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THE MOST TERRIBLE PSALM IN THE WHOLE PSALTER
We do not intend the title we have given this psalm to be disrespectful or critical. It is only that the bitter imprecations of this psalm appear to us as wholly antithetical to the true spirit of Christianity.
There was certainly a glimpse of this same bitter spirit that appeared in the lives of two of the blessed apostles, namely, "The Sons of Thunder," that is, "Boanerges" (Mark 3:17). These, of course, were James and John the sons of Zebedee.
The glimpse referred to is recorded in Luke 9:52ff. The apostles went before Jesus into a village of the Samaritans to prepare the way for Jesus, but the Samaritans did not receive him. James and John immediately asked, "Lord wilt thou that we bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?" However, Jesus turned and rebuked them, and said, "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of Man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them" (Luke 9:55,56 KJV). In the light of what Jesus said on that occasion, we cannot believe that our Lord would have concurred in the bitter imprecations of this psalm.
As Addis said, "These are further from the spirit of Christianity than anything else in the whole Psalter." Kidner cautioned us that, "These things are written for our learning, not for our imitation."
All kinds of devices have been proposed by which scholars attempt to soften the bitterness of these words. We shall enumerate some of these, none of which appear to us as acceptable interpretations: (a) Rhodes understood the "enemies of the psalmist" to be the speakers in Psalms 109:21-31, not the psalmist. (b) Jones speaks of those who consider the psalm a prophetic depiction of the maledictions heaped upon Christ by his enemies, and (c) of those who attribute the imprecations as the words of Christ, instead of the words of David. (d) Chrysostom stated that, "The imprecations are a prophecy in the form of a curse."
"All such devices," as Maclaren said, "Are too obviously makeshifts. It is far better to recognize the discordance between the temper of the psalmist and that enjoined by Christ than to try to cover it over."
That there is indeed an impassable gulf between the spirit of the Old Testament and that of New Testament was categorically stated by Christ himself, touching on this very point of one's attitude toward his enemies.
"Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy: but I say unto you, Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:43-45).
According to the superscription, this is "A Psalm of David"; and there is no dependable information that casts any doubt on it. Rawlinson judged this assignment to be "not inappropriate," also suggesting that the enemies here imprecated might have been Saul, Doeg, Ahithophel, or Shimei, along with their retainers and followers.
The date of the psalm, therefore, must have been at some point during the life of David, certainly not in the vicinity of 80 B.C. (according to Addis). The psalm was included in the LXX version about 250 B.C.
There are three divisions of the psalm. (1) A description of David's enemies (Psalms 109:1-5); (2) a prayer for the punishment of those who had wronged him, citing especially one of them (Psalms 109:6-20); and (3) a prayer for the sufferer's own deliverance, including a promise of thanksgiving (Psalms 109:21-31).
DESCRIPTION OF DAVID'S ENEMIES
"Hold not thy peace, O God of my praise;
For the mouth of the wicked, and the mouth of deceit have they opened against me:
They have spoken unto me with a lying tongue.
They have compassed me about with words of hatred,
And fought against me without a cause.
For my love they are my adversaries:
But I give myself unto prayer.
And they have rewarded me evil for good,
And hatred for my love."
The enemies of David are described here as deceitful liars (Psalms 109:1-2). They are wicked men who hate him (Psalms 109:2-3). They are carrying on a vendetta against him and are returning hatred for his love, rewarding him evil for the good he has done them (Psalms 109:4-5).
HIS PRAYER FOR GOD TO REWARD THEM WITH EVIL
"Set thou a wicked man over him;
And let an adversary stand on his right hand.
When he is judged, let him come forth guilty;
And let his prayer be turned into sin.
Let his days be few;
And let another take his office.
Let his children be fatherless,
And his wife a widow."
"Set thou a wicked man over him" (Psalms 109:6). It is a court scene which appears here. David is praying that his adversary will be brought before a wicked judge who shall declare him guilty.
"Let an adversary stand on his right hand" (Psalms 109:6). "This was the customary position of the prosecutor in an ancient trial." The word for "adversary" here is also a title of Satan.
"Let his prayer be turned into sin ... his children fatherless ... his wife a widow" (Psalms 109:7-9). These are truly horrible imprecations. In fact the list of "curses" as they are called in this long passage is the most extreme and violent to be found anywhere in the Bible. "Calvin tells us that medieval monks hired themselves out to recite this passage against private enemies."
"Let his days be few ... his office let another take" (Psalms 109:8). This passage, along with Psalms 69:25, is quoted by the apostle Peter, stating that it was written through David (Acts 1:16) by the Holy Spirit "concerning Judas Iscariot." For this reason, "The early Fathers of Christianity called this psalm, `Psalmus Iscarioticus.'"
"Let his children be vagabonds, and beg;
And let them seek their bread out of their desolate places.
Let the extortioner catch all that he hath;
And let strangers make spoil of his labor.
Let there be none to extend kindness to him; Neither let there be any to have pity on his fatherless children.
Let his posterity be cut off;
In the generation following let their name be blotted out."
These imprecations run counter to the Christian conception that all young children are innocent. As Jesus stated it, "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for unto such belongs the kingdom of heaven."
"Let strangers make spoil of his labor" (Psalms 109:11). It becomes clear here why David prayed that it might be a wicked judge who would try his enemy and sentence him to death. "The strangers, not subject to Hebrew law, would take advantage of his condemnation to death and appear with all kinds of claims against his estate, whether valid or not. It would matter little, for the claims would be sustained by the wicked judge, to whom they will give a share of the spoil."
