The Word Comes First

The Word of God always precedes and forms the People of God.

This is an engagement (not a sweeping denial) of the claim that the Church came before the Scriptures and produced the Scriptures. That’s a claim that can be affirmed but within a well understood framework of meaning.

One framework that makes Scripture as the Word of God understandable is the use of hypostatic union in the incarnation of the Son as an analogy for the inscripturation of the Word of God as sacred text written by men.

Talking about the Scriptures as the Word of God is proper and is something akin to the communicatio idiomatum when talking of Christ, attributing the qualities of one nature to the other due to the union of the two in one.

That ‘Scripture’ is used synonymously and metonymically with the utterance, commands, or words of God is plainly evident from no less than Jesus’s own words. This is Christ’s own bibliology. “Scripture says.” “It is written.”

This point itself—the bibliology of Christ and his Apostles expressed in the Scriptures—is why the Church can and ought to speak of a book—or rather the Book—as our authority, because it is and functions as the Voice of God.

We can say the People of God produced the Scriptures if we mean to reduce what’s indicated by “the Scriptures” to the actual literary artifact written by men under the inspiration of God as the Spirit of Christ moved.

All that being said, the original thesis is the larger reality. The Word of God comes first—in creation and in history—forming the world and the people. God speaks, and his creatures respond. He calls, and they answer.

Scripture coming through and being birthed out of God’s people is akin to Christ coming through and being birthed out of God’s people. He came before them in one sense and came through them in another.

The Scriptures coming through and being birthed out of the people of God is a result of the prior activity of the Word of God at work upon the people of God to form them as a people who are prepared to do so.

Scripture in the final form as we have it is an accumulation over time. And Scripture that existed at any given point in history was the Word of God at work upon the people of God through which more Scripture came.

So the Word of God in some form (as its inscripturated existence was building up) is always at work upon the people of God at any given point in history. This is how the Word of God always precedes and forms the people of God.

Dark Despair in the Psalms

In our lifetimes while this creation still groans for its ultimate liberation when all things are made new, we will continue to struggle and be in conflict—even as the holy ones and redeemed people of our great God. The flesh will still war against the spirit in union with the liberating Spirit of the Lord. Abiding joy will grapple with spells of misery. Forthright faith will wrestle with candid doubt. The light of hope will contend with the darkness of despair. Christians will experience “the dark night of the soul” as it has been called.

Psalm 42 expresses such a bout of melancholic despair. The man wails over his parched and famished soul. He’s become weary and weak in the absence of his great satisfaction that comes only from his nearness to God. He feels the distinct horror of divine absence, of God being far off from him. Worse, those around him taunt him about God’s apparent withdrawal from him. He sheds tears day and night in ragged agony. Even the memories of the former times of delight in the worship of God torment him by their absence:

When I remember these things,
​​I pour out my soul within me.​​
For I used to go with the multitude;
​​I went with them to the house of God,
​​With the voice of joy and praise,​​
With a multitude that kept the feast.

Yet the man of Psalm 42 is self-aware. He’s attentive to the state of his own soul. His soul is like one unfathomable ocean roaring out in a call to another unfathomable ocean who is the covenant Lord of his life. And he addresses his own soul with the promises of God, reminders of God’s khesed—his steadfast kindness and mercy, his covenant faithfulness. Twice, the man exhorts his own soul in this way:

Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
​​Hope in God; for I shall yet praise him,
​​The salvation of my countenance and my God.

The man of Psalm 42 confesses something intriguing about God that is especially vital to this present struggle with despair. God is “the salvation of the face” or countenance. God will be praised again, because he will bring deliverance to the despairing countenance of his faithful one. This promise remembered is a desperate call to hope in God.

If Psalm 42 is a dark dirge for contemplating and contending with despair, then Psalm 88 is the very darkest. The man of Psalm 88 experiences himself as one who’s abiding under the wrath of God with such severity that he likens himself to one of the dead. His despair has made him as estranged and abhorrent to his acquaintances as death itself would do. His loved ones and companions have been distanced from him. He’s utterly alienated in his despair from every source of comfort and welcome. The darkness is his only friend.

He questions if God can miraculously deliver him from this gloom of living death and if there’s any possibility of recovery from this living death to renewed life again marked by praises and confession of God’s faithfulness to his people:

Will you work wonders for the dead?
Shall the dead arise and praise you?
​​Shall your lovingkindness be declared in the grave?
Your faithfulness in the place of destruction?
Shall your wonders be known in the dark?
And your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

Psalm 88 is so despairing that it gives no answer to these questions. The man of Psalm 88 is left to sit in this darkness and wait in silence. This man knows a “dark night of the soul” that can only be survived. Nothing else can be said of it in the moment. He must wait.

How can God do this to his righteous one?

Can God even know this despair experienced by his creatures?

Consider: Is Jesus not the man of despair in Psalm 88? Is this not our Lord in his hour of judgment, torment, and death? Is this not the righteous one afflicted by God and cut off from all hope and comfort—cast away from companions and loved ones? Is this not the Son of God laid in a tomb during that vigil, waiting silently along with the world for the answer of the most extreme form of renewed life—resurrection from the dead?

Yes. Yes to all. Yes and amen.

Like many other psalms, Psalm 88 finds an expression in the life of the Son of God. And the Son of God shares in the experiences and life of his people.

