May His Days Be Few

July 9, 2023

Book: Psalms

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Scripture: Psalm 109

There is an appropriate time to call for the immediate exercise of God’s justice on those who do very heinous evil. But more importantly, Psalm 109 paints a vivid picture of our need for God’s mercy that comes only in Christ, who took the curse for us.

Well, special thanks to our readers this morning. They got a more difficult passage than most. When you sign up for a ministry like reading Scripture during the service, you’re expecting John 3:16, not calling down God’s curse on your enemies. So well done.

As I mentioned before, the last three weeks in our Summer Psalm series, we have been looking at Psalms that are difficult. These are difficult Psalms to read and to apply. I selected these Psalms because they don’t immediately fit with how I usually think about the Lord or how I usually pray or sing. Two weeks back, we looked at Psalm 26 and David’s confidence in his own integrity. I don’t often stand before God and talk about my own integrity and ask him to see into my heart and see that I’m without sin. I rarely do that. Last week we looked at Psalm 44 and the Sons of Korah who put God on trial and accused him of being absent or negligent in dealing with their suffering. I don’t often find myself willing to call out to God like that, to put him on trial. Those were some tough Psalms, but they seem light and fun compared to what we’re going to look at this morning. If you have ever done one of those Bible reading plans, you know, the ones where you read through the Bible in a year or something along those lines, if you’ve ever done one of those Bible reading plans, you have no doubt come across a few Psalms in a particular genre, and thought, what am I supposed to do with that? They are Psalms written and performed, by the way, because these were sung by ancient Israel. These are songs written and performed by God’s people that call down God’s wrath against their enemies. They are sometimes called Imprecatory Psalms and imprecation is a vocalized curse. So if you curse someone with your mouth, that’s an imprecation. Imprecatory Psalms are a small subset of the whole book of Psalms. Only roughly 14 of the Psalms contain something that we would call a curse or an imprecation. And they fit that category because they contain a call for God to judge his enemies. And in judging his enemies, to show them no mercy, some of these are very detailed, like our Psalm today. They call for God to bring immediate judgment against evildoers in a way that’ll stop them from what they’re doing. So that’s the immediate effect. Stop them from what they’re doing. Shame them, cause them to feel the weight of their sin and in some cases cut off their evil from passing through their family to the next generation. And if your immediate reaction to that is. But doesn’t the Bible say that God is love, and doesn’t the Bible also say that we are to pray for those who persecute us? You are right on both counts.

So what is going on in these Psalms? What are we to do with Psalm 109 where David is calling for his enemy to be taken out? And for his family, the enemy’s family to be ruined, and for no one to extend them any kindness. Can we pray like that? Should we pray like that? What role does a Psalm like this serve in the Bible in the life of the Christian today? Well, I’m going to make the case today that there is an appropriate time to call for the immediate exercise of God’s justice on those who do very heinous evil. I think Imprecatory Psalms like Psalm 109 serve a role in the practice of the church today. They do fit within the biblical description of God’s love, and they can be prayed while still loving our enemy, as Jesus calls us to. And more importantly, Psalm 109 paints a vivid picture of our need for God’s mercy that comes only in Christ. The one who took the curse for us.

So here’s a roadmap. Here’s where we’re going to go today. First, I’m going to show you the content of this Psalm and how it’s put together. And then I want to consider three tensions that we have, three tensions. How the tension fits with God’s love, how it fits with Jesus’ command to have us love our enemies, and then finally the tension of how this fits with everyone’s need for the gospel.

