/ imprecatory psalms / Gentle Reformation

The Scales of Justice (Psalm 69)

When I open the Scriptures with no other agenda than to enjoy and meditate on them, I often find myself in the Psalms.  Every facet of the life of faith is captured here and expressed in words that we can make our own.  I have done much preaching and teaching from the Psalms, but I find there is always a discovery to make in the Book of Praises.  Psalm 69 is my meditation today.  This melancholy cry for justice contains some of the most clear messianic images in all the Psalter, and ultimately gives us a prophetic glimpse of the justice of the Son of God.

The themes of suffering and persecution form a strain of messianic imagery in the Psalms, reflected particularly in David’s experience. This Psalm , a Psalm of David, takes up these themes again in descriptive detail and provides some of the clearest prophecies of the passion of Christ in the Old Testament. Second only to Psalm 22 in the number of times it is quoted in the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul all draw on this Psalm to shed light on the work of Christ. We can hardly read verse 9, "Zeal for Your house has eaten me up," without thinking of Jesus driving the merchants out of the temple (John 2:17). Verse 21 takes us to the crucifixion with its prophecy of the vinegar and gall that Jesus was scornfully given to drink while on the cross (Matt 27:34). And, when Jesus explained the world’s opposition to His disciples, the prophecy of Psalm 69:4 was His exhibit of evidence: "They hated me without cause" (John 15:25). Few Psalms portray the person and work, and especially the passion, of the Lord Jesus as clearly as Psalm 69.

However, what seems to draw just as much attention to Psalm 69 is its powerful imprecatory tone. "Pour out Your indignation upon them, and let Your wrathful anger take hold of them" (vs. 24). David curses his enemies with a ferocity that some find difficult to reconcile with his greater Son’s commandment to love your enemies. It is important to bear in mind, however, that the imprecations of the psalmist are essentially a plea for justice, which is a concern firmly upheld in the New Testament and not contradicted by the law of gospel love. Even while pleading to God for justice, David surely loved his enemies, as he demonstrated in his dealings with Saul and Absalom (see also Psalm 35:11-14). Without contradiction, we can love our enemies and also desire the perfect justice of God to be displayed for His glory.

Justice is one thing, but what of the severe and personal tone of these curses? We should see the fierce tone of the psalmist as a measure of the evil deeds that prompted the imprecations in the first place. We are listening to the victim, not the perpetrator, and in a sense the psalmist is speaking on behalf of all the silenced martyrs, and all the innocent blood shed on the earth (Rev. 6:10). The Bible does not merely inform us, in dispassionate tones, about the need for justice in the world. Instead, we hear a personal and passionate plea from one who has felt the sting of evil, and the cry of a faithful man who is sensitive to the true horrors of sin, and who rightfully desires to see God’s Name vindicated. The imprecations of the Bible have their own rhetorical design – to move us to share in David’s sensitivity to evil, his outrage over injustice, and his longing for God’s rectitude. The basic element of these imprecations – the plea of God’s people for vindication – is still our concern, and a prayer that God promised to answer (Luke 18:7). Therefore, Psalm 69 still occupies a needful place in the songbook of the church.

Even so, we should not thoughtlessly or lightly take up such fearsome words in our prayers. We have enough trouble loving our neighbor as ourselves, let alone our enemies, without presuming to stand in David’s shoes and be the spokesmen of God’s vengeance. It is enough for us to strive to live by the law of gospel love, and simply take from this psalm the comfort of knowing that God’s perfect justice will ultimately prevail over all. In the final analysis, we must remember that Psalm 69 is messianic through and through. It is Christ whom we hear describing His passion and pleading for justice. This should remind us that the justice called for by this psalm is the justice of Christ, who alone is righteous enough to carry out the judgment of God.