What do we do with the imprecatory psalms of prayers in the OT? There are seven psalms which are considered imprecatory or curse psalms (35, 55, 59, 69, 79, 109, and 137). These are the psalms of wrath and anger. Any casual reader of the psalms who take Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek seriously might be a little unsettled at these prayers. What do we do about them? Below are a few scholarly solutions. I mention both some pros and cons of the view.
Poetic viewpoint– It is just the nature of poetry. Pro: Poetry is full of hyperbole and vivid images that elicit strong emotive responses from the readers. The language is not to be taken literally. Everyone recognizes there are different rules in play when interpreting poetry instead of prose. Con: Even if the language is metaphorical, isn’t it a little much?
Deficient ethic viewpoint– Since the Psalms are in the Old Covenant and we’re in the New Covenant, it does not apply to us today. The OT contains an inferior ethic that the NT abrogates or perfects. Pro: There does seem to be an idea that certain commandments were given to as a divine accommodation to limit peoples’ sins (Matt. 18:8). Con: Psalms are used in the N.T. Is all the Word inspired? Is the O.T. inferior to the N.T.? Furthermore, Jesus’ statements concerning the greatest commandments are straight from the OT (Deut. 6:4; Lev. 19:18). It seems unwise to make such a radical difference between the covenants. After all, it is the same God behind both of them.
Eschatological viewpoint– The psalmist is referring to the wicked person’s judgment on the Day of the LORD. He is thinking of eternal consequences. Pro: Scripture does speak a lot about the ramifications of sin and how we ought to live in light of eternity. Con: He speaks in present tense. Furthermore, one cannot deny the historical real-life context of the Psalms. These psalms are personal and are directed at specific people. It seems like bad exegesis to see the enemies of David as merely metaphors for sin, death, and damnation.
Messianic viewpoint– The psalms are quoted on the mouth of Jesus and others in the NT (Psa. 35:19, 69:4 [John 15:25]; Psa. 69:9 [John 2:17]; Psa. 69:25, 109:8 [Acts 1:20]). They are OT prophecies concerning Jesus and the life of the Church. Pro: The suffering is one of a child of God suffering for God’s sake which is in turn looking forward to Jesus (John 15:18-27; Psa. 69). The psalms are used in this manner. Con: The quotations are selective and there’s no reason to believe the apostles thought these psalms were exclusively or only messianic.
Nations viewpoint– All the imprecatory Psalms are geared at nations rather than an individual. Pro: If true, the prayers are really cries for societal justice. It is ok to pray for justice on the earth. Con: Psalm 69 and 109 are directed toward individuals. A personal ethic that operates in a radically different way than a national ethic isn’t worth much good. This view is too good to be true.
Words of others viewpoint– The vindictive words that are uttered are interpolations into the text of someone other than the author. Pro: The inspired authors are off the hook because it wasn’t them in the first place. Con: This ignores the historical realities of the psalms. It is wholly impractical and unwarranted. Honestly, how would we decide if it was the author writing or an interpolator? This would open the door for someone denying part of God’s word every time it contradicted our moral intuitions. From time to time, I think it is a good thing to have the Bible contradict us.
Sin/Sinner distinction viewpoint-When the Psalmist is asking God to bring down wrath on his enemies, the wrath is being asked to be brought down on the quality of the sin; not the sinner. Pro: Hatred is not directed at the sinner but at the quality of the sin. “Love the sinner but hate the sin.”The psalmist desires divine justice to be accomplished. There is at times a desire for repentance for the enemy and a relinquishment of wrath. Con: It is difficult to separate one’s hatred for sin from hatred for the sinner. Who can maintain the distinction? Furthermore, it seems the writer hates the person in the psalm. Granted, there’s at least one sinner whose sin we hate and yet love deeply. Ourselves.
I’m uncertain personally which view is the most satisfactory. I will say that the psalms are immensely valuable to me in my own life because they mirror my journey of faith almost perfectly. I agree with C.S. Lewis who said, “The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express the same delight in God which made David dance.” In a psalm you find the writer steadfastly praising God in one moment and immediately crying out because he feels abandoned in the next verse. You find the full gamete of human affections throughout the book: joy, anger, sadness, worry, fear, dread, apathy, and a host of others. In all honesty, that is my walk with the Lord. Even the imprecatory psalms have some kernel of relevance in my life from time to time. I am angered by people who abuse and maliciously hurt children and steal their innocence away as if it is a grape in the fruit aisle at the supermarket. I’m mad as heck that children die of starvation by the thousands each day and we celebrate such idolatrous days such as Black Friday. It is a grim day indeed. I’m angry that women lose their homes and their sense of security because men cannot control themselves and commit adultery. I too sometimes pray prayers that aren’t tame or politically correct. They’re foolish but so am I from time to time. There have been prayers I would never leave a paper trail for. The imprecatory psalms could be examples of just that.
I won’t leave this blog on that note though. OT scholar C. Hassell Bullock offers some things for readers to remember about these vexing psalms. He says we should take into consideration the setting of the author.
- Remember the author’s perspective that he is being treated unfairly (35:12) from enemies that occasionally he considered friends (55:12-14).
- The psalmist finds their evil senseless or without cause (109:2-3, 35:7, 19, 59:3-5, 69: 4).
- The psalmist believes he is suffering for the Lord’s sake (69:7-9). Persecution and endurance are involved.
- While the psalmist’s confidence in men and women has been shattered, his faith if God and his goodness remains intact (109:21, 26).
- The psalmist has a sense of community that undergirds his spiritual well-being (35:27, 69:6).
We also need to appreciate the following principles of judgment:
- He expects the Lord to contend with those who have done him harm (35:1, 69:7-9).
- The psalmist believes, at least prays, that the devices of the wicked will be self-destructive (35:8, 5:10, 7:15-16, 9:15).
- The psalmist prays that God will repay the wicked measure for measure for their evil (109:17-19, 137:8-9).
- The reproach of the psalmist’s enemies did not stand on its own but was rotted in deep defiance against God himself (79:12).
Are there any benefits to us as modern readers? He offers at least five.
- They give us a realistic view of the world.
- The enemies of the psalms are never mythicized or demonized. Rather they are taken quite literally and seriously.
- To the degree that these psalms reveal that violence is “a structural distortion of the earth as the abode of life, something that is offensive to God, they demystify every ideology that presents itself all too enthusiastically as promising happiness and liberation.”
- They bring to our attention the “web of violence” that attacks our world and inflicts pain on human beings, “especially for the weak, the sick, the suffering, and those under attack by a hostile environment (or at least one felt to be hostile).”
- Although the psalms point to others as the perpetrators of evil, they at the same time call us to face our own complicity in the web of violence.