord of angry curses sounding forth from a

heart that can neither forgive nor forget?

But if these "hard sayings" are not longings for vengeance, what

then are they? Before we attempt a positive answer to this ques-

tion there is a preliminary consideration that deserves attention.

It is that we are dealing here with poetry, not with prose, and with

that form of poetry which more readily than any other takes on

strong color, viz., the lyric. We are dealing, too, with Oriental

poetry, the poetry of a people with whom hyperbole is the com-

monest and best-loved figure of speech. The value of this consid-

eration to our present discussion. has been happily illustrated by

Dr. John DeWitt, lately professor in the theological seminary at

New Brunswick, N. J., by means of a contrast between the attitude

of David toward trouble and suffering as this is conveyed by the

historical books, on the one hand, and by the psalms of suffering

on the other. The former, he truly says, represent David as a man

of the highest courage, the noblest fortitude; the latter set him be-

fore us as moaning, groaning, filling the air of night with complaints,

making his couch to swim with tears, because of the attempts of his

enemies. Now this contrast is to be explained, says Dr. DeWitt,

not by assuming that there were two Davids, one of whom was

a hero while the other was a coward, nor by assuming that one of

these pictures is true and the other false, but simply by remembering

that the historical books are prose while the psalms are poetry.

With regard to the lamentations and the imprecations of the psalms



544     THE PRINCETON THEOLOGICAL REVIEW.

 

alike, it is much to the point not to forget that we are dealing with

the poetry of  “the fervid, impassioned and demonstrative East,

where to this day feeling of any kind is scarcer thought to be

genuine unless it is expressed extravagantly."

Keeping this distinction between prose and poetry in mind, the

first answer that may be given to the question we have raised is

this: These so-called imprecations are the expression of the longing

of an Old Testament saint for the vindication of God's righteousness.

How much this subject of theodicy, or the justification of the deal-

ings of God with man, engaged the attention of the Old Testament

writers is well known. The whole Book of Job is devoted to it;

it recurs often in the Proverbs and Ecclesiastes; it appears again

and again in the Psalms. In Ps. v., vii., x. and xvii. it comes promi-

nently to view, while Ps. xxxvii., xxxix., xlix. and lxxiii. are wholly

given to the discussion of it. Now it is obvious that this puzzle,

how to reconcile God's righteousness with the facts of human expe-

rience, had never been presented in a more striking form than in

the history of David. That he, a man of true piety, of pure life,

innocent of any crime, whom God's prophet had anointed as Jeho-

vah's chosen king, and who was conscious of the moving of God's

Spirit within him--that he should be for weary years a fugitive, an

exile, an outlaw, while his enemies, men devoid of piety, of truth,

of honor, were living in ease, safety, honor, at Saul's court--surely

it would be hard to conceive how the contrast between what was

and what ought to have been could be presented in more glaring

colors. What wonder if, under such circumstances, David should

feel his faith in God's goodness and righteousness put to a severe

strain, and should long for such a reversal of these conditions as

would set his doubts and the doubts of others forever at rest!

And that this was really the case we have abundant evidence in

those very psalms which contain the imprecatory clauses. Thus

in vii. 9ff. he cries:

            "Oh let the wickedness of the wicked come to an end, but establish thou the

righteous

For the righteous God trieth the hearts and reins."

 

In xxviii. 4 his prayer is that God will deal justly with the

wicked:

"Give them according to their work, and according to the wickedness of

their doings

Give them after the operation of their hands;

Render to them their desert."



THE IMPRECATIONS IN THE PSALMS. 545

 

Note what the result is that David hopes for from the overthrow

of his enemies. Hear how in lviii., after the request

"Break their teeth, 0 God, in their mouth," etc.,

he adds

"So that men shall say, Verily there is a reward for the righteous,

Verily there is a God that judgeth in the earth."

To the same effect is lix. 13:

"Consume them in wrath, consume them that they be no more;

And let them know that God ruleth in Jacob,

Unto the ends of the earth."

And still more striking is lxix. 6:

      "Let not them that wait on thee be ashamed through me, 0 Lord God of hosts:

       Let not those that seek thee be brought to dishonour through me, 0 God

of Israel."

Have we not in such passages the expression of the same feeling

of perplexity at God's dealings and the same longing for the vindi-

cation of His righteousness that breaks forth in the opening lines

of xciv.?

"0 Lord, thou God to whom vengeance belongeth,

Thou God to whom vengeance belongeth, shine forth.

Lift up thyself, thou judge of the earth:

Render to the proud their deserts.

