January 27, 2021

Open Mic: Picking and Choosing in the Psalms

Chaplain Mike posts today’s Open Mic question on behalf of the iMonk, Michael Spencer.

When I received this from Michael and was asked to post it, it reminded me that, often in my work as a hospice chaplain, I read the Psalms for my patients. However, I usually edit my readings. Why? The psalm Michael asks us to consider is a prime example.

Psalm 139 is a perennial favorite for Christians. Who doesn’t love the poetic picture it paints of God’s intimate knowledge and care of his people? Who doesn’t rejoice in its reassurance that we will never be without God’s presence? that he is constantly thinking of us and active in providing for us and protecting us?


I guarantee you that I don’t read verses 19-22:

O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.

Why don’t we feel comfortable reading these verses?

Why do we feel compelled to “pick and choose” when we read the psalms?

Why do our minds try to justify or filter out such phrases as “I hate them with perfect hatred”? And what does a statement like that mean anyway?

How do we understand these imprecations in the light of other Scriptures, like the Sermon on the Mount, that say plainly, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”?

The mic is yours. Use it thoughtfully and let’s have a discussion about this.


  1. Rene Girard wrote an enormously helpful essay a few years ago explaining the place of the violent psalms. Unfortunately, it’s not available online (scholarly journal), but I posted some excerpts here:


    (Sorry, I know linking to yourself is bad form, but if it’s open mic, I have to say this is some of the best stuff I’ve discovered on this topic in recent years.)

  2. Todd Erickson says

    There’s also a psalm that talks about the joy of dashing the infants of one’s enemies against the rock.

    I think that we have to realize that a lot of this plays very directly into the trouble we get when we try to operate as if ALL scripture is infallible and inerrant. Some things were true at their time, in that place, for that person, that are not necessarily true now. We have gone beyond that point, we have fulfilled that age, we have moved on to greater things.

    In David’s age, “An eye for an eye” was the highest law, it was perfect Justice. We no longer apply to that measure.

    • I personally disagree that this provides a difficulty for infallibility of Scripture. This passage (and others) is not teaching that we should go out and kill our opponents while feeling some perverted sense of glee. The passage is showing real emotions expressed by real people in their darkest hour—just because a real emotion is put down in words doesn’t make it “right” or sanction it as an official teaching of the Bible. It shows that real people are involved here.

      Not to diminish the jarring effect the passage has on us, I see this less as a statement about babies and more as the expression of a wish for an end to suffering being experienced by God’s chosen people. The wish is expressed in a cultural idiom having to do with cutting off the ability (eventually) for those imposing the suffering to continue to be a persecuting force. Just like Jesus talked about cutting off your hand or eye if they cause you to sin, perhaps this passage can be read as a wish to “cut off” or put to an end anything that would cause separation between a people and their God. I’m not trying to sugarcoat here—just saying that perhaps we can find a real message if we look carefully and not just throw the whole passage out because we think it’s an impious error not applicable to us.

      I personally think that our trouble with “hating” sin has less to do with having “gone beyond” the morals of the past and more to do with having a diminished view of sin. If our view of sin is that it is the cause of every terrible thing that has ever happened in history and that it is the reason that God Himself had to die (to undo its effect), I think it’s natural to hate and detest sin anywhere it appears.

    • Todd, it’s Psalm 137 you’re thinking about. The part about dashing the Babylonian babies against the rocks comes at the very end, and out of context with the first part of the Psalm, which is a lament about the captivity.

      Not going to get too much into the inerrancy/infallibility thing (JeffB and Bobby Grow are doing that) but I will say that either the whole bible is inspired or we might as well say that none of it is.

      Because the disturbing part is so out of context with the earlier lament, I’m perfectly happy to “pick and choose” and consider this a separate section, perhaps an expression of real and honest emotion, as JeffB says, and not consider that kind of behavior sanctioned by the bible.

      Anyway, there’s a lot going on in Psalm 137: It says a lot about the desire of Jews throughout the ages to return, to claim Jerusalem again, and never to forsake her. I believe it is also the basis of traditional Jews not to use music in their services: (“How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?”)

      It’s also made into a great Reggae song by The Melodians. Don’t go to Youtube, though, until you’ve read the Psalm first!

      • Non sequitur says

        Not going to get too much into the inerrancy/infallibility thing (JeffB and Bobby Grow are doing that) but I will say that either the whole bible is inspired or we might as well say that none of it is.

        And what is your definition of “the whole bible”? Which text do you use for your Old Testament? Which manuscripts do you use for your New Testament? Which books of the so-called “Apocrypha” do you accept or reject, and why?

        What is your definition of “the whole bible,” and why?

        • Hmm. I don’t think I’m the only one being challenged here; my views on the inspiration and authority of the bible are pretty orthodox: All of the books, from Genesis through Revelation, are inspired; and none of the Apocrypha.

          I agree with Luther that the OT Apocrypha is useful, though not inspired; and disagree with Luther about tossing out James and Hebrews. And as for the NT Apocryphal books, don’t even ask. Saturday Night Live could do a better job.