So let’s start first with what this Psalm says. David is writing here about suffering from the attacks of his enemies. And it’s important to note two things about these attacks. First of all, they are false accusations, okay? They’re lies. They’re built on lies. David’s enemies aren’t saying true things about him. They’re saying false things about him in an attempt to ruin his life. And the second thing you need to note here is that the hatred didn’t start with David. Okay? He didn’t star it. David didn’t hate his enemies first, and then they hated him back in return for this. In fact, it tells us that David loved his enemies. Verses 4 and 5: “In Return for my love, they accuse me, but I give myself to prayer. So they reward me evil for good and hatred for my love”. Do you see it? The curses that David is about to call onto his enemy come at the end of a long pursuit of love with these people. And that’s very key to understanding this Psalm, that it comes after David has been trying to love these folks. And I’m going to return to this in a little bit. But for now, this is not a song to sing. When you’ve treated people badly and they’ve treated you badly back. Okay? And you’re having a tough time with somebody and you’ve both sinned against each other. This is not the Psalm to go to in that case. If you have not deeply loved your enemy, Psalm 109 has no application for you. In verse 6 is where the curses start that we find so difficult for us to comprehend. First, David asks God to give this enemy his own traitor. This is how I read these verses, that there would be a traitor at his right hand, who was a friend, but who now is going to accuse him, someone close to him who’s now going to accuse him. And there is a trial. And David wants his enemy to be found guilty. And for God to even reject his enemy’s prayer so that when this enemy is found guilty because of his sins in this trial that David is calling for, that when that enemy cries out to God, as he almost certainly will, that God would see that prayer as the hypocrisy that it actually is. And then David asks God to do the thing that we find the hardest in this Psalm: kill this man and allow all the natural consequences of his death to fall on his family. Make his wife a widow. Make his children fatherless. May his children wander about, begging for food. May a creditor come and take everything that he has. Verse 12, “Let there be none to extend kindness to him, nor any to pity his fatherless children”.

That is hard teaching. This is really hard teaching. You can see why many Christians who read through the Bible struggle today with what to do with Psalms like this. And it’s hard enough to know what to do with calling on God to curse an enemy. But it’s ten times harder to know what to do with David’s; David’s desire to see that curse then extend to his enemy’s family, his wife and his children. But it’s easier to understand what David is saying here if you see that he’s asking for the evil of his enemy to be taken completely out of the nation, that not only would his enemy be stopped, but that his enemy’s evil would be completely wiped out and have no influence. Let me read for you again verses 13-15: “May his posterity be cut off; may his name be blotted out in the second generation. May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord, and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out. Let them be before the Lord continually that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth”. You see how he goes back not just to the wife and children, but all the way to the to the mother and father of this enemy. David is asking the Lord to completely condemn this entire family so that they have no influence at all in Israel.

No positive memory. None, none whatsoever. No influence, no ongoing evil that takes place. He doesn’t want the house of his enemy to be established with resources and influence, because if it was, then that same God dishonoring evil could be passed down to the next generation. This is a pretty hard illustration to use, but I think it’s helpful. When the military raided Osama bin Laden’s compound and they killed him, they buried his body at sea. And if you go into their explanation of this, the reason they did this is that if they had buried his body in the ground, then his burial site would have become a place of remembrance of what he did and what he stood for. And it could have become a location for people to travel to, to pilgrimage to. And that may have inspired another generation to follow in his footsteps. So instead, the military tried to wipe out as much remembrance of him as possible so that he would have as little influence on the next generation as possible. And that’s what David is calling for here. Give this man no legacy, no influence, no generational wealth or blessing. That is hard when it means that a family suffers. But hear me on this Church, there is collateral damage to sin. There’s collateral damage to all sin. Our sins don’t just affect us. They damage the people around us. All sin affects other people. David is asking God to allow all of that collateral damage to be suffered. And what has this enemy done to deserve this sort of curse? David tells us in verse 18 that he clothed himself in curses like a coat. So this enemy showed no kindness, but then pursued the poor and the needy and the broken hearted to put them to death. Look at verse 16 again. He pursued them in order to put them to death. That means that this enemy that he’s talking about is a destroyer of people. He’s going after the lives of people to destroy him. He destroys people’s lives.

It’s important we understand that this is the sort of sin that’s in view in Psalm 109. So Psalm 109 is not a license to call down God’s wrath on the guy that sits at the green light texting and then realizes at the last moment and then flies through the light and you’re behind it, but you get caught in the red light, right? That guy is super annoying. We’re not told we can call down God’s wrath on that guy. you understand? This is not for small matters that we’re talking about. And you know, the other thing, it’s not even for social sins like sexual immorality or even simple greed. Those are those are weighty sins. Those are weighty God-dishonoring sins. But not even those are in view here. People’s lives are being destroyed in the wake of what this man is doing. That’s the reason for this urgent call for God to bring down his wrath on this enemy.