Lord, how long shall the wicked,

How long shall the wicked triumph?

They prate, they speak arrogantly:

All the workers of iniquity boast themselves.

They break in pieces thy people, O Lord,

And afflict thine heritage.

They slay the widow and the stranger,

And murder the fatherless.

And they say, The Lord shall not see,

Neither shall the God of Jacob consider."

 

And from this point of view it is worthy of remark that, owing

to the very vague knowledge of existence beyond the grave granted

to David and the men of his time, they could not comfort them-

selves, with regard to these mysteries of Providence, with the thought.

in which we take refuge, that eternity will set right all the apparent

inequalities of God's dealings with men in this world. As Delitzsch

has said: "Theodicy, or the vindication of God's ways, does not yet

rise from the indication of the retribution in the present time which

the ungodly do not escape to a future solution of all the contradic-

tions of this present world: and the transcendent glory which

infinitely outweighs the sufferings of this present time still remains



546     THE PRINCETON THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

outside the field of vision," Does not this consideration make

it easier to understand how the psalmists, in their anxiety for the

vindication of God's doings. were moved to invoke fearful and

striking temporal calamities on the heads of the wicked?

The second answer we may give to the question as to the

real nature of these so-called imprecatory expressions is that they

are, particularly in the mouth of David, utterances of zeal for God

and God's kingdom. This will be the more plain when we remind

ourselves that the kingdom of God existed at that time not under

an ecclesiastical but under a political form--the form, namely, of a

theocratic monarchy--and that to this divinely ordained kingship

David sustained, and that consciously, a close official relation

through the greater part of his life. He had been set apart in his

youth by anointing at the hands of Samuel. During all the years

of his outlaw life he carried in his breast the conviction, not merely

that he was innocent of any fault against Saul, but also that he

had been divinely designated to the kingly office which Saul was

so foully misusing. When he came at last to the throne, he received

confirmation of the sign given in his youth, not merely in the provi-

dential blessings that marked his reign, but more unequivocally in

the great promise granted him through Nathan, in which God de-

clared that He had established and would maintain the closest

relations between Himself, His name and cause, on the one hand,

and David and his royal posterity on the other. How natural it

was to David's mind and temper under such circumstances to invest

himself with a sanctity far beyond that natural "divinity that doth

hedge a king" we may discover by observing his attitude toward

Saul. It was not merely military loyalty that restrained David in

the cave from taking advantage of what seemed to his men a won-

derfully providential opportunity to rid himself of his enemy. It

was not admiration for Saul's splendid capacities, nor gratitude for

favors received from the king in earlier and happier days, that held

back his arm. It was not his covenant of friendship with Jonathan

that made the sleeping Saul inviolably sacred. No; it was because

Saul was the "Lord's anointed." "God forbid," this was David's

awestruck reply to the urging of his men, "God forbid that I

should stretch forth mine hand against the Lord's anointed." To

have done so would, in David's esteem, have been to commit

treason and sacrilege in one. Now it will easily be seen how a man

who felt thus with regard to the theocratic office, even when it

was being abused, when it was held by one from whom God had

manifestly withdrawn His favor, would certainly, when this office



THE IMPRECATIONS IN THE PSALMS. 547

 

had been conferred upon himself, regard himself and everything

that concerned him in the light of this official relation to God and

God's kingdom. Such an one was not, and could not be considered,

even by himself, a mere private person. He was the representative

of God, in a different way indeed from priest or prophet, but not less

really than either. And as he was God's representative, his enemies

ceased to be private enemies; nor were they guilty of treason sim-

ply. They must be accounted the enemies of God Himself and of

His cause on earth. As such David might anticipate for them, yes,

he might even ask for them, a fate which he would never have de-

sired for those who were mere personal opponents. And he could

do this without sin, exactly as Paul could without sin write, "If

any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema

maranatha."

But before turning to the psalms for proof that this was in fact

David's attitude of mind toward his enemies, let me suggest a

third answer to our question, one which is so closely allied to the

one just presented that the evidence for both may best be sought

at one time. It is this: These fierce-sounding utterances are an Old

Testament saint's expression of his abhorrence of sin. Those against

whom these hard sayings were directed were not, as we have seen,

mere private enemies of David. They were not simple public ene-

mies, as those would have been who should have plotted against the

life of any other monarch of that day. They were not merely oppo-

sers of God and God's cause. They were also, in the psalmist's

view, fearful embodiments of wickedness. And there is every reason

to believe that his view of them was simple truth. For it must be

remembered that the persons whom David had in mind in the

psalms under review, which belong about equally to the time of

his persecution by Saul and to that of Absalom's revolt, were not

chiefly Saul, for whom he had high regard, and Absalom, his favorite

son, but rather, as has been intimated already, the sycophants

and intriguers who gathered about these and urged them on to

deeds of which neither would have been capable without such in-

citement. Doeg and Cush and Ahithopel are types of these vile

men, in whom falsehood, treachery, cunning, greed, hate, cruelty,

arrogance and pride had come to their perfect fruit. What wonder

if to David's mind such seem the very incarnation of wickedness,

against whom every righteous man, not to say a righteous king;

