Friday Night at WorshipGod08 – David Powlison on the Imprecatory Psalms

On Tuesday, I posted on the first part of the Friday evening session at WorshipGod08. In the final part of the evening I asked biblical counselor David Powlison to speak on the psalmists’ concern for God’s glory on the earth, expressed in the imprecatory psalms. Those are the prayers in the psalms asking God to punish, restrict, or destroy the wicked. For centuries, Christians have tended to confuse, ignore, or despise them. David’s comment on the imprecatory psalms were wonderfully biblical, insightful, and pastoral. He rephrased the focus to be the psalmists’ concern for what we do with evil. You can download an MP3 here.

David shared that most of the smoke and fog around the imprecatory Psalms comes because we wrench them out of their context. We must read the whole context, the whole Psalm, and the whole of Scripture. When we do that, these Psalms make sense, and have to do with the very heart of our faith. In his message he addressed six points or questions that will help us better understand these psalms and prayers in their context. I’ve listed those points below. If you’re interested, you can download a fuller version of my notes from his message by clicking here.

1. What is an “imprecation”?
It is a plea that God will do what he has promised to do: destroy evil and remove everything that harms others and defames God’s name. For example, God promises “…the way of the wicked will perish” (Psalm 1:4-6). When evil presses in, prayer pleads for God to make it so.

2. Who is the evildoer in view, when we ask for deliverance?
Ultimately, Satan is the one that that the Psalmists are asking to be destroyed — and the image of Satan expressed in evildoers. When you read the descriptions in, e.g., Psalms 69 and 109, it is the embodiment of evil: the liar, murderer, accuser, killer, deceiver, attacker, mocker, who returns evil for good.

3. Who is the one who prays?
It is the innocent sufferer, the poor, needy, helpless, and victimized who relies on God for protection. Ultimately, Jesus is this sufferer who prays the imprecatory psalms, crying out, “Save me! Help me! Deliver me!” God is the “refuge” of his people and shows steadfast love by destroying those who “cause terror on the earth” (Psalm 10:18). The wrath of God is often presented not as something to fear, but as something on which to set your hopes, as the consolation, refuge, and deliverance of God’s suffering people: “Beloved, never avenge yourself, but leave it to the wrath of God” (Romans 12:19).

4. In the original psalms, the one praying (e.g., David) is not self-righteous, but has a keen awareness of personal sin.
Those who pray imprecations are aware of their own guilt, that they are participants in the problem of evil. For example, in Psalm 69:5-6: “O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you….”

5. God promises that the wicked will drink the cup of just wrath.
“All the wicked of the earth will drink it down to its very dregs” (Psalm 75:6-8). This cup is the very cup that Jesus drinks down in our place: “If it is possible let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not as I will but as you will” (Matthew 26:38-44). So we now drink the cup of mercy instead, “my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27f).

6. The longing for God to deliver us from evil is something Christians often sing and pray.
The Bible closes with the plea, “Come Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22 :20). This is a request that the Jesus of Revelation will come to remove all evils, to destroy death, Satan, all causes of tears, and all sin. In the Lord’s prayer, five of the seven requests contain an explicit or implicit plea for all evil to be destroyed: “Hallowed be your name”; “Your kingdom come”; “Your will be done”; “Do not lead us into temptation”; and “Deliver us from evil.” For example, a prayer for God’s kingdom to come is a prayer for all competitor kingdoms to be undone.

I didn’t know that David was going to end with an emphasis on the Lord’s prayer, so it was especially rewarding to already have picked out “Let Your Kingdom Come” to sing. We would have finished with Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” based on Ps. 46, but ran out of time. I figured 2 hours and 45 minutes was long enough for an evening meeting…

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9 Responses to Friday Night at WorshipGod08 – David Powlison on the Imprecatory Psalms

  1. Christian August 22, 2008 at 10:18 AM #

    Thanks so much for posting these notes, Mr. Kauflin. I took a seminary course on the Psalms that didn’t help me understand these at all – even after reading a book just on the imprecatory Psalms! These notes (and the fuller version) did more to help me understand them than anything else I’ve read.

  2. Bob Kauflin August 22, 2008 at 10:42 AM #

    Christian,

    “I took a seminary course on the Psalms that didn’t help me understand these at all – even after reading a book just on the imprecatory Psalms!”

    That’s both encouraging and discouraging…I’ll pass your thoughts on to David. I know he’ll appreciate them.

  3. Mircea B Ionescu September 8, 2008 at 4:20 PM #

    Dear brother,

    thank you for the notes on the Psalms. I am reading through Psalms now and these notes have helped me understand more of how to understand and exegete them.

    Praise the Lord for His goodness and for the victory that He will bring!

  4. jasbir Gill April 19, 2012 at 2:01 PM #

    sir i am writing thesis on imprecatr psalms please heelp me to finish this work….. hope to hear from you soon

    • Bob Kauflin April 19, 2012 at 7:09 PM #

      Jasbir, I’d love to be able to help you, but I’m not going to be able to. I’d encourage you to check out some Psalms commentaries.

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