Spells and even seasons of deep despair, dark nights of the soul, are part of the lives of the people of God here and now. And Jesus who has made us holy and brought us near to God through his own agony and despair is a man who understands us—a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He’s a faithful high priest who intercedes for his people, knows his people, comforts his people, becomes and imparts strength in their weaknesses. He is the one who offered up prayers and supplications with vehement cries and tears to God who was able to save him from death (Heb. 5:7).

Why are you in despair, O my friend?
And why are you in turmoil within you?
Hope in Christ, for you shall yet praise him—
The salvation of your countenance and your God.

Godly Hatred in the Psalms

One of the core tasks of a traditional education is instilling the correct loves and desires into a pupil. As those who are born ignorant and naive, we require training. All the more so as those born sullied by sin and wired for wickedness as those fallen in Adam. A firm moral education in what is right to seek and proper to love is imperative. The necessary converse and complement in such a moral education is training in what is right to shun and proper to hate.

We’ve visited Psalm 139 regarding more than one prior theme in the Psalms. It speaks to being children of God’s covenant (vss. 13-14) and cursing God’s enemies (vss. 19-20). And we’ll visit it again. But we have an occasion now regarding our subject of godly hatred to visit this Psalm of David as well.

Do I not hate them, O Yahweh, who hate You?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against You?
I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.

– Psalm 139:21-22

Here, King David gives voice to the idea of practicing a perfect hatred, one that’s formed and informed by who God is, how God loves, and what God hates. This sort of godly hate seems to be an inevitable outcome in our lives as we grow in the knowledge of God.

Here are several citations from the Psalms that link the love of God and the study of his Law with hating that which should be hated, because we love what should be loved:

You who love Yahweh, hate evil!
He preserves the souls of his saints;
He delivers them out of the hand of the wicked.
Light is sown for the righteous,
And joy for the upright in heart.
Rejoice in Yahweh, O you righteous,
And give thanks to his holy name!

– Psalm 97:10-12

How sweet are your words to my taste,
Sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;
Therefore I hate every false way.

– Psalm 119:103-104

Therefore I love your commandments
Above gold, above fine gold.
Therefore I consider all your precepts to be right;
I hate every false way.

– Psalm 119:127-128

And yet I can anticipate the struggle, if not the apoplectic shock, that such a thought will trigger in many contemporary Christians. It comes from a popular distortion that sets the Scriptures and the God of the New Testament against the Scriptures and the God of the Old Testament as if they were two quintessentially different realities. The new God who’s love itself—a love that’s increasingly saccharine, empathetic, indulgent, coddling, and uncritically affirming—does away with an old God who’s strict, harsh, demanding, temperamental, and wrathful. This is heresy with a very old pedigree. And it’s infected many average Christians in these sorts of subtle ways.

And the biblical evidence that’ll be invoked and interpreted in this manner will be this portion of the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”

– Matthew 5:43-45a

It will be presented as an absolute antithesis: we used to hate, but now we love. There are reasons to not interpret Jesus’s teaching in this antithetical and annulling fashion.

One reason is that this approach ignores the nuance offered by the immediate context. It’s the sixth and final teaching in a series of amplifications of the Old Testament teaching. Each begins with Jesus saying, “You have heard it said … But I say to you …”. His teachings are not annulments. Jesus was clear; he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them. These are instances of Jesus teaching his disciples to do more than the bare minimum to keep the Law and practice righteousness. The bare minimum with no regard for the spirit or the weightier things of the Law is how the scribes and Pharisees practiced righteousness. Which is to say very poorly. Jesus taught his disciples that they must practice a better righteousness than that. As King David says in the Psalms, God desires truth in the inward parts. That’s what the righteous man seeks.

This maneuver is reminiscent of popular invocations of “judge not lest ye be judged” in Matthew 7 later in the same sermon. The single line is quoted and deployed to shut down all judgment. But reading its context in Matthew 7:1-6 shows it’s not a warning to stop all judgment but to stop all our hypocritical judgment, a warning to use the same standard of judgment upon ourselves first and then others.

Jesus’s teaching isn’t a contradiction and an overturning of the Law and the Prophets. He was the very Word of God who came speaking to Moses and the Prophets. So their words are his words. Rather, Jesus’s teaching was to practice righteousness more truthfully and consistently than it was being practiced. In this application, one doesn’t stop recognizing who’s an enemy and hating what it is that makes them so, but one practices benevolence in return. A righteous man doesn’t mistreat those who have mistreated him.

Returning to the Psalter, we read the following about the Great King who pleases God:

Your throne, O God, is forever and ever;
A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of your kingdom.

You love righteousness and hate wickedness;
​​Therefore God, your God, has anointed You
​​With the oil of gladness more than Your companions.

– Psalm 45:7

The writer to the Hebrews cites this passage in his description of Jesus as the Son who is King and is vastly superior to the angels. Here, we see Christ rules his kingdom forever with righteousness. This King who pleases God and rules with righteousness is described as loving righteousness and hating wickedness. Here we see that not even our blessed, blameless, and holy Lord Jesus Christ has ceased to hate that which ought to be hated.

Developing a perfect hatred is something we have to pursue. But it needn’t be a thing we pursue directly. In fact, we ought not. This isn’t about being consumed with hate. Rather, if we love God and as we grow in our knowledge of God—our intimacy with God and his Word—as our primary goal, such godly hatred of wickedness, falsehood, and perversity will be part and parcel of the fruit of our love of all that is good, and true, and lovely.

