Many Christians struggle over whether we should be singing imprecatory psalms in our current age of grace. Should we be singing, “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock” (Ps 137:9)?
One major theme in the book of psalms that helps us to understand why we should sing imprecatory psalms is affirmation of the sovereign rule of God over all things. The psalms boldly proclaim, “The Lord reigns! Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity” (Ps 96:10).
So how does the theme of God’s sovereign rule help us to understand the purpose of the imprecatory psalms? This leads us to a consider a second major theme that is developed in the Book of Psalms.
Not only do the Psalms affirm the universal sovereignty of God, the psalms also acknowledge the current rebellion of man against that sovereign rule. Over two thirds of the psalms are laments about wickedness, pain, suffering, and defeat.
Much of the first three books of Psalms, the first 89 psalms, are filled with lament after lament—the enemies of God seem to be prospering, and the people of God seem to be crushed. As David says in Psalm 86:1, “I am poor and needy,” a phrase that appears multiple times in the psalms.
We often experience this, do we not? You look around you, wickedness seems to be everywhere, and you wonder, where is God in all this? Isn’t he Sovereign? And not only that, the wicked are prospering! They are defeating God’s people. Isn’t God King? You see that kind of thing over and over again in the psalms, and we experience it all the time.
If God is sovereign King, why does wickedness appear to be reigning on earth?
The Two-Fold Rule of God
Well it is critical to recognize that the Psalms portray the rule of God in two distinct ways. One is the cosmic, sovereign reign of God that appears throughout the psalms and particularly in the Enthronement Psalms. Yahweh reigns. He is King. This is a universal, eternal fact.
But the second way the reign of God is portrayed is with relation to what is going on right now in the history of the earth. With regard to the sovereign rule of God, there is no opposition—Yahweh reigns. But with regard to the history of the world, “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against Yahweh” (Ps 2). “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God’” (Ps 14). God is sovereign over all, and yet it appears right now as if wickedness reigns on the earth.
The Psalms embody this tension between God’s sovereign rule and how things currently appear. They acknowledge it. They don’t ignore it. They don’t try to escape from the tension. The wicked are everywhere, they are prospering, and the Book of Psalms is structured to portray that because it is an unavoidable reality.
We often try to avoid that reality, do we not? We try to escape it, to ignore it. We pretend the wicked aren’t here. We tend to skip over those passages about the wicked in the Psalms; we get to the parts that talk about the Edomites and the Amorites and the foes and the enemies, and we just sort of glide through those sections, looking for the stuff about shepherds and singing and praise. Perhaps we assume those are just David’s enemies and they have no relevance for us today. This is what Isaac Watts essentially did; when he paraphrased the Psalms, Watts typically glossed over any references to the wicked as if they do not really have any relevance for Christians today.
The Psalms predict the day when God’s Anointed King will make war with his enemies.
But these psalms do have relevance for Christians today, because wickedness around us is still a reality.
But a third major theme that is developed in the psalms helps us to know how we can resolve that tension. The psalms affirm the universal sovereign rule of God, the psalms acknowledge the current rebellion of man against that rule, but third, the psalms predict a day when God’s Anointed King will make war with his enemies and conquer them all.
The Five Books of Psalms are deliberately designed to artistically portray God’s plan for human history: God’s intent to make his universal, sovereign cosmic reign over all things a visible, physical reality in a human king who will reign over all the earth.
This was God’s intent from the beginning of Creation. God created the heavens and the earth, and then he blessed Adam, made in his image, with dominion over all the earth. He appointed Adam to be the King and Judge of all, his vice-regent, his earthly representative of God’s cosmic sovereign rule.
Yet Adam failed. When God cast the rebellious Satan from heaven to the earth to be judged by his vice-regent, Adam failed in his kingly duties and instead bowed the knee to an imposter king. And the fact that wickedness appears to be reigning on this earth even now is due to that failure of the king to exercise dominion.
