Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me! They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies. (Psalm 139:19–22)
The Fighter Verse team made a judgment call that these “problem” verses of Psalm 139:19–22 did not directly serve the tactical aims of the memory program, and might require so much explanation as to be distracting from the goal of strengthening faith. But for many of us, the strength of faith calls for an explanation. So I will give some pointers for how to understand them. I hope you will pray and ponder so that these pointers become providers of God-taught riches.
These verses are in the category of “imprecatory psalms,” which include Psalm 5:10; 10:15; 28:4; 31:17–18; 35:4–6; 40:14–15; 58:6–11; 69:22–28; 109:6–15; 139:19–22; 140:9–10. They call down divine curses and express hatred for the enemies of God.
Consider that, in some of these psalms, love for the enemy has been pursued for a long time. “They requite me evil for good. . . . When they were sick, I wore sackcloth” (Psalm 35:12–13). “In return for my love they accuse me, even as I make prayer for them. So they reward me evil for good, and hatred for my love” (109:4–5). Though unexpressed, this may be the case for all the psalms. The wickedness in view has resisted love.
Hatred may be moral repugnance, not personal vengeance. This is not the same as saying, “Hate the sin and love the sinner” (which is good counsel, but not all there is to say). There is a kind of hate for the sinner (viewed as morally corrupt and hostile to God) that may coexist with pity and even a desire for their salvation. You may hate spinach without opposing its good use.
But there may come a point when wickedness is so persistent and high-handed and God-despising that the time of redemption is past and there only remain irremediable wickedness and judgment. For example, Jesus speaks of unforgivable sin (Matthew 12:32) and John says there is sin that is “unto death” and adds, “I do not say that one should pray for this” (1 John 5:16). And Paul says, “If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed” (1 Corinthians 16:22). This imprecation is like the Psalms, and assumes that there comes a point of such extended, hardened, high-handed lovelessness toward God that it may be appropriate to call down anathema on it.
The imprecatory Psalms were not avoided by Jesus. At least one of the most severe of them (Psalm 69) seems to have been a favorite from which Jesus, in his human nature, drew guidance and encouragement and self-understanding. (John 15:25 = Psalm 69:4, “They hated me without cause.” John 2:17 = Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house has eaten me up.” Matthew 27:24 = Psalm 69:21, “They gave me gall for my food.”) This is a Psalm which prays, “Pour out your indignation on them, and let your burning anger overtake them” (Psalm 69:24).
The apostle Paul quoted the very imprecatory words of Psalm 69:22–23 in Romans 11:9–10 as having Old Testament authority. This means Paul regarded the very words of imprecation as inspired and not sinful, personal words of vengeance.
Paul read the imprecatory Psalms as the words of Christ, spoken prophetically by David, the type of Christ. We can see this from the fact that David’s words in one imprecatory psalm (Psalm 69:9) are quoted by Paul as the words of Christ in Romans 15:3, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” The implication, then, is that David spoke in these Psalms as God’s inspired anointed king, prefiguring the coming King and Messiah, who has the right to pronounce final judgment on his enemies and will do so, as the whole Bible teaches.
We will grant to the psalmist (usually David), who speaks, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as the foreshadowed Messiah and Judge, the right to call down judgment on the enemies of God. This is not personal vindictiveness. It is a prophetic execution of what will happen at the last day when God casts all his enemies into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15). We would do well to leave such final assessments to God, and realize our own corrupt inability to hate as we ought. While there is unforgivable sin for which we are not to pray (see #4 above), we are told to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us, and return good for evil (as David did, see #2 above). This is our vocation by faith. Let us tremble and trust God, lest we fail, and find ourselves on the other side of the curse.