Vengeful God, loving God.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 December

When I translate the psalms, I make ’em rhyme because I can. Iambic octometer, anyone?

Psalm 3 KWL
0 David’s psalm, while fleeing the presence of his son Absalom.
1 My enemies—ten thousand, LORD!—have multiplied and charge at me!
2 The myriads say of my life, “God’s rescue? Not for he.” Selah.
3 But you, LORD, are my shield and honor, granting my authority.
4 I call the LORD, who from his holy mountain answers me. Selah.
5 I lay my head to sleep, and wake because the LORD has strengthened me.
6 Do I fear opposition from ten thousand circling people? Nah.
7 You rose and saved me, LORD my God. Face-punched my every enemy.
Broke evildoers’ teeth. 8 You bless your own with rescue, LORD. Selah.

Psalm 3 is Adonái me-rabu (Latin, Domine, quid multiplicati), “LORD, how are they increased,” written by King David ben Jesse in the 10th century BC, and as verse 0 points out, it was when his son Absalom attempted to overthrow him.

It’s a vengeance psalm. One of many. David liked to write ’em, and he’s not the only one; a lot of the prophets wrote vengeance poetry too. Because the psalms are some of the better-known passages of the bible, it creates a lot of problems for Christians: We read this stuff, and have the darnedest time reconciling it with the way Jesus and his apostles describe his Father in the New Testament. In the NT, God is love. In the OT—if you’re selectively reading it, and most Christians do—God appears to be all outrage and wrath.

From The Simpsons episode 14.10, “Pray Anything.”

The title of this article comes from an episode of The Simpsons where Homer gets ahold one of those lenticular photos—a 3D image, some of which will change when you tilt ’em. One image is of God (or at least the old guy from the Sistine Chapel ceiling) looking wrathful. The other is of God giving a thumbs up. “Vengeful God… loving God,” Homer comments.

Bipolar God, apparently.

But is he? Nah.

So where do we get this idea? Simple: We’re overlaying our own bad attitudes onto God. We’re vengeful, so when we read the Old Testament and see God righteously judging the nations, we presume he’s vengeful. We confuse God’s righteous anger with our own far-from-righteous anger. We even use it to justify doing likewise. But we’re too corrupt to act in anger without sliding into evil. God has self-control. We don’t.

King David’s vengeful God.

David ben Jesse is described as a man after God’s own heart. 1Sa 13.14, Ac 13.22 Which he was. Say what you will about him, the guy was bananas for Jehovah. Loved him, depended on him, always accepted correction from him, always wanted to do stuff for him. David was the guy who was so thrilled God’s ark was gonna be in his new capital, he ditched royal decorum and danced in front of the ark. 2Sa 6.14 (Apparently in a way that flipped up his kilt more than once, as his wife pointed out. 2Sa 6.20 Like David cared.)

Because the LORD thought so highly of him, we’d like to assume David was also popular with his people. That’d be a false assumption. His own king—his father-in-law, Saul ben Kish—was jealous of him, and drove him to live in exile in Israel’s archenemy Philistia. When David came out of exile after Saul’s death, he instigated a civil war with Saul’s rightful heir Ishbosheth. (I know; most folks assume Ishbosheth wasn’t rightful ’cause God had chosen David, but that’s not how the lines of succession work. Patriarchs pick their successors. Problem is, Saul’s successor Jonathan, who would’ve surrendered the throne to David, 1Sa 23.17 had died at the same time.) The seven-year war, in which 10 tribes wouldn’t recognize his claim till Ishbosheth was assassinated, gave him a rocky start.

Didn’t help when David established his own capital in his own tribal territory, and moved the tabernacle there. Then he had his general Uriah whacked so he could steal his wife. Then he let his eldest son Amnon, his heir, get away with rape. Raping his daughter, no less… well, until Absalom killed Amnon.

So when Absalom staged his coup, David wasn’t exaggerating about the numbers. If you just count the men—and David’s general Joab later did—Judah alone had half a million. 2Sa 24.9 David actually did have a myriad (which literally means ten thousand) opposing him. He might’ve held the majority’s support, but he had a pretty substantial minority against him. Understandably so.

David may have loved God like crazy, and wrote him a bunch of songs, but he nonetheless had some serious defects. That’s why many of his people didn’t at all mind the idea of the more stable-looking, more accessible, more popular 2Sa 15.6 Absalom taking over.

We can see David’s defects all over his psalms. He always had a lot of enemies—both political and military, from the time he entered the army onward. He regularly cried out to God to kill these foes. Seriously, kill them. Kill ’em painfully, too. Break their jaws. Knock some teeth out.

A lot of Christians read these violent psalms, and struggle to reconcile this idea of God with what we know of him through Jesus. And a lot of us honestly don’t know how to. In fact we wind up spreading a popular myth that the bible portrays God with dual personalities: In the Old Testament he’s ready to smite anyone and everyone. But by the time of the New Testament, he’s way less ragey and smitey. He used to be bloodthirsty, but now he loves everybody. After Jesus died for our sins, it calmed him down a whole lot. The cross worked on God like heavenly Risperdal.