ought to feel the deepest indignation and abhorrence. And if it

be answered that David should have done what we recognize it

as duty to do under like conditions, that is to say, that he should



548     THE PRINCETON THEOLOGICAL REVIEW.

 

have pitied the sinner, even while he condemned the sin, the re-

joinder is that this is just what David could not be expected to do,

whether as a poet, a Shemite, a king, or an Old Testament saint.

He could not do it as a poet, for poetry loves the concrete, so much

so that had these sins lain before David's mind as abstractions he

would have been compelled by poetic feeling to seek concrete forms

under which to embody them. He could not do it as a Shemite, for

the Shemitic mind has little taste for philosophical distinctions

such as we make so readily. He could not do it as a king; for it

is the duty of a king not only to hate evil but to punish evil-doers.

A king, as Paul puts it, "is a minister of God, an avenger of wrath

to him that doeth evil'' (Rom. xii. 4). Ps. ci., that ancient "mirror

for magistrates," may show us what was David's feeling as to the

relation which he as a king should sustain toward wicked men:

"Whoso privily slandereth his neighbour, him will I destroy:

Him that hath an high look and a proud heart will I not suffer.

. . . . .

Morning by morning will I destroy all the wicked of the land;

To cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord."

And lastly, this distinction between the sin and the sinner was im-

possible to David as an Old Testament saint. This impossibility

arose out of the fact that the doctrine of Satan, which makes it

easy for us to pity the sinner while we hate and condemn the sin,

was then very imperfectly revealed. We pity the sinner because

we view him as not exercising an unconstrained choice of evil, but

as being the victim of a cruel compulsion. Behind him, urging

him on, we see that dark spirit of evil who at the time of the Ad-

vent emerged so clearly into view. There is no imprecation in the

psalms which Christians of to-day would not be willing to adopt

with reference to this enemy of God and man. But to David and

his contemporaries this mighty power of evil had only the most

shadowy existence. They could not see behind the scowling fea-

tures of Doeg or the cunning face of Ahithopel the hellish outlines

that we see. They thought of these men as choosing evil simply

because they loved it, and therefore as being worthy to be hated

by all those who loved and chose the good.

Turn now to the psalms themselves and see the evidence that,

in asking for the judgments of God upon his enemies, David re-

garded these enemies as at the same time and chiefly the ene-

mies of God and the embodiments of sin. For example, take the

very first expression of an imprecatory sort that the Psalter pre-

sents (v.10), and set it in its proper context. David's prayer is



THE IMPRECATIONS IN THE PSALMS.             549

 

"Hold them guilty, 0 God;

Let them fall by their own counsels:

Thrust them out in the multitude of their transgressions;

For they have rebelled against thee."

And the implication of the italicized words is confirmed by a con-

sideration of the psalm as a whole. It is true that once in the

course of it David does speak of those whom he has in mind as

"mine enemies," but it is not because they are his enemies that he

desires their overthrow. It is because of their wickedness and

opposition to God.

"For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness:

Evil shall not sojourn with thee.

The arrogant shall not stand in thy sight:

Thou hatest all workers of iniquity:

Thou shalt destroy them that speak lies:

The Lord abhorreth the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.

            . . . . .

For there is no faithfulness in their mouth;

Their inward part is very wickedness:

Their throat is an open sepulchre;

They flatter with their tongue."

So x. 15 contains the fierce cry

"Break thou the arm of the wicked;

And as for the evil man, seek out his wickedness till thou find none."

But here again the italics are fairly representative of the true

animus of the expressions used. For while, on the one hand, the

psalm contains no intimation that the writer has any enemies, on

the other, the first two-thirds of it are occupied with setting forth

the irreverence, the arrogance, the rapacity, in short, the wickedness

of the ungodly. Or if we turn to the three psalms which all have

agreed upon as exhibiting the most striking illustrations of the

phenomenon in question--I mean xxxv., lxix. and cix.--it is still

the same. In the first of these, for instance, we must note that

David lays stress not merely or chiefly on the injuries that his

enemies have inflicted upon him, but upon the causelessness of

their hate, their oppressive treatment of the poor, their untruth

and ingratitude and malignity; nor must we overlook it that in

the end he connects the triumph of his cause as a righteous person

and a servant of God with the honor of Jehovah Himself. In lxix.

