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of interest or importance to ascertain, if possible, in what spirit and with what design the imprecatory Psalms were composed by their human authors.
Now, one of the first things which strikes the attentive student of the Psalter is, that the large majority of these Psalms were the compositions of David, the divinely chosen and anointed king of Israel.* A very superficial acquaintance with David's character will suffice to show, not only that he was not a man of a revengeful spirit, but, on the contrary, that—though of quick and lively emotions, a man, as we should say, of a basty disposition naturally-he had learned to set a curb on his passions, and that, more particularly in his dealings with Saul and with Shimei, he afforded an example of magnanimous forbearance.
The occasions to which we specially refer as affording proof of this assertion, will readily recur to the mind of every biblical student. But we think that the account of two occasions on which David was tempted to indulge a spirit of revenge, viz., in the case of Saul and in that of Nabal, afford yet stronger proof, either of the repugnance of his natural disposition to this passion, or of the triumph of grace over nature. In the former of these cases, the remorse which struck his heart in the recollection of having so much as cut off the skirt of the garment of the man who thirsted for his blood, and who was in the very act of seeking his destruction; and, in the latter case, his devout gratitude that his hands had been stayed, and that he had been providentially restrained from yielding to the first impulse of anger, disclose more convincingly than any encomium which could have been pronounced by his biographer, the exquisite susceptibility of David's nature, and the repugnance of his whole soul to the dictates of a cruel and bloodthirsty spirit of revenge.
The impression produced upon the mind of the impartial reader by the records of David's history, is strongly confirmed by the very writings which form the subject of our present consideration. It is hard to conceive of a man of a cruel and revengeful disposition, (unless guilty of a refinement of hypocrisy, which few would lay to the charge of David,) recording, in the words which follow, his feelings and his conduct on occasion of the sufferings of his enemies : “But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sack-cloth: I humbled my soul with fasting, and my prayer returned into mine own bosom.” (Psalm
* Out of sixteen Psalms selected by Dr. Barnes as specimens of the imprecatory Psalms, involving all the difficulties which are to be found in them, twelve are ascribed to David in the titles; one, the 10th, is with good reason commonly assigned to the same
writer; and two are ascribed to Asaph, one of the leaders of David's choir. The remaining Psalm, viz. the 137th (to which we shall have occasion to refer shortly), was probably composed very shortly after the return from the Captivity.
xxxv. 13.) And again, “For my love, they are my adversaries, but I give myself unto prayer.” (Psalm cix. 4.) And yet these words are not only found in the Psalter amongst the Psalms ascribed to David, but they occur in those very Psalms which afford some of the most striking examples of the class of difficulties now under our consideration.
It is clear, then, that we must seek some other solution of the apparent inconsistency, than is supplied by the arbitrary and untenable hypothesis, that David gave utterance in these Psalms to the spirit of revenge, and was actuated by a desire to gratify feelings of personal resentment. And it appears to us, that this solution is to be sought mainly in the two following considerations: (1) that David was the divinely appointed ruler of the nation; and (2) that David was divinely inspired to speak in the person of Christ.
1. David was the anointed king of Israel ; and hence, those who conspired against David were traitors to their country and to their king. Inasmuch, then, as David stood in the position in which St. Paul declares that all rulers and magistrates, whether of higher or lower degree, stand, viz., as “the ministers of God," and as those who “ bear not the sword in vain," so far from seeking to gratify feelings of private animosity and revenge in the punishment of his adversaries, he was but discharging the necessary obligations of his kingly authority. And, further, in praying that he might be strengthened for the discharge of these duties and responsibilities, and that he might be successful in quelling the tumults and insurrections of those who resisted his authority, he did but prefer requests similar to that contained in our own Litany, that it may please God “to bless and keep the magistrates, giving them grace to execute justice, and to maintain truth.” How unwilling David was to press to extremity the demands of justice, and how much more indisposed he was to gratify the feelings of private resentment, will appear from a consideration of the cases both of Absalom and of Shimei; and perhaps, though it might seem otherwise at first sight, from the latter even more conspicuously than from the former. Many have been the cases in which men of a revengeful disposition have been softened at the last; and, in the consciousness of the nearness of their own appearance before a tribunal at which they would have need of much forgiveness, they have been willing to forego even their rightful claims, and to forgive even their most bitter foes. It is contrary to all analogy, that a man who had so little thirst for personal revenge, and so much self-control, that, in the day when his enemies were subdued before his face, he could magnanimously pardon, and even palliate, the offence of his bitter reviler, should not only har
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bour secret vengeance against him throughout the remainder of his life, but also, in the prospect of his own immediate appearance before the Judge of all, should command his son to take vengeance on the offender. We do not here assume that David, in his directions to Solomon respecting Joab and Shimei, acted under higher guidance than that of his own judgment; nor do we even assume that he was right in the dying charge which he delivered respecting them. We think, however, that we are justified in adducing David's last injunctions to Solomon as an illustration and confirmation of the view which we have taken of his prayers for the discomfiture of his enemies; and that we are thereby confirmed in the conclusion which we have drawn from the premises already laid down, that in neither case do we trace that thirst for the gratification of private revenge, which has been not unfrequently ascribed to David; but that, in both cases, we discern the conduct of one who felt that he was God's minister, and who desired “that all things might be so ordered and settled by his endeavours, upon the best and surest foundations, that peace and happiness, truth and justice, religion and piety, might be established” in Israel for future generations.
