Praying from the Psalms

June 20, 2009

More thoughts on Imprecatory Prayers

Imprecatory means to call down or pray for judgment to be brought on someone or something.
This is certainly a serious thing and we might remember that Jesus taught us to pray for those who despitefully use and persecute us.  That is ‘going the second mile’ for those who would harm us.  Notice that this is the attitude towards ‘my’ enemy, towards the one who is persecuting ‘me.’  But what of the one who is persecuting someone else, perhaps, as happened in Thailand one time. A military strong arm, bent on overthrowing his country, was roaming the streets of Bangkok, killing students and other citizens who stood in his way.  Should we be soft on the sin and violence (I think of terrible suffering of Christians in Sudan), ignoring terrible tragedy poured out on others (whole villages destroyed in Indonesia simply because the villagers were Christian)? How easy for me from my easy chair to ask for forgiveness!  What about asking for judgment from the Lord?  Do we have a moral right and responsibility to pray for this? 

• I wanted to pray for the students’ safety, for blessing in a difficult situation  Yes, but
• How was I supposed to model praying ‘for’ that general? 
• ‘What’ was I supposed to pray for him?  Pray for the salvation and blessing on one who was killing students, some of whom were my students?
• Does the Bible offer any help in such a situation?

Yes it does and in the OT we read in such Psalms as 35:22-26; 69:22-28; 109:6-20; and 137:7-9, and many that have a verse or two such as Ps. 3:7; 139:19-20.  Even the NT has some verses that hint in this direction: Phil. 3:2, 18-19; 1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 4:14.

The following are some lessons I have learned as I tried to make the prayers of Psalms my own:

(1) Do truth, holiness, righteousness really matter?  Have they gotten swallowed up in a mushy, romantic, back-boneless love, in an easy-going cheap grace?  Am I seriously looking for a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness dwells? (2 Pet. 3:13)

(2) Do I take sin (first of all, ‘my’ sin) seriously?  We have all heard ‘hate sin and love the sinner’ which often comes out practically as ‘love the sinner and ignore sin.’  Which idea reflects most clearly my praying?

(3) Does my praying five evidence of my zeal over the issue?  How concerned am I that righteousness must be victorious over evil?  (Again, first in myself!)

(4) Who should pray for a wicked person to be forgiven?  If someone breaks into your house and molests your family, should I forgive that person for violence against you and your family, or must you be the one to pray for forgiveness?

(5) The seriousness which these verses (as well as the whole Bible) take of wickedness sheds a new light on the wonders of grace and forgiveness found only in Jesus Christ.

(6) It also sheds brilliant light on the cross where ‘righteousness and peace kiss’ (Ps. 85:10); where God is both just and the justifier of the one who believes in Jesus (Rom. 3:26b)

(7)   It is a strong, practical reminder that we should be in tune with ‘The Day’ which is coming.  The day of vengeance, the day of reckoning, the day of judgment.  Righteousness will be a major issue then; it should be now as well.  (See Isa. 2:6-22; Zeph. 1:14-18; Acts 17:31)

A prayer for a curse, rather than for blessing?  That sounds like cult stuff at first!  But is it and where should we as Bible believing Christians stand on the matter? 

The issue made front page news in The Baptist Standard, publishing arm of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.  Wiley Drake, a former Southern Baptist Convention official said that after praying for 10 years for George Tiller of Kansas (a late term abortionist) to be converted, he changed his prayer to what is called an imprecatory prayer of judgment for Tiller.  How passionately did you pray for the conversion of that killer of innocent babes in (almost ‘out of’) the womb?  Mr. Drake was way ahead of me in that department. 

But our question, what about this imprecatory prayer of judgment?  Can Christians use such when we are told to pray for those who despitefully persecute us?  What about those who use their power and abilities do destroy justice for the innocent and down-trodden?  What about tyrants who in cruel violence destroy whole peoples who live under their thumbs?

It is time Christians stood up in passionate disagreement against such violence perpetrated by powerful and self-serving, self-exalting leaders and regimes.  How should we have prayed for Hitler or Stalin or Nero, or Tiller; how should we pray for dictators in Sudan or Osama bin Laden?

Several things that we need to consider though as (or before) we pray this way:

• Consider your own sinful stance before an awesome and holy God who knows every thought, every intention, all words and all actions.  This is a call for our repentance and honesty before our loving God.
• You are in no way planning to take vengeance on others out of your own initiative! Remember God has plainly said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.”
• Remember that this is your prayer.  You are asking God and leaving the method, the timing, in fact the whole situation to His answer.  (Here, we sometimes think we must act quickly, forgetting that we are pleading with God who has His own timetable, and His own way of dealing with the total scene.)
• Along with this we are not presuming to tell God “how” this prayer should be answered.  Too often we pray for exact results and think God should answer in “just that way.”

Here is a biblical example.  David was a shepherd boy before he became king of Israel.  When his son Absalom tried to usurp the throne from his father, how did David pray?  (See Psalm 3 and note the heading of that psalm before verse 1).  He knew from his shepherding days that a toothless lion or bear was not very dangerous to the flock.  And so he prays in v. 3:7b, “Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked.”