          As for “why?”, the books of the OT and NT have a common coherent thread holding them together–lots of paradox but no outright contradiction. The glory of God, his sovereignty over all, our fall through sin, his plan for our redemption, the work of Christ on the cross, the hope that all creation will be redeemed. Etc.

          The coherency of the books also shows in thier reference to one another. The OT books refer or allude to one another frequently, in text if not in spirit; and the NT to much of itself and to virtually all of the OT. Jesus referred to all parts of the OT and to none of the Apocrypha.

          If you want historical background the OT Apocrypha is great, and so is Josephus. But inspired? Not quite. And again, as for the NT Apocryphal books and history, watch Saturday Night Live. Watch Letterman.

          Though inspired, the bible does need interpretation. I don’t always take a literal view (in fact you can paint yourself into a corner that way), but I do try to take it all seriously (even the disagreeable parts mentioned by Chaplain Mike).

          An example of needing interpretation: In the 4th commandment—Remember the Sabbath day; six days only shall you work but the seventh is a rest unto the Lord, etc—one needs to ask a few simple questions before obeying it:
          1.When does the Sabbath begin? Midnight? Daybreak? Turns out the Rabbis decided on sundown because of the language in the creation story: “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”
          2.And what exactly did God mean by work? Is lifting a spoon to your mouth work? Is picking kernels of grain work? (Jesus and friends ran into this challenge.) These need to be decided upon even though we hold the bible inspired, authoritative and worth reading.

          And, even though the OT and NT are both inspired, the Sabbath laws as well as dietary laws and others are suspended for those who are not Jews. But let each be firmly convinced in his own mind and not cause another to stumble.

          As for manuscripts, I’m not a scholar of biblical languages. I wouldn’t know the Masoretic from the LXX if it weren’t for the look of the letters. For me the inspired manuscripts are Hebrew, Greek, and any competent vernacular translation.

          As iMonk would say, Peace.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        This is all perfectly valid. There are many difficult texts in the Bible which require careful and thoughtful reading. The problem I have with the code words “inerrant” and “infallible” is that they frequently convey a rejection of careful and thoughtful readings, at least with regard to certain hot-button sections of the Bible. Do I consider scripture inerrant and infallible? Absolutely. But not in the way these words are typically used in modern American Christian discourse.

        • Good point about the meaning of these words themselves. So much baggage gets attached to them that at some point we have to stop using those words and just say what it is we really mean.

      • “I will say that either the whole bible is inspired or we might as well say that none of it is”

        I agree with this and for that reason think it’s important to read (and ponder) even the sections that seem to offend us.

        Christian history is full of arguments over theological paradoxes. How can there be one God and three persons for example? Christians can state the doctrine of the Trinity, but I don’t think anyone really and truly understands it. I think this psalm (and others expressing hatred for God’s enemies) is sort of a moral paradox. How can we love our enemies and at the same time hate them? God is complex enough and our understanding is limited enough that Scripture is full of paradoxes and challenges like these, both at the theological and the moral/ethical level. I personally accept the absolute truth and trustworthiness of all Scripture and therefore think that there must be a way of harmonizing the apparent moral contradictions—leaving out any part of Scripture because we, with our limited understanding, think there’s something wrong with it to me is dangerous as all the parts must be taken together to give us the best and clearest message that God wanted to convey.

  3. I remember in Hebrew class having to translate this from the Hebrew. My prof’s comment at the time was that gives a whole new perspective on the phrase “love the sinner hate the sin.”

    • A phrase which, I believe, is distinctly Hindu in it’s origin. To many think Jesus said it. The failure of that philosophy to equip evangelicals to successfully engage in reaching the homosexual community is a strong indicator of it’s lack of gospel power.
      (Rule No. 1: NEVER say that to a homosexual. Ask a gay Christian. It doesn’t work.)

  4. Todd is wrong.

    Revelation reflects the same imprecatation, and the same basis for that imprecatation, it’s God’s holiness and justice. There is always that tension, we love the sinner and hate the sin . . . as Michael so aptly put it.

    It’s not like II Tim says ALL of scripture is inspired by God or anything.

  5. I’m not sure the issues of infallibility or inerrancy is important here.

    What I see is that David praises God and reveals that his love can easily spill over into dangerous zealousness (poetry can be very emotional). I find that verses 23 and 24 following that proclamation interesting: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, lead me in the way everlasting.”

    I get the impression that David was furious at those people who were against God, but asks God to tell him whether or not vengeance was a “grievous way.” In Christ, we find that it is.

    I think of the story of Abigail in the 25th chapter of 1 Samuel, stopping David from taking vengeance on Nabal and David thanking her.

  6. Those certainly were David’s words, and his honest prayer. I’m not convinced that we can pray the same just because David said them; they would need to be acceptable to God before we pray them. And I don’t think that if David said them as an improper way to pray necessarily takes away from infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture.

    Well, immediately following those words come, “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, and lead me in the everlasting way.” Could those previous words come from an anxious thoughts that David wants God to test? Could this be David saying in essence, “Okay, God, I hate the wicked. Now, this is because I have an anxious heart. Is my prayer right? If not, lead me in the everlasting way.” Food for thought.

