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Episode 11: Oppression, Imprecatory Psalms, and Justice

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The following is an excerpt from my new book 20 Encouragements for the Depressed Christian. I thought it was fitting considering the racial injustice in America.

 

 

I’ve wondered for a long time how to understand imprecatory Psalms. There are so many of them, and they seem so antithetical to Jesus’ command to love enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Are they products of a bygone era we should just ignore?

Reading C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms helped me with this, and so did reading the notes from the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (I have it through the Tecarta Bible app). I started reading through the Psalms again a few weeks ago, and I’m surprised how much grace and beauty I see in these Psalms (I know, call me crazy).

In the ancient Near East, people believed gods won battles, not necessarily people. If your nation/army won, it was because your god was stronger than the other nation’s god (or gods). Your god was superior. Additionally, ancient Israel was in a covenant with God in which God promised blessings if Israel obeyed Him. (This is a general statement. God never said nothing bad would ever happen to them if they obeyed, but He did say bad things would definitely happen if they didn’t obey. We are in the New Covenant, not the Old, so drawing direct parallels between the modern church and ancient Israel is often fallacious.)

Many of the imprecatory Psalms take place in some sort of military context. David (or the psalmist) is being pursued by enemies, and he is praising God for deliverance or asking God for deliverance. For one, the psalmist often defends his own righteousness to God and points out his enemies’ wickedness. He’s advocating to God that he has obeyed, and he hopes for God’s favor upon him. He’s also pointing out to God that his enemies haven’t obeyed, and he hopes for God’s judgment upon them. He also believes that his God is stronger than his enemies’ idols, and he asks God to demonstrate that.

The psalmist bemoans that the wicked seem to prosper, and that the wicked oppress him and others when they don’t deserve it. He can’t stand seeing this, and he knows God can’t either. So he prays for justice—in other words, he prays that God would make things right. He prays that the righteous would be vindicated and that the wicked would be judged.

The psalmist demonstrates that anger against injustice is a valid and godly emotion. He also demonstrates that wanting justice to be done against the wicked is a valid and—dare I say—godly emotion.

This is good news. I want a God who will judge the truly wicked, those who take advantage of and oppress the vulnerable. I want a God who will restore the world to the way it should be. There are few things more infuriating to me than when I see people with power oppress the vulnerable. And if you read the Bible, you’ll see there may be nothing that angers God more. To those who have been abused, taken advantage of, oppressed: God will never let your oppressor go without judgment. He will vindicate you. As a loving God, He cannot do otherwise.

But how do we reconcile this with “love your enemies”? I think the desire for justice and the desire to see the “wicked” repent can go hand in hand. Part of the seeming discrepancy is due to our contemporary understanding of the word “justice.” We think in terms of retribution and legal consequences. The Bible’s perspective of justice is restoration of the world to the way it should be (see the Bible Project’s video on justice[i]). Thus, when the psalmists beseech God to bring their enemies down, their focus is on making things right (an Edenic vision of God and man living together), not necessarily on retribution itself. (Also, when reading the graphic language of the imprecatory Psalms, it’s helpful to remember that the psalmists are using rhetorical language from their culture and time period. It’s foreign to us, but it wasn’t to the psalmists. They were working within their cultural framework.)

So, if someone oppresses us and we pray for justice—that is, for God to make things right—that can certainly include the person or persons reconciling to God through Christ. If that’s the case, the person’s sin is dealt with through the Cross, though he or she may still face earthly consequences. Repentance and God’s justice are, in essence, the same.

If the person rejects Christ, then he or she will bear the judgment for his or her sins—now and after death. This, too, is God making the world right. However, we prefer that the person(s) come to know Jesus. True love doesn’t just want someone to suffer for his sins; true love wants others to experience the joy of the Father—while knowing that God took care of justice when Jesus bore the punishment for us.

This frees us to love our enemies and not seek revenge. We don’t need to seek revenge because vengeance belongs to God. While we may not need to be asking God to smash our enemies’ teeth (for many of us in the U.S., we’re blessed that our “enemies” aren’t seeking our lives, so our prayers don’t need to sound like they are), it is okay to express the desire that justice be done on oppressive persons. We also need to remember our brothers and sisters in Christ who do have enemies that brutally oppress them and/or seek their lives, and we can pray imprecatory Psalms on their behalf.

For those of us who may not necessarily experience extreme oppression or abuse, we can still have the desire to see justice done whenever we are significantly wronged. Whether someone has stolen from us, treated us unfairly, chose not to show compassion to us when we were hurting, or whatever else, the desire for justice is okay. (Indeed, when we ask for justice, part of what we can mean is simply that we want God to make the world a place where these things don’t happen.) Just remember that God takes care of the justice, not we/us as individuals. God may use our legal system or circumstances or the Cross to bring justice, but it doesn’t fall on any of us to seek personal revenge.

Whenever someone oppresses us for his or her gain, the resulting desire for justice is valid. We just need to rethink our definition: justice on that person isn’t necessarily that they lose all their possessions or they lose all their power (or anything like that). Justice isn’t childish retribution. But when we realize that God is the perfect judge, we are freed to cry justice, justice, justice!

[i] “Video: Justice.” BibleProject, https://bibleproject.com/videos/justice/. Accessed 30 May 2020.

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