On judging Scripture (and finding it wanting) — TIL #4: “Pray for You”

At the suggestion of a certain rather busy diplomat, I decided to treat this trending ditty as a Theologically Interesting Lyric. It is indeed theologically interesting, because it dovetails into my recent discussions about contrasts in the OT writers’ conceptions of God and those of some of the NT writers.

First the song: “Pray for You” by Jaron and the Long Road to Love. In order to avert the potential spambot activity they would attract I have elected not to reproduce the lyrics here, but here they are in case you don’t want to watch the video:

[Hard link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=atBg9zLI2bA]

Potential humor aside, when I first saw this my first thoughts were of just how anti-Christian in spirit such sentiments were. Jesus told us to forgive, turn the other cheek, walk the other mile, etc. My mind searched for a Scripture that would point out how invoking the Lord’s name to do what is evil is condemned and an affront to God.

There may be such verses, but before I got there, my mind rammed into a wall: I remembered the imprecatory Psalms.

Any student of Scripture knows of these psalms in which the psalmist begs God to take revenge on the psalmist’s enemies. These sometimes take the form of simple requests for salvation with the contextual implication that the desired manner of salvation would involve some form of retributive or preemptive violence.

Then there are more sadistic cases in which the psalmist expresses his hope for vengeance that seems to exceed the ill will in our song selection:

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,

Happy is he who repays you

For what you have done to us-

He who seizes your infants

And dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm 137.8-9

In his Reflections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis famously referred to such “cursing Psalms” as expressing “contemptible”, “devilish” sentiments. Ironically, these judgments of Lewis are themselves deprecated similarly by many inerrantists.

Lewis’s point is that we can’t necessarily assume that every attitude expressed by even the godly men in Scripture is prescriptive for us or indicative of how we ourselves should respond or believe. We should not just uniformly accept every teaching of Scripture as equally authoritative, not treating the whole thing “as an encyclopedia or an encyclical” but rather “steeping ourselves in its tone and temper and so learning its overall message.”

Too often, evangelicals with “higher” views of Scripture disagree and try to redeem these statements as justifiable, if perhaps hyperbolic, appeals to God for justice rather than personal revenge. But the problem is the definition of “justice” underlying this: the psalmist believes that justice is served by retributive revenge, and apparently the more dramatic the better: if the simple downfall of a foreign nation is a sign of God’s intervening hand, surely the skulls of the infidels being crushed against the rocks is a sign that God’s people are especially vindicated! This is something the psalmist may have believed, but it’s certainly not something we should follow him in.

How can I say this?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Matt. 5.43-48

Sometimes it is believed that we should hold our peace, turn the other cheek, etc. because “‘Vengeance is Mine,’ says the Lord. ‘I will repay.'” Just let ’em be, I have heard countless times, because God’s got something nasty in store for those wicked folks that He might just spare them from if you dare usurp His privilege of enacting vengeance.

But notice the subtle twist in the last sentence of the above passage from the Sermon on the Mount that is seldom duly noted: loving one’s enemies is to be undertaken not in deference to God’s priority for wrath but in imitation of God’s perfection exemplified in self-sacrificial love of one’s enemies! It is when we forgive and show grace that we are acting as our Father in heaven.

Again we see that a faithful reading of Scripture does not automatically deify the thoughts of the authors and contort them so that they appear to be in full concord with one another. As people who self-identify as Christians, surely it is no scandal that we should insist upon reading all Scripture through Christ, judging all Scripture through Christ.

I foresee that many of my evangelical friends will not have a problem with recognizing the circumstantial angst of the psalmist and understand that his emotions may have gotten the better of him. To these I say, you and I are not as far apart as you might think. I simply extend consideration of the limitation of humans in their circumstances in more of the Bible than the imprecatory Psalms.

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  • Hmm… there’s something in this that connects–in my mind, at least–to those videos where post-Christians go door to door proclaiming the good news that God doesn’t exist and point to passages in Scripture where we are commanded to stone their son who is next to them mouthing off. …wish I could find the link again. Sorry.

    Over and over again, the Bible believing people caught on camera stumble around trying to find a clear way to deflect these stinging comments (and, I assume, that the filmmaker’s editor dropped the responses that were fairly compelling [smile]). This underscores a problem with our Biblical teaching: There are several passages that pastors, Bible professors and Christian authors simply ignore. …this leaves the rest of us rather unprotected when these kinds of challenges are presented.


    • If you ever remember what that series is, please let me know. It sounds fascinating.I think your point is a good one: the church is shielded from hard questions because their pastors/teachers/devotions select their texts for them. Many would be surprised what they’d find in hidden corners of the Bible, and have no idea what to do with lots of them. Their only hermeneutic, as I sought to point out as inadequate above, is to just trust that it’s true (taken literally as possible) and wholly defensible.

  • Mark Chapman

    I have found Dr Ken Bailey helpful in regard to inspiration of scripture. As an intelligent evangelical he speaks of the inspiration of the process. Worthwhile reading/listening to. Fr Richard Rohr suggests that we use the life and ministry of Jesus as a template to lay over those passages of the Old Testament that we find ‘evil’, to check whether they are of God or not. He suggests that these passages remain in scripture to allow us to see how bad religion can become when divorced from the God we know in Jesus Christ. My interpretation of his words – but I found him helpful. We have a cute children’s song about the people ,arching around the city of Jericho until the walls come tumbling down. We forget to mention the mass murder, infanticide etc that followed it. Of God? I think not. I say this as a Presbyterian minister of 35 years who considers himself conservative but would prefer not to worship the Bible.

    • I just realized that I hadn’t responded to you yet! I recall reading something about/by Ken Bailey. His approach sounds very much like what I have been working towards. Fr. Rohr is new to me. I’ll be on the lookout for more helpful insights such as this from him.

      Would you mind telling me which Presbyterian branch yours is? My church is PCA, and would have nothing to do with your very thoughtful and reasonable approach, sadly (so for now, I keep quiet).


  • AMW

    I’m pretty sure those are “imprecatory” Psalms.

  • I knew that didn’t sound quite right.

    Would it be bad blogging etiquette to correct it long after the fact? Eh,
    who cares.

  • AMW

    I think striking through the original typo and inserting the correction are standard practice.

  • In all my blog reading, I have never seen anyone strike through such as vocab correction, corrected typos, etc. Besides, you graciously decided to document the error here in the comments. 😛