  7. James E. White wrote a book, “War Psalms of the Prince of Peace” that (in part) maintains that some of the imprecatory Psalms are prophetic looks toward Jesus’ death on the cross and the events leading up to it, as well as into the prophesies of Revelations.

    Right now, I’m listening to “Issues Etc.” – the “complaint Psalms” It’s a five part series. The writers of the Psalms were real people with real emotions and real struggles. God is big enough to handle our complaints (and threats) about those who don’t like us, or are actually trying to hunt us down and kill us.

  8. The Psalms are relational prayers– they are to be used to present ourselves as we are [with all the fear and even hatred we may have] to God. We give these things to God so they can be redeemed; to pretend these emotions are not present or important is dishonest and dangerous. I’m not comfortable with the notion that the prayers of David represent a less mature/sophisticated spirituality. These prayers are honest, authentic and nakedly human, and we are deceiving ourselves if we think we are beyond them. These prayers come out of intense conflict, betrayal and grief and all of these things need to be prayed to God as they are, unadorned by our illusions of being “good” or “pastoral”

    • Should they be read in their entirety in worship?

      • I think that to skip over the parts that make us uncomfortable is to imply that there’s something wrong with the words, or that they should be hidden away. It’s dangerous to start omitting parts of the bible because they might offend someone or because they represent something that is confusing to some. Everything is there for a reason, and there is something to be learned from everything in the Bible. I’m with Dan there.

        I see no reason to shy away from biblical topics about anger or hatred just because someone is on their deathbed. If anything, these topics might be extremely relevant to someone who is dying – someone who had or has enemies might benefit from a discussion about how Daniel dealt with his in a Godly manner.

      • I sure think so. Read the whole thing, rather than little sound bites that we’re “comfortable” with.

  9. Yeah, I’m not sure why inerrancy or whatever was really brought up in the first place; except that, I guess “naked” revelation seems to be at odds with our “natural” way of thinking of things . . . go figure.

    Btw, since we’re on this topic: the methodology of deciding what is and what isn’t “inspired” is a slippery slope (just go ask the Jesus Seminar guys and how many colors of bedes they decided to use, and on what basis they determined to use these bedes . . . which when one looks at the methodology one realizes how exceedingly arbirary and self-refuting such methodology is).

    Anyway, sorry, back to imprecatation. 🙂

  10. The passage cited appears to be an example of the psalmist honestly expressing his frustrations regarding a particular set of unpleasant circumstances, and, in that sense, I don’t think it should be taken as a reflection of God’s will or nature. On the other hand, there are plenty of passages in the OT that make God seem brutal or violent when viewed through the lens of NT teachings and modern Western sensibilities.
    One way to look at the OT is through the paradigm of God as a good parent, both loving and firm, trying raise His people up out of the brutal and violent infancy of the ancient pagan world and into the fullness of the knowledge of Him and His central nature. And He seems to have done this through a mixture of miraculous interventions in the physical realm and incremental revelations about Himself through chosen spokesmen — and progress toward maturity came very slowly over the course of centuries.
    Any parent knows that when children are under a certain age, parenting and correction is mostly a exercise in constant physical intervention. There’s just not much point in trying to reason with a kid going through the terrible twos. But as the child grows older, a good parent will gradually replace physical correction with methods of a more reasoning nature.
    One might argue that an ancient figure like Abraham simply lacked the intellectual tools to grasp the truths revealed in Christ’s teachings. As a man of his times, Abraham thought primarily in terms of survival and the continuation of his family bloodline — and survival in that age involved things like cattle and available water sources and fertile grazing and success in battle over competitors for these basic elements of survival. So God spoke to Abraham in terms he could relate to and intervened in ways that were meaningful to him — taking the patriarch’s childlike faith as a starting point from which to build toward greater and greater revelations of Himself to his descendents. Something even as basic as the Ten Commandments probably would have been too much for someone like Abraham to process. The Sermon on the Mount probably would have made his head explode.
    NT scripture points out that Christ came into the world when the time was ripe — and I think that means that after centuries of real life lessons, some often harsh disciplinary measures, and an incremental progression of revelation through the prophets and sacred scripture, God’s people had finally been provided with all the intellectual, moral, and religious tools they needed to step up into spiritual adulthood and, as Paul phrased it, put away childish things.
    Sure, some of God’s methods and actions appear strange and brutal when viewed from this side of the New Covenant — but it would seem equally strange if I went to visit my mother now that I’m 40, and she started treating me like I was still only four years old. At least, that’s how I rationalize the whole issue.

  11. The church has often imparted a false spirituality that equates being ‘nice’ , or avoiding our more violent emotions with being ‘ sanctified or mature in the faith. Even those who have translated the scriptures for us have bought into this by softening certain passages for our delicate ‘Christianized’ ears.

    Hatred of evil and and sometimes violent anger at the sytematic perpetration of injustice are entirely appropriate responses in the life of the Christian, e.g. Jesus cleansing the Temple and Paul’s exhortation to the Judaizers to emasculate themselves.

