This is the time of year when we begin to see many echoes of Christ throughout our culture, in part due to our obsession with the idea of Christmas. For some, this is reflected in a true and honest worship of He who came to fulfill all of the Old Testament. For some, there is no reflection or echo found, but rather a blatant disregard to the commands of God. So many spend lavishly to indulge their flesh in as many ways as possible. Others try with all their might to "do good" to others in order to try to feel good about themselves, attempting to work away all of their sins. Others ignore everything about this time of year, that way they don't have to engage with those who profess the Truth in love.
People yearn to know that there is hope for them, for their loved ones. Christmas doesn't just provide an opportunity to enjoy friends and family, but it opens the door to proclaim from the highest mountains and lowest valleys that the One born so many years ago in a manger came to redeem a people for Himself. He came to live perfectly, die perfectly, and redeem perfectly. Because of this truth we offer hope. Hope that the truths found throughout Scripture would shine forth during this time of year in such a way that not only are we able to rebuke those who fight against God, but that we would be able to offer those very same people forgiveness and life. Let us rejoice that Christ has come and let us long for His return.
The following is an excerpt from Chapter 10 of Rut Etheridge III’s God Breathed: Connecting Through Scripture to God, Others, the Natural World, and Yourself ©2019 Crown & Covenant Publications. Used by permission.
Having confessed our own sin and taken steps to promote justice and mercy in our lives and culture, we can rightly and with a clean conscience cry out against the evil “out there.” And as the imprecatory psalms essentially direct us, we can take the faithful fight directly to our truest enemy.
This Means War
The conflict between the woman, the dragon, and their respective offspring comes coursing down through history like a river of blood. In Old Testament times, when church and state could hardly be distinguished, God’s people were sometimes called to take up arms in conflicts that were always fundamentally spiritual. The New Testament clearly articulates distinctions between church and state and between physical and spiritual warfare, but it continues to remind us of the unseen realities at play in what we do see. (1) The physical and metaphysical are ever intertwined. (2)
The devil gets much of his work done through those who do not acknowledge his existence. Thankfully, that’s true of God as well. History tells of tyrants, satanic in their bloodlust, who’d think that belief in such a being is silly. There are benevolent rulers who reject Christ but do wonderful image-bearing work for the world. And, sadly, there are rulers who live like hell but draw fawning attention from Christians because they refer to Jesus as Lord. “They’re baby Christians!” supporters say. No. Babies recognize their parents and act like them. The Psalms call attention to the true King, who works through (or despite) all lesser rulers to accomplish his righteous reign in the world.
As we’ve seen, David was no prince, but the shepherd-poet-prophet-warrior-Scripture-writing king of Israel understood the unique Christ-centeredness of his life, and therefore of his songs. He knew that his music was from the Holy Spirit, meant to teach his people about their true King.
For example, Jesus said that David wrote Psalm 110 while “in the Spirit” (Matthew 22:43 and following), meaning that he was consciously being led by the Spirit as he wrote (see Revelation 1:10 as an example of the same usage of that phrase). David’s opening lyrics are cryptic: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘sit at my right hand.’ ” Wait. Who was David’s Lord? David is Israel’s king and no way is he bowing to a foreign ruler. And why does God call David’s Lord his right-hand man? It’s mysterious language that comes to clarity in Jesus Christ.
Jesus is both David’s descendant and David’s Lord, the God-appointed King who would ultimately sit at God’s right hand (3) and who would fulfill all of David’s Spirit-given words. Even the harshest.
Unlike Jesus, David fought in physical, brutal wars. Yet these fights, too, find their fulfillment and ultimate significance in the war Jesus did wage in this world, his shock-and-awe defeat of the one whose work stands behind all war. The Psalms fueled Christ’s fight, and Christ’s fight fulfilled the warful psalms.
The pain-filled psalms of judgment, which ought to be painful to sing, were composed to combat the devil’s work, which deserves nothing but holy hate. It’s right to call down God’s judgment upon those who delight in continually carrying out that work.
