The name of this series of messages from the Psalms is "Thinking and Feeling with God." The point of that name is that, on the one hand, the Psalms are inspired by God and therefore meant to instruct us how to think about God and man and the world. And on the other hand, the Psalms are poems or songs and are meant to awaken and express and shape our feelings about God and man and the world.
We have focused in the previous messages on the feelings of spiritual depression or discouragement (Psalm 42) and regret and guilt (Psalm 51) and gratitude and praise (Psalm 103). Today we focus on the emotion of anger, or more specifically the desire for retaliation or vengeance — the anger we feel when something horribly wrong or unjust is done, say the sexual abuse of a child, or some blatant racial discrimination, or someone murdering your spouse, or betraying the marriage vows and going after another person.
Satisfaction in Justice?
When you are watching a film, and great evil and injustice are portrayed, and you bristle with anger at what they seem to get away with, and some noble, humble, sacrificial person risks his life, and captures the villains and brings them to justice, is it good to feel a deep satisfaction that justice was done?
And in your own real life, how should you feel about those who have wronged you — perhaps terribly wronged you? How should you feel, and how should you think? And what should you do?
Psalms That Curse
There are a group of psalms that are called imprecatory psalms because they include imprecations, that is curses, judgments against God’s enemies. These psalms are usually considered problems for Christians because Jesus taught us, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27–28). And Jesus prayed for his enemies on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). So it sounds like these psalms are doing the opposite of what Jesus said and did.
Let’s take Psalm 69 as one of the most extended imprecatory psalms and try to understand it and how it should shape how we think and feel with God.
The Key: New Testament Use
The key is going to be how the New Testament authors use this psalm — how they understand it. And we get a lot of help here because seven of the verses of this psalm are quoted explicitly in the New Testament, including the parts that are imprecatory. The New Testament writers did not shy away from imprecatory psalms. It seems in fact that they found them especially useful in explaining the work of Jesus and what it means for us.
So let’s get a quick overview of the Psalm and then see how the New Testament uses it.
An Overview of Psalm 69
The situation is that David feels overwhelmed by enemies. They don’t seem to be military enemies but personal enemies. And they are heartless and vicious.
David doesn’t claim to be perfect. In fact, he admits in verse 5 that he has committed wrongs and that God knows it. But the hostilities against him are not owing to those wrongs. They hate him without cause. And they attack him with lies. Verse 4: “More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me with lies. What I did not steal must I now restore?”
Zeal for God’s Glory
What is at stake is that he is jealous for God’s glory, and his adversaries reproach him for it. Verse 7: “It is for your sake [O God]that I have borne reproach, that dishonor has covered my face.” Verse 9: “Zeal for your house [O God] has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.” In other words, his suffering is not only undeserved, but it is endured precisely as a representative of God. “The reproaches of those who reproached you, O God, have fallen on me.” When God gets reproached, the psalmist is getting reproached. It’s the people who hate you, God, who are making life hard for me, because I represent you.
Pleading for Rescue
He pleads for God to rescue him from this miserable situation. Verse 14: “Deliver me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.” Verse 18: “Draw near to my soul, redeem me; ransom me because of my enemies!”
Then come verses 22–28, which are entirely imprecations or curses on his enemies. He prays to God that these enemies — his enemies and God’s enemies — experience the full force of God’s judgment and that they not be acquitted. He’s not praying for their salvation; he’s praying for their damnation. Verses 22–24:
Let their own table before them become a snare; and when they are at peace, let it become a trap. Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually. Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them.
Crying for Help
Then he closes the psalm with another cry for help and a promise of praise. Verses 29–30: “But I am afflicted and in pain; let your salvation, O God, set me on high! I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving.”
So, in summary, here we have king David, not a perfect man (v. 5), but a righteous man (v. 28), a man who loves the glory of God, trusts God’s mercy for ransom and redemption (v. 18), and who stands up for the cause of the humble (vv. 32–33), and who is suffering the undeserved persecution of his enemies and God’s enemies. And in the middle of this lament and cry for help, he devotes seven verses to calling on God to punish these enemies.
