Over and over throughout the Psalms, David articulates the deep distress which colors his present life. Rather than spending time couching his sorrow or sugar-coating his grief, his songs are filled with unfiltered confessions of angst and despair, making him the O.G. emo singer/songwriter, I suppose. In Psalm 55, he expresses, in vivid terms, exactly what his current situation is like, which, in a word, is torture. “My heart is sore pained within me,” he declares, “and the terrors of death are fallen upon me. Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me, and horror hath overwhelmed me” (Ps. 55:4–5). The phrase “sore pained” is suggestive of a tortuous travail, evoking the image of one twisting and writhing in untold pain. When I read that phrase, I can’t help but think about the moment when I ruptured my ACL.
Despite the fact that I’m going on five years since my initial injury, I can still close my eyes and feel again the exact moment when my ACL tore. All it takes is a simple thought and I’m rushed back to that instant excruciating pain, almost as if I’m Marty McFly with a DeLorean of my own making. One errant landing during a random pick-up basketball game at a church gym was all it took to up-end my life. In a similar albeit more serious way, this is what David was experiencing. The graphic language of this psalm betrays the intense emotion of the psalmist. Indeed, all he wants is to just get away from it all. “And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest. Lo, then would I wander far off, and remain in the wilderness. Selah. I would hasten my escape from the windy storm and tempest” (Ps. 55:6–8).
“The wilderness” sounded more appealing than any palace. “Wandering far off” sounded more inviting than any royal amusement. There’s nothing he wouldn’t give to just “fly away,” leaving all his troubles in his wake. He wants to escape (Ps. 55:8). He has been bitten by the “grass-is-greener” bug, which tells him that all his suffering will go away if he just changes his location. It’s not hard to sympathize with Israel’s tortured king. Who hasn’t had similar thoughts? Life’s overwhelming seasons can easily cause us to fantasize about being somewhere else, at some other time. But, in the end, such thoughts are just that: dreams and fantasies. David couldn’t escape his present torment by merely “flying far away.” Neither can we making our troubles disappear by fleeing to the hills. There’s no “magical forest” from which we can escape life’s troubles. Grief, ultimately, isn’t tethered to geography. And neither is our hope.
Indeed, as David proclaims, our hope and comfort is bound to a Person. “Cast thy burden upon the Lord,” he attests, “and he shall sustain thee” (Ps. 55:22). There’s a distinctive intimacy in this invitation, one which welcomes us to hurl our present lot on the back of our tender loving Lord. Whatever circumstance life brings your way, whatever card you’ve been dealt, that’s what God wants to hear. Some, perhaps, might be uncomfortable with that kind of rhetoric, but ours is a God of unvarnished prayers. There is no amount of pretense necessary when approaching this Father. No airs needed to be put on. King David, to be sure, pulled no punches when it came to bearing his soul before the Lord. He told it like it was, and he did so knowing that his God was listening (Ps. 55:1–2).
