The Thorn in Psalm 139: Should We Remove It?

I’ve been reading Erich Zenger’s book A God of Vengeance?: Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath. The imprecatory Psalms have been perennial problem for Christian exegetes. It is not uncommon to hear some today simply dismiss them as evidence of a primitive theology and not worthy of the Christian faith. Zenger wants to push back on this attitude. When a harsh discontinuity is established between Judaism and Christianity, Zenger writes, then “the psalter is somehow made to stand before the judgment seat of New Testament christology and ecclesiology, there to be ‘Christianized’ or even rejected as partly ‘unchristian.'” (13) He says that this attitude actually partially preserves the heresy of Marcionism. How so?

“The annoying strangeness of the psalms is attributed to their ‘less than Christian’ Jewish origins, in order that the newness and superiority of Christianity may appeal all the more luminous. Thus the psalms of vengeance become a foil for contrast with the new gospel. They make it obvious to us why Christ had to come.” (16)

One of the most commonly cited imprecations is this part found at the end of Psalm 139.

If only you, God, would slay the wicked!  Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty! They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name. Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies. (NIV)

But is the problem so easy as to simply remove these verses from the Psalm? Would the Psalm then become truly worthy of our Christian ethic? Zenger thinks this is entirely wrong headed and actually solves nothing. I quote him here at length. I find his thinking here quite persuasive.

“Can the ‘evil’ here be obviated by simply striking out verses 19-22? The rather common understanding of the psalm that is reflected in the titles given to it in translations of the Bible does, in fact, suggest this solution. Anyone who reads the psalm as a philosophical meditation on the theme of ‘human beings before the all-knowing God’ (the title give it in the German Einheitsübersetzung) can easily do without verses 19-22.

However, this psalm is not at all a ‘hymn to farseeing divine providence, which has ordered everything from the beginning, so that fate has been known to it from the start. It is the prayer of an individual who, with a positively prophetic passion, wrestles in prayer to work out his or her individual ‘suffering because of God’ who has taken possession of him or her (vv. 1b-6), and from whom he or she cannot escape (vv. 7-12). Anyone who too quickly eliminates verses 19-22 in order to obtain a ‘beautiful’ psalm must also cut out the lamenting and even accusatory undertones that echo already in verses 1-12, where the one praying, like Jeremiah (cf. the confessions in Jer. 12:1-6; 15:10-21; 20:7-18) and Job (cf. especially Job 7:12-21) experiences the presence of God as a burden and an impediment. Those who strike out verses 19-22 because of an excess of ‘Christian’ zeal must be aware that in doing so they are destroying the whole intention of the psalm, both from the poetic and the theological point of view! Moreover, the result of the elimination of verses 19-22 is that the psalm has positively absurd ending. The plea that God will ‘test’ the one who prays (v. 23ab) is only meaningful in light of the preceeding explanation in verses 21-22, according to which the sole concern of the person praying is God’s own interest. Similarly, the alternative of the two ways presupposed in verse 24 can only be understood if one already knows of the concrete description of these two ways addressed in verses 19-22.” (30-31)

The removal of these verses from this Psalm, Zenger says, is “a deed of artistic and theological barbarity!” (32)

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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3 Responses to The Thorn in Psalm 139: Should We Remove It?

  1. Phil Miller says:

    The Psalm is a cri de coeur on the part of the human worshiper, for Evil is not going away with the snap of a finger. The Psalm is a ventilation, whose ultimate purpose is the worshiper gainer greater Faith.
    A lovely, well-thought-out piece, Louis

    Like

  2. I’ll never forget at the church you and I attended way back when, an Elder read Ps 139 and skipped entirely vv 21-22 “Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.” I was appalled then and not sure I’d feel much different now. Of course, this is the same church where we heard every Sunday “God loves and accepts you just the way you are.” When I once asked the pastor why “if God loves and accepts us just the way we are” are there so many imperatives in the NT he was speechless.

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