How the ‘Angry Psalms’ Fit within the Story of God and His People
Break the teeth in their mouths. Let them be put to shame. Cut off my enemies. Cast them out. What in the world are the psalmists praying?
The imprecatory psalms are, for many, among the most uncomfortable, perplexing, even morally reprehensible portions of the Bible. They are violent prayers for justice against violent injustice. Where lies destroy lives and the innocent are slaughtered, these angry psalms beg for God to interrupt the assaults of the wicked, to vindicate the suffering righteous, to enact just judgement according to his promises.
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We have little trouble understanding how the experience of violence may prompt a human being to pray such angry psalms. Amid the scourge and scars of unjust attack, some of us have known firsthand the unspeakable pain the psalmists manage to speak. What many cannot come to grips with is how these understandable prayers can be good. But here they are in the songbook of the Scriptures, intentionally included in a liturgical collection that shaped the worship of Israel, canonically commended to the people of God as words from God to offer back to God—and without the slightest hint that within them there is anything ethically dubious at all. Neither the psalmists nor the writers of the New Testament seem to share our reservations.
Instead of asking what in the world the psalmists are praying, then, perhaps we might turn the question around and ask, In what world are the psalmists praying? Ethics emerges from narrative: our deliberations about what constitutes faithful action are always shaped by the narrative in which we believe we are characters.1See Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 216. If the psalmists are as confident in their judgment prayers as we are incredulous, that may very well be because they perceive themselves as actors within a world governed by a different controlling story.
The psalmists assume, allude to, and act within a theologically charged story of the world, taking their cues from the authoritative, ethically determinative narrative of Israel’s Scriptures. The theological coherence and moral intelligibility of the imprecatory psalms is grounded in the story within which they prayerfully participate. Consequently, we who have difficulty imagining how the psalmists may pray as they do must first reconsider how the psalmists imagined the cosmos and their place within it.
The Story of Sacred Space
There are many legitimate ways to synthesize the story of the Scriptures, but one telling of the tale that is underutilized in contemporary biblical theological discussions and yet particularly illuminating for the imprecatory psalms foregrounds creation as the house of God’s holy presence.
On this account, the story of the Bible is, in the simplest terms, the story of sacred space.2See esp. esp. William J. Webb and Gordon K. Oeste, Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? Wrestling with Troubling War Texts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 52–74; G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, NSBT 17 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004); L. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus, NSBT 37 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015). In the beginning, God creates the heavens and the earth as a cosmic temple in which he will dwell, and he plants a garden in Eden as his primal sanctuary—the first in-breaking of heavenly sacred space onto the soil of the earth.3See Richard Davidson, “Earth’s First Sanctuary: Genesis 1–3 and Parallel Creation Accounts,” AUSS 53, no. 1 (2015): 88–89. Cf. Gregory K. Beale, “Eden, the Temple, and the Church’s Mission in the New Creation,” JETS 48, no. 1 (2005): 7–12; Gordon J. Wenham, “Sanctuary Symbolism in the Garden of Eden Story,” in I Studied Inscriptions from before the Flood, ed. R. S. Hess and D. T. Tsumara (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 399–404. The Lord installs Adam in his sanctuary garden as a son of God who bears the image and likeness of his divine Father,42:5–3:24 in Light of the mīs pî pīt pî and wpt-r Rituals of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, Siphrut 15 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2015), 131–7; Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 194–5. and he commissions the man to serve as a royal priest.
As priests, human beings are to serve and guard God’s Edenic sacred space (Gen 2:15) like the Levites and priests would one day serve and guard his tabernacle (e.g., Num 3:7–8),5Genesis 2:15 describes Adam’s calling with עבד and שׁמר, the same pair of terms used throughout the Pentateuch for the priestly and Levitical task of serving and guarding sacred space. See esp. Beale, “Eden, the Temple, and the Church’s Mission,” 7–8. and this includes the responsibility to expel any encroaching unholiness. As kings, image-bearers are to exercise royal dominion and to subdue the entire earth (Gen 1:28)—expanding the borders of God’s sanctuary, adorning the land with beauty and glory in wisdom, preparing creation as the holy house of a holy God.6Cf. John H. Walton, Genesis (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 185–7; Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 81–87. When the wicked, deceiving serpent encroaches into the garden, God’s royal priesthood is to exercise the prerogatives of their office by subduing the threat, exercising dominion, protecting the sanctuary, driving out the unholy intruder. In a tragic irony, they are subdued with a lie and are themselves driven from God’s sacred dwelling place, and the Lord stations an angelic guardian at the eastern gate to guard his sanctuary from them (Gen 3:24).
