How Pilgrims Praise: Psalms of Ascent: Enemies Abounding: The Dark Side of Prayer

Sermon by Derek Thomas on December 2, 1999

Psalms 129:1-8

Turn with me then in your Bibles to Psalm 129. These are the Ascent Psalms; we’ve been looking at them, Psalms 120-134; fifteen Psalms perhaps sung by the pilgrims of the Old Testament as they made their way to one of the great festivals and feasts in Jerusalem.

“A Song of Ascents.

‘Many times they have persecuted me from my youth up,’

Let Israel now say,

‘Many times they have persecuted me from my youth up;

Yet they have not prevailed against me.

The plowers plowed upon my back;

They lengthened their furrows.’

The Lord is righteous;

He has cut in two the cords of the wicked.

“May all who hate Zion,

Be put to shame and turned backward,

Let them be like grass upon the housetops,

Which withers before it grows up;

With which the reaper does not fill his hand,

Or the binder of sheaves his bosom;

Nor do those who pass by say,

‘The blessing of the Lord be upon you;

We bless you in the name of the Lord.’”

Amen. And may God add His own blessing to the reading of His holy and inerrant word. Let’s pray together.

Our Father in heaven, we come to what is on the surface a more difficult Psalm, and yet we see it as Your word, Your inspired word; teach us, O Lord, the very truth that You would have us learn this evening, and do it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

 Well, I wonder what you make of the closing section of this Psalm, from verse 5-8. It’s one of those sections that you sometimes find in Psalms. This is mild by comparison to Psalm 109 or Psalm 137, and there are others that are sometimes called Imprecatory Psalms

And  writers have spilled a great deal of ink trying to come to terms with Psalms just like this one, and some of them have drawn the conclusion, ‘Well, this just isn’t part of the inspired word of God. This is part of vengeance of a believer in the Old Testament who is reacting because of some personal spite or animosity: somebody has done him harm and he wants vengeance; he wants that person to be repaid with the kind of enmity that he himself has known. It just isn’t part of the word of God.’

Some have said, ‘Well, of course this is part of the word of God. It’s inspired, but it’s inspired in the same way that the words of Satan are recorded in the Bible. You have them in Genesis 3; you have it in Job 1, 2. They’re faithful recordings of what this psalmist felt, and the Holy Spirit inspired it to that extent. But what we have here are the sinful emotions of a believer, of a true child of God.’ And they say, ‘Notice, we all can identify with these kinds of sentiments. When somebody does you harm, there rises up within you a sense of personal vengeance, and you want to repay evil with evil.’

Well, others have said something like this: ‘This represents primitive Christianity, or primitive religion. This is just what you might expect in the Old Testament day. This is something that belongs to the old covenant, and God tolerated it in the same way that He tolerated perhaps polygamy in the Old Testament. But now that we’ve come to the pages of the New Testament and the new covenant, well, things are different. You turn to the Sermon on the Mount, you turn to the teachings of Jesus about turning the other cheek and forgiving seventy times seven, and if somebody asks you for your shirt, you give him your cloak as well; you go the second mile. And there in the New Testament you find a deeper, a more profound personal ethic.’

Well, of course the problem with that is multiform. It’s a multiplex problem, but the real problem with that is that we find similar sentiments to this not just in the Old Testament, but we actually find them in the New Testament, as we shall see in a minute.

But what if we think, as we do here in this church and in this denomination, that this is the inspired and inerrant word of God, and that the New Testament, far from being embarrassed by such Psalms as these, actually endorses them? Psalm 109, for example, is quoted by Peter in Acts 1, applying it to the case of Judas, upon whom the curse of God had fallen as a fulfillment of an imprecatory prayer. And in the election of Matthias, Peter says there you have it: the fulfillment of Psalm 109. Peter wasn’t in the least bit embarrassed by doing that.

Or, you turn to the Book of Revelation—and some of you were doing that in a Sunday School class being taught here in this church—and we’ve seen just how important, for example, is Revelation 6:10 and the cry of the martyrs, and the cry of the martyrs from before the throne of God for vengeance: that God would arise and destroy His enemies. And as you read the Book of Revelation, you become more and more convinced that that forms a part of the very structure and the very warp and woof of the Book of Revelation.

Now what are we to make of these Psalms? What are we to make of the ending of this particular Psalm? C.S. Lewis, when he came to write a little book on the Psalms, spoke of these Psalms as “devilish” and “demonic.” One contemporary Old Testament scholar whose commentary on the Psalms is regarded as one of the best (I personally don’t think it is, but it is often regarded as one of the best commentaries available)…well, this is what he said (I looked at it this afternoon): “These Psalms are not the auricles of God.”

Scofield (and some of you have been reading Scofield in that Bible that he produced), and Scofield says, “This is a cry unsuitable for the church.”

What can we say with Spurgeon? Charles Haddon Spurgeon said, “If this be an imprecation, let it stand, for our heart says ‘Amen’ to it.”

