To get an idea of what kind of psalms are “Vengeance Psalms”, read Psalm 58, 83, and 137
Psalm 58 asks God to break the teeth of the enemies in their mouths and to dissolve them like the snail that dissolves into slime – and Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a whole sermon of Psalm 58
Psalm 83 includes nations who are problems for Israel yet today: “Philistia” is the modern –day Gaza strip (Hamas), “Gebal and Tyre” are the coasts of present-day Lebanon and Syria (Hezbollah), “Edom, Ammon, Moab, and the Hagrites” fall within the boundaries of Jordan; “The Ishmaelites” lived in the deserts of what became Saudi Arabia, a nation which rewards the families of suicide bombers; “Amalek” roamed what is now Egypt; and “Assyria” is modern day Iraq.
Psalm 137 is probably the most famous of these “Vengeance Psalms”: … “happy the one who repays you for all that you have done to us, who takes your little ones and dashes their heads against the rocks.”
Psalm 109 prays that the prayers of my accusers may be turned to sin, their children turned into orphans who are forced to become wandering beggars, and their wives turned into widows
Ps 11 – God will rain fire and brimstone on the wicked
Psalm 50:2 – God will tear you in pieces if you forget Him
Psalm 52:5-6 – If you trust in riches instead of God, He will kill you and while you’re dying the righteous will laugh at you
Psalm 110:6 – the righteous will rejoice when they see the wicked being dismembered by God and they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked
Psalm 135:8; 136:10 – God is praised for slaughtering little children in Egypt
Psalm 140:10 – God is asked to burn people to death
These psalms are also known as the “Cursing Psalms” or the “Imprecatory Psalms”
There are a lot of them – 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 58, 69, 79, 83, 139, 143
C.S. Lewis denounced them as “terrible,” “contemptible,” “wicked,” “ferocious,” and “dangerous.”
Many other Christian interpreters have characteristically dismissed these psalms as “sub-Christian” or “pre-Christian”, and have concluded that these psalms are fundamentally incompatible with the New Testament’s demand that we are love our enemies and to “bless those who persecute you”.
On the other hand, Martin Luther calls these Psalms the Word of God (as much as anything else in the Bible), and as such we must not sit in judgment on them but must take them seriously, and apply them to ourselves. So how do we do that?
First of all, never forget that when you are praying the Psalms, you are praying together with the whole Church (around the world and throughout the centuries) – which definitely means that you are praying them together with the persecuted Christians who are being slaughtered today simply for being Christian. You are praying together with the people of God in Auschwitz, the Cherokee Christians walking the Trail of Tears, and every other Christian who has ever been surrounded by hostile powers and threatened with overwhelming force. When you pray the Psalms, you are never, ever praying alone.
When we are encircled by enemies and facing true evil, God’s people are to pray – not to retaliate, not to give up the faith, but to pray.
Notice that in these Psalms the longed-for vengeance is never taken by the psalmist into his own hands – instead the plea for vengeance is always addressed to God, recognizing that vengeance is never ours but always God’s (Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19)
Notice that these Psalms base their cries on the promises of God who has bound Himself to us in a covenant relationship. Most notable among these promises are Genesis 12:3 – “He who curses you I will curse”; and Deuteronomy 32:35 – “Vengeance is mine, I will repay”, a promise that is repeated in Romans 12:19. Since these are God’s own promises, it is presumably right for God’s people to appeal to Him to be true to His word
Plus, there are examples throughout scripture of God’s people praying like this: the best such example is found in Rev 6:9-11 where the perfected saints in heaven are heard pleading for divine vengeance, in language similar to language we find used in the vengeance psalms, and being comforted by the promise of its coming: “How long, O Master … until you avenge our blood.”
Don’t forget that the book of Psalms is intended as a book of worship for God’s people – and these prayers for divine justice find their heaviest concentration in this book of worship for God’s people. Nowhere in this worship book is anything found that is critical of these “Vengeance Psalms.”