Yet, before the Lord casts out Adam and Eve from the place of his holy presence, he makes a promise: the offspring of the woman will be at enmity with the line of the serpent, and a seed will arise who crushes the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15). Where the first royal priesthood failed, the Lord announces that the line of the woman will embrace the calling of the son of God to oppose the serpent and his seed until a climactic seed-son appears as a faithful Adamic priest-king to subdue the serpent and to consummate creation as sacred space in fulfillment of humanity’s original commission. This protoevangelium—this first announcement of God’s good news—is not so much the introduction of something radically new as it is the promise that the task given to Adam will be completed by a son of Adam who answers his calling as a son of God.
It is no coincidence that Israel is called a son of God (Exod 4:22–23) and a royal priesthood (Exod 19:6). As the offspring of the woman through the line of Abraham, the covenant community is the corporate heir to the Adamic office. With the tabernacle of God’s presence pitched among them as a renewed Edenic sanctuary, Israel is to guard sacred space by guarding the covenant in obedience (Exod 19:5)7Israel is to שׁמר the covenant, recalling Adam’s priestly vocation to שׁמר the garden. Israel guards the sanctity of God’s dwelling by guarding her holiness in fidelity to the covenant. and by purging evil from her midst in accordance with the covenant (e.g., Deut 13:5), and the son of God enters the New Eden of Canaan from the east to drive out the unholy nations and subdue the land as the dwelling place of the Lord.8See Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible, NSBT 15 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 128. And note the use of כבשׁ in Josh 18:1 (cf. Gen 1:28). Both Israel’s pursuit of holiness and her conquest of Canaan are royal-priestly exercises ordered toward the creation and cultivation of sacred space, and God vows further still that “all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord” (Num 14:21).
The Davidic king, as representative of the people, is likewise a son of God (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:7), a priestly king. In accord with the Adamic commission, David subdues the land and the enemies within it in preparation for the construction of the Lord’s holy house (1 Chron 22:18),9Like Josh 18:1, 1 Chron 22:18 echoes Gen 1:28 in its utilization of כבשׁ (and cf. 2 Sam 8:11). pressing forward the boundaries of sacred space. The Lord’s anointed is tasked with guarding the law and leading Israel in covenant faithfulness (Deut 17:19), cultivating the community with whom God dwells in justice and holiness. He protects the land in which and people with whom the Lord resides from every corrupting threat, breaking hostile nations like pottery (Ps 2:9) and “cutting off all the evildoers from the city of the Lord” (Ps 101:8).
Within the story of Israel’s Scriptures, king and community alike are authorized as royal-priestly sons of God, servants of sacred space who tend and extend God’s sanctuarial dwelling. And within the psalms, which petition and praise from the inside of this narrative, they pray as the sons of God as well.
‘Angry Psalms’ Are Justice Songs of the Sons of God
The imprecatory psalms are royal-priestly petitions, liturgical songs of the sons of God that guard sacred space, drive out unholiness, and at times even seek to subdue the whole earth as the holy house of God’s glory through prayer. That is, the angry psalms themselves are a means by which the Lord’s royal priesthood fulfills their vocation. The scriptural story positions Israel and Israel’s monarch as characters in God’s narrative—possessed of a divinely granted office—and in these angry psalms, they pray in line with their calling as the sons of God.
The enemies in the imprecations are violently unjust predators who prowl after and pounce upon the innocent. The unwarranted assaults of the wicked terrorize the godly, and in so doing, they desecrate God’s dwelling place and compromise the sanctity, joy, and indeed the very survival of the community that resides in God’s holy presence. This is apparent when antagonistic nations array to dispossess and annihilate the Lord’s temple-kingdom (Ps 83:4) and when they have “profaned the dwelling place of your name” (Ps 74:7) by destroying God’s sanctuary and pouring out the blood of his servants (Ps 79:10; cf. 137:7).
