When I returned home from morning worship last Lord's Day, I had more than one child asking about the lyrics of the final song. Psalm 31:5-6 put these words in our mouths:Redeem me Lord, O God of truth / My spirit I commit to you. I hate all those who trust false gods / I trust the Lord, for he is true. Should the Christian be singing about those they hate? Are we not called to love our enemies? Is it possible there are some psalms that just do not belong in the mouth of the Church? The language of "hate" in the psalms fits into a larger category known as the imprecatory psalms. To imprecate means to invoke a curse on someone or pray that trouble befalls them. There are many psalms that do this very thing but they are not personal vendettas. They are rather prayers seeking divine vengeance. Here is a sampling from just three (a fuller list includes: Psalms 5, 10, 17, 35, 58, 59, 69, 70, 79, 83, 109, 129, 137, 140): "Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer; call his wickedness to account till you find none" (Psalm 10:15). "O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord! Let them vanish like water that runs away; when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted. Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime, like the stillborn child who never sees the sun" (Psalm 58:6-8). "O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!" (Psalm 137:8-9). Unfortunately, a common way the imprecatory psalms are explained away is to suggest - with varying degrees of subtlety - that God has changed after the coming of Christ. The idea goes that God was once pretty stern but now after the ministry of his divine Son he has become much softer. To keep up with these changes in God (and avoid global embarrassment) Christians must abstain from singing and praying imprecations. But such proposals will not withstand a basic reading of the scriptures. First, what is revealed to us about God before Jesus was born is a God who is just as patient, tender and benevolent as the God revealed to us in the New Testament. Second, what is revealed to us about God in the New Testament and through his Son is a God just as fierce in wrath toward the wicked as the God revealed in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament it is Jonah who is scandalized and dismayed by God's graciousness toward the Assyrians. Personal graciousness toward enemies was standard issue piety for Old Testament saints (Exod. 23:4-5; Prov. 24:17-20; Ps. 7:4). In the New Testament it is the Lord Jesus who announces "woes" upon his opponents and says: "You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?" (Matt. 23:33). We also must consider the imprecatory passages of Jesus' apostles. Here's Paul: "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:8). Paul calls for God to judge most severely anyone who promotes a way to be reconciled to God apart from Christ alone by faith alone. What then is the role of imprecation in the psalms and elsewhere? Professor John Frame answered this question quite well in his study on imprecatory Psalms:
"Practically speaking, we discover that someone is guilty of a great injustice that we are not able to deal with in our own strength. Our response is, through biblical imprecations, to share this concern with God. In doing so, we share God's evaluation of injustice: "Because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient" (Eph 5:6). And so we call for divine vengeance to be exercised: not by ourselves, but by God." (John Frame, Imprecations: Holy Fire)
Scriptural imprecations in the mouths of the saints are their way of putting or keeping vengeance in the hands of God and out of their own hands. Thus we hear from the altar in the Apocalypse: "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" (Rev. 6:10). Note well that imprecation is never the saint declaring the saint's own plans to terrorize. Imprecations in scripture are petitions to God justice. So, after letting the saints wait for some time, God finally comes and destroys Babylon saying then to the saints: "Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!" (Rev. 18:20, cf. Rom. 12:17-21). Here then is the place of imprecations. The saints know they are hurting but know they must leave vengeance to the Lord. The Lord rules over all the sufferings of his children and has designed a purpose and a glory for each of those sufferings, both in their depth and in their length. The saints dare not dismiss themselves from sharing in Christ's sufferings by taking vengeance themselves or abandoning God to relieve the suffering which faithfulness enjoins. Imprecatory prayers - calling on God for relief - is one way the persecuted saints endure to the end. They fix upon God's just deliverance - both in history and at history's end. What then of the language of "hate" - can it really be used virtuously? Besides Psalm 31 there is Psalm 139:21 - "Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?" And then there is Revelation 2:6 where Jesus commends the Christians at Ephesus saying, "Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate." What we should understand is that not all uses of "hate" in scripture are speaking of sinful emotional hostilities inflamed in us against others for vain reasons. Such sinful hatred God will judge (Titus 3:3). The hate of the holy imprecation, on the other hand, is for God's glory. As we heard Jesus say to the Ephesians in Revelation 2, he too hates the works of the Nicolaitans. This is a profoundly offensive statement to anyone who thinks the cultural products and habits of all peoples are equal and beyond criticism. But Jesus offends for without offense there is no way to call men to repentance and to the forgiveness of sins. To say, "I hate all those who trust false gods" (Ps. 31:6) in corporate worship is a pointed way of saying I reject idolatry and do not sanction it nor wish to see it thrive. Such can be the boldness and offense that leads to the converting grace Paul anticipates in public worship services (see 1 Cor. 14:24-25). With all that said, it is worth underlining that imprecations should be reserved for corporate worship and private prayer where the context of its use is clearer. Running around town with a bumper sticker that says, "God hates _________ " would be creating a context that can not be found in scripture. Such a reduced and singular statement about God is itself idolatrous because it suppresses the whole revelation of God in Christ and the good news that God's delay in vengeance is opportunity for repentance and faith. Martin Luther captured so many of these strands of truth in one fine story that will be our finish:
"We should pray that our enemies be converted and become our friends, and if not, that their doing and designing be bound to fail and have no success and that their persons perish rather than the Gospel and the kingdom of Christ. Thus the saintly martyr Anastasia, a wealthy, noble Roman matron, prayed against her husband, an idolatrous and terrible ravager of Christians, who had flung her into a horrible prison, in which she had to stay and die. There she lay and wrote to the saintly Chrysogonus diligently to pray for her husband that, if possible, he be converted and believe; but if not, that he be unable to carry out his plans and that he soon make an end of his ravaging. Thus she prayed him to death, for he went to war and did not return home. So we, too, pray for our angry enemies, not that God protect and strengthen them in their ways, as we pray for Christians, or that He help them, but that they be converted, if they can be; or, if they refuse, that God oppose them, stop them and end the game to their harm and misfortune." - Martin Luther, What Luther Says (St. Louis: Concordia, 1959), p. 1100.