The Imprecatory Psalms, Part Two

In Part One of this article I offered some general considerations as to how the Christian might approach the rather troubling imprecatory psalms. To properly tease these ideas out it is worth looking at a few imprecatory psalms in some detail. So the rest of this article will examine three of these psalms more fully.

Psalm 35 is a clear example of an imprecatory psalm. It contains the main features usually found in such a psalm. It begins as follows: “Contend, LORD, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me. Take up shield and armor; arise and come to my aid.”

David wishes this upon his enemies: “May they be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the LORD driving them away; may their path be dark and slippery, with the angel of the LORD pursuing them. Since they hid their net for me without cause  and without cause dug a pit for me, may ruin overtake them by surprise— may the net they hid entangle them, may they fall into the pit, to their ruin” (vv. 5-8).

He eagerly awaits God’s vindication: “Awake, and rise to my defense! Contend for me, my God and Lord. Vindicate me in your righteousness, LORD my God; do not let them gloat over me” (vv. 23-24). And he finishes with seeking God’s glory: “May those who delight in my vindication shout for joy and gladness; may they always say, “The LORD be exalted, who delights in the well-being of his servant. My tongue will proclaim your righteousness, your praises all day long” (vv. 27-28).

Like anyone, he is not keen about enemies, opposition, persecution and the like. But at the end of the day he is calling for God’s vindication, and not seeking his own personal revenge. And importantly, he realizes that his enemies are God’s enemies.

James Montgomery Boice makes several points about this psalm which are worth noting. He reminds us that David, who authored this and many of the other imprecatory psalms, was not known as a man of personal vengeance, but as a forgiving person, as seen for example in his treatment of Saul.

Thus, he is “not writing as a private citizen but as the king and judge of Israel. The judgment he calls for is a righteous judgment upon those who, by opposing him, oppose God and godliness.” While forgiveness is commendable when we receive personal insult or injury, it is “quite another thing to overlook a wrong done by an evil person to another party, especially if you are the one chiefly responsible for administering law or justice in that circumstance. A policeman, judge, governor, or president must deal with violent people differently from how you or I might deal with them.

“I also suggest that there is a place for private citizens, especially Christians, to oppose evil vigorously. We can pray for the conversion of the very wicked, but if they are not going to be converted (and many are not), we can certainly pray for their overthrow and destruction. It was right for all good people to pray for and rejoice at the fall of Adolf Hitler.”

He also reminds us that the “rejoicing of the righteous at the fall of the wicked” is not just found in the OT. “The chief example is the joy of the righteous at the fall of mystical Babylon, recorded in Revelation 18 and 19.” Consider just one verse, Rev 18:20: “Rejoice over her, you heavens! Rejoice, you people of God! Rejoice, apostles and prophets! For God has judged her with the judgment she imposed on you.”

Gerald Wilson concludes his commentary on this psalm with these words: “There is innocent suffering that needs to be confronted and judged. We ought not to turn a blind eye on injustice or oppression, whether directed to ourselves or others. But the psalmist reminds us that what is finally at stake is not our reputations or even our well-being but God’s glory and righteousness. To pray that he will set things right is to admit our own culpability in the ‘unrightness’ of the world around us and to cast ourselves on him – both for forgiveness and for deliverance.”

Psalm 94 is also a good example of the imprecatory lament. While the majority of laments are personal, this one is basically a communal lament. But it contains the main features of a lament, and is worth looking at further.

Here a God of vengeance is appealed to because of rampant wickedness. The psalmist calls for God to act and bring forth justice. Although he can become overwhelmed at how the wicked seem to prosper, he knows that “He will repay them for their sins and destroy them for their wickedness; the LORD our God will destroy them.”

Whatever the exact distress, injustice or enmity the group or individual may be facing, the cry is for God to vindicate them and establish his justice. As has been noted, this is a fully biblical and moral consideration. It is the same as when Jesus instructs us to pray: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10).