  12. For an even more hair raising passage of scriptures check out Jeremiah’s rant against God for making him a prophet.

  13. Yes, I think they should be read/prayed as written even in public settings. If we cannot present this part of our lives to God in prayer we lose out. The Psalms do not jive all that well with a Mr. Rodger’s theology. Fred was a good man, but I can’t see him driving out the money changers from the temple.

  14. I am grateful that those verses were included, and not cut out of the Bible. They don’t reinforce our “Sunday School morality,” but they are honest portrayals of how the Psalmist felt.

    One lesson I didn’t learn until well after adulthood was that God was okay with me telling him how I truly felt. It’s not like He didn’t know already, anyway… but after studying Job and how God responded to Job, and Job’s response to him, I realized that God wasn’t looking for the right answers, he was looking for honest questions from people who took Him seriously. (Actually I didn’t get this directly from reading Job, but from Phil Yancey’s book “Disappointment with God.”)

    I see these verses as God’s way of saying he’s not put off from us expressing anger, sorrow, and other “negative” emotions, as long as we’re talking and listening to Him.

  15. I have to admit that I like reading the Psalms, but when I come to the “kill my enemies” types of passages, I feel that “personally” I come to a screeching halt. Yet, if I was in the psalmist’s position of actually having people who were looking to kill me, I may pray to God the same way: “Get them, God! Get them good and kill them!” But I don’t know this for sure. I have heard and read Jesus’ words about loving our enemies for so long, maybe I would pray something like, “God, you say you love me. Well, look at these people trying to kill me! Change their hearts, Lord, so that they know your love and not wish to harm me. Turn them to you and let them be a blessing to all that know them. Amen.” Maybe I would add a P.S: “And if they won’t listen to you, God….smite them!” 😉

  16. It seems to me that this verse (this whole psalm) is David speaking to God, not God telling David “I want you to hate my enemies.” On a tangent, this reminds me of Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven”, with David feeling hounded or chased by God, impossible to escape Him, surrounded by Him no matter what he does or where he goes – the entire psalm, not just that verse, is one of more trepidation and dread. This verse is David trying to justify himself before this omnipresent, omniscient God – spare me! I hate your enemies! I am on your side! I am not one of the evildoers who deserve rightful punishment!

    He’s posing the same question that generations of both believers and unbelievers have posed: why does God permit evil? If God is all-powerful, why do wicked men flourish? Does God either not care, in which case why do we say He is loving and good, or He does care but is powerless to intervene?

    As humans, we say that if we could do anything, we would do away with evil-doers. Even in human terms, (and I’ve been involved in them), there are debates about capital punishment and the like; I’m sure I’m not the only one here who’s either heard in real life conversations or in on-line ones people boasting about “I’ve got this make of Really Big Gun (excuse me for not providing details, all those kinds of ‘what calibre is it’ are over my head) and if any one tries to break into my house/mug me or my family/look funny at me, I’m gonna blow his head off – how’d you like them apples, you bleeding-heart liberals?”

    But as the psalm says of the ways of God “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.” And as Isaiah 55:8-9 says “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Which leads us into the teachings of Our Lord to “Love your enemies, do good to those that hate you” and “Learn what this means: I will have mercy and not sacrifice, says the Lord”.

    Now, as regards reading the whole of the psalms; I would say it depends on context. As a hospital chaplain dealing with the dying, I don’t see any problem in curtailing or choosing particular verses for the purpose. And as a Catholic, we get the lectionary readings, which don’t give the whole psalms in one go anyway. We’re supposed to read Scripture outside of Mass and read the whole lot for ourselves 🙂

    In a teaching context, though, I’d say you would be obliged to read the whole lot and yes, go into the hard questions.

  17. Now, I don’t want this to turn into a KJV-is-better-than-other-versions, but that’s what I read. So when I read this passage, it begins like this:

    “Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God” (Psalm 139:19a).

    Well, duh. Of course, God is going to slay the wicked. However, reading it like this is not the same as saying, “O that you would kill the wicked, O God.” Granted, there are other spots in Scripture in which the psalmist calls on some gruesome measures (Psalm 109, Psalm 137).

    “…depart from me therefore, ye bloody men” (Psalm 139:19b).

    If God is going to kill these people, then I want them to leave me alone. Get away! The flood took Noah away from the old world, and the angels took Lot out of Sodom. I would prefer if bloody men stayed away from me, too, when their actions bring on floods and fire.

    “For they speak against thee wickedly, and thine enemies take thy name in vain” (Psalm 139:20).

    No surprise there.

    “Do not I hate them, O LORD, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies” (Psalm 139:21-22).

    Now, I am not saying I understand the hate and perfect hatred part. But am I not grieved with those who rise up against Jesus? Does it not grieve me when people do that? If it did not grieve me, then I would say there is something wrong with my walk with Him! And should I not count His enemies as my enemies? Yes, Jesus did say to love your enemies. But don’t forget that they’re your enemies! They are NOT your friends.

    “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).

    Seeing, then, that the psalmist has such strong words against the wicked enemies of God, he wants God to make sure he himself is not wicked. Unless I were puffed up with self-righteousness, I, too, would want the Lord to purge every wicked way from me, since the end of the wicked is very bad.

