Smite Mine Enemies: Applying Violent Psalms

The Bible is loaded with violence. I mean, seriously, if the entire Bible were made into movies, quite a number of them would be rated R for violence alone. Now, most of the violence is Scripture isn’t something that we must concern ourselves with, as it is simply a historical description of stuff that happened. Some is more difficult and scary, but I’ll leave the most significant concerns for another piece. For now, I want to consider the violent psalms (also known as “imprecatory psalms”). We love the book of Psalms. They’re great poetry, inspiring and comforting, touching every part of the human experience. But then we have psalms like this one (I’m quoting it in full to make the point):

Do you rulers indeed speak justly?
Do you judge people with equity?
No, in your heart you devise injustice,
and your hands mete out violence on the earth.

Even from birth the wicked go astray;
from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies.
Their venom is like the venom of a snake,
like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears,
that will not heed the tune of the charmer,
however skillful the enchanter may be.

Break the teeth in their mouths, O God;
Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions!
Let them vanish like water that flows away;
when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short.
May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along,
like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.

Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns—
whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away.
The righteous will be glad when they are avenged,
when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked.
Then people will say,
“Surely the righteous still are rewarded;
surely there is a God who judges the earth.”

Psalm 58

Whoa. Pretty harsh. The righteous will be glad when we dip our feet in the blood of the wicked? Okay…

I could write all day on why these violent psalms are written, and why they are Scripture, and how they are compatible with God’s love and the command to love our enemies, but I have no need to, because many others have already done so better than I could ever do. I would simply sum this part up with a quote from C. S. Lewis (though despite my appreciation for this statement I disagree with most of what he said from the context in which he wrote this): “The ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that it…is hateful to God.”

What I’d rather address is how we can actually make use of these violent psalms today. If we understand them, can we pray them as well? Should we ask God to smite our those who do wrong to us, those who treat us badly and hurt us? No, we have a direct command from Jesus to love our enemies and pray for them (that doesn’t mean for their destruction, by the way). So what do we do with these psalms? Well, three things come to mind.

  1. Pray for the triumph of righteousness and justice. These psalms were directed against enemies who fought against Israel and God, nations who would interrupt the world’s redemption. The psalmists wanted to see God vindicated and the evildoers stopped. Likewise, we ought to pray that God will stop those who do evil today, and that instead justice and mercy will fill our world.
  2. Heed the implicit warnings. If you read these psalms, you should conclude one thing: God hates sin and will do terrible destruction to sinners. So if you don’t want to be judged like that, if you don’t want people to be happy if your babies are dashed against the rocks (Ps. 137:9), live rightly and obey God’s commands.
  3. Pray for the destruction of our true enemies. Paul tells us that we aren’t struggling against flesh and blood, but against spiritual powers and demonic forces. They assault God’s people every day and try to thwart the Kingdom of God, just like Israel’s enemies back in the day. The world, the flesh, and the devil are constantly assailing us, and God hates them for it. We ought to, as well, so let us pray for God’s conquest and victory to be ushered in speedily against these foes.

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So what do you think?