Should Christians Pray the Imprecatory Psalms?

Imprecatory Psalms contain words that appear at face-value to curse enemies, which become problematic with Christians who strive to love rather than curse their enemies as taught by the Lord Jesus Christ as recorded in Matthew 5:39, 44; Luke 23:24; Romans 12:13; 1 Corinthians 4:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:15.[1]   Imprecation means the “invocation of judgment, calamity, or curse uttered against one’s enemies, or the enemies of God.[2]  Throughout the Book of Psalms there are almost one hundred verses with imprecations;[3]  however, Psalms 35, 55, 59, 69, 79, 109, and 137 are commonly known as the “Imprecatory Psalms.” This paper intends to examine specific Imprecatory Psalms and the teachings of Christ concerning His follower’s response toward their enemies to determine whether Christians should pray the Imprecatory Psalms.

Psalm 35

Psalm 35 was written by David with intense emotion and urgency.  While the problem that provokes such a prayer is not fully identified, there is “sufficient ambiguity to classify it as an individual lament.”[4]  Since the piety of David is notable, and his nature is given to upholding the things of God, we must start our analysis of Imprecatory Psalms with the understanding that his emotional prayers calling for the vengeance of God should not be classified as sinful, especially since they come only after his enemies repeated attacks.[5]  Thus, it is imperative that we examine the particulars of each Imprecatory Psalm to gain a full understanding of each circumstance and response.

There are two different type requests made by David to God:  those calling God to action, and those calling God to inaction. David asks God to take up the spear and stop the forward progress of those that are persecuting him (3a).  Then David asks God to stand in their way, but do nothing more than allow his enemies be confounded (4a), turned back (4b), be as chaff (5) and their way dark and slippery (6a). Then after the enemies are given over to their natural ways, David asks the angel of the LORD to persecute them (6b).

It is significant that David approaches this problem with his enemies in very specific requests of God.  While it seems natural for some to declare Psalm 35 as filled with curses, a closer examination of David’s requests and intentions fail to show justification for this categorization.

When David’s reasons for this request are considered, the nature of his prayer is understood even better. David tells God that his enemies are persecuting him (3a), seeking his soul (4a), devising ways to hurt him (4b), setting him up to trap him (7a), and digging deeply to find further avenues to hurt his soul (7b).

Up to this point, we do not have an extreme cursing situation unfolding. It would seem reasonable to suggest that David’s access to God’s ear might well have given him hope to speak serious curses like “strike them dead” or “wipe them out” with full expectation of God’s will to protect him. Instead, David prays for measured intervention by God by requesting that He stop their persecution of him by letting them be fully enveloped by the nature they possess, and as a result, fall into their own trap, with God’s persecution replacing their persecution against him. It was a well-thought out strategy in the midst of serious spiritual and physical warfare; at this point in Psalm 35, there is just no existence of serious curses being shouted to God by David. This approach of David to let the nature of the enemies’ trip up their plans is fully revealed in verse 8 when David asks God to let their net, the snare they laid for him, fall upon them instead.

Calvin describes the prayer in Psalm 34 as one that shows David calling curses upon his enemy in vengeance.[6] However, he acknowledges the often mistaken definition of the Hebrew word שואה “shoah” as meaning sometimes “destruction and ruin,” and other times “confusion.” He determines that the word “confusion” is more applicable in verse 8 when it is taken in context with the words of David.  Thus, to declare David’s request to God to allow the enemies to be “confused” is a concept that is seemingly innocuous compared to the curses that David might place upon His enemies.

It is a well-established practice in ancient times to use curses in many different social settings. They are provoked to force others to support causes, to protect property, or to guarantee that transactions are carried through honestly.[7] Curses are also used to promote justice over injustice in legal proceedings;[8] thus, David would have been familiar with all types and degrees of ancient curses that could have heaped misfortune upon his enemies as practiced by his society during the time of his life. Yet, David employs no powerful curse to bring his enemies to end through his prayer to God; at the most, he asks God for their entrapment by their own actions and words, and to do to them what they had intended to do to him.

The measured nature of David’s “curses” in Psalm 34, changes our inquiry.  No longer is the question, “Can Christians pray the Imprecatory Psalms” with the suggestion that invoking those prayers rains curses upon the enemies of Christians against the teachings of Christ; rather, we are led to the consideration of whether followers of Christ are allowed to take defensive and offensive measures when violence or war is declared against them and attack is imminent.

