[from The Associate Presbyterian, Vol. II, No. 2, December 1859, pp. ]
MR. EDITOR:—From indications in certain quarters, it appears that a dissatisfaction exists in the minds of some in relation to the “imprecations” contained in many of the Scripture Psalms. These imprecations, it is thought, render the psalms in which they are contained, unsuitable for christian worship; they seem to conflict with the sentiment of the New Testament, which is, that we should love our enemies, &c. To effect a reconciliation between the Old and New Testaments on this subject, and render those psalms consistent with the feelings of those who decline their use for the reason above stated, it is proposed to change the imprecations they contain into predictions, which may be done with propriety, it is claimed, by construing the future form of the verb, in which they are found in the original, as predictive. This has been done in a recent versification of the psalms.
Before fixing upon a permanent change of the received text in the passages complained of, it may be proper to consider one or two things closely connected with the undertaking. Those whose labors we have in the English version of the Scriptures, were men of profound scholarship; as linguists, they were not perhaps excelled by any that preceded them, nor by any who followed them. It might be questioned whether as good a translation would be made by any selection of men that might now be taken from the literary world. At all events, anyone acquainted with the original text of the Scriptures, can attest the great accuracy attained by those who translated them into the English language. That other forms of expression might have been given in many instances, is admitted; but the instances in which there is a failure to give the sense of the original, are very rare. Before any modern critic, therefore, undertakes to set aside the labors of such men, he should take special care, that in doing so, he does not accomplish what will reflect his own indiscretion and lack of critical acumen.
In the second place, much credit is claimed in these latter times for what has been the result of earnest and frequent prayer. Now we may assume that those to whom the labor of translating the scriptures was committed, did not proceed of translating the scriptures was committed, did not proceed in the work, without frequent applications to a throne of grace that they might present the Divine testimony in the most faithful manner. From the nature of the work, and from what we know of the character of the men engaged in it, our version of the scriptures may be viewed as the result of many prayers. Any person, therefore, who would infringe on the received text, unless required by the most palpable necessity, should be esteemed as chargeable with sacrilegious intention.
It is, however, plead by some, that an alteration of the received text in the psalms referred to, should be made. In support of this, two reasons are usually assigned: one is, that to pray for the destruction of our enemies, is contrary to the letter and spirit of the New Testament; the injunction of our Savior being, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you,” &c., Matt. 5:44. The other is, that the imprecations in question, are given in the future form of the verb, in the original, and should be rendered as predictions. But to our mind, neither of these reasons are sufficient to warrant the alteration proposed. As to the latter, any person having but a limited knowledge of the Hebrew language, cannot fail to see that the alteration proposed must be effected on the most arbitrary principles imaginable. Many of the most positive commands of the Bible would be converted into predictions, if it be admitted that the future form of the Hebrew verb simply warrants a predictive construction of the passage in which it is so found. The ten precepts themselves may be taken as an illustration of this: “Thou shalt have no other God before me;” “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, &c.; thou shalt not bow down to them; thou shalt not serve them,” &c. Any critic who would undertake to convert these passages into predictions would give indubitable evidence that he was under the control of a wild intellect. The opponents of the law requiring capital punishment, if they are sincere, make a display of such intellectual folly, when they insist that the passage, Gen. 9:6, should be so interpreted.
In this form of the Hebrew verb, a very great portion of the prohibitory commands of the Old Testament are given: “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it.” “Bring no more vain oblations.” “Say ye not a confederacy to all them to whom this people shall say a confederacy.” “Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven,” &c. Also, commands which are direct in their import: “Ye shall do my judgments and keep mine ordinances;” “thou shalt speak unto them all this word,” &c. All these passages are found in the future form of the verb. To construe them as predictions, would be a manifest perversion of their meaning.
Again, the favorite construction we are opposing, would convert many of the pious resolutions and purposes of the saints into mere predictions: “O, that I knew where I might find him; that I might come even to his seat, I would order my cause before him, and fill my mouth with arguments,” &c.—Job 23:3, 4. “I will call on the Lord who is worthy to be praised;” “I will stand on my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what he will say unto me;” “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will joy in the God of my salvation.” These scriptures do not represent the persons to whom they relate, as foretelling what should transpire in future.
