Monday, October 3, 2011

Imprecatory Psalms

Imprecatory psalms present a challenge.  The call for judgment and punishment on one's enemies, to the Christian ear, sounds harsh and excessive.  This morning my devotions involved Psalm 109, a primary imprecatory psalm.  Obviously the verses contain very harsh calls for hardship and suffering upon the "wicked man," possibly more than most psalms.  The 'psalm prayer' at the end in my breviary tried to soften the tone as it reminded the hearer that Jesus "blessed" those who cursed him and asked the Father to forgive those who nailed him the cross.  Still, the psalm does not bless the wicked man.  In fact, it asks that his "sin be always before the LORD."  How do we reconcile such language with our faith?

Although in no way coordinated with the cycle of readings, it so happened that one of the lessons to be read for today was from James 2.  The final verse of the reading seemed to throw light on the dilemma posed above: "For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment."  A careful reading of Psalm 109 will reveal that the "wicked man" of this psalm is a godless man devoid of mercy. He "loved cursing," and put it "on like a garment."  He "did not remember to show mercy, but persecuted the poor and needy and sought to kill the brokenhearted."  The psalmist does not come before God to seek revenge for his bruised feelings or to even the score.  He simply recognizes that those who reject the mercy of God and treat others with a harsh and unfair judgment should be judged by their own standards.  They do not recognize the mercy of God, so clearly they do not want it.  So let them be subject to the same conditions they impose on the world.  One might recall at this point Jesus' parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:23ff.  When the servant was initially brought before his lord for a settlement of his accounts, he begged for mercy.  Out of compassion the master forgave the servant's debt.  However, when that same servant later found a fellow servant who owed him money, he showed no mercy, even though the man begged just as sincerely.  And how does the Lord respond here?  "'You wicked servant!  I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?'  And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt."  

The wicked man of Psalm 109 seems no different than the wicked servant of Matthew 18.  God shows mercy to the humble of heart who desire mercy.  However, to those who harden their hearts and reject His mercy, He gives them up to their base mind and allows them to face the conditions under which they wish to subject the world.  They have chosen this judgment, not God, for they chose the conditions.  Of course, those who cannot accept a God who is both loving and just will still find such judgement inconsistent and unfair.  They will see in Psalm 109 yet another reason to reject a God who seems almost hypocritical.  Yet that would be unfair in itself and also contrary to how we respond.  Justice, properly served, not only punishes the lawbreaker, but it ultimately serves to protect the innocent.  To have no justice in our world would result in chaos.  Thus, true love seeks to protect the innocent, even when it means punishing the wicked.  But note that the punishment is equal to that which the wicked chooses for others.  God merely says, if you want to live in a world of no mercy, then so be it.  I would have shown you mercy, if you asked.  But since you don't, I give you your request. 

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