But the enemies within Israel’s borders pollute sacred space as well. In his covenant, the Lord warned his people that unholiness and injustice in their midst would cause the land to vomit them out (Lev 20:22), so every ambush in the hidden places (Ps 10:8) and every assault on the quiet in the land (Ps 35:20) that corrupts the shalom of God’s temple-kingdom simultaneously threatens the continued life of Israel in the presence of the Lord. God told the people that violent bloodshed would defile the land where the Lord abides (Num 35:33–34), and “men of blood” (Pss 55:23; 139:19) pollute the soil of Israel with their brutalities. God commanded his community to appoint righteous judges and warned against perverting justice, lest they be prevented from living before his face: “Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut 16:20). Consequently, unjust judges whose hands deal out violence in the land (Ps 58:1–2) and wicked rulers who frame injustice by statute (Ps 94:20) expose the entire community to the covenantal curse of exile. If the wicked are not driven out from the people in the land, then the people will be driven from the land along with their wickedness.
Early in the Psalter, the Davidic psalmist publicizes to the Lord his awareness that “evil may not dwell with you” (Ps 5:4)—in the sacred space God has consecrated for his presence—and he subsequently pleads regarding destructively deceptive transgressors that God “cast them out” (Ps 5:10), that he expel the bloodthirsty liars from his dwelling place. The Psalter opens with the assurance that, while the righteous are like trees planted by streams in a garden sanctuary that echoes Eden (Ps 1:3), the wicked will be driven away by God’s theophanic judgment (Ps 1:4–5). In all the imprecatory psalms that follow, the psalmists beg God to make good on his word to judge the wicked and cast them out. Indeed, the psalmists endeavor to cast them out in prayer by petitioning for the expulsive judgment of God.
With these prayers, the psalmists step into their story-formed calling as the royal-priestly sons of God and perform in prayer the task that Adam should have accomplished: they drive out serpentine intruders and strike them underfoot. Building upon Psalm 1, God’s people throughout the Psalter are envisioned as a garden sanctuary, trees planted in the house of the Lord (Pss 52:8; 92:12–15; 144:12), and their intrusive, unholy enemies are portrayed in decidedly serpentine hues. The objects of the psalmists’ imprecatory prayers are serpents who spit lies like venom (Pss 58:3–4; 140:3), “crafty” foes who plot to trespass in God’s pasture (Ps 83:3), of a kind with the serpents God has shattered in the past (Ps 74:13–14). The psalmists accordingly petition for God to crush them into the dust (Ps 72:4, 9), break their heads (Pss 3:7; 58:6; 68:21; 83:9–11; 140:9), and trample them with stomping feet (Pss 58:10; 68:23, 30).10See also Peter Leithart, “Sing the ‘Mean’ Psalms,” First Things, March 25, 2021, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2021/03/sing-the-mean-psalms. The imprecators participate in the protoevangelium by prayer.
Through their petitions, God’s royal priesthood guards sacred space, and in a few psalms, they seek to extend the borders of the Lord’s sanctuary to the ends of the earth. Psalm 72 petitions for a royal son from David’s line who, by crushing every oppressor in justice (v. 4), will enjoy dominion from sea to sea (v. 8) so that the whole earth may be filled with the glory of the Lord (v. 19). Psalm 82 indicts the gods of the nations for their injustice and calls God to arise, judge the earth, and inherit the nations (v. 8). Psalm 104 describes the cosmos as the Lord’s holy temple (vv. 1–5) and concludes with a cry for the consumption of the wicked (v. 35) so that the glory of God may abide in his creational house (v. 31).
The imprecatory psalms are the liturgical, prayerful means by which the sons of God protect the sanctuary and subdue the earth, enacting their appointed role as characters in the story of the Scriptures. Adam was exiled from Eden for failing to drive out the serpent, and a Psalter without imprecation would be a recapitulation of his original abdication.