Psalm 69 in the New Testament
So how does the New Testament deal with this psalm?
First, we should say that the New Testament in quoting from the psalm never is embarrassed by this psalm or critical of this psalm. It never treats the psalm as something we should reject or leave behind. It never treats the psalm as sinful personal vengeance. So we learn from the New Testament, just as we would expect, since Jesus regards the Psalms as inspired by God (Mark 12:36; John 10:35; 13:18), that this psalm is revered and honored as sacred truth.
The New Testament quotes Psalm 69 in at least two important ways: It quotes the psalm as the words of David, and it quotes the psalm as the words of Jesus. Let’s take these in turn and then close by asking how we read the psalm today and how we think and feel about David’s prayer for the punishment of violent and evil men.
1) As the Words of David
First, Romans 11:9–11 quotes Psalm 69:22–23. Here’s what the psalm says:
Let their own table before them become a snare; and when they are at peace, let it become a trap. Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually.
This is the beginning of David’s prayer that God would pour out his indignation upon his adversaries (v. 24). He prays that just as they gave him poison for food (v. 21), so their table would be their undoing. The very bounty that they think they have would prove to be their judgment. And he prays that they would be blinded and unable to find their way and that trembling would seize them forever.
In other words, this prayer is a prayer for their condemnation, their destruction, their damnation. Verses 27–28: “May they have no acquittal from you, O God. Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous.” David consigns them to perdition, to hell.
Not Sinful Personal Vengeance
Now, you would think that if this were sinful personal vengeance, the apostle Paul would at least avoid it and perhaps correct it. But he does just the opposite. He goes straight to this text to support his teaching in Romans 11. He is not the least put off by this psalm. In Romans 11 he teaches that most of Israel has rejected Jesus as her Messiah and has come under God’s judgment. The judgment is that a hardening has come on the greater part of Israel so that they will not believe.
Romans 11:7: “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened.” Verse 25: “Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” So one of the main teachings of Paul in Romans 11 is that God is judging Israel with this hardening until God’s full appointed number of the Gentiles are saved.
Speaking on God’s Behalf
In that context, Paul reaches back to the so-called imprecatory Psalm 69 (of all the Old Testament texts he might have cited) to support his point and quotes verses 22–23 in Romans 11:9–11: “And David says, ‘Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever.’”
In other words, the way Paul interprets the words of David is not as sinful personal vengeance but as a reliable expression of what happens to the adversaries of God’s anointed. David is God’s anointed king, and he is being rejected and reproached and reviled. David manifests a lot of patience in his life (Psalm 109:4). But there comes a point when David speaks as God’s inspired, anointed one and by his prayer consigns his adversaries to darkness and hardness. They will experience this judgment because David is speaking on God’s behalf.
Sober, Prophetic Words of Judgment
Paul does not hear merely emotional words of retaliation in David’s voice. He hears sober, prophetic words of judgment that God’s anointed wills to bring on his adversaries. That is why he quotes these words in Romans 11 where he is making this very point: The adversaries of Christ, the Messiah of God, are going to be darkened and hardened as part of God’s judgment.
That’s the first way the New Testament quotes Psalm 69, namely, as the prophetic words of judgment by God’s inspired spokesman on the adversaries of God’s anointed.
2) As the Words of Jesus
The second way the New Testament quotes Psalm 69 is as the words of Jesus himself. The reason for this is that Jesus is the Son of David (Romans 1:3; Matthew 21:15; 22:42) and what happened to David as God’s royal anointed one is a foreshadowing of the final anointed one, the Messiah, Jesus. So Jesus read this psalm and saw his own mission being lived out in advance.
