Imprecatory Psalms

At my previous, abortive attempt at a blog, I posted some material I’d produced for the BJU Press Bible Reading Program (buy it here and here when the third editions come out) on imprecatory Psalms. I invite your comments on this material, which was written for tenth graders. I want to represent God’s Word accurately, neither extracting its teeth nor filing those teeth to a sharper point than they already have.

Imprecatory Psalms

As you read Psalms, you will come across many statements that may shock you because of their violence. “Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? . . . I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies” (139:21–22). “Pour out thine indignation upon them, and let thy wrathful anger take hold of them. . . . Add iniquity unto their iniquity: and let them not come into thy righteousness. Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous” (69:24, 27–28). “The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked” (58:10). The most shocking may be what the exiles say to their cruel captors in Babylon: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones” (137:9).

The psalms in which similar violent ideas predominate (7, 35, 52, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 83, 94, 109, 129, 137, and 140) are called imprecatory psalms because to imprecate means “to call down a curse on someone or to passionately call on God to punish others.” Can these curses be part of the same Bible where Jesus tells us, “Love your enemies”? Consider carefully the following points because they will help you understand this seeming contradiction.

  1. The psalmists aren’t saying that they’ll go out and wreak vengeance themselves; they’re asking the correct authority (God) to act. This is proved by David’s actions during his two easy opportunities to kill Saul. He refused to kill the Lord’s anointed king even though he himself was the next divinely anointed king! He left vengeance on Saul in God’s hands. This is a very important point because it reveals that David, who wrote of most of the imprecations in the psalms, didn’t have a vindictive or vengeful character. On the contrary, he took chivalry and gallantry to an almost unheard of extreme!
  2. David was the king of a theocratic nation, a country that God was the ultimate ruler of. So in that day God’s people had real physical enemies. Today’s Christians don’t make up a country, so their enemies aren’t other countries but, generally, spiritual forces. When David prayed for violence against his enemies, he was sometimes just praying that the forces on God’s side would win whatever battle they were facing.
  3. Even though you more than likely have no physical enemies, many believers today do. From China to Saudi Arabia and from Belarus to Turkey, Christians have real enemies who actually threaten their lives. They need to love these enemies and turn the other cheek, but at the same time they can pray as the psalmists did for God’s name to be vindicated even if that means destruction from God on those enemies.
  4. The violence that made the psalmists so angry was committed against them despite their being friendly to their enemies. “They rewarded me evil for good. . . . When they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth” (Ps. 35:12–13). “For my love they are my adversaries: but I give myself unto prayer. And they have rewarded me evil for good, and hatred for my love” (109:4–5). Receiving evil for good may be the background for some or all of the imprecatory psalms. Psalm 52 is David’s prayer against a man who murdered eighty-five priests—just because they were kind to David.
  5. God already promised Abraham, “I will . . . curse him that curseth thee” (Gen. 12:3), and He said through Moses, “I will render vengeance to mine enemies, and will reward them that hate me.” (Deut. 32:41). God made these promises to Abraham, so Abraham’s descendants may righteously ask Him to fulfill these commitments.
  6. Scripture never suggests that the imprecations of the psalms are merely false words of men, like those of Job’s friends. Even sinless believers in heaven call on God to avenge their deaths (Rev. 6:9–11).
  7. Some imprecations may be hyperbole, a word you might have learned in English class. This means they are purposeful exaggerations for literary effect—something very different from lies! For example, did Jeremiah really mean it when he cursed the man who reported his birth for not killing his still pregnant mother (Jer. 20:15–17)? No, but his exaggeration makes a point: He deeply and passionately wished he was dead.
  8. It’s not impossible to hate someone and love him at the same time. God hates, despises, and abhors His enemies: “The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity. Thou shalt destroy them that speak leasing [lies]: the Lord will abhor the bloody and deceitful man” (5:5–6). Sinners, not just sin, will be cast into the lake of fire. At the same time, God loved sinners so much that He sent His one and only Son to die in their place (John 3:16). So you should hate wicked people—whether movie stars, athletes, scholars, or your next-door neighbor—for their rebellion against God while at the same time having a deep, loving desire for their salvation. But this hatred must not exist because they have offended you personally, but because they have offended God. As with all aspects of your Christian growth, this can only be done by God’s power and means. Only the holiest of people can hate with pure hearts.
  9. The same Jesus Who said, “Love your enemies” could call Herod “that fox” and threaten hotter hell for the city of Capernaum than for the city of Sodom. Yes, Jesus came to bring salvation, but that also means His judgment is closer, too.
  10. Paul said that anyone who doesn’t love the Lord should be accursed (1 Cor 16:22). Apparently, some people are so hardened in their sin that there comes a point when it may be appropriate to call down God’s judgment on them. At the same time, none of us knows for sure when that point has been reached. So you should be very careful before you pray this way.
  11. The apostle Paul calls down curses on Jews who refuse to believe in Jesus: “Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see, and bow down their back always” (Rom. 11:9–10). But in that same chapter Paul says that God has the power to restore the Jews to their place if they repent from their unbelief (Rom. 11:23). God is so merciful that He gives people time to get out from under His curses.
  12. The Bible teaches that revenge is supposed to be left totally in the hands of the Lord. You’re not even allowed to be happy when God brings judgment on your enemy: “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: lest the Lord see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him” (Prov. 24:17–18).

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

3 thoughts on “Imprecatory Psalms”

  1. Looks thorough and balanced. Also notable might be Paul’s curse upon those who preached a perversion of the gospel (Gal. 1.8-9).

    Take this for what it’s worth, but I would feel a reluctance about telling high-schoolers that they should hate people (“So you should hate wicked people”). I read the qualifiers and understand what’s going on, but my experience (both being one and knowing other 10th-graders) would make me think twice about offering them instruction to hate people. As you closed that point, you said that “only the holiest of people can hate with pure hearts” – I prefer to direct imperatives about hating sinners toward mature Christians, if anyone. After all, just because God does it, doesn’t mean we have to do it too.

  2. I read you, I read you…

    I really feel the way you do, but then I wonder what to tell tenth graders as they read through the psalms! What are they supposed to do with all the imprecations?

    Probably they’re going to react the way I did at their stage: they’re going to read right past it all and hardly notice any of it. If a titchy question comes up they’ll just assume they must not be reading the Bible correctly because imprecations are no part of their previous instruction.

    I don’t want them to do that. Neither do I want them to feed their fleshly desire to hate those who are merely different in order to puff themselves up—as some kind of reward for all the standards they have to keep and which make them different in the first place.

    Again, imprecations are just such a constant refrain in the psalms that I felt I had to make that point. To leave it out would be to miss a major emphasis of the psalms, dangerous though it be.

    But it’s not too late to take it out. I stand ready for correction and discussion! =)

  3. Very good, I also don’t want anyone to read parts of the Bible and think, “Well, I guess that was fine for David, but I sure can’t get anything from it.” Perhaps my concern would be for the wording – rather than an imperative (“You should hate…”), a simple declarative (“In a sense, it isn’t wrong for you to hate…”) is how I’d write it, followed by the explanation of God’s hatred because of sin that offends Him vs. personal hatred because of wrongs we’ve suffered.

    It might be just me, but I would prefer to write something that finely balanced as a qualified permission instead of an instruction.

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