Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Imprecatory Psalms and the Effect of Culture on Theology

Psalms are great source material for things to be sung in corporate worship. We often like to take nice verses that give us warm fuzzies about God and build a good song around it. Think About His Love is one example:

Think about His love
Think about His goodness
Think about His grace
That's brought us through
For as high as the heavens above
So great is the measure of our Father's love
Great is the measure of our Father's love

Such songs are good because they do indeed help us incline our hearts to God. It is good sometimes to look past the warm fuzzy verses and include passages that help us focus our sufferings on Him. This past Sunday we sang a song, For Thou, Oh Lord, taken from Psalm 3:

Many are they increased that troubled me
Many are they that rise up against me
Many there be which say of my soul
There is no help for him in God

But Thou, oh Lord, are a shield for me
My glory and the lifter of my head
Thou, oh Lord are a shield for me
My glory and the lifter of my head

I cried unto the Lord with my voice
And he heard me out of His holy hill
I laid me down and slept and awaked
For the Lord sustained, for he sustained me

I've been teaching my kids some simple categories of Psalms to help them understand the Psalms better. One type of Psalm is one you don't hear sung very often in contemporary circles. The imprecatory Psalm are those where the Psalmist condemns his enemies. In our Politically Correct culture we are often taught that we shouldn't judge. Even in church we are taught that we should love our enemies. This is right. We interpret this to mean that we shouldn't imprecate against them because that's the way our culture works.

We aren't free from imprecations in our culture, however, and they are more common than we would like to admit. Try driving in a place as tame as the US for a week without at least thinking to yourself, "That idiot! Where'd he learn to drive? If he wrecks, it would serve him right!" Try going to public school (or even most private schools for that matter) without hearing condemnations of one student to another. My own kids occasionally vie to get each other in trouble by pointing out each other's sins the their parents. In the business world, it's not uncommon to find dissatisfied customers imprecating their suppliers. Even in churches where we would otherwise say we should not speak so unkindly of others, particularly our brothers and sisters in Christ, you may find people imprecating each other, often in gossip circles. Finally, who hasn't heard liberals imprecating George Bush? I thought they were the loving, tolerant, all-inclusinve ones. Unfortunately, some conservatives who are less than spiritually mature have likewise mused over Obama's potential assassination. How horrible we are!

Well, there is such a thing as godly imprecation. So stuck are we on the warm fuzzies that we lack the cultural beans and spiritual maturity to sing them in worship. Well, they were written to be sung. They're in the Psalms - in the Bible that we so revere for it's inerrancy and capacity to inform our spiritual lives. Yet we don't apprehend the imprecatory Psalms as we ought.

I pointed this out in a humorous way to the kids: "Let's raise our hands and voices in praise to God with Psalm 55:"

22 Cast your burden on the Lord,
and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
the righteous to be moved.

23 But you, O God, will cast them down
into the pit of destruction;
men of blood and treachery
shall not live out half their days.
But I will trust in you.

"...or Psalm 137:"

1 By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our lyres. [I thought this was interesting. Aren't we always singing songs urging people to sing?]
3 For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

4 How shall we sing the Lord's song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!

7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

The music is good and sung with such conviction that we all applaud God with shouts of "Amen!" and "Halleluiah!"

Of course this won't happen in contemporary western churches, and perhaps our idea of worship is a bit limited. Can we get warm fuzzies over the happiness that people have over brutally killing the children of our enemies? Yet, this was written to be sung.

I bring this up to make an observation about more subtle theological understandings. We don't have much an idea the huge impact our culturally induced sensitivities have on our capacity to correctly apprehend scripture. The good news is that enough truth is understandable in any culture for the Holy Spirit to awaken God's people to faith and to mature spiritually. However, it must be understood that the whole testimony of revealed truth in the scriptures will never be fully understandable to us, no matter what culture we are part of. We rely on the Holy Spirit to reveal more truth to us as we continue to grow in joyful obedience to the will of God, but we should never presume to understand all things.

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