To put this into perspective, you need to think of human traffickers. Destroying the lives of women and children. Think slave owners. Did you know that there are 50 million people today in our world that are enslaved through forced labor or forced marriage. 50 million people in our world today are enslaved. A quarter of them are children. Did you know that Boko Haram has killed 350,000 people since 2009 in the country of Nigeria, in their attempt to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state? The target of that is mostly Christians who just happen to be in their way. The people in view in this Psalm are the people who have rejected the Lord so much that they have become those who consume and destroy other people: spouse and child abusers, rapists, murderers.

And David is saying, don’t let them do it. God, stop them from doing this. Intervene to stop these people. They are a curse to others. Let your curse fall on them and stop them not only from their sin but having any lasting influence on their sin. Don’t let this be passed on to the next generation. And at the same time, in verse 21, David asks the Lord to deal on his behalf. Because God’s steadfast love is good. He wants the Lord to rescue him from being abused by this abuser. He’s one of the targets of this abuser. He doesn’t have any power to stop evil on his own. And so he asks God not only to stop his enemy, but to save him and to restore him from his enemy. Verse 28: “Let them curse, but you will bless. They arise and are put to shame. But your servant will be glad”. So he says the enemy will wear his shame like a cloak. Let him display it. Let him be wrapped in the shame of his sin. But the Lord will stand at the right hand of the needy one, to save him, which is an impactful parallel with verse six earlier in the Psalm, and he called for an accuser to stand at the right hand of his enemy and to accuse him in trial, right? But here at the end of the Psalm, he says, But Lord, you stand at my right hand to advocate for me. When God’s justice is meted out, those who are enemies of God will have an accuser who will speak against them. But those who belong to the Lord will have only the Lord himself standing there. To set them free. And that’s the Psalm. That’s the full Psalm. So what do we do with it? Well, let’s deal with some of the tensions here in the Psalm.

First of all, there’s a tension with this in God’s love. What do we make of it? Let’s compare this with what we know about a loving God. There are a lot of people who will struggle with this Psalm because it doesn’t match up with their own view of what God’s love should look like. So, for instance, we know that God is gracious and merciful. He’s slow to anger. He’s abounding in loving kindness. That’s the biblical picture of God in his character. That’s who God is. That’s biblical teaching. Psalm 109 itself acknowledges God’s steadfast love here, and it says it’s a good thing. It’s not…. this Psalm is devoid of God’s love. It’s centered within God’s love that is good. So how can then God condemn people in this way? I understand that struggle. But that struggle, really, people who wrestle with this are struggling because they fail to see why God expresses these characteristics at all. These things that we love, these character traits that we love, that God has his grace, his mercy, his patience. They don’t see the context in which we experience these things. God is gracious to us in Christ. That’s true. But why must God be gracious? Well, it’s because we’re sinners that don’t deserve forgiveness, right? Grace is unmerited, undeserved favor. God is merciful to us in Christ, that’s true. But mercy requires a situation in which to be merciful. It’s our sinful rebellion against God that gives him the context for displaying his mercy. God is slow to anger. There’s no doubt that is true. But slow to anger is a quality that we can only see in the context of a situation where God would rightly be angry but chooses to be patient, and slow to getting to his anger. You see how it works. You see the flip side of all of these characteristics from God? All of God’s loving qualities toward us that we celebrate are against the backdrop of His justice over sin. Justice itself is a part of God’s love.

Can you imagine a loving God looking on His creation and seeing all that is happening, all of the evil in this world, and seeing the abusers and the active violence that’s taking place and deciding that there will be no consequences now or forever. Can you see a loving God making that choice? When the Bible tells us about God’s wrath over sin and the justice that he will bring down forever on those who reject the free grace of Christ. We are not reading about God’s lack of love. We are reading the expression of His love through justice.

There’s a Croatian theologian named Miroslav Volf, who is from Yugoslavia, and Volf wrestled with the idea of God’s wrath for a long time. He just couldn’t understand God’s wrath, or the wrathfulness of a God who would bring down justice against sinners. But then he started to consider his native Yugoslavia and the genocide against his own people there. I want to read an excerpt to you from a book he wrote called Free of Charge: “My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3 million were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed. My people shelled day in and day out. Some of them brutalized beyond imagination. And I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century where 800,000 people were hacked to death in 100 days. How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grand apparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath, but instead affirming the perpetrators basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love”. You see, Church, a loving God could never turn a blind eye to the persistent evil in our world. That would be in itself unloving, to turn away.

