Psalms of (Divine) Justice

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It’s important to know that the Bible doesn’t distinguish between the terms righteousness and justice. In both Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) righteousness and justice are seen as the essentially the same. In fact, in the Greek there are no separate words for righteousness and justice and in Hebrew there are separate words yet they are used interchangeably.

Today, the church draws a distinction between the two words. Many churches are very big on personal righteousness; holiness, Pentecostal, and Wesleyan churches emphasize the holiness of the individual. In these types of churches, the idea of righteousness is stressed in relation to a believer’s morality and behavior. Their goal is for the individual to live up to God’s standard of righteousness.

But other churches are very big on justice, as in “social justice.” Mainline denominations like the Lutheran church, Anglicans, Methodists, and some Presbyterians preach about an almost utopian ideal where society is free from all forms of injustice, whatever their ideas of injustice may be, and they work to make this happen, often using the political system and the courts. For these types of churches, justice is what they think God’s vision is for society and they are the tool to implement that vision.

But from the Bible’s standpoint, righteousness and justice are the same. The Bible holds equally to both terms, demonstrating once again that perfect balance is always found in Scripture. Yes, God is very concerned about personal morality, but personal morality at the expense of the proper treatment of others is wrong – it’s imbalanced. And if all you’re concerned about is your vision of “social justice” and changing the culture (people, in other words) to fit your vision at the expense of changing yourself, then your imbalanced, too.

In the end, the Bible must be our guide in such matters. There are numerous psalms that speak of God’s justice, and these psalms form what we call “psalms of divine justice.” Very often in these psalms, the psalmist prays to God to right some wrong – a wrong in the land or a personal wrong. We also refer to some of these psalms as “imprecatory psalms” because they contain imprecations, or prayers calling down God’s wrath on the wicked. In fact, you can find imprecations in both the Old and the New Testaments. Some people see a conflict with the many imprecations found in the Bible, especially in the psalms, and the Biblical ethic of love. In both Testaments we read admonitions about loving our neighbor and even our enemy. Jesus Himself refused to exercise divine vengeance during His earthly ministry because, in His own words, He didn’t come to judge the world but to save it. He even rebuked His disciples on one occasion because they wanted to call down fire from heaven upon a city that rejected their message.

When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. (Luke 9:54, 55 NIV)

However, ultimately in God’s plan, vengeance does indeed belong to Him.

But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you. (Matthew 11:24 NIV)

So, it’s not that God won’t exercise justice, only that it is postponed. Paul noted this:

God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. (2 Thessalonians 6, 7ff NIV)

God’s righteousness demands justice among His creation, but that will happen in His time, not ours. In the meantime, though, there is no prohibition against imprecations. Nor are they encouraged. They merely are one type of prayer worthy of study. One Bible scholar who noticed this made an interesting point:

It would be unreasonable to expect to find in the Psalms the Christian ideal of man’s attitude toward his enemies, but in [Psalm 140] we have the next best thing to it; for there is no hint of the desire of personal retaliation against the vindictive enemies of the psalmist. All is left in the hands of God. That there should be some words of bitterness is natural enough; but the passive attitude of the victim of oppression himself reveals a spirit of true godliness.

Psalm 140

Psalm 140 is a psalm of divine justice. It is one of many psalms that deal with the existence of evil and persecution within the borders of Israel. It’s bad enough to suffer persecution from outside, but from within presents an intolerable situation! Some of these evildoers were Gentiles who lived among the Israelites, but most of the persecution came from fellow Jews whose apostasy not only involved rejecting the worship of Yahweh, but also of persecuting those who remained true to Him.

Rescue me, Lord, from evildoers; protect me from the violent, who devise evil plans in their hearts and stir up war every day. (Psalm 140:1, 2 NIV)

All was not well among God’s people, to be sure. It seldom is. Within the Church today there are worldly factions who have it in for those who wish to live according the teachings of Scripture. They are mocked and made fun of. In regard to how the psalmist handled the situation in his day, after several verses of complaint and declarations of trust in God, he takes a sharp turn with verse 10 –

May burning coals fall on them; may they be thrown into the fire,into miry pits, never to rise. May slanderers not be established in the land; may disaster hunt down the violent. (Psalm 140:10, 11 NIV)

If you don’t detect a lot of love in those verses, you’re right. There isn’t. This is the imprecatory part of the psalm. It’s not easy to explain and apply verses like these to modern Christian life in light of what our Lord taught:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… (Matthew 5:43, 44 NIV)

That the psalmist loved God and wanted to serve Him is obvious. He loved God and hated wickedness, not just because wickedness was harmful to himself and to others, but because it’s very existence was a offense to God. This is why he prayed for death of those who practiced it. As New Testament believers, however, we should be able to, as they say, “separate the sin from the sinner,” “the act from the actor.” Robert Alden makes in invaluable contribution that helps us modern believers in God deal with the situation –

If we cannot maintain composure while hating evil, or hate it apart from the one who practices it, then perhaps we had best withdraw from the fray, repeat verse 12 of this psalm, and wait for God to judge.

