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Those Troubling Psalms of Imprecation (1) (Psalm 35, etc.)

How is one supposed to respond to verses in the Psalms like these?


“Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you” (Psalm 5:10).


“Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life! Let them be turned back and disappointed who devise evil against me! Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them away! Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them! For without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life. Let destruction come upon him when he does not know it! And let the net that he hid ensnare him; let him fall into it- to his destruction!” (Psalm 35:4-8)


“Let those be put to shame and disappointed altogether who seek to snatch away my life; let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire my hurt! Let those be appalled because of their shame who say to me, ‘Aha, Aha!’” (Psalm 40:14-15)


“For their crime will they escape? In wrath cast down the peoples, O God!” (Psalm 56:7)


“Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call upon your name!” (Psalm 79:6)


“Appoint a wicked man against him; let an accuser stand at his right hand. When he is tried, let him come forth guilty; let his prayer be counted as sin! May his days be few; may another take his office! May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow! May his children wander about and beg, seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit! May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil! Let there be none to extend kindness to him, nor any to pity his fatherless children! May his posterity be cut off; may his name be blotted out in the second generation! May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord, and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out! Let them be before the Lord continually, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth!” (Psalm 109:6-15)


“Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me! They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain! Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies” (Psalm 139:19-22).


Had enough? Get the picture? Honestly, that’s only a fraction of the Psalms in which prayers for the judgment of God’s enemies are found. Here is a more complete list, in case you’re interested in reading all of them: Pss. 5:10; 6:10; 7:6; 9:19-20; 10:2,15; 17:13; 28:4; 31:17-18; 35:1,4-8,19,24-26; 40:14-15; 41:10; 54:5; 55:9,15; 56:7; 58:6-10; 59:5,11-14; 63:9-10; 68:1-2; 69:22-28; 70:2-3; 71:13; 79:6,10-12; 83:9-18 (cf. Judges 4:15-21; 5:25-27); 94:1-4; 97:7; 104:35; 109:6-19,29; 119:84; 129:5-7; 137:7-9; 139:19-22; 140:8-11; 141:10; 143:12.


Many believe these "prayers" (if it is even legitimate to call them "prayers") are beneath the dignity of the Christian and are not to be viewed as examples for us to follow. They are, rather, the expressions of man's sinful desire for vengeance on his enemies.


These psalms, so some have said, are not God’s precepts but man’s “defective prayers”. They are “cold-blooded” expressions of “malignant cruelty” and must never be regarded as inspired of God.


No one struggled more with these imprecations than did C. S. Lewis. "The hatred is there – festering, gloating, undisguised – and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves” (Reflections on the Psalms, 22). These prayers of the psalmists, said Lewis, "are indeed devilish” (25).


What bothers Lewis and others most is what appears to be the untroubled conscience of the psalmists. They express no qualms, scruples, reservations, or shame for their desires. Indeed, they move easily from the most horrific of maledictions to petitions for deliverance according to God’s “steadfast love” (Ps. 109:20)!


Peter C. Craigie, one of the more highly respected commentators on the Psalms has argued that these passages are "the real and natural reactions to the experience of evil and pain, and though the sentiments are in themselves evil, they are a part of the life of the soul which is bared before God in worship and prayer" (Word Biblical Commentary, 19:41). The psalmist “may hate his oppressor; God hates the oppression. Thus the words of the psalmist are often natural and spontaneous, not always pure and good” (19:41). In sum, Craigie states bluntly that “these Psalms are not the oracles of God” (19:41).


Don’t try to dismiss the problem by insisting such prayers are found only in the Old Testament or that they reflect a sub-standard morality inappropriate to the New Testament Christian. Both testaments present the same perfect and exalted standard for life. God's moral law is immutable and is everywhere the same. We must be careful never to pit Scripture against Scripture, as if to suggest that the OT calls for a different, perhaps inferior, ethical response to one's enemies than does the NT.


Furthermore, one must address the fact that in the NT similar "imprecations" on the enemies of God are found (see especially Luke 10:10-16; Galatians 1:8; 5:12; 1 Corinthians 16:21-22; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10; 2 Timothy 4:14; Revelation 6:10; 19:1-2).


Have you considered that to pray “Thy kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10) is to invoke divine judgment on all other kingdoms and all those who oppose the reign of God? "When we pray as Jesus taught us, we cry out to God for His blessings upon His church and for His curses upon the kingdom of the evil one" (James Adams, War Psalms of the Prince of Peace, 52).


Even Jesus used imprecatory language in Matthew 23:13,15,16,23,24,27,29, and especially 23:33. See also his use of Ps. 41:8-10 in Matthew 26:23-24 as a pronouncement of God's judgment on Judas.


Harry Mennega has pointed out that


"the New Testament appears not in the least embarrassed with the Old Testament imprecations; on the contrary, it quotes freely from them as authoritative statements with which to support an argument. The New Testament not only quotes passages which, though themselves not imprecations, are found in a Psalm with an imprecatory section; but also, and this is more remarkable, it quotes with approval the imprecations themselves" ("The Ethical Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms," master's thesis, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1959, p. 38).


One example of the latter is Peter's citation of the imprecatory section in Psalms 69 and 109 in reference to Judas Iscariot: "For it is written in the book of Psalms, 'Let his homestead be made desolate, and let no man dwell in it'; and, 'His office let another man take'" (Acts 1:20). "Peter is here quoting an invocation of judgment and a curse against the betrayer of God's Anointed One" (Adams, 12).


What we read in these OT Psalms are not emotionally uncontrolled outbursts by otherwise sane and compassionate people. Imprecations such as those listed above are found in high poetry and are the product of reasoned meditation (not to mention divine inspiration!). They are calculated petitions, not spontaneous explosions of a bad temper. Certainly there are examples in OT history and prose narrative of actions and attitudes that are sinful and not to be emulated. But the psalms are expressions of public worship to be modeled.


How, then, do we explain them? And how do we reconcile them with the command of Jesus to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44)? I’ll try to answer this in the next meditation.