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THE BOOK OF PSALMS.
In resuming the consideration of the subject matter of the Psalms, one of the most difficult and at the same time one of the most interesting and important questions which presents itself to our minds, is the right interpretation of the so-called imprecatory Psalms, i.e. those Psalms in which God's retributive justice is not only denounced against the transgressors of His law, but in which we find prayers offered to God for its speedy and effectual execution. Many of these will at once suggest themselves to the mind of the diligent student of Holy Scripture; and there are, probably, none of those who reverence and tremble at God's word, who have not felt the apparent inconsistency of these passages with the obligation imperatively enjoined, alike in the Old Testament and in the New, not only negatively not to hate nor to seek to take vengeance on our neighbour, but also positively to seek to promote his good: "Thou shalt love thy ueighbour as thyself." (Lev. xix. 17.)
1. The fact that the "royal law" was explicitly set forth under the older dispensation, is of itself a sufficient refutation of one proposed solution of the difficulty under our consideration, which rests upon the false assumption, that whilst cursing and bitterness were the essential characteristics of the Law, blessing and long-suffering were enjoined exclusively by the Gospel. We are far, indeed, from denying the immeasurable superiority in this, as in all other respects, of the Gospel of Christ over the Law of Moses, that "the old commandment," which was "heard from the beginning," under the dispensation of law, was renewed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ in clearer light, and enforced by more constraining Vol. 68.—No. 383. 5 K
motives. But here, as in the case of tbe revelation of a future state of rewards and punishments, we maintain, that the " Old Testament is not contrary to the New,"—that the earlier covenant contained the germs of the later,—that the difference between the two consisted rather in the mode of teaching, than in the doctrines and precepts which were taught,—and that the reason of that difference is to be sought in one of those distinctive characteristics of God's manifestations of His will to man, which our Lord Himself enunciated in these words: "I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now."
Assuming, then, for the present, that none but very superficial students of Holy Scripture can rest satisfied with that solution of the difficulty which consists in the virtual elimination of the passages in question, so far as Christians are concerned, from the Psalter, we proceed to examine some other suggestions which have been made with a view to their explanation.
2. It has been not unfrequently alleged that, in the Hebrew language, there is no difference between the Future and the Imperative; in other words, that there is no clearly marked verbal distinction between the simple prediction of a future event, and a prayer that that event may come to pass.
It is a sufficient refutation of the solution of the difficultj thus suggested, to reply, that it can apply only to some of those passages in which the third person is employed, and that the second person of the Imperative mood has its distinct form as clearly marked in the Hebrew as in the English; and consequently, that such passages as the following: "Break Thou the arm of the wicked and the evil man," (Pfix. 15,) and "Give them according to their deeds, and according to the wickedness of their endeavours," (Ps. xxviii. 4,) are encompassed with the same difficulties in the Hebrew as in the English,—in other words, are as much a prayer in the one language as they are in the other, that God will Himself interpose, and take vengeance on the wicked.
It follows, then, that whilst some of the passages which, in the English version, have been regarded as expressive of the desire of the writer, might, with equal correctness, be regarded simply as prophetic of the destiny which awaits the sinner, there are others to which no such explanation is applicable; and consequently, that the difficulty by which we are met remains with unabated force, whether the passages out of which it arises be few or many in number.
3. Another partial solution of the difficulty is suggested hy the enquiry, whether the imprecatory Psalms may not be regarded simply as records, on the part of the authors, of the existenco in others of those feelings of animosity, and that desire for vengeance, which are therein expressed,—a record in which the Psalmists are to be regarded in the light of historians, relating the words of others, without any expression of concurrence or dissent on their own part.
It is almost certain that in some cases, particularly in Psalm cix. 6—19, the words which are commonly regarded as proceeding from the lips of the Psalmist are really those of his adversaries; and that, as in Psalm xli. 8, the words "say they" should be inserted or understood; and it is quite reasonable to suppose, that in other passages expressions are to be found, which may be interpreted as descriptive of the emotions of others, rather than of those of the writers. But here, again, the suggestion avails little or nothing towards the removal of the difficulty with which we are dealing, inasmuch as in some cases, as in Psalm cix. 20, the writer, if the words be correctly rendered as expressing his own prayer, desires that the curses invoked by his enemies upon him, may light upon them; or, if his words be understood as spoken prophetically, at least he rejoices in the prospect of their discomfiture, (ver. 28, 29.)
4. The suggestion that the expressions for which we are endeavouring to account, consistently with our belief in the existence and obligation of "the royal law" of love, are to be regarded simply as adopted in conformity with the prevailing spirit and customs of tho age, and as not designed to convey that meaning which we now ascribe to them, appears to us to be a solution of the difficulty, not only utterly unsatisfactory in itself, when applied to similar expressions in profane authors, but altogether inconsistent with that supreme homage and reverence which are due to the language of inspiration.
