How to Understand the Imprecatory Psalms.

Introduction

The idea of a righteous man who is gracious, loving, and forgiving is not often seen as one who prays curses upon people or desires to have their enemies’ children dashed against rocks.[1] But this is the dilemma found in Scripture.  The Bible affirms both of these ideas—to love one’s neighbor and yet at the same time desire to see God destroy that which is evil.  Lewis has noted, “In some of the Psalms the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth.”[2] In fact, the imprecatory Psalms are so offensive that contemporary priests and monastics are no longer obliged to read them.[3]

The imprecatory prayer will be examined in this paper.  The paper will begin with a brief definition of what an imprecation is, as well as what the foundation for an imprecation is.  Then the paper will go into the book of Genesis and show the blossoming of the imprecatory prayer throughout Scripture all the way to Revelation.  The conclusion will include ideas concerning whether the imprecatory prayer is to be practiced anymore.

The definition of an “Imprecation”

Laney defines an imprecation as, “invocation of judgment, calamity, or curse uttered against one’s enemies, or the enemies of God.”[4] Imprecations were quite common in the Ancient Near East.  The Ancient Near Eastern Texts (ANET) are filled will all types of curses and incantations to cure one from an imprecation.[5] Biblically, imprecations are done by God’s people who are seen as righteous and their enemy as the manifestation of evil.  In short, an imprecation is a cry from the righteous for justice.[6]

The foundation for the imprecatory prayer

Almost all scholars agree that the groundwork for the imprecatory prayers of the saints is based upon the Abrahamic Covenant.  Day writes,

…they [the imprecatory Psalms] root their theology of the cursing, of crying out for God’s vengeance expressed in the Song of Moses (Dt. 32:1-43), the principle of divine justice outlined in the lex talionis (e.g. 19:16-21), and the assurance of divine cursing as well as blessing in the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 12:2-3)…[7]

The Abrahamic Covenant, which is introduced in Genesis 12:1-2, is likely what saints, throughout Scripture, claim as their promise and foundation for their prayers of imprecation.

Genesis 12:3 states, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  Here we find the foundation for why Abraham and his descendants would have prayed an imprecation on their enemies.  This is something God had promised Abraham from the beginning.  We see this idea reiterated in Deuteronomy 32:1-43.  So when Moses, David, and Asaph pray for God to judge their enemies, they are in fact merely asking God to fulfill what He had promised to do.

This idea is developed at the giving of the Mosaic Law.  In Deuteronomy 27-28 God reveals that He will judge according to these laws.  Anyone who keeps these laws He will surely bless.  However, anyone who neglects the law will be cursed.[8] This will be an important point and will be brought out later.

How should the imprecatory Psalms be understood?

There are over 30 Psalms that contain a clear imprecation.[9] They are typically broken up into three major categories.  They are as follows: societal enemies, national enemies, personal enemies.  Because of the harsh language, many have seen the Psalms as barbaric, vindictive, and out of place with the teachings of Jesus.[10] However, this idea must be rejected.  When these prayers are examined in light of the context, these statements could not be further from the truth.  First, the context is grounded in a promise by God (Gen. 12:2-3).  Second, the prayers of the saints are never asking to take vengeance for their own sake, rather, they are asking God to do what is just according to His promise (Psalm 6:4b; 7:6; 28:4; 31:15; 40:13; 70:5; 109:120).  Third, these prayers are always a type or picture of the innocent pleading against the guilty to the judge (7:3-6; 9:12b; 28:4-5; 31:6).  Fourth, these prayers represent the needy who have nothing and no one to defend them but God (Psalm 10:10; 69:1-4; 137).  Fifth, it is a cry for justice to a just God (Psalm 1:6; 10:5; 17:9-13; 35:23-24).  Sixth, they are a cry for God to defend His name and glory (Psalm 5:11; 6:4; 7:11; 10:3; 28:5; 31:6; 35:9; 58:11).  Seventh, the prayers do not see themselves as faultless, but rather those who turn to the LORD (Psalm 5:7-8b; 6:1-4; 10:12-13; 31:6-10).

Imprecatory prayer throughout Scripture

The idea of God cursing is found as early as the first few chapters in Genesis (2:15-1; 3:14-1-9; 4:10-12).  We see God speaking to man and holding him accountable to his actions.  “You obey me and you will be blessed, you disobey me and you will be cursed.”  God then selects a specific people to be His to be blessed and be a means of blessing to all nations (Gen. 12:2-3; 15:1-6; 17:1-14).  However, YEHWEH later gives these people a law by which He will bless and curse (Dt. 27-28).  In fact, the law instructs Israel to destroy all enemies of their God (Dt. 2:26-37; 3:1-22; 7).[11] All of this is commanded while there law also instructed Israel not to hate and to leave vengeance to the LORD (Dt. 32:35; Lev. 19:17-18).  Soon after this, Israel goes through a roller coaster of blessing and cursing.  Later, God appoints a King for His people.  This King represents God on earth for His people.  It is the King’s responsibility to uphold the laws and defend and provide for God’s people.  It is during the reign of King David that much of the imprecatory Psalms are written.  Although David is the author of the majority of imprecatory Psalms when examined in the narratives concerning him, few would see him as vindictive (2 Sam. 16:11; 19:16-23).[12] However, one could see David’s prayer as one for vindication.  As Israel continues on, it gradually falls further and further away from God.  God sends them corrupt leaders as a judgment.  Then God sends more wicked nations to judge them.  Throughout this entire time God is raising up prophets who speak on His behalf to repent so that blessings may come.  Hosea is one of those prophets.  Hosea begins his pronouncement against pagan gentile nations.  But the seventh nation listed under his pronouncement of judgment is against Judah.  Lessing states,

From 1:3 through 2:5 Amos’s audience in all likelihood cheered and applauded after each neighboring nation was condemned.  “Great preacher, this Amos!”  was the mantra of the moment.  The sermon builds to a climax as three, four, five nations are placed under divine fire.  With the next judgment pointing to Judah (2:4-5), the number reaches seven.[13]

From Genesis to Malachi Scripture shows a curse remaining on God’s people for failure to fulfill what was required of them.  And yet the imprecatory Psalms teach of God visiting sin and justly destroying it and having mercy and forgiving sin.  How these two both are true is revealed in the New Testament.  Although at the close of the Old Testament Israel does not look too good, there is promise of a New Covenant God will make with them and will bring about His original promise with certainty (Jer. 31:31-40; Ez. 36-37).