    • The KJV makes it even more like David doing some special pleading: you will slay the wicked, but I’m not wicked! Don’t slay me! See, I’m on your side! Your enemies are my enemies!

      Of course, when David has his own little fall and becomes an enemy of God, *then* it’s all “Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.”


  18. On the question of inspiration/inerrancy, I don’t see how that arises. The entire Old Testament is a compendium of Jewish literature, history, poetry as well as purely religious instruction. The human authors put in their own opinions and their own reactions as well as what God had inspired them and their forerunners. It’s a two-sided story of God’s dealings with His people and their dealings with Him.

    Think of David writing the Psalms as a modern-day hymnodist or someone writing prayers. Do we hold that John Wesley was inerrantly inspired directly by God to pen every single word of all his many hymns? Are the lyrics binding on us? In which case, any changes are interfering with the word of God? I don’t think we do so regard them.

    If we’re going to take a literally each-word-is-divine attitude, then what of the record of David’s sin when he committed adultery with Bathsheba and compassed Uriah’s death? Arguing that this means God ‘wants’ us to commit adultery and murder is beyond absurd and into crazy. The same way, taking the ‘dashing the infants’ heads against a stone’ as “This is what God wants or approves of” is the wrong attitude, and explaining that is not softening down or doing away with the hard bits.

    Was Jubal the very first man to play the harp? If it turns out that he wasn’t, I don’t see this as bearing on the infallibility of Scripture. It just means that the traditional account of ‘who was the ancestor of musicians’ put a name on the original Anonymous. It’s not archaeology, it’s oral tradition. That’s fine by me. Each single word of Scripture is not equal, and making them so is making an idol out of the Bible.

  19. Martha…a literal description of David’s adultery doesn’t mean that Scripture is telling us to commit adultery. It’s a literal description of what literally happened and the literal consequences.

    • Which is why, MzEllen, we should not take it that when the Psalmist says “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones”, this is the infallible, inerrant, inspired Word of God expressing the will of God that we should do.

      The history of David’s sin is indeed instructive for us. Taking it as infallible, inerrant, inspired Word of God that adultery and murder are acceptable traits in one chosen by the Lord would be foolishness, just as taking the words of the Psalm that God desires the death of the wicked (when it is the human king David speaking and not David as a prophet) would be the wrong interpretation.

      • “Which is why, MzEllen, we should not take it that when the Psalmist says “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones”, this is the infallible, inerrant, inspired Word of God expressing the will of God that we should do.”

        I guess I don’t understand why an accurate record of the feelings of the Psalmist must be labeled as “fallible” because they are not what we believe is the will of God. Were the feelings real and accurate? I believe so. Does it mean that God would want us to have those feelings? I believe not.

        But I think it’s unwise to take something that descriptive and portray it as prescriptive in order to call it fallible.

  20. Don’t read Revelation, then.

    • Do you see a difference between written history and prophetic imagery?

      • Yes.

      • I think they are both images of God’s justice. I think all acts of justice are a foreshadow of ultimate judgement on the last day. Until the last day, we will only see foreshadows of true justice, but also many examples of God’s mercy, as we observed in the feast of the conversion of Paul this past week. Justice and mercy are in God’s hand. We don’t always understand why, or why sometimes justice tarries. I will always agree with Shakespeare, that in the course of true justice none of use can be saved. I also believe that justice was achieved on the cross.

        So, I think there really is a connection between David’s cry for justice and the prophetic image of the last judgement. I think our response is to pray for our enemies but also to stand up to defend the oppressed, to befriend the outcast and alienated. I recently heard about Rachel Scott, who was killed in the Columbine High School shootings. She went out of her way to make friends with outcasts and defend those who were bullied. In her diary, she talked about creating a chain reaction of kindness, that each of us can make a difference through simple acts of kindness. I think this captures the idea of kairos, that in light of the ultimate culmination of history, what part do we have right now in God’s redemptive plan? We should at least feel pain when oppressors cause suffering. David expressed this so passionately. I can pray for God’s mercy on the oppressors, but I also must cry out for deliverance for those who are oppressed. But as with all such struggles, David’s cry for justice should drive us to the foot of the cross.

  21. Lots of food for thought here. One thought that comes to mind is that the psalmist was probably more openly honest than many believers are today, certainly more honest than I am most of the time, and that by itself is pretty refreshing. The second thought is that one needs to distinguish what in scripture is descriptive and what is prescriptive. The sermon on the mount is pretty darned prescriptive. Most imprecatory psalms, not so much.

  22. That’s why I love the Psalms. They show exactly what the writer was feeling, no holds barred. If he felt great, you knew it. If he felt angry or lonely, you knew that too. It’s not only ok to have emotions, it’s a requirement to be human. God has made us emotional creatures, yet most of us want to keep them to ourselves so we seem ‘civilized’. As long as we are in this body, we’ll have emotions and I get comfort from the fact that early God-followers had the same problems that I do, yet God still loved and used them for His glory.