Repentance in the Psalms

Previously, I alluded to the fact that the sort of path of righteousness in which we are to walk is a character marked by the practice of justice, mercy, and faith. And as those who are fallen and redeemed works-in-progress, our practice of righteousness must include a humble attitude along with contrition and repentance when we stray from the path. I’d like to elaborate on that contrition and repentance.

Yahweh, do not rebuke me in your anger;
Do not discipline me in your wrath.
Be gracious to me, Yahweh, for I am weak;
Heal me, Yahweh, for my bones are shaking;
My whole being is shaken with terror.
And you, Yahweh​—​how long?
I am weary from my groaning;
With my tears I dampen my bed
And drench my couch every night.

– Psalm 6:1-3, 6

When I kept silent, my bones became brittle
From my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy on me;
My strength was drained as in the summer’s heat.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
And did not conceal my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to Yahweh,”
And you forgave the guilt of my sin.

– Psalm 32:3-5

A soul that’s conscious of its own guilt is restless. Shame is heavy upon the righteous one who has done wrong and strayed from the path. The anxiety can make such an individual weak and sick. The sin-burdened soul of the righteous one can be disengaged, distracted, and drained of the strength and focus to carry out daily life with diligence. Such sad souls seek relief; they seek forgiveness and restoration from God who has been grieved.

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
Whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom Yahweh counts no iniquity,
And in whose spirit there is no deceit.

Many are the sorrows of the wicked,
But steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in Yahweh.
Be glad in Yahweh, and rejoice, O righteous,
And shout for joy, all you upright in heart!

– Psalm 32:1-2; 9-10

In repentance and more so in the love of God, the righteous man finds great relief and joy in his forgiveness and justification by God. He trusts in the steadfast love—the khesed or covenantal faithfulness—of God.

Psalm 51 is the premier example of a prayer of repentance. As you may know, this Psalm is a memorialization of King David’s repentance of his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah after being confronted by the Prophet Nathan. Read all of Psalm 51 and note several key examples to follow:

  • Appeal for forgiveness is an appeal to God’s mercy, loving-kindness, magnanimity, compassion, and so forth—to his righteousness for his Name’s sake
  • Full responsibility for the sin in taken and candidly confessed
  • Acknowledgement that all sin is ultimately and truly against God
  • Acknowledgement that God is truly a just and righteous Judge
  • Acknowledgement this isn’t merely about feeling awful (though that does seem to be the case) but is about a disruption in a loving relationship with God
  • Desire for reconciliation with God and the restoration of the abiding comfort and consolation of his Spirit
  • Acknowledgement that this isn’t just about actions but cuts right to the heart of the sinner seeking forgiveness and restoration, that truth would go all the way down
  • Acknowledgement that forgiveness and restoration have a purpose that exceeds the sinner and seeks the conversion and reconciliation of other sinners to God
  • Acknowledgement that forgiveness and restoration have a purpose that exceeds the sinner and seeks the reestablishment of right worship in attitude and action

This is the shape of robust prayers of repentance made by the the righteous man when he strays from the path of righteousness. This is the way in which the righteous man will get up once again after he has fallen down. In fact, a righteous man will do this despite how he may feel about it. He’ll do what is right first and learn to feel what is right in due time.

Guttermouth: A Parody Psalm

Here’s a witty follow-up to my discussion about Righteousness in the Psalms. By way of contrast, this is what I’d imagine a psalm would actually say if it were written with the fearful mentality that I previously described, one that knows only the perfectionism of prescriptive righteousness and has no functional category of descriptive righteousness.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

A Psalm of David. A lamentation in timidity. On the occasion where the man became an overly scrupulous and fearfully paralyzed Evangelical Protestant in the grip of morbidly introspective writhing worm theology. To be wailed miserably to the dirge called “A Quivering Jellyfish”.

Yahweh, who can dwell in thy tent?
Who can abide on thy holy mountain?

Alas, O God! There are none; I know not one.
Among your servants of old, I know not one.

None of thy prophets were faithful and true.
You were displeased with them altogether,
And you did not dwell with our forefathers.
Therefore what hope have I to please thee?

Interlude and Weep ~

Woe is me! For I am a slimy worm and not a man.
Hide me from the terrible face of the Most High.
Wow is me! For I am odious sewage and not a son.
Cast me far off from the presence of the Holy One.

May the words of my mouth
And the meditations of my heart
Be kept far from thy sight, O Lord my Accuser.

Interlude and Vomit ~

Thy statutes are oppression.
Yea, they are shackles of iron.
Thy precepts are enslavement.
Yea, crueler than a taskmaster.
Thy commands are altogether burdensome.
In keeping them their is no hope; only despair.

Yea, thy Law, O Lord, is a curse to me,
And much bitterness to my feeble soul.
Haggard is the man who hears thy testimonies.
He regurgitates day and night as he remembers them.

Over thy precepts I tremble and fret continually.
Thy statutes and ordinances make me nauseated.
The thought of righteousness is bile in my throat.

~ Interlude and Vomit Again ~

Thy word is a nail to my feet,
And a stumbling block in my path.