We tend to look past the sins of our own children, don’t we? We tend to see them. We sort of just kind of look past them a little bit. Sometimes we think it’s loving to explain those sins away or those faults, or we use the word ‘they’re just making mistakes’ or something like that, or simply don’t bring them up. Let’s not talk about them too much. We call that loving, but it’s actually enabling sin. God doesn’t enable sin. God doesn’t do that with anyone’s sin. For those who reject Him, the love of God that they experience is His justice. For those who accept Christ, the justice for their sin is secured on the cross. The wrath of God poured out on Jesus on our behalf, that our sins would receive God’s wrath, but not on us, in Christ, setting us free. I’m going to return to this point here at the end. The wrath of God against sin and the condemnation of sinners that we find in Psalm 109 is perfectly in line with God’s love. In fact, we could not call God loving unless he took the sin of the world this seriously.

But how about our love? What about our love? Does Psalm 109 align with how God has called us to love others in Christ? This is the tension that I think that most of us had the hardest time with when we look at ourselves and what we’re called to do. It’s one thing to say that God is wrathful and rightly condemned sin. It’s another to say that I should pray for God to do that. God stop this evil person by taking him out and don’t forget His sin. And while you’re at it, make sure that his evil does not leave a legacy by making sure that everyone around him suffers the consequences of his sin. We don’t pray that, do we? We don’t find ourselves saying those words. That seems to our ears and to our minds and hearts a very hard thing to pray. And given the very infrequent use of language like this in Scripture, it does seem like something that we should rarely pray. And yet here it is in our Christian songbook. What are we to do with it?

Well, the answer is a little bit complicated, but so is the question. So follow me here. Don’t leave me here. Church. Follow me here. Let’s start with Jesus’ instruction to us in Matthew 5:43-45. Okay. This is part of the Sermon on the Mount. This is Jesus speaking. He said, “You have heard that it was said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be sons of your father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and on the unjust”. So Jesus here is addressing a misunderstanding of God’s law. Nowhere in Scripture are we ever told to hate our enemy, that we are never instructed to do that. But some have decided that that’s what they want to do or think that’s what God said they should do. And so Jesus is correcting that misunderstanding. Jesus says, I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. That actually is what we see in Psalm 109. David says, I have been loving my enemy. I have loved this enemy, and I got hate and persecution in return for it. So the question is, when David calls on God to bring down God’s just wrath on his enemy, is this in contradiction to David’s love for his enemy? Technically, we’re not told. David, nowhere in the Psalm says, You know what, I’ve changed my mind. Now I hate my enemy. He doesn’t change there. But clearly there is a change in what he’s asking God to do to his enemy, because David’s love has only been met with hate and abuse and ongoing threat to his life and to the lives of others. So he’s not committing himself to hateful acts toward his enemy. He’s asking God to bring justice against his enemy’s sin. He’s calling out to the God who does justice to bring justice.

So bringing together Jesus instruction with David’s example in Psalm 109, I believe there is a place where someone can find themselves calling on God to bring his justice immediately, to stop an active, evil doer who is harming people while also maintaining love for that enemy. The violence against the people of Nigeria at the hands of Boko Haram needs to stop. And in recent years, it has gotten better. There’s been some surrenders. The group has moved around. They’re in other countries now. There’s still great violence. It needs to stop. I know that those evil men are made in God’s image, and I pray that the Lord will change their hearts. But I also pray that God will stop them by all means necessary, including taking their lives right now in their unrepentant wicked state, if that is what is going to take to save the poor and the needy. That’s a complicated prayer. That’s a complicated prayer. But that prayer rightly aligns my heart to my enemy. It displays love for both God’s justice and for his mercy. It calls for God to bring his justice, but it doesn’t bring that justice into my own hands because that would be sinful. I’m not just taking two ideas and conflating them together either. If you say, Well, yeah, okay, you just found two different things that say different things and you conflate them together in a way that how we want to handle Scripture? We don’t. This is not just the conflation of two ideas. We see this teaching very clearly in Paul’s instruction to us in Romans 12. And this is the passage that I would say is the key to understanding how to bring all of this together. Romans 12:17-21 say this. This is instructions from Paul to the Roman church: “Repay no one evil for evil but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God. For it is written ‘vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord’. To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head’. Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good”.