Satan bit hard in the garden but got his head stomped at the cross. Ever since then, he’s been doing whatever he can through whomever he can to rip and tear the world and its inhabitants before Jesus returns and renders him true dead.(4) We need sobering, soldiering language to remind us that biblical faith in Christ is a fight, a very costly one with very personal casualties. Paul says that we do not wage war against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). But, oh my, is it war.(5)
Rules of Engagement
In Ephesians 6, Paul tells Christians to suit up with “the whole armor of God,” the spiritual weapons that God’s people use to take the fight to their true enemy. Paul gets his military metaphor from Isaiah, who seems to be his favorite Old Testament prophet. In Isaiah 59, it’s the Messiah who wears the armor and does the fighting. The Savior Isaiah foretells would fight on behalf of God’s people, using spiritual weapons that demolish soul-enslaving philosophical strongholds set up against him (2 Corinthians 10:4–5). And so Paul tells believers to “put on Christ,” to strap up in the strength of the Messiah.
In Romans 16:20, Paul braces his Christian brothers and sisters for the fight of their lives: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” It’s Genesis 3:15 again! Except here, believers are crushing the serpent. Jesus beats the Enemy, but believers are so closely identified with him that his victory is described as theirs. Jesus has already won the war. What remains is for the risen Christ, through his word through his people, to keep on the attack until the Savior returns and slays the dragon true dead. The imprecatory psalms are on the cutting edge of that holy offensive.
Among the armaments Paul lists is the “sword of the Spirit,” the word of God. We can sing the imprecatory psalms against modern slavery (Psalm 129 comes to mind) while spreading the gospel to both victims and perpetrators alike. We’ve seen how a once great enemy of the church was conscripted to the true King’s service. Paul became a soldier for Christ who placed the gospel like a timed explosive into the relationship between a converted slaveholder and a fugitive slave. It was the charge that would explode whole systems of slavery in ages to come.
Singing the imprecatory psalms lets us acknowledge that the bite of a mortally wounded serpent still stings like hell, that there is still so much satanic oppression to oppose in this world. Yet these psalms remind us that we serve Satan’s conqueror. As Christ with his spiritual sword cuts the enslaver’s chains from people and communities (Revelation 19:15), we begin to learn redemption and reconciliation, love and peace—shalom—as a way of life.
(1) In 1 Peter 2:17, the Apostle tells believers to pay homage to the state. “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the Emperor” – almost as if he had to add that last part so believers would know that, yes, “everyone” included the tyrannical fake god whose government sanctioned the crucifixion of God’s son. But the New Testament also makes clear that the relationship between physical and metaphysical, body and soul, and in a similar way state and church, is one of distinction, not dichotomy. Like some twins, they’re not identical, but they are closely related. All belong to God. No governing power exists except that which God has set up for his purposes. While I don’t believe that Scripture calls Christians to establish a theocracy, I do believe that all governments owe their allegiance to the king of kings and ought to acknowledge it.
(2) The idea that the spiritual and physical are opposite or opposing aspects of reality is an ancient form of ceiling of self-thinking called Gnosticism. It sees spirit as living in an antagonistic relationship with matter (which is seen as inherently evil), the idea that we’re trapped in our physicality and in some cases that this means we can do whatever we want with our bodies, because it is our mind/spirit that is pure. John in particular seems to be combatting its rising influence. He opens 1st John by emphasizing the flesh and blood physicality of Jesus. Gnosticism is COS thinking in that it divides what God has joined together, body and soul, spirit and matter.
(3) See 2 Samuel 7; Psalm 2; Mark 16; Acts 2, 7; Romans 8; Colossians 3; Hebrews 10; and 1 Peter 3.
(4) This phrase “true dead” is a reference to a theme in chapter 6, “The Bible is the Story of Us.”
(5) These songs of war within God’s songbook are just that – songs of war. See James E. Adams, War Psalms of the Prince of Peace: Lessons from the Imprecatory Psalms (Philipsburg: P&R, 2017). This is the 25th anniversary edition. We understand why combat veterans use lots of profanity to describe the battles they’ve fought - that is, if they’re able to speak about them at all. God gave us the Psalms as a means of healthy grieving and catharsis, which is often intensely emotional and requires strong language. The imprecatory Psalms speak credibly to and for people who’ve seen life’s most violent atrocities up close, keeping their catharsis within a moral framework which condemns the evil they’ve seen and promises resolution in the risen Christ.
To read more of Rut Etheridge III’s God Breathed: Connecting Through Scripture to God, Others, the Natural World, and Yourself please go to www.rutetheridge.com.