That’s excellent advice. We need to always remember that in this war against sin, the righteous will be vindicated and the upright will be blessed. There is no doubt.

I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy. Surely the righteous will praise your name, and the upright will live in your presence. (Psalm 140:12, 13 NIV)

Psalm 109

Psalm 109 is the last of the pure imprecatory psalms, and the strongest. The whole psalm has a courtroom feel to it, with the psalmist pleading his case before the judge.

Sinful people who lie and cheat have spoken against me. They have used their tongues to tell lies about me. (Psalm 109:2 NIrV)

The psalmist isn’t whining here, he’s presenting his case as the plaintiff and he is surrounded by false witnesses. The odds are against him prevailing. To whom can he turn for help? Of course, in a desperate situation like this, God is the only Source of real help. The opening words of this psalm represent the psalmist’s earnest plea for help.

The contrast between him and his enemies couldn’t be more stark.

They gather all around me with their words of hatred. They attack me without any reason. They bring charges against me, even though I love them and pray for them. They pay me back with evil for the good things I do. They pay back my love with hatred. (Psalm 109:3 – 5 NIrV)

You can’t help but notice the similarities between the psalmist and the Lord Jesus. Truly this writer had a godly disposition.

Verses 6 – 19 are chock full of maledictions. Indeed, this group of verses contain “some of the most vituperative, invective, and vitriolic vengeance found anywhere in Scripture.” These are powerful verses. The question, however, is this: Who is speaking? Is it godly King David? Or is it somebody else? The Hebrew is unclear. If you think it’s David, as some translations would have it, then it sounds like he’s just given up on being godly. In fact, he actually contradicts himself with some of his statements. Consider in verse four how he declares that he prays for those who are against him, but then in the following verses he calls down curses upon them!

So, if it isn’t David saying these things, then who is it? Many scholars believe that David is writing about what his accusers are saying about him! The accusers think they are in the right and it is they who are calling down curses upon him. In Hebrew there is no way of indicating a quotation, as we have in English, with quotation marks. There are no quotation marks in Hebrew, so the Psalmist simply has to run on. But there are several things which give us clues that David is not the one calling down curses, but his accusers.

First, there is the whole change in tone as already noted. David was a godly man, and he wrote as a godly man. The change of attitude at verse 6 is worse than jarring. It seems almost impossible that a sane man, from one breath to another, can go from a lover to a hater with such ease!

Second, notice how the grammar changes. The NIV makes this very clear; other translations do not, but the NIV hedges its bets and does. We move from “they” in verses 1 – 5 to “him” in verses 6 – 19. David had been talking about “them,” his accusers, now they are talking about “him,” King David.

When he is tried, let him be found guilty, and may his prayers condemn him. May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership. (Psalm 109:7, 8 NIV)

The “he” is David. His accusers are standing before the judge, as it were, presenting their libelous case. Reading verses 6 through 19 correctly, we can see two things. First, we should place quotation marks around them so we never forget a man of God would never pray like this. And second, we can see how the enemy of God’s people work.  Satan, the accuser of God’s people, stands before God, the Judge of all creation, accusing believers constantly. Here in the psalms we have a miniature drama on earth of what plays out in the court of heaven all the time.

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” (Job 1:9 – 11 NIV)

For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. (Revelation 12:10b NIV)

Those verses speak of Satan, whose very name means “accuser,” and what he is best at: making false accusations about God’s people in front of God.

David’s enemies want to kill him.

May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. (Psalm 109:9 NIV)

Ultimately we know that’s what the Devil wants to have happen to each one of us. That’s why he tries so desperately to keep us in sin because, “the wages of sin is death.”

David’s enemies wanted to take all that he had; to impoverish him and his family forever.

May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor. (Psalm 109:11 NIV)

If that sounds familiar, it’s because you are likely thinking about this verse:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10 NIV)

And at last, their hatred toward David was so complete, his enemies wished for his damnation.

May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord; may the sin of his mother never be blotted out. May their sins always remain before the Lord, that he may blot out their name from the earth. (Psalm 109:14, 15 NIV)

David speaks again in verse 20 –

May this be the Lord’s payment to my accusers, to those who speak evil of me. (Psalm 109:20 NIV)

The literal translation of verse 20 makes David’s mind a little more clear and is more in keeping with his godly character –

This is the reward which my accusers seek from the Lord, those who speak evil against my life! (Psalms 109:20 Literal)

The remainder of the psalm records David’s wonderful prayer to His God for deliverance. He commits his cause to God. Here is a man, unlike his accusers, who understood the truthfulness of the Word of God when it says things like this:

It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them.” The Lord will vindicate his people. (Deuteronomy 32:35, 36a NIV)

In verse 6, David’s accusers, in their vanity, wanted God to appoint an accuser to stand at his right hand to accuse him. The last verse of this psalm tells us a profound truth:

For he stands at the right hand of the needy, to save their lives from those who would condemn them. (Psalm 109:31 NIV)

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