February 19, 2023
In the closing verses of Psalm 139, David zealously prayed for the destruction of the wicked—then submitted himself to divine scrutiny as well. Like David, Christians should hate evil and long for its eradication, explains Alistair Begg. Vengeance, however, isn’t our responsibility. God alone judges righteously. Only when we understand His holiness and purity will we realize how lost and sinful we truly are, trust Jesus, and be saved by grace from God’s wrath.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Well, I invite you to turn with me to the Old Testament and to Psalm 139. And although we’re only looking at the closing stanza, I think, in light of the time that has elapsed, we should follow along as I read the whole psalm for us.
To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you.
Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
O men of blood, depart from me!
They speak against you with malicious intent;
your enemies take your name in vain.
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with complete hatred;
I count them my enemies.
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!
Well, I always encourage you to turn to the Bible, and some of you, I know, do. Others of you perhaps prefer just to listen, and I understand. But I want you to know that I’m going to turn to a couple of passages this morning, and if you are not ready to turn to them, then you must simply take my word for it and perhaps make a note and then go later on.
I said at the turn of the year that we would spend four Sunday mornings looking at Psalm 139. Three of those preceded the last three weeks, and now we come to this fourth and final section. In section one, which was verses 1–6, we saw how the psalmist says, “God knows me intimately”; in verses 7–12, “God is with me constantly”; in verses 13–18, “God has made me wonderfully”; and now, in 19–24, “God judges me righteously.” “God judges me righteously.”
If you remember, when we began, we said that although this psalm is attributed to David, there is no historic reference that allows us to pinpoint it with any accuracy. We mentioned that the closing section and the presence of these “enemies” in verses 19 and 20 probably provided for David the context for the way in which he then reflects on the security that is his in God, and, if you like, the presence of the enemies finds him retreating or, if you like, advancing into the security and provision and protection of God: “You know when I sit down. You know when I rise up. You hem me in.” Not a word of constriction but a word by way of protection.
And if the harsh reality of the wicked did give rise to the first eighteen verses, to all that is contained there, then I think we can also say that the first eighteen verses prepare the way for this closing section. In other words, when we read this closing section, we need to remember that David is not bloodthirsty—that the one who writes the concluding verses is the same one who has written the first eighteen verses, who has spoken of the intimacy and care and protection and provision of God.
Now, the reason that it’s important for me to say that is because if we are honest, when we come to verse 19, it almost appears to be a discordant note. There’s no question that of the twenty-four verses in the psalm, we would regard it as the most difficult. Because it seems on first reading to be a kind of abrupt intrusion, a strange intrusion, causing us as we read our Bibles, perhaps, in the morning on our own, and we’re reading through Psalm 139, and as we perhaps even every so often read it out loud to ourselves so that it might stick in our minds, and we come to verse 19, and we say to ourselves—we just stop and say, “Well, where in the world did that come from?” Well, the answer is, it came from verses 1–18. It is not an inappropriate interruption. And I hope to be able to show us this morning that it is because of the immensity of David’s experience of the living and true God that he responds in the way that he does to the wicked. God is so precious to him that he finds those who speak against God as intolerable. He finds, if you like, their revolt to be revolting.
You see, when a person’s world is full of God, then that person will actually long for the elimination of evil . If you think about it this morning, you realize that any true believer longs for the day when evil will be destroyed, when sin will be no more, when God will complete what he has purposed from all of eternity—a reality that David had only the slightest hint of and which we understand will be a reality in the new heaven and in the new earth. It is because of the immensity of his love for God that he is so careful to respond to all that opposes God. These individuals—verse 19—are bloodthirsty, they are blasphemous, and they rise up against God.
This is just in my mind right now: The first car that Sue and I had, I think, cost sixty pounds, maybe ninety dollars. It broke down with immense frequency. In fact, its final journey was on a particular road in Edinburgh where it finally gave up the ghost for the last time. And I pulled it into the side of the street, I got out, I took the bus, and I phoned for a wrecking shop and said, “It’s yours if you would like it.” So, I really would not have been concerned if any teenager had wanted that at all. They could take it and do whatever they liked with it. But imagine that I had been given a beautiful Rolls-Royce to drive around. Could you imagine the difference between my concern for this Rolls-Royce and this old banger of an Austin 1100? Fathers, think about your concern for the purity of your daughters. Would you not hate those who would despise her?
You’ve got to get this clear in your mind. David does not turn cantankerous in this final section. It is because he has such an understanding of the magnificence of God, the indescribable God, the holy God, that everything that is antithetical to that God is a concern to him.
