How Are We to Understand Psalms that Plea for the Demise of Enemies in Light of Jesus’ Commandment to Love Our Enemies?
Many of the Psalms written by David describe his grief in facing conflict with his enemies. The context of many passages expresses his frustration, often facing dire circumstances, frequently with his life being threatened. In some of the Psalms, David prays for the demise of his enemies. For example, we read in Psalm 143:12: “In Your mercy cut off my enemies, And destroy all those who afflict my soul; For I am Your servant.” In this open prayer to God, it is apparent that David is asking for the death of people who cause him grief.
In Psalm 109 David records a plea for God’s retaliation against those who “have rewarded [him] evil for good, And hatred for [his] love” (Psalm 109:5). Within this chapter of the Bible, we read about several very specific requests. He requests for his accusers to be judged and found guilty (verses 6,7). He asks for the prayers of the one who afflicts him to become sin (verse 7). He prays that this man’s life may come to an untimely end (verse 8). David prays for the demise of his enemy’s family, to make his wife a widow and his children orphans and beggars, and remain unforgiven (verses 9,10, 13). He even prays that his accuser’s mother’s sins may not be forgiven by God (verse 14, 15). While the complete context of the situation is not revealed, it is clear that David was afflicted and troubled by those who betrayed him, and caused him to plea for vengeance.
In stark contrast to passages such as these, we learn about the commandment by Jesus to love our enemies. “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” (Matthew 5:44). From this we can see that it is required of a Christian to have a merciful attitude towards those who might cause us trouble in life. We are even told to pray for those with whom we find ourselves coming into conflict. But our prayers for our enemies should not include personal wishes for revenge, death, and destruction. Such desires are not an expression of the love which Jesus has instructed us to have. On the other hand, we read repeatedly that we ought to have the wish and desire for God’s justice to be done on earth.
Seeing that we have a commandment to express love as Christians, even towards our enemies, how are we to understand the Psalms in which it is apparent that death, destruction, and demise are prayed for? Are there situations in which it is acceptable to harbor hateful and vengeful desires in our heart towards others? Do the Psalms pleading for vengeance provide us an example to follow? Is it right to pray for the death of our enemies, and the demise of their families? If we have hateful wishes in our hearts for our enemies, what are we to do? Since the Bible cannot contradict itself (compare John 10:35, 1 Peter 1:25, John 17:17), there must be an explanation.
First, we must realize that in many cases, the Bible just reports words, conduct or actions without evaluation or judging them. In the Psalms, David’s feelings are written down, but we must note that David, even though he was a man after God’s own heart, was a man of war, and it took him a lifetime to learn that war and the feeling and desires leading to war are wrong. This knowledge came to him only very gradually.
As always, the passages about revenge must be viewed in context. The first observation to make involves the sin of those who are the subject of these Psalms. In Psalm 109, recall that those whom David seeks vengeance upon have committed sin, having behaved in “evil” way, with “hatred” (compare Psalm 109:5). Being the victim of sin, David is essentially making a plea for punishment by God for the sinful behavior. Sin, as the Bible teaches, is punishable by death (compare Romans 6:23). These open prayers for vengeance are therefore consistent with the consequences of sin. Quite plainly, David writes “He will repay my enemies for their evil. Cut them off in Your truth” (Psalm 54:5)(.) Nowhere does David make a plea for the death or demise of an innocent, righteous person. It is frequently apparent that the requests for God’s intervention involve a threat of evil against him. In this context, the prayers for revenge can be interpreted as a plea for God’s judgment against the sinful man to be sentenced. They might also be viewed as prophetic statements regarding God’s conduct and judgment in the future.
The context of the sins committed against David in the cited psalms are not fully described, and therefore we don’t understand the heart of those who are committing them. However, what we do know from the Bible is that sins cannot go unpunished by God. In our booklet, Punishment For Our Sins, we write about the fact that there are automatic consequences of sinful conduct. As such, it may be the case that David’s pleas were for such consequences to be applied and not overlooked:
“We must realize that sin may have automatic consequences. For instance, if we drive under the influence of alcohol and are responsible for a serious car accident, which may result in bodily injury of ourselves and others, or even the death of an innocent person, then these consequences will remain for the rest of our lives, even though God will forgive our sinful conduct upon true and genuine repentance. But the death or the loss of a limb will not be automatically ‘annulled,’ as if it had never happened….
