Psalm 137:9 and the Imprecatory Psalms

Here is a post from Wellum’s Couples“Wednesday Word.”  It is a summary of Dr. Wellum’s biblical-theological consideration of the Imprecatory Psalms from Sunday, August 31, 2008.

The imprecatory psalms are some of the most shocking words in the Bible. Take Psalm 137:9: “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” This week, Dr. Wellum walked through these challenging verses in the Psalter and encouraged students of the Bible to read these verses in the full context of God’s revelation.

A Christ-Centered Interpretation
Due to the shocking nature of many of these imprecatory psalms, three primary interpretive responses have been proffered. Some have attempted to dismiss the imprecatory psalms as vengeful cries from a primitive people. Unfortunately, in making this assertion they disregard Scripture’s unity and authority, and they make themselves self-sufficient arbiters of God’s Word. A second approach is similar. In the progress of redemption and revelation, the New Testament imperative to love your enemies has trumped this Old Testament ethic of retribution. While acknowledging the place of these psalms in history, they make them out to be obsolete. The problem again is that this method disjoints the Bible, when in fact the NT interprets these psalms in light of Christ.

A third approach, advocated by Dr. Wellum, is to read these imprecations in the light of Christ. As we put these Davidic words in Jesus’ mouth, we begin to understand his pleas from the cross. Likewise, we better understand the purpose of these troubled psalms. On this side of the cross, we can read these psalms fearfully as we consider the eschatological retribution that will be poured out on Christ’s aggressors, who have not trusted in his own wrath-bearing atonement. This nuanced approach is most faithful to the Bible and most in accord with the progress of revelation.

A Biblical-Historical Context
To understand these wrathful psalms it is necessary to put them in their proper place in redemptive history. Since the uprising in the garden, all creation has been sentenced under a curse to receive the judgment of God (Gen. 3:14-19; cf. Rom. 8:19-22). Appropriately, the imprecatory psalms excoriate those persons, nations, and societies that wage war with God—in truth, this is all humanity. Simultaneously, the imprecatory psalms assert the coming vindication of God. In Genesis 3:15, a ray of light shines in the cursed skies, “a seed of the woman would crush the head of the seed of the serpent.” This promise is embedded in the context of cosmic conflict—the serpent’s offspring will rage against the children of God (cf. Ps. 2). This spiritual warfare must be seen as the underlining context of the imprecatory psalms.

Carried out in the fullness of time, this head-crushing seed of the women is Jesus Christ. Contending in his life against the powers and principalities, he is hoisted on a cross to die. This act of weakness turns out to be his moment of triumph, for in his death delivers to Satan his death blow (cf. Col. 2:15; Rev. 12). The imprecatory psalms point to this eschatological event (Ps. 69; cf. Matt. 27:34; Jn. 19:28ff). On the cross, Jesus Christ endured the imprecatory wrath called down on the enemies of God, and he did this in order to reconcile enemies of God to the Father (cf. Rom. 5:10). In this light then, the destruction of the Babylonian children in Psalm 137 is seen as imagery depicting the serpent’s demise. Moreover, Psalm 137:9, written in under the skies of Babylon, retells the hope of the proto-evangelium, a seed-crushing son. This is also explains the counter-intuitive notion that the destroyer of reptilian infants is “blessed.”

Modern sensitivities may militate against such violent language, but the biblical notion of peace comes at the price of blood. The imprecatory psalms are cries of justice for the Righteous God to carry out his judgment. This was done through military conflict in the OT (i.e. the language of the imprecatory psalms), and in the NT it was finished on the cross. Today, as we read these challenging verses we are confronted to ask ourselves, “What Spirit shall we hear?” The spirit of this age tells us to dismiss these hard sayings as archaic folly, but the Spirit of Christ points us to swallow these bitter words and look to the cross and to the end of the age when Jesus will come again to put all things under his feet.

Application
As we close, consider three applications: 1) Renewing our minds with the message of these psalms affirms in our own hearts the righteousness of God and the sinfulness of humanity; 2) Embracing these imprecations moves us to exalt God in his mercy and in his justice; and 3) Petitioning God according to these Psalms prepares us for the Day of Judgment, and prompts us to cling to the cross.

May we this week cry out to God, Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus! And may we tell everyone we know how to escape the coming wrath foretold in the imprecatory psalms.

Listen to the whole lesson: The Imprecatory Psalms

Psalm 40: From a Miry Pit to Mediated Praise

From the Wednesday Word on Wellums Couples Sunday School class:

In Psalm 40 and throughout the Bible, the liberating work of deliverance accomplished by God on behalf of his people is the source of all praise! In fact, singing a “new song” as David rejoices in Psalm 40:3 is directly related to the Lord’s work of salvation. In Psalm 96:1 and Revelation 5:9, a new song is sung as a response to God’s “new” work of salvation. The result, through the ages, is the same. God’s people are filled with joy and perpetual praise. In this the divine design of God is manifest. God so loved the world that he sent his only son to die in order to make all who believeth in him infinitely glad!

Read the entire Wednesday Word here.

Psalm 103: What Mick Jagger Could Learn from the Sweet Psalmist of Israel

This week begins my shared responsibility of writing “The Wednesday Word” at wellumscouples.com.  This is a weekly summary of the teaching in our sunday school class taught by Dr. Steve Wellum.  Here is the intro to my first post which considers Psalm 103.