Now, to try and guide our way through this, I want to point out, first of all, that this is a prayer. To whom does David direct these comments? If you look in your Bible, you will see that he is directing these comments to God. He has begun the psalm, “O Lord,” Yahweh, “you have searched me and [you know] me!” And he’s still speaking to God, and he’s speaking to him, if you like, in prayer. It is an imprecatory prayer—i-m-p-r-e-c-a-t-o-r-y. It is one of about thirty imprecatory psalms in the book of Psalms. An imprecation is essentially a curse. And the cursing psalms are there as an expression of the magnificent holiness of God and how all that opposes God will one day be destroyed.
If you would like to go back into the archives of our material at Parkside, you could bring up Christopher Ash’s talk which he gave on Psalm 137, the concluding verses of which are an imprecation as well: “O that you would take these little ones and dash their heads against a rock.” And I have not forgotten sitting and saying, “Well, I wonder what he is going to do with this,” and how he quite magnificently showed us an understanding of what that means. Well, I need that help, and you need that help. What it is, is a prayer: a prayer for divine vengeance. A prayer for divine vengeance.
Now, immediately people will find themselves embarrassed by this. Old Testament scholars throughout the ages are very, very tempted to do all kinds of things when you come to passages like this. Some will say, “Well, this was not David; this was somebody put this in here,” and so on. It doesn’t help anything at all. It’s really quite stupid. The fact of the matter is, we are tempted, then, to play the Old Testament against the New Testament. So people come to this, and they seek to get out of it, as it were, by saying, “Well, this is the Old Testament, of course. And we know”—wrongly—“that the Old Testament is obsolete. You don’t find this stuff, do you, in the New Testament?”
Well, yes, actually, you do. Now, here we go. Matthew chapter 23 and—you can read the whole of Matthew 23, but we won’t—verse 29. This is Jesus speaking: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers,’” so on and so on and so on. “Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” “How are you going to escape the destruction?” This is Jesus. This is New Testament.
Paul in Galatians 1:9: “As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” That is an imprecation: “Let him be destroyed.” You find the very same thing in a quite dramatic way, still in Galatians and in chapter 5, when he’s talking about those who are opposing the gospel, who are making a huge fuss about external things, and he says, “But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision,” which is what they were on about, “why am I still … persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.” Listen: “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” Sounds like an imprecation to me.
Revelation. This will be the last one for now, but there’s more to follow. Revelation chapter 6: “[And] they cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell [in] the earth?’” And “then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and [the] rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’”
Now, if we turn around the other way, we also need to understand this: that in both the Old Testament and in the New Testament, vengefulness is expressly forbidden. You see how we need a whole Bible to understand the Bible—so that people say, “Well, they did that kind of stuff in the Old Testament, and it wasn’t a problem at all.” Well, listen to the book of Leviticus and chapter 19: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” So in other words, in the Old Testament, love for our enemies is not an option; it is an obligation.
And at the risk of just causing you great concern with all of this cross-referencing, let me just give you a couple more. Deuteronomy and chapter 32. These are not just chosen arbitrarily. But Deuteronomy 32 and—where are we? Verse 35:
Vengeance is mine, and recompense,
for the time when their foot shall slip;
for the day of their calamity is at hand,
and their doom comes swiftly.
Well, you will recognize that one, won’t you, from Romans chapter 12, where Paul is referencing the Old Testament, and he says, “We already know this. ‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord. ‘I will take care of it’”—so that it’s not our responsibility to wreak vengeance, to tolerate vengeance, to perpetrate vengeance. That’s the first thing.
Notice that this is a prayer. He’s not standing on a rooftop shouting at people. He is not up in a position of exalted kingship saying, “Look at all these wretched people down there!” That is not what he’s doing. In fact, I’ve thought long about it. I wonder: Was he standing up? Was he sitting down when he wrote this? Did he write it and then lie down on his bed? Did he lie on his bed and say, “O Lord, you’ve searched me, and you know me; you know when I’m lying down,” and so on? Was he still lying on his bed when he said, “O God… O that you would slay, slay the wicked; O that you would bring this to an end”?
First of all, it’s a prayer.
Secondly, it’s not a program. It’s not a program for David to implement. He, like us, is longing for a day when wickedness will be destroyed. The First Psalm, remember: “Blessed is the man who doesn’t walk in the counsel of the ungodly or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord.” By nature, we are that person: no delight in God, no interest at all. You remember how the psalm ends? “As for the wicked, they are not so. They’re like the chaff that the wind blows away.” “Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.” David understands this. That’s how he began his book of psalms. This is not a program for David to go out and implement.
I won’t take time to turn you to it, but if you’re interested, you can go back and check, and you’ll find a number of occasions when, when we studied in 1 and 2 Samuel, David consistently refused to take matters into his own hands. Do you remember? In the cave, and his friends said, “Take him out now! You can kill him now.” David says, “No, I’m not going to do that. I will not do that. I will not take matters into my own hands.” David realizes that he is not driven by spite or vindictiveness or by a desire to get even. He is driven by a zeal for God. He’s God’s king, and as a result, his enemies were not simply private enemies; they were enemies of God. Remember, again, when we studied in 1 and 2 Samuel, we said, “Well, why would the king then exercise such punishment on those who were opposed to him?” And the answer is: because they were opposed to God Almighty! He was God’s king, and therefore, their opposition to him was an opposition to God.