Righteousness in the Psalms

I have the distinct impression that in contemporary Evangelical and Protestant circles we have such an extreme knee-jerk reaction to Roman Catholicism and have become so wary of so-called “works righteousness” that we’ve allowed the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone to swallow up everything Scripture says about righteousness. To the extent that many uses of the language of righteousness in Scripture are either contorted to shoehorn them into this framework of justification, or they simply leave us terrified to appropriate what we know the passage is saying.

Psalm 15 has become something of a classic test case for this:

Yahweh, who can dwell in your tent?
Who can live on your holy mountain?
The one who lives blamelessly, practices righteousness,
and acknowledges the truth in his heart —
who does not slander with his tongue,
who does not harm his friend
or discredit his neighbor,
who despises the one rejected by Yahweh
but honors those who fear Yahweh,
who keeps his word whatever the cost,
who does not lend his silver at interest
or take a bribe against the innocent —
the one who does these things will never be shaken.

Who can dwell in the tabernacle of God and live on his holy mountain? Is your knee-jerk response to exclaim that no one can do this and that only Jesus can be this man? I highly doubt that’s the Psalmist David’s point or meaning here. And I hope to demonstrate that. I hope it’ll become clear that the implied and intended answer to King David’s question is: the godly man I’m called to be.

In Hebrew, the tsedeq word family is that of righteousness or simply being right or in the right. It’s familiar to us in names like Zadok the priest, Zedekiah the king, or Melchizedek the priest-king. In Greek, the dikaios word family is the equivalent. This is the vocabulary of righteousness and justification. But more so, it’s the vocabulary of doing what’s right.

Righteousness has become an overly technical and narrow concept describing the fitting reward or treatment of someone based on moral behavior. And it’s often contrasted with notions of mercy and forgiveness. But this conflates righteousness with justice, which is merely one aspect of righteousness. If we were to say that one purpose of the Law of God is training in righteousness (which it is), then we should consider what Jesus says are the weightier things of the the law, i.e. justice, mercy, and faith (Matt. 23:23). It’s righteous to seek justice. It’s righteous to show mercy. It’s righteous to live by faith.

We can see in the Scriptures that God is righteous and that he acts in righteousness. And when God acts in righteousness, he brings about justice, he shows mercy, he delivers his people, and he upholds steadfast loving-kindness, i.e. khesed or covenant fidelity. When he delivers in his righteousness (Psalm 71:2), God doesn’t issue a bare pronouncement of acquittal. He accomplishes what he pronounces. It’s a “deliverdict” as Peter Leithart calls it, a verdict and a deliverance.

We can also see in Scripture that the people of God are expected to be righteous in more than one sense of the word. There is a prescriptive righteousness required of us, which is ultimately only accomplished by our union with Christ. His whole perfect righteousness is reckoned as our own by God. It’s declarative. It’s definitive. It’s forensic or judicial. But there’s also a descriptive righteousness expected of us. We are to walk in the way of God on paths of righteousness. We are to practice righteousness. Dare I say we are to have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees that isn’t merely a forensic justification in Christ. It’s demonstrative. It’s progressive. It’s a practiced reality. We’re called to be doers or practitioners of righteousness, just like our God and Father:

If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of him. … Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as he is righteous.

– 1 John 2:29; 3:7

In the Psalms, there are frequently dual notions of our being righteous in God as well as our doing righteousness in God. The former is certainly the foundation for the latter.

Our righteous standing in God is often what could be called a covenantal righteousness; we’re in the right because we’re on God’s side being in God’s covenant. This includes but isn’t limited to our Protestant notions of forensic justification. It speaks of the solidarity in our relationship with God according to his faithfulness.

Our righteous walk before God is expected to such an extent that King David models for us an expectation that we can call upon God to vindicate the fact that we’ve done what is right despite the slander of our accusers:

Judge me according to my righteousness.
Reward me according to my righteousness.
Recompense me according to my righteousness.

Psalm 7:8; 18:20, 24

Perhaps we allow our conception of prescriptive righteousness (and one that’s restricted to a conception of strict justice at that) to be a hopelessly unattainable perfectionism so that we deprive ourselves of the calling to descriptive righteousness. One we can embrace and in which we can conceive ourselves as being. I think we do this, because we have a conception of righteousness that doesn’t make mistakes. And if that’s the case, we could only dull our consciences in self-deceit and arrogance to think of ourselves as flawless. But that’s not the conception of righteousness in Scripture, especially not righteousness for fallen creatures who have been delivered and are being transformed by God.

He has shown you, O man, what is good; a​nd what does Yahweh require of you but to do justly, ​​to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?

– Micah 6:8

Righteousness here is about justice, mercy, and humility. The righteous one does what is right. He also does what’s right after he may happen to do what is wrong. The righteous one repents and seeks forgiveness, absolution, and restoration. The righteous man may fall seven times, but he rises again (Prov. 24:16). This is a vital part of our understanding what descriptive righteousness means as we grow in righteousness and walk the path of righteousness for the sake of the Name which we bear. This is the godly, humble, true yet imperfect righteousness that the God of all righteousness accomplishes in us and accepts from us as he has received us in the Son who is perfectly righteous, and he will ultimately make us perfect.

A little translational trivia: The Hebrew word for righteousness is tsaddiq. So the Hebrew word for righteous ones is tseddeqim or tsadduqim. The TS consonant (tsaddi) can be a softer Z or S in Greek, which we carry into English. And the Q (qoph) can be a K in Greek, which is a hard C in Latin. So, if we spell it Sadducim, what biblical English word does it start to resemble? That’s right: Sadducees. The Sadducees were the so-called party of the righteous ones. But Christ calls his people to be the True Sadducees, the true Assembly of the Righteous Ones. Paul sees the Church as such in 1 Corinthians 6 as the basis for why we should be able to do the right thing, because we’re the people who know what’s right.