The first two verses of the psalm contain no less than three petitions for the Lord to give his full attention to David’s plight. Chief among the king’s dire needs was an ear to hear him. And such is what the sovereign Lord always offers. There is never a moment when God on high turns a deaf ear towards you. Certainly, there are times when it feels as though he isn’t listening (e.g., Ps. 88), but those are moments when he would have us wait on his timing, as hard as that is. What he doesn’t want us to do is stop praying. Yes, even when our prayers are nothing but noisy complaints, he still wants to hear them (Ps. 55:2). The incomprehensible mutters that stem from our inconsolable grief are precisely the ones that the Maker bends low to hear. He is wise enough to make sense of our “unutterable groanings” (Rom. 8:26). He intercedes on behalf of our incoherent cries, turning our stuttering pleas into sensational anthems. “Blessed be God,” the beloved Charles Spurgeon notes in his Treasury of David, “moaning is translatable in heaven.” (1:2.450)
This, indeed, is one of the most endearing truths in all of Scripture. Namely, that you, right now, right as you are, right where you are, have God's attention. You are welcome to talk to him, pretense be damned. You are invited to complain to him, to cry to him, to bring all your sorrows to him, and to fling your dump-truck of burdens on him. The psalms, attests Dominick D. Hankle in an essay entitled, “The Therapeutic Implications of the Imprecatory Psalms in the Christian Counseling Setting,” are “a vehicle for emotional expression leading to catharsis.” (276) After all, he’s not an unhearing God who stops his ears with his fingers. No, he’s always listening, even when we’re complaining. “God listens to us in Christ,” writes Zack Eswine in The Imperfect Pastor, “even when we have feelings that are ugly and even when such ugly feelings are directed his way.” (58)
You might be wondering, though, what brought about this agonizing prayer from Israel’s king. Verse 3 gives us a clue: “Because of the voice of the enemy, Because of the oppression of the wicked: For they cast iniquity upon me, And in wrath they hate me.” David’s name and character was being drug through the mud by the “voice of the enemy.” Wherever where he turned, he could not silence the deafening noise of wrath. It was all around him. But there’s something else amiss. Verses 12–13 reveal the truer source of David’s agony: “For it was not an enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it: neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him: but it was thou, a man mine equal, my guide, and mine acquaintance.” He was betrayed. He was undone not by some open foe but by a “pretend friend.” He was a smooth-talking double-crosser (Ps. 55:20–21), one who had won David’s confidence and trust. This was no mere acquaintance. The source of David’s betrayal was a brother, a “man his equal.”
The circumstantial evidence of the text has led many to connect this particular psalm with the events surrounding David’s son Absalom and his conspiracy to seize the throne of Israel. There are, certainly, several indications that that is true, especially when you consider the fallout between David and his advisor, Ahithophel (2 Sam. 15:6, 12, 31). Be that as it may, we are given this glimpse of David’s grief for more reasons than just history. Notice what the king prays for in verses 9–11: “Destroy, O Lord, and divide their tongues: for I have seen violence and strife in the city. Day and night they go about it upon the walls thereof: mischief also and sorrow are in the midst of it. Wickedness is in the midst thereof: deceit and guile depart not from her streets.”
These are coarse, venomous words. We are, likely, taken aback by David’s austere request for God to devour his enemies. He petitions God to do as he did at Babel all those centuries ago, when he confused the tongues of men (Ps. 55:9; Gen. 11:1–9). He prays for the Lord to intervene and crush to dust the schemes of those who have betrayed him. What’s more, though, he prays that they’d be seized by death itself (Ps. 55:15). “They’ve walked the streets in wickedness, now let them be overtaken by it,” he essentially says. “They’ve made their bed, now they have to lay in it,” we might render his words. Even though we might be given to spit similar sentiments about those who’ve breached our trust, these are still hard words to swallow — especially when you consider they come from the lips of the “man after God’s own heart.” How is praying someone to hell in the psalter? How are these words in the Bible at all?
There’s no denying these are difficult stanzas to fit into our evangelical faith. But, even still, they are words from which we can benefit (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Psalm 55 is, at least in part, what we would call an “imprecatory psalm” — that is, a prayer in which the one praying calls on Yahweh to judge the wicked. Such is what “imprecation” means: “the verbalization of a curse.” There are several of these interspersed throughout the Psalter (Pss. 58; 79; 83; 94; 109; 137), with several cherished psalms integrating imprecatory stanzas (e.g., Ps. 139:19–22). We are right to shudder at the psalmists’ imprecatory language, but we ought not skirt around them or explain them away as relics of an antediluvian time.
Making sense of them, though, necessitates we keep a few things in mind:
1. Imprecations are not uncontrolled outbursts of emotion.
When David prayed these words, he didn’t do so in a fit of rage. What’s more, these are not only his words. These are Holy-Spirit-inspired words which the people of God used in the corporate worship of God.
2. Imprecations are not motivated by personal vendettas.
To be sure, the initial hurt was personal, but David’s response suggests that there is something deeper and more nefarious afoot. Those who betrayed him weren’t merely stirred to do so by a long-gestating grudge. Rather, they were acting in service of the Wicked One, which means this conflict wasn’t ultimately a matter of who was right and who was wrong. It was a conflict of righteousness vs. unrighteousness. Light vs. dark. As David sings, his prevailing concern is not for the satisfaction of personal malice but for the triumph of divine truth.
