Since the imprecatory psalms were mentioned recently, I thought that some of you would be interested in these selections from William Binnie’s The Psalms: Their History, Teachings, and Use (1886). Binnie was a Scottish RP minister and theologian, until joining the Free Church toward the end of his life. Here are some of his closing thoughts from the chapter on the imprecations:
It cannot be denied that, like the imprecations of the apostles and of the souls under the altar, the language of the Psalmist has reference not only to judgments already executed, but to judgments which are viewed as still future and in suspense. It brings up the question, What ought to be our sentiment with respect to such judgments?
In reply to this question, I do not hesitate to say that, as a rule, our duty is to deprecate them, and not to imprecate them. Even although we see reason to conclude that they are surely coming, we ought to cry aloud for mercy to be shown to the transgressors. The Lord Jesus prayed for His murderers; and we ought to do likewise. To make the Imprecatory Psalms the vehicle of maledictions against personal enemies is a frightful abuse of God’s holy Word. Calvin mentions, as a fact notorious in his time, that certain monks, the Franciscans especially, made a trade of this detestable sacrilege. If any one had a mortal enemy and wished him destroyed, he would hire one of those wretches to curse him, day by day, in the words of the Hundred-and-ninth Psalm. The Reformer adds that he himself knew a lady of rank in France who hired certain Franciscans to imprecate perdition in this way on her only son (Commentary on Ps. cix. 6). Matthew Henry, after mentioning these shameful facts, makes this reflection, that “greater impiety can scarcely be imagined, than to vent a devilish passion in the language of sacred writ; to kindle strife with coals snatched from God’s altar; and to call for fire from heaven with a tongue set on fire of hell.” Those who are capable of such daring profanity (one may surely trust that it has never shown its head in any Protestant Church) would not be dissuaded by any argument of ours; but it may not be useless to observe that it would be a dangerous and overbold employment of these psalms to recite them even against those who are our enemies in some good and holy work. When James and John proposed to imitate Elijah by commanding fire to come down from heaven and consume certain Samaritans who opposed their passage to Jerusalem, the Lord “turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of” (Luke ix. 55).
This, I repeat, is the rule by which we are to walk. We are to bless them that curse us, and to pray for them that despitefully use us, and persecute us. But there are exceptions even to this rule. One of these is pointed out by the loving disciple, in a quarter where, but for his intimation, we might well have deemed the rule absolute. “If any man see his brother sinning a sin not unto death, he shall ask, and God will give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: not concerning this do I say that he should make request” (I John v. 16). And there are other exceptions. It is plain that civil society and its officers are not to walk by the letter of the commandment about forgiving trespasses and rendering to no man evil for evil. The Civil Magistrate is neither obliged, nor at liberty, to forgive those who trespass against him. “He is a minister of God, an avenger for wrath to him that doeth evil” (Rom. xiii. 4). It is at his peril if he refuse or neglect to perform this office; and all private persons whose minds have not been corrupted by a false sentimentality will concur with him in the execution of his stern duty. When a foul crime has been perpetrated, tender-hearted Christian women, who would not touch a hair of their enemy’s head but would rather feed him, will express keen resentment, and will be disquieted in mind till they hear that the perpetrator has been convicted and duly punished. They will imprecate condign punishment on the offender. It is their hearty desire and prayer that the violated majesty of the law may not remain unrevenged. Facts like these, if they were fairly considered, would be felt to throw much light on the Bible imprecations. If we had more of the Psalmist’s consuming zeal for the cause of God ; if we were as much concerned for the honour of the divine government as every virtuous citizen is for the honour of the national laws, the imprecations would sound less strange and harsh in our ears.
And, then, this final paragraph:
I will not maintain that the Imprecatory Psalms are to be the Christian’s habitual song. Many godly persons, who would be the last to charge them with sin, are accustomed to omit them, for the most part, in the regular consecutive singing of the Psalms. Certainly, they ought never to be sung but with fear and trembling. Nevertheless, at fit seasons, they may and ought to find a place in our service of praise. It has been justly said that “in a deep sense of moral evil, more perhaps than in anything else, abides a saving knowledge of God.” There is “a hatred of them that hate God,” which is the invariable accompaniment and indispensable token of the love of God in the heart. And sin is to be looked upon not only as a disease to be loathed, but as a violation of law which calls for punishment. As powerful witnesses for the truth that sin is hateful to God and deserving of His wrath and everlasting curse, a truth which the world would fain forget, the Imprecatory Psalms must be accounted worthy of their place in the divine Manual of Praise.