First, go ahead and take a few minutes to read through Psalm 109. I think you will get a lot more out of this if you have it fresh in your mind.
Psalm 109 is perhaps one of the most disturbing and violent psalms in the whole Psalter. At first glance, verses 6-19 appear to an extended request from David to see the absolute denigration, pain, and destruction of his enemy along with their family members. For those of us who value Jesus’s command to “bless those who curse you,” this is a difficult psalm to accept, and not to mention a difficult psalm to pray!
However, when you look at the psalm closely another possibility emerges. It may very well be that verses 6-19 should not be ascribed to David at all, but rather should be ascribed to David’s slanderous enemy who is trying to destroy his reputation and get him wrongly convicted. This reading would make sense with the opening words of the psalm where David says, “wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me, speaking against me with lying tongues.” The context of the psalm, then, is a courtroom setting where David is facing false testimony and perhaps wrongful conviction. He’s shaken to the core because this could ruin his entire life and reputation. Verses 6-19, rather than being the words of David, would instead be the false testimony against him.
So David appeals to Yhwh (see verses 1 and 21), who is the highest judge above all other judges, similar to how someone in American society can appeal all the way up to the US Supreme Court, the highest law in the land. Yhwh, whose judgment is perfect, will save David from slander and false testimony. In this case, the psalm is not at all about David asking God to punish and humiliate his opponent and his opponent’s family. Rather, this psalm depicts the final cry of a person with no more options left when the whole justice system is weighed against them.
The powerful claim of this psalm is that even when all human justice has been perverted, when there is no hope left of getting a fair verdict, there is still a judge above all other judges who will hear and judge and set things right.
About half of the major commentaries argue for a reading like this one, where verses 6-19 are not David’s own words but the lies of a false witness against him. In my opinion, this is the best reading of the psalm with multiple poetic and structural features in its favor that I have not gone over.
Yet, there is one significant issue that keeps many Christians from accepting this reading (which is in my opinion superior), especially if they hold the Bible in high regard. In Acts 1:20, Luke records Peter using Psalm 109:8 against Judas in order to justify replacing him as one of the twelve apostles. Clearly, Peter is reading this psalm with Jesus in the place of David and Judas in the role of David’s enemy and accuser. (It was very common for early Christians to read the psalms of David as somehow actually about Jesus. The fancy word to describe this is “typology.”)
So, the problem is that for Peter to use verse 8 against Judas seems to require that verses 6-19 be a curse by David against his enemy rather than the false testimony of David’s enemy against him. It seems as though Peter understands the psalm in a way opposite to what I advocated above, and plenty of people reject the interpretation I suggested because of Acts 1:20.
However, there is an easy solution that allows us to understand Psalm 109 in the way I outlined above and take Peter’s use of it seriously in Acts 1:20.
Deuteronomy 19:16-21 requires that, if an Israelite accuses another Israelite of a crime and gives false testimony, then the false witness should receive as his punishment everything that he intended for the punishment of the person falsely accused.
In this case Peter understands Jesus to be in the role of the falsely accused David of Psalm 109 and Judas to be the false accuser of verses 6-19, who speaks these slanderous words against David/Jesus. Since the testimony of Judas/the accuser (verses 6-19 of Psalm 109, if we are reading the psalm typologically) was false testimony against an innocent person, the accusations and imprecations of verses 6-19, by Israelite law, are to be returned back onto Judas/the accuser. With this reading we get a better interpretation of Psalm 109 and a better interpretation of Acts 1:20 all in one package!
Go ahead and try reading Psalm 109 again with verses 6-19 as the slanderous testimony against the innocent David, and I think you’ll find it’s not only a more coherent work of art, but a much more meaningful psalm to pray through. Even when corruption seems to have won out against you, and it seems there is no justice on this earth, there is one Judge above all others, whose justice is perfect and who will stand in the dock at your right hand to defend you.
Steffen G. Jenkins. “A Quotation in Psalm 109 as Defence Exhibit A.” Tyndale Bulletin 71, no. 1 (2020): 115-35.
Erich Zenger. Ein Gott der Rache? Feindpsalmen verstehen. Herder: Freiburg, 1988.