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The Imprecatory Psalms, Part One

Feb 2, 2012

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: billmuehlenberg.com/2012/02/02/the-imprecatory-psalms-part-two/

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7 Responses to The Imprecatory Psalms, Part One

  • Bill, In Jesus discussion about the nature of church, he talked about, “binding and loosing” imprecation and petition. I have often thought that some of the reason for the rise of evil in our culture is that we have not practiced the binding part of Jesus command, due to a fear of being hypocrites.

    Well, let’s stop being hypocrites, and start praying through the prayers of imprecation, and see what God will do in answer to those prayers. Don’t stop petition, but do add emprecation as part of the weekly Sunday service.

    I do get annoyed that the Anglican Scripture readings skip the imprecations when it comes to the reading of the Psalms. Such readings might put the fear of God back into us.

    Regards, Lance A Box

  • I have always wondered about this topic and how we are to view it today. Very informative, thanks for the insight.
    Randy Kibler

  • Thanks Bill for this blog and the next, which I have not yet read. You ask the questions: “The real issue is, how can Christians justify these psalms? Or can they in fact be justified at all?”

    Does one not need to be careful with questions phrased this way? Is it not somewhat like ask God to justify Himself for what he commissioned the Psalmist to write, under inspiration by the Holy Spirit? Rather, it seems to me that it is always us who need to conform to God and His expressed will, not the other way around. God eventually got around to answering Job’s complaints, but not exactly as Job might have anticipated. If we are squeamish, perhaps we need to examine the presuppositional basis for our squeams!

    Steve Swartz

  • How good to see you calling attention to the imprecatory psalms; now that’s a word that few Christians will have even heard. So if they heard a preacher or another Christian praying in an imprecatory manner, they would be horrified.
    But you are right – there are many imprecatory psalms or parts thereof.

    May I say that one good method of reading the is to choose a month, and then read 5 psalms each day; in one month they are all read.
    Dallas Clarnette

  • Yes quite right Dallas. Most Christians would never have heard of the term.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • And the irony of folk speaking down such Psalms as morally primitive yet at the same time venting their righteous anger at someone who has offended them or some social behaviour they roundly condemn!
    Ian Clarkson

  • Thanks for the thoughtful comment Bill on a difficult topic.

    Like you I am constantly ‘into’ the Psalms, and find David in particular most certainly nearer to God’s heart, even in his imprecatory prayers than we can fully understand.

    Perhaps underlying much of his expressed thought is a realisation of the utter holiness of God (His complete separateness, otherness) that the thought often overwhelmed him?
    So much so that he came to identify in great measure with God’s holiness, and with the realisation that this attribute of God meant active antipathy to all evil from whatever source.
    Thus is Psalm 5, which may be very typical of others he writes:
    “For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness, neither shall evil dwell with thee.
    The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all the workers of iniquity.”

    When we read “hate” there we tend to conflate human concepts of words in Scripture such as ‘hate”judgment’, and other similar words and interpret them through a human, and therefore fallen perspective.

    Do we not find it very difficult to hold God’s attributes in tension because of our limited and often distorted incapacity to understand even a little of God’s nature?

    Thus God may (and does?) ‘love’ and yet hate at the same time. Is merciful yet at the same time a God of judgment and infinite holiness. WE cannot reconcile attributes which may appear opposites, but then His ways, and thoughts are not ours!

    If also His wisdom is perfect, which it is, then that means he makes no mistakes, errors of judgment or discernment of the hearts, and intentions of men – including His own people. Thus there is no “moral” defectiveness in Him either.
    So David in Ps. 5 and Ps. 9 seems to express such a level of identification with God’s righteous anger against sin and evil, that he prays for the Lord to deal with those who are the human cause of these. Thus in 5:9,10 David’s indignation is I think a justified jealousy for God’s impugned honour “for they (evildoers) have rebelled against thee”.
    Graham Wood, UK

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