Is the imprecatory section of Psalm 139 effectively a parenthesis?

Yesterday, I read this really helpful post by Rhys Laverty on praying the imprecatory Psalms. His main purpose is to suggest C.S. Lewis and Tim Keller have questionable views on how to approach these Psalms. Inasmuch as Rhys presents a positive case, it is essentially this: we should pray the imprecatory Psalms. They are in the Bible for us and we are commanded to sing Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs which presumably include the imprecatory ones. Read the post, it is helpful and I essentially agree with it.

My post here isn’t planning to comment on that. Rather, I mention is because that post reminded me of something I read recently in Psalm 139. Something which I shared during the course of another discussion with members of my church.

The way Evangelicals typically handle Psalm 139 – and this is why Rhys’s post made me think of it – is hilarious. Psalm 139:1-18 are read and enjoyed. They are taken specifically to ourselves very quickly. Isn’t it great that the Lord knows us intimately. He knows all about me. He clearly cares deeply for me. We love that thought and are greatly comforted by it.

The we get to the uncomfortable imprecatory bit in vv19-22. We often do one of three things at this point (two of which are basically the same idea). The two essentially similar ideas are to either stop at v18 and preach the Psalm only up to that point or, alternatively, we skip over vv19-22 and treat the Psalm as if those verses weren’t there, connection vv23-24 to everything that came before it. Those two approach essentially boil down to the same thing: skip the uncomfortable bit! Those who are not keen to do that – and it should make most Evangelicals more uncomfortable to skip them than to read them – they are quickly glossed over and/or explained away.

The problem with either of those three approaches is that we lose the context of the Psalm itself. One common explanation for those tricky verses is that David is saying he hates the Lord’s enemies with the hatred of the Lord. It is to do with God’s holiness and the seriousness with which he takes God’s holiness. And don’t get me wrong, I think there is definitely something in that. I am not suggesting that interpretation is wrong per se, but I think it is incomplete. Minimally, I think it doesn’t quite pay so much attention to the wider context of the Psalm.

All the way through the Psalm, David is banging on about how well God knows him. And in the knowledge that God knows him better than he knows himself, he is asking the Lord to test his thoughts and his attitudes. Most of the Psalm is given over to David repeating, over and over, that the Lord knows everything about him, what he thinks, what he loves and the real state of his heart. All of that, I think, sets the context for what then comes in vv19-22.

Given that the Lord knows everything about David – and knows his heart even better than David does – here is David’s basic question: Lord, am I sinning in thinking these things about my (and, by virtue of being your anointed king, your) enemies? I want to see you do these things to your (and my) enemies. Can you – with your complete and total knowledge of everything about me – tell me if there is anything sinful in me wanting this to happen?

This view, I think, touches on the position that David takes God’s holiness seriously. He wants to be holy and he is angry at those who do not take the Lord seriously. But the context, as in most of the imprecatory Psalms, is David’s own enemies (who also happen to be the Lord’s enemies standing against his people). David’s desire to be holy means he does not want to sin in his anger. And so, in his anger with his (and the Lord’s) enemies, he’s asking the Lord to test his thoughts and see if his attitudes are sinful. Is it sinful, Lord, to have these thought about my (and your) enemies? You know me better than anyone. You know me more intimately than I know myself. Am I sinning in thinking these things and feeling this way?

This particular Psalm, in its context, doesn’t seem to be landing very hard on whether these thoughts and feelings are right or not. Which is interesting because other of the imprecatory Psalms, for example Psalm 137, seem quite content to say these things about Israel’s enemies and feel pretty happy about doing so. But in Psalm 139, I think David is being more reflective of his own thoughts on matters. He isn’t suggesting his thoughts are wrong. In fact, he seems to be saying that he feels this way and believes he is right to feel as he does! But he does seem to be asking the Lord – given his total knowledge of David – if there is any grievous way in him as he feels these things.

If that is right, I wonder whether for us this particular imprecatory Psalm is less about whether it’s okay to ask God to handle those who are causing us real problems or not. If vengeance is not ours to take, but rather it is the Lord’s and should be left to him, it does seem reasonable to actually seek God to bring that about. Otherwise we are left with a God who is essentially saying you must suck up injustice and he has no interest in righting it himself! Not only the other imprecatory Psalms, but other parts of scripture too, suggest that is not his position and he is happy for us not to take vengeance because he will exact perfect justice, and he encourages us to seek him in doing just that rather than taking it into our own hands.

This particular Psalm doesn’t seem to be about the rights and wrongs of that position. Rather, it seems to be about whether we are sinning in our thoughts and attitudes when we are seeking redress. It is one thing to call down imprecations in the midst of injustice, and to be angry at such injustice, but it is still possible to sin in our anger. What if we are affronted unjustly? What if we are angry at something the Lord really isn’t? The question isn’t whether it’s right to be angry and injustice and wrongdoing, but whether we are right in this instance. David loves the Lord, he loves his thoughts and he is angry at those who hate him and stand against him. With that thought in his mind, he asks:

‘Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!’

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this psalm has been placed in and among the imprecatory psalms for a reason. We shouldn’t divorce this psalm from where it has purposefully been placed within the book. And we shouldn’t divorce the obviously imprecatory section from the rest of the psalm either. Whilst it may be the case that David is simply expressing his thoughts about the Lord happily and then on reflection contrasts this with his views of his enemies, it seems to me that he is building to the imprecatory part of the psalm and is seeking the Lord’s perfect knowledge of his thoughts and his heart to see if his attitude towards his (and the Lord’s) enemies is legitimate righteous anger.