Psalm 58 – Curse the Wicked

Do you rulers indeed speak justly?
    Do you judge people with equity?
No, in your heart you devise injustice,
    and your hands mete out violence on the earth.

Even from birth the wicked go astray;
    from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies.
Their venom is like the venom of a snake,
    like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears,
that will not heed the tune of the charmer,
    however skillful the enchanter may be.

Break the teeth in their mouths, O God;
    Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions!
Let them vanish like water that flows away;
    when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short.
May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along,
    like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.

Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns—
    whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away.
The righteous will be glad when they are avenged,
    when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked.
Then people will say,
    “Surely the righteous still are rewarded;
    surely there is a God who judges the earth.” (New International Version)

The term “imprecatory” means to call down a curse on a person or group of people. There are eighteen imprecatory psalms within the Old Testament psalter, all of which make a clear petition for God to turn the evil back on the people who inflict it (or try to) on others. Maybe this surprises you that there is such language in the Bible.

There is nothing sanitized about imprecatory psalms. They are as raw and real as it gets, expressing deep anger. Whatever you might think about how a proper pious person ought to pray, imprecatory curses are likely not your first thought. But here they are, contained in Holy Scripture for our use.

One reason for the imprecatory psalms is that it is not any person’s place for revenge or retaliation. Instead, for people who are genuinely caught in the crosshairs of evil, for those who have awful trouble dogging them, prayer is their most effective recourse.

Sometimes you just have to tell it like it is. There is a time to do your best in putting up a good face so that you can deal with people who keep gossiping, slandering, and trying to get their way. Yet, there is also a time to call such behavior “evil” and cry out to God for help.

There are many folks who consider imprecatory psalms a problem because of their detailed expressions of cursing. Yet, such psalms refuse to put a positive spin on malevolent motives, wicked words, and destructive actions.

Desperate people utter desperate prayers. Their unflinching sense of injustice will not allow them to sugarcoat the villainous plans of corrupt people.

Evil is never toppled with tepid prayers from wimpy worshipers. Rather, nefarious agendas are thwarted in the teeth of specific, focused, and intense prayers directed with spiritual precision to the very core of diabolical forces.

We need not be shy about being real with God, even with praying imprecatory prayers. There really are people in this world, maybe even in your own life, that have malicious intent against you or others. Our job is not personal revenge, but to entrust ourselves to the God who fights for the poor, the oppressed, and the needy against the arrogant and the powerful. Let your prayers reflect your life.

With no cursing of evil, our emotional pain and spiritual anger come out sideways in an unkind sort of “snarky-ness” toward each other. What I am proposing is that our terrible hurt and our rage needs to be acknowledged and voiced.

Our bitterness must have an outlet, not directed toward one another, but toward the evil itself – and even toward God because God is big enough to handle our rage, whereas other humans are not.

Victimization needs a voice, and a bit of raging and cursing is the means to do it. Giving voice to our deep anger is cathartic and therapeutic. Our speech needs to be congruent with the intensity of our pain because where there are no valued words of assault for victims, the risk of hurting each other becomes much higher.

Despair with no voice and no one to hear will eventually transition to harming others.

Spiritual problems require spiritual implements to solve. And the imprecatory psalms are a major tool for pushing back the dark forces of this world. They are a significant means of spiritual assertiveness against heinous acts, acerbic words, systemic evil, depraved people, and horrible circumstances.

God’s wrath is an expression of God’s love because God is not okay with evil taking root in the lives and institutions of humanity.

Prayer is our privilege of coming to the God who upholds justice and righteousness. For if God is for us, who can be against us?

Psalm 10 – Backstabbers

Why are you far away, Lord?
Why do you hide yourself
    when I am in trouble?
Proud and brutal people
    hunt down the poor.
But let them get caught
    by their own evil plans!

The wicked brag about
    their deepest desires.
Those greedy people hate
    and curse you, Lord.
The wicked are too proud
to turn to you
    or even think about you.
They are always successful,
though they can’t understand
    your teachings,
and they keep sneering
    at their enemies.

In their hearts they say,
    “Nothing can hurt us!
We’ll always be happy
    and free from trouble.”
They curse and tell lies,
and all they talk about
    is how to be cruel
    or how to do wrong.