  23. I think Mary put it this way:

    ” He has shown strength with His arm:
    He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
    He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
    and exalted those of low degree.
    He has filled the hungry with good things;
    and the rich He has sent empty away.- luke 1:51-53

    Zechariah put it this way:

    “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
    in the house of his servant David
    (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
    salvation from our enemies
    and from the hand of all who hate us—
    to show mercy to our fathers
    and to remember his holy covenant,
    the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
    to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
    and to enable us to serve him without fear
    in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”
    – Luke 1:69-75

    And the holy martyrs put it this way:

    “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?'” – Revelation 6:9-10

  24. I, too, am a hospice chaplain. My colleague and I read this very psalm to a lonely and dying man last week, because it so mirrored the story he told us. We did not edit these difficult verses out in our reading. Crying out for justice is a part of our recognition of God’s presence wherever we are. The “hard parts” echo our human reactions to grievous sin and violence. Why would God ever not be willing to hear of our pain, anger, frustration and depths of despair? The Psalms are the voices of Israel, God’s people, calling out to their God in their daily liturgy. We need *all* of them – not just the “nice” parts, because when we put on “nice” we’re assuming a mask over our innermost anger, frustration and despair at injustices. I read through the Psalms every month, and they found a deeper, more intense and more truthful relationship with God. I don’t think our dying patients deserve anything other than the gut-wrenching honesty of the Psalms.

  25. simply put, David was honest with God. His passion and love were unmatched. David wrote exactly what he felt and believed; and thought nothing about how he would be judged by others. If only we could carry a fraction of the passion and authenticity that David did.

  26. In this psalm, the psalmist is asking God to kill the enemies. BUT…there are many places in the Bible where it is said that God is speaking and God states that he, God, is doing the “horrendous” things. I was reading Ezekiel recently and it has God saying that he intentionally is causing children to canabilize their parents and parents their children. (see Ezekiel 5) I think of the Abba of Jesus and find the two images of God to be incongruent. I believe that the scriptures are written by men who are seeking God and often God is inspiring them. BUT…I also believe these same men are looking at events that have transpired and then interpreting them as having been caused by God due to the people’s bad behavior as a means of getting them to move toward better behavior. The authors sometimes put on God what God has NOT done. So sometimes we need to read scripture as human beings trying to come to grips with what happens in their world. Does that mean scripture is not true? No. It just means that all scripture is not be read alike. Some is inspiring; some is informative; some is metaphorical; some is literal.

    And in my mind, not all scripture holds the same significance as other scripture. The words of Jesus mean more to me than the passages about priests dealing with mildew in Leviticus. Don’t get me wrong…mildew is an important matter, but not AS important as knowing that Jesus is God in the flesh who is the Savior of the world.

    • I, too, struggle with the incongruencies of the different portayals of God in the O.T. and in Jesus. I’m beginning to see your approach as the most sensible. Otherwise, I’d be forced to believe that God desires us to learn the art of doublethink. . .

    • so you are saying that the bible is possibly fallible? and not perfect? that Gods inspiration is not literal dictation to the authors of the bible?

      just asking out of curiosity…

  27. jasonthebaldguy…I do not believe that God literally dictated words to the authors of the Bible. Maybe SOMETIMES he did, but not always. That’s my belief anyway. The Bible is “perfectly” wonderful, but I don’t believe it is perfectly accurate in terms of everything in the Bible “lining up” with everything else in the Bible. Or lining up with what we know about some things scientifically.

    • Personally I think that as humans we define things much more simply than God does… for instance “thou shalt not kill” because “kill” to us means taking a life, then we define all life taking as a sin and ultimately create a doctrine based on it. When the reality is that the Israelites had no problem taking lives when God issued the order to slaughter a city man women and children. The breakdown occurs because we have the “knowledge of good and evil” but not necessarily the “understanding of good and evil” we define things as either good or bad based on our perception of good and bad… for instance “God says killing is bad therefore God would not kill anyone.. ” those ideas are based on faulty logic that assumes that God must live by the same rules that we do. In Ezekiel you are dealing with a Sovereign and all knowing God that has a full understanding of our actions, the consequences and the atrocities that we commit when faced with dire circumstances… and he also takes responsibility ultimately for every event that happens because he created us. To God while human suffering is something that he does not enjoy… he also understands that human suffering is not an ultimate price… and so he counts our souls as more valuable than the suffering that we might have to endure. That being said he will stop at nothing to win our affection and trust at the expense of our very lives even! I think that many people make a mistake of interpreting the bible imperfectly and that they apply science imperfectly to compare the inconsistencies. I have seen in almost every circumstance that the bible confirms good science and that most perceived inconsistencies are due to a lack of having the whole picture.

      for the record neither do I think that God “dictated” the bible.. however if inspiration is simply a mans crippled translation of their observation of the things of God; couldn’t we say that the bible is still being written? surely there are many new works that should be added to the cannon? who is “king james” to say what should and shouldn’t be added? I think these are all questions that you have to ask based on the perspective that you have decided on…

      Just three weeks ago a lady stated to me that she did not believe that you could live your whole life as a good person and go to hell and a murderer could accept Jesus at the last minute and go to heaven. She stated… “Thats not the God I know” I asked her “really? because you claim to be a Christian so you have accepted Jesus as your salvation?” She nodded affirmatively. and I replied “That’s odd because on the cross Jesus told a thief and a murderer that because he accepted him (at the last minute mind you) that he would be with him in paradise so apparently it IS the God you know and you just don’t know him as well as you thought”

      my point is … if you see incongruencies… maybe there is more to know than you have figured out yet… and there is nothing wrong with that… we just have to be able to accept that ‘now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face, we will know as we are known.’