Psalm 55

Psalm 55 is also an individual lament prayer; David seems filled with despair against friends turned to foes in a similar emotion often linked to the betrayal of Judas against our Lord.[9]

Once again, we must look to David’s words and examine specifically what he is asking God to do to those who have been unjust to him, to determine the nature of the imprecatory prayer. A comparison of Psalm 55 to Psalm 33 shows a striking contrast in both request and reason, which requires separate analysis.

David in Psalm 55 asks God to destroy and divide the tongues of (9) his friends who became his enemies. The curse is succinctly stated: “Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into hell” (15). Many interpreters link this psalm to the conspiracy of Absalom against David; however, Calvin connects it to the time when David was in extreme danger through the persecution period of Saul.[10]  His deeply distressful, fervently emotional pleas to solicit compassion from God to destroy his enemies qualify it as a first-rate curse, asking God to kill those who hate him.

Their offenses against him are presented to God to make a case that wickedness and hatred is visited upon the Psalmist. David encourages God’s attention by noting that not only is he affected, but the he had also seen “violence and strife” (9) and “mischief and sorrow” (10) in the walled city, with “wickedness, deceit and guile” (11) within Jerusalem’s streets.

There is no measured response as we saw in David’s plea in Psalm 33.  It is a blunt request for death and hell to be delivered by a perceived vengeful God who will be upset with those whom have hurt the Psalmist.  It is a curse request, an imprecatory prayer that holds troubling spiritual dilemma that assumes God favors one over another, and that curses can be implicated upon request of those favored by Him.  There is no doubt the Psalmist believes that God would answer his curse requests (18-23); however, it seems far-removed from Christ’s teachings to turn the other cheek and do good to those that hate you (Matthew 5:39). Christians would be well-advised to consider the disobedience to Christ’s teachings if they hold this type of attitude in prayer that is displayed in Psalm 55.

However, that a Christian is able to pray this prayer to God with full expectations of deliverance is part of a valuable intimate relationship with Him. Whether God complies with the request and whether Christ understands the agony of the prayer and forgives the lapse in obedience to His teachings, is really up to them.

A similar comparison might be made to the often spoken phrase by warriors to citizens who abuse the essence of freedom of speech in attacks against military action: “I fought the battle and gave my life, so your freedom of speech was ensured.” Christ died upon the cross for sinners to be given the ability to have relationship with God; their right to speak to Him about anything has been bought by His sacrificed blood.  However, mature Christian faith requires enduring obedience to the teachings of Christ. Psalm 55 should not be prayed by those seeking an obedient relationship with Him, especially if it is spoken for the curse impact, rather than the emotional outburst of a hurting soul coming to God for relief.

Psalm 59

Psalm 59 has a difficult structure that confuses analysis because of its vocabulary and style, and shaky categorization because it can be either an individual or community lament.[11] Regardless, the request by David is certain; he seeks deliverance from Saul’s guards, which were watching his house to seize and apprehend him which could result in his death (1 Sam. 19:11).[12] David declares his faith in God’s strength, defense, and mercy to deliver him from his enemies (16, 17).

Psalm 59 has some similarity with Psalm 35 and asks God to leave the enemy at their own devices that would eventually destroy them through the way intended for him. It differs from Psalm 55 which David literally curses his enemies to die and go to hell.  Rather, Psalm 59 seeks deliverance; David tells God about the predicament he is in, and then asks God to not slay his enemies, but to scatter them (11).  David asks God to allow their pride to develop to the point they begin cursing and lying and then to consume them in His wrath.  Once again, David relies upon the enemies’ nature to create a situation that brings the wrath of God upon them to bear.  The curse is not a specific and definitive action of David to cause his enemies harm; rather, it takes on the similar nature of Psalm 35, allowing his enemies to hang themselves upon their lying words. The measured request asks that when they are scattered, and become overcome with their self-importance, that God treats them like dogs, forcing them to seek out their next meal and hold a grudge deep inside them that cannot be satisfied. (14-15)

Psalm 59 is once again a measure of action that is weighed according to the enemies’ attacks and their reliance upon their fallen nature.   While all mature Christians strive to follow Christ’s teachings and love their enemies, David seems to do a bit of “loving enemies” also; he loves his enemies so much that he encourages God to let them love themselves, to their disadvantage when God’s wrath removes their pride forcefully without David’s direct involvement. It is a brilliant, cunning prayer that does not seem to cross the line of hating enemies that is discouraged later on by Christ’s teachings.