3. Imprecations are based on God’s promises.
God’s Word is clear: vengeance is his prerogative (Deut. 32:35; Rom. 12:19; Heb. 10:30). Ours is a God of righteous justice. And he, likewise, is the only Righteous Judge of all peoples, places, things. His Word is his verdict, and it assures his people that, because of his Son, his justice will prevail for all eternity. The children of God will be vindicated — but, make no mistake, it is the Lord himself who does the vindicating, not us. Such is the blessing of the imprecatory psalms. Calling upon the Lord to act means we are free to lay our arms down. By voicing this prayer, David was resigning ultimate control over his situation to the only One who could actually do something about it (Ps. 55:23).
Rather than take retributive action himself, he pleads with the Lord to act on his behalf. In a way, then, the imprecatory psalms are like release valves for hurting souls. Their stanzas are God-given spaces in which we can bear our soul’s torment and bellow our sincerest desire for justice, knowing that God’s judgment is true and good and final. And the good news is that God hears our imprecations and our cursed for what they truly are: cries for help. God always has an ear for those who are helpless and poor and oppressed (Pss. 34:18; 51:17; 83:18; 147:3).
After David articulates his earnest desire for God to vindicate his cause, he reaffirms his resolve to trust in his Deliverer. “As for me,” he says, “I will call upon God; and the Lord shall save me” (Ps. 55:16). His lasting determination was an abiding trust in One mightier than he who could mend all the tattered edges of his life with a word. His God was the Repairer of the Breach (Isa. 58:12), the only One who could deliver him from the fray. “Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice. He hath delivered my soul in peace from the battle that was against me: for there were many with me” (Ps. 55:17–18).
Moments like the one which King David endured can make it feel as though everything is crumbling to dust. Who can you trust in times like that? Who can you confide in? Who can you go to? Resort to? Run to? There is only One who can weather all your complaints and all your curses in confidence, the Lord Jehovah. This was David’s truest solution, his only hope. Every other ground of encouragement was shaky, at best. And so it is that you and I are free to confide in the Lord of all things. You are free to hurl all your burdens on him, your anxieties on him, all your cares on him (Ps. 55:22; 1 Pet. 5:7). In short, God invites us to unload on him. He wants it all, and he can take it all — all our pains, all our profanities, all our problems. The hurt you feel is what God wants to hear. “God’s body,” writes Brent A. Strawn in an article for the Dictionary of the Old Testament, “evidently, can absorb violence that our enemies’ bodies cannot.” (318) His back is broad enough to shoulder every single one of everyone’s burdens. He is our consummate confidant, the One who comes near to us not only empathize with our agony but to take it on as his own.
Christ is our Deliverer because he, too, endured the searing pain of betrayal. He, too, felt the loss of a close friend, one with whom he had spent countless hours conversing, traveling, ministering, and living. Judas Iscariot’s kiss in the garden was a kiss of death, an act of the utmost betrayal, akin to one using words that were “smoother than butter” when, in fact, “war was in his heart” (Ps. 55:21). All of which to say, Jesus knows your hurt. He knows what it’s like. He knows how painful this life can be. Whatever calamity you are facing Jesus has faced (Heb. 2:14–18; 4:14–16). There’s no emotion or condition you or I could endure that’s foreign to him. He understands your humanity, failure, fragility, feebleness, and all. He’s unlike any other god because he’s a God who knows what it’s like to be human. He’s familiar with how weak and wrecked we are, so much so that he himself has adopted our weakness and wreckage as his own. He endured the vengeance, he bore the curse, which was due our rebellion. He suffered our imprecations that he might bring about our salvation. The Lord who calls you to leave your burdens at his feet is none other than the Man of Sorrows, the One who became “acquainted with our grief,” carrying our sorrows on his shoulders all the way to the cross (Isa. 53:3–4). And this same One who shouldered your weaknesses and subsumed your curses invites you to experience his unburdening grace and relieving mercy, as he intercedes for you, now and forever.