Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Prayers of harsh divine judgments - The Imprecatory Psalms

The imprecatory psalms[1] are distinguished by their inclusion of prayers of harsh divine judgements against the author’s enemies (Estes, 2005, p. 172; Hassell & Bullock, 2001, p. 228; Elwell, 1984, p. 554). Imprecatory language is contained within 30 psalms and concentrated in 8, including Psalms 35, 69 and 109 (Estes, 2005, p. 172). As one of the three most quoted in the New Testament (Wilcock, 2001, p. 239) Psalm 69 demonstrates the limitations and benefits of using the imprecatory psalms in modern Christian worship.
The most prominent issue in interpretation for both modern and historical readers is how to reconcile the ‘apparent spirit of vengeance’ with Jesus’ command to ‘love one’s enemies’ (Estes, 2005, p. 172). How can the plea, ‘Pour out your wrath on them; let your fierce anger overtake them’ (Psalm 69:24) be reconciled with ‘But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.’ (Colossians 3:8)? Moreover, how do these psalms align with ‘legal stipulations that prohibit seeking vengeance or bearing a grudge (Leviticus 19:17-19)’ (Estes, 2005, p. 172). These difficulties have led to their canonicity being questioned, their exclusion from liturgy, their being regarded as embarrassment to ‘civil’ Christians, and consequently their being disregarded.
Several solutions have been proposed to ease the interpretation of the imprecatory psalms. These include hyperbole used for poetic effect, magical curses, an inferior ethic, prediction rather than pronouncement, quoting others, or simply the human author’s vindictiveness (Hassell & Bullock, 2001, pp. 228-231). However, before relying on these ‘quick-fix’ approaches, careful hermeneutics is required beginning with context and content.
The modern Christian community cannot automatically connect with the psalms because of cultural, historical, and religious differences (Anderson, 1983, p. 89). Culturally, emotions were expressed more extravagantly in the Ancient Near East than by conservative Anglo-Saxons (Estes, 2005, p. 173). This contributes to a rhetorical convention of colourful emotional expression where exaggeration was accepted.
 Historically, the authors experienced persecution from surrounding (and invading) nations. The language of the imprecatory psalms illustrates the level of distress and pain provoked by warring nations (Estes, 2005, p. 173). Reference to the miry pit in which he is still sinking is mentioned within 40 Psalms of David (Wilcock, 2001, p. 239).
‘I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me with lies...When I wept and humbled my soul with fasting, it became my reproach. When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword to them. I am the talk of those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me.
  (Psalms 69:2-4...10-12)

The OT religious domain is dominated by Covenant and Law. Apparent conflict results as the Old Testament law is clear in its forbiddance of vengeance (Elwell, 1984, p. 554) - ‘vengeance is mine [says the Lord]’ (Deuteronomy 32:35). However, it must be noted that the imprecatory psalms take the form of laments and prayers rather than declarations of intent or action (Elwell, 1984, p. 554). This allows the author out of his heart to express how he feels towards his enemies, and what he would like to see happen, not enacting it himself but rather leaving vengeance for the Lord.[2]
Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me. Hide not your face from your servant; for I am in distress; make haste to answer me. Draw near to my soul, redeem me; ransom me because of my enemies! 
(Psalms 69:16-18)

The psalmist as a descendent of Abraham was part of a binding covenantal relationship. Implicit to that relationship was certain expectations including that Yahweh would function as ‘judge and vindicator to defend or uphold justice’ (Anderson, 1983, p. 89). This understanding is demonstrated within the psalms – ‘I am afflicted and in pain; let your salvation, O God, set me on high!’ (Psalms 69:29). New Testament eschatology places judgement after death (Hebrews 9:27) however within the Old Testament, when life was seen as 60 years on this Earth, if justice was to be done it was to be done now (Anderson, 1983, p. 92, Psalm 90:10). Hence the expectation for God to ‘charge them with crime upon crime’ (Psalm 69:27) in the present.
In the face of 21st century western comforts the imprecatory psalms boldly proclaim ‘holy, moral indignation’ (Elwell, 1984, p. 554). Just as it took Jesus’ bold actions of overturning tables for people to see the corruption of the temple (Matthew 21), the Psalms show us that God takes seriously his own rule, the well being of his partners, and our sin (Estes, 2005, p. 176). ‘The imprecations warn against casual indifference to sin…sin should violently upset the godly person, and the absence of indignation in the face of injustice is an alarming symptom of spiritual torpor’ (Estes, 2005, p. 175). They are a challenge to re-invigorate our attitude to rid our life of sin for God’s glory.
The imprecatory psalms provide us with a model of prayer; a practical model for how to deal with evil and injustice. They teach us neither to use personal retaliation nor to repress one’s hurt rather, ‘the example of the psalmists urges believers to express and release their unvarnished feelings to God’ (Estes, 2005, p. 175). Their lament structure includes acknowledgment of God, presentation of the problem, expression of feeling, and praise - ‘I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving.’ (Psalms 69:30).
It has been argued that the use of the imprecatory psalms in Christian worship is impossible (Anderson, 1983, p. 87). It is true that unqualified or out of context reading may be misleading and dangerous (though this is no different to any other passage). Barth, Bonhoeffer (Anderson, 1983, p. 88) and Paul (1 Timothy 3:16) are amongst those who refused to exclude these texts. When handled with care, the imprecatory psalms are able to teach, edify and encourage the modern Christian. Their reading, personally or publically, will enrich our understanding of how biblical characters experienced life, the gravity of sin, and a life of utter dependence on God.


Anderson, B. (1983). Out of the depths: the Psalms speak for us today. Philadelphia: Westminster.
Elwell, W. A. (1984). Imprecatory Psalms. In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (p. 554). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
Estes, D. (2005). Imprecatory Psalms (Psalm 109). In Handbook on the wisdom books and Psalms (pp. 172-177). Grand Rapids: Baker.
Hassell, C., & Bullock. (2001). The Imprecatory Psalms. In Encountery the Book of Psalms (pp. 226-243). Grand Rapids: Baker.
Kidner, D. (1973). Cries for vengeance. In Psalms 1-72 (pp. 25-32). Leicester: IVP.
Lewis, C. S. (1958). The Cursings. In Reflections on the Psalms (pp. 20-33). London: Fontana.
Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (Eds.). (2003). Oxford Dictionary of English (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford Univesity Press.
Wilcock, M. (2001). The Message of Psalms 1-72. Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press.

[1]Although, there is little scholarly debate of the definition of these psalms the use of the wood imprecatory is perhaps not the my accurate term and is thus misleading (Anderson, 1983, p. 91). The etymology of imprecate is the 17th century Latin imprecate which translates invoked. This leads to its common meaning of ‘utter (a curse) or invoke (evil) against someone or something.’ (Soanes & Stevenson, 2003, p. 871). This would imply that the curse or spoken word is in fact the agent of power, whereas they are in fact a prayer to God (the agent of power.)
[2] Christian readers may struggle with the separation of heart and action as it is challenged in the New Testament by Jesus - ‘But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.’ (Matthew 15:18-19).