Some Christians just couldn’t reconcile the two. In the mid-100s (yes, that early in church history) Marcion of Sinope decided the OT God couldn’t possibly be the same as Jesus’s Father. So the LORD was the Jewish god—but Marcion figured he followed a different God, the real God. Marcion ditched the Old Testament, and several books we now consider part of the New Testament: He liked Paul, but the other apostles not so much. Nowadays we call him a heretic—’cause Jesus makes no sense if he’s not the same God as the God of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David. How can we even call him Messiah and Christ if he’s not the son of David?

But unofficially, a lot of Christians take Marcion’s route. They don’t throw out the OT; they just skip reading it. They won’t come flat out and declare, “Moses’s God isn’t my God,” or “David’s God can’t be my God”; they just treat the OT and God’s commands (except maybe the Ten Commandments) as if they don’t count. They won’t teach, “Go ahead and ignore two-thirds of the bible,” but they will say, “We’re New Testament Christians.” Thanks to dispensationalism, the other testament is null and void. Functionally it makes ’em the very same heretics Marcion was. And these crypto-Marcionites are everywhere.

Yep, they’re wrong. King David’s God is the very same God Jesus proclaimed. So why’s there a difference between God in the OT and the NT? Well there’s not—but Christians don’t read enough of the OT to see it, and choose to read the testaments through separate, and very different, lenses. Wrongly so.

Vengeance psalms: David venting his spleen.

God wants to save everybody. 1Ti 2.4 But he can’t permit evildoers to continue to destroy the helpless and needy. That’s always been his message, throughout both Old and New Testaments: Repent! Turn to him, and he’ll grant us grace and his kingdom. Resist him, and the cycle of history will continue. It’s not that God’s sometimes loving, sometimes vengeful. God’s always loving. In his love, he rescues us from evil. Mt 6.13 Which is great for us when he’s rescuing us… but not always so great if you’re one of those evildoers.

Here’s the thing. When God’s smiting away at those who are doing evil against us, how do we typically respond? “Oh, how sad for those evildoers that they never repented,” or “Kick ’em in the balls, God! Kick ’em harder!

Yeah, it’s that second one. God’s compassionate. Us, not so much.

That’s what we see in the vengeance psalms. Not David saying, “My enemies surround me; LORD, bring them to repentance,” but “My enemies surround me; LORD, demolish them.” ’Cause honestly, that’s what David was feeling at the time. He wasn’t gonna hypocritically tell God, “Oh, I wish they’d repent” when he didn’t feel that way in the least. We do that. We lie to ourselves, and lie to God, ’cause we figure we should feel that way. And yeah, we should. But it’s not how we really feel, and how we feel is how we ought to pray. If we feel like cursing others, there’s nothing wrong with imprecatory prayer. As demonstrated by David.

The problem is we read how David felt, and we use it to justify how we feel. “David wanted his enemies laid waste. Guess there’s nothing wrong with wanting my enemies laid waste.” Yes there is. Jesus taught us better than that. Just because David was being brutally honest with God, doesn’t mean God wanted him to think that way. Or wants anyone to think that way.

It’s why, you’ll notice, a lot of the vengeance psalms begin with David wanting his enemies to be killed in nasty ways… and often end with David no longer talking like that, but praising God. Venting to God calmed him down. ’Cause God does that. Pour out your cares on him, and he’ll take care of you.

So no, David didn’t get God wrong. But he did get himself wrong, and we Christians had better learn the difference.

Does God wanna destroy people? Absolutely not. He wants people to repent and turn to him. Ek 18.32 What if they don’t?—what if they keep doing evil, and afflicting God’s people? Well, sometimes God’s gonna intervene. The cycle applies to everyone—Hebrews, Philistines, Christians, everyone. Repent, or God’ll turn your enemies loose on you.

Does God wanna break jaws? No, but he will. Sometimes directly; sometimes not. When David broke Philistine jaws with his sling, he figured God had broken their jaws through his sling. He credited God with his victories. Sometimes that’s true; but sometimes God doesn’t intervene, and leaves a battle to the stronger, or even to chance. Ec 9.11 David knew it wasn’t chance because he deferred to God before battles, 1Sa 30.7-8 but we don’t: We just assume we’re righteous. We never figure it’s because we overmatch our enemies by miles; never because of dumb luck. We even assume this in ballgames.

Does God think like David does? No. But that was never the point of David’s psalms, was it? These are his prayer requests. These are the thoughts going through David’s head. David was full of wrath and sorrow and vengeance and mayhem. Is God?

Well, if you wanna know how God thinks, you need to read what Jesus says. Not David.

Nonetheless, keep reading David. Yep, even his vengeance psalms. He’s a good example of naked honesty before the LORD, and while we shouldn’t mimic his anger or sorrow, we should never mask our own anger and sorrow when we come before God in prayer. Let God help you work it out.