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Coffee Cup Doctrine: Imprecatory Psalms

Ben Lane
Pastor of Coram Deo Baptist Church


Psalm 139 is full of comfort for the believer. Throughout the song, we have the opportunity to observe and meditate on many attributes of God, including His omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. Here is just a sampling of verses that have been etched into a plethora of paraphernalia:

“Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?”

“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

“How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand.”

“I awake, and I am still with you.”

Quite honestly, the entirety of verses 1-18 is coffee cup worthy. Then comes the brow-raising portion in verses 19-24. This section includes statements such as:
“Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!”
“Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?”

“I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.”
Upon reading, one may begin to wonder if there can’t be some mistake. These excerpts would definitely not show up on any merchandise. If they did, an explanation would be necessary.

Is there a mistake? Did God actually desire “slaying the wicked and loathing His enemies” to be included? Yes. In reality this section is simply the logical response concerning all that the Spirit, through the psalmist, has written to this point.

So, why do we have difficulty with this? I believe it is due to the palatable brand of Christianity we’ve created, one that is actually unsavory to and toward God.

Ponder, for a moment, the fact that culture is smitten with fluffy feel-goodery, especially when it comes to the Bible. This is so ingrained in culture that we tend to take what we like and leave the rest. When it comes to God’s revelation, we often see people take the parts that are best liked but conceal parts they dislike or make them uncomfortable.

We cannot fall into that trap! When we focus on God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture, we are faced with the reality of who we are. When we experience Him through His Word, we become sensitive to the things that are unlike His character. We even become sensitive to the manifestation of things opposed to Him. When this discernment grows greater in us, the opposition we face becomes greater, too.

There are entire Psalms dedicated to such zealous championing of the glory of God. These are considered imprecatory Psalms. The verb “imprecate” means “to pray evil against” or “to invoke curse upon.”  

This section of Psalm 139 is imprecatory.

How are we to interact with sections of imprecation like this?

After all, this is not a fringe issue. There are scores of imprecatory passages throughout both the Old and New Testaments. (There are over 30 examples of imprecation in the Psalms. A few examples would include: Ps. 5:4-10, 54:5, 55:9, 79:6, 104:35, 129:5-7, 140:8-10. A couple New Testament examples are given later in this article.)

This Psalm is written by David, the man after God’s own heart. In Psalm 139, after considering the glory of God and His creation, David prays to see God’s glory displayed upon the wicked. He prays that the Lord would execute justice upon those who oppose God in their wickedness. Uncomfortable? Of course.

Psalm 139:20, though, reveals that David is not being selfish. He is not concerned with those that speak ill of him, but of God. Neither are we to be concerned with those that slander our names, but only the name of God. Truly, He doesn’t need our efforts, but we should still stand up for His reputation. This is one way we imitate Christ, who was unceasingly zealous for God’s glory.

I believe Psalm 139:21-22 cause a great deal of trouble for modern readers, especially those who have a sour taste from the language. David states, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.”

Do you hear the ringing echoes of a thousand objectors?

Aren’t we supposed to love and not hate?

However, love and hate are connected here sine qua non.

David strives to love the Lord with all of his heart, so the opposite must be true. He must hate the things opposed to the Lord. The biblical definition of hate means to disavow. Consequently, to hate would be to separate from. For example, to love the truth is to hate lies. To love children is to hate abortion. If God is holy, holy, holy, we are to hate unholiness. We are to separate ourselves from the things that don’t please God. David disavows the wicked and asks that they be separated because he loves God.

This had to happen to us in our salvation. There was a separation. The Spirit opened our eyes to our sinful state, and we came to hate it. If you came to Christ without hating your sin and separating from it, then you didn’t really come to Christ.

David’s language is a response to the horrors of sin. David was so near to God that he was able to be sensitive to the vileness of evil. Can we do that? Are we, at this point in our lives, able to have the same attitude David had toward the wicked?

I am afraid not because we are too busy being entertained by vile evil. We have learned to laugh at evil. We are so desensitized to it. It is scary to think that we can stand in the presence of evil and not be moved to pray. Instead we not only endure it, we indulge it.

When it comes to understanding this hatred, we must understand that this is not an emotion focused on an individual. The imprecations in Scripture are directed at groups. Here, the wicked. All of the people included in this group are unrepentant and hardened toward God.

Does David want the wicked to repent and be forgiven? Absolutely. David modeled this throughout his life. David knows God has a plan for the rescue of peoples from all nations (Ps. 22, 57, 86, 108). He long endured Saul and his animosity toward God, but he longed for Saul to repent. Later, David’s love for him made Saul ashamed.

Paul uses imprecation in 1 Corinthians 16:22, Galatians 1:8, and Galatians 5:12.

John uses it in 1 John 5:16.

Jesus himself recites imprecatory Psalms, using  Psalm 69 often, as seen in John 2:17, John 15:25, and Matthew 27:24.

He also uses imprecatory language throughout Matthew 23 when addressing the Pharisees.

How about us? The reason we must be careful with imprecation is because of our sinful flesh. God is able to hate with a righteous hatred and love with a holy love. God is able to say, “I abhor the evil one,” and then patiently love him perfectly. We struggle with that exercise.

David finished the Psalm with a statement worthy of a coffee cup because we should pray it daily, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

This is David’s acknowledgment to God of his need for sanctification. In and of himself he is not blameless. He, too, is in desperate need of God’s grace and patience. He is not self-righteously condemning people, and neither should we.

In love we are to bear witness to the truth. The best application for us is to grab the sword of the Spirit by the blade. We must let it cut us before we wield it toward anyone else.

Paul later instructs us that in loving our enemies we shall overcome evil. Jesus instructs us to pray for our enemies. And when we pray “Thy Kingdom come” we pray imprecation. When God’s kingdom comes, He will judge the wicked. Until then, we preach the gospel, love everyone, and stand for God.

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