“But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting, and my prayer kept returning to my bosom. I went about as though it were my friend or brother; I bowed down mourning as one who sorrows for a mother,” Psalm 35:13 – 14.
These words, in the midst of an imprecatory psalm, have challenged me more than once. On the one hand they are incongruous, two verses out of twenty-eight, most of which follow the pattern of, “Let destruction come upon him unawares, and let the net which he hid catch himself; into that very destruction let him fall (verse 8).
Thoughtful people struggle with the imprecatory psalms, they seen to go against the Beatitudes and run contrary to, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” How do we interact with these psalms?
I recently heard a professor suggest that the imprecatory psalms are directed toward those who are opposed to God and His people; while this may be true regarding opposition to God if we extend opposition to a godly person as de facto opposition to God; and while it may be true if we extend opposition to a godly person as de facto opposition to the people of God – I am still left with the sense that it is not that simple and with the concern that I may be stretching things in order to arrive at a comfortable approach to imprecatory language.
Psalm 35 begins with, “Contend, O Yahweh, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me.” The language of this psalm is focused on the individual and not the people of God – the psalmist is crying out for vindication and judgment in response to how he has been treated, he is not crying out on behalf of the people of God.
My rule, which I have learned from Paul and others, is that when the people of God are harmed that I cry out for vindication and protection; but that when I am harmed that I simply say to the effect, “Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil, the Lord will repay him according to his deeds,” (2 Timothy 4:14).
I am challenged with: “But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting, and my prayer kept returning to my bosom. I went about as though it were my friend or brother; I bowed down mourning as one who sorrows for a mother,” Psalm 35:13 – 14. I fall woefully short of this, even when dealing with things that are, from an eternal perspective, trivial. If I allow trivial matters to harden my heart toward others, how much more do I fall short when confronting weighty matters?
Perhaps after years of living in these verses things came to a head with the psalmist and he entered into another season of life, another dynamic in his relations with those who had long sought to destroy him? I don’t know.
What I do know is that when I tread on the imprecatory psalms that I must walk carefully lest I think I know more than I do, lest I think I see license to not seek the very best for others, lest I see excuses for my own uncharitable behavior and attitude. As far as I can tell, only God knows the circumstances and the heart of the psalmist, and so another thing I must be wary of is superimposing my own comfortable life experience on literature that was likely written in very different circumstances, circumstances for which I do not have a sure and certain historical context.
While we do not fight against flesh and blood (Ephesians Chapter 6), evil has its incarnations and who among us in comfortable and affluent societies really know what it is to confront the incarnational evil of a Hitler and his henchmen? Incarnational evil is present with us, both in an obvious sense (think for example genocide) and in a subtle and subversive sense (think the dismantling of the image of God by humanism). The imprecatory psalms remind me that evil is real and present and that it has human agents.
Psalm 35 is a psalm of tension, of unanswered questions, of ponderings; it is also a psalm that draws me into communion with my God as I seek to better know Him and understand His ways. Following Jesus Christ is a daily experience, knowing God is a pilgrimage. Psalm 35 lets me know, among other things, that there is much that I do not know while drawing me into a deeper trust in our Lord Jesus Christ.