They hide outside villages,
waiting to strike and murder
    some innocent victim.
They are hungry lions
    hiding in the bushes,
hoping to catch
    some helpless passerby.
They trap the poor in nets
    and drag them away.
They crouch down and wait
    to grab a victim.
They say, “God can’t see!
    He’s got on a blindfold.”

Do something, Lord God,
and use your powerful arm
    to help those in need.
The wicked don’t respect you.
In their hearts they say,
    “God won’t punish us!”

But you see the trouble
and the distress,
    and you will do something.
The poor can count on you,
    and so can orphans.
Now break the power
    of all merciless people.
Punish them for doing wrong
    and make them stop.

Our Lord, you will always rule,
but every godless nation
    will vanish from the earth.
You listen to the longings
    of those who suffer.
You offer them hope,
and you pay attention
    to their cries for help.
You defend orphans
    and everyone else in need,
so that no one on earth
    can terrify others again. (Contemporary English Version)

Nobody can go through life without having to deal with evil in the form of two-faced people. It’s just part of the human condition to experience it. 

The O’Jays sang about such persons in their 1972 song, Backstabbers: 

(What they do!)
(They smile in your face)
All the time they want to take your place
The back stabbers (back stabbers)
(They smile in your face)
All the time they want to take your place.

The psalmist knew first-hand about such people, all too well. He experienced their lies and their constant thoughts about cruelty to others and doing wrong. He watched their schadenfreude, that is, their delight in seeing others harmed and hurt. Outwardly, such devious people feign friendship; but meanwhile, they inwardly sneer and plot how to destroy. 

Schadenfreude: satisfaction or pleasure felt at someone else’s misfortune.

However, there is a God who sees all of it, both the outward calloused deeds, as well as the inward plotting of insidious works. And, what’s more, God will act.

The problem for most of us, the victims of the backstabber’s blade, is that the time between God seeing and God acting is sometimes far too long. We cry out for justice, and rightly so. God sees and hears. And God acts when it is time to act, without being on our schedule to do it.

Meanwhile, during this awkward in-between time, until God dispenses the divine will on both the evil and the good, the righteous person remains hopeful and confident that their cries are being heard and that divine protection will prevail. The psalmist assures us that the Lord listens to the longings of those who suffer. God offers them hope and pays attention to their cries for help.

Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

Romans 12:21, MSG

The way to face down the presence of hard-hearted people is to be both active and passive in the right ways: 

  • Actively cry out to God in prayer
  • Actively work for good
  • Take a pass on exacting revenge
  • Take a pass on nursing grudges and hate

If we can encourage one another to persevere in being consistently good, even while in the teeth of evil, it will go a long way toward spreading God’s benevolent and gracious kingdom and seeing God’s moral and ethical will done in our families, communities, and world.

Unfortunately, backstabbers will always be with us, no matter where we go, this side of heaven. Stay calm, don’t let the evil stick to your soul, and step back to see the big picture that vengeance belongs to the Lord… and maybe listen to some O’Jays while you’re at it.

God of justice and righteousness, you defend those who are vulnerable and in need. You will act so that no one on earth can terrify and harm others again. Shoo the bullying and belligerent ways of Satan away so that your heavenly kingdom may take root in the church and the world for the sake of Jesus our Savior. Amen

Psalm 52 – Deliver Us From Evil

The world’s oldest olive tree, 3,000 years, on the island of Crete

Hey, powerful person!
    Why do you brag about evil?
    God’s faithful love lasts all day long.
Your tongue devises destruction:
    it’s like a sharpened razor, causing deception.
You love evil more than good;
    you love lying more than speaking what is right.
You love all destructive words;
    you love the deceiving tongue.

But God will take you down permanently;
    he will snatch you up,
    tear you out of your tent,
    and uproot you from the land of the living!
The righteous will see and be in awe;
    they will laugh at those people:
“Look at them! They didn’t make God their refuge.
    Instead, they trusted in their own great wealth.
        They sought refuge in it—to their own destruction!”

But I am like a green olive tree in God’s house;
    I trust in God’s faithful love forever and always.
I will give thanks to you, God, forever,
    because you have acted.
In the presence of your faithful people,
    I will hope in your name because it’s so good. (Common English Bible)

Ideally, every person on planet earth would be safe to talk to and work with. But we know this is not true. That’s because we have our own experiences of persons in authority who used their power and influence for malevolent purposes – knowing exactly what kind of harm they’re doing.