After four hundred years of silence from God, He sends a prophet to prepare the way for the Messiah who will then inaugurate the “New Covenant.”  John the Baptist is seen as one who warns Israel of God’s soon judgment/curse.  When Jesus comes on the scene, He continues to follow what was taught in the Law of Moses while developing the ideas found there.  Jesus explains how the tension can be understood better of how one can hate evil and yet love his enemy (Matt. 5:29-30, 43-45).  Jesus does not teach one idea as supreme over the other, or teach only one at the neglect of another.  In fact, Jesus practices both (Matt. 5:43-45; Lk. 17:11-19; Matt. 11:20-24; 23:13-39; Mk. 11:14).

Martin Luther explains how Christians should understand the two without sacrificing one.  He says,

We should pray that our enemies be converted and become our friends and, if not, that their doing and designing be bound to fail and have not success and that their persons perish rather that the Gospel and the kingdom of Christ.[14]

The blessings and cursings do not end with Jesus’ teachings though.  The Apostles are seen continuing in the line of saints who will pray prayers of imprecation (Acts 5:3-4,7-10; 8:20; Gal. 1:8-9; 5:12; 2 Pet. 2:14; Jude11-13)[15].  Peter curses Simon the Magician and yet extends an opportunity for repentance.[16] Paul gives a warning/imprecation to anyone who teaches a false gospel.  Even the saints who die for Christ in Revelation are seen as praying imprecations on the unjust!  In fact, the imagery given in Revelation is the saint’s prayers going up to God in His holy sanctuary and then later being poured out on the wicked.[17] This prayer of the saints has an illusion back to the imprecatory Psalms.[18] The imprecatory prayer is seen throughout scripture.  However, the idea of repentance and desire to see the wicked converted is developed more in the New Testament, while holding to a love and desire for God to uphold justice and display His righteousness.

Conclusion and Application

Although it is difficult for the American Church to understand the fullness of the imprecatory prayer, it may come easier should persecution come upon her.  However, traditionally the Church has held dearly to these Psalms and prayers when under severe suffering( 2 Thess. 1:5-12).[19] For the Christian, he should look to the cross whenever contemplating the curse motif in Scripture.  This is because Jesus bore the curse for all, some to salvation and some to postpone the curse on the unbelieving.[20]

Sadly, the response in America has typically been to skip over, ignore, and often feel shame for having these verses in the Bible.  Kelley states, “Our responsibility is to listen.”[21] The Christian should not see the imprecatory prayer as one to be ceased in the practice of the everyday believer, nor as sinful.  The saints in heaven (sinless) pray these prayers to God even today (Rev. 6:9-11).  Instead like Jesus, Peter, and Paul the desire of every Christian should be to see all come to repentance and yet if that not be God’s sovereign will, then for God to deal justly with the unbelieving according to their deeds.


[1]e.g. Matthew 5:44; Psalms 137:9.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (Orlando, FL.:  Harcourt Brace, 1958), 23.

[3] Gary A. Anderson, “King David and the Psalms of Imprecation,” PRO ECCLESIA 15 (2006) 267 [267-280].

[4] Carl J. Laney, “A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms,” BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 549 (1981) 35 [35-45].

[5] Reed Lessing, “Broken Teeth, Bloody Baths, and Baby Bashing:  Is There Any Place in the Church for Imprecatory Psalms?” CONCORDIA Journal 32 (2006): 369 [368-370].

[6] Ibid., 369.

[7] John N. Day, “The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics,” BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 159  (2002):168 [166-186].

[8] Earl S. Kaliand, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 3:  163.

[9] Reed Lessing, “Broken Teeth, Bloody Baths, and Baby Basking:  Is There Any Place in the Church for Imprecatory Psalms?” CONCORDIA Journal 32 (2006): 368 [368-370].

[10] Ibid., 368.

[11] J. Denney, A Dictionary of the Bible, ed. James Hastings, vol. 1 (Peabody, Mass.:  Hendrickson Publishing, 1988), 534.

[12] Carl J. Laney, “A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms,” BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 549 (1981) 42 [35-45].

[13] Reed Lessing, “Upsetting the Status Quo:  Preaching like Amos,” CONCORDIA  33 (2007):  288 [285-298].

[14] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works: The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat, A.T.W. Steinhaeuser,[St. Louis: Concordia, 1956], 1000.

[15] Edwin A. Blum, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 12:  391-392.

[16] Richard N. Longenecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Act (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 110-110.

[17] Robert L. Thomas, “The Imprecatory Prayers of the Apocalypse,” BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 502 (1969):  123 [123-131].

[18] G.K. Beale, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic Apollos, 2007), 1104.

[19] Raymond F. Surburg, “The Interpretation of the Imprecatory Psalms,” Springfielder 39 (1975): 100.

[20] David Turner “God’s Wrath Postponed,” BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 657 (2008): 106 [106].

[21] Kelley H. Page, “Prayers of Troubled Saints,” Review and Expositor 81 (1984):  379 [377-383].

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