Use of Imprecatory Psalms in Prayer Today

imprecatory-psalms

The use of Imprecatory Psalms, as a model for prayer, requires proper context. As John Day explains, “These psalms express the desire of God’s vengeance to fall on His [and His people’s] enemies and include the use of actual curses, or imprecations.”[1] At first glance, these psalms seem to stand in direct opposition to the teachings of Jesus who called His followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Several implications result from this assumption: the Old Testament only involved cursing enemies, the New Testament only involved loving enemies, and the morality of Scripture evolved over time. Each of these false assumptions are self-refuting because the nature of God cannot change, as Day suggests, “The tension between loving and cursing [must] be harmonized, [since] the character of God does not change, so the essence of God’s ethical requirements does not change. Therefore, as the imprecatory psalms were at times appropriate on the lips of Old Testament believers, so they are at times appropriate on the lips of New Testament believers as well.”[2]

The psalms remain relevant because “They rooted their theology of cursing, of crying out for God’s vengeance, in the Torah – principally in the promise of divine vengeance expressed in the Song of Moses (Deut. 32:1-43), the principle of divine justice outlined in the lex talionis,[3] and the assurance of divine cursing as well as blessing in the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 12:2-3).”[4] To fully comprehend the imprecatory psalms, Day demonstrates four crucial truths:

First, the vengeance appealed for is not personally enacted; rather God is called on to execute vengeance. Second, these appeals are based on God’s covenant promises. Third, both testaments record examples of God’s people justly calling down curses or crying for vengeance.[5] Fourth, Scripture further records an instance in which God’s people in heaven, where there is no sin, cry out for divine vengeance and are comforted by the assurance of its near enactment[6] (Rev. 6:9-11).

Day illustrates the Book of Psalms contains nearly one hundred verses with imprecations, each one containing the cries of God’s people for vengeance for unspeakable atrocities against them as God’s people were oppressed, persecuted, and ultimately carried off to exile in Babylon. In Psalm 58, David is appealing to Yahweh to act justly against the unjust rulers. As Frank E. Gaebelein demonstrates, in this Psalm, “It may well be classified as a prophetic type of lament in which David speaks prophetically of God’s judgment on evil.[7] He charges the earthly system of justice with unfairness, commits his case to the Lord’s justice, and is confident of God’s vindication. The psalmist’s prophetic understanding is a comfort to God’s people[8] whenever they are harassed or maligned.”[9] The theological foundations are developed in the Pentateuch, but as Day furthers establishes, “The expression of exultation over the destruction of the enemies of God and His people is seen throughout Scripture. It begins in the Song of Moses (Deut. 32:43), finds utterance in the Psalms (58:10), is proclaimed in the prophets (Jer. 51:48), and climaxes in the Book of Revelation (18:20).”[10] Given these precedents, should a Christian follow David’s example? This writer believes David’s passionate cries should be emulated as David continually demonstrated immense faith in his God. Day then reminds the reader what is being voiced here is poetry, which often used vivid imagery and where a concept in narrative form may be described dispassionately; in poetry, it may well be expressed emotively. G. L. Peels perceives that the phraseology of Psalm 58:10b “Employs a powerful image, borrowed from the all too realistic situation of the battlefield following the fight (wading through the blood), to highlight the total destruction of the godless.”[11] Nancy deClaissé-Walford et al. illustrate “If God removes the rulers’ power, then they will be like toothless beasts.”[12] This shows David’s first wish was for the rulers to become powerless and ineffective, but ultimately, in the end, David knew the only way to end the suffering of the righteous was “bathing his feet in the blood of the wicked.”

Psalm 109 is an imprecation against a personal enemy and reads much like an individual lament. Day recognizes this psalm as being, above all others, highly criticized in its harsh and explicit appeal to the Lord. With the language found in this psalm, it is initially difficult to see any relation to the New Testament’s commands to love our enemies (Matt 5:44), turn the other cheek (Luke 6:29), and to pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:44). However, in this psalm, David’s enemies had continually returned hatred for his sustained love, so David called out to the divine Judge, as Day puts it, “to extend to his enemy the demands of the lex talionis, [but] David did not react in private revenge; instead, he released the retaliatory demands of justice to the One in whose jurisdiction it rightfully lies. He voiced his cry for vengeance to God – a cry that would transform to public praise when divine deliverance was revealed.”[13] David looked to the Abrahamic Covenant and then appealed to God to curse those who had shown him only hatred. Now the question becomes: is this covenant promise of divine cursing relevant to Christians today? In this writer’s opinion it is and (Gal 3:6-29) makes it clear, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants – heirs according to promise.” Here, Day demonstrates “the dual-edged promise blessing was not merely a spiritual abstraction; it applied as well to the physical life of God’s people in their times of extremity… [And] this psalm is the cry of the child of God who has no other recourse for justice…”[14]

Jesus felt the same oppression the psalmist and Israelites faced, but He called for one another to love his or her neighbor. This apparent contradiction in actuality shows the harmony that exists when one understands the character of God further demonstrating, Christians should use imprecatory psalms as a source of strength and honor, in their worship of God.[15]

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Broyles, Craig C. Understanding the Bible Commentary Series: Psalms. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1999.

Day, John N. “The imprecatory psalms and Christian ethics.” Bibliotheca Sacra 159, no. 634 (April 2002): 166-186. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 9, 2016).

deClaissé-Walford, Nancy, Rolf Jacobson, and Beth Tanner, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament – The Book of Psalms. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014.

Gaebelein, Frank E. ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Volume 5: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991.

Peel, G. L. The Vengeance of God: The Meaning of the Root NQM and the Function of the NQM-Texts in the Context of Divine Revelation in the Old Testament. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Publishers, 1995.

Footnotes

[1] John N. Day, “The imprecatory psalms and Christian ethics,” Bibliotheca Sacra 159, no. 634 (April 2002): 166. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 9, 2016).

[2] Ibid., 168.

[3] The principle or law of retaliation that a punishment inflicted should correspond in degree and kind to the offense of the wrongdoer, as an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; retributive justice.

[4] Day, “The imprecatory psalms and Christian ethics,” 168.

[5] Mark 11:14; Matthew 21:19; Galatians 1:8-9; 1 Corinthians 16:22; Acts 8:20; and Revelation 6:10

[6] Day, “The imprecatory psalms and Christian ethics,” 169.

[7] Psalm 14

[8] The righteous.

[9] Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Volume 5: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 405.

[10] Day, “The imprecatory psalms and Christian ethics,” 171.

[11] G. L. Peels, The Vengeance of God: The Meaning of the Root NQM and the Function of the NQM-Texts in the Context of Divine Revelation in the Old Testament (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Publishers, 1995), 218.

[12] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf Jacobson, Beth Tanner, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament – The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014), 495.

[13] Day, “The imprecatory psalms and Christian ethics,” 178.

[14] Ibid., 179.

[15] Ibid., 186.

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