Once more. This construction of the future form of the verb, would entirely reverse the sense of many passages. “Let me find grace in your eyes, and what ye shall say unto me, I will give,” &c., says Shechem when asking for Dinah. “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his,” is the prayer of Balaam—Num. 23:10. “Let us pass, I pray thee, through thy country”—Num. 20:17. “And Job spake and said, let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, there is a man child conceived”—Job 3:3. “Let not my hand be upon him (David) but let the hand of the Philistines be upon him.” “If he be a God, let him (Baal) plead for himself.” Jeremiah makes this request: “And let that man be as the cities which the Lord overthrew and repented not, and let him hear the cry in the morning,” &c.—Jer. 20:16. These constitute a class of prayers or requests, in the future form of the verb, which if changed into predictions, would reserve the true testimony of these scriptures. The same would be the case with many of the prohibitions enjoined upon the church. “Say ye not a confederacy,” &c.; “Thou shalt not eat of it;” “Thou shalt not covet,” &c. How would these read as predictions? “Ye will not say a confederacy;” “ye will not covet.” The error would be so glaring that as soon as discovered it would be abandoned by everyone. It must then be evident, that to change an imprecation into a prediction, simply because the verb, in the original, is in the future tense, would be to adopt the loosest method of grammatical construction available. Turn the imprecations of Job in the first eight or nine verses of the third chapter into predictions; or those of Jeremiah at the close of the twentieth chapter of his prophecy, and the Bible would teach a strange kind of theology.
But it is asserted that these imprecations are inconsistent with the teachings of our Savior in the New Testament. We now proceed to test their moral consistency. In the first place they are not at variance with the purpose of God respecting his and our enemies. It is his determination to destroy them, and that without remedy. Prov. 29:1.—“I will render vengeance to mine enemies, and will reward them that hate men.” “God shall wound the head of his enemies.” “It is the day of the Lord’s vengeance, and the year of recompenses for the controversy of Zion.” The majesty, supremacy, and uprightness of Jehovah require the overthrow of his enemies. His moral administration cannot be vindicated without their complete extermination. “He must reign until he hath put all enemies under his feet.” Since it is morally necessary for God, since it is his will, to destroy the wicked, it cannot be improper to petition him accordingly. This work of vengeance is certainly comprised in that Divine Will, which we are taught to pray “may be done.” Every well-disposed subject of his government, desirous that his glorious reign may be promoted, and that his name be hallowed, will not fail to plead against those who object and effort it is to subvert the Divine administration. The imprecations, in question, are not at variance with the purpose of God respecting his enemies.
Nor are they, in the next place, inconsistent with the nature and circumstances of Christ’s Mediatorial reign over his special kingdom. The ungodly obstruct the establishment and success of this kingdom all they can. “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord, and against his anointed.” “These make war with the Lamb;” they rose up against the person of Christ himself; they would not be satisfied until they laid violent hands upon him and put him to death. Immediately after his Ascension they make an assault upon his followers, and endeavor to exterminate them from the earth. Were these blood-thirsty opponents not resisted, the kingdom of Grace would become a waste and desolation like many earthly kingdoms. The Lord Jesus is responsible to the Father for the salvation of those given him out of the world; his credit as a Savior makes it incumbent on him to protect this people; He must therefore of necessity destroy those who withstand him in his work. But his uprightness as a King obliges him to lay waste his enemies. He is described in prophecy as “the righteous Branch which the Lord would cause to grow up unto David, and he shall execute judgment and righteousness in the Land.” He demands a hearty conformity to his laws and ordinances; if any refuse submission, he will cut them off. “I will early destroy all the wicked of the land, that I may cut off all evil-doers from the city of the Lord.” Such are not to have any quarters within his jurisdiction. It would not, therefore, militate against the intention of Christ’s Mediatorial reign, to imprecate vengeance upon its unrelenting opponents.
