Complaint, Psalm 64

spotted leafIn the Literary Study Bible’s introduction to Psalm 64, editors Leland Ryken and Philip Graham Ryken call it the “prototypical” lament psalm, the “specimen in which the conventional elements stand out highlighted” with “vivid poetic texture and memorable imagery” (p. 815). An awareness of this psalm’s lament construction and literary techniques helps us derive more meaning from David’s “complaint” (verse 1). We should never examine the psalms as a purely literary exercise. All scripture is the very word of God and is profitable for our instruction and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). But while the psalms teach our minds, they also touch our hearts.

Like most laments, this psalm begins with a cry to God: Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint (Psalm 64:1a, ESV). We know that God hears and answers prayer, yet he wants us to call to him. This complaint doesn’t equate with our modern understanding of complaining. It doesn’t mean whining about everything, never being joyful or content. It’s expressing your problem to God and your recognition that you need his divine help.

David strongly expresses his need for deliverance: preserve my life from dread of the enemy. Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked, from the throng of evildoers (verses 1b-2, ESV).

The problems in David’s life are real and immediate. He expresses urgency as he begs God for help with imperative verbs: preserve, hide. His enemies fill him with dread, they plot secretly, and they are many (a throng!).

Like most laments, this psalm begins with a cry to God:

who whet their tongues like swords,
    who aim bitter words like arrows,
shooting from ambush at the blameless,
    shooting at him suddenly and without fear.
They hold fast to their evil purpose;
    they talk of laying snares secretly,
thinking, “Who can see them?”
   They search out injustice,
saying, “We have accomplished a diligent search.”
    For the inward mind and heart of a man are deep (verses 3-6, ESV).

These enemies are not obvious foes on a battlefield. They excel at manipulation and behind-the-scenes schemes. They stealthily attack innocent people without cause. Rather than simply slipping into sin or falling in with a bad crowd, these guys commit themselves to evil and conspire to trap others. They doubt anyone would catch on to their plans because they’re careful to cover their tracks. They pour their time and intelligence into searching out injustice, looking for ways to beat the system. They focus on criticizing and bringing down other people. They are verbally, emotionally–perhaps even physically and spiritually–abusive. The mind and heart of a person is very deep. No one knows the depth of depravity in some minds or the extent of evil in some hearts. Some people devote God’s good gift of mental acuity to scheme against others.

What a depressing description! Maybe David’s vivid picture of his enemies reminds you of someone you know. A verbal bully who rudely criticizes you in front of others, a manipulator who secretly persuades others that you’re not trustworthy or competent, a hypocritical person who acts friendly to many while refusing to smile or speak to you, or an intelligent and articulate person who manufactures narratives against you and God’s truth. These situations are enough to make a person feel hopeless. Within the context of the church community, they can make you want to leave, shaking the dust from your feet (Matthew 10:14).

Before you get too depressed, please read the next section of the psalm, which begins with these crucial words: “But God”!

But God shoots his arrow at them;
    they are wounded suddenly.
They are brought to ruin, with their own tongues turned against them;
    all who see them will wag their heads (verses 7-8, ESV).

These people won’t get by with their schemes forever. Their tongues cut like swords? Their words wound like arrows? (See verse 3.) God shoots his arrows at them! He wounds them suddenly and brings them to ruin, using their own back-stabbing tongues to cut them down to size. People will see it and shake their heads.

But the purpose isn’t your personal vengeance, attractive as that might seem. God brings them down to show his divine power and generate our human praise (verses 9-10, ESV):

Then all mankind fears;
    they tell what God has brought about
    and ponder what he has done.

Let the righteous one rejoice in the Lord
    and take refuge in him!
Let all the upright in heart exult!

People who see God destroy the enemies of believers will revere the Lord and witness to his deliverance. They’ll meditate on his amazing works. Believers can rejoice in the Lord and take refuge in him.