Cursing the Enemy in the Psalms

There are 20 or so imprecatory Psalms in the biblical Psalter—Psalms that curse and call down judgments and calamities upon the enemies of God and his people. Contemporary Christians commonly ask if praying, singing, or chanting such curses is something we’re supposed to be doing and if the teachings of Christ and the New Covenant have changed this practice from that of the Old Covenant. I’d say that such struggle over the use of the imprecatory Psalms and other imprecatory Scripture is a particularly contemporary one brought about by an ethos of niceness that has subverted virtue in the Church.

Let them be put to shame and dishonor
who seek after my life!

Let them be turned back and disappointed
who devise evil against me!

Let them be like chaff before the wind,
with the Angel of Yahweh driving them away!

Let their way be dark and slippery,
with the Angel of Yahweh pursuing them!

Psalm 35:4-6

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Yahweh!

Let them vanish like water that runs away;

when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted.

Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,

like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.

Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,

whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!

Psalm 58:6-9

Psalm 69 and Psalm 109 have extensive imprecatory elements in them. Both of these are Psalms composed by King David. Read them in their entirety for the full effect.

Psalm 69 is the prayer of a man who’s being reproached by his enemies and the enemies of God because of his righteous conduct and the manner in which he’s honoring God. He prays that God would not be dishonored on his account. He laments that he has become estranged from his own family because of his zeal for God. He says in Verse 9:

For zeal for your house has consumed me,
and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.

In John 2, the twelve disciples see their master embodying and enacting this Psalm when Jesus cleanses the temple of those who are polluting it with their wicked commerce. Jesus is the one who is being reproached for his righteousness and honoring of God.

The man in Psalm 69 is further persecuted by God’s enemies. He says in Verse 21:

They gave me poison for food,
and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.

All four Gospel accounts mention Jesus being served sour wine to drink on the Cross as the enemies of God continue to persecute him. Jesus continues to embody and enact the conduct of the man in Psalm 69.

We’re tempted to consider that the curses in Psalm 69 are being silently invoked against the enemies of God persecuting Christ, i.e. the Judeans of that generation who gladly and boldly accepted his blood-guilt upon them and their children as Pilate washed his hands of the injustice of this matter but let the mob have their way.

The man in Psalm 69 says in Verses 22-28:

Let their own table before them become a snare;
and when they are at peace, let it become a trap.

Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see,
and make their loins tremble continually.

Pour out your indignation upon them,
and let your burning anger overtake them.

May their camp be a desolation;
let no one dwell in their tents.

For they persecute him whom you have struck down,
and they recount the pain of those you have wounded.

Add to them punishment upon punishment;
may they have no acquittal from you.

Let them be blotted out of the book of the living;
let them not be enrolled among the righteous.

This imprecation describes that wicked and perverse generation in the 40 years to come. It culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 by the vengeance of the Romans whom the Judeans provoked to wrath with their escalating rebellion. In fact, the Apostle Paul confirms this by citing this passage in Romans 11 to describe the spiritual condition of Israel in her blindness and disobedience as the enemy for the sake of the Gospel.

Psalm 109 is similar. It’s the prayer of a man who’s being persecuted for righteousness by particularly vile enemies who spew violence and oppression against the poor, the needy, and the brokenhearted. It’s quite meticulous and thorough in all the areas of the enemy’s life over which it speaks curses.

The man in Psalm 109 says in Verses 6-15:

Appoint a wicked man against him;
let an accuser stand at his right hand.

When he is tried, let him come forth guilty;
let his prayer be counted as sin!

May his days be few;
may another take his office!

May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow!

May his children wander about and beg,
seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit!

May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!

Let there be none to extend kindness to him,
nor any to pity his fatherless children!

May his posterity be cut off;
may his name be blotted out in the second generation!

May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before Yahweh,
and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out!

Let them be before Yahweh continually,
that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth!

Persecuted by a wicked accuser (i.e. a Satan). Guilt at court. Petitions reckoned as sin. A short life. Replaced at work. A family bereft of him and in poverty. The seizure of all his wealth and property by creditors. His family line brought to an end. And the memory of him wiped from the face of the earth. A very unpleasant picture.

Intriguingly, the Apostles cite this passage in Acts 1 regarding Judas and the need to give his office to another new Apostle.

Praying these sorts of prayers may cause unease. They should. These are not things to be prayed with great delight. It’s the wicked who find great delight in the calamity of others. God doesn’t even take delight in the destruction of the wicked. But he does delight in the establishment of righteousness. And so should we.

Our motivation here is not our personal vindication for its own sake but the vindication of the Name of God that is upon us and the righteousness of God that is in our midst. We pray against violence and injustice because they’re wicked, not personally inconvenient.

These imprecatory Psalms and their applications in the New Testament show that it’s not impossible to be specific about those against whom we pray them. But it’s wise, especially in our spiritual infancy at prayer with them, to be vague about persons but specific about the wickedness we oppose and what it deserves. This is our training and formation in the right and holy fear of God, which is the genesis of all true wisdom.