"Let his posterity be cut off ... their name be blotted out" (Psalms 109:13). "His prayer is that his orphaned children will be reprobates, banished from home, doomed to a speedy death, because of destitution, exposure and hunger."
"Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with Jehovah,
And let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.
Let them be before Jehovah continually,
That he may cut off the memory of them from the earth;
Because he remembered not to show kindness,
But persecuted the poor and needy man,
And the broken in heart to slay them.
Yea, he loved cursing, and it came unto him;
And he delighted not in blessing, and it was far from him."
"Iniquity of his fathers ... the sin of his mother" (Psalms 109:14). It is here presumed that the enemy's parents were both wicked and that their guilt is also to be visited upon the enemy and his posterity according to this prayer.
"Let them be before the Lord continually" (Psalms 109:15). "The desire here is that even the memory of the enemy's parents may also be cut off from the earth."
"Remembered not kindness ... persecuted the poor and needy ... loved cursing ... delighted not in blessing" (Psalms 109:16-17). "This portrait of David's enemy is given here in explanation, or perhaps in justification of the numerous and severe anathemas."
"The poor and needy man" (Psalms 109:16). This same thought is registered in Psalms 109:22, below. Some would deny David's authorship of this psalm on the basis that he was not "a poor and needy man." Such is a worthless argument, however, because when David was a fugitive, either from Saul, or from Absalom, he was indeed a poor and needy man.
"He clothed himself also with cursing as with a garment,
And it came into his inward parts like water,
And like oil into his bones
Let it be unto him as the raiment wherewith he covered himself,
And the girdle wherewith he is girdled continually.
This is the reward of mine adversaries from Jehovah,
And of them that speak evil against my soul."
This is the conclusion of the terrible list of imprecations. The psalm now returns to the prayer of the psalmist for himself.
"These terrible maledictions need little comment. They may be left in all their awfulness and should not be extenuated nor degraded into a purely personal outburst of personal vindictiveness. They are far more noble than that. These terrible verses are a prophecy, but they are prayers too, prayers which can only be accounted for by remembering the spirit of the old dispensation."
The feelings of this writer with reference to the imprecations here persist in the conviction that there may be far more in this chapter than we have been able to fathom. It should be remembered, that, upon the testimony of the Apostle Peter, we must receive these words as given by the Spirit of God through David, and that at least the passage referred to in Acts 1:16,20 was written concerning Judas Iscariot who betrayed the Son of God.
It is altogether possible that the awful maledictions of this chapter are intended as a warning to all enemies of the Son of God, and not merely Judas alone. The prevailing notion that the "gentle Jesus" is never really going to hurt anyone is by no means accurate. A little heeded statement of Christ himself is that of Luke 19:27, "But these mine enemies that would not that I should rule over them, bring hither, and slay before me." These enemies were the ones who "hated Christ" (Luke 19:14); and if all of the terrible maledictions of this chapter should be understood as the just and inevitable reward of all those who hate the Son of God and repudiate his benign government, then all of their offensiveness to sensitive Christian hearts is removed.
"But deal thou with me, O Jehovah the Lord, for thy name's sake:
Because thy lovingkindness is good, believe me;
For I am poor and needy,
And my heart is wounded within me.
I am gone like the shadow when it declineth:
I am tossed up and down as the locust.
My knees are weak through fasting;
And my flesh faileth of fatness.
I am become also a reproach unto them:
When they see me, they shake their head."
"My heart is wounded within me" (Psalms 109:22). Two things, among many others, might have broken David's heart, namely: (1) the malignity of Saul for whom David had risked his life in the encounter with Goliath; and (2) the treachery of Ahithophel, David's trusted friend and advisor, who betrayed him in favor of Absalom.
"Tossed up and down as the locust" (Psalms 109:23). Dummelow suggested that this could be rendered, "I am shaken off like a locust." A reproach unto them (Psalms 109:25). The "them" here would have included David's acquaintances and perhaps even his relatives.
"Help me, O Jehovah my God;
Oh save me according to thy lovingkindness:
That they may know that this is thy hand;
That thou Jehovah hast done it.
Let them curse, but bless thou:
When they arise, they shall be put to shame,
But thy servant shall rejoice.
Let mine adversaries be clothed with dishonor,
And let them cover themselves with their own shame as with a robe."
"That they may know that thou hast done it" (Psalms 109:27). Dahood connected this with what he called, "The miracle that David had requested in Psalms 109:21."
"Let them curse, but bless thou" (Psalms 109:28). "The psalmist here appears no longer disturbed, since he feels confident of divine assistance after his prayers in Psalms 109:26-27."
"Cover themselves with their own shame as with a robe" (Psalms 109:29). McCaw gave the meaning here as a plea that the public dishonor of the psalmist's enemies, "Would be as plain to everyone as their outer clothing."
"I will give thanks unto Jehovah with my mouth;
Yea, I will praise him among the multitude.
For he will stand at the right hand of the needy,
To save him from them that judge his soul."
"For he will stand at the right hand of the needy" (Psalms 109:31). Delitzsch observed that this verse is a sequence to Psalms 109:6. "There at the right hand of the tormenter stands Satan as an accuser; here (Psalms 109:31) at the right hand of the tormented stands God as his vindicator."
Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalms 109". "Coffman Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28