Walt Kaiser, who came here many, many years ago in the early ’80s, has a wonderful little passage on this where he says these wicked enemies that are here embody wickedness as they carry out “the program … that is anti-God, anti-Messiah, … anti-promise. Doeg”—and you may remember Doeg (D-o-e-g; you can look him up)—“Doeg, Cush, and Ahithophel are not your average criminal or hostile types; they are the culmination and [the] final fruit of all falsehood, greed, hate, cruelty, and treachery aimed against the very means of their own salvation,” opposed to the very means of the salvation which God has provided in his Messiah.
Now, I will not divert from course, but it was inescapable to see a little of—what was it, the Grammys?—and the British singer Sam Smith dressed up literally as the devil, singing the great song “Unholy”! Part of me says, “O, that you would slay the wicked.” Part of me says, “O God, save him. Save him. He stands opposed to the very means of his own salvation.”
The fact is that David sees evil, and he sees how evil evil is, and so he hates it, as he says here in verse 22, with a “complete hatred.” The challenge for us—isn’t it?—is that it’s hard for us to give voice to that kind of expression of divine purity without, actually, it being mixed with an agenda of personal venom and animosity. There is a perversity about our souls that, while at the same time saying, “I absolutely despite and hate that,” and something in your mind going, “I wonder what it would be like to do that. I wonder what that would be like.” We have to be very honest, don’t we?
It’s a prayer; it’s not a program.
Thirdly, in dealing with it, it reveals our predicament or our problem—a problem to which I’ve already alluded. Because if we are honest, as I say, within ourselves, we’re hesitant to pray in that way—and not just because this was the prayer of God’s king and we are not God’s king but because we actually find this kind of confrontation to be distasteful. And yet, I was helped by just a sentence from Dick Lucas this week, where he said in passing, in a talk that he gave in the ’80s, “It’s never wise to dismiss from the Bible things we find difficult or distasteful.” It’s never wise for us to seek to dismiss from the Bible the things we find difficult or distasteful. These are not aberrations. These are part of the living Word of God.
So, then, what is our predicament? Twofold. Number one: we are confused in our thinking. Confused in our thinking. You say, “Well, you can speak for yourself in this regard.” Okay. Then I am confused, easily confused, in my thinking. Because we have grown very comfortable with the idea of “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” And David doesn’t seem to be doing that. No, he actually hates the sinner: “I would like that you got rid of them, that you destroyed them. They are malicious in their intent. They take your name in vain. They blaspheme you. I loathe them. I hate them. I count them my enemies.”
Now, there is truth to this, isn’t there—that we do love the sinner, and we hate the sin? We could think of ways in which that would be immediately applied. But it is easy to overstress that notion, to make that notion say something that it doesn’t mean. Listen to John Stott: “Evil is not something abstract. It exists in the hearts and ways of evildoers. So when the judgment of God falls, it will fall on evildoers, not upon evil in abstract.” So David recognizes this. He realizes that he lives in a world in which evil abounds. He’s not speaking about evil as a construct, an idea. No! Because evil reveals itself in the hearts and lives of each of us.
And so, again, our confused thinking has to be brought underneath the jurisdiction of the Bible. The Bible will help us out on every case. So, for example, John 3:16. Everybody knows it, right? “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only [begotten] Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have” everlasting or “eternal life.” That’s John 3:16. John 3:35: “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” So, simultaneously, God’s wrath is revealed against all sin, and his love is extended in the person of his Son to those who are in rebellion against him. We could say more on that, but we won’t.
The challenge for us, the predicament for us, is that we are so easily confused in the way we think. We pay too much attention to clichés, often generated by well-meaning people but not really true to the unfolding story of the Bible. We’re confused in our thinking. But here’s what I think is even more devastating—and I struggled with this all week: we’re compromised in our living. We’re compromised in our living. My bigger problem with this psalm is not intellectual; it’s moral. It’s moral.
You see, because if God’s king, David, who writes this, sees how evil evil is, we fail to. We fail to see how evil evil is. And as a result of that, we recoil from God’s judgment: “Why would he ever do this? Why would he ever respond in this way?” Because he is absolutely holy! He is of purer eyes than to look upon evil. And so David says, “These folks blaspheme your name. They use it as a curse. They are opposed to you at every point.”