Again, the exposed and helpless condition of the Lord’s people in the world, warrants such prayers against their enemies as those under consideration. “The wicked watcheth the righteous and seeketh to slay him.” These enemies are at large in the world. They would not only subvert the liberties of the followers of Christ, both civil and religious, if they could, but they would slaughter them like sheep: “their blood they have shed like water round about Jerusalem.” In every age of the world the wicked have displayed a spirit of this nature. It began to work in the first generation of the human family, and it has spared neither age nor sex ever since. If any think the ungodly have become so subdued by the influences now brought to bear on society, that they will not any more feel inclined to commit such outrages of violence upon the church as formerly, they mistake the spirit of the times, in our humble opinion. The clouds are gathering and blackening in the ecclesiastical firmament: a tempest must be the result, unless the Lord who bounds the wrath of man, control it contrary to its natural tendency. While the circumstances of christians continue as they are, imperiled by their mortal enemies, they must incline to betake themselves to God by prayer, that he would send “destruction upon them at unawares,” and that they may be caught in the net which they have hid. Psalm 35:8. This is the only effectual method of disposing of such people; they cannot be brought under any contract to keep the peace: “The way of peace they know not, and there is no judgment in their goings.” A thirst for blood is their controlling passion; “they lie in wait for it.” Nothing short of their complete overthrow will consist with the peace and safety of the righteous. Such being the circumstances of the faithful, the imprecations under consideration cannot after all be so inappropriate.
Another argument for the imprecative construction may be derived from ACKNOWLEDGED prayers of the saints in this form: “And shall not God avenge his own elect who cry unto him day and night, though the bear long with them; I tell you he will avenge them speedily.” Here the whole class of the redeems are styled the elect. They are an afflicted people; their enemies are troubling them on every hand. “Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth, may Israel now say.” They will not allow them an abode on the earth. “Come let us cut them off from being a nation, that the name of Israel may be no more in remembrance.” Psalm 83:4. An illustration of this we have in the case of Haman, who devised a plot to destroy the Jews. Now because of the sore affliction they endure, they cry to God for vengeance; every sigh and tear caused by their oppressors enters into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth, and he interprets it as an appeal to him for vengeance. Instead of rejecting it as improper, he signifies his approbation of it by a promise that he will answer that appeal according to its import. “I will tell you he will avenge them speedily.”
To suppose that the elect can endure their sufferings from their enemies and not desire vengeance upon them, is to assume that they are devoid of spiritual sensation, and entirely indifferent about their spiritual existence. They love not their natural lives, it is true, when duly called to make a surrender of them; but their spiritual lives are too precious for them not to avail themselves of all Scriptural means for their preservation. Prayer to God against those who seek their lives is such a means, as we have shown from the passage above quoted. Elijah used this means with success, with the Divine approbation, evidently, when he was besieged by the captions with their fifties, who were sent by King Ahab to apprehend him. The Scriptures, it is true, forbid them to take the work of vengeance into their own hands: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath, for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”—Romans 12:!9. Yet that they desire vengeance as a favor, is clear from the consideration that it is promised them. A promise would be of no account if the thing promised was not desired.
A desire, therefore, for vengeance upon malicious enemies—not a spirit of revenge—is an approved feeling existing in the hearts of God’s afflicted people in the world. See it in the souls John saw under the altar, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood upon them that dwell upon the earth.” This is a prayer of the spirits of just men made perfect, and must therefore be an acceptable prayer. Its import is clear; it is a prayer for vengeance upon the bloodthirsty enemies of their brethren who yet dwelt upon the earth. And if it would be wrong to treat this as an improper prayer, why must their brethren yet upon the earth, in the midst of their tribulations, be thought beside themselves if they should display a little of the same feeling? To our mind, a desire for vengeance upon implacable enemies, in the hearts of Christians, is no more inconsistent than a determination in God himself to execute it.