David was praying that the power, the authority of the enemy be broken so that the flock might not be harmed.  He did not pray for specific results, but that God would deal with these enemies in a way that would render them powerless and their plans ineffectual – however God might do that.  In sad truth, Absalom did die in his wrongful escapade, but that was not necessarily in David’s mind.  In fact, David deeply loved Absalom and mourned his death (2 Sam. 15, 18).

Perhaps we should pray that those in power who are dealing wickedly with helpless people and innocent victims should at the very least be stripped of their power and strong-arm tactics.  And at the very bottom, we who can intercede for these helpless ones should do so with passion.

More on the Bible passages that deal with imprecatory prayers in the next blog.

God’s Steadfast Love

January 29, 2009

God’s Steadfast Love

One of the great words of the Old Testament concerning the nature and activity of Almighty God is chesed, the Hebrew word which is variously translated as ‘lovingkindness’ (NASB), ‘steadfast love’ (ESV), ‘mercy’ (KJV).  The KJV translation is really not right, for there is another Hebrew word for ‘mercy,’ and this word chesed relates more closely to the nature of love and kindness.  However, as we will see below, it is used in context to give us the concept of ‘faithful’ or ‘loyal’ as modifiers for this love.  The NIV translation (quite often ‘love’) is inadequate because there is another word ‘ahab which means love and this word has the wider, richer idea of ‘faithful-love’.     I personally favor either ‘lovingkindness’ or ‘steadfast love.’

This word is used some 245 times in the OT and the vast majority of these tell us of God’s attitude and activity towards His people Israel.  Below are some of the verses which use this word and often in combination or in parallel form with other key words that describe the character and activity of our Living Lord, Sovereign of the universe.

1. Many times this word is joined with another noun such as ‘righteousness,’ faithfulness,’ ‘truth.’

  Gen. 24:27, 49;   47:29;
  Ex. 34:6 (one of the key words in the revelation of His Name)
  Josh. 2:14;   2 Sam. 2:6;    15:20    Psalm 25:10;    40:11;    57:3;    61:7;    85:10;   
  86:15;    89:2, 14

2. Sometimes it is with the word ‘covenant.’

  Deut. 7:9;    1 Kings 8:23;    Neh. 1:5;    9:32;   Dan. 9:4

3. Sometimes with the nouns ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness.’

  Ps. 101:1;    Prov. 21:21 (notice the challenge:  pursue these!); Hos. 12:6;
  Jer. 9:24

4. It is often used in parallel (in Hebrew poetry) with other mainstream words.

  Ps. 36:10;   88:11;   89:1-2;   92:2;   117:2
  Isaiah 16:5;   55:3;   Hosea 4:1;   Micah 7:20;   6:8

5. Then it is expanded with the adjective ‘great’ and coupled with God’s patience

  Ex. 34:6;   Num. 14:18;   Neh. 9:17;   Ps. 86:15;   103:8;   145:8;   Isa. 54:8
  Joel 2:13;   Jonah 4:2

6. Also, consider His great chesed as related to the ideas of mercy and forgiveness

  Ex. 34:6;   Num. 14:19;   Neh. 13:22;   Ps. 5:7;   69:13;   86:5;   106:7, 45;  
  Lam. 3:22

This great word used as above, strongly suggests God’s persistent, determined, character and nature was the foundation for the maintaining of His covenant with Israel.  Someone has said that the word involves, in almost every case, a substratum of fixed, determined, almost stubborn steadfastness.  Norman Snaith in his Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament says,

“Wonderful as is His love for his covenant people, His steady persistence in it is more wonderful still.  The most important of all the distinctive ideas of the OT is God’s steady and extraordinary persistence in continuing to love wayward Israel in spite of Israel’s insistent rebellion” (p.102).

Or, consider the message of Hosea.  Through all the troubles which beat against and nearly broke the marriage covenant between Yahweh and Israel, there was one factor which never changed.  This was God’s sure love for Israel.  Because of this sure, unswerving love, the Covenant can never be finally and completely broken.  The Covenant, initiated by God, could only be broken by God.  Israel could sin, could rebel against God, but they were never to escape from that Covenant.  Rather, they would find themselves under the curse of that Covenant rather than enjoying the blessing.  Israel may have rejected God, but God had not, has not yet, and will not reject Israel because of His great faithful lovingkindness!  And so we read of God’s plaintive cry in Hosea 11:8-9 (although there the word chesed does not appear).

There is one further aspect of this study.  There is a cognate word chasid from the same root as chesed.  This word is translated in most English versions as ‘saint.’   One who lives under the chesed of God is described in the OT as a chasid.  He can be described as being

“One-living-within-the-circle-of-the-lovingkindness-of-God.”

Some of the verses where this word chasid is found include:

 1 Sam. 2:9;   2 Chron. 6:41;   Prov. 2:8;    Micah 7:2
 Psalms 30:4;   31:23;   37:28;   50:5;   52:9;   79:2;   85:8;   89:19;   97:10;   116:15;                  132:9, 16;   145:10;   148:14;   149:1, 5

Think about what the OT teaches us about the unsurpassable, immeasurable, awesome, wonderful love of God which knows no bounds of space or time!  And remember, these affirmations of love are in – of all places – the Old Testament! 
Could we with ink the ocean fill
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry,
Nor could the scroll contain the whole
Tho stretched from sky to sky.