Many find the Psalms disturbing because in them we discover a lot of expressed hatred and curses against the enemy. How does this stack up against Jesus’ clear teaching that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?
As with many apparent inconsistencies in scripture there are several factors one must consider:
Firstly, the psalms are not simply theological treatise, so while they provide some very wonderful truths, they are also prayers and songs that express the full range of genuine feelings and emotions experienced by real people, living under God in a fallen world. For example; one day the psalmist laments God’s apparent distance (Ps 43, 88), on another he celebrates his inescapable presence (Ps 23,139).
So the expression of hatred and the desire to see the destruction of his and God’s enemies must be seen as genuine, but not necessarily ideal feelings. We can control what we do and say, but not always what we feel and God wants our honesty, not our pious pretentions.
Secondly, the psalms were written by those who belonged to God’s nation living in God’s place under God’s rule. Canaan was a kind of Heaven on earth struggling to survive in a very unfriendly world. Their concern was not so much to evangelise the world but to defend what they already had. The psalms were often an appeal to a champion for military protection.
The Israelites also saw God as a judge in two courts. In the criminal court he dispensed justice against malefactors for crimes against the crown (Himself), whilst in the equity court he dispensed justice on behalf of his people. Those psalms that are full of cursing and hatred are the pleadings of a plaintiff desiring the harshest penalty be imposed on defendants who have caused much personal harm.
Thirdly, the cursing were only ever called down upon the recalcitrant – those determined to undermine the work of God. The repentant were always welcome. David himself realized that he was a recipient of incredible grace (Ps 32,51) and wrote of his own experiences to encourage others to avail themselves of that grace through repentance. Incidentally nearly every treaty offered by David to the enemy nations in Canaan was rejected.
Fourthly, we do not find encouragements in the psalms to take matters into one’s own hands. David may have been guilty of doing that on occasions, but he never considered it a virtue. Rather his prayers were to a God who had the right to decide such matters and who would always act justly.
We who have the luxury of hindsight and the greater revelation of Jesus know that it is no longer necessary for us to worry about the defense of our promised land. We can rely on God to ensure that his opponents will be excluded without any pleading from us.
We are now free to reach out to our enemies and totally disarm them by turning them into friends. We may not feel loving towards them but we can actually love them in practice we can do good to them, we can pray for them and we can be generous and kind to them without fear, knowing that God will reward us for doing so.
Finally, before we rise up in self righteous indignation against the saints of old you would do well to remember that the opposite to love is not hate, but indifference.