Psalm 139: The curse that we deserve fell on Jesus instead

October 14, 2015

psalmsPsalm 139, which I preached on last Sunday, presents a challenge to us Christians because it includes literal cursing—words of imprecation against God’s enemies: “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me!… I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.”

How do we deal with these kinds of verses in the Psalms?

First, we appreciate that this psalm is a prayer. Among other things, psalms such as these teach us that God gives us permission to honestly express our emotions to him. We don’t need to censor ourselves. Why would we even try? As this psalm says, God “knows our thoughts from afar.” I’m sure that psychologists would be the first ones to agree that being honest with our feelings is a necessary step toward healing.

Second, in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for “hatred” (שָׂנֵא, or sane) doesn’t connote quite what we think it does. Nancy deClaissé-Walford, in her commentary, says that this kind of hatred

refers to an emotional reaction of aversion to someone or something. But the aversion does not necessarily invoke a desire for harm to come to the other, but rather a desire to distance oneself from the other. In Prov. 19:7, we read, “If the poor are hated even by their kin, how much more are they shunned by their friends!” Isaac says to Abimelech in Gen. 26:27, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?” In the Old Testament, God “hates” particular actions and behaviors rather than particular people. Moses says to the Israelites in Deut. 16:21-22, “You shall not plant any tree as an Ashram beside the altar that you make for the Lord your God; nor shall you set up a stone pillar—things that the Lord your God hates.” And in the Psalter, the psalm-singers affirm that God hates “evildoers” (Ps. 5:5), “the lover of violence” (11:5), and “wickedness” (45:7).[1]

Be that as it may, the psalm reminds us that there are proper objects for hatred. God’s sending people to hell would certainly be a justifiable act of hatred in this biblical sense (even if, as I’ve argued in the past, it springs from a loving God’s commitment to justice). Hell would be the ultimate instance of God’s “distancing” himself from human beings, for eternity.

Augustine wrote in his commentary on this psalm that we are commanded to love our enemies, but not to love God’s enemies. To be on the safe side, I would assume that none of my enemies are God’s enemies, except for sin and evil in the world and, especially, within myself. So we can rightly internalize the psalm, as many Christian thinkers have suggested, using these words allegorically, to root out evil within us. When we pray, for example, “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!” we are asking God to slay what is wicked within us—those darkened corners of our own hearts that have yet to be redeemed; those things within us that lead us off the straight and narrow way; those thoughts, habits, and practices of ours that lead to death instead of life. And not to mention Satan and his minions. I want God to slay them, too!

But I’m speaking as a comfortable middle-class American whose life has never been directly threatened by physical enemies. The psalmist, David, didn’t have that luxury. And he didn’t intend these words allegorically. Since I’m not a pacifist, I do believe in justifiable violence and warfare. I can easily imagine situations in which we may rightly pray for God to slay the wicked.

Theologian Miroslav Volf can too. He lived through civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Inasmuch as he is a pacifist—and he at least comes close—his pacifism isn’t based on the mistaken belief that God himself is non-violent, or as some modern-day theologians put it, “God is perfect non-coercive love.” No: God judges the world and God takes vengeance. This is the only justifiable basis, he says, for the practice of non-violence.

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.[2]

Finally, I believe the best way for Christians to read psalms such as these is to remind ourselves who we were apart from Christ. David says, “Slay the wicked, O God!”—because they are God’s enemies who deserve death. And I say, by all means! Apart from what Christ accomplished for me through his life, death, and resurrection, I was an enemy of God who deserved death (Romans 5:106:23). Or as I put it in my sermon:

The curse that deserved to fall on us because of our sins—this death penalty that we deserved to pay, this hell that we deserved to suffer—fell instead on Jesus, was paid for instead by Jesus, was suffered instead by Jesus—and Jesus is God, God in the flesh. God loved us too much to let us to suffer death and eternal separation from him without doing something to save us. So God came to us in Jesus and offered the way for us to be rescued—and it’s a free gift, fully paid for by the blood of Jesus. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

And if we understand this, we can make sense of all those psalms in which the psalmist asks for God to vindicate him on the basis of his righteousness. We can read them and say, “I’m not righteous, except that Jesus has given me his righteousness. Praise God! Jesus was righteous on my behalf!” And we can read all these psalms that invite curses on God’s enemies and say, “I was an enemy of God. That curse deserved to fall on me, but God the Son put himself in between me and the curse—and let it fall on him instead. Hallelujah!”

1. Nancy deClaissé-Walford et al., The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 966.

2. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 304.

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