There are several fundamental reasons many churches don’t sing the Psalms today, and I wrote my book, Musing on God’s Music, in order to help correct some of those reasons.
But one key reason Christians shy away from some of the psalms is the sometimes violent imprecatory language found in them. If Christians today do use the psalms, they tend to exclusively gravitate toward psalms of comfort—Psalms 23 is the most likely, or psalms of praise like Psalm 100.
But most of the psalms are not songs of comfort or praise. You can’t even get past the first psalm before you read, “the way of the wicked will perish.” In Psalm 2 we read, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled.” Psalm 7: “Arise, O Lord, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies.” Should Christians be singing that? Where is the grace?
And, of course, it gets even worse. Should we really sing from Psalm 58, “O God, break the teeth in their mouths. . . . Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime, like the stillborn child who never sees the sun”? The psalm concludes, “The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.” And then there is probably the worst imprecatory curse of all in Psalm 137, which proclaims,
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!
What are we to do with psalms like these? The fact is that the dark, grim, sometime violent language of many of the psalms has been a stumbling block for many Christians. Isaac Watts said,
Why must I join with David in his legal or prophetic language to curse my enemies, when my Savior in his sermons has taught me to love and bless them? Why may not a Christian omit all those passages of the Jewish Psalmist that tend to fill the mind with overwhelming sorrows, despairing thoughts, or bitter personal resentments, none of which are well suited to the Spirit of Christianity, which is a dispensation of hope and joy and love?
Likewise, C. S. Lewis considered the imprecatory psalms “devilish,” naive, “diabolical,” given to “pettiness” and “vulgarity.” He stated that their “vindictive hatred,” full of “festering, gloating, undisguised” passions can never be “condoned or approved.”
But on the contrary, I would like to show you why not only can we sing psalms like these, but why we must sing psalms like these. We will see that psalms like these are deeply rooted in confidence that God is the Sovereign King of Kings, and therefore to sing them helps form within us a hope-filled longing for the Return of the King.
One of the most important things to recognize about the psalms that will help us understand the purpose of imprecatory language is to recognize that the Book of Psalms is not just a random collection of songs. Most Christians today don’t recognize that the 150 psalms were intentionally organized by Ezra or someone like him following the Babylonian exile into five books, and these five books of psalms were arranged to teach us some very important truths. They are organized in such a way that these songs progressively develop several significant themes about God and his plan for the world. And you can find out much more detail about that in my book.
One of those central themes that is developed through the five books of Psalms is the universal, sovereign kingship of God.
The psalms are filled with imagery that affirms the universal sovereignty of God. In Psalm 2:4, David says that God “sits enthroned in the heavens.” Dozens of psalms refer to God as King. The psalms sing of the scepter of God, the throne of God, and the crown of God, all meant to picture God as the sovereign King. The psalms refer to God as Judge of all the earth. Even the well-loved image of a Shepherd to describe God in psalms like Psalm 23 was a royal image. Psalm 80:1, for example, equates the Shepherd of Israel with the one who is enthroned in heaven.
From the first to the last, the Psalms proclaim the universal sovereign rule of God Almighty: Psalm 103:19 proclaims, “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.” “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,” David sings in Psalm 145, “and your dominion endures throughout all generations.”
Psalm 89, the last psalm of Book III of the Psalter, portrays this vividly. The first half of the psalm praises God for his universal, cosmic, sovereign rule over all.
Psalm 89:6: For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord? Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord.
Psalm 89:9: You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.
Psalm 89:11: The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it, you have founded them.
Psalm 89:14: Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.
God is sovereign over all.
Yet there is a group of psalms in Book 4 that give special, focused attention to the sovereign rule of God. I mentioned earlier that the psalms were deliberately organized into five books, and the psalms within each of the five books were deliberately organized to communicate specific truths.
This is clearly apparent in a group of psalms in Book 4 often called “Enthronement Psalms.” While, as we have seen, many of the psalms affirm the sovereign rule of God in some way, Psalms 92–100 do so with vivid focus.
Psalms 92 and 100 form bookends to this grouping, and between them we find a powerful, repeated acclamation of the sovereign rule of God: Yahweh malak—The LORD reigns.
Ps 93:1: “The Lord reigns; he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed; he has put on strength as his belt. Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved.
Psalm 96:10: Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns! Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.”
Psalm 97:1: The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!
Psalm 99:1: The Lord reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
There is perhaps no more a succinct, vivid expression of the sovereign rule of God over all in Scripture than this acclamation: Yahweh reigns.
Yet here’s what’s fascinating about this acclamation: the phrase, “Yahweh reigns” only appears in all of Scripture in Psalms 93, 96, 97, and 99. Except one other place: 1 Chronicles 16.
1 Chronicles 16 records a song that David the warrior king wrote. And, in fact, these Enthronement psalms are drawing from portions of David’s song in 1 Chronicles 16. It was originally written by King David on the occasion of bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. You’ll recall that the Philistines had captured the Ark years earlier, and it was only now during David’s reign that he successfully returned it to its proper place in the Tabernacle in Jerusalem.
First Chronicles 16 records the service of dedication that Israel held in honor of the event. David appointed musicians to play and sing during the service, and verse 7 says, “Then on that day David first appointed that thanksgiving be sung to the Lord by Asaph and his brothers.” After this dedication service, David apparently took the song he had written and rearranged it into a couple different songs that Israel then regularly used in its worship and that appear in the book of Psalms.
Do you remember what happened when the Philistines had put the Ark in their temple to Dagon? They got up the next morning, and the Dagon idol was flat on his face—and so when David recovers the ark, he sings, “All the gods of the people are worthless idols! The Lord reigns.”
“For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods” Psalm 95:3 proclaims. Psalm 97:9 asserts, “For you, O Lord, are most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.” This is what David boldly proclaims in his song of thanks when he recovers the Ark of the Lord.
But God not only rules over the false gods of this earth, he rules over all the earth.
Psalm 93:4: Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the Lord on high is mighty!
Psalm 95:4–5: In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.
Psalm 97:4–5: His lightnings light up the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth.
Psalm 99:2–5: The Lord is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples. Let them praise your great and awesome name! Holy is he! The King in his might loves justice. You have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob. Exalt the Lord our God; worship at his footstool! Holy is he!
Yahweh reigns! The Lord is the sovereign King over all the earth. That is a centrally important theme that is developed in the psalms.
Next week, we’ll see how this theme impacts our understanding of the imprecatory psalms.
Consider making a year-end tax-deductible gift to our ministry, a decision that supports vital work and helps provide resources for Christians around the globe.