Well, I wonder this evening what you make of Psalms just like this one. As you look at this Psalm, you’ll see it very naturally divides into two: the first four verses, and then verses 5-8. In verses 1-4, all the verbs are in the past tense; and then when you come to verses 5-8, the verbs are all in the future, and there seems to be a natural division between verse 4 and verse 5.

I. In that first section we see the God who blesses.

The first thing that I want us to notice is that there’s a hint of a liturgical setting for this Psalm. You notice how it begins: “Many times they have persecuted me from my youth up,” and then he interjects something: “Let Israel now say…” and then he repeats it, as though now the whole congregation is saying it: “Many times they have persecuted me from my youth up.”

Perhaps – I don’t have any proof of this whatsoever – but perhaps in these Ascent Psalms, when they finally did make their way to Jerusalem, and when they finally got to the temple, and there in the company of the Lord’s people, one of them led in this particular Psalm. Of course, the Psalm would have to be written fairly early for that to be the case, but I see no reason why that isn’t the case. And that the people of God knew this Psalm, and here was the psalmist introducing now the corporate community, the covenant people of God, to utter these words.

Well, I think that will become important in a minute. These are not the words simply of a personal individual psalmist. These are the words of the corporate community, the covenant community of God’s people. This is a covenant word of God’s covenant people to their covenant God.

We can all attest, of course, to what the psalmist is saying here about affliction, and he’s talking about the affliction, it seems to me, not of an individual as such, but the affliction of Israel, the affliction of the Old Testament church. And he uses a very graphic metaphor in verses 3: “The plowers plowed upon my back; they lengthened their furrows.” That’s a very graphic metaphor, isn’t it? And there’s some evidence that in the Book of Exodus, for example, that particular metaphor was used of the experience of Israel in their time in Egypt. And think of that time when the slaves were whipped and scourged to do their work, and in that condition of turmoil and difficulty and affliction, the psalmist is now recounting how hard and difficult it has been for the church of God in the Old Testament. I think of those great words that Calvin wrote in the comments that he made on the First Epistle of Peter: that God has ordained the church from the very beginning; that suffering be the way to victory, and death the way to life. And that’s the experience of the church right down through the centuries. There is great trouble, and you notice how he emphasizes that: “Many times they have persecuted me from my youth up, many times they persecuted me.” Over and over again there has been trouble, but however great the trouble is, God is greater still. And that’s the great confidence and assurance of the psalmist. “The Lord is righteous,” he says. “The Lord is righteous.”

Now, why is it that the psalmist draws comfort from that expression, “The Lord is righteous”? You remember how Luther (at first, at least) in 1517, didn’t draw any comfort at all from the idea that God was righteous. In fact, when he came to write his commentary to the Romans, he said that there came a time in his life when he hated the righteousness of God. So what is it that the psalmist is saying here? [Of course, Luther was to come to love the righteousness of God when he saw that the righteousness which God demanded was a righteousness which He provides by faith in Jesus Christ.] And what the psalmist is saying here by saying, “The Lord is righteous,” is that the Lord conforms to a standard. That’s what righteous means: to conform to a standard.

Well, what standard does the Lord conform to? He conforms to the standard of His own word. He conforms to Himself. He conforms to His promise. He conforms to His covenant – His promise and oath that He has given to His people.

You see, that’s the thing that marked out God, the God of Israel, from all the gods all around—the gods of Egypt, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Philistines, the gods of Canaan. They were irascible; you couldn’t depend on them. But you can depend on the God of Israel. He’s utterly trustworthy. When God gives His word, when God gives His promise, when God enters into covenant, He keeps His covenant.

You remember how Daniel found that so encouraging when he was reading in his personal devotions in the prophet Jeremiah, and he hears when he’s in his Babylonian captivity that the length of the captivity would be seventy years. And 68 years of that captivity has already passed, and you remember how in Daniel 9 that urges him to pray, to pray that God would bring about the promise that He has made.

Well, that’s what the psalmist is saying here. That’s the source of his encouragement: the Lord is righteous; the Lord is utterly dependable. Again and again the Lord has delivered me out of my bondage and out of my tyranny, and out of my affliction. And what you have in this first part of the Psalm is his deep sense of gratitude—gratitude to God for the deliverances of God in the life and history of Israel. God has promised that through Israel He would bring the Messiah, He would bring Jesus Christ; and God keeps His word in every situation, in every circumstance, in every set of contingencies…through Egypt, and through Babylon and Assyria, and again and again. And how this Psalm must have been a great help and confidence to the people of God under Roman tyranny in the first century: that no matter what the tyranny and no matter what the bondage, God delivers His people. That’s the new song, isn’t it? That’s the new song that we sing: that God is righteous, that God is dependable, that God is trustworthy, that God is the covenant-keeping God; that God brings about everything that He promises to do.

II. The God who curses.

That leads, in the second half of this Psalm, in verses 5 through to 8, not only to the God who blesses, but the God who curses, because what does it mean to say that God is a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God? What does it mean to say that the Lord is righteous? What does it mean to say that the Lord sticks to the standard that is His?

