As a thoughtful Christian meditates on this psalm, it is hard to escape the conclusion that a good name for it would be “A Psalm for the Secular West.” But this would be a mistake—while it is absolutely pertinent for our times, there have been many generations when the same things could be said, including the time when it was written. God has always been holy, and man has always been sinful, and so the math always seems to work out the same way.
“O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth; O God, to whom vengeance belongeth, shew thyself. Lift up thyself, thou judge of the earth: Render a reward to the proud. Lord, How long shall the wicked, How long shall the wicked triumph? How long shall they utter and speak hard things? And all the workers of iniquity boast themselves? They break in pieces thy people, O Lord, and afflict thine heritage . . .” (Psalm 94: 1-23).
Summary of the Text:
The plea is for Jehovah to show Himself, as He is the one to whom vengeance belongs (v. 1). God, please rouse Yourself, and hammer the proud (v. 2). How long are You going to let the wicked run on like this (v. 3)? How long will they be allowed to boast in their pufferies (v. 4)? God, do You not see that they are breaking Your people (v. 5)? They murder widows, aliens, and orphans (v. 6), and give themselves a free pass by saying that God does not see it (v. 7).
Understand then, you swinish men—learn wisdom, you fools (v. 8). Do you really think that the one who made the ear cannot hear? That the one who fashioned the exquisite mechanism of the eye is Himself blind (v. 9)? The one who chastises pagan nations, shall He not correct you (v. 10)? He that teaches knowledge to man . . . words then fail the psalmist (v. 10). God knows the thoughts of a man—and they are three parts mist, and two parts smoke (v. 11).
In the first verses of the psalm, we see how the wicked conduct themselves. Then there is an apostrophe, where the psalmist is amazed at how thick they are. And then there is a turn at verse 12. God intervenes on behalf of His blessed ones, and we see that His saints are privileged to join in the battle.
So if God teaches and chastens a man, then that man is blessed (v. 12). God will give him rest from affliction, until the point when the wicked get theirs (v. 13). God will never forsake His own heritage (v. 14). The upright will follow a right judgment (v. 15). Who will stand on our behalf against the wicked (v. 16)? The Lord is the only one who could do that (v. 17). When our foot is about to slip, the mercy of God intervenes (v. 18). When our thoughts are buzzing like a hive full of irritated bees, the comforts of God delight us (v. 19). There are times when, in the midst of affliction, or in the middle of battle, your thoughts are like the branches of a tree in a gale. The high winds cause your thoughts to move first here and then there, and sometimes to get tangled, the way branches can. It is there, in that moment, when the comforts of God delight you.
Shall the throne of iniquity, that which uses laws as instruments of mischief, have fellowship with God (v. 20)? And what is the consequence of God refusing fellowship to a throne? That throne must fall. But they gather, they assemble, they conspire, and they do so against innocent blood (v. 21). Nevertheless God remains our defense, and our rock of refuge (v. 22). There is a final holy warning given, no less ominous for its holiness. God will bend their iniquity back on them (v. 23). He will cut them off in their wickedness; He will absolutely cut them off (v. 23).
Understanding Imprecatory Psalms:
As Christians we are instructed to sing the psalms, all of them (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). This means that God wants them to help shape our devotional lives, and this includes the imprecatory psalms. God wants us to have a piety that knows how to cry out for vengeance, a piety that calls for blood.
But if you find yourself singing psalms of imprecation because someone cut you off in traffic, then I would suggest that perhaps you are doing it wrong. If you utter curses from the Psalter because you open the fridge and find that someone finished off the ice cream, then perhaps a basic refresher is in order. Remember that Jesus rebuked some of His disciples who wanted to call down fire from Heaven (Luke 9:55). Elijah had done this in a showdown with the wicked king Ahaziah (2 Kings 1:10). James and John wanted to do it because some Samaritans had told them the Motel 6 was full when it wasn’t.
So when you have learned to treat your personal enemies the way David did (1 Sam. 24:1-15), then you are in a good place to begin learning how to sing the way he did about God’s enemies (Ps. 139:21). The heart of the lesson is that psalms of imprecation are instances of us turning the whole thing over to God because He is the one to whom vengeance belongs (Ps. 94:1). When you do it right, you are taking your fleshly desires out of the dispute, not inserting your flesh into the conflict, and all in the name of Jesus.
Learning to pray the imprecatory psalms is a high necessity—the events of the last few months indicate that they have been prayed far too infrequently with regard to the wickedness of our national life. Getting your personal peeves and your own ego out of consideration does not turn you into a spiritual pacifist. Rather, it makes you a reliable warrior. And never forget that the high logic of all imprecation is found in the cross. There we see the wickedness of man, there we see the hatred of God for sin, and there we see the love of God for sinners. When curses rain down, now that Christ is come, that is how they rain down. And when rebels are destroyed outside of Christ, destroyed in the old school fashion of Sodom, or Egypt, or the antediluvian world, they are destroyed because they refused the wrath that transforms enemies into friends, and thereby embraced the wrath that turns men and women into wraiths.
The Great Wickedness of Evolution:
The impudence of evolution is seen in the fact that it denies the first premise that is set out here by the psalmist. But why are we speaking of evolution all of a sudden? When sinners pursue their sin, they do not want a holy God close to them. They want to put Him at a great distance, or remove Him from consideration altogether. The argument of the psalmist is that the God who made the eye can certainly see you. The evolutionist says, “very well, then. We will deny that God made the eye.”
But the argument remains. He that made the ear, does He not hear? He that formed the eye, does He not see? He that gives man knowledge . . . oh, he is out of patience. Just stop.
The point of evolutionary science is in no way the pursuit of knowledge. It is rather a pell mell flight from the knowledge of God. The problem is not “not enough” knowledge. The problem is that we have too much knowledge, much more than we want, and we are trying to offload some of it.
Mischief through the Law:
When we pretend that God doesn’t see us, the first thing this does is open up a vacancy. We need a god who sees us, but not in a bad light. We need a god that can have what he sees be controlled by us. And because the Most High apparently cannot see us, for we have denied Him, we will appoint some rebels to rule in His place. They abuse that position, naturally, but it is better than having the living God try to run our lives. So what do these jitney replacement gods do? They vaunt themselves in their pride (vv. 2, 4). They break God’s people (v. 5). They attack the defenseless (v. 6). They think their great vain thinks (v. 11). They frame mischief through their legislation (v. 20). And their own iniquity rises up like scalding water out of a geyser, and crashes back down on them (v. 23).
God’s Gonna . . .
And it seems only fitting to conclude with the words of Johnny Cash, who expressed one of the central sentiments in this psalm very nicely.
Go tell that long tongue liar
Go and tell that midnight rider
Tell the rambler
The back biter
Tell ’em that God’s gonna cut ’em down
Tell ’em that God’s gonna cut ’em down
And never forget that the only safe way to flee from the wrath of God, from the anger of His hot displeasure, is to turn on your heel and run as fast as you can toward the wrath of God as it was poured out on the crucified Jesus.
Every sinner dies. Every sinner has to be cut down. Either it will happen in Christ—with the prospect of resurrection and everlasting life before you—or it will happen to you while you are standing before God, naked and ashamed, and with the skies and seas and lands having all fled from you in humiliated embarrassment. Nothing to present to God but your vile sins, and no Christ to bear them. For the redeemed, they also have nothing but their sins to contribute—but through the gospel they are privileged to say the name of Christ, who then presents them faultless to His Father.