2. But again, it is of the utmost importance for us to bear in mind, that not only did David speak, in many of the Psalms under our consideration, in the person of the chief ruler of the nation, to whom it was given to wield the sword of justice as “a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil," and for “the praise” of them that do well; but further, that in some of the very strongest of the imprecatory Psalms, David spoke in the person of Christ, and that we find our Blessed Lord adopting and applying to Himself portions of these very Psalms. We refer more particularly to the 41st, the 69th, and the 109th Psalms. Let any one who doubts whether the language of these Psalms can be lawfully adopted by a Christian congregation, read the express application of Psalm xli. 9, by our Lord to Himself, on the eve of His passion," But that the Scripture may be fulfilled, He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me”; and then turn to the verse which follows in the same Psalm-"But Thou, O Lord, be merciful unto me, and raise me up, that I may requite them”; and he can scarcely fail to discern the necessity of a system of interpretation which is as far removed from the admission of a spirit of personal vindictiveness, on the one hand, as it is from the superficial and unsatisfactory attempts which have been made to explain away the obvious meaning of the words, or to deny their consistency with the genius and temper of the Christian dispensation. The same remark applies, in a yet higher degree, to the explanation of the 69th Psalm, from
which, we believe, a larger number of passages is cited in the New Testament than from any other of the Psalms. The application of this Psalm to our Lord is beyond the reach of dispute. It was He whom His enemies “ hated without a cause” (ver. 4).* It was He who applied to Himself the words of the former portion of the 9th verse, “ The zeal of Thine house hath eaten me up.”+ It was to Him that St. Paul applies the latter portion of the same verse, “ The reproaches of them that reproached Thee, fell upon me.” I It was He to whom “gall was given for His meat," and to whom, “in His thirst, they gave vinegar to drink" (ver. 21).$ And yet it is with the verse which immediately follows that last quoted, that that series of maledictions begins, which culminates in words than which nothing more awful can be conceived: “Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous.”
A more crucial test of the soundness or unsoundness of any proposed explanation of the imprecatory Psalms could hardly be proposed than this: “Does it, or does it not, explain consistently, and satisfactorily, the difficulties which the 69th Psalm involves ?” The purely prophetical interpretation here fails us; for we have to account not only for expressions which might be regarded simply in the light of predictions, but also for others in which the apocopated form of the Future tense, and the get more clearly marked Imperative of the second person, are incapable, on any sound philological principles, of such an interpretation. The supposition that the imprecations contained in these verses are merely recorded as the sentiments of others, without any expression of approval or concurrence on the part of the Psalmist; the equally futile, and yet more derogatory supposition, that the words are mere Oriental forms of speech, and are not designed to convey the awful import which is stamped upon them; and, lastly, the supposition that, though conformable to the spirit of the Jewish dispensation, they are utterly out of place when adopted into the Christian Church :- these suppositions are each and all so manifestly and demonstrably inapplicable to the 69th Psalm, that, even if capable of application in every instance, we should yet be reduced to the necessity of seeking some more adequate solution of the difficulties with which we have here to contend.
The evidence, indeed, as regards this Psalm, of its adoption, not only generally, but with special and direct reference to its imprecatory clauses, into the Christian Church, is complete and overwhelming. For, not to dwell upon the probable adoption of a part of the 25th verse by our blessed Lord, in His prediction of the approaching desolation of Jerusalen (Matt. xxiii.
38), of a part of the 27th verse by St. Paul (Rom. ix. 31), and of a part of the 28th verse in the Epistle to the Church of Sardis (Rev. ii. 5),—we find the first of these verses, i.e. the 25th, in conjunction with a similar imprecation in the 109th Psalm, expressly and unequivocally adopted by St. Peter in its imprecatory or optative form,-“ For it is written in the Book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein, and his bishoprick let another take.” (Acts i. 20.) Again, St. Paul, retaining, like St. Peter, the imprecatory form of expression, applies to the Israel of his own days the 22nd and 23rd verses of the Psalm, and introduces the quotation, as one who entertained no doubt of its reference to his own times, by the words, “And David saith, Let their table be made a snare, and a trap, and a stumbling-block, and a recompense unto them: Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see, and bow down their back alway.” (Rom. xi. 9, 10.)
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Having thus endeavoured to clear the way, by showing that the morality of the Old Testament, so far from being opposed to that of the New, is expressly recognized in the latter as Divine, we advance a step further, and allege that the very same difficulties which meet us in the imprecatory Psalms, and in other portions of the Old Testament Scriptures, confront us also, and in an equal degree, in the New; and, consequently, (1) that whatever solution of those difficulties suffices us in the one case, may well suffice us also in the other; and (2) that whatever proposed solution of the one class of difficulties is inapplicable to the other, is prima facie unlikely to be the true one.
Amongst the many passages which might be adduced in proof of our assertion, that we have to encounter the very same class of difficulties in the New Testament with which we have to deal in the Psalter, we select the following as abundantly sufficient, in our judgment, for the confirmation of its truth :
(1.) “But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.” (Acts viii. 20.) It is probable that the objection may be here made, that St. Peter's subsequent exhortation to repentance destroys the parallel between the imprecation uttered by the Apostle with reference to Simon Magus, and those uttered by David with regard to his enemies. To this objection we reply, that the fact that a condition is expressed in the one case, is no proof that it is not implied in the other; and further, that even if it could be shown that the transgressors against whom the Psalmist's imprecations were levelled were not amongst those to whom he desired to teach God's ways, and that the sinners to whose doom he refers were not amongst those for whose conversion he was anxious, still
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