Psalm 69

Psalm 69 is an individual lament by David to reflect his suffering and confirm his hope in God’s redemption which has tones of the Messiah that allows messianic interpretation in his confidence for deliverance.[13] This is a poem of waiting on the Lord; David has full confidence that one day God will revenge those who have caused him to suffer in his life. Once again, in fashion of Psalms 35 and 59, the key request and commonality within the prayer of David against his enemies is for God to “let” the troubles ensnare them (22-28). It is significant in the evaluation of Imprecatory Psalms to note when a Psalmist asks God to “let” the enemies slide down to their natural ways, thereby evoking the wrath of the Lord, while others call direct curses upon the enemies’ lives.

A significant theological point can be argued that Christ did not command us to protect our enemies from themselves or from God.  Many of the imprecatory prayers by David have this character, which seeks a natural order that allows wickedness to fall on their own merits because David knows eventually they will be judged by a wrathful Lord. David is floundering and needs God’s salvation for the mistakes he makes; however, his attitude against his enemies is to let God know how they have hurt him, and wait for God’s righteous judgment and punishment against his enemies to begin.[14]

Messianic interpretation adds another layer, allowing for deeper meaning of David’s “curses.” When verses 21-28 are read, an understanding of what happens to those that reject Christ are expressed and confirmed by other Scriptures throughout the Bible. For instance, “Let their eyes be darkened, that they see not (22) supports the blind condition of the haters of Christ who do not hold faith graced by God (Rom. 11:7-8). Thus, Messianic interpretation that is so keenly associated with the Lord Jesus Christ uses curse metaphors that are literally represented later on.  It is difficult to argue the impropriety of praying Imprecatory Psalms, when the Lord Jesus Christ is connected by this example.

Psalm 79

Psalm 79 is the corporate lamentations of the Church suffering deep persecution; it is a Psalm of Asaph, written a long time after David’s death.[15] It is written after Jerusalem’s fall and their exile to Judah in 586 B.C.[16] There are two specific cures, both directed upon those who hate God; one asks for God’s wrath to come upon the heathen that do not know Him (6) and the other asks for seven times the reproach they first gave Him (12).

Most of the focus of Psalm 79 is crying to the Lord to remember His sheep, with scant words spoken against the enemy. It does not seem to express the nature of hatred that Christ’s teachings would prohibit; instead, it expresses the same convictive hope that one day God’s justice will come to bear against all those who hate Him and His people.

Psalm 109

Psalm 109 is an individual lament that expresses the confidence of God’s covenant with the “unrestrained speech of rage seeking vengeance.”[17] There are numerous imprecations in between the complaint and the expression of gratitude to God that are spoken in words that can be applied to Christ as the head of the church as well as faithful Christians today.[18] Verses 7-19 have the usual “let” requests to God, most of which seem like the typical requests that the previous Psalms have been written.  However, a careful examination of the words shows that the Psalmist, while using the less convicting word of “let” has deep curses interlaced: “Let his children be fatherless  and his wife a widow” (9), “Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg” (10),  “Let his posterity be cut off and in the generation following let their name be blotted out” (13),  are some examples that seemingly ask God to allow these developments to happen, but are actually asking for God to kill the male enemies and allow their families to suffer that pain and loss through two generations.  This qualifies with Psalm 55 as a very strong Imprecatory Psalm that is cursing the enemies to death through the Psalmist’s vengeance stemming from prior persecution.  The teachings of Christ do not allow for vengeance. Vengeance requires the heart to hate and purposely plan persecution against their enemies; Christians would be wise to consider the nature of this Psalm fully.

Psalm 137

There is one tiny curse in the Imprecatory Psalm 137; but it is a very notable and powerful one against Babylon: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones” (9). It is a communal lament that prays for God’s vengeance “between the return of the exiles from Babylon and the rebuilding of the second Temple.”[19] The Psalmist prays as representative of the Church, reminding God of his enemies’ taunts and actions.[20]

Christ’s Teachings

The Lord Jesus Christ teaches His followers to not fight evil; but rather to turn the other cheek when struck and to love, bless, do good, and pray for the enemies that use and persecute them.  Christians are taught to bless them which persecute, and are prohibited from cursing them (Rom. 12:13). Christians are to endure persecution (1 Cor. 4:12), and see that evil is not rendered against evil to any man (1 Thess. 5:15). The “love your enemies” exhortative teaching by Christ is not found in the Old Testament, and it is unparalleled in it emphatic tone.[21] It is a new way of dealing with enemies that the Psalmists had not known.