David feels himself to be in such a sense the type and representative

of all who fear God that his overthrow must be a stumbling-block

to them (ver. 6): the reproaches that have been heaped upon him

have been inspired by his zeal for God and God's house (vers. 7-9);

deliverance granted to him will become ground for thanksgiving



550     THE PRINCTON THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

 

and source of blessing for the whole Church (vers. 30-36). Or

see finally, how in cix, in which these expressions reach their

climax, emphasis is laid upon the falseness, hate, ingratitude,

unmercifufness, love of cursing, with which the psalmist's foes

were chargeable, and say whether we have not basis for the asser-

tion that the real thought of David in these harsh-sounding utter-

ances is that to which he gives voice in the close of cxxxix (vers.

19-22):

"Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, 0 God:

Depart from me, therefore, ye bloodthirsty men,

For they speak against thee wickedly,

And thine enemies take thy name in vain.

Do not I hate them. 0 Lord, that hate thee?

And am I not grieved with them that rise up against thee?

I hate them with perfect hatred:

I count them mine enemies."

 

And we may well ask in passing whether a man whose heart was

full of unholy enmity against personal foes would be likely to add:

"Search me, 0 God, and know my heart:

Try me, and know my thoughts;

And see if there be any way of wickedness in me,

And lead me in the way everlasting."

 

Once more, and finally, these so-called imprecations are prophetic

teachings as to the attitude o f God toward sin and impenitent and per-

sistent sinners. The psalms are not merely lyric peoms, embody-

ing the feelings of their authors; they are lyric poems composed

under the influence of the Spirit of Inspiration, and as such are a

part of God's revelation of Himself. From them we may learn,

not only how David, for example, felt toward persistent and

high-handed sinners, but also and more particularly how God feels

toward such. David, as Peter informed his hearers on the day

of Pentecost, was a prophet. Nor was he a prophet simply in the

narrower sense of one who by Divine inspiration foretells future

events. He was a prophet in the wider sense of a spokesman for

God, an official teacher of God's will. David himself realized this,

as we may learn from the preface to what are called his "last

words" (2 Sam. xxiii. 1-7)

"Prophetic utterance (Mxun;) of David the son of Jesse,

And prophetic utterance of the man who was raised on high,

The anointed of the God of Jacob,

And the sweet psalmist of Israel:

The Spirit of Jehovah spake by me,

And his word was on my tongue."



THE IMPRECATIONS IN THE PSALMS. 551

 

As an official communicator of God's will to men, David no doubt

felt it to be an important part of his duty to warn men of the

Divine wrath against sin and persistent sinners. Now it deserves

notice that there is scarcely a single expression used by David in

the so-called imprecations upon his enemies which may not be

found in other psalms as simple statements of fact with regard to

the fate of the wicked. In these places the form of the verb is

not jussive; instead we find the simple imperfect or perfect: the

statement is not of that which David desires God may do, but of

that which God has done or will certainly do. Compare, for ex-

ample, the prayer and the positive teaching in the following pairs

of quotations

"Let them be as chaff before the wind" (xxxv. 5).

"The ungodly are not so,

But are like the chaff which the wind driveth away" (i. 4).

"Break their teeth, 0 God, in their mouth:

Break out the great teeth of the young lions" (lviii. 6).

"For thou hast smitten all mine enemies on the cheek bone;

Thou hast broken the teeth of the wicked" (iii. 7).

"Let destruction come upon him at unawares;

And let his net that he hath hid catch himself" (xxxv. 8).

"The nations are sunk down in the pit that they made;

In the net which they hid is their own foot taken" (ix. 15).

"Let them be ashamed and confounded together that rejoice at mine hurt;

Let them be clothed with shame and dishonour that magnify themselves

against me" (xxxv. 26).

"All mine enemies shall be ashamed and sore vexed;

They shall turn back, they shall be ashamed suddenly" (vi. 10).

 

And not to seek further for exact verbal parallels between what is

asked for in one set of psalms and what is predicted or asserted as

fact in the other, let any one read vii. 12-16:

"If a man turn not, God will whet his sword;

He hath bent his bow, and made it ready.

He hath also prepared for him the instruments of death;

He maketh his arrows fiery shafts.