The Rolling Stones once lamented, “I can’t get no satisfaction!” While blaming their disaffected state on hollow advertisements, insufficient information, and disillusioned attempts at sex and romance, it is more likely that their lyrics show the emptying effects of hedonistic pleasure-seeking in a fallen and fleeting world. Sadly, this unsatisfied state of living is not isolated to over-the-hill rockers. Too many Christians can resonate with their words and draw comfort from their lyrics, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” Whether due to distraction or disappointment, boredom or busyness, preoccupation with worldly-pleasures or too little reflection on the blessings of the Lord, many Christians and many of us are tempted to turn from sacrifices of praise to downloaded iPods seeking to medicate our pain. There must be a better way!

Psalm 103 points to that better way. To read how, go to wellumscouples.com or just go read Psalm 103.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

Biblical-Theological Resources on the Psalter

This summer our Adult Bible Fellowship, Wellum’s Couples, has been studying the book of Psalms. Attempting to read the Psalter as a canonical unit, instead of 150 disjointed praises and laments, Dr. Wellum has been showing us the themes and the biblical-theological connections established in the Psalms.  This weekend, I had the privilege of teaching Psalm 24.

In preparation for the lesson, I considered a number of books and articles that proved helpful in reading the Psalter canonically.  In contrast to the higher-critical scholarship done in the later nineteenth and twentieth century, the resources listed below mark a more recent turn in Psalm scholarship, seeking to point out the unity and structure of the Psalter. Not all the resources are equally helpful or detailed, but they are a place to start if you are desirous of reading the Psalter as one, God-inspired canonical unit.

Stephen Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty (IVP: 2003) pp. 194–202.

Dempster sees David as the main idea in the Psalter: “[The Psalter’s] fivefold structure echoes the first section of the canon, the five books of Moses. Seventy-three of the psalms have the name ‘David’ in their titles, and Davidic psalms are strategically placed in each book of the Psalter. The Psalter opens with a flurry of Davidic psalms and closes with a similar grouping, Ps. 3-9; 11-32; 34-41; 138-145 (194).

Jamie Grant, “Singing the Cover Version: Psalms, Reinterpretation and Biblical Theology in Acts 1–4” in The Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology.

Grant’s journal article attempts to show how NT usage of the Psalter in Acts 1-4 could serve as a helpful paradigm for reading the Scriptures typologically. Grant also has another book,The King as Exemplar: The Function of Deuteronomy’s Kingship Law in the Shaping of the Book of Psalms (SBL: 2004), that looks helpful for reading the Psalter well.

Geoffrey W. Grogan, Psalms (Eerdmans, 2008)

Brand new commentary on the Psalms in the The Two Horizons OT Commentary series. Grogan spends the first half of the book commenting on individual psalms, and the second half considering the Psalter thematically, biblical-theologically, and then with regard to contemporary issues in evangelical theology. The second half of the book seems very helpful in drawing out themes in the Psalter, but it does not do as well in helping to understand the internal structure of the Psalms themselves.

Paul House, “The God Who Rules,” in Old Testament Theology (IVP:1998), p. 402–23.

Though only a chapter, this may have been the most helpful treatment. Citing John Walton’s JETS article on the Psalter (1991), House writes: “Psalms displays a ‘content agenda’ that includes an introduction (Ps 1-2), David’s conflict with Saul (Ps 3-41), David’s Reign (Ps 42-72), the Assyrian crisis (Ps 73-89), reflection on Jerusalem’s destruction (Ps 90-106), reflection on the return to the land (Ps 107-145) and concluding praises (146-150). These divisions and contentment statements keep faith with the shape of the Psalms ans offer ways by which major theological themes may be discussed. They also allow for both essential diversity and necessary unity in Psalms interpretation” (405).

David C. Mitchell, The Message of the Psalter: An Eschatological Programme in the Book of the Psalms  (Sheffield Academic:1997).

Mitchell’s work underscores the eschatological trajectory in the Psalms in general; chapter 2 considers the arrangement of the Psalter in particular. Recognizing “the headings and content of individual psalms, the sequence of the Psalms, the arrangement of the internal collections and the five-book arrangement” (89), Mitchell attempts to construct a reading the Psalter that is both tied to history and eschatological in emphasis. He sees Zechariah 9-14 as a key to understanding the Psalms, and he spends much time developing this intratextual link. Some of his connections seem speculative, but his work challenges us the reader to consider the Psalter more carefully.

Marvin Tate’s article in Peter Craigie’s Word Biblical Commentary, Psalms (Word: 2004) p. 438–72.

Found in the 2004 update of Peter Craigie’s commentary, Southern Seminary’s own Psalm scholar writes a helpful piece, tracing recent scholarship on the Psalter. He writes: “There is too much evidence of intention and design to assume that the Psalter was simply thrown together in a jumble out of disparate texts without regard to placement or design. We need not, and should not, expect the process to reflected in the Psalms to meet the standards of a modern artistically structured texts. A fully “systematic” redaction will not be found, but this need not deter us from a careful analysis of intertextual relationships between continguous psalms in pairs, clusters, blocks, books, and divisions, as well as the psalter as whole (468).

Soli Deo Gloria, ds