Praying as Priest-Kings
The story of sacred space does not end with the psalms. Jesus arrives as the vocation-fulfilling Son of God—true Israel, David’s heir, the last Adam—to drive out unholiness from the Lord’s sanctuary (Matt 21:12–13), defeat the enemies of his people (Col 2:15), build a holy house (Acts 2), and fill the earth with his temple (Matt 28:18–20) as the climactic priest-king of God. And he makes his church as royal priesthood as well (1 Pet 2:9), sons of God in the Son of God (Rom 8:15–23) granted authority to tread on serpents (Luke 10:19) and a promise that this is their destiny (Rom 16:20). The church is a character in God’s narrative, and she inherits the same royal-priestly role, the same Adamic office, as the king and kingdom of Israel.
In Revelation, one of the first things John says about Christians is that Jesus has made them “a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (1:6), and throughout his Apocalypse, he traces the progression of the prayers of Christ’s royal priesthood. Revelation 5:8 records that the twenty-four elders in the heavenly temple hold golden bowls full of incense, and John observes that these are “the prayers of the saints.” Revelation 6:10 clarifies the content of the saints’ prayers as martyrs plead in the pattern of Psalm 79:10 for God to judge and avenge the spilled blood of his people. With Revelation 8, an angel stands at the altar with a golden censer to offer incense “with the prayers of all the saints” (v. 3). The imprecatory incense-prayers ascend to God (v. 4), then the angel fills up the censer with altar fire and throws it upon the earth in judgment (v. 5).
In the movement of John’s vision, the ensuing in-breakings of divine judgment into history and at history’s end are God’s response to the justice prayers of his royal priesthood. Golden bowls that offered prayers are filled with God’s wrath and poured out on the earth (15:7–16:1),11See G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1999), 806; cf. Peter J. Leithart, Revelation 12–22, ITC (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2018), 132. and God judges the world in righteousness until he eventually avenges the blood of his servants (19:2) in consummate answer to the cries of his saints. In Revelation, priest-kings plead as prayerful guardians of the ecclesial temple and by their petitions participate in subduing the earth as the temple of God’s glory (21:1–22:5).
Ever receptive to the cries of his royal priesthood, the Lord keeps our tears over injustice in his bottle (Ps 56:8), and he collects our prayers over injustice in golden bowls.
And he will pour them out upon the earth.
1. See Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 216.
2. See esp. esp. William J. Webb and Gordon K. Oeste, Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? Wrestling with Troubling War Texts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 52–74; G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, NSBT 17 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004); L. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus, NSBT 37 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015).
3. See Richard Davidson, “Earth’s First Sanctuary: Genesis 1–3 and Parallel Creation Accounts,” AUSS 53, no. 1 (2015): 88–89. Cf. Gregory K. Beale, “Eden, the Temple, and the Church’s Mission in the New Creation,” JETS 48, no. 1 (2005): 7–12; Gordon J. Wenham, “Sanctuary Symbolism in the Garden of Eden Story,” in I Studied Inscriptions from before the Flood, ed. R. S. Hess and D. T. Tsumara (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 399–404.
4. Cf. also Catherine L. McDowell, The Image of God in the Garden of Eden: The Creation of Humankind in Genesis 2:5–3:24 in Light of the mīs pî pīt pî and wpt-r Rituals of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, Siphrut 15 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2015), 131–7; Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 194–5.
5. Genesis 2:15 describes Adam’s calling with עבד and שׁמר, the same pair of terms used throughout the Pentateuch for the priestly and Levitical task of serving and guarding sacred space. See esp. Beale, “Eden, the Temple, and the Church’s Mission,” 7–8.
6. Cf. John H. Walton, Genesis (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 185–7; Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 81–87.
7. Israel is to שׁמר the covenant, recalling Adam’s priestly vocation to שׁמר the garden. Israel guards the sanctity of God’s dwelling by guarding her holiness in fidelity to the covenant.
8. See Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible, NSBT 15 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 128. And note the use of כבשׁ in Josh 18:1 (cf. Gen 1:28).
9. Like Josh 18:1, 1 Chron 22:18 echoes Gen 1:28 in its utilization of כבשׁ (and cf. 2 Sam 8:11).
10. See also Peter Leithart, “Sing the ‘Mean’ Psalms,” First Things, March 25, 2021, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2021/03/sing-the-mean-psalms.
11. See G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1999), 806; cf. Peter J. Leithart, Revelation 12–22, ITC (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2018), 132.
Image created by Rubner Durais
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