One category of biblical psalms is the so-called “imprecatory psalm.” These are psalms which invoke God’s harsh judgment upon those who do evil or otherwise oppose the things of God. One of the most severe among these is Psalm 109, authored by King David:
1 My God, whom I praise,
do not remain silent,
2 for people who are wicked and deceitful
have opened their mouths against me;
they have spoken against me with lying tongues.
3 With words of hatred they surround me;
they attack me without cause.
4 In return for my friendship they accuse me,
but I am a man of prayer.
5 They repay me evil for good,
and hatred for my friendship.
6 Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy;
let an accuser stand at his right hand.
7 When he is tried, let him be found guilty,
and may his prayers condemn him.
8 May his days be few;
may another take his place of leadership.
9 May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow.
10 May his children be wandering beggars;
may they be driven from their ruined homes.
11 May a creditor seize all he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.
12 May no one extend kindness to him
or take pity on his fatherless children.
13 May his descendants be cut off,
their names blotted out from the next generation.
14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord;
may the sin of his mother never be blotted out.
15 May their sins always remain before the Lord,
that he may blot out their name from the earth. (NIV)
This creates a tension because Jesus says, “love your enemies and bless those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44), and the Apostle Paul says, “bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Rom. 12:14). Yet in Psalm 109 and other imprecatory psalms (e.g., Psalms 5, 35, 52, 54, 56-59, 79, 83, and 94) we find requests for calamity, suffering, and even destruction of the wicked, which is anything but blessing. So what gives here? How do we reconcile these biblical passages? On the one hand, we have psalmic prayers that implicitly enjoin us to pray calamities upon the wicked. On the other hand, we have Jesus and Paul admonishing us to bless and not curse. How might this tension be resolved?
Here are some ways of dealing with the problem that I’ve heard some people propose:
- The imprecatory psalms are not model prayers. They are not normative so much as insights into the emotional states of the psalmists which accurately reflect our own states of mind when dealing with injustice and wickedness. It is easy to see why most evangelical scholars would reject this approach, as it essentially suggests that there are elements of the psalmic prayers that one ought not to follow, the implication being that following the Psalms in some cases would be unwise or even sinful. Furthermore, this creates a dangerous slippery slope. Where does such suspicion of the psalms stop? Must we then question the wisdom of all of the Psalms?
- The New Testament ethic differs from that in the Old Testament. In Old Testament times certain judgmental, even condemning ways of dealing with the wicked were appropriate, but with the coming of Christ we have a different ethic, a revised moral standard. The problem with this approach is that it does violence to the moral unity of Scripture. While it must be granted that the levitical and civil aspects of the Old Testament law were abrogated with the advent of Christ, the moral law remains constant. To suggest that the Psalms recommended an action that Jesus condemned is to suggest that moral goodness itself is mutable. This is unacceptable.
- The imprecatory psalms don’t really invoke curses upon the wicked. Yes, they are requests that God bring pain and misfortune upon them, but these do not rise to the level of a genuine “curse.” Unfortunately for this approach, by any reasonable definition of the term, the calamities requested by David in Psalm 109 definitely qualify as curses. Merriam-Webster defines a curse as “a prayer or invocation for harm or injury to come upon one” and Dictionary.com says that to curse is “to wish or invoke evil, calamity, injury, or destruction upon” someone. Surely, by these definitions, David’s requests that his enemy would die, that his children would be impoverished and homeless, and that his sins never be forgiven qualify as a curse.
So none of these options look promising to me. At this point, I believe the best—though not entirely satisfactory—way to deal with this tension is to say that such imprecatory prayers as we find in Psalm 109 might be made in a spirit of blessing, in the sense that one might pray that God would bring such calamities upon a wicked person in order to prompt their repentance, which of course is always a blessing. And one might pray that the loss of descendants and the loss of forgiveness only come as a condition of the wicked person’s refusal to repent and persistence of defiance of the Lord, which is only just. Of course, such a hellish eternal destiny for the wicked is anything but a blessing. But the person praying in this way may nonetheless hope for the person’s repentance while also affirming the justice of God in condemning them if they do not repent. Finally, the loss of descendants can be seen as redemptive at least in the sense that this would mitigate the negative effects of the sins of the wicked down through succeeding generations.
I acknowledge that this way of dealing with this biblical tension is not ideal. At the end of the day, Psalm 109 and other imprecatory psalms present us with a serious challenge as to how we should prayerfully regard the wicked. I welcome any alternative suggestions as to how we might resolve this tension.
There may be yet a fifth way of viewing this, that is consistent with a high view of the inerrancy of Scripture, not to the exclusion of the thoughts you’ve written in your fourth idea. We must remember that the psalmist is facing God, praying to God, and as such is trusting God’s ultimate response to be just and loving. I see this as inherently different from someone who, facing their foe, is pronouncing a curse *onto* someone. It’s not a matter of magnitude of the curse, but rather whom we’re facing. The redemptive element here is that we shouldn’t try to refine our thoughts to the point of being pristine before we pray them to God – we can and should come to God just as we are, unresolved and everything, trusting Him to transform our lives as we journey in relationship with Him. If we come to God with an open heart, we can be bold and fearless in prayer: we will never be able to pray God into doing something that’s not ultimately in His will in terms of justice, love, and blessings.