The sentiment we are advocating may be shown to be correct from the circumstance that the saints express their DELIGHT in the overthrow of their enemies: “Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord, and spake, saying, I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea,” &c.—Exodus 15:1. “Then sang Deborah and Barak, the son of Abinoam, on that day, saying, Praise ye the Lord for the avenging of Israel, when the people offered themselves willingly.” The 18th Psalm is another illustration of the same feeling. See also Revelation 19:1, 2, 3. If it be improper to imprecate vengeance upon our adversaries, how can it be proper for the saints to rejoice at their downfall as they do? It is certainly inconsistent for a holy people to rejoice at a thing morally wrong; but the destruction of their enemies is morally right; it is the Lord’s doing, and “surely he will not do wickedly.”—Job 34:12. For the saints not to rejoice at the Lord’s work in avenging them, would convey the idea that in their estimation he was not acting wisely; or that it was of little account to them. But since it is for his glory, and their peace and safety, the spirit they inherit must prompt them to the exercise of rejoicing. It is impossible for them to be uninterested spectators when their oppressors are being foiled and overcome. Does not this feeling bespeak a DESIRE—a prayer to this effect—on the part of all those who are so deeply interested in such a work? Where there is true spiritual joy existing, a desire for that which causes it cannot be very far off.
With this delight, or rejoicing, the imprecations in question seem clearly to consist. Were these imprecations turned into predictions, even the fact that they are incorporated in the book of the church’s praises, is evidence that the hearts of the Lord’s people concur in the work of vengeance. All that is matter of song in this book of praises should enlist the hearts of worshippers in the most lively manner. The Lord is not praised where the heart is not enlisted. In the form of PREDICTIONS, then, the heart of the worshipper, joyfully exercised, cannot be kept out of the work of vengeance which they display; it must be there; it will be there in the case of very sentimental worshipper. Can it therefore be improper to present an offering in the form of prayer, which is proper in the form of praise? The moral coincidence between these two forms of worship may be one reason why so many of the Psalms consist of prayers.
From these considerations it seems clear to our mind that the imprecations under consideration should remain unchanged. If it be not consistent with the spirit of the gospel to present them in offerings to God the only alternative is to expunge them from the Bible. If left in the book of the church’s praises, they will be in the hearts of all God’s true worshippers, sentimentally, whether in the form of imprecations or predictions. The work of vengeance their hearts will respond to, and that in acclamations of the highest joy,—“Rejoice over her, thou heaven, and ye holy apostles and prophets, for God hath avenged you on her.” We might here refer to many of the imprecations in the Psalms, and show that the circumstances of the worshipper warrant this form of expression. To view the worshipper, under such circumstances of peril, predicting the overthrow of his enemies with all the coolness and indifference that an astronomer would display in calculating an eclipse, is certainly to misapprehend his temperament.
It remains to reconcile the command of the Savior with the sentiment advanced in the foregoing discussion. We submit the following:—It is not proper for us to specify a wicked person or people, and IN THE LIGHT OF SENSE to imprecate vengeance upon them. In so doing we may be counteracting the Divine decree of election respecting such persons. How do we know but those very persons may be ordained to life; brought under the sanctifying influences of the Holy Spirit, and fitted for an abode in God’s heavenly kingdom. It would be rash and unwarrantable to imprecate vengeance in this sense.
But we know from the Scriptures that there is a class of men who will continue unrelenting enemies of God and his people. We know, moreover, that they are all the time active, according to their opportunities, in resisting the Divine administration, and in seeking the destruction of the saints. Now, although we may not be able to specify them, so as to know WHO they are, yet knowing that they exist—it is knowing well their aims and efforts—it is proper for us, IN THE LIGHT OF FAITH, to plead for vengeance upon them. So they are doomed. The honor of God, the triumph of Christ in his mediatorial reign, and the peace and comfort of his subjects, demand their complete extermination. And as they are at all times under the inspection of the Most High, and are certainly known to him, we can with confidence submit it to him to make a correct application of our prayers which we offer up for this purpose.