The question may arise as to how a Christian can pray for mercy and for vengeance. My response is that there’s no contradiction in it. Pray for both, because both are consistent with the character of God. We know this from God declaring his Name to Moses:

Yahweh passed before him and proclaimed, “Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Exodus 34:6-7

It’s a matter of the will of God as to what will come to pass. All of us were the enemies of God. He’s shown and continues showing abundant mercy on some for his own reasons. Remember that mercy is not owed but is to be loved. Vengeance is most certainly owed but is not to be the cause for dark delight.

Covenant Children in the Psalms

The common default paradigm we have in contemporary Evangelicalism is that of a lost sinner experiencing a sharp or sudden conscious crisis and conversion as an adolescent or adult. We’ve modeled contemporary worship music around it, and many hymns that arose from the revivalism of past centuries likewise express it. And it’s appropriate when a person’s conversion is, in fact, the result of an acute conscious crisis as someone raised in alienation from the Faith.

But that model has frequently proven to be an ill-fitting paradigm for children raised by Christian parents who were taught to pray and sing as if they were Christians and yet to think of themselves as not being Christians until they’ve had a special experience, i.e. the importation of a crisis-conversion into their spiritual upbringing. But Scripture doesn’t support that model for children born and raised within God’s covenant community. The normative model in Scripture for covenant children is one of paedeia (covenant nurture and discipline) where conversion is a matter of continually leaning into their status and deepening their trusting embrace of it for themselves.

The Psalter in particular implicitly accepts and presents this model of paedeia.

The Psalter not only speaks to every circumstance in the life of a member in the Faith but also to every age in the life of a member in the Faith. From cradle to grave and beyond in both directions to the time in the womb and in the tomb where God is with his people.

An excellent example of this is Psalm 139. And beginning with a passage in Psalm 139, I’ll be focusing on the status and significance of children born within the covenant people of God as presented in the Psalms.

For you formed my inward parts;
You covered me in my mother’s womb.
​​I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are your works,
​​And that my soul knows very well.
​​My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in your book they all were written,
​​The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.

Psalm 139:13-16 NKJV

David the Psalmist reflects on God’s involvement in his life when he was still a fetus in the womb being formed by God. He recognizes that fetal frame and substance as himself. God has been attending to David even there and has written down (i.e. determined) the entire course of his life before it even began.

The phrase “fearfully and wonderfully made” is a common English translation. However, it’s not accurate. There are two Hebrew words underlying that translation. The first word is yare’ which means fearful or wonderful. The second word is palah which means to be marked out, distinguished, or separated; it has little or nothing to do with being created, made, fashioned, or built. The word palah is uses seven times in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s used four times in the Book of Exodus (8:22; 9:4; 11:7; 33:16) where God is separating, marking out, or distinguishing his people Israel from the nations. This use in Psalm 139 is the same. The phrase is best understood and translated as “awesomely / marvelously” + “separated / distinguished” with respect to begin marked out as a part of God’s covenant people. This idea is parallel to 1 Cor. 7:14 where the child of a believer is sanctified / holy (rather than unclean) by virtue of merely being the child of a believer.

Psalm 139 wasn’t written as an experience or relationship unique to David. He wrote this psalm to be on the lips and in the heart of every Israelite so they should remember their covenantal union with Yahweh, be faithful to it, and hope in it as an expression of God’s love toward them. We should do likewise.

Excursus: You can also see in this passage that David connects a mother’s womb in which he and other children were/are formed with the lowest parts of the earth (i.e. valley, hole, cave, etc.) in which Adam was formed. This idea is present even in Genesis. The man will toil with the earth to yield seed (fruit and crops), and the woman will toil with the womb to yield seed (offspring). And further, the man sows his seed in the woman’s field where it grows. That’s the imagery. The expression “the lowest parts” is also used in the Apostles’ Creed to describe the place where Jesus descended. It indicates he entered into a place of unmaking in his death, like returning to the womb, when he was in the tomb. And from there, he rose as the firstborn from the dead. The Easter story is a second Nativity story.

The Psalms also teach an active response on the part of young covenant children toward God. They are not merely the passive and unconscious objects of his covenantal care.

But you are he who took me out of the womb;
You made me trust while on my mother’s breasts.
I was cast upon you from birth.
From my mother’s womb
​​You have been my God.

Psalm 22:9-10 NKJV

For you are my hope, O Lord GOD;
You are my trust from my youth.
By you I have been upheld from birth;
You are he who took me out of my mother’s womb.
My praise shall be continually of you.

Psalm 71:5-6 NKJV

Psalm 22 and Psalm 71 teach us to believe and confess that children born in the covenant (whether ourselves or others of all ages in our church community) have been trusting in God as their God from their infancy as suckling newborns. In fact, these psalms teach us that covenant children possess a seed-faith or paedofaith that, while inarticulate and not particularly intellectual (as far as we know), is still a valid expression of faith toward God.

The faith-response of covenant parents and the covenant community must be an attitude of trust rather than doubt in the reality and power of paideia and in the seed-faith of our covenant children. Indeed, the “magic” that makes covenant nurture ordinarily function (i.e. the ordinary means through which God expresses grace) is the covenant community actually acting as if covenant nurture works. Adopting an attitude of doubt is a curse and robbing of the ordinary means of grace from our children. Undermine covenant nurture, and you undermine covenant succession. Giving it our best won’t always guarantee that covenant nurture is successful. (After all, it’s not a mechanistic formula. God has his own mysterious plans.) But not trying at all will virtually guarantee failure.

