How can the Bible speak about the longing for the death of your enemies? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
Yesterday, I wrote a review of N.T. Wright’s book “The Case for the Psalms” and so I figured I’d start looking at the Psalms. Why not have some fun and start out with the category of Psalms that we consider to be the hardest? These are Psalms called Imprecatory Psalms.
Imagine living in America during World War 2 and going to a church and when the songs start playing, before too long you find out that you’re singing a song where you’re asking God to kill Hitler. While you could justifiably think that the villain should be dead, you seem a bit out of place singing about this at a church.
Yet when we open up the Psalms, we find the cries for the death of enemies and not just national enemies always, but personal enemies as well. A number of times these strike us as odd to find in the Psalms. Isn’t God the God of peace and love? How could it be that His holy book would contain Psalms like this?
For instance, consider the cry of Psalm 5:10
Declare them guilty, O God!
Let their intrigues be their downfall.
Banish them for their many sins,
for they have rebelled against you.
This is such a hard teaching for us to accept! After all, are we not to forgive one another for sins and shouldn’t God be the main one to do this? Why would we pray that someone would actually be judged for their sins? Isn’t this wrong.
Only if you think judging is wrong.
The Psalmist in this case is praying for justice for what he has suffered, but he’s not just pointing to his own suffering, but pointing out in the whole psalm that he has lived a righteous life while his enemies have not. Why should the wicked have the same place with YHWH as the righteous? Why should they get the same treatment?
And this is still our cry today! We often ask why do bad things happen to good people? When evil people suffer, we can expect that and it fits in, but when people we think are good suffer, then we just don’t know what to do. It is as if something is wrong, but the only way we can say something is wrong is if we are willing to admit the world should be a certain way, that the world should be just.
Another example is in Psalm 107.
“6 Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy;
let an accuser stand at his right hand.
7 When he is tried, let him be found guilty,
and may his prayers condemn him.
8 May his days be few;
may another take his place of leadership.
9 May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow.
10 May his children be wandering beggars;
may they be driven[a] from their ruined homes.
11 May a creditor seize all he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.
12 May no one extend kindness to him
or take pity on his fatherless children.
13 May his descendants be cut off,
their names blotted out from the next generation.
14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord;
may the sin of his mother never be blotted out.
15 May their sins always remain before the Lord,
that he may blot out their name from the earth.”
Tough words indeed, but yet the Psalmist is again wanting justice in contrast to the life he has lived. Note also that this is a good Middle Eastern way of handling the situation. We today in the West tend to hide our emotions and store them up. It seems like a fine situation until someone cracks one day and gets “road rage” or “goes postal” or something of that sort. Buried hurts don’t go away. They just wait for a time to resurface.
The Middle Easterners instead sought to express their emotions openly and powerfully for the most part. When a person died in the family, you would have professional mourners come by. It’s not that they felt loss or sympathy necessarily for the family, but they were to show the sadness of the people by their mourning. Some of this Christ condemned such as the Pharisees putting on a face to show that they were fasting. Expression done just to draw attention to one’s self was a problem. That would be a way of stealing honor in fact. Expression done to bring glory to God was what was commendable.
Why include the family? Simple. This would shame the person involved. Aristotle, for instance, thought that someone’s happiness in life could be altered after they were dead, and this was from someone who believed you ceased to exist when you died! How could your happiness change? Because your descendants could ruin the good reputation you’d built up. The prayer was for this person to be shamed.
We see an example of this in the book of Jeremiah. We are told that may it be for Jehoiachin that he will be remembered as childless and none of his children take the throne. Childlessness was seen as a curse. In 2 Kings 5, the leprosy of Naaman is said to cling to Gehazi and his descendants forever. In the ancient world, your ancestry mattered much more than it does here and having suffering in the lives of your children would show what a wicked soul you were.
Yet there is one such Psalm that most always gets mentioned by atheists.
It is Psalm 137 with this part.
“7 Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.”
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard Psalm 137 used, I could probably retire right now.
So what is going on here? Why would someone be happy for dashing children against rocks?
In the Psalm, the captives of Judah are in Babylon and being mocked by Babylon. “Sing us a song of that great city of your God that we so royally destroyed!” These people were living in exile far away from their own homes and had seen destruction of their loved ones right before their eyes.
So what do they say? Let justice be done and the same measure done to you that was done to us. Not more. Not less. This was a typical Middle Eastern expression. Note also they’re not telling others to do this nor thinking of doing it themselves. They are pleading to God for this justice.
What are we to make of this today?
First off, justice is still a cry in this world. Whenever anyone speaks of the problem of evil, they are speaking of justice. If you do not think there is such a thing as justice, then you cannot say anything about the problem of evil.
Second, we can learn that all manner of expression, even that which we deem to be negative, is acceptable to God. This does not mean the way we express it always is. Blasphemy is always wrong. What it does mean is that God is interested in the cries of our hearts. In fact, later on, we’ll see in future blogs that even God Himself is spoken of accusingly, and He accepts it.
Third, we understand that ultimately, God is the place to go to for justice. Of course, there are times of self-defense and just war and such, but all justice comes from God even if it comes through secondary causes such as the institutions of man. For the ancients, all causality ultimately ended in God. The supernatural/natural distinction did not exist.
Fourth, we understand the cry for justice is good. God wants us to cry for justice and has promised that He will hear those who do make that cry.
When we look at it in regards to Israel’s place in history, there is grounds for believing in a future judgment somehow and a place in an afterdeath. After all, death would ultimately be the same for everyone in a materialistic universe. You die. That’s it. For there to be a true reversal of judgment would require some compensation after death, perhaps even a resurrection for some.
To long for this was also to believe that the God of Israel was to be on the side of Israel and would bring about righteousness for Israel and act on the behalf of Israel. It meant the promise to Abraham would be fulfilled. Those who blessed Abraham would be blessed. Those who cursed him would be cursed.
Many of us have enemies today and we cry out to God about them. The reality is, that’s not necessarily a wrong thing. There is no wrong in wanting justice despite what our society says, but if God does not act, it could be He has in motion the way of redemption for someone. Judgment is a work of God, but He would much rather forgive to those who are willing. Let’s remember God is a God of justice, but the same God had said of Him “In wrath, remember mercy.”