Ponder what God has done and rejoice! If you haven’t seem him bring down your enemies yet, trust that no enemy of God will ultimately succeed. Let your heart, brought low by the schemes and insults of others, exult in the Lord!

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Psalm 58

On Mondays for the last several years, I’ve been trying to post a meditation on a psalm and today’s the day for Psalm 58. Interestingly, Bible Gateway’s “Book of Common Prayer” reading plan for today (March 17, 2014) includes Psalm 58.

Almost four years ago, I looked at Psalm 58 in a post titled “Broken Teeth & Torn Fangs” that talked about its vivid imagery and imprecatory language.  I noted how this psalm thrusts into overdrive Psalm 57’s image of wicked liars as lions.

We see this particularly in verse 6 (ESV):

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
    tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!

I noted that the editors of the Literary Study Bible use the term “satiric” four times in their brief introduction to Psalm 58 and avoid the use of the word “imprecatory” all together. Reading my original post nearly four years later, I’m still not sure warrior David viewed this as satire when he wrote it. If you want a somewhat graphic description of David’s forceful character when he became angry at Nabal, read the King James Version of 1 Samuel 25.

People tend to avoid talking about the imprecatory Psalms, perhaps because they don’t know what to say about them or are embarassed by their apparently vindictive words. But we know from 2 Timothy 3:16 that all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. And that includes imprecatory (or satiric, if you prefer) Psalms.

Psalm 58 pulses with vivid pictures of the wicked who “go astray from birth, speaking lies” (v. 3), comparing these liars to poisonous snakes:

They have venom like the venom of a serpent,
    like the deaf adder that stops its ear,
so that it does not hear the voice of charmers
    or of the cunning enchanter (verses 4 & 5, ESV).

Lies are poison. Liars are like devious snakes who will not listen to charmers or enchanters. Intent on their malicious purpose, they will not listen to reason. They refuse to be controlled by anyone other than their own desires.

After David compares liars to young lions, asking God to break their teeth and tear out their fangs (see v. 6 above), he continues to pray for their destruction with disturbing descriptions (verses 7-9, ESV):

Let them vanish like water that runs away;
    when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted.
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,
    like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.
Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
    whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!

Because some of these phrases carry weighty emotional freight, these verse are difficult to read.  And they’re immediately followed by this graphic image:

The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance;
    he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked (verse 10, ESV).

How are we to understand such disturbing language and graphic imagery?

We must first realize that the vengeance depicted here is not our own, but God’s. He has executed it in his perfect and righteous judgment.

In Heart Aflame: Daily Readings from Calvin on the Psalms, John Calvin writes about verse 10: “It might appear at first sight that the feeling here attributed to the righteous is far from being consistent with the mercy which ought to characterise them; but we must remember that…there is nothing absurd is supposing that believers, under the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit, should rejoice in witnessing the execution of divine judgments. …when wilful obstinacy has at last brought round the hour of retribution, it is only natural that they should rejoice to see it inflicted, as proving the interest which God feels in their personal safety” (p. 142).

Christians who seek to show Christ’s compassion shouldn’t cringe when reading imprecatory Psalms. These Psalms are not calls for us to perform violence, but are assurances that God will certainly judge and completely destroy those who thwart the cause of his righteousness. Their destruction will witness to the entire world (verse 11, ESV):

Mankind will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
    surely there is a God who judges on earth.”

This verse implies that we don’t have to wait until the final Day of Judgment to see the wicked destroyed. We may wait that long to see some forms of justice, but God will also make his justice obvious while people still inhabit the earth.

While we might be tempted to cringe at or reject scriptures expressing imprecation, we can view them correctly when we remember Romans 12:19 (ESV):

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.”

We are not to seek vengeance. Rather we must rest in God and trust that he will see justice done. We can be thankful that God is a righteous judge who will not allow wickedness to triumph forever. He may destroy evil on this earth, and we can be sure that he will finally eradicate it forever.

And that’s reason to rejoice!