  28. Romans 12:14-21 (below) seems to square the ‘Old Testament God’ with the ‘New Testament God’. We are told to bless our enemies and to live in harmony and not to seek vengeance on people – not because God is saying ‘vengeance is bad,’ but because He is saying that vengeance belongs to Him to carry out. If you can show your enemy mercy and love and make peace with him, so much the better; I think that’s what God wants. But if your enemy refuses to make peace, and they’ve wronged you, God is saying that He will avenge the wrong.

    It’s essentially similar to our own salvation story: we’ve wronged God and we deserve punishment. He shows us love instead and holds his hand back. If we seek reconcilliation, all’s forgiven; if we continue in our refusal to make peace with him, eventually, there is divine retribution. Good ultimately defeats evil.

    A part of me thinks that if I really want my wrongs to be avenged, it’s better to let God be in charge of it anyway, because he can “get ’em” better than I can anyway.

    14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.c Do not be conceited.

    17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20On the contrary:

    “If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
    In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”e

    21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

  29. I remember when I was a new Christian, I attended a popular bible study where the teacher went through the life of David through the psalms attributed to him, and he paid particular attention to these verses. It didn’t make me feel at all uncomfortable to hear them and I didn’t think for a moment that it was problematic that the sentiment expressed seems to conflict sharply with Jesus’ later teachings on loving ones’ enemies. Do we not understand that the picture of God in the OT is shadow, and in the NT is given substance in Jesus Christ? Should we be shocked and scandalized that the picture we have of God’s character and will for us becomes much more clear from the mouth of his incarnate Son than it is from the mouth of a mere man, no matter how distinguished that mere man is in the history of salvation?

    I think that the imprecatory psalms are only problematic if one considers the Scriptures to be some monologue from God, and that we should consider every word as if it was the express perfect will of God. In my humble opinion, it isn’t. The words of David and the sentiments expressed there are faithfully recorded as per the will of God that we might know and understand his (David’s) perspective on righteousness and wickedness. If what David expressed in the psalms was so unimpeachably perfect then we wouldn’t have needed Immanuel to shine light in the darkness. People can wish with all their hearts to serve and honor God and still put their feet wrong, repeatedly and even frequently. Is that not at least part of the whole lesson of the life of David?

    • dkmonroe: yes, it is important to remember that these are David’s words, not God’s. (And I do LOVE the psalms.)

      We say the Bible is the “Word of God” but all the words printed there are not God’s words. The Bible is the “Word of God” because what is written there can enlighten us as to God’s intention, Spirit, love and the Spirit of God can truly work through the Bible. When I was a young adult and had a re-awakening of the Holy Spirit within me, when I would open the Bible and just SEE the words, there was a “quickening” of the Spirit within me. It didn’t last to that same extent, but it was a little blessing that God gave me to help me know that he was there, helping me along.

  30. God told the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites.

    John wrote in Revelation that God will punish all those who oppose him.

    Sometimes the Bible is not a rosy book. If you can’t handle the fact that God “does these things” perhaps you should find another religion.

  31. I see these verses as God’s way of saying he’s not put off from us expressing anger, sorrow, and other “negative” emotions, as long as we’re talking and listening to Him.

    That’s how I’ve seen Psalms like 137 et al. God is letting us know it is OK – more than OK – to let it all hang out when we’re talking with Him. As someone wrote above, Psalms are prayers and are descriptive, rather than prescriptive. Outside of Scripture interpreting itself, I am immediately and deeply wary whenever anyone tries to use Psalms to teach or prove doctrine. I just don’t think it’s their primary purpose (and some, I’d argue, can’t really be used for it at all).

  32. We seem content to parse Isaiah in light of Jesus; selecting some verses as referring to Jesus’ death and resurrection, others to refer to the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and others to the new heaven and earth. I doubt that Isaiah had any notion of this division, but it seems clear enough now. It also seems reasonable to parse the Psalms the same way–especially when we’re dealing with readings for corporate worship.

  33. To Mark who wrote a bit earlier here today: “Sometimes the Bible is not a rosy book. If you can’t handle the fact that God “does these things” perhaps you should find another religion.”