The Psalter also teaches that children have a role to play in the people of God.

Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants
You have ordained strength,
​​Because of your enemies,
That you may silence the enemy and the avenger.

Psalm 8:2 NKJV

Young children have some appointed part to play in God’s war upon his enemies. In fact, in some paradoxical way (which seems to be a common motif with God’s wisdom), these little ones who we’d think of as weak are those who pour strength out of their mouths.

But what enemy of God does he oppose with children? Consider the last enemy, i.e. death. Although begetting children has a purpose before the Fall (which is to fill the earth and be a civilization to worship and glorify God, to be a Bride for the Son, and to be a Temple for the Spirit, a purpose which is retained), begetting children is the only way to fight against death and continue to give Mankind a future. It’s the only way short of the Resurrection, that is, when this order and way of doing things ends and gives way to a new order.

I’ll conclude with a brief discussion of covenant succession in Psalm 127 and Psalm 128.

Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
The fruit of the womb is a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one’s youth.
Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them;
They shall not be ashamed,
But shall speak with their enemies in the gate.

Psalm 127:3-5 NKJV

Psalm 127 can be a bit of a minefield to navigate or a PTSD trigger for some folks after the imbalances and errors associated with the Quiverfull Movement in the 20th Century. But abusus non tollit usum, as they say. The abuse of something does not eliminate the proper use of that thing. And the essential truth being expressed in Psalm 127 remains, because it is the Word of God. The basic truths to be embraced are as follows:

  1. Covenant children are to be considered a heritage and legacy from God. They are to be seen ultimately as an asset rather than a liability. They may consume much of our time and resources, but that’s because they’re a wise and worthy investment.
  2. Covenant children are a part of the weapons of our warfare. And this requires that we know who our enemy is and how it is that we fight the enemy. Without giving a fuller explanation, I would say this has much to do with our spiritual and liturgical warfare and the covenant succession of the Faith through our children.
  3. Having a lot of covenant children is a good and praiseworthy thing. It’s generally not a thing to be mocked or ridiculed or looked upon with disapproving eyes. In light of the good that covenant children bring about as they’re faithful successors, more is better. Yet all are good.
  4. In the ancient Hebrew paradigm, being a parent to children goes far beyond biology. All superiors who raise and nurture inferiors are fathers and mothers. All inferiors who are raised and nurtured by superiors are sons and daughters. And this is all the more so in the Christian Church.

If you need reassurance, because you’re struggling to be married and/or have children, or have any number of obstacles to doing so, or find yourself in some other calling, then I’ll tell you there are opportunities for you to be a part of someone else’s spiritual parenting (see Point 4), and there are other good callings for the Kingdom that are not negated by marriage and family. Celibacy for the sake of fully committed ministry to the Lord is also praiseworthy and has its place. The truths enumerated above do not function to negate or marginalize anyone. They are what they are where they apply.

Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine
In the very heart of your house,
​​Your children like olive plants
All around your table.
Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
Who fears the LORD.

Psalm 128:3-4 NKJV

Psalm 128 describes children as olive trees around the table of the blessed man who fears Yahweh. Olive trees were the most valuable plants in ancient Hebrew agriculture because of the oil they produced. Olive oil was valued for its ordinary uses. And beyond that, olive oil was valued for its sacred ceremonial uses in the service in the Tabernacle and Temple. And because of its use in anointing, olive oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Here, covenant children are trees bearing fruit and full of the Holy Spirit through covenant nurture. It’s a rich image of the glory that God is bringing about for his Name’s sake through them.

Ransomer-Avenger in the Psalms

Many Psalms call upon Yahweh as our Redeemer. And the underlying Hebrew word for redeemer is not the same in every occurrence in the Psalms. For one of these words, the English rendering “redeemer” generally fails to capture the breadth of the connotation present in the Hebrew. The word ga’al has a concrete meaning in finance, indicating the buying back of something or exacting what is due. When used in the abstract, the word centers around two loci of meaning: ransoming and avenging. The act is usually carried out by a relative, i.e. someone who can lay claim.

Yahweh promised to ransom-avenge his people from Egypt (Exodus 6:6) and did so:

You in Your mercy have led forth
The people whom You have redeemed;
You have guided them in Your strength
To Your holy habitation.

– Exodus 15:13

One major concentration of the word ga’al is in Leviticus 25 and 27 which discusses the redemption or ransoming of property that has been sold as well as objects and persons who have been dedicated to God. In many cases, if land that was sold is not redeemed by a kinsman, it will eventually revert in its ownership at the Jubilee. Regarding the things dedicated or devoted to God, under some circumstances, persons and things devoted to God may be ransomed. But under other circumstances, they may not be ransomed.

A second major concentration of the word ga’al is found in Numbers 35 discussing the establishment of cities of refuge where a manslayer can flee and find sanctuary from a kinsman of the dead man, i.e. an avenger of blood. He may remain there until the death of the high priest, which functions as a sort of limited Jubilee for releasing the nation’s bloodguilt. Mention of the avenger of blood reoccurs in Deuteronomy 19 and Joshua 20 where the need for cities of refuge is reiterated.