Shortly following the Romans 12:14 verse you quoted is Romans 12:19: “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written: ‘VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,’ says the Lord.” Facing our foe, we are never to curse, never to take revenge. But facing the Lord, we are to leave room for His wrath.
Then, in a place of solemness, we should recognize that, in so many cases, the just vengeance that God refers to above was, ultimately, heaped upon His own Son on the cross. And that shouldn’t lead us long to a place of shame, but much more so to a place of awe and gratitude at the magnitude of what Jesus did for us – for us all. Because, we each have certainly been that very foe who was so deserving of that wrath, vengeance, and repayment.
I, at least, have always gravitated toward an explanation along the lines that these psalms are a sort of psychological expression of the psalmist’s darker inclinations toward his adversaries before God–in a sense, a confession.
Were I to make such an expression, maybe it would go like this: “Dear God, may you bring misfortune upon the Houston Astros; please look long and hard at their sins. May all their rotation languish on the IL, and may their swings always miss.”
What might be morally appropriate about this kind of prayer? First, what am I *doing* when I say such a prayer? For one, I confess my feelings of anger to God–surely confiding in God in this way is morally OK. But I think I am doing other things, as well, when I pray in such a way.
For one, there is, on my part, when I say this prayer, an implicit forfeit of the inclination to personally follow through on retributive action. All potency and agency in the verbs is not mine (or the psalmist’s), but God’s. Behind my prayer lies assent to an idea along the lines that “if what the Astros have done warrants calamity, then *God* will bring that calamity upon them.” So, perhaps in my prayer I loose my grip on the reigns of comeuppance and attempt to hand them back to God, reminding myself that God is judge. I have certainly prayed this sort of prayer, finding in it not only catharsis but also moral corrective. We have seen in films, and likely in life, episodes in which an individual lashes out, overwhelmed by emotions of anger, frustration, or grief, and is clutched tightly by a friend or family member. The distressed party will often pound, violently but impotently, on the chest of the one who clutches them. But the blows are stilled as they are absorbed into the one who is not their true target, but is instead a source of release and consolation. Following this sort of emotional purge, the distressed party tends to come into possession of more sober faculties with which to make their moral calculations. I am often image the relation between God and the psalmist in this way.
Second, it stands out to me that the Psalm engages in a sort of moral comparison–it says, “look, I am a person of prayer, I have done as you wished, and see what I have gotten from *them*? These stand in the way of the good life you want for those who follow you–do something about it!” So, in the prayer, the psalmist affirms the goodness of God’s way and highlights wickedness as something deeply blameworthy. There is in it something of the sentiment “I would sooner die than cheat, steal, blaspheme, etc. Were I like them, would that you smote me, God.” Perhaps I have taken some liberties of interpretation here. But it does seem that there is a sense in which the psalm stands as a prayerful alignment of the agent’s moral will with divine precepts as the Psalmist understands them.
To me, the strength of this explanation lies in its ability to reframe some of the alleged conflict with the more irenic tones of the New Testament. Is something like the pounding on the chest image outside the spirit of “Cast all your cares on him, because he cares for you.”? I certainly don’t think so.
The process of deep prayer about a greatly concerning rift between myself and another is likely to steer me, slowly, toward a different bearing of my adversary in mind–one more clearly aligned with God’s love for my adversary (I imagine Eleonore Stump might think something loosely along these lines here). But, my psychic impetus for engaging in this prayer in the first place is likely to be something like pure rage toward my enemy. In prayer, I can express this anger to God while also 1) admitting that any retributive action is God’s and not mine and 2) keeping myself engaged in a prayerful dialectic in which I am willing to change my (perhaps murderous) attitude as I contend with God. A loose parallel is that of Jonah waiting for Nineveh to perish in flame. Is not a moral of that story something like “bless and do not curse them”? From the smug distance of the NT, we see Jonah as a stubborn dolt for continuing to regard Nineveh in the way he does. But, he remains in moral consultation with God, bringing to God his attitudes and questions. And, he commits no arson.
Another quick note: Why do people tend to compare the most troubling OT passages with the most irenic NT ones? Your NT spokespeople, Jesus and Paul, also utter some eyebrow-raisers about punishment and blameworthiness. The passages which are often compared create an artificial NT/OT polarity which glosses over the moral complexity of the New Testament, which is resolved–albeit not straightforwardly–within itself.
I don’t think that what I have said directly absolves the tension between the psalmic curse and Paul’s injunction to “bless and not curse.” Some apparent contradiction remains. But, I think there are at least the loose outlines of an approach to prayer in which starting where the psalmist starts can be seen as prescriptive. Framing it this way might blunt your worry that “there are elements of the psalmic prayers that one ought not to follow”.