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Bedford, Texas, United States
Pastor of Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Bedford, Texas and former Professor of Old Testament. But mostly I am a husband of an amazing wife, father of gifted children, and servant of an AWESOME God.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Does God Want People Dead? Imprecatory Psalms and the Christian

Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (Ps. 137:9, ESV)

With the possible exception of the herem (Deut. 7:1-11; 20:16-18) [a topic for a later blog], the Imprecatory Psalms such as Psalm 137 represent some of the most difficult texts with which the Christian must grapple. After all, how can one possibly reconcile the above quoted sentiment with Jesus' commands to "Love your enemy" and "Turn the other cheek?"

The question is one that is finding interest even in the secular media. The ABP reports that recently on The Alan Colmes show a fairly high profile Southern Baptist Pastor expressed that he presently prays Imprecatory Psalms. Apparently, Wiley Drake, a pastor in California and one time Second Vice President of the Southern Baptist Convention prayed such prayers against George Tiller (the recently murdered late term abortion doctor) and admits to praying such prayers as well against President Obama (http://www.abpnews.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=4126&Itemid=53). His reasoning is that such Psalms are the spoken will of God and that praying them is nothing more than agreeing with God. That being his position, he falls back on the "I just preach the Bible" line that has characterized a lot misappropriations of the Sacred Text over the years as if his understanding of such texts represents the plain, normal reading of the material and to question it is to question the authority of the Bible itself.

To be fair, there are those who take a different tact than Drake on such texts that do so using a view of the Bible that does question its legitimacy. Scholars have argued that these Imprecatory Psalms are nothing more than the residue of ancient superstitions and that such thoughts on the part of the Psalmist are, in fact, sinful. Obviously, those taking this view would conclude that these Psalms have no place in Christian life or thought.

But is there not a mediating position that both takes seriously such texts as divinely inspired texts without also going down the road of praying for the death of those we view as "sinners?"

At issue here are numerous issues - the nature of inspiration, proper biblical interpretation, and one's view of God.

Apparently, Drake has a view of inspiration which suggests that the Bible is solely God's words, thoughts, and expressions. I can't speak for him specifically, but it would seem that his starting point is almost a dictation view of inspiration, with little to any contribution coming from the writer's outlook, life, and thought. This view goes further than the verbal plenary view of inspiration which many evangelicals (myself included) hold to which says that there is nothing in Scripture God did not want there, and nothing excluded that He did want there - every word is God's. Yet, God in His revelation did not seek to override the human to the point he disappeared. God spoke within history, using the hurts, questions, fears, and other limitations of man in order to perfectly relate His will for mankind and how we might relate to Him. This fact is revealed in the differing styles, perspectives, and observations of the biblical writers (cf. 2 Peter 1:21 - moved by the Holy Spirit, men spoke from God.) In the Psalms, this interaction between God an human finds expression in words of real sorrow and grief, real hurt over circumstances, and real anger over the circumstances that caused that hurt and grief. In other words, they are words that God wanted expressed in the text, but not necessarily His desire in expression.

Biblical interpretation must be done mindful of the genre of the text and the historical context. The genre of Imprecatory Psalm is a subset of Lament - an extreme expression of grief. Historically, these psalms were used as a means of praising Yahweh's greatness and power over the nations and life, addressing the hurt and pain the people of God were feeling, and calling on God to address that hurt. They are not reflections on God's desire for people. On the contrary, their purpose was actually an instrument of God to change the hearts of His people and to reveal His greatness to the nations. Like ALL the Psalms, they are expressions of worship!

Therefore, if one is to pray these psalms, one doesn't do so because he or she believes God wants these people to die; rather, one prays these psalms in order to be moved into a perspective of the world from God's viewpoint. And what is God's viewpoint - it is always redemption of both ourselves and others! These prayers awaken a realization of the tension we live in between the fallen world and seeking God's will. God doesn't seek to destroy the person, but that in the person that separates us from Him. It is a cry of sorrow at the present world order, and a plea to God to alter it. Such prayers are simply another way of praying the model prayer's "your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

Such texts are not easy. I don't claim to have the last word on them. But I believe I have approached the texts with a voice that is both consistent to the biblical worldview and able to speak appropriately to a world of God's grace and desire for redemption - not destruction. Oh, His wrath is real, but it is never portrayed in Scripture as the starting point.

Finally, it is not so much the faulty interpretation that is the problem with Drake's approach - we all have places where we misinterpret the text at times. Rather, it is the spirit of arrogance that suggests his reading is the only right one and that takes a much debated text (even among conservative evangelicals) couches his take on the matter as "God's viewpoint." Such is the spirit of a false Fundamentalism that exchanges our viewpoint for God's and actually puts us over the text instead of in subjection to it.


Denyse said...

You seem to have a way of putting things into words that I have sensed in my spirit, but couldn't quite express.
Is this from your book?
NOw if we can just work on those big words...imprecatory?

Dr. Tim Pierce said...

I deal with this in my book, but it is not directly from my book - I don't want to break any copyright laws.

There was no other word than Imprecatory because it is a specific title - I guess I should have defined it: "to speak an imprecation, which is a curse, upon someone."

Hold me to it when I do that!


Onesimus said...

You wrote:
"the verbal plenary view of inspiration which many evangelicals (myself included) hold to which says that there is nothing in Scripture God did not want there, and nothing excluded that He did want there - every word is God's. Yet, God in His revelation did not seek to override the human to the point he disappeared."

The way I approach this issue is to describe scripture as a biography specifically relating to God's relationship with mankind.

It is not an autobiography, where every word was written by God.
It is not an unauthorised biography where the human authors have no accountability to the subject of their writing (namely God).
It is more like an authorised biography, where the author is commissioned to write, the subject (God) makes available whatever resources are required and then the subject (God) has the final editorial control while allowing the human author a degree of freedom of style and expression.

As a result God is revealed through real life situations and His relationship with real life people instead of through a primarily doctrinal text.

Bless you,
from another Tim