This is precisely what once happened with David. Before he was king over all Israel and Judah, David was on the run from King Saul.

David had done nothing wrong. In fact, he had done everything right from a good heart. And yet, because of Saul’s jealousy and lust for power, he saw David as a threat and not an asset. So, he hunted him like an animal.

King Saul’s abuse of power was bad enough. But that abuse reached it’s evil height with Doeg the Edomite. (1 Samuel 22:6-23)

Doeg was a nasty guy. He wasn’t just bad; he enjoyed being bad. Saul was so obsessed with getting rid of his perceived rival, that he sought to kill anyone who aided and abetted David. And Doeg had such a lust for murder that he was willing to kill anyone.

And that’s what he did. When Saul found out that the priests in the village of Nob had helped David when he was on the run, the jealous king tried to use his authority to command the army to slaughter them all. However, being reasonable men, they could not do it.

Yet, Doeg stepped in and stepped up to single-handedly wipe out the priests. Sadly, he didn’t stop there…

Doeg the Edomite turned and attacked the priests; on that day he killed eighty-five who wore the linen ephod. Nob, the city of the priests, he put to the sword; men and women, children and infants, oxen, donkeys, and sheep, he put to the sword. (1 Samuel 22:18-19, NRSV)

It was after this horrific event that David crafted the psalm for today.

There is abuse, trauma, and oppression – and then there is the continual harming from another which goes unabated. The abuser, the oppressor, the murderer keeps going, unchecked. And we are powerless to stop it.

There is only One who can right such terrible wrongs.

Today’s psalm speaks of God’s constancy, the continual love which persists all day long. David lifted his grief and anger to the Lord concerning the misuse of power and authority by Saul and Doeg. In light of God’s justice and faithful love, David affirms and believes that the Lord will bring ruin on those who despise divine commands and ethical instruction.

We don’t know always know why evil continues, or how it will end. Those enduring questions out of our own human condition and experience of evil may persist. Yet, the believer knows with certainty, as follower of a righteous, just, and holy God, that the downfall of the wicked will be total, and it will be permanent.

There is a day coming when evil shall be finished forever. And it’s hard not knowing exactly when that’s going to happen.

Perhaps this sort of talk seems like a cop out. It may appear that if God is so loving and powerful that evil ought to be stopped this very second.

Yet, consider this: There is so much evil and injustice in this world that to forcefully and immediately pull up those nasty wicked weeds will end up taking out the good plants next to them. The cure ends up being the harm.

The Lord is presently, patiently, and meticulously moving all things toward an inexorable ending – and it must be done carefully so that the godly are preserved from annihilation.

Fortunately, most people on earth aren’t like Doeg the Edomite or King Saul. Unfortunately, having one of them in your life is likely to happen because of the world’s great evil. One wicked person is bad enough to foment hate, spread lies, create havoc, and outright murder people – both verbally and actually.

The biblical psalms exist to serve us well whenever we experience the wrath of a person like Doeg. The psalms let us know we aren’t alone and help give us a voice. This is highly important, especially when the wicked seek to silence us and squelch our voice.

Trusting in the Lord, day after day… week after week… month after month… year after year… decade after decade… with the same slow and deliberate plod of God, strengthens us like a big old thick olive tree. And the psalms are here to help that happen.

May the Lord Jesus Christ guard and deliver you from the snares of the devil, the assaults of evil spirits, the wrath of the wicked, all base passions, and the fear of the known and unknown. Amen.

Psalm 1 – Two Different Ways

Oh, the joys of those who do not
    follow the advice of the wicked,
    or stand around with sinners,
    or join in with mockers.
But they delight in the law of the Lord,
    meditating on it day and night.
They are like trees planted along the riverbank,
    bearing fruit each season.
Their leaves never wither,
    and they prosper in all they do.

But not the wicked!
    They are like worthless chaff, scattered by the wind.
They will be condemned at the time of judgment.
    Sinners will have no place among the godly.
For the Lord watches over the path of the godly,
    but the path of the wicked leads to destruction. (New Living Translation)

Today’s psalm presents us with two differing ways we can choose to shape our lives: The way of the upright and virtuous, or the way of the unethical and depraved. 