Finally let me return to Psalm 137 which I referred to earlier. The context is the deportation of the people of Israel to Babylon and all the misery which accompanied that awful occasion. As Willem VanGemeren remarks, “the Babylonians were famed for their cruelties. The psalmist relishes the thought that some day the proud Babylonian captors will taste the defeat they have dished out and that they will be reduced to such a state of desolation and defenselessness that they are unable to defend even their infants.”

Walter Kaiser says of vv.8-9 that these hard sayings “are not statements of personal vendetta, but they are utterances of zeal for the kingdom of God and his glory. To be sure, the attacks which provoked these prayers were not from personal enemies; rather, they were rightfully seen as attacks against God and especially his representatives in the promised line of the Messiah.”

Even C.S. Lewis whom we cited earlier could agree that “the ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and it (if not its perpetrators) is hateful to God. In that way, however dangerous the human distortion may be, His word sounds through these passages too.”

John Day, in his recent book on the imprecatory psalms reminds us that they show a concern for:
-“the honour of God”
-“the realization of justice amid rampant injustice”
-“the public recognition of the sovereignty of God”
-“the preservation of righteousness”
They also demonstrate “a hope that divine retribution will cause the enemies to seek Yahweh” and “an abhorrence of sin”.

Erich Zenger says this about the “psalms of vengeance”: they are “a passionate clinging to God when everything really speaks against God. For that reason they can rightly be called psalms of zeal, to the extent that in them passion for God is aflame in the midst of the ashes of doubt about God and despair over human beings. These psalms are the expression of a longing that evil, and evil people, may not have the last word in history, for this world and its history belong to God.”

Back in 1942 Johannes G. Vos wrote an important article on these troubling psalms, part of which may serve as a conclusion here: “God’s kingdom cannot come without Satan’s kingdom being destroyed. God’s will cannot be done in earth without the destruction of evil. Evil cannot be destroyed without the destruction of men who are permanently identified with it. Instead of being influenced by the sickly sentimentalism of the present day, Christian people should realize that the glory of God demands the destruction of evil. Instead of being insistent upon the assumed, but really non-existent, rights of men, they should focus their attention upon the rights of God. Instead of being ashamed of the Imprecatory Psalms, and attempting to apologize for them and explain them away, Christian people should glory in them and not hesitate to use them in the public and private exercises of the worship of God.”

For further study

Specific studies

Adams, James, War Psalms of the Prince of Peace: Lessons From the Imprecatory Psalms. Presbyterian & Reformed, 1991.
Day, John, Crying for Justice: What the Psalms Teach Us about Mercy and Vengeance in an Age of Terrorism. Kregel, 2005.
Zenger, Erich, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath. Westminster John Knox, 1996.

General studies

Bateman, Herbert and D. Brent Sandy, eds. Interpreting the Psalms for Teaching and Preaching. Chalice Press, 2010.
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms. Augsburg, 1984.
Brueggemann, Walter, Praying the Psalms. Paternoster, 1980, 2007.
Bullock, C. Hassell, Encountering the Book of Psalms: A Literary and Theological Introduction. Baker, 2004.
Estes, Daniel, Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms. Baker, 2005.
Firth, David and Philip Johnston, Interpreting the Psalms. IVP, 2005.
Lewis, C.S., Reflections on the Psalms. Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1958.
Longman, Tremper, How To Read the Psalms. IVP, 1988.
Lucas, Ernest, Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Psalms & Wisdom Literature. IVP, 2003.
Miller, Patrick, Interpreting the Psalms. Fortress, 1986.
Wenham, Gordon, Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Baker, 2012.

Part One of this article is here:

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14 Replies to “The Imprecatory Psalms, Part Two”

  1. The Hallelujah Chorus in Messiah comes straight after Thou shalt break them in pieces like a potter’s vessel, combining OT and NT desires for God to destroy his enemies from Psalm 2 and Revelation 19.
    David McKay

  2. Bill, I noticed you did not mention Spurgeon’s, Treasury of David, a classic commentary on the Psalms that many may enjoy. It is my favourite.