    I would not characterize what you have written as being a very constructive thing for one Christian to say to another. Many Christians, including myself, believe everything that is within the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. We pray, worship, read the Bible, study the words of people more educated than ourselves. Yet, we can still disagree with our fellow Christians about lots of things, including why things were written in the Old Testament and how those writings should affect what we do now. There is a story in the Old Testament about a man who promises God that if God lets him be successful in battle, he will kill the first thing that he sees come through his door when he returns home. The man goes home and his beloved daughter walks through the door. He lets her go off with her friends for a few months before he kills her. Do you think this man was correct to keep his promise to God? Do you think God expected him to keep this promise? I am sure you know that my answer is no and no. Moral of that story: Don’t make stupid promises to God! And if you are so stupid as to make stupid promises…don’t keep them. And don’t do that again.

    There are also places in the Bible where it says that God is kind to the wicked. There are many books in the Bible, many writers writing the books. We need to use study, reason, prayer to understand the best we can.

    • Well said, Joanie. Mark stated earlier: “If you can’t handle the fact that God does these things. . .” The issue I have with such a statement is that it seems to be a rather cavalier approach to serious issues. Shouldn’t we be cautious in declaring God guilty of genocide etc? We could be approaching the text in an incorrect manner, resulting in us seeing God as the “perpetrator” of actions that He did not approve.

    • You know why the evangelical church is dying these days? It is because there are so many professing Christians who compromise with the Scriptures. I agree that God is merciful to the wicked. That is why God told Jonah to warn the Ninevites of their coming punishment. God could have just obliterated them out of the sky but after they repented in sackcloth God relented on punishing the city.

      However, the Bible is clear that God temporally punishes evildoers and will eternally punish those who oppose him. It doesn’t make God a sadist but reveals his whole nature as a God of love and a God of holiness. If it greatly disturbs someone that God will actually punish evildoers eternally in hell, I would tell that person he or she is not a true Christian (because he or she doesn’t believe in the true God). It is not the fundamentalists that make Christianity sick and insipid but Christians who embrace various forms of liberal theology, postliberalism, postmodernism, and emergent church theology.

  34. I think there are different levels of dealing with Scripture depending on the context. I wouldn’t typically see vv 19-22 from Psalm 139 as being particularly appropriate for a worship service or for comforting the sick or dying. On the other hand, when someone is feeling unjustly wronged, they may be just the words needed.

    If we’re going to be students of the Scriptures, we certainly have to deal with “difficult” passages. Sometimes that means reconciling them with parts that seem to reflect the opposite. Sometimes that means just accepting that the issues may not be as cut-and-dry as we think. Nonetheless, we have a responsibility to deal with the text as individual passages, chapters, and books but also as an entirety. Sometimes that’s very hard.

    There are parts of Scripture that will frankly never make it ino a sermon I preach. There are some things that just aren’t appropriate to that setting. Going back to the analogy from last week about the Scriptures being like a gun, we need to be responsible in the way we use the Scriptures. But that kind of “picking and choosing” doesn’t mean that the Scriptures aren’t being respected. In fact, I think having a venue where you can honestly tackle the hard stuff in a study environment is necessary for the local congregation. I just don’t think that environment is usually the pulpit during the weekly worship service.

  35. Yesterday’s DO reading included the phrase: “The righteous will wash their feet in the blood of the wicked.” What a way to start the day! (There’s also that bit in Amos? about rich women being “cows” to be dragged away with meat hooks…)

    The Bible isn’t a nice book written for nice people. It is not a systematic theology written for an affluent niche market. It’s raw. It addresses with the full range of human emotions and the darkness of our hearts. How could it be real and not be messy? This is one reason I love it: It surprises me.

    Even when I’ve encountered these seemingly ugly passages, I’ve never felt that I couldn’t identify with the authors. The rage of injustice is real. The oppressed aren’t pitiful, passive lambs. Feeling bloodthirst and anger is part of the package.

    I remember being with others in a church meeting a few years ago to give guidance on the architecture for a building project. The architects showed a number of slides, including one of a concrete altar with a rusted iron cross in the background–and we suburbanites flinched. Evangelicals have a very hard time with the grotesque. We prefer the corporate to the corrupt. But more often than not, that’s where God is at work. The cross, properly understood, is ugly and obscene. And good.

    May the Lord guide our understanding so as not to be on the receiving ends of such passages.

  36. Chaplin Mike,

    I do not think it wrong to edit readings to those we attempt to comfort; this in no way diminishes the authority of Scripture. Rather, I believe we should use prayer to guide our attempts at using Scripture to bring comfort to others. I am a bivocational minister, and many of my parishioners are elderly. When I visit someone in the hospital, or at home, I ask the Holy Spirit to guide me in the words I use, and for direction in selecting passages from the Bible. I do believe there is a ‘comfort’ factor involved, and the approach I would use reading a passage such as Psalm 139 could indeed differ between a hospital visit and a sermon delivered in church.

    It is often difficult to make an application for Christians from Ps. 139:19-22. I can understand the psalmist’s desire for God to judge the wicked who afflict the righteous, yet I cannot tell my parishioners that we are justified in expressing this hatred to those whom we consider wicked. Rather, I would mention Matt. 5:43-48, stressing that Jesus taught the old saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ is now invalid; we are to be perfect, and perfection comes through love of all.

  37. To all those interested in Psalms…

    Have you read the Psalms Code?

    A complete and free download in pdf format is available at:



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