Well-intended Christians sometimes object to psalm singing because they incorrectly assume certain sections are out-of-place for new covenant believers. Generally, the troublesome Psalms are the ones calling for God’s judgment on the wicked (the so-called imprecatory psalms) and those expressing disgust—even hatred—for evil people. So here is the question: are these psalms appropriate for the followers of Jesus to sing?
In order to feel the weight of this objection we must consider some examples. Here are a few instances of the sweet psalmist of Israel calling for God’s judgment on the wicked:
“The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. Let him rain coals on the wicked and the one who loves violence.”
“O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!” -Psalm 58:6
“Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”
And here are a few examples of the psalmist expressing hatred for evildoers:
“Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.”
“I look at the faithless with disgust, because they do not keep your commands.”
We must confess that when we read these verses, they certainly do sound harsh. We sometimes cringe when these verses are read in corporate worship, don’t we? We may even feel a temptation to skip these lines.
Although these feelings are understandable, I believe they are deeply rooted in a common misconception that portions of the Psalms are inappropriate for Christian believers. I want to explain why Christians should sing these sections of the Psalter.
Let’s begin with the imprecatory psalms. Should Christians sing for God’s judgment to come on the wicked? Is it possible to have a righteous desire for God to intervene and bring evil men to justice? The answer is a resounding yes. There is no reason to believe that imprecatory prayers are out of place for new covenant believers.
To begin with, we find examples of imprecations in the New Testament. Paul pronounces a curse on false teachers in Galatians 1. At the end of 1 Corinthians, the Apostle exclaims, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come!” (1 Corinthians 15:22). When Alexander the coppersmith opposed the ministry of the gospel, Paul said, “The Lord will repay him according to his deeds” (2 Timothy 4:14).
Perhaps even more surprising is the discovery of imprecations in heaven! In Revelation 6:9-10 we find martyred saints crying out for the Lord to judge the wicked and avenge their blood. Since these souls are certainly souls of “righteous men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23), their prayers for vindication cannot be unacceptable in the eyes of God. If imprecations are appropriate for the saints in heaven, why should we demur that they have no place in the mouths of God’s exiles on earth?
Turning to the Psalms which contain expressions of hatred for the wicked, we need to say a little more. Admittedly, on the surface, it seems like the teaching of Jesus contradicts the attitude found in these sections. In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord says,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
Some Christians would say, “There you go. That settles it. In the Old Testament believers hated their enemies, but now in the New Testament it is no longer appropriate.” Well, not so fast. We need to bear a few thoughts in mind.
First of all, when David speaks of hating those who hate God in Psalm 139:21, he isn’t speaking about personal vindictiveness. To read a tone of personal vindictiveness into these verses is entirely unwarranted. The entire psalm is a celebration of the Lord’s loving care, knowledge, and concern for David. Instead, David is speaking about his attitude toward the enemies of God. How should he regard them? He answers the question in verse 22: “I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.” Essentially, David is saying to God, “O Lord, I love you so much that your enemies are my enemies.” But what about the word “hate”? In this context, the word “hate” is best taken as a moral disgust and repugnance for wicked people. It doesn’t mean that David is out to get the wicked or injure them in any way. He is simply asserting what is taught throughout the Bible, even the beginning of the book of Psalms:
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers,
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.”
This helps us to understand what Jesus means in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Notice that Jesus is speaking about a different situation. He refers to the personal enemies of his disciples. These “enemies” may or may not be fellow believers. They are “your enemies” but not necessarily God’s enemies. Also, when Jesus explains what it means to “love” them, he speaks of blessing them and praying for them. This refers to practical action. We are supposed to love our enemies and treat them well, not take matters of vengeance into our own hands.
The reason we are supposed to do this is because the Lord loves his enemies. He sends the rain to fall on the good and bad, and he causes the sun to shine on the just and the unjust. We should take note of the fact that “love” here refers to the way we treat other people; this passage isn’t speaking about our inner disposition and delight for the people themselves.
Think about it this way. Would it be appropriate to say that God has the same inner disposition and delight in the good and bad, the just and the unjust? Absolutely not! God does not delight in iniquity. He is a righteous and holy God. So then, why should we think that Jesus is teaching us that we should have the same inner disposition and delight in the righteous and the wicked?
Psalm 139:21-22 speaks to the way a righteous man feels about the lifestyle of those who hate God and live in willful rebellion against his law. Psalm 119:158 contains the same truth. But Jesus isn’t speaking to that. He is teaching us how we should respond to those who oppose us. We must not respond tit for tat. As God’s Word tells us, we must overcome evil with good and leave vengeance in the Lord’s hands (Romans 12:19-21).
This recognition ties it all together. If we do good to our enemies and look to the Lord for vindication, then we may both sing the troublesome psalms and obey the commands of Jesus. One day the “wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:16) will come, and those who trust in Jesus alone will receive the glorious fruit of salvation through judgment. The wicked will be cast into hell, but the righteous will shine like the stars of heaven. Even so, come Lord Jesus!