And note how often in these psalms God’s people pray for the conversion of our oppressors or their destruction. You and I may have real trouble doing either, but not Luther: “We should pray that our enemies be converted and become our friends and, if not, that their doing and designing be bound to fail and have no success and that their persons perish rather than the gospel and the kingdom of Christ.” In another place, Luther warned God’s people “not to be more spiritual than God.” God should either transform our enemies, as He transformed Saul on the Damascus Road, or He should destroy them.
Of course, as the climax of most of these psalms reminds us, our focus must always be on the gospel and the glory of God.
And second of all, never forget that when you are praying these psalms, you are praying with Christ (The Word of God Himself, who both inspired them and prayed them). And when Jesus is praying these psalms of vengeance, He is passionately clinging to God when everything seems to be arrayed against Him – and He is praying against the enemies of God … which means us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: “The prayer for the vengeance of God is the prayer for the carrying out of God’s righteousness in the judgment of sin. This judgment must be made known if God stands by God’s Word, and it must be made known to those upon whom it falls; with my sin I myself belong under this judgment. I have no right to want to hinder this judgment. It must be fulfilled for God’s sake.” (Psalms: Prayerbook of the Bible)
Bonhoeffer’s argument that WE are the enemies, as found within the psalms of vengeance, prevents any element of denial, self-deception, and self-righteousness when we are praying these psalms. We might be tempted to think that we are righteous and, therefore, make judgment against the enemy on God’s behalf. However we would be wrong to think this: we are and remain the enemy of God. Here Bonhoeffer is in complete agreement with Luther who writes in the Commentary on Romans, where Luther argues that those who are justified by faith, through Jesus Christ, are both the enemies of God and righteous in the eyes of God.”
Bonhoeffer’s reasoning on “God’s righteousness in the judgment of sin” leads to a robust Christological understanding of the psalms of vengeance: “God’s vengeance did not fall on the sinners, but on the only sinless one, the Son of God, who stood in the place of sinners. Jesus Christ bore the vengeance of God, which the psalm asks to be carried out. Christ calmed God’s anger against sin and prayed in the hour of the carrying out of the divine judgment: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing!” No one other than He, who Himself bore the wrath of God could pray like this. That was the end of all false thoughts about the love of a God who does not take sin very seriously. God hates and judges the enemies of God in the only righteous one, the one who prays for forgiveness for God’s enemies. Only in the cross of Jesus Christ is the love of God to be found.
“So the psalm of vengeance leads to the cross of Jesus and to the love of God that forgives enemies. I cannot forgive the enemies of God by myself, only the crucified Christ can; and I can forgive through him. So the carrying out of vengeance becomes grace for all in Jesus Christ.
“… I pray the psalm of wrath in the certainty of its wonderful fulfillment; I leave the vengeance in God’s hands and pray for the carrying out of God’s justice to all enemies. I know that God has remained true and has secured justice in wrathful judgment on the cross, and that this wrath has become grace and joy for us. Jesus Christ Himself prays for the execution of God’s vengeance on His body, and thus Christ leads me back daily to the gravity and the grace of His cross for me and all the enemies of God.
“… I can believe God’s love and forgive enemies only through the cross of Christ, through the carrying out of God’s vengeance. The cross of Jesus applies to everyone … The New Testament … in no way differs … from the Old Testament, about this curse that falls on those who hate Christ; but the New Testament speaks in addition about the joy of the Christian community on the day when God will carry out the final judgment … In this way, the crucified Jesus teaches us to pray truly the psalms of wrath.” (Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible)
Bonhoeffer’s explanation for how a Christian can pray the psalms of vengeance involves BOTH the recognition that we are the enemies of God AND ALSO the understanding of how Jesus Christ takes God’s vengeance upon Himself. As “the enemy” we justly deserve God’s vengeance. However, we don’t get what we deserve; instead Jesus Christ takes upon Himself what we deserve: God’s vengeance. In this sense, the vengeance psalms point us toward Christ’s redemptive work.