“Consider that even though God forgave David his sins, He later brought up again ‘the matter of Uriah the Hittite’ (1 Kings 15:5), as this was not sinful conduct that was committed because of ignorance or temporary temptation. Rather, these sins belonged to a slightly different category. It was not the unpardonable sin, to be sure, since David will be in the Kingdom of God (compare Jeremiah 30:9; Hosea 3:5; see also Luke 13:28, referring to ‘all the prophets,’ and David was a prophet, Acts 2:29–31). However, they were not sins that were committed ‘in ignorance’ or because of a temporary, passing weakness that had ‘snuck up’ on David. Rather, this was planned, premeditated, carefully designed and thought-out sinful conduct. David thought through very diligently how to cover up his adultery with Bathsheba, ultimately resorting to the murder of Uriah. God brought up the ‘matter of Uriah’ because He was terribly grieved that David would have acted in such a way, and He wanted to impress on the reader the awful consequences of these sins for David, as well as his entire household.”
If the sins that were committed against David warrant such dramatic consequences as are requested, we can conceive that prayers for vengeance against the enemies who sin against David were made out of a desire for justice rather than hatred.
While David clearly made requests for relief and help in the time that he lived, his requests for justice conceivably extend to the final judgment, during the third resurrection. “Behold, God is my helper; The LORD is with those who uphold my life. He will repay my enemies for their evil. Cut them off in Your truth” (Psalm 54:4-5). Even if those who commit unrepentant sin were not punished at the time of David’s life, God’s justice will ultimately be served. This passage declares the plain fact that God will ultimately punish people committing unrepentant sin by cutting off their lives from the Truth. We are told not to avenge ourselves, but to give place to God’s wrath and His vengeance (Romans 12:19). Again, David’s plea for revenge and God’s intervention must be seen in light of the knowledge and realization that God will act in His due time.
Even if sins committed by the enemies of David were rightly deserving of the horrible consequences prayed for, is this the best example to follow in our lives when we are victims ourselves? Is it best to pray for the death and destruction of those who sin against us, or is there a better way? As the Bible clearly shows, it is always better to be merciful.
Offering forgiveness and mercy is central to the commandment of love given by Jesus Christ (compare Luke 6:27-29). Forgiveness offered to those who sin against us also has a benefit for us. “‘For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’” (Matthew 6:14-15). We can plainly see that if we want our own sins to be forgiven, we must be willing to forgive those who sin against us once they come to repentance. And we must not harbor grudges and have hatred towards them. By providing forgiveness to others, we show God that we value mercy, and become worthy of receiving it ourselves.
Consider the example of Stephen, who was killed for his testimony. “And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:59-60). There is no question that Stephen was the victim of wicked sin in this historic event. Rather than make a plea for the death of those who were murdering him, Stephen makes a plea for mercy. This kind of attitude showing love towards our enemies may be difficult to the carnal man, but it is the superior approach to take when victimized by sin.
Going even further than offering forgiveness and mercy to those who sin against us, we are instructed to react with kind and generous behavior. “Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. Therefore ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17-21). Rather than respond with pleas for death and the demise of the family members of those who sin against us, it is better, and even required, for us to respond with good works. When we show kindness and mercy in response to evil, there are two important results. The first is that God sees the love that we have for others. The second may have an effect on those who are the ones that victimize us. Just as sin has an automatic consequence, good works have a positive consequence. In this example, guilt is affected in the sinner, likely resulting in correction. By offering kindness and mercy to others who commit sins against us, we propagate a good example of lovingkindness.
Our hearts need to be carefully monitored when we find ourselves victims of sin. Hatred and a desire for death must not take root. Even when we are angry with another, if we do not remove and replace that anger with mercy and love, we place ourselves in danger of punishment (compare Matthew 5:22-23). The Bible also plainly states that hatred that resides in our heart is sinful, causing us to walk in darkness, instead of the light (compare 1 John 2:10-11). There is no place for hatred of another and wishes for another’s death in the heart of a Christian—even though we realize that God’s justice will and must require the death of unrepentant sinners in the third resurrection.
When reading the Psalms that make a plea for sinful enemies to be “cut off”, implying their death, the context must carefully be considered. In some situations, the Scripture may be a plea to God for the automatic consequence of sin to be applied swiftly. In other situations, these open prayers may be considered a request for God to execute His judgment upon unrepentant sin in the future. Always, these Psalms are rightly interpreted as a request for God’s righteousness to prevail over evil. Yet, caution must be observed in using these Scriptures as a model to follow in our own lives. The commandment to love our enemies, offering love and kindness in response to evil inflicted upon us is always the superior path to follow. Hatred must be expunged from the heart of a Christian, always preferring God’s mercy over spiteful vengeance.
Lead Writer: Eric Rank