It behoves us, then, without attempting to evade the difficulty, either by underrating its magnitude, or by proposing as adequate solutions of it theories which are applicable only to some of its forms, to consider whether there are not some eternal and immutable principles of truth, of justice, and of holiness, which not only demand the punishment of sin on the part of God, but which, in exact proportion as they are apprehended by us—in other words, in exact proportion as man's will is conformed to God's Will—require our satisfaction in the execution of the Divine purposes, and—hard as it is to realize the truth—our desire that those purposes of vengeance, as well as of mercy, may be speedily accomplished, and that thereby the coming of Christ's kingdom may be hastened.
Whilst earnestly maintaining, however, that the first and great consideration for us is to ascertain, as far as in us lies, what is the mind of the Spirit which inspired these Psalms, and in what sense we are to understand and accept their contents as applicable to ourselves, it cannot be a matter devoid of interest or importance to ascertain, if possible, in what spirit and with what design the imprecatory Psalms were composed by their human authors.
Now, one of the first things which strikes the attentive student of the Psalter is, that the large majority of these Psalms were the compositions of David, the divinely chosen and anointed king of Israel.* A very superficial acquaintance with David's character will suffice to show, not only that he was not a man of a revengeful spirit, but, on the contrary, that—though of quick and lively emotions, a man, as we should say, of a hasty disposition naturally—he had learned to set a curb on his passions, and that, more particularly in his dealings with Saul and with Shimei, he afforded an example of magnanimous forbearance.
The occasions to which we specially refer as affording proof of this assertion, will readily recur to the mind of every biblical student. But we think that the account of two occasions on which David was tempted to indulge a spirit of revenge, viz., in the case of Saul and in that of Nabal, afford yet stronger proof, either of the repugnance of his natural disposition to this passion, or of the triumph of grace over nature. In the former of these cases, the remorse which struck his heart in the recollection of having so much as cut off the skirt of the garment of the man who thirsted for his blood, and who was in the very act of seeking his destruction; and, in the latter case, his devout gratitude that his hands had been stayed, and that he had been providentially restrained from yielding to the first impulse of anger, disclose more convincingly than any encomium which could have been pronounced by his biographer, the exquisite susceptibility of David's nature, and the repugnance of his whole soul to the dictates of a cruel and bloodthirsty spirit of revenge.
The impression produced upon the mind of the impartial reader by the records of David's history, is strongly confirmed by the very writings which form the subject of our present consideration. It is hard to conceive of a man of a cruel and revengeful disposition, (unless guilty of a refinement of hypocrisy, which few would lay to the charge of David,) recording, in the words which follow, his feelings and his conduct on occasion of the sufferings of his enemies: "But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sack-cloth: I humbled my soul with fasting, and my prayer returned into mine own bosom." (Psalm xxxv. 13.) And again, "For my love, they are my adversaries, but I give myself unto prayer." (Psalm cix. 4.) And yet these words are not only found in the Psalter amongst the Psalms ascribed to David, but they occur in those very Psalms which afford some of the most striking examples of the class of difficulties now under our consideration.
• Out of sixteen Psalms selected by writer; and two are ascribed to Asaph,
Dr. Barnos as specimens of tho impre- one of tho loadors of David's choir,
catory Psalins, involving all tho dUffi- Tho remaining Psalm, viz. the 137th
cultios which aro to be found in them, (to which we shall have occasion to
twolvo aro ascribed to David in tho refer shortly), was probably composed
titlos; one, the 10th, is with good very shortly after the return from the
reason commonly assigned to the sumo Captivity.
It is clear, then, that we must seek some other solution of the apparent inconsistency, than is supplied by the arbitrary and untenable hypothesis, that David gave utterance in these Psalms to the spirit of revenge, and was actuated by a desire to gratify feelings of personal resentment. And it appears to us, that this solution is to be sought mainly in the two following considerations: (1) that David was the divinely appointed ruler of the nation; and (2) that David was divinely inspired to speak in the person of Christ.
1. David was the anointed king of Israel; and hence, those who conspired against David were traitors to their country and to their king. Inasmuch, then, as David stood in the position in which St. Paul declares that all rulers and magistrates, whether of higher or lower degree, stand, viz., as "the ministers of God," and as those who "bear not the sword in vain," so far from seeking to gratify feelings of private animosity and revenge in the punishment of his adversaries, he was but discharging the necessary obligations of his kingly authority. And, further, in praying that he might be strengthened for the discharge of these duties and responsibilities, and that he might be successful in quelling the tumults and insurrections of those who resisted his authority, he did but prefer requests similar to that contained in our own Litany, that it may please God "to bless and keep the magistrates, giving them grace to execute justice, and to maintain truth." How unwilling David was to press to extremity the demands of justice, and how much more indisposed he was to gratify the feelings of private resentment, will appear from a consideration of the cases both of Absalom and of Shimei; and perhaps, though it might seem otherwise at first sight, from the latter even more conspicuously than from the former. Many have been the cases in which men of a revengeful disposition have been softened at the last; and, in the consciousness of the nearness of their own appearance before a tribunal at which they would have need of much forgiveness, they have been willing to forego even their rightful claims, and to forgive even their most bitter foes. It is contrary to all analogy, that a man who had so little thirst for personal revenge, and so much self-control, that, in the day when his enemies were subdued before his face, he could magnanimously pardon, and even palliate, the offence of his bitter reviler, should not only har