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.

Prevenient Grace: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical


First, I am a Methodist because I believe in prevenient grace. For Wesley, the spiritual life has no hope of a beginning without God’s prior action on behalf of the sinner. Prevenient grace is a collective term for all the ways in which God’s grace comes into our lives prior to conversion. Prevenient grace literally means, “the grace that comes before” and captures well what the early church called the preparatio evangelica, i.e. the preparation for the good news. One of the ways in which the Methodist-Wesleyan tradition is sometimes misunderstood by those in other traditions is in regard to our doctrine of sin. It may come as a surprise to some of our Reformed readers that the doctrine of total depravity (the famous T in the Calvinistic TULIP) is shared by Wesleyans and Methodists just as ardently as by Calvinists. Methodists, like our Reformed brothers and sisters, believe that salvation is impossible without a free and prior act of God on behalf of the sinner. Total depravity means that we are dead in our sins and therefore cannot help or assist ourselves. Sin is not merely a “ball and chain” which impedes our progress. We are dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:5). Methodists affirm this truth. However, Methodists take very seriously the theological tension which exists between, on the one hand, the clear teaching of Scripture that we are dead in our sins and totally void of any ability to save ourselves (Eph. 2:1, Col. 1:21, 2:13; Lk. 15:24) and the universal call to the Gospel which requires us to “come” (Matt. 11:28), “repent”(Acts 2:38), “believe” (Acts 16:31) and a whole array of other commands, all of which call us to specific acts of faith and obedience. Since spiritually dead people have no capacity to respond, it is clear that God is bestowing grace in countless ways into our lives prior to our regeneration or conversion. Prevenient grace provides the link between human depravity and universal call. The important difference between Methodists and Reformed Christians is not on the fact of depravity, but on whether God’s prior action is limited to the elect (Limited Atonement – the L in the TULIP) or is universal. Despite the enormous respect we have for John Calvin, Methodists do not believe that the Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement fits the biblical data as well as the doctrine of prevenient grace. The Methodists believe that God has universally acted on behalf of Adam’s fallen, depraved race. We believe that Christ, as the Second Adam, rescued the human race with an act of grace which grants them the capacity to accept or reject the good news of the Gospel when it is proclaimed. Wesleyans believe that if the doctrine of human depravity is not linked to God’s action in prevenient grace, then it creates an untenable theological conflict which, at least potentially, makes God either unjust or the author of evil, neither of which fits with a biblical view of God. For, if a spiritually dead person is incapable of responding to God’s call, then upon what basis is he or she held accountable for sin? Prevenient grace demonstrates how we can be totally depraved, yet given grace to respond and, if we do not respond, can be held fully accountable for our disbelief.

For Methodists, prevenient grace is the bridge between human depravity and the free exercise of human will. Prevenient grace lifts the human race out of its depravity and grants us the capacity to respond further to God’s grace. Jesus declared that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Methodists understand this text as referring to a divine drawing rooted in the Triune God which precedes our justification. It is God’s act of unmerited favor. It is God’s light “which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9), lifting us up and giving the human race the capacity to exercise our will and respond to the grace of Christ. Thomas Oden puts it well when he says that “the divine will always ‘goes before’ or ‘prevenes’ (leads the way) for the human will, so that the human will may choose freely in accord with the divine will.”1

Wesleyan thought affirms that God has taken the initiative to create a universal capacity for the human race to receive his grace. Many, of course, still resist his will and persist in rebellion against God. Wesleyan thought is actually a middle position between a Pelagian view (which makes every person an Adam and admits no sin nature or bondage due to Adam’s nature) and the Reformed view (which affirms limited atonement). What Wesleyans mean by free will is actually “freed will,” i.e., a will in bondage which has been set free by a free act of God’s grace. It is, of course, not free in every possible respect, since we are all influenced by the effects of the Fall in many ways; but we now have a restored capacity which has enabled our heart, mind, and will to respond to God’s grace. I love the fact that Methodists believe that even if you go to the ends of the earth with the gospel, you will always find that God precedes you and, in effect, “beats you there!” Perhaps prevenient grace is summed up best by the famous interruption to a missionary who was lecturing in Africa about how the missionaries brought the Gospel to Africa. The African believer interrupted and said, “The missionaries did not bring the Gospel to Africa; God brought the missionaries to Africa.” This insightful comment shifts the emphasis to God’s prior agency and the great missio dei (mission of God) whereby God is always the first actor in the great drama of redemption. Wesleyans fully embrace the importance of human decision and the exercise of the will. However, this is not possible without God’s prior action.

1 Thomas Oden, Systematic Theology vol., 2, The Word of Life (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001), 189. Unless otherwise noted, this blog uses the New International Version.

Honest Theology

Many years ago I took a course on the theology of missions.   It was in the opening lecture of that course that the professor, a very wise and seasoned missionary practitioner turned scholar, said, “missions is what keeps theology honest.”  It is an insight which, I think, is self-illuminating for anyone who has actually taught in a Seminary.  The point, of course, is that theological reflection has a tendency to drift towards the safe harbor of theoretical abstractions rather than stay out on the rough sea of real life application.  This overly theoretical theologizing is sometimes called disdainfully, “ivory tower” theology.  Bolaji Idowu, the Nigerian scholar, calls it “book theology” as opposed to a “living” theology about the living God in meaningful interaction with the His creation.  This is not a criticism of the vital role theologians play in articulating and defending historic Christian doctrines.  It is simply acknowledging that theological reflection must always serve the church.  Theology cannot exist in some hermetically sealed vacuum, blissfully ignorant of the real and difficult cultural and contextual particularities of our world.  Thus, one of the great ways that missions has served the theological community is by forcing theologians to address real challenges and answer many new questions which we might otherwise find more comfortable to simply ignore.  Thankfully, the missionary community keeps bringing these thorny, sticky issues to the theological table.  It is this great service of missionaries to theologians which is the basis for this wise professor saying that “missions is what keeps theology honest.”