I will never forget one of the first stories of sexual abuse that I ever heard. As Rachel’s narrative unfolded, my heart sank to hear what her perpetrator did to her. She concluded her story with this haunting question, “Where is God in all of this? I feel like He abandoned me.” I suggested she meditate on Hebrews 13:5 and celebrate that God will never leave her or forsake her. She was respectful, but unimpressed. For if God was really with her all the time, she asked, why did He let it happen in the first place? I was out of answers at that point, and our session came to a close.
A few weeks later I noticed a bit more life in her face and something that seemed like hope. When I questioned her, she said she was reading her Bible and that it was having a powerfully encouraging effect on her. Sure that it was my skill in navigating Scripture that had helped, I asked her what she had been reading. To my great surprise she replied, “The Book of Revelation.” I must confess that of all of the books in Scripture that I might use to bring comfort, a book full of prophecies about war, earthquakes, blood, and beasts with brutal powers does not come to mind first.
Asking why the book of Revelation had meant so much to her, she said, “Because someone is going to pay for what was done.” This answer stuck with me for many years and has helped me see the link between comfort and a longing for justice.
Longing for Justice
Perhaps nowhere in Scripture is this longing for justice more poignantly expressed than in the imprecatory psalms, which consist of individuals and groups pleading with God to pour out justice on those who have mistreated them. Traditionally, there have been ten specific psalms classified as imprecatory (7, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 109, 137, and 139), but cries for God’s vengeance and judgment are frequent throughout the Psalter (28:4; 52:5; and 68:1-2).
Most scholars agree that some portions of many psalms and some whole psalms have as their theme a petitioner asking for the just destruction of an enemy or perpetrator. While this destruction is anticipated with joy, sometimes the writer is actually comforted by the thought that one day justice will be served. Christians can always cry out for God’s ultimate vindication of Himself and His People. For it is this cry that is given in the language of the imprecatory psalms.
Comfort in the Psalms
For some, this language in the imprecatory psalms may seem too strong, but could it be that the language is not too strong if understood properly? Perhaps these harsh words are exactly the words the authors meant to be preserved. Maybe the language is not that extreme after all.
First, consider that the authors take seriously the stark difference between good and evil (and the mortal battle between them). In order for good to prevail, evil must be defeated, and evil will not succumb easily or quickly. To petition God to destroy my enemy might sound brutal to ears enjoying peace and security, but to a soldier in battle, it means victory and thus reflects the desire of their heart.
Secondly, note that the language of such psalms is directed toward God. Thus, the psalmists feel the freedom to unburden themselves in a way that, in the presence of anyone other than God, would make them feel uncomfortable. With God, they do not have to pull any punches. If the psalmists feel it, they give voice to it.
Consider, for example, Psalm 88, within which it is difficult after the first verse to find anything positive about anything or anyone, including God. The psalm does not end with a neat and tidy resolution. Rather, it ends on a dark note: “you have removed lover and friend far from me; my acquaintances are in darkness: (v. 18).
Finding Comfort in God’s Justice
With all the painful stories we hear, pastors and counselors can struggle with whether God is truly on the side of justice. As we routinely try to help others deal with injustice, there can be a subtle temptation to resign ourselves to the view that the God of justice is somehow off-duty. We might even begin to expect evil to win and to conclude that God, while caring a great deal about healing, does not care that much about justice.
For example, in my local police station hangs a poster asking for information about a man who was murdered and left in the park almost twenty years ago. Sometimes I wonder if anyone even remembers that person anymore. But God does. And God knows who killed him. Someday, justice will be rendered in this case. Even though I have no idea who this person is, I can take great comfort that the God of the universe has not forgotten and will one day close this case.
While contemporary commentators stumble over the vivid language, perhaps many of the original authors actually derive comfort from the thought of justice being administered and evil being violently defeated. They are not only looking forward to the relief from their current persecution and suffering, but they actually anticipate God being glorified through the defeat of the wicked.
It is one thing to make rash statements in the heat of the moment; it is quite another to put these thoughts in writing under the supervision of the Holy Spirit. More seems to be going on here than mere vindictive revenge. The psalmists are not just fantasizing about the destruction of someone who hurt them; they are crying out to a just, holy, and all-powerful God, asking Him to do what is right.
This post is adapted from Forgiveness and Justice: A Christian Approach. Learn more about our latest academic and ministry titles, or request a review copy for your media outlet, blog, or ministry course.
“Clear, logical, and pastoral in its treatment of the concepts of forgiveness, repentance, and injustice.”
– Philip G. Monroe, Biblical Theological Seminary
“No cheap grace is offered in this book, but instead a deep understanding of forgiveness, our longing for justice, and how they are to relate.
– Graham A. Cole, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School