Ethical Vengeance – Christian Ethics and the Imprecatory Psalms

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Jesus once said that we should pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), but is it ethical to pray for them to die? God is “not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness,” said David (Psalm 5:4 [KJV]). Paradoxically, in the same Psalm, he also prays for his enemies, saying, “destroy thou them, O God; let them fall by their own councils” (v. 10). In Psalm 5, David is asking God to lead him in His righteousness; in Psalm 139, David is confessing God’s attributes and one of his roles, mainly, that He is the Creator. With a confessional tone, David seeks for holiness and at the same time asks God to destroy his own enemies—for according to David, they are enemies of God as well. Imprecatory Psalms are known for awakening emotions and desires that Christians seem to suppress. Some argue that those Psalms are just a type of sub-Christian ethic (liberals), while others, like John Calvin, firmly believe that David is not praying out of his selfish desires, but praying as one who has a “holy zeal for the divine Glory.”[1] However, after a careful analysis of these two Psalms, readers will be able to recognize specific details about David and God himself, and because of that, will affirm that those Psalms harmonize with the Christian ethic of love and charity for three reasons: the tone in which David prays reveals his zeal for something higher that mere personal vengeance, these Psalms provide internal evidences that David’s prayers were not violent or negative, and the content of these Psalms is reaffirmed by Jesus.

David’s attitude was not fueled by a sense of revenge, since he was well acquainted with Deuteronomy 32:35. He believed that to God belongeth vengeance to the point that he prayed instead of taking action himself. Being a military leader himself, he had the motives and the means to accomplish personal vengeance, but that was not his desire. David knew that God “wilt slay the wicked” in the last day (Ps. 139:19), and because he knew that, David opts for prayer (as he has done before).[2] David starts his prayer with deep sadness and crying, and he directs his prayer directly to God (Ps. 5:1-3). Why would he pray directly to God if he was sinning?[3] “For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: neither shall evil dwell with thee” (v. 4). David prayed directly to God because he knew who God is. Allen P. Ross, Professor of Old Testament at the Beeson Divinity School, writes on the metonymy of cause (throat, in verse 9) and the metaphor “open grave” explaining that both terms were used to indicate that what those people were saying left “death and ruined lives in their wake.”[4] David was not praying for God to destroy his personal enemies who were bullying him, nor was he “using” God as a slave who obeys what the master says, but he prayed from a desire that burned inside the man after God’s own heart: the vindication of God’s name.

In Psalm 139 David glorifies God as the Creator. Besides glorifying his attributes, he recognizes that God is the only one who knows him perfectly. Michael E. Travers, Professor of English at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, argues that in this Psalm, David is praising God’s omnipotence (vv. 1-6), omnipresence (vv. 7-12), omniscience (vv. 17-18), and righteousness and holiness (vv. 19-20).[5] This Psalm could be considered a hymn, and godly men like R. C. Sproul Jr. have recognized that “imprecatory Psalms are particularly helpful to prayer life.”[6] Psalm 139 seeks to glorify God’s attributes and praise him through a hymn, and verse 19 indicates that violence is not in the mind of the Psalmist. David is sure that God “wilt slay the wicked.” He is so sure that he asks God to depart them from him, a request that would make no sense if he was planning to slay his enemies all by himself. Timothy Keller rightly said that “if I don’t believe that there is a God who will eventually put all things right, I will take up the sword and will be sucked into the endless vortex of retaliation. Only if I am sure that there’s a God who will right all wrongs and settle all accounts perfectly do I have the power to refrain.”[7] David’s prayer now becomes internal evidence that he was not violent, and that God is a loving God that will right all wrongs in the end.

What David is asking in both Psalm 5 and 139 is for God’s kingdom to come. When the reader faces the sentence, “thou hatest all workers of iniquity” (Ps. 5:5), he or she must remember of Zechariah 14:9: “And the Lord shall be king over all earth: in that day shall there be one Lord, and his name one.” When God’s kingdom come, all workers of iniquity, whom God hates, will receive their just condemnation, and God will be glorified through that.[8] David’s prayer is aligned to Jesus’ methodology of prayer from the Sermon on the Mount. “Thy kingdom come,” is more than a longing to see God in full (Matt. 5:10), it is a request for the whole book of Revelation to be actualized by God. All the works of the Devil will be destroyed (1 John 3:8), and since David hated those whom God hates (Ps. 139:21-22), both David’s and Jesus’ desires will be satisfied.[9] David’s tone and imagery foreshadow Jesus’ request in the Lord’s prayer, corroborating Jesus’ words on the inspiration of the Psalms (Matt. 5:44).

David sang his longings for God’s kingdom to come fully; Jesus taught us to pray for the completeness of His kingdom. God is not a God that has pleasure in wickedness, and that is the reason of why David prayed instead of acting: praying means trust in God’s character, while acting would be wickedness in God’s sight. Few things are more ethical, Christian, and loving, than trusting in God’s future justice, and both Psalms 5 and 139 point to this direction. Once again, David proved to be the man after God’s own heart by trusting in the promise of Deuteronomy 32:35. Christians should follow David’s example of trusting in future justice, rather than taking vengeance themselves, for that is wickedness at God’s sight. God’s justice is perfect because his authority is greater than ours, because those who are condemned are condemned under a perfect and just verdict, and because God’s justice comes to the advancement of benevolence. No outraged and uncontrolled emotions are spoken by David in both of these Psalms, just a high-principled zeal for God’s majesty to be displayed to all, both saved and unsaved people.


[1] John Calvin, Commentary On the Book of Psalms (Michigan: Grand Rapids, 1949), 3:67.

[2] See 2 Samuel 24 and 26.

[3] This phrase must be understood with Jesus’ exegesis of the sixth commandment found in Matthew 5:21-22.

[4] Allen P. Ross, A Commentary On the Psalms, Kregel Exegetical Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2011), 252.

[5] Michael Ernest Travers, Encountering God in the Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2003), 308.

[6] R. C. Sproul, “Standing Fast,” Tabletalk, October, 2000, 2.

[7] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Dutton, 2008), 75.

[8] See Romans 9:22-23.

[9] Which should not surprise us, since David was a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14).

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