If Not Imprecatory Psalms, What About the Lord’s Prayer?

Even Psalms that don’t register on the list of imprecatory ones can be a challenge to use if only because of their depiction of the death of God’s enemies. Some advise against their use and this was one of the reasons for not producing, as the OPC and URC did, a complete Psalter:

The psalmist was praying against those who persecuted him. The theocracy, God’s reign in Israel from the time of Moses to the time of Christ, was a shadow of future events (Heb. 10:1). One of those events is the final judgment of God. The destruction of the Canaanites in the days of Joshua was a shadow of the final judgment and not, therefore, normative for how we are to deal with our neighbors who do not believe in Jesus. The imprecations against the wicked in the book of Psalms were also shadows of the final judgment—appropriate for the era of the theocracy, but not for this present age. The gospel era is one of kindness, tolerance, and patience—intended to bring people to repentance and faith (Rom. 2:4). This is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2). And this is why Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to pray for them, not against them. This is why Paul taught us to pray that God would bless our enemies (Rom. 12:14; 1 Cor. 4:12). Like the psalmist we leave vengeance to God, but unlike the psalmist we pray that God would bless those who bring pain into our lives. (Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Psalms and Proverbs, pp. 348–49)

Others, though, notice that Christians still pray for God’s judgment upon his enemies even in the New Testament:

We need to be very conscious of trying—that part of what we’re called to be as the light of the world is people who love our enemies. Paul talks about how loving your enemies will further increase their punishment. So setting love of enemy radically over against judgment is not biblical.

I think it is not illegitimate to use the imprecations of the psalter to pray for judgment on God’s enemies. Every time we pray, “Come quickly Lord Jesus,” we’re praying an imprecation on God’s enemies. When Jesus comes again, there will be judgment for God’s enemies.

In other words, when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he included the petition, “Thy kingdom come,” which as the Larger Catechism explains involves praying for the “hastening” of the kingdom of glory:

that Christ would rule in our hearts here, and hasten the time of his second coming, and our reigning with him forever

Not to be missed is the nature of the office that Christ executes as king:

Christ executeth the office of a king, in calling out of the world a people to himself, … restraining and overcoming all their enemies, and powerfully ordering all things for his own glory, and their good; and also in taking vengeance on the rest, who know not God, and obey not the gospel.

In which case, the anti-imprecatory Psalm position implies editing the Lord’s Prayer.

That does not mean that prayers for judgment day are easy to pray. The image of that great separation of the saved and the lost is haunting. At the same time, the thought of the end of the world is never absent from Christian devotion and worship.

On the upside, at least Protestants debate something that Roman Catholics don’t anymore thanks to an effort to manage less than good acts and desires with procedural standards and practices.

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Glenn Beck, the Kingdom, and Me (per usual)

Criticisms of 2k theology keep coming and a major source of opposition is the distinction between Christ’s rule as redeemer in distinction from his rule as creator. For some, this kind of division within Christ could wind up in the error of Nestorianism. And yet, I wonder how you avoid Rob Bell’s error of universalism without this distinction.

This is what I have in mind. Most Reformed Protestants would likely admit that Glenn Beck and I have different relationships with Jesus Christ as savior and lord (assuming these Protestants accept that I am a believer but you know what happens when you assume). As a citizen of the United States, Beck gets my respect and civil affection even if his conservatism is several steps removed from the genuine article. But as a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, Beck and I are at odds; he is even my enemy because he is not part of the kingdom of grace.

In other words, when I pray the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom Come,” I am praying with regard to Beck that he become part of the kingdom, not that Christ would defend Beck and the rest of the church as part of the kingdom of grace’s battle with the kingdom of Satan.

Here a little confessional political theology may be instructive. If we read the catechisms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the explanation of the second petition involves not not civil or political realities but spiritual ones.

Here is Calvin’s catechism:

Master. – What understand you by the kingdom of God in the second petition?
Scholar. – It consists chiefly of two branches-that he would govern the elect by his Spirit-that he would prostrate and destroy the reprobate who refuse to give themselves up to his service, thus making it manifest that nothing is able to resist his might.
Master. – In what sense do you pray that this kingdom may come?
Scholar. – That the Lord would daily increase the numbers of the faithful-that he would ever and anon load them with new gifts of his Spirit, until he fill them completely: moreover, that he would render his truth more clear and conspicuous by dispelling the darkness of Satan, that he would abolish all iniquity, by advancing his own righteousness.

Here is Heidelberg:

Question 123. Which is the second petition?
Answer: “Thy kingdom come”; that is, rule us so by thy word and Spirit, that we may submit ourselves more and more to thee; preserve and increase thy church; destroy the works of the devil, and all violence which would exalt itself against thee; and also all wicked counsels devised against thy holy word; till the full perfection of thy kingdom take place, wherein thou shalt be all in all.

And here is the Shorter Catechism:

Q. 102. What do we pray for in the second petition?
A. In the second petition, which is, Thy kingdom come, we pray that Satan’s kingdom may be destroyed; and that the kingdom of grace may be advanced, ourselves and others brought into it, and kept in it; and that the kingdom of glory may be hastened.

As I read these accounts of the second petition, I do not think much about nations, politics, or rulers (why should I, the Psalms warn me about princes). I also don’t see much about the rule of law (even if it is God’s) but I read much more about the power and authority of God’s word and Spirit. And I also don’t understand anything here that would lead me to think that Glenn Beck and I are both members of God’s kingdom. Instead, these answers presume a marked division between saints and unbelievers.

