Allow me to explain…
Besides the obvious point that David lived a full millennium before the Son of David came to earth, take a look at the psalms he wrote.
Oh, sure, there are some beautiful works of praise in the Psalmetry, none more famous or exquisite than 23, which begins,
”The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me besides still waters; He restores my soul.”
Beautiful. No one denies his poetic skill. But there is a fundamental principle of Christianity that is consistently missing in his psalms:
Jesus told us to “Love thy neighbor,” and that EVERYONE is our neighbor. We are to wish well of everybody, to heap kindness upon our enemies, to turn the second cheek when the first had been struck.
And yet, David didn’t see it that way. Read Psalm 5, verses 9-10:
“For there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue.
”Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against You.”
Now, that’s not very KIND of David, now, is it? But “bearing their guilt” is one thing; listen to Psalm 7:6…
”Arise, O Lord, in Your anger; lift Yourself up against the fury of my enemies; awake for me; You have appointed a judgment.”
Here, David is actively asking God to smite his enemies! Not specifically His enemies, but DAVID’S!
And King David’s solution to his problems in 10:15 is, um…
”Break the arm of the wicked and evil-doer; call his wickedness to account ‘til you find none.”
Terrible. Simply terrible.
All right, obviously I’m throwing one of the great men of God under the chariot here. David worshiped his God the way all men did until the Christ came and brought a new covenant, a new way of thinking to God’s people.
It’s not that God changed, mind you. But the minds of His people had. Just as slavery is no longer considered a rightful state of practice, so too the bloodthirsty vengeance of humanity was culled a bit by the peaceful practices of some merciful groups like the Jews.
Slavery is one of those topics Bible cynics point to as the downfall of Scripture in 21st century society: “I can’t support any religion that condones slavery like the Bible does!”. But the prophets and apostles wrote in times when slavery was a fact of life – to not address its conditions would have been foolish. Jews in the OT and Christians and Jews in the NT were told to treat slaves as people, as human beings worthy of respect, something far more humane than the conditions surrounding the Twelve Tribes or throughout the Gentile world of the first century. Of course Christianity did not encourage slavery, but it also spoke of respecting the government in place at the time, which maintained that system.
In a somewhat similar way, then, we look at David writing in 1000 BC, and we take those cries for violent justice as ones which applied to the society of his day.
What the Hebrew of David’s time had for Scripture was the Torah – the first five chapters of the Bible, essentially Moses’ writings.
And Moses spoke of times when His God had to literally smite heretics with lightning from the sky! Consider this passage from the opening of Leviticus 10, when the sons of the high priest Aaron forgot their place and sought to overrun God’s ways in the Tabernacle:
1 Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. 2 And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace.
Fire coming from the sky and obliterating God’s enemies was not quite commonplace, but it was seen as righteous and the Will of God. So praying for such will to be done, to the people whom David perceived as enemies of the Lord, is not out-of-character or inappropriate for the BC pray-er, as it would be for us as Christians. It’s not that God has changed, but that the rules for US have changed under the new covenant, and under the teachings of Jesus Christ, Who has expanded our definitions of what it means to be holy.
Consider this segment of the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 5, where Christ tells His followers about the different definitions He holds for certain words that define God’s commandments:
21“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all…
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also….
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers,i what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The new standards that Jesus sought His followers to follow are literally based on perfection, not just externally, as the OT commandments and the Law of the Prophets commanded, but internally as well, where no man can check but where God can see and tell whether or not you’re obeying His Will.
And just like the OT Law of the Prophets, it is impossible for human beings to carry out these commands. The purpose of the Old Testament impossible standards was to point out the need for God in your life; the purpose of the New Testament impossible standards is to point out the need for God in your soul – for you to have the Holy Spirit of God literally ‘riding shotgun’ with you because you’ve been “born again” as a Christian.
In the OT, our failures were atoned for by animal sacrifices. In the new era, for Christians, our failures are accepted through God’s grace, and atoned for by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross at Calvary.
So, just because David’s prayers don’t match what you and I as Christians are told to pray doesn’t mean David wasn’t the “servant of the Lord”, the “man after God’s Own Heart”, and all the titles and accolades we heap upon him.
He was a Man of God as he was shown to be three thousand years ago. And although God never changed, WE have changed to a more peaceful, merciful people through the widespread acceptance of the teachings of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
So when you read the many psalms of David, the great poet and lover of God, accept his cries for vengeance as a mark of the times and not a model for us to follow. God WILL extract vengeance against those who harm Christians, but it’s not OUR job to seek that vengeance. Our job is to seek peace, so much as we are able to.