Recently the topic of imprecatory Psalms came up in a church group, so I thought I’d re-blog this old post from 2013, slightly edited. At the end of it, I will add another brief post (from 2016) where I quote N.T. Wright on such Psalms.
Zap them God! Break their teeth! The imprecatory Psalms.
On this blog I try to cover tough issues that can make people doubt or question their faith or the Bible. Recently in a class I’m taking [in seminary] that covers the Psalms, we discussed the challenge of the “imprecatory Psalms.” There are a variety of Psalm types: praise, thanksgiving, lament, wisdom, royal, etc. Imprecatory is one type of Psalm. It is from a Latin word that refers to invoking evil or calling a curse upon someone. So…how do we reconcile this with Jesus telling us to bless our enemies? Is this a contradiction? Is it evidence that we must be dealing with 2 different gods in the Old and New Testament? Etc.
Here are a few examples of imprecatory Psalms:
“O God, break the teeth in their mouths.” Psalm 58:6
“May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.” Psalm 109:9
“How blessed will be the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” Psalm 137:9
Oh dear! Maybe you didn’t even know that stuff was in there? Essentially, zap them God! Whenever I have posts on tough issues, I emphasize that I am not providing a “slam dunk” solution, but offering thoughtful possibilities. Here are some thoughts about the imprecatory Psalms:
♦ Hyperbole (exaggeration to make a point) is clearly in use at times. Remember that the Psalms are poetry. Poems are written and interpreted differently than other types of writing such as a philosophical essay, news report, or “how to” manual. The Psalms are none of these things, so keep in mind you are reading poetry.
♦ Also keep in mind that the imprecatory Psalms are infrequent and not the majority type of Psalm by any means.
♦ It should be noted that when the Psalmist calls for judgment, the judgment is left in God’s hands. The Psalmist is expressing real and raw feelings, but does not go out and actually act on it. It is not about personal revenge, but about the Psalmist having an awareness of God’s justice and wanting to see justice done.
♦ Similarly, we need to remember that there are times that wickedness or evil in society needs to be confronted. The Psalmist wasn’t crying over spilled milk or hurt feelings, but more significant wrongdoing. This is not a contradiction with the New Testament emphasis on love and forgiveness, as it is also a Christian value to stand up for injustice in society. Jesus taught us to love our enemies but we can also see Him disturbed by injustice too. In light of modern day evils such as the child sex slave trade, I don’t think Jesus would have us sit around and pray blessings on the sex traffickers. There are times when “righteous anger” is appropriate. Remember, Jesus said:
“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”
but he also said things like:
“You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” -and- “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”
Hmm, that second statement from Jesus reminds me a bit of an imprecatory Psalm!
♦ On a similar final note, my professor made a point I appreciated. When people say that the Old Testament is all about wrath and judgment while the New Testament all about love and forgiveness, it indicates they have not read either testament very well. It is both. Yes, we see cases of a wrathful God in the Old Testament but there is evidence of a patient and merciful God too. Likewise, the New Testament has content about God’s wrath and judgment. Consider the opening chapters of Romans, the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24), and the book of Revelation. The New Testament is clear that judgment and final justice is coming.
And now from N.T. Wright…
I was recently going through some old Christianity Today magazines, and came across an interview with NT Wright about his book on the Psalms. Here is one question and Wright’s answer, related to lament or cursing Psalms. (Sept. 2013 CT issue, page 79) – Bold added by me.
Much of the Psalms, especially the songs of lament, can be unnerving. What should we make of these raw, brutal pleas? Can we pray, with Psalm 139, that God would “slay the wicked”?
Human beings find themselves overcome, from time to time, by extreme anger and hatred. These emotions shouldn’t determine how we live. But we must have a way of saying, “Yes, that is actually where I am right now.” And the safest place to do this is in God’s presence. The Psalms offer a way of worshiping amid all the emotional states.
They also help us see that God wants a world in which there will be no evil. If there is injustice, if the poor are being oppressed, then it is right to pray that God will rid the world of that. Part of our reaction to the so-called “cursing” Psalms is that we think the modern world basically has the problem of evil solved. The Psalms bring us up short and say, “No, evil is real, and some people are so wicked that we simply must wish judgment upon them.”
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