William Ames on Singing Imprecatory Psalms
One of my favorite Puritans is William Ames (1576–1633). Not only are his writings precise and to the point, he was so Puritan that as an English-speaker he was exiled amidst the Dutch Reformed! Sounds like someone I know.
In his monumental treatise on Puritan casuistry, De Conscientia (1630), translated and printed in London in 1639 as Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof, he dealt with a question that perpetually perplexes Reformed churches. Historically and constitutionally, we have insisted upon singing the Psalms in public worship. In the Continental tradition, the Church Order of the Synod of Dort (1619) states, "In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, the 12 Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon shall be sung. It is left to the option of the churches whether to use or omit the song, 'O God, who art our Father.'" In the English-speaking tradition, the Westminster Assembly's Directory for the Publick Worship of God (1645) states, "It is the duty of Christians to praise God publickly, by singing of psalms together in the congregation, and also privately in the family." The Assembly even directed that "every one that can read is to have a psalm book; and all others, not disabled by age or otherwise, are to be exhorted to learn to read" ("Of Singing of Psalms").
One issue we face as biblically-reformed and historically-informed Reformed pastors and congregations is that in almost every Psalm there are the "imprecations" (from the Latin, imprecatio) or calling down a curse against our enemies. How do we sing these words when our Lord Jesus commanded us, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt. 5:44), and the apostle Paul said, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse" (Rom. 12:14).
Thankfully we can look to our forefathers for guidance. Here is William Ames' resolution of this problem in his Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof, 4.19.8–10. His words are in bold and my comments are in italics.
Quest. 4. How may we sing those Psalms aright, which contain dire imprecations in them?
1. We may upon occasion of those imprecations meditate with fear and trembling, on the terrible judgments of God against the sins of impenitent persons.
The imprecations remind us of the holiness and righteousness of God. And because he is holy and righteous, he must punish sin. Whenever we sing of the application of his holiness and righteousness in the corportate life of nations or individual life of humans made in God's image, but who reject their God, this should lead us to a sense of awe, fear, trembling, and wonder.
2. We may thereupon profit in patience and consolation, against the temptations which are wont to [habitually] arise from the prosperity of the wicked, and affliction of the godly.
We have the same sin nature as those God's holiness and righteousness are coming against. And because of this nature, we too tempted to be just like those we sing about. So when we sing, it is a way for the Holy Spirit to create in us the fruit of the Spirit of patience as well as comfort us that the Lord is our Father and will provide what we need; we don't need to be like the wicked.
3. We may also pray to God that he would hasten his revenge (not against our private enemies but) against the wicked and incurable enemies of his Church.
These prayers in the Psalms are the practical outworking of that petition our Lord taught us, "Thy kingdom come." For God's rule and reign over all things in principle and practice to be accomplished, this means we pray for everything against it to be set aside. The imprecations help us pray for that new heavens and new earth to come wherein righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13).