My heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: "O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!"

12 January 2006

Book Review - Mean Songs

Crying for Justice: What the Psalms teach us about mercy and vengeance in an age of terrorism

John N. Day

If you came into the RPCNA sometime other than childhood, you may well remember the first time you sang an imprecatory psalm, a song calling for curses on your enemies. For many, it’s a rather confusing experience. Aren’t we called to a higher calling (loving our enemies)? Isn’t asking God to smash people’s teeth a little barbaric?

John N. Day (Pastor of Bellewood PCA in Bellevue, Washington) deals Biblically and wisely with these questions. Crying for Justice may be one of the most Biblically grounded and satisfying books I’ve ever read.

He begins by addressing and dismissing several bad answers to the question, “What are we to do with these songs?” C. S. Lewis said they were “devilish” emotions to be distinguished by Christ’s Spirit. Others say that they’re honest emotions which ought to be relinquished after they’re expressed. Some scholars say that old covenant morality, as seen in the Psalms, is radically different than new covenant morality; closely tied to this is the dispensational view which views imprecation as inappropriate for this “church age.” After showing the weakness in each of these answers, Day moves on to a thorough Biblically and historical evaluation.

The curses of the Psalms must be seen in their historical context. In the ancient east, curses were found in treaties, inscriptions on tombs, etc. While many ancient eastern curses contained some hint of the magical incantation, it helps to see that Israel’s hymnwriters were not way off base with their imprecations. Even more so, the curses of Israel’s songs had their foundation in the covenant promises of God. Time and again God promised His people protection (e.g., Gen. 12:2,3) and justice (Dt. 19:16-21); so, rather than the vengeful and petty songs they may seem, the imprecatory psalms are really songs of faith in the covenantal promises of God.

Day goes on to deal thoroughly with the three harshest psalms: 58 (I will make my arrows drunk with blood), 137 (Blessed is he who seizes and shatters your little ones against the cliff), and 109 (May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before Yahwey, and may the sin of his mother never be blotted out). Without going into too much detail, here’s some exegetical help I picked up from these chapters:

· We need to be sure we know who is being cursed and what kind of people they are. Sometimes, these harsh psalms grate against us because we have such a little understanding of the viciousness of Israel’s enemies (or the viciousness of the enemies of today’s persecuted church). In Psalm 58, for instance, “David is condemning those who chronically and violently flaunt their position, contrary to God’s righteousness.” The horrific baby-smashing of Psalm 137 needs to be understood in the context of the Babylonian’s driving Israel from the Promised Land. The Babylonians had done this very thing to Israel babies; so, the helpless people of God are calling out for lex talionis (eye for eye, etc.).

· We need to find the covenantal context, the promises from the Torah which the psalmist is often claiming. In Psalm 58, David is likely referring to the powerful imagery of the Song of Moses (Dt. 32).

· We need to understand these songs as songs of great humility and helplessness. These are not the songs of the spiteful and capricious; these are the songs of the downtrodden who have no retreat, no rock other than the Lord God.

· If we see them as songs of humiliation, we sill see that these songs mean we’re “Leaving the matter with God...the person abandons any personal desire for revenge.”

· Finally, we need to understand these songs as songs that are indeed crying out for justice. Woe to us if we were to pray imprecations upon the innocent or undeserving!

“But,” some others retort, “these songs are still at odds with so much of the New Testament; it was Christ Himself who called us to love our enemies.” Yes, but it was also Christ who said He came to fulfill the law & prophets. So, how do these songs fit into the New Testament? Day again does an excellent job showing how loving our enemies and calling for curses upon them are not opposites, but are both outworkings of a passion for God’s glory and Christ’s body. “Genuine love is a love that, above all, abhors what is evil and adheres to what is good. (Rom. 12:9)” Based upon this fully realized, dual-Testament ethic, Day discusses what is meant by “coals of fire” in Romans 12:17-21 (citing Pro. 25:21-22; he argues that it is an imagery of divine judgment).

Then, dealing the death blow to those who separate “old” and “new” morality, Day runs through the curses which can be found in the New Testament. While they are fewer, they are no less harsh. Jesus and Paul are the chief culprits of such harsh language; in fact, Jesus cursed all of unbelieving Israel when He caused the fig tree to wither (Mk. 11). Perhaps most powerfully, we see the martyred saints in Revelation 6:10 crying out for vengeance: “How long before you will judge and avenge our blood?” Finally, Day closes the book with a short sermon on Psalm 83.

This is, without reservation, an excellent book. Were someone to build upon the work done by Pastor Day, I would love to see more treatment of what it means to sing these songs, not just pray them (especially in light of the New Testament picture of the congregation singing to each other as well as to God). Crying for Justice is not flashy or humorous; it is sometimes technical, containing several references to the original languages and seminary-type language. But if you can get past that, it is well worth your time to understand these amazing songs.

3 comments:

Alicia said...

What a great subject. Thanks for the review!

leah said...

Just stopping by to say "HI" and that I found your blog.
Blessings!
leah
www.joyfulsoundrecords.com
www.leahslogic.blogspot.com

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