Do you see both truths in there? Do you see it? The reason that I can be totally loving in my actions toward the most heinous sinners is that God’s just wrath will absolutely avenge the sin done against me. That I can completely leave that into God’s hands, knowing God is the one who will bring judgment against sin. Actions of love are not out of step with calls for God to bring his justice against that same sin.

The tension in my heart to love an enemy who is actively hurting me or others is resolved by a God who will by no means clear the guilty. And that means that sometimes, in my distress, I’m going to cry out to God, to exact justice and to save myself or others. And that is totally in line with the love of God. So far as it depends on us, we are called to live peaceably with everyone. So far as it depends on us, we will overcome the evil of the world with the good generated in us by the Holy Spirit. But that’s because we can leave vengeance against sin in God’s hands. It’s not because there won’t be revenge. It’s not because there won’t be justice or vengeance. It’s that we’re not to carry it. But we can cry out for it. And that’s what David is doing here in Psalm 109. He’s leaving it in God’s hands.

Well, there’s one more tension that I want to address before we leave Psalm 109 this morning, I want to address this one final tension that I feel when I read it, and that you may feel as well when you read it. It’s the tension between David, who in this Psalm identifies as the righteous man who’s being mistreated, and the enemy whose sin deserves the curse of God. First of all, David, King David is not without sin. In fact, Psalm 69, in Psalm 69, which is also an Imprecatory Psalm, probably the most famous Imprecatory Psalm, he acknowledges the part that his own sin has played in the mess that he’s in. He doesn’t in Psalm 109, but he does it in Psalm 69. He writes, Oh God, you know my folly. The wrongs that I have done are not hidden from you. And second here, the sins of the enemy in Psalm 109 are actively violent, but they’re not more deserving of God’s judgment than any other sin. And since sin is a universal problem, and the wages of every sin is death, what hope does Psalm 109 offer to any of us? Because my sin is also condemned with death. All sin is. What’s really interesting is that when we turn to the New Testament and we see the gospel writers and the apostles writing, using the Old Testament, they use the Imprecatory Psalms as pictures of the gospel fulfilled by Jesus. In Psalm 69, verse 21, David poetically says of his enemies, he says, “They gave me poison for food; and for my thirst, they gave me sour wine to drink”. And then John, the Apostle John, records for us in the final moment on the cross in John 19:28-30, he wrote this: “Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the scripture), I thirst. A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. And when Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, ‘It is finished’. And he bowed his head, and he gave up his spirit”. The Imprecatory Psalms are pictures of the suffering of Jesus. They are not just a struggle between righteous people and wicked people. They are the signposts pointing us to the only righteous person for the rest of us who are under the curse of God because of our sin. Only Jesus without qualification could ever pray ‘In return for my love, they accuse me, but I give myself to prayer. So they reward me evil for good and hatred for my love’. Only Jesus loved fully without any hatred and received only hatred back for it. For all of us, it’s somewhat of an even exchange: we love and we hate. We sinfully turn from God. But Jesus never did that. He only gave love. He only received hate. And so really, he’s the only one that can pray Psalm 109 in its fullest extent. And that’s what all sin is, by the way. It’s returning hatred for God’s love. We all stand under a curse. We’re all subject to an accuser standing at our right hand pointing out what we have done wrong. But Jesus went to the cross to become a curse for us. As it is written, cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree. Why did they put him on the cross? Why didn’t he die a different way? Because in Jewish law, if you were hung on a tree that was a symbol that you had been cursed by God, that you had received God’s curse, that you were damned. And Jesus went to the cross, and he became a curse for us and took our sins away. He bore the full weight of the just wrath of God on his shoulders. It’s that death that removes the curse from all of us who trust in Jesus. And when the curse is removed, your sins are not remembered. Forever. They are removed. You’re not blotted out. David called for his enemies to be blotted out. When Jesus takes your curse, you’re not blotted out. Your sins are, but you are not. Your prayer is no longer counted as sin. It is heard by a Lord who stands there and is your advocate before God. I accept this one, hear, this one. Because He is mine. She is mine. It’s heard by a Lord who stands at your right hand advocating for you. And you are not clothed in dishonor. You do not have the dishonor of your sins clinging to you like a coat sinking down into your bones like oil, that has been removed. You have been washed clean. You have been set free. You are now wrapped in the righteousness of Christ. Praise God. Let’s pray.

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