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The Imprecatory Psalms in God's Story

The Psalter is the hymnal and prayer book of the people of God. When we sing and pray along with the psalms, we praise the God of Israel for his perfect character and mighty works. We find comfort and encouragement in times of trial. We thank God for past deliverance as we pray for the advance of his Kingdom.


We may hesitate, though, to pray with the psalms that feature imprecations, sternly worded prayers for divine judgment of enemies. We understand that these imprecatory psalms express the honest feelings of the psalmists, but are they really appropriate for Christians? Are they compatible with Jesus' directive to love our enemies? (Lk 6:27-36)


In considering these questions, we should remember that the love of enemies is taught throughout the Bible, not just in the New Testament (Ex 23:4-5; Pr 24:17; 25:21), so we cannot assume that these psalms are morally deficient.


Moreover, there are imprecations in the New Testament (Gal 1:8-9; 5:12; 1 Co 16:22) as well as in the Psalms. The martyrs pictured in Revelation 6:10 pray for vindication, just as the psalmists do. So does the persistent widow in Luke 18:1-8, to which Jesus gives his endorsement. All of this suggests that we should take a closer look at the imprecatory psalms before excluding them from our worship.

 

The imprecatory psalms ask God to deal with an unnamed enemy.

This enemy is bent upon doing violence (Pss 7:16; 17:9; 27:12; 58:2), which may be physical or verbal. The enemy's attacks include slander (140:11), false accusation (35:11, 21; 109:4,20,25,29), mockery (35:15-16, 26; 109:25), and deceitful speech (35:20; 58:3; 109:2). His whole being is dedicated to doing evil, including hands (58:2; 71:4), feet (35:3; 109:16), eyes (10:8; 56:6; 71:10), mouth (109:2-4), heart (58:2; 10:6; 55:15), and imagination (31:13; 35:4; 59:5).


The enemies oppose Israel, and in doing so they stand in the way of God's plan to bless all nations through Israel. The opposition may be a plot to destroy the entire nation, as in Psalm 83:4: "Come, let us wipe them out as a nation; let the name of Israel be remembered no more!" It may be an attack on God's sanctuary (74:3-7; 79:1), or on the Davidic King through whom the Messiah is prophesied to come. By promoting wickedness, the enemy undermines the peace of Israel, whose wellbeing in the land depends on righteousness and justice being done (Dt 16:18-20).


In summary, the enemy in the imprecatory psalms is an enemy of God, not just some person with whom the psalmist has difficulty getting along.

To highlight this point, the psalms compare the enemies to serpents with sharp tongues and deadly venom (Pss 58:4-5; 140:3). They are "crafty" (83:3) like the serpent in the Garden of Eden (Ge 3:1). These comparisons allude to Genesis 3:15, a verse traditionally seen as the Bible's first hint of the messianic promise.(1) After the sin of Adam and Eve, God reveals that mankind would face ongoing conflict against forces of evil (pictured as the "offspring" of the serpent), with some male offspring of Eve delivering a crushing blow to the head of the serpent.


The psalms make frequent allusion to Genesis 3:15, expressing faith that God will defeat the serpent. "But God will strike the heads of his enemies," Psalm 68:21 confidently declares. Steps on the way to the final victory include Jael's striking the head of Sisera (Ps 83:9; Jdg 4:21-22) and the beheading of Midianite princes Oreb and Zeeb by Gideon's forces (Ps 83:11; Jdg 7:25).

 

The petitioner in the imprecatory psalms is one who has suffered unjustly at the hands of the enemy. The enemy has attacked him without a cause (Ps 69:2), responding to his love with hatred (35:12-16; 109:3-5). He is not sinless (69:5; 79:8; 143:2), but he is innocent in the matter at hand. Rather than responding to the enemy in kind, he prays for vindication, leaving the matter with God.


His prayers are consistent with the divine will. He knows that God is faithful to his covenant, and that he has promised to defeat the serpent's offspring and those who curse Israel (Ge 3:15; 12:3). He prays that God, the shield of Abraham (Ge 15:1), will be his shield (Ps 35:1-2).


He also knows that God, who upholds the cause of the innocent and needy (Dt 10:18; 27:19), prescribes measure-for-measure justice for those who exploit them (Dt 19:16-21). He then prays that God will deliver this kind of justice (Pss 28:4; 94:2; 137:8), which limits punishment to what the enemy deserves.


The petitioner prays out of love for God and concern for God's name - i.e., his reputation (Pss 79:9;109:21;143:11).

He wants God's greatness and justice to be recognized (58:11; 59:13; 83:18; 109:27) and his mighty works to be praised (5:11; 35:27-28; 40:16). He loves God's kingdom and wants peace to prevail in it.


Moreover, he prays out of concern for the enemy, asking that the enemy repent (83:16) and that divine judgment will lead many to submit to God (40:3; 68:28-31). Judgment interrupts a cycle of violence and can lead the enemy to change before he becomes hardened in sin.


The petitioner is part of a nation of kings and priests and often a king of that nation. He lives in an era when God's kingdom has a physical presence on the earth, with borders, a government, and flesh-and-blood enemies. The king guards and protects the kingdom (Ps 72:4, 8-17). His prayers for judgment are a way in which he prays, "Thy kingdom come!" He would be shirking his duty if he did not make such prayers.


We see, then, that the imprecatory psalms are entirely appropriate for their original setting in salvation history and should not be removed from our Bibles. Their use in the New Testament and continuing relevance for Christians will be considered in a sequel to this article.


(1) See Trevor Laurence, Cursing with God: The Imprecatory Psalms and the Ethics of Christian Prayer, Baylor University Press, 2022, chapter 2.


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