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Vengeance Belongs to the Lord (Psalm 5)

Imprecatory, or cursing, psalms sometimes distress Christians.  Why would we call upon God to curse, when the New Testament seems to say the opposite?  After all, Romans 12:14 says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”  Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

What is often forgotten about the imprecatory psalms is that they are not a case of personal vengeance.  Our tendency is to see the assaults of the wicked as intensely personal, and therefore cursing is likewise personal.  However, the wicked man does not fight against other men, but against God.  Imprecatory psalms therefore call upon God to defend His own honor and glory against the wicked.  Vengeance belongs to the Lord, after all, and should be left to Him alone.  A Christian may in fact pray imprecatory psalms as an expression of a deep trust in the Lord, even in the face of great evil.  The Lord will vindicate His holy name.

Psalm 5 opens with an intense prayer.  “Listen to my words, Lord.  Pay attention to my sighing.  Listen carefully to the voice of my cry for help, my king and my God, for to you do I pray.”  The word translated as “cry for help” suggests a series of shouts, like someone in distress.  Further, the form of the world translated “pray” may also suggest that it is continuous.  The psalmist is in a deep distress and calls upon God.  Such a cry for help is not a case of doubting, but intense trust, for who would call upon God thinking that He would not answer?  Even if He seems distant, God hears the prayers of His people.

“Lord, [in the morning] you hear my voice.  [In the] morning I set in order to you and watch.”  “Set in order” is the language of sacrifice, just like in Leviticus 1:8, 12, where the word describes laying out meat in order for a burnt offering.  Prayer is the spiritual sacrifice of the New Testament, the daily sacrifice of the priesthood which all believers hold.  Not only are we to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), but we should also turn to God as our first act of each day.  “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5).

“For you are not a God of delighting in wrongdoing.  Evil does not sojourn with you.  The senseless will not take their stand in the presence of your eyes.  You hate all the doers of wrongdoing.  You destroy the speakers of falsehood.  A man of bloods and fraud you abhor, O Lord.”  The psalmist testifies to the holiness of God here as a way of contrast with the next section.  An evil man cannot stand before God.  Note that there is also no distinction between the sin and the sinner.  Sin is not an alien act, but an expression of one’s inward nature.  “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speak” (Matthew 12:34).  For the righteous man, sin is something which is in fact foreign, and he sins out of weakness rather than deliberate intention.  But we cannot distinguish between sin and sinner out of a desire to make excuses for sin.  The all-holy Lord cannot abide the presence of sin, as this psalm so clearly testifies.

“And I, in the greatness of your steadfast love, will enter your house.  I will bow down to your holy temple in the fear of you.  Lord, lead me in your righteousness on account of my enemies.  Make straight your path before my face.”  The righteous man does not enter the house on account of his own righteousness, but on account of the steadfast love of the Lord.  It is the Lord who leads him.  It is the Lord who straightens his way before him.  God alone leads a man out of the ways of wickedness.  The psalmist is able to pray to the Lord confidently because of what the Lord has done for him.  It is true that he here alludes to his own righteousness, because without holiness, no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).  Yet this should not be understood as self-righteousness in the negative sense, attempting to stand before God on the basis of one’s perceived righteousness.  The psalmist clearly testifies that he stands before God only because of God’s love and mercy.  He is truly and actually holy in a real way, but only because of God.

“For there is not firmness in his mouth.  [In his] inward parts destruction.  An open grave their throat.  With their tongue they smooth out [or flatter].”  Paul uses part of this verse to declare that all have sinned in Romans 3:13.  It is a clear description of the deeds of wicked men.  “Firmness” has to do with what is in the mouth, that is, the words one speaks.  The wicked man is a liar (John 8:44).  He seeks destruction from deep within his heart (Psalm 36:1).  Their throat is an “open grave” because it is insatiable.  Their greed and evil desire know no limits (Proverbs 27:20; 30:15-16).  Finally, they flatter by smoothing out with honeyed words.  “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many” (Matthew 7:13).