Four quick examples:
a) Jesus Cleansing the Temple
In John 2:13–17 we read about how Jesus drove the sellers out of the temple. Verse 16 says, “And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’” The Bible-saturated disciples see this passion for God’s house, and they hear Jesus call the temple “my Father’s house,” and they remember the words of Psalm 69:9. Verse 17: “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” In other words, they see in David’s words and actions a foreshadowing of Christ’s words and actions.
b) Jesus Hated by His Own
In John 15:24–25 Jesus is hated by the Jewish leaders just the way David was hated by his own people (v. 8). This time Jesus himself is the one that explicitly quotes Psalm 69 as part of God’s “law” or God’s instruction. He says, “If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’” This is a quote from Psalm 69:4: “More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause.”
So Jesus himself is aware of David’s experience and sees them as foreshadowing his own and says, When David is hated by his adversaries, this points to my experience and must be fulfilled in me.
c) Jesus on the Cross
On the cross, in the most important moment in history, Jesus brings his life to a close by intentionally fulfilling Psalm 69 one more time in his own experience. In verse 21 David had said, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.”
Evidently Jesus had lived in this psalm and absorbed this psalm and made this psalm part of his very being. Otherwise, I don’t know how we could explain John 19:28–30. Here he is hanging on the cross in horrible agony and we read:
After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
According to the apostle John, Jesus died fulfilling Psalm 69. What more glorious tribute could be paid to a psalm? The very psalm that we tend to think is a problem because of its imprecations was the one Jesus lived in and the one that carried him to the cross and through the cross.
d) Jesus Enduring Reproach
2.4. One more illustration of Psalm 69 as the words of Jesus: In verse 9 David says to God, “The reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.” In Romans 15 Paul is calling Christians to be patient with the weak and to deny themselves and humbly receive others.
Amazingly at this point, he reaches back again to Psalm 69:9 and says, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’” In other words, he takes the words of David and sees them fulfilled in Christ. And the specific thing he focuses on is that Christ endured the reproaches of men willingly.
So it seems that Psalm 69 has two prongs in the New Testament. One prong is judgment: The imprecations are not sinful personal retaliation but prophetic approval of God’s just retribution for sin.
The other prong is the suffering of God’s anointed. This suffering is endured for God’s sake. And the suffering is either the means by which the adversaries are brought to repentance and saved, or the means by which they are confirmed in their hardness and condemned.
How Should Psalm 69 Affect Us?
So we step back and conclude by asking: How shall we think and feel when we read Psalm 69 today? Three answers:
1) Approval of God’s Judgment
We should hear the divinely inspired voice of David, the Lord’s anointed, suffering for the glory of God, and expressing his desire for, and approval of, God’s judgment on the unrepentant adversaries of the Lord. He is making plain that God’s judgment does come, and it is right, and even desirable, and that it should come when the adversaries are beyond repentance. There is a divine judgment coming, and at that day Christians will approve what God does. That is what David’s imprecations make plain. That’s what we should think and feel.
2) Foreshadowing the Ministry of Jesus
We should hear David as foreshadowing of the ministry of Jesus. What David experiences as the Lord’s anointed, Jesus will complete in greater ways in his own suffering and death. His suffering will be a saving and a condemning suffering. For those who accept it as their glory, it will save. For those who are hardened by it, it will condemn.
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. (Romans 2:4–5)
3) Incentive to Forgive
And what about us? When we read these words, what should we think and feel and do?
The main thing to say is that we do not take the imprecations as encouragements or incentives to curse our enemies. In fact, in Paul’s mind the psalm takes us in the exact opposite direction. Paul quotes the psalm in Romans 15:3 to encourage us to deny ourselves rather than to gratify the lust for revenge. “Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’” In other words, forebear, forgive.
But this is not because there is no wrath, no punishment, no judgment in Psalm 69. It is precisely because there is judgment. And it is not our business to execute. The fact that God will do it and that it is right for him to do it is the very means by which we are able to follow Jesus in suffering for the sake of others who have wronged us:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Romans 12:19-21)
The burning coals will be purifying if there is repentance, and punishment if there is not. God will decide. We will approve. But until that day of judgment, we follow the words of the Anointed King: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. . . . You will be sons of the Most High” (Luke 6:27–29, 35).