A response to Lonnie Hendrix's post on "CGI’s Bill Watson: Pastor or Warlock?"
Vance Stinson gave permission to post his letter here.
You asked me to listen to Bill Watson’s message on imprecatory prayer and give you my thoughts on it. The subject was not new to me; I first explored it many years ago. Theories on the purpose and meaning of the imprecatory psalms, as well as questions surrounding whether and how Christians should apply them in their own prayer lives, have been debated by Christian scholars, and different conclusions have been drawn. Bill raises essentially the same questions many have raised in times past, but does so with modern evils in view—the abortion mill, the rise of Marxist elements in our own society, etc. As he concludes his message, Bill summarizes his purpose for giving it:
“When is the prayer of imprecation, of asking God to intercede and to short-circuit some of the things we see around us? All I’m doing is asking. I’m asking you to think about it; I’m asking yo to look deep into your own hearts, gauge your involvement, your interest, your action, and then ask yourself, heart-to-heart, maybe in your prayer closed with God the Father—ask yourself, What do you think about it?”
At points in the message Bill does seem to be advocating imprecations against organizations, movements, and perhaps even individuals perceived to be enemies of freedom, godliness, and true justice; however, he carefully qualifies his comments by repeatedly reminding his listeners that he’s merely raising the question, not telling anyone how to interpret and apply the biblical examples of imprecation.
Bill has raised some thought-provoking questions and placed them in the context of many of today’s issues of concern. Here, in a nutshell, are my thoughts on the subject:
I’ve been an advocate of “praying the Psalms” for many years. The Psalms reflect/reveal the good and perfect will of their divine Author as well as the strengths and weaknesses of their human authors. David, who composed many of the psalms, was both a bloody warrior (1 Chron. 22:8; 28:3) and a man of profound faith and commitment. We should expect, then, that deeply introspective prayers composed by a man like King David would reflect his exceptional qualities as well as his shortcomings. And I believe that’s exactly what we do find in the imprecatory psalms.
The Tanakh (“Old Testament”) itself is the revelation of God—not merely a revelation (or collection of revelations) fromGod, but the revelation of God Himself. That is, this collection of books (including the Psalms) reveals what God Himself is like, but only in part. The fullness of the revelation of God came into the world at the Incarnation. Jesus Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension; His offices of King of Kings, High Priest, and Savior/Redeemer; and His teachings, as recorded in the New Testament, fill up the meaning of (“fulfill”) all previous revelation (Mt. 5:17ff). Indeed, we can see God most fully by looking into the human face of Jesus!
Therefore, when I read the Tanakh, I read it through the lens of the Christ-event (which includes all that is mentioned above). The question, then, is not whether or not the imprecatory psalms are instructive for Christian readers—I believe they are!—but is simply this: What does Jesus Christ say about how His followers should think of their enemies? And to this question, we have an unambiguous answer:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:43-48, ESV, emphasis mine).
This passage needs no explanation; its meaning is clear. The meaning of Psalm 109 is likewise unambiguous. The psalm, which is attributed to David, reads (in part) as follows:
9 May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow!
10 May his children wander about and beg,
seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit!
11 May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!
12 Let there be none to extend kindness to him,
nor any to pity his fatherless children!
13 May his posterity be cut off;
may his name be blotted out in the second generation!
14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord,
and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out!
15 Let them be before the Lord continually,
that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth! (ESV)
The psalmist is describing a corrupt court whose purpose is to destroy the accused. The New Testament account of Christ’s betrayal, arrest, and trial echoes the situation the psalmist describes. The individual the psalmist refers to is either a corrupt judge or the chief accuser (prosecutor) of this bogus trial. The psalmist, in poetic fashion, is calling on God to reverse the roles and allow him to pronounce judgment on his false accusers; to let them—the chief accuser in particular—receive the punishment they seek for the accused.
