Some of the psalms in the Hymn Book of Israel have been called “Psalms of Cursing”. Those of more scholarly temperament call them “Imprecatory Psalms.” They are songs that wish damnation upon an enemy. These psalms are rarely if ever used in the public worship of our churches of this modern era, and they pose a bit of a dilemma for those who read their bibles looking for a “good thought for the day”.
Thirteen of our psalms are included among the psalms of cursing: 5:9-10, 28:3-5, 35:1-9 & 26, 55:9, 15 & 23. 58:6-11, 59:5 &11-13, 69:22-28, 79:10-12, 83:9-17, 109:7-29, 137:7-9, 139:19-22, 140:10-11.
But there are other curses of imprecation in other parts of the scriptures. In the Old Testament passages Jeremiah 15:15, 17:18, 18:21-23, 20:12 and Nehemiah 6:14, and 13:29 fit that theme. And even in the New Testament there are cries for the damnation of others who oppose the cause of Christ. They include Paul in Galatians 5:12, II Timothy 4:4 and Acts 23:3. John in the Book of Revelation 6:10 and Peter in Acts 8:20 and even Jesus in Matthew 23:13-39. Sometimes quotations from the Psalms of cursing are used in the New Testament, as Psalm 41:9 is referred to in John 13:18 about Judas, and Psalm 69:25 and 109:8 are also quoted in Acts 1:20 about Judas, and Psalm 69:22-23 is used by Paul in Romans 11:9-10 against those that rejected the grace of God.
So let us hear one of the most vivid of the psalms that expresses the song writer’s rage and hatred towards his enemies. It is Psalm 109
1 Do not be silent, O God of my praise.
2 For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me,
speaking against me with lying tongues.
3 They beset me with words of hate,
and attack me without cause.
4 In return for my love they accuse me,
even while I make prayer for them.
5 So they reward me evil for good,
and hatred for my love.
6 Appoint a wicked man against him;
let an accuser stand on his right.
7 When he is tried, let him be found guilty;
let his prayer be counted as sin.
8 May his days be few;
may another seize his position.
9 May his children be orphans,
and his wife a widow.
10 May his children wander about and beg;
may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.
11 May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.
12 May there be no one to do him a kindness,
nor anyone to pity his orphaned children.
13 May his posterity be cut off;
may his name be blotted out in the second generation.
14 May the iniquity of his father be remembered before the Lord,
and do not let the sin of his mother be blotted out.
15 Let them be before the Lord continually,
and may his memory be cut off from the earth.
16 For he did not remember to show kindness,
but pursued the poor and needy
and the brokenhearted to their death.
17 He loved to curse; let curses come on him.
He did not like blessing; may it be far from him.
18 He clothed himself with cursing as his coat,
may it soak into his body like water,
like oil into his bones.
19 May it be like a garment that he wraps around himself,
like a belt that he wears every day.
20 May that be the reward of my accusers from the Lord,
of those who speak evil against my life.
21 But you, O Lord my Lord,
act on my behalf for your name’s sake;
because your steadfast love is good, deliver me.
22 For I am poor and needy,
and my heart is pierced within me.
23 I am gone like a shadow at evening;
I am shaken off like a locust.
24 My knees are weak through fasting;
my body has become gaunt.
25 I am an object of scorn to my accusers;
when they see me, they shake their heads.
26 Help me, O Lord my God!
Save me according to your steadfast love.
27 Let them know that this is your hand;
you, O Lord, have done it.
28 Let them curse, but you will bless.
Let my assailants be put to shame;
may your servant be glad.
29 May my accusers be clothed with dishonor;
may they be wrapped in their own shame as in a mantle.
30 With my mouth I will give great thanks to the Lord;
I will praise him in the midst of the throng.
31 For he stands at the right hand of the needy,
to save them from those who would condemn them to death.
Over the years there have been all sorts of interesting responses to such psalms. What do we do with such angry diatribes? Here are some of the options that have been suggested.
- They are sub-Christian.