    Lance A Box

  3. Thanks Lance

    Yes it certainly is a wonderful set and a real classic. But if I start listing all my fav commentaries on the Psalms this article would get even longer yet!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. In Psalm 137, By the waters of Babylon, I interpret the words of vengeance against Babylon as a stinging final rebuke for causing the defeat and demoralisation of the people of Israel, exiling them from their beloved Jerusalem. It is a tearful lament. OK it’s not very nice what they are wishing on their captors but articulates their passion, their pain, not ours. It is like watching a play. It was Howard Goodall’s arrangement in his Pelican in the Wilderness album that first drew the words of this psalm to my attention with its simplicity and emotion.,%20137.htm

    Rachel Smith

  5. Surely the ‘negative’ statement of Jesus on the cross ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me’ is most challenging for us.

    Is my comment below useful in the process of developing understanding?

    First of all, I do not take issue, and accept as true, that He WAS forsaken. Far be it for me to make any assessment as to that reality.

    Another dimension, on the ‘human’ level, can be considered as possible.

    He had on numerous occasions prophesied – predicted – that He would end His life on a cross at the hand of ‘religious’ authority. He was on the cross when He uttered that ‘negative’ statement.

    It is trite to say this in a few words, but here is one explanation. The words in Psalm 22 were established hundreds of years before the event to provide Jesus with a ‘road map’ of the reality of the feelings and events which He experienced on that Friday afternoon.

    His real ‘human’ feelings (abandonment) are very understandable to all of us. Who wouldn'[t feel like that in the circumstances. ‘Logic’ is certainly not a consideration in that situation.

    He quoted from the Psalm, referring to ‘God’, rather than His usual referrence to the ‘Father’.

    And in His extreme state of ‘human bewilderment’ He was shown that the events surrounding Him were just as predicted in Scripture, confirming – in the face of any understandable doubts arising in the extremity of physical and spiritual excrucitaing pain – that His ‘unbearable experience’ of suffering was, in Truth, confirmed as right ‘on track’ – His Father’s eternal plan for all mankind.

    Please do not overlook the ‘positive’ statement which I believe was ‘unbelievably’ part of Jesus’ conscious awareness at the time. in subsequent verses, even you and I, as His bretheren and members of the congregation of believers, were included within His thoughts.

    David Shearer

  6. Thanks Bill, I concur absolutely with your thoughts. Another thought that has arisen for me is that; although the Psalms are the words of David; to me these are also the words of Jesus at times when he prayed in his anguish. Which makes him all the more like me in his humanity, yet he did not sin – & so makes it possible to go on to perfection like him. Shows that we can speak of our frustrations etc, and then let it be – for God to act, if he so will, in his own time.
    Michael Thompson

  7. Hi Bill, I always looked at the last 2 verses of Psalm 137 as being prophetic in the sense that they spoke of Babylon’s future judgment. Would you agree at all?
    Mario Del Giudice

  8. Thank you Bill for such a clear exposition of the irreconcilability of good and evil. Good has been and will be like god himself who is good, for ever and ever, while evil is only tempera from the fall to Christ’s return. I believe that this topic apart from the personal god who creates and redeems, sets Christianity apart from all other religions. All other religions or mental constructs seek to incorporate evil into the fabric of reality, simply because they see it is there and they feel they either have to use it for their advantage or reconcile it in their ideas somehow.
    I think, the end of Ps 139 provides us with a key to understanding these psalms. There the identification of the psalmist with God is so close that it can not be separated from that which God stands for, justice, love, life etc. In this he is only following god’s own personal close identification with those whom he has chosen and redeemed. Acts 8 and 2 Tim 2 are such examples. Christ tells Paul that he was persecuting Him when Paul persecuted the church. In 2 Tim it says that ‘Christ can not deny himself’ when Paul talks about God’s faithfulness in the face of our faithlessness and failure.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

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