Imprecatory Psalms versus Love your Enemies?

Q. Jesus taught us that we should love and pray for our enemy. Mt 5:44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Why is it that in Ps 109 David curses his enemies before God?

A. Imprecatory psalms and prayers invoking curses on ones’ enemies are a problem to many Bible readers, who find it difficult to reconcile these passages with Jesus’ command to love your enemies. And it’s not just David being vindictive, but involves other people such as prophets as well, who are God’s spokesmen and ought to know better e.g.

Jer 18:21 Therefore, give their children over to famine
And deliver them up to the power of the sword;
And let their wives become childless and widowed.
Let their men also be smitten to death,
Their young men struck down by the sword in battle.

It is especially problematic in view of God saying, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19; Heb 10:30) What were these people thinking? Don’t they know what God said? Some therefore consider such passages as sub-Christian and shouldn’t be in the Bible. How do we reconcile them as they are indeed part of Scripture?

Rather than consider those who call upon God to judge their enemies as being mean-spirited and beneath what a Christian should do, my opinion is that it is us who are not as close to God as the imprecatory psalmists were, who were more concerned about God’s name being profaned by their enemies than seeking revenge for themselves. David did evil in the sight of the LORD when he committed adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:27, 12:9) and when he ordered a census of Israel’s army (1 Chron. 21:7), but God never faulted him for his imprecatory prayers. That should alert the critics that they overlooked something.

The LORD called David a man after His own heart (1 Sam 13:14; Acts 13:22). David knew “Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? And who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood And has not sworn deceitfully (Ps 24:3-4). He was not afraid to call upon God to “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me,” (Ps 139:23-24a). I would not dare to do so unless my heart was totally free from personal motives and 100% pure before God.

And his actions vindicated his thoughts. David had the opportunity to get back at those who wronged him, but he did not take matters into his own hands, instead leaving it to the LORD to exonerate him e.g. sparing Saul’s life twice (1 Sam 24; 1 Sam 26).

My conclusion is that unlike us who often view things through jaundiced eyes tainted by self-interest, David saw things in sharper contrast of right vs. wrong, conformity to God’s character or against it, positive or negative impact on God’s name etc. He therefore called upon God to deal justly with His enemies and give them the punishment they rightly deserved. Notice that in v 6-20 all the righteous judgment are taught elsewhere in the Bible, including doing unto his enemies what they did to him, and David had not gone overboard in retaliation against his enemies. He left the “settling the scores” entirely in God’s hands.

My last comment is that biblical ethics is a progressive revelation. While there is continuity between OT and NT ethics, with the coming of Christ in the age of grace, people receive a fuller understanding of what God requires of us than in OT times. We should therefore not read back NT standards into the OT and expect full compliance.

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OT versus NT?

OT-NT 1

Q. The OT teaches that the righteous are rewarded with good, those who obey are not only rich spiritually, but receive physical blessings (riches, long lives, safety from enemies etc.) on earth. The NT teaches that those who follow Jesus will have sufferings on earth, even though it is eventually for their good and help them to be more Christ like. Why is there this difference in teaching?

A. Your observations are valid, but not the complete picture:

Old Testament:
Ps 5:12 For it is You who blesses the righteous man, O LORD, You surround him with favor as with a shield.
• Prov 3:33 … but He blesses the dwelling of the righteous.
• Prov 10:6 Blessings are on the head of the righteous, …
• Prov 10:22 It is the blessing of the LORD that makes rich, and He adds no sorrow to it.
• Prov 28:20 A faithful man will abound with blessings, …

New Testament:
Mk 10:30 but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.
• 2 Tim 3:12 Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
• 1 Pet 3:14 But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. …

That’s part of the teaching. But in fact there is continuity between the Old and the New Testament. OT saints who remained righteous also suffered on earth e.g.
• Joseph, Gen 40:15 For I was in fact kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing that they should have put me into the dungeon.”
Job, Job 2:3 … For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man fearing God and turning away from evil. And he still holds fast his integrity, although you incited Me against him to ruin him without cause.”
Jeremiah, Jer 15:15 You who know, O LORD, Remember me, take notice of me, And take vengeance for me on my persecutors. Do not, in view of Your patience, take me away; Know that for Your sake I endure reproach.

And Jesus came to fulfill the Law, not abolish it:
Mt 5:17-18 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

So why the difference in emphasis? I think it has to do with progressive revelation, teaching only as much as the student is able to learn, which is good pedagogy. For example:
Ex 13:17 Now when Pharaoh had let the people go, God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, even though it was near; for God said, “The people might change their minds when they see war, and return to Egypt.”
• Ex 23:28-30 I will send hornets ahead of you so that they will drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites before you. I will not drive them out before you in a single year, that the land may not become desolate and the beasts of the field become too numerous for you. I will drive them out before you little by little, until you become fruitful and take possession of the land.

So even on a small-scale God took the condition of His people into account, how much they were able to absorb and bear. Just as parents hope their children will be well-educated, they don’t teach kindergarten children university courses right away, because they can’t take them in. but gradually through elementary and secondary school, allowing them to mature. In NT times, after several thousand years of showing how God deals with man and what He expects from him, it was time to give him solid food and not just milk, because now he is able to receive it (1 Co 3:1-2, Heb 5:12). It’s time to move on from being infants to become spiritual men, hence the change in emphasis. The teachings were already present in the OT, just not as explicit as in the NT.