It is very evident from Christ’s teachings that curses against evil, or doing evil against evil, is prohibited.  However, through our exegesis of the Imprecatory Psalms, it becomes quite apparent that some curses may not be classified in the prohibition to cursing enemies.  Certainly, Psalms 55 and 109 are Imprecatory Psalms that fall within these teachings of Christ, and seem very inappropriate to be prayed by Christians.

However, the other Imprecatory Psalms (55, 69, 79, and 137) do not pray curses upon the enemies God and His followers.  Rather, they ask God to let the nature of their enemies alone and allow them to develop their wickedness to the point that God’s wrath falls upon them.  A strong argument can be made that this natural development of their enemies that is requested by Christians is not a curse, but an acknowledged reality of the nature of wickedness. The heart of Christ has no room for hatred; however, it does not expect wickedness to prosper by handing Christ’s kingdom’s keys to them and watch as they destroy the faithful.  Christians can watch as their enemies destroy themselves, and they are not obligated to save them.  Just because an enemy is loved by a Christian does not discount that it is still an enemy.[22]  Christians can love their enemies and tell them of Christ while at the same time praying to their Lord about the distress and pain they cause in their lives.

Conclusion

The Imprecatory Psalms stand upon the highest ethical grounds, upholds God’s justness and honor, and calls upon His divine retribution for wickedness that has rampantly oppressed the Psalmist without ceasing.[23]  Both God’s divine cursing and blessing are contained in the Abrahamic Covenant, which is carried through to the end of the New Testament virtually unchanged. Imprecatory prayers’ purposes reflect judgments against evildoers by God, praises to God in anticipated deliverance, gives the ability to men to recognize God judges the earth, demonstrates the sovereignty of God, prevents the wicked from receiving the blessings of the righteous, and causes the wicked to acknowledge God in these human cries for divine justice.[24]

Christ’s teachings do not always give black-or-white options to every situation, especially to mature Christians who have successfully developed their relationship toward Him with their separation from the world, whose faith has been proved through the Anfechtung testing [25] monitored by God, and received reward of increased spiritual knowledge for successful stance upon solid faith.  The Lord places great responsibility and trust in mature Christians’ understandings’ in both His teaching, and the knowledge of the placement of lines that divide the righteous from the profane to determine and weigh judgment and action. Cursing enemies of the Old Testament and loving enemies in the New Testament complement each other when both Testaments are harmonized together in the ever-increasing dispensational teachings of God.[26]

The Imprecatory Psalms must be analyzed on an individual basis, with the curses sorted through with focus upon intentions and reasons for the prayer to be spoken in the first place. However, a case might be made that if Christians are skilled enough to do proper exegesis on these Psalms, then they should be able to form specific, dedicated prayers to the Lord that does not rely upon rote repetition of the Imprecatory Psalms; it is to the mature Christians’ best interests to form their own prayers

Christian leadership should discourage the praying of Imprecatory Psalms by Christians of immature faith, especially Psalms 55 and 109.  The young have neither exegesis skills nor enough knowledge of Christ’s teachings to make discernment in this matter.  A wrong focus can damage their faith by relying upon the Imprecatory Psalms; it can make them feel empowered with magical thinking, corrupt their ability to love, and possibly think that God loves some more than others. However, the Imprecatory Psalms are excellent discussion opportunities that allow Christ’s teachings to be fully expressed as guided exegesis is conducted. The Imprecatory Psalms should not be excluded from liturgical and didactic services of the church; rather, the congregation should be taught that denying the conscience that feels the judicial injustice and not calling for God’s retribution brings dishonor to God.[27] Christians must know that Christ’s love requirements do not remove the justice of God. There are also therapeutic implications to the use of Imprecatory Psalms in the Christian counseling session, that helps guided Christians to voice negative emotions in the midst of justified anger.[28]

Mature Christians should have little need to pray the Imprecatory Psalms specifically. They should be well-versed in their exegesis, marvel at some and reject others, and possibly copy their patterns in their own prayers; but, they should always depend upon their own words to address the crisis of persecution that is at hand.  They should express the greatest of faiths in the example of the Psalmists when they navigate their requests for God’s help with their enemies to be strengthened and equipped through their prayers of distress as they cry out to God in their need for divine justice.