“Make them bear their guilt, God.  Let them fall from their own counsels.  In the greatness of their crimes, scatter them, for they are rebellious toward you.”  This is the most direct expression of cursing within the psalm.  Note that it is God who will bring the judgment upon the wicked, not the righteous man.  Note further that they rebel against God by their crimes.  There is also a poetic parallel here, for as the Lord abounds in steadfast love above, so the wicked man abounds in his sins.

“And all who take refuge in you rejoice.  They rejoice loudly for a long time.  You shut them off, and the lovers of your name rejoice loudly in you.  For you bless the righteous, Lord.  Like a large shield [with] favor you surround him.”  The righteous man has nothing to fear, because the Lord will judge the world in perfect righteousness.  Even if he has to suffer the assaults of the wicked now, God will bring them to an end, causing him to rejoice.  To “rejoice loudly” or “sing for joy” is an expression of the volume of this cry.  An overwhelming joy causes us to shout at the top of our lungs, much like a cry of victory at the end of a battle.  The Lord also “shuts off” the righteous by sealing them off from outside danger, like a large shield surrounding them.  Even if some things continue to assault us by God’s will for our discipline, He will not suffer the righteous to fall.  There is safety in the Lord even in the midst of great danger.

Our Avenging Shield (Psalm 3)

The martial character of many of the Psalms should not give us pause.  Paul, after all, encourages Timothy to “wage the good warfare” as a soldier of Christ (1 Timothy 1:18).  Wearing the whole armor of God, Christians stand firm and unbending against the devil seeking their destruction (Ephesians 6:10-20; 1 Peter 5:8-9).  The Lord, after all, is the Lord of hosts, that is to say, the Lord of armies who guides and protects His people.

Psalm 3 is the first psalm to bear an inscription.  These titles appear originally in the text and frequently provide some information about the circumstances surrounding the psalm.  In this case, the most likely reference is to 2 Samuel 15:13-17.  David, upon learning about the conspiracy of his own son Absalom, flees Jerusalem.  Certainly, some of Absalom’s faction reviled David as fleeing in terror.  David, however, trusts firmly in the Lord even in the face of imminent danger, which in this case is amplified coming from his own family.

David begins by alluding to this danger.  “O Lord, how many are my enemies!  Many stand up against me.  Many say to my soul, ‘There is no salvation for him in God.’”  David’s enemies taunt him, saying that God is unable to deliver him from their hands.  God will not be able to save you now!  David, on the other hand, does not minimize the danger, as if trusting in the Lord meant that it wasn’t real.  Rather, even in the midst of a very real danger to his own body, he continues to seek the Lord.  Even if we must suffer, God himself will “restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish” us with an eternal glory (1 Peter 5:10).

The term selah, which appears here for the first time in the Psalter, is a matter of debate.  It may be a musical direction, related to the idea of “lifting up,” which might mean to lift up the voice in pitch.  Nevertheless, I will pass over it for the time being.

“But you, Lord, are a shield surrounding me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.”  The Lord surrounds His own like a shield wall, protecting against attack from every direction.  Elisha comforted his servant by reminding him that “those who are with us are more than those who are with them” for the Lord surrounded them with horses and chariots of fire (2 Kings 6:16-17).  Further, God lifts up the head of David, bowed down with the troubles and dangers of life.  “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

“I called [with] my voice to the Lord, and He answered me from His holy hill.”  God hears the cries of His people.  No prayer of the faithful goes unheard.  Further, the “holy hill” is Zion, the site of the temple.  God dwells in the midst of His people, and the temple served as the place of His dwelling for a time.  Now, as the Lord dwells within us, His temple (1 Corinthians 3:16), we have an even greater assurance, because the Spirit Himself prays within us (Romans 8:26).