In other words, these answers point in the direction of Louis Berkhof’s account of the kingdom of God:

The Kingdom of God is primarily an eschatological concept. The fundamental idea of the Kingdom in scripture is not that of a restored theocratic kingdom of God in Christ – which is essentially a kingdom of Israel –, as the Premillenarians claim; neither is it a new social condition pervaded by the Spirit of Christ, and realized by man through such external means as good laws, civilization, education, social reforms, and so on, as the Modernists would have us believe. The primary idea of the Kingdom of God in Scripture is that of the rule of God established and acknowledged in the hearts of sinners by the powerful regenerating influence of the Holy Spirit, insuring them of the inestimable blessings of salvation, – a rule that is realized in principle on earth, but will not reach its culmination until the visible and glorious return of Jesus Christ. The present realization of it is spiritual and invisible. Jesus took hold of this eschatological concept and made it prominent in His teachings. He clearly taught the present spiritual realization and the universal character of the Kingdom. Moreover, He Himself effected that realization in a measure formerly unknown and greatly increased the present blessings of the Kingdom. At the same time He held out the blessed hope of the future appearance of that Kingdom in external glory and with the perfect blessings of salvation. (Systematic Theology, 568)

This quotation from Berkhof is congenial – duh! – to 2kers and before the Kuyperians and theocrats start to quote from him a couple of pages later where Berkhof speaks of the kingdom as bigger and broader than the visible church, that is, aiming at “nothing less than the complete control of all manifestations of life,” I understand that Berkhof is a mixed bag on this issue.

But this brings me back to Glenn Beck. If in a broader understanding of the kingdom, the complete control of Beck involves implementing laws and policies that he and his family will follow to the glory of God, then the rule of the Spirit and the eschatological concept of the kingdom as a spiritual and invisible enterprise located in man’s (and woman’s) heart, is lost. Or if the kingdom is so broadened to include unbelievers and believers in it, then you seem to enter the ballpark of universalism where all God’s children are God’s children – you know, the fatherhood of God and the siblinghood of all people.

We do have, however, an easy way around the problem. It is to distinguish between Christ’s rule over Glenn Beck as creator, and his rule over me as creator and redeemer. I don’t know of any other way to avoid the problems of Anabaptism or Constantinianism than by affirming this distinction. Without it, Glenn Beck is not my worldly foe, but my brother in Christ. (If only.)

For What Do We Pray?

JETS V ARIZONA CARDINALSReformed Protestants are generally dismissive (or worse) of prosperity gospels. They know, at least intuitively, that suffering is part of the Christian life and that calculating God’s favor on the basis of material well being is not good theology. Max Weber, the sociologist who interpreted capitalism as the republication of the covenant of works, never read the psalmist who wrote,

Be not afraid when one becomes rich,
when the glory of this house increases.
For when he dies he will carry nothing away;
his glory will not go down after him.
Though, while he lives, he counts himself happy,
and though a man gets praise when he does well for himself,
he will go to the generation of his fathers,
who will never more see the light.
Man cannot abide in his pomp,
he is like the beasts that perish. (Ps. 49: 16-20)

And yet, when Reformed Protestants pray, or at least when they make prayer requests, our desires generally run along the lines of Joel Osteen. Which sort of upends Benjamin Warfield’s remark that every Christian on his knees is a good Calvinist. His point that when praying every believer is acknowledging the sovereignty of God. But he didn’t ask what believers were praying for and whether it conformed to God’s revealed will. We pray for surgeries, broken ankles, test results, catastrophe survivors, and the unemployed. None of these concerns are of themselves illegitimate. Jesus does tell his disciples not to worry about their physical needs, not because they are unimportant but because if God provides for the lilies of the field then he’s likely to care even more for his children. And yet, that passage in Matthew 6 concludes with the importance of seeking first the kingdom of God and then all these other things will be added.

Not to be missed is what the Lord’s Prayer says and teaches. Whether Reformed Protestants actually use it to the degree that Lutherans and Anglicans do, our catechisms do go into some depth in explaining the Lord’s Prayer and usually begin the instruction with words to the effect that this prayer is a model or example for how to pray.

If that is the case, then by my count only one of the six petitions has to do with material needs – “give us this day our daily bread.” The others concern God (his glory, church, and will) and man’s sin (forgiveness, and temptation). By my math that works out to roughly 17 percent of our prayers being devoted to physical needs.

And yet, when we listen or read the requests for prayer in most congregations, the percentage tilts almost in the exact opposite direction, with God and sin receiving about 17 percent of our requests. Now, some of the problem here is that requesting prayer for Aunt Bessie’s gallbladder surgery is a lot less embarrassing than asking for prayer for my struggles with lust. Also, not to be missed is that some physical afflictions actually threaten life, and prayers for the living as they approach death is surely appropriate.

Even here, though, I wonder if our prayers are filled more with petitions for healing and prolonged life rather than God’s will. Indeed, most of our prayers for the physical well being of believers, at least publicly, are on the order of asking God for what we want – lives without suffering, pain, and death. We would need to be locked up if we prayed for more suffering, pain, and death, or more hunger, poverty, and unemployment. But again the point is for what do we pray and what does it say about our understanding of the gospel’s consequences for the lives of Christians. When we pray are we endanger of endorsing implicitly a prosperity gospel? Is prayer effective when it brings the results we want? Or is prayer accomplishing its purpose when through it our appetites conform to God’s will?