The psalmist honestly expresses his feelings toward his accuser and the false witnesses the accuser has assembled. His enemies “encircle [him] with words of hate, and attack [him] without cause.” They “reward [him] evil for good, and hatred for [his] love” (vv. 3-4). If we put ourselves in the psalmist’s place, we can easily sympathize with him; we can feel what he feels, and we realize he’s just being honest with his own feelings. One of the lessons here is that we should always be open and honest with God, for we cannot hide our innermost thoughts and feelings from Him. (Bill mentions this important principle in his message.) However, this should not be looked upon as a model for how we ought to pray regarding corrupt individuals and those who persecute us. The psalmist was not praying for his enemy, except in the sense that he was praying for his enemy to die! He obviously did not have love of his enemy in his heart when he composed these words; nor was he thinking in terms of “hate the sin but not the sinner.” No, he wanted the scoundrel dead and forgotten!
Should, as disciples of the New David, pray that way? No, we should not! However, there is a sense in which we can and should pray for—and even work toward—the “destruction” of the ungodly. We do this, not by calling on God to reign fire from heaven upon them or causing them to meet the same fate Jezebel or the prophets of Baal met in the days of Elijah, but by calling on God to change their hearts, and by using us as His agents—instruments in His Almighty hands—in helping to bring about such change. This is what the Church’s commission is all about!
I don’t wish for the heads of abortion providers to be dashed against the stones or for their bellies to burst open and pour their entrails onto the street for all to see. I want to see them “perish” by way of repentance and remission of sins. My hope—and prayer—is that the gospel will convict them; that the old, sinful, murderous self will “die” and be replaced by the new man in Christ. God destroys the wicked by turning the wicked into saints—and He does it through human agents! This kind of “death of the wicked” happens all the time. It happens every day in the Muslim world and in communist countries where the saints suffer severe persecution. It happens in the abortion clinics and among abortion-providing doctors and nurses. It happens in prisons. It happens in families and homes. It is by way of prayerful intervention and proclamation of the good-news message (the gospel) that our despised, falsely accused, persecuted brothers and sisters in China, North Korea, Nigeria, and many other parts of the world are, so to speak, agents of destruction—death angels!—whose prayers for their persecutors storm heaven day and night.
The “destruction” we should pray for (and work to bring about) is the same kind of “destruction” the apostle Paul refers to in his first epistle to the Corinthian believers:
“When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man [who was in an incestuous relationship] to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:4-5, ESV, emphasis mine).
To “deliver to Satan” means simply to expel from fellowship. The purpose of this action is two-fold: 1) to prevent “a little leaven” from leavening “the whole lump” (v. 6), and 2) to motivate the offender to repent of and overcome his sinful tendencies (“the destruction of the flesh”). Without the “destruction of the flesh” (repentance, overcoming), the man’s “spirit” won’t be “saved in the day of the Lord.” (Side note: This text does not mean “Let the sinner die physically so that he might be saved spiritually in the second resurrection,” as some few have suggested.)
In addition, when we take our concerns before God, we, as followers of Christ, must recognize who the real enemy is. Paul says, “For we so not wrestle against flesh and blood [our human persecutors are but pawns; they’re not the realenemy], but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). That’s the real enemy! And that’s the enemy we should proactively oppose (see vv. 13-20 for how to do it).
In conclusion, the imprecatory psalms are deeply meaningful, especially when we read them through the lens of the Christ-event. The details of the New Testament Passion narratives “fulfill” (i.e., fill up the meaning of) the imprecatory psalms’ descriptions of the treachery and deceit of the accusers and the overwhelming anxiety of the accused; and they speak, in human terms, of divine retribution and the ultimate fate of the ungodly. These psalms also remind us of the importance of laying our hearts bare before God, of being completely honest about our innermost thoughts, feelings, and motives. And, finally, they remind us that the accuser of accusers is at work behind the scenes, that human accusers are mere pawns, oftentimes believing they are doing God a service. Our hope and prayer is that God will “destroy” them—that is, destroy the carnality the enemy uses to hold them under his sway—and “raise them up” to a new life in Christ. So when we pray for our persecutors, we look to the model of David—the New David, that is—who, in the torments of the cross, prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”
That’s the rich spiritual and Christological meaning I derive from reading the imprecatory psalms through the lens of the Christ-event.