“O Lord, you God of vengeance . . . give to the proud what they deserve! . . . Repay them for their iniquity and wipe them our for their wickedness; the Lord our God will wipe them out!”–Psalm 94:1-2, 23
The “imprecatory” parts of the Psalms tend to make us modern Christians squirm a bit. It’s understandable. How do we hold together the people’s call for God’s vengeance against enemies with Jesus’ call to love our enemies? Do we really want to pray that God will “wipe them out?”
In the true spirit of authenticity that pervades the Psalms, the ancient Israelites did not edit out this vengeful part of themselves. Here in Book IV of the Psalms, the Israelites are exiled to Babylon, clinging to their salvation story with God, scraping together every bit of their history and faith to get through this desperate time. The days of an independent, flourishing kingdom of Israel are gone. They are defeated and the temple destroyed. They are living from the underside, captives in a foreign land.
From this trodden-down place of defeat, they pray the fullness of their emotions and experience. They are in desperate distress and God is their only hope of help and rescue. So they call for God’s faithful judgment to rain down, bringing deliverance for the victims and immediate disempowerment for those abusing their power.
I am reminded that before I judge too harshly this call for vengeance against evildoers, that I have never been the direct victim of a horrible wrong. I have never been displaced, physically harmed or wounded, sexually assaulted or lost a loved one to violence. Who am I to judge the honest prayers of those who have been harmed?
At some level, it seems to me that the cry for vengeance is one line in a song, a desperate, angry high note for the violence to stop and life to be made right again. The singer longs for the evildoers to experience the depth of their wrongs against others. But the larger song is a call for justice, for people to live in right relationship with God and one another.
And it is only in the hands of God where our feelings of vengeance on the way to justice can be held safe and ultimately, transformed. Perhaps it is when we tell the truth in prayer about what we are really, truly feeling—especially those “unacceptable” feelings like vengefulness—that we are on the way to being shaped into peacemakers.