Some are quick to note that these prayers are all sub-Christian and sub-standard. No person taking seriously the words of Jesus, “Love your enemies”, can pray these kind of words any longer. They belong to a far off age. New Testament revelation has shown us a higher ethic! A better way to treat our enemies! (Matthew 5:43-48) These words belong to the spirit of Elijah that was rebuked in James & John by Jesus.
Some have suggested that the writers may have been “perfect in their generation” but we know better now. It is better not to read these kind of passages in a Christian worship service! We have done away with animal sacrifices and the food laws of the Old Testament, and so we need to jettison these kind of psalms too.
- God’s Anger at sin
Some have suggested that these psalms make sense if we make a distinction between the sin and the sinner. God is angry at the sin, not at the sinner. “Be angry at the sin but not the sinner.” is the phrase we use. So these psalms are proper words to speak at evil, but not against people. And they tell us that anger at sin is a needed response in every age.
But the theology of the Old Testament and the New Testament makes no such distinction between sin and sinner. Sin is not a thing. It is an attitude and intention of persons. Sin has no existence outside of human personality. That is why sin is not forgiven, sinners are. Sin is not cleansed, people are. Sinners are condemned along with their sinning, unless they change their ways.
- They are statements, not prayers
Some have suggested a third way of handing these words. They have said they are statements of fact, not wishes or prayers. They are not prescriptions, but descriptions, of what will happen to wicked people. Instead of reading “May this happen” or “Let this happen” they are really saying “this will happen.” These words are only predictions of the inevitable, not wishes of the saints.
Some translations of Psalm 109 (NRSV, NJB) find these words so distasteful, they place these words in the mouths of the psalmist’s enemies and have quotation marks from verses 6 to end of 19. so that it is the wicked one who wishes these vicious words, not the saints. Personally I think that is cheating.
- The vindication of God’s Name
Some have been quick to note that these are not words of personal spite. These are prayers to God in the services of public worship. They are not cries for personal revenge, but concerns that God’s name be vindicated. If God’s enemies are not dealt with summarily, then He will get a bad reputation as being soft on sin, or unable to deal with his foes. The frequent phrase, “for Thy name’s sake” (Psalm 23:3, 25:11, 31:3, 79:9, 106:8, 109:21, 143:11) expresses the desire that the honour due to God’s name will not be damaged by our behaviour. So we need to stand with God against HIS enemies. If God is angry at evil, we should express it too. Psalm 139:21. “I hate them that hate you.” – We are saying that “The enemy of my friend (God) is my enemy.”
- Songs of Patriotism
Others remind us that these are prayers of patriotism. Shall I pick up sword and spear, and not hurl a few curses too? Zeal for God’s house gets me excited, and to damn the enemy is as appropriate as fighting the enemy with sticks and stones. It has been suggested that the “corporate personality” of Israel made a person less individualistic, and more aware of his tribal or national identity. So these curses are nationalistic not individualistic. The writers perceived that when Israel was under attack, the Faith of God was also under attack. This is serious enough to pray down malediction on the head of any foe. (Psalm 137, Jeremiah 11:18f, 15:15f, 17:18f, 18:19f, 10:11f. Obadiah 10f. Nehemiah 6:11-14)
- Magical Curses
Some others have suggested that these curses come from a more superstitious age of the ancient world. They shared a magical world view that believed that curses and counter curses had a real effect upon circumstances. The ancient world had its execration texts and its broken potsherds and its prophets through which an enemy could administer a needed curse. The story of Balaam and Balak found in the book of Numbers (chs 22-24) was a familiar story of that culture.
It is interesting to notice the close connection between sickness and enemies in many of our psalms. (e.g.: Psalm 6, 22, 102:3-8.) Sickness was often thought to have been imposed or maintained upon a person by the curse of an enemy, and so there was not only a prayer to have health restored, but there needed to be a counter-curse to cancel the curse coming my way, and boomerang the presumed curse of my neighbour, back on his own head.