The way of the right and just person leads to human flourishing and life – whereas the way of the wicked and unjust person leads to human degradation and death. 

Distinguishing between the righteous and the wicked is not always as easy as it looks.

Only at the end of the age, when the Day of Judgment comes, will we know for certain the righteous and the wicked.

The magisterial Reformer, Martin Luther, contrasted these two ways with his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. Luther called the way of the wicked a theology of glory – and described the way of the righteous as the theology of the cross.

The cross of Christ, as expressed by Luther, is God’s attack on human sin. Christ’s death is central to Christianity, and one must embrace the cross and rely completely and totally upon Christ’s finished work on the cross to handle human sin. Through being crucified with Christ, we find the way to human flourishing and life. In other words, righteousness is gained by grace through faith in Christ.

Conversely, the theology of glory is the opposing way of the cross. For Luther, the wicked person, and the vilest offender of God, is not the person who has done all kinds of outward sinning and heinous acts. The worst of sinners do good works.

Specifically, the wicked person is the one who does all kinds of nice things – yet does them disconnected from God by wanting others to see their good actions. Another way of putting this: The wicked person is one who seeks to gain glory for self, rather than giving glory to God.

Our good works can be the greatest hindrance to righteousness.

It is far too easy to place faith in our good works done apart from God, rather than having a naked trust in Christ alone. And it is far too easy to do good things for the primary purpose of having others observe our goodness, rather than do them out of the good soil of being planted in God’s Word. 

The remedy for sin is the cross, and the sinner is one who lives apart from that cross, trusting in self so that people can recognize and give them their perceived due respect and accolades.

“It is impossible for a person not to be puffed by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.”

Martin Luther

We are not to avoid good works but do them from the good soil of being planted in the law of God and connected to the vine of Christ. When the psalmist uses the term “law” he is referring to Scripture as a whole, to all the acquired wisdom about how life is supposed to be lived in God’s big world.

The righteous are those who immerse themselves in the law; secretly rise early to meditate on God’s Word; privately pour over Scripture’s message and pray to put it into practice because they want to delight in God. Their fruit will be abundant and sweet.  

The wicked, however, are simply too busy to take note what the law says; only serve to be seen; and publicly desire to be recognized for their charity and works. Such works will not stand when Judgment Day comes.

You’re nothing but show-offs. You’re like tombs that have been whitewashed. On the outside they are beautiful, but inside they are full of bones and filth. (Matthew 23:27, CEV)

Truly righteous people have a humble sense that they could easily drift from God, if not staying connected and rooted in Jesus and the way of the cross. 

The wicked, in contrast, are like chaff – worthless, and not adding value to anything. They are arrogant and annoying – wanting all the attention that God rightly deserves. The wicked have nothing to contribute to God’s kingdom. They hinder the harvest of souls God is working toward with their irritating attitudes.

Generosity marks the righteous because God is generous. Grace defines the righteous because God is gracious.  Gentleness is the way of the righteous because Christ is gentle. Spiritual prosperity is the result of a righteous relationship cultivated with Jesus Christ. The Lord watches over the way of such persons.

The way of the wicked will perish.

We have sixteen prophetic books in the Old Testament, all given to a single message: Judgment is coming because of wickedness.  And the wicked turn out to be God’s covenant people, because they selectively did their good works to gain glory for themselves. They withheld the good they could have done because it did not add any value to their reputation or their personal goals.

God desires genuine spiritual growth for us. That will only happen if we avoid the theology of glory and embrace a theology of the cross – delighting in God and the law.

Every day, we have a choice to make: The way of connection and life, or the way of disconnection and death. 

Look here! Today I’ve set before you, life and what’s good versus death and what’s wrong. If you obey the Lord your God’s commandments that I’m commanding you right now by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments, his regulations, and his case laws, then you will live and thrive, and the Lord your God will bless you…. But if your heart turns away and you refuse to listen, and so are misled, worshipping other gods and serving them,I’m telling you right now that you will definitely die…. I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you. Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live—by loving the Lord your God, by obeying his voice, and by clinging to him. That’s how you will survive and live long…. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20, CEB)

The idols of our hearts can so easily draw us away from God so that our own good works are done for an audience who will recognize and affirm. Instead, our daily choice must be to love God supremely and give God glory for everything good in our lives. 

What will you choose this day?