Behold, he (the wicked) travaileth with iniquity;

Yea, he hath conceived mischief, and brought forth falsehood.

He bath made a pit, and digged it,

And is fallen into the ditch which he made.

His mischief shall return upon his own head,

And his violence shall come down upon his own pate."

 

Or let him take note of the expressions that are used as to the fate

of the wicked in xxvii. 2, 9, 10, 15, 20, 35, 366, 38, or lv. 23, or lxiii.

9-11, or lxiv. 7-9, and say whether David anywhere invokes upon



552     THE PRINCETON THEOLOGICAL REVIEW.

 

his wicked foes any punishments more terrible than those which he

sees to be in fact laid up for all the wicked.  Now it is the duty of

men to acquiesce in the righteous dealings of God, as well with

the wicked as with the righteous. It was by divine command that

all the people said amen to the fearful curses upon evil-doers that

were pronounced from Mount Gerizim (Deut. xxvii. 15ff.). Debo-

rah was not less expressing a pious sentiment when, after the de-

struction of Sisera and his host, she sang

"So let all thine enemies perish, 0 Lord!"

than when she immediately added

"But let them that love thee be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might"

   (Judg. v. 31).

In view of these facts is it not easy to understand how David,

with the terrible fate of the wicked before his eyes, should sometimes,

not under the impulse of desire for revenge, but merely in the

heat of poetic fervor, pass from the indicative to the optative, from

the satement of a fact to the utterance of a wish? The form is differ-

ent in the two cases, but the truth taught and intended to be taught

is the same. This seems to be the view taken of the matter by our

Lord and the apostles. For it may well make us cautious how

we adopt the language of some who have felt themselves unable to

justify the expressions under review--e.g., Dean Stanley, who

speaks of their "vindictive spirit" (Lect. on the Jewish Church,

p. 170)--to remember what has been so strikingly put by Dr. Bin-

nie, of Stirling (The Psalms, p. 285), that "except Ps. i., xxii., cx.,

cxviii., all great Messianic hymns, no other psalms have been so

largely quoted by our Lord and His apostles as these 'impreca-

tory psalms' . . . . The 69th, which bears more of the im-

precatory character than any other except the 109th, is

expressly quoted in five separate places, besides being alluded

to in several more." And he adds: "The nature of the quota-

tions is even more significant than their number. It would

seem that our Lord appropriated this (69th) psalm to Himself,

and that we are to take it as a disclosure of thoughts and feelings

which found a place in his Heart during His ministry on earth.

In the Guest Chamber He quoted the words of the fourth verse,

‘They hated me without a cause,’ and represented them as a pre-

diction of the people's hatred of the Father and of Himself (John

xv. 25). When He drove the traffickers from the Temple, John

informs us (ii. 17), His disciples remembered that it was written,

‘The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up’ (cf. Ps. lxix. 9), which

implies that those words of the psalm expressed the very mind



THE IMPRECATIONS IN THE PSALMS. 553

 

that was in Christ. When Peter, after mentioning the crime and

perdition of Judas, suggested to the company of a hundred and

twenty disciples that they ought to take measures for the appoint-

ment of a new apostle to fill the vacant place, he enforced the sug-

gestion by a quotation, ‘For it is written in the Book of Psalms,

Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein, and

his bishopric let another take’ (Acts i. 20)--manifestly on the sup-

position that this psalm and the 109th (for the quotation is from

them both) were written with reference to Judas. In the Epistle

to the Romans the duty of pleasing, every one of us, our neighbor

to his good is enforced by the apostle with the argument (Rom. xv.

3; cf. Ps. lxix. 9) that ‘even Christ pleased not himself, as it is

written, The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me-

an argument that has no weight, if David alone is the speaker in

the psalm, if Christ be not in some real sense the speaker in it also.

Finally, we are taught in the same epistle to recognize a fulfilment

of the psalmist's most terrible imprecations in the judicial blind-

ness which befell the Jewish nation after the crucifixion of

Christ (cf. Ps. lxix. 22, 23, with Rom. ii. 9, 10)." All this proves

that, if we are not to reject the authority of Christ and His apostles,

we must take this imprecatory psalm as having been spoken by

David as the ancestor and type of Christ. I do not say that the

fact that these psalms are so unequivocally endorsed and appro-

priated by our blessed Lord explains the difficulty they involve.

But I am sure that the simple statement of it will constrain the

disciples of Christ to touch them with a reverent hand, and rather

to distrust their own judgment concerning them than to brand

such Scriptures as the products of an unsanctified and unchristian

temper."

 

Wooster, 0.

CHALMERS MARTIN.

 

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu