Those who know this psalm will have no doubt why it is not used in the three-year Lectionary.  Those unfamiliar with it will understand upon reading it why it is included as one of my Forbidden Bible Verses.

The great 19th century English preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote:

… it cannot be conceived that this Psalm contains what one author has ventured to call “a pitiless hate, a refined and insatiable malignity.” To such a suggestion we cannot give place, no, not for an hour. But what else can we make of such strong language? Truly this is one of the hard places of Scripture, a passage which the soul trembles to read; yet as it is a Psalm unto God, and given by inspiration, it is not ours to sit in judgment upon it, but to bow our ear to what God the Lord would speak to us therein.

This psalm refers to Judas, for so Peter quoted it [verse 8]; but to ascribe its bitter denunciations to our Lord in the hour of his sufferings is more than we dare to do. These are not consistent with the silent Lamb of God, who opened not his mouth when led to the slaughter. It may seem very pious to put such words into his mouth; we hope it is our piety which prevents our doing so.

Today’s reading comes from the New International Version – UK.

Psalm 109

For the director of music. Of David. A psalm.

    1 O God, whom I praise, do not remain silent,

    2 for wicked and deceitful men have opened their mouths against me; they have spoken against me with lying tongues.

    3 With words of hatred they surround me; they attack me without cause.

    4 In return for my friendship they accuse me, but I am a man of prayer.

    5 They repay me evil for good, and hatred for my friendship.

 6Appoint an evil man to oppose him; let an accuser stand at his right hand.

    7 When he is tried, let him be found guilty, and may his prayers condemn him.

    8 May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership.

    9 May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.

    10 May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes.

    11 May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labour.

    12 May no-one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children.

    13 May his descendants be cut off, their names blotted out from the next generation.

    14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the LORD; may the sin of his mother never be blotted out.

    15 May their sins always remain before the LORD, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth.

 16For he never thought of doing a kindness, but hounded to death the poor and the needy and the broken-hearted.

    17 He loved to pronounce a curse— may it come on him; he found no pleasure in blessing— may it be far from him.

    18 He wore cursing as his garment; it entered into his body like water, into his bones like oil.

    19 May it be like a cloak wrapped about him, like a belt tied for ever round him.

    20 May this be the LORD’s payment to my accusers, to those who speak evil of me.

 21But you, O Sovereign LORD, deal well with me for your name’s sake; out of the goodness of your love, deliver me.

    22 For I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me.

    23 I fade away like an evening shadow; I am shaken off like a locust.

    24 My knees give way from fasting; my body is thin and gaunt.

    25 I am an object of scorn to my accusers; when they see me, they shake their heads.

 26Help me, O LORD my God; save me in accordance with your love.

    27 Let them know that it is your hand, that you, O LORD, have done it.

    28 They may curse, but you will bless; when they attack they will be put to shame, but your servant will rejoice.

    29 My accusers will be clothed with disgrace and wrapped in shame as in a cloak.

 30With my mouth I will greatly extol the LORD; in the great throng I will praise him.

    31 For he stands at the right hand of the needy one, to save his life from those who condemn him.

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Many people find this psalm upsetting.  If they only knew what persecution King David was enduring!  Truly evil enemies want to harm and depose him, thereby putting Israel in danger.  The psalm depicts David’s righteous anger at the constant harangues and threats he receives.  Only the Lord can save him.  So, he prays that God sends a just and valid judgment upon them. 

This psalm also prophesies Judas’s betrayal of Christ, more about which later in the post.  For this reason, it is often referred to as the Iscariot Psalm. Having said that, we should not presume that David’s words could be Christ’s words. 

‘For the director of music’ implies this psalm was to be sung at worship in the temple. 

Immediately (verse 1), David affirms his faith in God and asks for His help.  David expands on his trials in verses 2-5. He says he is a blameless man and yet his enemies attack him for no good reason.  He has befriended them and yet they spread lies behind his back.  David says they hate him for his friendship.  Has he loved them too much?  He says, ‘I am a man of prayer’.  No doubt he has prayed for his enemies and for God to intervene and make them see the error of their ways.

Verses 6 – 15 express David’s wish for God to put his torment to an end from one enemy in particular, possibly the leader of those who turned against David. Some scholars believe this to be Doeg the Edomite or Ahithophel. Others believe it was Saul or David’s son Absalom. Yet the Psalmist wishes us to focus not on the enemy’s identity, which is never revealed, but on the supplication to God for judgment. Recall that the Old Covenant involves God’s faithful asking for His judgment on their mortal enemies.  God’s sovereignty is very much a part of their history.  When the Israelites obey, God helps them.  When they disobey, He is quick to show His wrath in a physical manifestation, e.g. war or plagues.  Therefore, David’s prayers are in line with what was expected under the Old Covenant. He prays that God delivers a judgment which would adversely affect every aspect of his enemy’s life: a premature death, his family’s wellbeing, his fortune, his friends.  David asks that the Lord remember this enemy’s sins and those of his forebears in perpetuity.  He also asks that those living on earth forget this family ever existed.   

