The Psalms are the best-loved and most-used part of the Old Testament. But from time to time they flare up in fierce expressions of anger against the psalmist’s enemies. See, for example, Psa 5; 11; 17; 35; 55; 59; 69; 109; 137; 140. To many readers, these ‘imprecations’ are ‘barbarous’, ‘vindictive’, and even ‘a disgrace to human nature’. Some churches direct that they should not be used liturgically.
But, at the very least, these imprecatory psalms serve to remind us that life is not a bed of roses, and troubled Christians need the opportunity to express their fears and frustrations to God in worship. An unvarying diet of upbeat praise and worship songs does not meet the need of those suffering from disappointment, ill health, or persecution. To suppress those psalms that are written in the minor key is impoverishing.
Can they be justified?
But can we seriously justify asking God to wreak vengeance our our (or his) enemies?
A common answer is that the Psalmists are expressing an honest and understandable, but wrong, reaction. C.S. Lewis, Peter Craigie, and Derek Kidner are among those who adopt this point of view, with its corollary that Christians may not express such imprecations themselves.
We might suppose that the imprecatory Psalms represent OT teaching, rather than NT teaching. But just as both Testaments consistently oppose personal revents (Deut 32:35; Prov 25:21f/Rom 12:19f; Psa 34/1 Pet 3:9-12), the NT contains imprecatory statement of its own (1 Cor 16:22; Gal 1:8).
We should consider, too, that it is impossible to remove the threads of imprecation from the Psalms without ruining the whole fabric. We are not to pick and choose in that way, lest ‘we dishonour God by presuming to know better than he what we should pray’ (Bonhoeffer).
Nor is it appropriate to spiritualise the enemies. In the Psalms, those who were oppressing David were real people, even if they were acting under the auspices of ‘the spiritual hosts of wickedness’.
Then we should note that the NT quotes some of these imprecatory prayers with approval (Psa 69; 109/Acts 1:16-20; Psa 137:9/Lk 19:41-44).
Let’s see if we can work towards a solution.
The psalmists are asking God to treat their enemies as their enemies have treated them. This is simply an outworking of the ‘eye for an eye’ principle – the principle that the punishment should fit (and that it should not exceed) the crime. This is set out in Deut 19:18-21.
These prayers are against hardened sinners. In Psa 35:12f, for example, they have repaid good with evil; only when they have persisted in their senseless opposition to David does he pray for judgement. The NT teaches that a sinner may approach a point of no return (Mt 12:32; 1 Jn 5:16); he may allow his heart to be irremediably calloused. They put God’s forgiveness beyond their reach because they do not want to be forgiven. But, of course, it is not for us to say who has reached this point of no return.
In these Psalms the Lord is being asked to do what he has already said that he will do. The Psalmist is pleading with God to fulfil his covenant promises (see Gen 12:3; Deut 27; 28; Isa 13:16; Jer 51:49). So the prayer of Psa 137:9 is asking God to carry out the judgement that he has already pronounced.
The Psalmist counts his enemies as God’s enemies (Psa 139:21). Ultimately, this can only be true of Jesus Christ. Our prayers for vindication will be mixed with sin, selfishness, and self-interest; but Jesus, and only Jesus, could pray them from a pure heart. Only he can be entrusted with that final separation of saints from sinners (Mt 25:31f), and with executing God’s judgement on the latter (Acts 17:31).
The psalmist never threatens to mete these punishments himself: he leaves it to God. It’s about vindication, not revenge. These Psalms are prayers to God, not curses hurled against other human beings. See Deut 32:35/Rom 12:19.
The psalmists are not only zealous about justice, but about God’s reputation, his ‘name’. Inaction on God’s part would indicate to his enemies that did not care, that he was powerless to intervene, or even that he did not exist. In a hostile and seemingly godless world, the psalmist expresses the conviction that evil will not have the last word, but that God might overcome it.
God’s enemy can become God’s friend. This is hinted at in Psa 83:16f. As Abraham Lincoln observed, there is more than one way of destroying an enemy: he may be destroyed by making him one’s friend.
Can we use them today?
But can worshipers use the imprecatory psalms today, especially if they have not themselves been persecuted or otherwise illtreated?
Yes, because praying these prayers teaches us to sympathise with suffering Christians. We share in their suffering, we feel something of what they are feeling.
Yes, because these psalms teach us to hate evil and injustice. In the face of monstrous evil, the worst thing is to feel, say and do nothing. It is sometimes right to express outrage.
Yes, because we are reminded again (in Psalm 137, for example) of ‘the pain of exile, the horror of war, the terror of despair and death, the loneliness of a cross’ (McCann).
Yes, because our outrage at evil and injustice in the world teaches us to reflect on our own complicity in the oppression of the weak and the exploitation of the vulnerable. On the link between the two, see Psa 139:19, 23f.
But did not the Lord Jesus teach us to love our enemies (Mt 5:43f), and did he not pray for the forgiveness of those who crucified him (Lk 23:34; cf. Acts 7:60; Rom 12:14; 1 Cor 4:12)? Yes indeed, but this is not the complete picture. Notice what he said of the scribes and Pharisees, Mt 23:35, and of Judas Mt 26:24. And when we pray for Christ to return in glory, we are, in effect, praying to hasten the day when he will say to the ‘goats’, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”, Mt 25:24. These words were uttered in parabolic language, just as the imprecatory psalms were written in poetic language. But the language and the imagery used both by the psalmist and by our Lord cannot be allowed to diminish the realities to which they refer.
Based on Wenham, ‘Preaching from difficult texts’, in Reclaiming the Old Testament for Christian Preaching, eds Kent et al, pages 226-230, and Ash, Teaching Psalms (vol. 1), pp123-136).
The relevant article Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary notes that ‘these psalms are an embarrassment to many Christians who see them in tension with Jesus’ teaching on love of enemies (Matt. 5:43–48).’
The article then sets out the following principles:
- vengeance belongs to God (Deut. 32:35; Ps. 94:1) that excludes personal retaliation and necessitates appeal to God to punish the wicked (cp. Rom. 12:19);
- God’s righteousness demands judgment on the wicked (Pss. 5:6; 11:5–6);
- God’s covenant love for the people of God necessitates intervention on their part (Pss. 5:7; 59:10, 16–17); and
- prayer that believers trust God with all their thoughts and desires.
(Reformatted and slightly abridged)