Why would the neighbours curse a sick man? Sickness was seen as a sign of God’s disapproval, and shall God punish a man, and the saints of God not join him in that act? It is a sign of righteousness, “Do I not hate them that hate you? I hate them with perfect hatred”. And so the curses from the community often come with the illness.
Psalm 109 is obviously concerned with the words and the curses of the enemy. (verses 2, 3, 4, 17-18, 20, 25, 28, 29.) A curse is not just profanity; it is closer to being seen as a magical spell. They were seen to be words of power. Therefore, there is a need for divine intervention.
But, since we no longer believe in a world where curses have any efficacy, there is no longer a need for a counter-curse. Therefore, these psalms of cursing have become obsolete. So it is concluded that it is better not to read them in our services of worship, and not take them too serious in our own private reading of the Bible.
- Limited Understanding
Another response has been offered that insists that these psalms were OK for the psalmist to pray because they lacked the knowledge that we have today. Throughout the Old Testament there is no clear teaching about life beyond the grave. The horizons were circumscribed by this world. There was no word clearly given by the religion of Israel that gave hope beyond the grave. (See Psalm 6:4-5, 30:8-9, 88:9-13, 94:16-17, 115:16-18, Ecclesiastes 9:10, & Job 10:21-22)
The hope of life beyond death was only a hope but not a certainty. And so… if there is no heaven to reward the good, then there is a need for reward for the righteous, right here and now. And if there is no hell, then there is a need for vengeance upon the wicked right now. After all that is the only kind of justice that can make sense. And justice is important! Therefore, these psalms of cursing are asking that God’s justice be demonstrated in life before it is too late.
One of the great perplexities of the entire Old Testament was over the issue of the righteous who suffered. It is an almost unanswerable dilemma. See Job, Habakkuk, Jeremiah 12:1-4. But particularly it is a problem in the Psalms. 73, 77, 94. The prayer of imprecation is a natural cry if there is no life beyond this, and no other justice for the righteous than what happens in current circumstances.
Christian tradition, however, has not left us with ambiguity about life after the grave. The centrality of the resurrection has answered the question once for all. There is life after death. There is healing for all that have been damaged, and there is a judgement to be faced by all the wicked With this improved understanding of the divine timetable, we need no longer be so blood thirsty now, calling for vengeance.
- Prayers of Extremity
There are so many opinions. Here is my personal conclusion. These are prayers that come from the centre of the dark night of the flesh. When the foe surrounds. When one’s life is threatened how does one pray? What kind of prayers operate during times of interim ethics, when the normal rules get suspended, and life comes crashing in? Prayers of extremities are never couched in calm words, but cries of anguish.
These prayers are not for the minor irritants of life. They are not to be used against people who cut you off in traffic, thereby justifying road-rage. They are for fox holes and hostage situations.
They may not be good prayers, but they are honest prayers. There have been times when I have felt like this psalmist, but I was not sure that I could get that honest with God. Instead I have blunted my rage at the raquette ball court instead of on God’s broader shoulders. I have not believed in God enough, or trusted him enough, to tell him how I really feel about life or Himself. These prayers demand that I get honest in my prayer and share with God how I really feel about life. (See Eugene Peterson. Answering God, pages 95-103 for further elaboration on this matter.)