Only a truly righteous man was entitled to such entreaties under the Old Covenant.  Under the New Covenant which Jesus Christ brought forth, our command is to love, including to pray for our enemies, notably that God turns them away from their sins.  One biblical scholar from the 19th century, Joseph Francis Thrupp, notes:

The last prayer of the martyr Stephen was answered not by any general averting of doom from a guilty nation, but by the conversion of an individual persecutor to the service of God.

A few centuries before, John Bunyan wrote:

This Scripture (Ps 109:6-20.) also greatly helped it to fasten the more upon me, where Christ prays against Judas, that God would disappoint him in all his selfish thoughts, which moved him to sell his master: pray read it soberly

Note the enemy’s sins which David enumerates in verses 16-19: abusing the poor, needy and broken-hearted;  cursing and condemnation; a complete lack of kindness.  David asks that these sins envelop his enemy like garments — a cloak along with a belt, so that he is completely covered and captive.  David asks that his enemy’s sins condemn him fully.  He asks that God condemn not only this man but all his enemies equally (verse 20).  

Having laid out his righteous anger and request before God, David shifts his focus to God in the last 11 verses.  He asks that God be merciful to him by resolving this intolerable situation which has left him physically and emotionally weak, a shadow of his former self.  In verse 26, he asks for God to rescue him by punishing his enemies in such a concrete way that they will know it could only have been He alone who is responsible (verse 27).  God’s judgment upon them will be a curse, but a blessing upon David and his house (verse 28).  He refers to a cloak once again in verse 29: their shame will identify them, just as much as clothes do.  That shame will be like a garment they can never remove. 

In verses 30 and 31, David vows that he will sing God’s praises publicly for defending the righteous faithful in their hour of need.  As David proclaims his faith in and thanks to God, so we should do the same with our only Mediator and Advocate, our Lord Jesus Christ. 

For those who still find Psalm 109 perplexing, biblical scholar FG Hibbard gave an excellent interpretation of this psalm in 1856:

I cannot forbear the following little incident that occurred the other morning at family worship. I happened to be reading one of the imprecatory psalms, and as I paused to remark, my little boy, a lad of ten years, asked with some earnestness: “Father, do you think it right for a good man to pray for the destruction of his enemies like that?” and at the same time referred me to Christ as praying for his enemies. I paused a moment to know how to shape the reply so as to fully meet and satisfy his enquiry, and then said, “My son, if an assassin should enter the house by night, and murder your mother, and then escape, and the sheriff and citizens were all out in pursuit, trying to catch him, would you not pray to God that they might succeed and arrest him, and that he might be brought to justice?” “Oh, yes!” said he, “but I never saw it so before. I did not know that that was the meaning of these Psalms.” “Yes”, said I, “my son, the men against whom David plays were bloody men, men of falsehood and crime, enemies to the peace of society, seeking his own life, and unless they were arrested and their wicked devices defeated, many innocent persons must suffer.” The explanation perfectly satisfied his mind.

The Revd Bob Deffinbaugh on Bible.org applies Psalm 109 to our modern, confused notion of Christian forgiveness:

Let me tell you that if we had the courage and the conviction to pray as David did, we would be very ill at ease in regard to our own sins. Our greatest problem with imprecatory psalms is that the psalmist takes sin much more seriously than we do.

You may wish to challenge me by stressing that while we must hate sin, we should not hate the sinner. We want to think that God hates the sin, but He loves the sinner. I must ask you then, why does God send men to hell? Why isn’t hell a terrible place of torment for Satan and his angels and sin? Why is hell a place where people go? I don’t think it is as possible as we think to separate the sin from the sinner. This is not the solution to our problem.

I believe that in David’s case his enemies were God’s enemies whom God hated (cf. Rom. 9:13—in some sense, at least, God “hated” Esau). The solution was not to separate the sin and the sinner, but to commit both to God …

The amazing thing is that when we strive to conjure up human feelings of love and forgiveness, we really can’t love or forgive our enemies. The best we can do is to suppress our feelings of anger and hostility. When the psalmist prayed as he did in Psalm 109, he admitted his feelings and his desires (which were in accordance with God’s character and His covenant with men). He was thereby relieved of his hostility by committing the destiny of the wicked to God. Punishment and vengeance belong to God. By giving up vengeance we free ourselves to love and to forgive in a way that we cannot produce in and of ourselves.

Let us learn from the imprecatory psalms that a hard stand on sin is the best way to prevent sin. Let me tell you it must have been some experience to gather as a congregation in days of old and sing Psalm 109. Remember, the psalm was written for public worship. To sing its words was to remind the saints how the godly should respond to sin. In so doing each individual was reminded of the seriousness of sin and the dire consequences which accompany it. To be soft on sin is to give it a greenhouse in which to grow. To be hard on sin is to hinder its growth, not only in the lives of others but in our own as well.

… It is only those who resist and reject God’s solution who suffer His temporal and eternal wrath. The psalmist who prayed for God’s justice for his enemies also petitioned God for His mercy and lovingkindness. God offers mercy and forgiveness to all, but He also promises justice and judgment to all who reject His Son. I encourage you to place your trust in Jesus Christ, the sin-bearer who died in your place and suffered even more than Psalm 109 describes.

 

For further reading see:

Spurgeon’s Treasury of David — Psalm 109

Psalm 109: A Prayer for the Punishment of the Wicked

Matthew Henry’s Bible Commentary

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