But God still intends to accomplish his original plan. As part of his curse again the serpent, God promised that one day a seed of the women—a Second Adam—would accomplish what the First Adam failed to do. He would crush the usurper’s head and exercise dominion over all the earth (Gen 3:15).
I flesh out this plan of God to exercise his sovereign rule through a human king in my most recent book, Citizens and Exiles: Christian Faithfulness in God’s Two Kingdoms.
This plan is powerfully portrayed in the Book of Psalms. The psalms affirm the universal sovereignty of God over all, but they also affirm a confident expectation in the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15.
God intends to have an earthly king whose kingship represents his Sovereign rule over all the kingdoms of the world. This is what God promised to David right after he brought the ark to Jerusalem when he declared, “I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” And so Psalm 2 affirms, “I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.”
This is why David bringing the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem was so important and why the song he wrote on that occasion is featured prominently in the Psalms. When David brought the ark—God’s throne on earth—to Jerusalem where he had his throne, he was submitting his earthly kingship to the sovereign kingship of Yahweh. He was, in a sense, foreshadowing the day when the cosmic rule of the sovereign King of Kings will be united with the earthly rule of an Anointed One. And that is why he so prominently sings, “Yahweh reigns.” David’s offspring will rule the earth, but he will do so in submission to and as an expression of Yahweh’s sovereign rule over all.
Yahweh reigns. That is a never-changing reality. God is sovereign. And so we can have confidence that he will accomplish his purpose to establish David’s throne forever.
So how will he do that? This is where the imprecatory language comes in. David’s Son will take dominion over all the earth as an expression of Yahweh’s sovereign rule by making war with his enemies and crushing them in defeat.
This is what the prophets of old foretold. For example, Isaiah prophesied,
Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the Lord of hosts in the day of his fierce anger. 14 And like a hunted gazelle, or like sheep with none to gather them, each will turn to his own people, and each will flee to his own land. 15 Whoever is found will be thrust through, and whoever is caught will fall by the sword. 16 Their infants will be dashed in pieces before their eyes; their houses will be plundered and their wives ravished.Isaiah 13:13–16
The psalms don’t gloss over this. God’s Anointed King will conquer his foes. He will crush the serpent’s head. “You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Ps 2:9).
You see, the imprecatory language in the psalms is not unbridled expression of personal rage and vengeance made in a moment of passion. Imprecatory language is not the equivalent of cursing in anger.
Rather, imprecatory psalms are expressions of confident trust that God will accomplish his purpose for mankind that he established at the beginning of history. When the psalmist prays, “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock,” he is simply affirming what Isaiah prophesied God will do.
And neither are these expressions of what we intend to do. We do not take up arms and crush our enemies with the sword. We have been commanded by Christ to love and pray for our enemies, to boldly proclaim the good news of the gospel, confident that God will save his elect through the gospel, turning enemies into friends. We currently live in an age of grace in which God through our proclamation of the gospel is gathering his people unto himself from out of the nations.
No, we do not attempt to subdue the enemies of God with physical force, like Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne did when he forced pagans to be baptized at the point of a sword. No, who is it who will one day take vengeance upon the enemies of God? Who will break the rebellious kings of this earth with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel? Who will dash their little ones against the rock?
It is one sitting on a white horse “called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war” (Rev 19:11).
Dominion over all the nations of the earth will be accomplished by the God-Man, David’s Greater Son, the Anointed One, the only one who can perfectly be a human King who exercises an earthly rule corresponding to God’s cosmic sovereign rule. Jesus Son of the woman can do that because Jesus is Yahweh, and Yahweh reigns.
Dominion over the earth will not be accomplished by any sinful human Prince, even if he is a Christian Prince. Dominion over all the earth will be accomplished when the King returns to conquer all who oppose him.
This is what the Psalms portray when they cry out for vengeance. They cry out for the return of the King! And Book V of the Psalms vividly portrays that coming day.
The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. 6 He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth. 7 He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head.Psalm 110:5–7
So why should we sing them, then? I will answer that question next week.
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.