It means that when God saves His people, He at the same time destroys His enemies. It means that when God enters into covenant, there are blessings but there are also curses. It means that when there is salvation there is redemption on the one hand, but there is the defeat of God’s enemies on the other. There is forgiveness, and there is the necessity for satisfaction of the justice of God. And didn’t we see that so beautifully and movingly on Lord’s Day morning, when Ligon was leading us through the Garden of Gethsemane and that prayer of our Lord? What did it mean for Jesus to conform to the will of God? It wasn’t, as was pointed out to us so clearly on Sunday morning…it wasn’t that Jesus was afraid of death; it was the curse of God that He was afraid of! It was losing the embrace and fellowship of His Father in heaven as the consequence of being the Messiah and substitute of sinners like you and me that Jesus was afraid of.

And here in verses 5-8, what we have here is not personal vengeance. This isn’t the vindictive cry of a particular individual who’s been offended. Vengeance, my friend…let me say this very clearly, so that I’m not misunderstood here…personal vengeance is always a sin. It is always wrong. It is never right. It is never right to take vengeance into our own hands. That’s always condemned in the Bible; it’s a violation of the biblical ethic, and the Bible is very, very clear about that.

But the psalmist here is collectively – and that’s important! – collectively as the people of God, he’s expressing his zeal…not that he is offended, but that God has been offended, that the honor of God is at stake, that the glory of God is at stake. His concern is not about himself. His concern is about the honor and the integrity of God, and of His word, and of His covenant, and of His promise. And there’s nothing more important than that. There’s absolutely nothing more important than that.

Let me ask you this evening…some of you are concerned…in the Forum, I noticed one of the questions about why it is we don’t repeat the Lord’s Prayer often, and we were given a very clear answer that we do, and we will, and that there needs to be, however, some degree of wisdom about it; that merely repeating the Lord’s Prayer can have in itself a danger. Let me suggest what one of those dangers can be.

What do you understand about that expression “Thy kingdom come”? It’s a simple little expression, isn’t it? Three little words: “Thy kingdom come.” But what are you praying for when you say “Thy kingdom come”? And maybe you have all kinds of positive thoughts about the advancement of the kingdom of God and the growth of the church, and of sinners being converted and so on and so forth, and it’s a beautifully positive and glorious and splendid picture.

But that’s only half of it. That’s only half of it.

When God’s kingdom really does come, not only will His people be saved, but His enemies will also be destroyed. That’s the other half of the picture. That’s the other half of the covenant. Not only will God forgive those who trust in Jesus Christ, but He will also confine to the lower parts of hell those who do not. Isn’t that part of the gospel? Isn’t that part of John 3:16? “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes…”  whosoever believes… “shall not perish.” And you understand the consequences of not believing. The consequence of not believing is that you perish, and that you perish eternally. So when you pray that prayer, “Thy kingdom come,” it’s a two-edged sword, isn’t it? It’s a two-edged sword…you’re praying for the advancement of the kingdom of God and the growth of the church, but you are also praying that God would vindicate His name, and vindicate His honor, and vindicate His integrity, and that His enemies be destroyed.

You know, when you turn to the pages of the New Testament you find some astonishing things. In I Corinthians 16, three chapters after that beautiful chapter about love, I Corinthians 16: “If anyone does not love the Lord,” Paul says, “let him be anathema”…“Let a curse come down upon him,” literally. That’s quite a prayer, isn’t it? If anyone does not love the Lord, let a curse come down upon him.

You see, you can only pray that prayer if you are seeking first and foremost the glory and the integrity and the honor of God, and that’s, I think, the perspective of the psalmist here, so that he can say in verse 8, “Nor do those who pass by say [to the enemies of God, that is], ‘The blessing of the Lord be upon you.’” In other words, the curse of the Lord be upon you.

What we have in this Psalm is part of our in-built, natural desire for justice. Astonishing, isn’t it, that when people are wronged they want justice? I’ve been in situations where people who have been dear Christian friends of mine (to whom great wrong was done) have been urged to forgive like that when there had been no repentance – no admission of guilt, even. And I put it to you this evening that God Himself doesn’t forgive until we repent. He doesn’t bestow that forgiveness until we repent. And I think that’s part of the explanation of what the psalmist is doing here. I ought to be so desirous for the glory and the integrity and the honor and the justice of God, that I can say with the psalmist here, unless you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, unless you are for Jesus Christ, then the curse of God come down upon you.

Let me close with this little quotation that I came across today from Spurgeon. “Study,” he says, “a chapter of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and see if you do not feel inclined to read an imprecatory prayer over Bishop Bonner or Bloody Mary. It may be that some wretched nineteenth century sentimentalist will blame you for it. Then read another one over him!” Spurgeon says.

It is, though, a very solemn prayer, and I think one that we can only focus on accurately as we focus on the glory and the integrity of God.

Let’s pray together.

Our Father in heaven, we do thank You for Your word, difficult as it sometimes is. But help us, O Lord, to have Your words, and Your mind, and Your perspective ever before us. And grant above everything else that we might seek the honor and the glory which is Yours, for Jesus’ sake.

Would you rise and receive the Lord’s benediction.

Now may the grace of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with each one of you, now and forevermore. Amen.

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