Even Christians have recourse in their prayers to receive power to endure the persecutions of wickedness through the hope of God’s divine justice one day realized against their enemies. Though some may argue that Imprecatory Psalms should not be prayed, citing the higher authority of Christ over the Psalmists,[29] the “sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Eph. 6:17) can be wielded as a weapon that includes “the kindness and the severity of God” (Rom. 11:22)[30]  Imprecatory pleadings not only strengthen the believers but bring honor to God in expressing their convictive hope and faith in His divine justice and sovereign judgment.

Bibliography

Allen, Leslie C. Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 101-150 (Revised) Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002.

Aune, David E. Word Biblical Commentary: Revelation 6-16. Vol. 52B Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002.

Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 1:1:1-9:50 Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1994.

Calvin, John and James Anderson. Commentary on the Book of Psalms. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2010.

Day, John N. “The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics.” Bibliotheca sacra 159, no. 634 (2002): 166-186.

Greenough, William, Thayer Shedd and Alan W. Gomes. Dogmatic Theology. 3rd ed. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., 2003.

Hankle, Dominick D. “The Therapeutic Implications of the Imprecatory Psalms in the Christian Counseling Setting.” Journal of Psychology & Theology 38, no. 4 (2010): 275-280.

Laney, J. Carl. “A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms.” Bibliotheca sacra 138, no. 549 (1981): 35-45.

Lessing, Reed. “Broken Teeth, Bloody Baths, and Baby Bashing: Is There Any Place in the Church for Imprecatory Psalms?” Concordia Journal 32, no. 4 (2006): 368-370.

Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, Vol. 51: Sermons I Luther’s Works, Edited by Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann Jaroslav Jan Pelikan. Philadelphia: Fortress PRess, 1999.

Rockwell, William Walker, William Adams Brown and Thomas Cumin Hall. “Three Addresses Delivered by Professors in Union Theological Seminary at a Service in Commemoration of the Four Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of John Calvin: In the Adams Chapel on Monday Evening, the Third of May, Nineteen Hundred and Nine.” Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009.

VanGemeren, Willem A. Psalms. Vol. 5 The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 5: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Edited by Frnk E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991.

[1] David E. Aune, Word Biblical Commentary: Revelation 6-16, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 52B (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 409.

[2] J. Carl Laney, “A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms,” Bibliotheca sacra 138, no. 549 (1981): 35.

[3] John N. Day, “The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics,” Bibliotheca sacra 159, no. 634 (2002): 169.

[4] Leslie C. Allen, Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 101-150 (Revised), Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 286.

[5] Day: 166.

[6] John and James Anderson Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2010), Ps. 35:8-10.

[7] Aune, 409-410.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Willem A. VanGemeren, Psalms, ed. Frnk E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 5: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991), 392.

[10] Calvin, Psalm 55.

[11] VanGemeren, 409-410.

[12] Calvin, Psalm 59.

[13] VanGemeren, 454.

[14] Calvin, Psalm 69.

[15] Ibid., Psalm 79.

[16] Ibid., 519.

[17] VanGemeren, 689.

[18] Calvin, Psalm 109.

[19] VanGemeren, 826.

[20] Calvin, Psalm 137.

[21] Darrell L. Bock, Luke Volume 1:1:1-9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1994), 588.

[22] Day: 181.

[23] Ibid., 167.

[24] Laney: 41.

[25] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 51: Sermons I, ed. Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress PRess, 1999), 181.

[26] Day: 186.

[27] William Greenough, Thayer Shedd and Alan W. Gomes, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., 2003), 937.

[28] Dominick D. Hankle, “The Therapeutic Implications of the Imprecatory Psalms in the Christian Counseling Setting,” Journal of Psychology & Theology 38, no. 4 (2010): 275.

[29] William Walker Rockwell, William Adams Brown and Thomas Cumin Hall, “Three Addresses Delivered by Professors in Union Theological Seminary at a Service in Commemoration of the Four Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of John Calvin: In the Adams Chapel on Monday Evening, the Third of May, Nineteen Hundred and Nine,”  (Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 34.

[30] Reed Lessing, “Broken Teeth, Bloody Baths, and Baby Bashing: Is There Any Place in the Church for Imprecatory Psalms?,” Concordia Journal 32, no. 4 (2006): 370.

By Kathy L. McFarland
Becker Bible Studies
December 2011

Becker

 

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3 Responses to Should Christians Pray the Imprecatory Psalms?

  1. Pingback: The Dark Turn Towards Vengeance | Wayfarer

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