If you read the Psalter through in one sitting (which can be done) or at least read all 150 psalms in a concentrated period of time (which I have just recently done), a number of things will stand out. One thing I wish to highlight is the many times a call for justice, vengeance or retribution is heard in the psalms.
There are a large number of times when we read about enemies, and there are frequent cries for vindication, revenge, retaliation and retribution. These often take the form of a formal cursing of enemies, with powerful calls for their speedy and complete demise.
I have just penned a piece on the lament psalms, which are psalms of protest and complaint. They feature real people venting real emotions about real problems and real tragic situations. The Psalter is filled with such psalms, and they are there for a reason.
But here I want to concentrate on one particular type of protest psalm – the imprecatory psalm. We find many psalms containing harsh words about enemies, with calls for their destruction and so on. An imprecation is a call for divine judgement, or an invocation of curses, upon enemies or upon the wicked.
There are perhaps 36 or 37 psalms that contain a formal imprecation, such as psalms 35, 69, 83, 88, 109, 137, and 140. Because they seem to wish ill on enemies, call down curses, urge violence upon foes, and appear to exalt in the destruction of the wicked, they make many Christians uneasy. All the talk of retribution and vengeance seems to be rather problematic for believers today.
C.S. Lewis for example famously spoke of “these terrible or (dare we say?) contemptible Psalms” in his Reflections on the Psalms. Plenty of other Christians could be cited here. The dis-ease and discomfort many believers have with these psalms is all too apparent.
Not that such concerns are without warrant. Some of these imprecations are indeed very strong and jarring. The most severe candidate of course would have to be Psalm 137:8-9 which offers this caustic cry: “Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”
I will speak to this psalm later, and address it in context. But we certainly find some very strong and angry words in the psalter, with calls for violence, retribution, bloodshed and vengeance. Many Christians are plainly squeamish about these psalms, and want little or nothing to do with them.
So the question arises: can these be used, or shared in, by Christians today? Does the New Testament rule these psalms out? Are they something Christians should be embarrassed about? Do the teachings of Christ about loving your enemies and so on render these psalms null and void?
The real issue is, how can Christians justify these psalms? Or can they in fact be justified at all? Here I wish to make several points as I seek to show that they can be justified, and they are still of value and use to the contemporary Christian. Taken together these various observations may help us to see these psalms in a different, and hopefully more positive, light.
Perhaps the first thing to note is, as I have already mentioned, they are quite frequent in appearance. There are well over 60 lament psalms, and there may be at least 36 psalms that contain a formal imprecation. So we can’t just wish these psalms away, or pretend they are too few in number to be concerned with.
Second, we must realize that such imprecations or curses are also found throughout the Bible – indeed, in both Testaments. I cannot here spend time on these passages, but here are just a few, first from the Old Testament: Numbers 31:2; Deuteronomy 7:1-6; Nehemiah 4:4-5; Nahum 1:2-3; and so on.
And consider some NT imprecations, calls for vindication, justice, and the like. Here are some of them: Luke 18:6-8; 1 Cor 16:22; Gal 1:8-9 2 Thess 1:3-10; 2 Tim 4:14; Rev 6:10-11; 19:1-5. Of some import is the fact that we even find curses being called down in the NT, even by Jesus himself.
He of course cursed the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14), but he also pronounced seven curses on the teachers of the law and Pharisees (Matt 23). And we find Jesus readily making use of and drawing from one of the more prominent imprecatory psalms in the OT, Psalm 69.
In that psalm we read about such things as: let their table become a snare (v. 22), let their eyes be darkened (23), pour out your indignation upon them (24), let their habitation be desolate (25), add iniquity to their iniquity (27), blot them out of the book of the living (28), and so on.
Jesus and other NT writers draw directly upon this psalm, as in:
John 2:17 – zeal for thy house has consumed me – Ps. 69:9
John 15:25 – they hated me without a cause – Ps. 69:4
Acts 1:16-20 – Judas fulfills Scripture – let their habitation be desolate – Ps. 69:25
Rom. 11:9 – let their table become a snare – Ps. 69:22
Rom. 15:3 – Christ bore our reproaches – Ps. 69:9
But a fuller examination of the NT use of the imprecatory psalms and the like will have to wait for another article. Here I merely point out just how widespread imprecation can be throughout the entire Bible.
Third, we should bear in mind that these psalms were of course part of Israel’s corporate worship. They were sung to Yahweh in times of worship, and were written as models of prayer. And we believe that the Psalmists were inspired of God to write these psalms.
That leads to a fourth point about these psalms, and how we are to understand them. A key point is that God is ultimately being asked to act. This is not really about personal vengeance, or embittered saints getting angry at enemies. It is more about general concerns for justice, and to see God act on behalf of his people.
Perhaps the best way to see how these general considerations stand up, it will be worth looking at several of these imprecatory psalms in more detail. That shall be done in Part Two of this article: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/02/02/the-imprecatory-psalms-part-two/