A third major concentration of the word ga’al is the Book of Ruth. It’s central to the story as the widow Naomi seeks to find a kinsman-redeemer for the bloodline and property of Elimelech who will marry Naomi’s widowed daughter-in-law Ruth. Ultimately, Boaz is a tribal relative who marries Ruth and redeems the line of Elimelech. The benevolent Boaz rescues Ruth the Moabitess from financial destitution and childlessness. The story closes with a genealogy of Ruth’s descendants leading to the birth of King David.

And with that background to ga’al in hand, we come now to the Psalms. The rendering of “Redeemer” (the Ransoming One) is frequently used of Yahweh. But suppose it were to be rendered “Avenger” (the Avenging One) in order to draw out the other shade of meaning in this word. Consider a few examples:

May the speech of my mouth
And the musings of the heart
Be delightful before your face,
O Yahweh, my rocky cliff and my Avenger.

– Psalm 19:14

He shall avenge their souls from oppression and violence,
And he shall highly value their blood in his eye.

– Psalm 72:14

Draw near to my soul and avenge it;
Deliver me from enemies.

– Psalm 69:18

Let the avenged ones of Yahweh speak,
Those he has avenged from the hand of distressing ones.

– Psalm 107:2

The Lord Jesus Christ is the great Kinsman Redeemer of his people. He is not ashamed to call us his brethren. Those who trust in him are his kinsman, his clan, and the household of God. By his own bloodshed, he ransoms us from bloodguilt due to our sin, and he turns back the curse that cries out for our blood. And Christ is our great Kinsman Avenger. He is watching over his people, and vengeance is his.

Messianic Reign in the Psalms

In 2 Samuel 7:1-17, we have the record of God making his covenant with David in which he promises to take the son(s) of David (i.e. the royal lineage) and make him his own Son, to build the House of David, and through his Son to build a House for the Name of God.

Psalm 89 is composed by Ethan the Ezrahite. It offers praise to God for his covenant with David, laments that the kingship has been taken away from David’s sons, and calls upon God to keep his covenant and restore the kingship to his anointed one(s). This Psalm may have been composed during Judah’s exile in Babylon or afterward based on that context.

In the Davidic Covenant, the ruling descendant of David becomes synonymous with the Son of God and the Anointed One (or Messiah). This is why we see these titles of Messiah and Son of God used interchangeably going forward from this time in the Scriptures well into the Gospels in reference to the Lord Jesus.

The Messiah and Son of God is the Davidic King.

The glorious immediate fulfillment of God’s covenant with David is his son Solomon. The Kingdom of Israel was at its apogee of peace and prosperity under the reign of Solomon—at the height of its geographical occupation, international influence, and monetary influx. And Solomon built the House for the Name of God with all that David prepared for him.

The glorious ultimate fulfillment of God’s covenant with David is his son Jesus who is the one to come and is “something greater than Solomon”.

Two Psalms reflect prominently on the reign of the Messiah—Psalm 2 and Psalm 110. And the Gospels and Epistles offer interpretive commentary on the meaning and fulfillment of these Psalms in the Lord Jesus.

I will tell of the decree: Yahweh said to me,
“You are my Son; today I have begotten you.”

Psalm 2 opens with a description of various civil authorities, the people of Israel, and the Gentile nations in an uproar and in rebellion against God and his Messiah. The Apostles cite these verses and interpret them to refer to the actions of Herod and Pilate along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel against Jesus (Acts 4:23-31).

The Psalm continues in the next few verses to emphasize God’s mocking laughter at the intentions and actions of all those rebelling against him and his intentions to respond to them in wrath and terrifying fury. He assets that he has established his king in Zion.

Then the decree is pronounced concerning the begetting of the Son of God. The Apostle Paul understands this public declaration of the Son of God to be the resurrection of the Lord Jesus (Acts 13:33; Rom. 1:4) with his subsequent ascension and enthronement. He’s been made king and is in session (Heb. 1:5).

Then God promises to give the Son the Gentile nations as his heritage and the ends of the earth as his possession. This is affirmed after the resurrection by Jesus when he declares that all authority in heaven and on the earth has been given to him (Matt. 28:18-20). And then he commissions his Apostles, ambassadors of the Kingdom to go out and catechize all of the nations which he has been given. The Son of God reigns with a rod of iron, and the nations are warned to serve Yahweh and embrace the Son.

Yahweh says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”

Psalm 110 opens with the most frequently quoted verse in the New Testament as well as an enigma that Jesus used to challenge the Pharisees. “If the Messiah is the Son of David, then why is it that David calls the Messiah his Lord?”

(My guess at an answer to the question Jesus posed is that the Messiah is God as a Man.)

In his sermon at Pentecost, the Apostle Peter indicates that God has raised Jesus from the dead to sit forever on David’s throne (Acts 2:29-32) and that David’s throne is synonymous with being seated at the right hand of God (Acts 2:33-36). From there, King Jesus rules in the midst of his enemies as God makes them a footstool for the feet of the Son. He will do so until he has destroyed every last rule, authority, and power. “For he must reign until he has has put all his enemies under his feet, and the last enemy to be destroyed is death,” as the Apostle Paul teaches (1 Cor. 15:24-26).

Furthermore, Psalm 110 teaches that the Messiah is a priest-king forever in the order of Melchizedek, a priesthood established by an oath of God and maintained by the power of an indestructible life as the author to the Hebrews teaches (Heb. 4:14–5:10; 7:1-28). At the right hand of God, he intercedes for us (Rom. 8:34).