The book of Psalms is filled with so many memorable and meaningful psalms: “As the deer pants for streams of water…” (Psalm 42:1); “The Lord is my shepherd…” (Psalm 23:1), just to cite a couple. These are the psalms which have endeared this book to so many throughout the millennia.
And then, there are those other psalms; the ones we don’t quite know what to do with: “How blessed is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Psalm 137:9); “If only you, God, would slay the wicked!” (Psalm 139:19).
What do we do with these psalms? Do we skip over them? Hide them away out of embarrassment? Or just ignore them?
These troubling psalms are called “psalms of vengeance” or “imprecatory psalms.” They are psalms that incorporate a curse (imprecation) against an enemy. They appear at frequent points throughout the Psalter (e.g., 5-7, 28, 54-56, 104, 129, 140, etc.). While they may help us acknowledge the presence of evil, they also trouble us because of the nature of their requests. Upon reading them, the biblically-astute person naturally retorts, “I thought we were supposed to pray for our enemies, not curse them” (Matthew 5:43-48)!
In 1937, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a German Lutheran pastor who was caught in the fray of increasing Nazi oppression—delivered a sermon on one of these psalms to his seminary students in Finkenwalde, Germany. Even though it might be argued that Bonhoeffer had every cause to aim this psalm’s imprecations at Hitler and his agents of oppression, he instead opened up a different interpretation—one that allows us to embrace the message of the psalm as it finds its ultimate meaning not in our own experience but in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Bonhoeffer chose to preach on Psalm 58. After reading the text, he asks,” Is this terrible psalm of vengeance really our prayer? Are we even permitted to pray this way?” His immediate answer to this question is “no,” but not for the reason we might think. He says, “No, we cannot pray this psalm. But not because we are too good … but because we are too sinful ourselves, too evil! Only those who are themselves completely without guilt can pray thus. This psalm of vengeance is the prayer of the innocent.”
With this statement, Bonhoeffer begins to crack open the “hard shell” of this difficult psalm, revealing a way into the core of its meaning.
When reading psalms of vengeance, we must keep in mind the unconditional covenant (promise) God made with Abraham in Genesis 12:3. God said, “I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” The goal of this promise is blessing for “all peoples on earth.” We know that this blessing delivered to all people is salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, the promised Seed of Eve (Genesis 3:15). If anything were to oppose this work of God, then the promised blessing would be put at risk. Thus, God commits himself to assuring the outcome of this promise by attaching this unconditional, unstoppable commitment of himself to the line of Abraham, and ultimately, to the sending of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Returning to Psalm 58, we read the troubling requests in verse 6-9 in a new light:
Break the teeth in their mouths, O God; Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions! Let them vanish like water that flows away; when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short. May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along, like a stillborn child that never sees the sun (Psalm 58:6-9).
Seen in view of Genesis 12:3, we now recognize that this is no personal vendetta, but instead a prayer to protect the line of the Messiah and, with it, the provision for blessing to all peoples of the earth through Jesus. The Psalmist prays here in the same way that we pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
The problem for us frail and sinful pray-ers, however, is that this prayer is too easily tainted by our own self-righteousness. The fact is, evil is not just “out there.” It’s “in here,” too—it’s in me as much as in others. So, as I attempt to pray this psalm, I find myself in the crosshairs of God’s judgment. This would be the death of me if it weren’t for what we find in the climax of this psalm: “The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked” (58:10).
What we have here, argues Bonhoeffer, is a picture of the day when the holy, righteous God crushes his enemy. Only, as viewed through Christ on the cross, we acknowledge that the One made to be the enemy of God—the One who, as Luther says, became the greatest sinner of all time—is not us (frail, sinful humanity) but rather Jesus Christ, God’s one and only Son!
Hallelujah! The ones who were wicked have been redeemed and made righteous! To paraphrase the psalm, these righteous ones are those who rejoice as they wash their feet in the blood of the One who was made wicked for them! Or, as the apostle Paul put it, “God made him who knew no sin to become sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Bonhoeffer brings his sermon to a focus as he says, “Anyone who shrinks back in horror from such joy in God’s vengeance and from the blood of the wicked does not yet understand what happened on the cross of Christ. God’s righteous wrath at the wicked has, after all, already come down upon us. The blood of the wicked has already flowed. God’s death sentence over the wicked has already been pronounced. God’s righteousness has been fulfilled. All this happened on the cross of Jesus Christ.”
And with this, the psalm’s apparent “thirst for blood” has been turned on its head, as the sinful ones praying it find themselves recipients of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. As Bonhoeffer states, the ones who have now become partakers through faith with the innocence of Jesus Christ, the truly Innocent One, “pray along with this psalm, in humble gratitude for the cross of Christ having saved us from wrath, with the ardent petition that God bring all our enemies to the cross of Christ and grant them mercy, with fierce yearning that the day might soon come when Christ visibly triumphs over all his enemies and establishes his kingdom. Thus,” Bonhoeffer concludes, “have we learned to pray this psalm. Amen.”
Dr. Brad Pribbenow, Ph.D. serves Lutheran Brethren Seminary as Dean and Professor of Old Testament.