We’re back again in Psalm 139. Last week we covered the first 18 verses highlighting the theme that God knows all about us. The first thing I want us to do today is step back and take a big picture look at the Psalm as a whole – all 24 verses. And I want us to think about why it was written, or what the point of the Psalm is.
You have a handout that shows how it’s put together. I won’t go into this, but I do invite you to keep this at hand as we look at
The purpose of Psalm 139
Let me give you the situation that I think is going on here right up front. David has been accused of not being loyal to God. Why? I don’t know. Maybe someone thought he was too sympathetic to someone they saw as a wicked person. Just a speculation. In any case, there’s an accusation and it’s one that David considers false. And from reading this Psalm, this accusation must have been a painful thing for him to deal with.
What does he do? He takes it up in prayer with God:
- 1 – “Lord, you have searched and known me.”
- 2-3 – God knows all that he does and thinks, his thoughts and ways.
- 4 – God knows all his words.
- 5 – God is all around, with his hand on him. God knows all that goes on in his life.
- And then in v. 6 – he pauses to ponder such knowledge that is beyond him.
- In vs. 7-12 – he points out that even if he wanted to “flee” and hide somewhere and secretly sin, he can’t. God would see and know him everywhere, for God is everywhere.
- In vs. 13-16 – he points out that God formed him and his days from beginning to end. Nothing is hidden from God.
- In vs. 17-18 – he again pauses to ponder the amazing sum of God’s thoughts
– So in all this, in vs. 1-18, David offers up an appeal to God, God you know whether I am loyal or not. You know all about me, right? You know my commitment to you.
– And then starting in vs. 19-22 David offers up several expressions of his loyalty to God. This section is key to understanding this Psalm because it’s here we see that his loyalty has been challenged.
First in v. 19 – he prays, “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!” And he says, “O men of blood, depart from me!” Then we have the words of the wicked in v. 20, which obviously disgust David – “They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain!” And then we have some clear statements of David’s loyalty to God in vs. 21-22 – “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.”
We’ll talk in a moment about his language, but the point here in context is that – “Hey God, I’m on your side.” I hate evil and I love the good. From his point of view there is no question about his loyalty to God.
– And then finally, in vs. 23-24 he gives an open ended invitation for God to keep searching and knowing him. He wants to make sure that he’s right before God in his heart and actions; that he’s not guilty of the accusation made against him; that he’s not missing something.
So the purpose of the Psalm is David’s prayerful working through of an accusation made against him. And as we see at the end, even though he’s open to God’s searching, he believes that his loyalty is clear. And let me just say that this is a good practice for us to emulate – processing things in prayer with God: accusations, difficulties and hardships – whatever we are facing. We see this all the time happening in the Psalms as the writers struggle with God and find faith and peace.
This brings us to what I’m calling –
The problem of Psalm 139: David’s prayer of hatred
It’s David’s expressions of loyalty to God, and specifically his prayer in v. 19, so central to the Psalm, that cause Christians discomfort. And, I believe, rightly so.
The prayer is straight forward, v. 19 – “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!” Kill them, God. And this prayer springs forth from his heart-felt and self-confessed hatred of God’s enemies, found in vs. 21-22 – “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.”
Now, this is certainly not the only place in Scripture or in the Psalms where there are expressions of hatred for enemies and calls for God to judge enemies. Let me give one other brief example from Psalm 109:8-9. David prays this concerning his enemy, “May his days be few . . .. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow!” He prays for his enemy’s death. Then he prays that the man’s children, now orphans, would be beggars and that no one would help them. And he goes on to pray that all his resources would be seized by creditors, and that the man’s parents would be judged by God. I could give you more examples, but this will do.
The problem for Christians in all this should be clear:
- We are called not to curse, but to bless – Luke 6:28; Romans 12:14; 1 Peter 3:9
- We are called not to condemn, but to give mercy – Luke 6:36-37; Romans 2:1-5
- We are called not to hate, but to love enemies – Matthew 5:44; Romans 12:20
- We are called not to return harm for harm, but to return good for harm – Romans 12:17, 21; 1 Peter 3:9
We are agents of God’s grace, not judgment.
So this raises several very specific, and practical questions for us: What should we think of Psalm 139:19-22? Can we pray the prayer of v. 19 as it stands? And how should we pray regarding enemies?
Let me share several reflections with you:
It’s right to oppose evildoers and injustice. As we saw, in context, what David says is an expression of loyalty to God, “I’m on your side, God. I want what’s right.” This sentiment is correct. In this case David is speaking of people who are murderers, “men of blood” (v. 19). They despise God, possibly even using God’s name to accomplish their evil by swearing oaths to deceive people or to bear false witness against the innocent in court (v. 20).
It’s also true that in the end Evildoers must be judged, if God’s peace and justice is to be established. Those who refuse God’s grace cannot be allowed to continue to do evil indefinitely. There has to be a time of reckoning. The innocent must be rescued. Justice must be established.
But there are some differences between how David prays and how we should pray:
Difference #1 – Christian prayers must be governed by love. David’s prayer was rooted in “complete hatred” of enemies, as he himself says. Our prayers must be rooted in love for enemies. And this is really a difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. This is Jesus – “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” This is the Old Testament. “But I say to you, love your enemies” – Matthew 5:43-44. This is the new. In the Old Testament, God commanded love for neighbors, fellow people of the covenant. But not God’s enemies. In the New Testament, God tells us to have perfect or complete love – that is, love that includes everyone; the good and the evil, the just and the unjust, as Jesus said in Matthew 5:45. Our prayers must reflect this love and mercy for all people.
And since this is true, this leads us to Difference #2 – Christian prayers shouldn’t ask for non-redemptive judgment. What’s this? The clearest example of non-redemptive judgment is when God takes someone’s life. Because when this happens there is no more grace, no more chance to be redeemed. This is what David prayed for. I do not believe that Christians can pray for this. This would be an expression of harm for harm, hatred, cursing and condemnation – not love.
Indeed, Jesus rebuked his disciples for this when they sought to call down fire on the Samaritan town that rejected Jesus in Luke 9:54-55. As Jesus said in Luke 19:10, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Why then should we seek their destruction in prayer? And also, how could we ask for this since we are only able to stand before God by his grace? Can we ask God to act one way with others and another with us? Destructive judgment for others, mercy for us? Certainly not.
If we can’t pray for non-redemptive judgment, I do believe that we can pray for redemptive judgment. This is God’s judgment, but it still allows the person a chance to change. It’s judgment, but it’s also an act of grace, to wake them up to repentance, if they are willing. So yes, I can and have prayed that God would judge and stop an evildoer in this way. Maybe God would take away their political power, or use the legal system, or put difficult circumstances in their lives that cause them to stop. I believe that this is in accord with both God’s mercy and God’s justice.
But beyond this we have to leave things in God’s hands. Only God can decide when the time of grace is up and it’s time for non-redemptive judgment – in an individual’s life and for the world as a whole.
Let’s end with a responsive reading from –
– that demonstrates how we are to live our lives as followers of Jesus.
L: 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
P: 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
L: 16Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.
P: 17Repay no one harm for harm, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.
L: 18If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
P: 20To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
All: 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.