David, His Enemies and Vengeance: Psalm 109 “The Iscariot Psalm”

vending machineThis article is going to take an interesting look at how interpretations of Scripture can vary wildly; and suggest with respect, that if you wish to understand any part of the word of God: read, read, read and don’t just accept the first explanation placed in front of you. In this case, don’t just accept the second either!

The psalm in question is Psalm 109.

“To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David.
O God of my praise, do not be silent;
for the mouth of the wicked and the mouth of the deceitful are opened against me; they spoke against me with a lying tongue.
And they surrounded me with words of hatred; and fought against me without a cause.
For my love they are my foes; but I am in prayer.
And they have rewarded me evil for good, and hatred for my love.
Set a wicked man over him; and let an adversary stand at his right hand,
when he is judged, let him be condemned; and let his prayer become sin.
Let his days be few; let another take his office.
Let his sons be fatherless, and his wife a widow.
Let his sons always beg and be vagabonds, and seek food out of their ruins.
Let the money-lender lay a snare for all that is his; and let strangers take the fruit of his labor.
Let there be none to give mercy to him; nor any to favour his fatherless children.
Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.
Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered to Jehovah; and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.
Let them be always before Jehovah, that He may cut off their memory from the earth,
because he did not remember to do mercy, but persecuted the poor and needy man, and sought to kill the broken-hearted.
Yea, he loved cursing, so let it come to him; he delighted not in blessing, and it was far from him.
As he clothed himself with cursing, as with his robe, so let it come into his bowels like water, and like oil into his bones.
Let it be to him as the robe which covers him, and for a girdle with which he is always clothed.
This is the reward of my foes from Jehovah, and of them who speak evil against my soul.
But You, Lord Jehovah, deal kindly with me for Your name’s sake; because Your mercy is good, deliver me.
For I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me.
As a shadow when it is stretched out, I am gone; I am shaken off like the locust.
My knees stumble from fasting; and my flesh is losing its fatness.
And I became a shame to them; they looked on me; they shook their heads.
Help me, O Jehovah my God; save me according to Your mercy;
and they will know that this is Your hand; that You, Jehovah, have done it.
They will curse, but You will bless; they arise, and are ashamed; but let Your servant rejoice.
Let my foes be clothed with shame, and let them cover themselves with their own shame, as with a cloak.
will greatly praise Jehovah with my mouth; yea, I will praise Him among the multitude.
For He shall stand at the right hand of the poor, to save him from those who condemn his soul.”     [Modern King James Version]

2015-01-20_13-53-02_01My first introduction to the Psalm came from Charles Spurgeon’s “A Treasury of David,” which shows not only Spurgeon’s thoughts, but interpretations from other commentators. This is what Spurgeon had to say: “Not the ravings of a vicious misanthrope, or the execrations of a hot, revengeful spirit, David would not smite the man who sought his blood, he frequently forgave those who treated him shamefully; and therefore these words cannot be read in a bitter revengeful sense, for that would be foreign to the character of the son of Jesse. The imprecatory sentences before us were penned by one who with all his courage in battle was a man of music and tender heart, and they were meant to be addressed to God in the form of a Psalm, and therefore they cannot possibly have been meant to be mere angry cursing… one author has ventured to call [it] “a pitiless hate, a refined and insatiable malignity.” To such a suggestion we cannot give place… Truly this is one of the hard places of Scripture, a passage which the soul trembles to read; yet as it is a Psalm unto God, and given by inspiration, it is not ours to sit in judgement upon it, but to bow our ear to what God the Lord would speak to us therein…”

From there, things went in a few different directions which baffled me.

J.J. Stewart: “The language has been justified, not as the language of David, but as the language of Christ, exercising His office of Judge… It has been alleged that this is the prophetic foreshadowing of the words, “Woe unto that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It had been good for that man if he had not been born.” [Ref: Matthew 26:24]

There were a number of commentaries which spoke along those lines, of David penning the holy, zealous, powerful words of a prophet, which absolutely had to be about Judas Iscariot betraying Jesus. I was wondering whether or not I should believe them, as while David did pen several Messianic, prophetic Psalms, this didn’t sound like one of them. To me, this sounded too much like the other Psalms where David was facing a very steep challenge. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary helped me think clearly again.

“The combination of devout meekness and trust with the fiery imprecations in the core of the psalm is startling to Christian consciousness, and calls for an effort of “historical imagination” to deal with it fairly. The attempts to attenuate the difficulty, either by making out that the wishes are not wishes, but prophecies of the fate of evildoers, or that Psa 109:6-20 are the psalmist’s quotation of his enemies’ wishes about him, or that the whole is Messianic prediction of the fate of Judas or of the enemies of the Christ, are too obviously makeshifts. It is far better to recognise the discordance between the temper of the psalmist and that enjoined by Christ than to try to cover it over. Our Lord Himself has signalised the difference between His teaching and that addressed to “them of old time” on the very point of forgiveness of enemies, and we are but following His guidance when we recognise that the psalmist’s mood is distinctly inferior to that which has now become the law for devout men.”

That, I agreed with wholeheartedly! It seems it is easy to try and smother parts of Scripture which make us squirm, by falling into analysis paralysis. We add in a sweeter meaning, to dodge the hard realities of human emotion. Psychology is often criticised for going too deep, making mountains out of mole hills and over analysing things to depth. As theology is based on human nature (like it or not,) it can readily fall into the same trap.

As for me, I think this comes from righteous anger when an injustice has been done to an exhausted man, who has had a hard life. David has just had enough and has reacted in a very human manner; not a perfect one, but a genuine one and we’ve all done the same.

Ashalim_stream_(Nahal_Ashalim),_Judean_Desert,_Israel_(1)F.B. Meyer: “This psalm is like a patch of the Sahara amid a smiling Eden. But, terrible as the words are, remember that they were written by the man who, on two occasions, spared the life of his persecutor, and who, when the field of Gilboa was wet with Saul’s life-blood, sang the loveliest of elegiacs to his memory. These maledictions do not express personal vindictiveness. Probably they should be read as depicting the doom of the wrong-doer.”

From all the study I have done on David and his culture over the past few hears, what I read in this Psalm is in line with the beliefs that David had: that enemies receive their judgement when alive, as there was no concept of a final judgement, so he had every right under the Torah to call for such extreme actions to be taken against them. It makes far more logical sense to interpret it in line with the mindset of David’s time, than to jump to a sophisticated, theological conclusion.

This Psalm is also very much in line with what we know of the culture of the day, in that as long as prayer was accompanied by praise, you could be brutally honest with God and it was far more than acceptable to do so. It was an act of supreme faith.

I ‘d like to finish with Matthew Henry’s conclusion, which gives us something beautiful to take away from this Psalm: “It is the unspeakable comfort of all good people that, whoever is against them, God is for them.”
See also:
~ How Gentle Kings Become Killers: David as a Warrior and Psalmist
~ Boldly Approaching God: The Example of David


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