“I lay down and slept.  I woke up, for the Lord supported me.  I will not be afraid of a multitude of people encircling, who set themselves against me.”  So confident is David of the Lord as His salvation that anxiety does not consume him.  He is able to sleep even though men are seeking his life.  Anxiety accomplishes nothing (Matthew 6:34).  It is the sign of a doubting heart.  Even if ten thousand foes surrounded David, what could they do?  “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

“Get up, Lord!  Save me, my God, for you strike all my enemies on the check.  The teeth of the wicked you break.  Salvation [belongs] to the Lord!  Your blessing on your people.”  The imagery of striking hard enough to break teeth loose is not disjointed here.  When the Lord protects His people, it is not merely a passive act.  “Vengeance is mine, and recompense” (Deuteronomy 32:35; see also 1 Thessalonians 4:6).  Many of the promises of God include the destruction of His enemies, because then those who assaulted His Church will receive their just reward (Psalm 110:1; Hebrews 10:13-14).  The point, therefore, is that deliverance or salvation comes from God alone.  Revenge is forbidden, because our own hand accomplishes nothing.  God alone will save us at the proper time.  “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:6).

Let us pray this Psalm confidently, therefore, knowing that the Lord protects us in the midst of all dangers.  The Christian rests safely in His hands, and the Lord will set all things right.

Sidon’s Punishment is Israel’s Joy

In Ezekiel 28, the Lord commands the prophet to speak against Sidon:

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, set your face toward Sidon, and prophesy against her and say, Thus says the Lord God: “Behold, I am against you, O Sidon, and I will manifest my glory in your midst. And they shall know that I am the Lord when I execute judgments in her and manifest my holiness in her; for I will send pestilence into her, and blood into her streets; and the slain shall fall in her midst, by the sword that is against her on every side. Then they will know that I am the Lord.”  Ezekiel 28:20-23

Sidon was a city on the coast of the Mediterranean to the north of Israel, closely connected to Tyre.  Ezekiel previously denounced the king of Tyre, because he had taken advantage of Jerusalem’s weakness (Ezekiel 26:2).  Tyre’s previous good will toward Israel made this even worse.  Solomon used the cedars of Lebanon, the region of Tyre, in building his house and the temple (1 Kings 5-7).  Hiram had also sent skilled labor to assist in the project.  But Tyre broke that trust by assaulting Jerusalem when it was weak from the attacks of Babylon.  Tyre’s judgment became Sidon’s judgment.  Lebanon had betrayed Israel.

But Sidon’s judgment is like so many passages in Scripture.  God speaks His judgment against them and describes their punishments in detail.  He has two reasons for doing so:

The first is to emphasize the righteousness and the justice of God.  “God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7).  He cannot stand by forever and allow sins to pile up.  This is true within the Church, and this is also true within the world.  The iniquity of Lebanon was full, and the time for judgment had come (cf. Genesis 15:16).  Therefore, Tyre and Sidon became a warning for Christians.  Jesus denounced Chorazin, saying that Tyre and Sidon, as wicked as they were, would have repented long ago (Luke 10:13).

This is how Christians usually view the judgments of God.  After all, He threatens to punish and destroy Sidon.  However, consider the passage immediately following:

And for the house of Israel there shall be no more a brier to prick or a thorn to hurt them among all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. Then they will know that I am the Lord God. Thus says the Lord God: When I gather the house of Israel from the peoples among whom they are scattered, and manifest my holiness in them in the sight of the nations, then they shall dwell in their own land that I gave to my servant Jacob. And they shall dwell securely in it, and they shall build houses and plant vineyards. They shall dwell securely, when I execute judgments upon all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. Then they will know that I am the Lord their God.  Ezekiel 28:24-26

The destruction of Sidon, and Tyre with it, is good news for Israel.  “Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly” (Deuteronomy 32:35).  God will punish the sins of those who sin against His Church, against spiritual Israel.  That day of judgment may seem so far away, almost like it may never come.  But God has not forgotten His people or their affliction.  God remembered His people in Egypt:  “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew” (Exodus 2:24-25).  God remembered His people when they turned to Him:  “So Israel put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel” (Judges 10:16).  God remembers His people and will not forsake them:  “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them” (Luke 18:7)?

The judgment of the enemies of the Church is good news.  Their destruction is the salvation of Israel.  God indeed desires the salvation of all, but He will also not tolerate sins against His bride to remain unpunished.  This is true of the earthly enemies of the Church as well as the spiritual.  Satan himself will pay for everything that he has done:  “The devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10).  Therefore, there is joy and good news in destruction, because God has not forgotten His people.