Why did David call down the wrath of God upon his enemies when the Bible clearly states in the New Testament that we are to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, and leave vengeance to God?
What you refer to are often called the imprecatory psalms or prayers. The word “imprecate” simply means to call evil upon someone or something. Quite a few of these passages appear in the Bible. The first one is found in Psalm 5:10: “Destroy thou them, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; cast them out in the multitude of their transgressions; for they have rebelled against thee.”
The key to answering your question, I believe, is twofold. First, we need to understand God’s ways of dealing with people in the various dispensations. Second, we need to see the true nature of the prayers themselves. Before taking a look at these two points, I should point out that some have taken these prayers in ways that we should not follow. For example, some have said that David prayed these prayers because he did not know any better or because he was living in a semi-civilized society that knew war as a way of life. Others have even suggested that these passages are flaws that disprove the inspiration of the Scriptures. We don’t need to take these views at all.
When we look at God’s methods of dealing with people, we cannot help but see a marked contrast between the previous dispensation of the law and our present dispensation. Often in the Old Testament we see God’s wholesale intervention in the affairs of people, both believers and unbelievers. When it came to His perfect wrath, God sent plagues, death, destruction, famine, and disease directly upon people as He saw fit. God, in His infinite wisdom and divine purposes, does not deal with people in quite the same way in this dispensation of the Church, or the Age of Grace. Though people today do suffer calamities, it is not the same. God allows these realities of a sin- cursed earth to befall people, and we who belong to God can testify that the events of our lives are thus screened by Him for His glory and for our learning and benefit. But He does not shower down all manner of retributions directly today as He did back then—or will again do during the Great Tribulation period.
That is not to say that God in this present dispensation is overlooking sin. Far from it. God is keeping a perfect record of everyone and everything. All will be judged in the future: unbelievers at the Great White Throne Judgment and believers at the Bema, or Judgment Seat of Christ—the latter a judgment of works and the former a judgment with reference to salvation. And though God doesn’t directly hand out calamities the way He did and will do in the Tribulation, He certainly allows sin to catch up with people. We see this often. Also there is a sin unto death (1 John 5:16). As controller of all things, He sees to it that all things work according to His will in every age.
Christ, in His words and deeds, reflected God’s shift of emphasis in dealings with people from the Old Testament to the New Testament. His words “Ye have heard that it was said: . . . But I say unto you” (Matt. 5:21, 22) show this. Likewise, we as believers are told to live as He lived. That includes leaving vengeance to Him, as you mentioned in your question (see 1 Pet. 2:21–23; Rom. 12:19—13:10). I should also point out that it is not God Who changes—His being, attributes, character, and so forth are always the same. We are dealing with varied orderings He has made concerning mankind and all of creation in accordance with His divine will and purposes. (Genesis 6:6 and 7 illustrate this fact.)
So from this first point we can see that we in this dispensation of the Church cannot rightly pray the imprecatory prayers David prayed. We can commit our enemies to the Lord in prayer, asking that the Lord’s will be done, meaning that the Lord would direct the affairs and circumstances of the people involved to His glory. But we could never pray a prayer like, “Lord, so and so hates Your name. Send fire down on him and destroy him, for he afflicts Your people.”
My second point is the need to see the nature of the prayers themselves. By this I mean that these imprecatory prayers of David were not as revenge-thirsty as we might suppose. David was not calling for personal vengeance but was rather crying out for God’s justice. The prayers pointed to God’s final judgment and to the fact that God is the true executor of justice. They also spoke of right and wrong, of a hatred for evil, and of the fact that wrong must (and will) be rectified by God, Whose cause is worthy. They are an expression of that part of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” They were prayed with the confidence that God’s judgment would come to pass at the right time, a testimony that David recognized sin and punishment go together. David was concerned about the name of God. He also thought of His Chosen People, Israel, even as the Lord spoke of in Luke 18: “And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily.”
This article appeared in the “Q & A” column of the Baptist Bulletin (May 1990) by Norman A. Olson.