Imprecatory Psalms

An imprecation is a spoken curse.  There are many such imprecations in the Bible.  Yet, the psalms are where most people focus.  Someone at church said that he was uncomfortable with the imprecatory psalms written by King David, who was spoken of as a man after God’s own heart.  How could someone be that close to God and yet want his enemy’s children to be fatherless and no one willing to help the orphans, leaving the name of his enemy forgotten for all time?


Imprecations in the Bible take a few forms.  Curses are meted out upon a nation or ‘enemies’ in general or the whole.  Psalm 83, a song of Asaph, talks of the surrounding nations who have banded together against God’s people, Edom, Moab, etc.  The psalm writer wants God to do what God has done before to Israel’s enemies, basically make them like dung under our feet.  Consider that David’s great grandmother was Ruth, a Moabite.  Is Asaph saying that Moab has no redeeming qualities?  Remember Abraham arguing with God regarding the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18.


Some imprecations are graphic while others are more subtle.  Psalm 137:9 says that the person who dashes babies against the rocks is a happy man.  Psalm 137 is a psalm written in captivity in Babylon.  The captors love hearing their captives sing.  They may not have understood the words, but this song made the captives have a smile on their faces.  Combine this with the cursing of Babylon in Isaiah 13 and 14, the psalm writer was simply parroting what God had already said about Babylon as a nation.  This reminds me of the crew of the Pueblo (USS Pueblo Incident, captured by North Korea in January 1968) who stood for a photograph while still prisoners in North Korea.  They all gave the finger to the cameraman, explaining that it was a special greeting of honor given to their commander in the States.  This let the leaders back in the US know that the forced confessions signed by the men of the Pueblo could not be taken seriously.  I wonder what happened to the psalmist of Psalm 137, when the Babylonians learned enough Hebrew to know what they were really singing.


In mentioning Isaiah, Isaiah doesn’t just write about Babylon being cursed, but he then turns to Moab and Damascus.  The prophets have written curses upon curses (imprecations), but they are not treated like the imprecatory Psalms.  Why is that?  We consider the entire Bible as God breathed.  We consider the prophets words as being God’s word, condemning those peoples who have tempted, tormented, or otherwise made God’s chosen people’s lives miserable.  Yet, we feel that David crossed a line when he speaks of the same thing in the form of a song.  Aren’t the Psalms God-breathed as well?  Why do we avoid reading an imprecatory Psalm, and praise Isaiah for his poetic curses against Babylon?  We talk of hating the sin, but loving the sinner.  Yet, we avoid hating the sin in fear that we’ll hate the sinner.  We need to understand the difference between forgiving a person who sins against us and excusing the sin.  We need to recognize the sin and pray for God’s vengeance against evil while forgiving the person.  Jesus never said salvation was easy, neither is forgiveness.


Two psalms are noted as being predominantly imprecatory, Psalm 69 and 109.  Both have messianic prophecies associated with the troubles meted out on the suffering person.  In Psalm 69: 21, the psalmist is given vinegar to drink when thirsty.  In John 19: 28-29, Jesus says that He’s thirsty and they give Him sour wine, or vinegar, depending on the translation.  Sour wine is basically vinegar (chemical result of wine souring).  The accusers during the trial of Jesus could easily be the enemies of Psalm 109.  Psalm 69 is especially interesting in that the psalmist calls upon God to use their evil as a trick against them.  Indeed, Jesus rose again on the third day and Christianity has blossomed throughout the earth through Jews and Gentiles.  Evil thought it had won, but was tricked.


With Jesus telling us that we should love our enemies, should we skip those parts of the Bible?  Absolutely not.  If we can’t get angry at evil in this world, is the Truth within us?  We may pray that God lead our enemies to Him, but some of the major imprecations of the New Testament have a similar strain: death, woe, and eternal suffering to those who do not love the Lord (1 Cor. 16: 22, Gal. 1: 8-9).  Revelation 6: 10 laments that vengeance has taken too long.


A great 20th Century Christian Theologian became a member of a resistance movement in Nazi Germany.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was outspoken as a pastor and a college intellectual, but upon Kristallnacht, Hans-Werner Jensen said that Bonhoeffer was “driven by a great inner restlessness, a holy anger.”  The people in Bonhoeffer’s circle of close friends focused on the imprecatory psalms to rid Germany of the Nazis for His Name’s sake.  Bonhoeffer felt that his prayers were his greatest activity in the resistance of the Nazi regime.


Bonhoeffer also wrote about ‘cheap grace’ being an even greater danger in churches today than any commandment of works.  Cheap grace, as he puts it, diminishes the sacrifice of Jesus.  Grace was not cheap for Jesus.  It is not cheap for us.  We must repent of our sins.  That is difficult if done correctly.  We must take up our cross and follow Jesus.  Cross bearing in Jesus’ time meant death.  We die to sin and spend our lives working on sanctification, one small piece at a time.  Not all are called to martyrdom, but living a full life for Christ is costly.  It is not cheap.


I am sure Bonhoeffer is no different than any of us.  We hate the evil around us.  We hate the consequences that evil puts us in.  We pray that God will hear our laments and we seek His vengeance upon evil doers.  Yet, when it comes to John, Francis, or Mildred (no offense intended; names picked at random), we forgive them and pray that they come to know the Lord.  I have even know godly people who have done me harm possibly thinking it was for my own good.  Really, God used it for good.  In Bonhoeffer’s case, getting rid of Hitler seemed a good solution as there were many under him that would have looked for peace immediately.  But, killing Osama Bin Laden did not stop worldwide Islamic terrorism.  Focusing on one man when facing evil in general is not what the Imprecatory Psalms are all about, even when the imprecation is directed toward a nation.


We can forgive the wrong doers in our lives, and still ask God to punish the ‘evil doers’ around us.  The days of Samson killing thousands with the jawbone of a donkey may be, for individual Christians, the worst option.  But which ones of us will be among those killed for our belief in Jesus Christ, and among those in Revelation 6, asking God how long will it be before God avenges our murders?


With God in my heart, my go-to response is forgiveness.  I have been confronted by old classmates regarding why I moved to the North.  I respond, “I really haven’t moved here.  I’m working military intelligence and looking for weaknesses.”  They’ll usually ask, “Okay, waht’s their weakness?”  I respond, “Their greatest weakness is that too many have turned from God.”  That seems to be my response when faced with any evil around me regardless of where I am and regardless of who the evil-doer may be. In spite of what was written in the prophets about cursing one nation or another, I think that God would save Moab (as an example) if there were ten good men (back to Genesis 18).  If there was only one good Moabite left, He’d send His angels to protect the one.

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