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.