We’ve grown accustomed to disgrace, haven’t we? I’m of such a vintage that I can remember people trying to make application of this truth in the ’50s in Britain—in many ways helpful, in some ways unhelpful. But at least they were taking a stab at something. At least they were saying something—saying, “You know, if we really love the holy God, who is holy, and his whole purpose in Jesus by the Holy Spirit is to conform us to his image and to make us holy, too, surely we would hate some of this stuff.” But no, you see—because we’re like frogs in the kettle: we’re in danger, actually, of being boiled to death.
The fact is, evangelical Christianity, if we are very honest—as we must be—evangelical Christianity is weak when it comes to the matter of moral outrage. “Oh,” you say, “now wait a minute; there’s tremendous moral outrage. There are people who are greatly concerned about matters of public morality. You yourself said you were going to give some thought to euthanasia and to abortion and so on”—which I haven’t forgotten about and will do. But it is relatively easy for us to stand, as it were, on the bridgehead and deal with matters of public morality.
It’s fascinating that at this point in history, both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, people are making a career out of apologizing for things that they had nothing at all to do with two hundred and three hundred years ago. So we’ve become adept at being able to ask for forgiveness for things we never did while failing to ask for forgiveness for the things I did twenty minutes ago! That’s what I mean about the compromise that is there in moral terms. It’s what James is addressing: “Out of your mouth comes blessings and cursings. Brothers and sisters, these things should not be.” In other words, “You’re radically different.” But are we?
It’s a prayer. It’s not a program. We have a problem.
And finally, this is to be our posture: verse 23 and 24. David is calling upon God to deal with the wicked, and now he submits himself to divine scrutiny. He doesn’t confine his attack to the evil around him; he faces up to what is within him.
When we began those few weeks ago, we quoted from the introductory prayer to the Communion service in the Anglican prayer book: “Almighty God, [before] whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden…” You see what he’s doing? He’s actually concluding as he began: “Lord, you’ve searched me. You know me. Lord, you know how I hate those who are opposed to you. Before I close this off,” he says, “I want you to search me. Try me. Check for grievous ways in me. Lead me in the way of everlasting.” What he’s acknowledging is what we must acknowledge: that our hearts, and in our hearts, are the seeds of appalling evil. M’Cheyne, he said that he considered that the seeds of every sin known to man clearly dwelt in his own heart.
Coming back to that old car at the side of the road… You know, you can paint it up, make it look good, to pass inspection by a blind guide. But as soon as someone who knows sits in and tries to put it in first gear with no synchromesh, they know: it looks fabulous; it’s a wreck. Sunday by Sunday, looking fabulous… So he says, “I don’t take it for granted, God, that I wouldn’t slip off this path.” And neither should you or me.
When Isaiah saw the Lord, “high and lifted up,” and his “train … filled the temple”—when he saw God as God is—then he saw himself as he is. It’s quite staggering, isn’t it? The prophet of God, he said, “Woe is me!” “Woe is me!” Fascinatingly, he’d been doing the woes before he got to this one. You can do this for homework, but in chapter 5 he says, “Woe to those who do this.” In verse 11: “Woe to those who do this.” In verse 18: “Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood.” “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil.”
Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine,
and valiant men in mixing strong drink,
who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
and deprive the innocent of his right!
His prophetic voice sounds out with great clarity.
And then he says, “Woe is me! For I am lost; … I[’m] a man of unclean lips, … I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Isaiah was arguably the greatest preacher of his day, of his generation. Everybody listened to him. And yet, before the bright intensity of the revelation of God in all of his holiness, what did he discover? He discovered that it was precisely in the area of his strengths and his gifts that he was deeply sinful.
Isaiah got it. David gets it. I hope we get it too.
Let us pray:
God our Father, look upon us in your grace and mercy, we pray, so that you will help us to find the way in which, in the wonder of your love, in Jesus, our standing before you is not sinless, but it’s just that we are saved by your grace through faith. Help us, then, Lord, to acknowledge how difficult it is for us to make such statements concerning the wicked around us, especially when we are unprepared to acknowledge the wickedness within. We ask it in Christ’s name. Amen.
 Psalm 137:9 (paraphrased).
 Galatians 5:11–12 (ESV).
 Revelation 6:10 (ESV).
 Revelation 6:15–17 (ESV).
 Leviticus 19:17–18 (ESV).
 Romans 12:19 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 1:1–2 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 1:4 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 1:5 (ESV).
 1 Samuel 24:4, 6 (paraphrased).
 Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1983), 296.
 See Habakkuk 1:13.
 James 3:10 (paraphrased).
 The Book of Common Prayer.
 Robert Murray M’Cheyne, quoted in Andrew A. Bonar, Memoirs and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1844), 201.
 Isaiah 6:1 (ESV).
 Isaiah 6:5 (ESV).
 Isaiah 5:8 (paraphrased).
 Isaiah 5:11 (paraphrased).
 Isaiah 5:20 (ESV).
 Isaiah 5:22–23 (ESV).
 Isaiah 6:5 (ESV).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.