Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Grapes of Wrath

“Break their teeth in their mouth, O God!” (Psalm 58:6)

What can we say about the so-called imprecatory psalms—poems that breathe out vengeance and reprisal? Can we justly pray that God will break the teeth of the wicked and leave them like toothless tigers?

Of course we can. The New Testament speaks of a day of reckoning when God will judge evil and set everything right and we can pray for that day to arrive. God allows tyranny to run its course because, among other reasons, he is not willing that any should perish,[1] but tyrants will have their comeuppance. There is a God who judges the earth: A day is coming when He will send out his angels with their razor sharp scythes, “to gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, and throw them into the great winepress of the wrath of God (Revelation 14:18ff). We can pray that God will hasten that day.

But Jesus made it very clear that we must never avenge ourselves and these prayers should never be used for personal revenge. “The prayer for the vengeance of God is the prayer for the execution of his righteousness in the judgment of sin.”[2] These petitions are valid only for those who wish to see justice upheld and God's glory manifest in the world.  

In the meantime, we are called to overcome evil with good. The weapons of our warfare are not retaliation, but love, personal righteousness, prayer, faith and patience. We must do all we can to act justly and bring justice to our sphere of influence, but then we must wait for the day God has appointed to set all things right. He will do so in due time.  “Vengeance is mine,” God has said, “I will repay” (Romans 12:19). Then, men will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; Surely He is God who judges in the earth” (Psalms 58:11).[3]

To be sure, we may suffer while God delays. The harvest of righteousness is almost always sown in trial and tears and we must wait in patience for God’s day to come (James 5:1-11). But it will come and then the whole earth will be filled with justice and “the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

So, we must not fret over the actions of lawless, ruthless men and women.[4] God is doing all things well.  

He is working out his purpose
      'spite of all that happens here.
Lawless nations in commotion,
      restless like a storm-tossed ocean.
He controls their rage and fury
      so his children need not fear.
Let our hearts then turn to heaven  
      where he bides his time in peace
Giving him our heart's devotion
      till the present troubles cease.

[1] 58:3 “They (tyrants) go astray as soon as they are born…” may be a gentle reminder that we are all little tyrants at birth…
[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible
[3] There is a subtle twist in this verse that doesn’t appear in translation. The subject of the sentence is elohim (gods) and the verb “judges” is a plural participle, which suggests the reading, “Surely, the gods are judging…” This may be nothing more than an acknowledgement by unbelievers that we live in a just world.
[4] Nor should we speak evil of our rulers. Peter’s instruction is very clear: we must “honor the king” (1 Peter 2:7). It’s worth noting that the “king” in Peter’s day was Nero or Galba, two notoriously evil rulers. Media hosts and others may entice us to harsh rhetoric, but we must never speak of our leaders as they do, nor should we repeat their slanders. We may choose to vote evil–doers out of office, but while they hold that office we must honor them and show them due respect (“It is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people’” Acts 23:5). And may I add, we should never attribute evil motives to our leaders unless they reveal them. It is slanderous to attribute subversive motivations without confirmation. We cannot know the secrets of the heart. An inspired Apostle enjoins us to, “judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts…” (1 Corinthians 4:5). Only God knows the heart. 

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