Psalm 87: Anomalous or Apostolic

Psalm 87 (see below) may strike a first time reader as an odd psalm. Why would an entire psalm be dedicated to people from various forgotten nations like Rhab (a name for Egypt), Babylon, Philistia, Tyre and Cush? Furthermore, why would they be found boasting that they were “born in Zion” as declared in verses 4, 5 and 6 of the Psalm?

We must understand that these nations represent the enemies of Israel. It is an early declaration that God’s global purposes will someday include “every tribe, language and nation” (Rev. 7:9). In one stroke the seven verses of this single Psalm demolish the widely held notion that the Old Testament is only about Israel or that the people of God in those days had a very narrow, parochial view of God’s wider redemptive purposes and that we must patiently wait for the New Testament to show us God’s deeper plan. God’s global purpose is revealed from the beginning of the covenant in Genesis 12:3 when he promises to “bless all nations.”

Zion here is symbolic of what it means to be counted among those embraced by the covenantal, redemptive love of God! He is the fountain of life for all nations and all people. This is why, we sing, even now, with the nations of the world that “all my fountains are in You!” (vs. 7). What would happen if next Sunday your church were to praise God for the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan and Chechnya – because God has redemptive plans for all the peoples of the world!

1 He has founded his city on the holy mountain.
2 The Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the other dwellings of Jacob.
3 Glorious things are said of you,
city of God:
4 “I will record Rahab and Babylon
among those who acknowledge me—
Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush—
and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’”
5 Indeed, of Zion it will be said,
“This one and that one were born in her,
and the Most High himself will establish her.”
6 The Lord will write in the register of the peoples:
“This one was born in Zion.”
7 As they make music they will sing,
“All my fountains are in you.”

Imprecatory Psalms: Are All the Psalms Suitable for Christian Use?

For the past two years, my wife Julie and I have started each day by singing a Psalm and then carefully thinking and praying through the Psalm line by line. We use a collection of metrical psalms known as the Trinity Psalter which draws from many of the great historic metrical Psalm collections (such as the famous Scottish Psalter) as well as new metrical renditions of the Psalms.  This has been a very enriching experience in our walk with the Lord.  Julie and I have also been slowly working on our own metrical Psalm collection, putting each Psalm into meter.  We hope to have this completed in the next few years (we haven’t yet tossed the coin to see who is going to take on Psalm 119!).

When people hear that we are singing the Psalms they sometimes ask, “Do you really sing them all?  Surely you mean the “old favorites” like Psalm 19, 23, 93, 100, right?”  “Surely,” they continue, “you as a Christian can’t sing Psalms like 109 and 137, can you?”

Psalm 109 and 137 are two of approximately eighteen Psalms that are considered imprecatory Psalms, i.e. they call down curses or judgment on someone (See, Psalms 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 58, 69, 79, 83, 109, 137, 139 and 143).  This raises a great question which is not just about singing Psalms, but preaching or reading the Psalms as well.

Are all the Psalms suitable for Christian use?

How do we reconcile the tension between, on the one hand, our confidence that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable, etc.” with our equal confidence that we should bless, not curse, our enemies?  That is the question which I would like to address.

First, all such honest, transparently painful cries found in the Psalms are cries of truth and faith.  The Psalmist turns their cries and pleas to God to act precisely because they know that it is not their place to do so.  We give up our own desire for human vengeance (unlike Islamic terrorism, or personal vendettas, etc.) and put vindication into God’s hands who alone judges and dispenses true justice.  The Apostles quote Psalm 109 after the betrayal of Judas so that they would not be trapped in personal unforgiveness, but rather put the whole matter into God’s hands.

Second, all the Psalms of imprecation point to our ultimate enemy, Satan.  It is true that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but we do wrestle against the powers and principalities of whom the flesh and blood are but minions and servants (Eph.6:12).  So this great enemy, this perpetrator of evil and injustice and death and rebellion against the Lord, rightly prompts our passionate cries for the Lord’s action – to end this night of darkness and death which the enemy has unleashed into this world, and to set things right again.  The ravages of depression in the lives of those you love, the tyranny of poverty and injustice willfully imposed by wealthy dictators upon the poor, the horrors of rape and torture enacted upon innocent victims, the bondages of addiction which entrap and destroy healthy lives and families – all of these “enemies” are the tangible outworking of principalities and powers against which we cry with the psalmist for the Lord to wipe out and deliver us from.

Third, we must never forget that as Christians we read all Scripture in the presence of the Risen Christ.  Even those Psalms which call curses down upon our enemies point to God’s answer in Jesus Christ.  God’s judgment has come, his wrath has been poured out, his vengeance has been paid – and all of it has fallen upon Christ.  Every cry for vindication and vengeance, every curse and desire for “payback” which the psalmist wants to see has come upon Christ on the cross.  Thus, every verse of a psalm which utters a curse is actually a window into the cost and pain of God’s own answer; and a proclamation (of sorts) of the incredible grace of the gospel whereby the wrath and justice of God (of which the psalmist only feels a very small measure) is willingly taken upon Himself.  Christ became a curse for us – our redemption is there pictured.  In the gospel we also come face to face with the depth of our own sinfulness.

Finally, the vivid language of the imprecatory Psalms expresses our hope as believers that there will be a final end to evil, and that it will be destroyed to rise again no more (Rev. 18).  One of the most vivid images in the imprecatory Psalms is found in Psalm 137:8,9 when the Psalmist prays a blessing on those who take a woman’s child and dashes its head upon the rocks.  The imagery is one which God Himself had given as a promise in Isaiah 13:16.  The birth of another generation of Babylonians (who the Psalmist sees perpetuating unspeakable horrors against the people of God) is a sign of the ongoing perpetuation of evil.  The birth of an infant represents a pseudo “new creation” by the Babylonians which must, in the end, give way to the biblical new creation where evil comes to an end and is destroyed with no offspring to rise up again to take up the mantle of evil.  The Psalmist reminds us that there will be an end to the evil in the world.  God is going to set things right.  History as we know it does have an end.  He will come again to judge the world, destroy all evil and usher in the New Creation.

So, for these reasons, I encourage Christians to sing all the Psalms, including the Psalms of imprecation.  The whole Bible is inspired by God and every line of it is profitable for “teaching, rebuking, correction and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).  So, I’m going to keep on singing the Psalms – all 150 of them.