These are not words that only express anger. They are cries to God for His intervention. It is interesting to note that these words are not addressed to the enemy. The enemy never hears them. They are spoken to God. The psalmists understand that vengeance belongs to God, not themselves. To take revenge into one’s own hands is to increase the cycle of violence. The ancient 6th command “You shall not kill” does not use any of the normal words for killing. It says literally, “You shall not Ratsah“. This world is only used 7 times in the OT. It means “Do not take vengeance into your own hands”, but as in the old days of the kinsmen, (aka: “The avenger of blood”) let God be your kinsman. Let God take care of it. (see Numbers 35, Deuteronomy 19 & Joshua 20)
Anger is OK
These psalms do encourage us to keep a place for anger. Any one with a high view of righteousness should be angry against all that is evil. If God is angry at that which is evil, we too should be. Passive whining in the face of evil will not be redemptive. Some have looked at these curses and noticed that they surpass the curses of paganism in their nastiness and their bitterness. But we need to be aware that to Israel, holiness and evil, moral right and wrong were more important in their understanding of life than it was to most of their pagan neighbours. If we love children, we will hate everything that does them damage! That includes child abuse, bullying, child porn, inner city poverty, refusing to educate girls and the list goes ion. We should be furious at such evils. “He who loves much, hates much.” (Ps. 137)
These prayers also remind me that anger at evil may still have currency. There are great evils perpetrated against people in our culture and around our world and my lack of anger at such evils has not been a virtue but a reflection of that terrible sin of sloth. Sloth, Dorothy L. Sayers says, is the sin that:
believes in nothing
cares for nothing
seeks to know nothing
interferes with nothing
finds purpose in nothing
lives for nothing
and only remains alive because
there is nothing it would die for.
These prayers tell me that there is a time for anger. Anger can be righteous indignation and sometimes the only fitting response against those that perpetrate evil upon another. “Be angry and sin not” is Paul’s counsel to us all. Jesus was angry in the temple at the abuse of others. (Matthew 23:13-39) Our lack of anger may be saying “I couldn’t care less.”
I am hard of hearing
But these prayers do something else for me. I am hard of hearing. Sometimes I do not hear people who speak in a quiet voice. If those who are hurt and moving towards despair, speak their concerns in moderate tones, I will not hear them. I am so preoccupied with the urgencies of my own small life, that I will fail to hear them, or if I hear them, I will postpone responding to their needs until a more convenient time.
But as I enter a psalm like this, I hear the screams of rage and distress. I am embarrassed by them. I am bothered by them. I would prefer to believe that “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world!” But as I read, I realise that there are people all around me who are driven to utter these outrageous cries. There are people who are strident and imperious in their cries because they are victimised and for them life has become unbearable. I need to hear enough of the cries of rage to sensitise me to life’s injustices. I need these psalms to wake me up. I have long appreciated the great mural “Guernica” by Picasso that cries out to us all that war is hell.
I am the villain
But these words of the strident psalmist do something else for me. They impel me towards repentance. There are times I have pushed people to the breaking point. I have “provoked my children to wrath” by my insensitive behaviour. I may have provoked my students to anger because of the severity of my judgements on their work. I may have provoked my parishioners to despair, because my preaching has laid on more guilt than they had any right to carry, and I offered too little help to them as they carried the heavy burdens of their lives.
So when I read these words, I often hear an inner voice saying “You are that man! You are the villain that the psalmist is angry about.” And these prayers bring me back to God to ask for his forgiveness, and they send me to my neighbour to say “I am so sorry!”
For those reason I cannot forego the reading of such psalms.
Let me leave you with the rich prayer of St. Anselm that may assist you in praying you own prayer of confession.
The Prayer of St. Anselm.
A Prayer for My Enemies
St. Anselm (c.1033 – 1109)
Almighty and tender Lord Jesus Christ,
I have asked you to be good to my friends,
and now I bring before you what I desire in my heart for my enemies. …
[I]f what I ask for them at any time
is outside the rule of charity,
whether through weakness, ignorance, or malice,
good Lord, do not give it to them
and do not give it back to me.
You who are the light, lighten their darkness;
you who are the whole truth, correct their errors;
you who are the true life, give life to their souls. …
Tender Lord Jesus,
let me not be the cause of the death of my brothers,
let me not be to them
a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.
Let them be reconciled to you and in concord with me,
according to your will and for your own sake.
Do this, my good Creator and my merciful Judge,
according to your mercy that cannot be measured.
Forgive me all my debts
as I before you forgive all those indebted to me.
Perhaps this may not be so
because in your sight I have not yet done this perfectly,
but my will is set to do it,
and to that end I am doing all I can.
I have prayed as a weak man and a sinner;
you who are mighty and merciful, hear my prayer.