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Understanding the Imprecatory Psalms

The imprecatory Psalms are without doubt the most difficult psalms to understand because they invoke God to bring evil upon one's enemies. For this reason they have been called the cursing Psalms.

Here are some examples:

Psalm 35: verses 4 to 8

Psalm 58: verses 6 to 8

Psalm 109: verses 6 to 13

At first glance these words are shocking – the opposite of Christian love! It is too easy to rush past them and move onto something more comforting, yet the more we look at the Psalms the more we will find such language. In fact you will find similar phrases in over 30 of the 150 Psalms. There are ten Psalms that have extended imprecatory passages: 35, 58, 59, 68, 69, 79, 83, 94, 109 and 137. Many Christians have puzzled over these verses so if you have too you are not alone.

People have come up with several ways to explain these verses.

1) Some say that these words were not inspired of God.

They are simply the thoughts of revengeful men added to God’s word. We cannot agree with that. Paul says that “All scripture is God breathed”, not just some of it. The Psalms are part of God’s Word. The Psalms are quoted over 100 times in the New Testament (40% of all). Spurgeon said of Psalm 109 “Truly this is one of the hard places of Scripture, a passage which the soul trembles to read, yet as it is a Psalm unto God, and given by inspiration, it is not ours to sit in judgment upon it, but to bow our ear to what God the Lord would speak to us therein.”

2) Some say that they were aimed at the Devil, not at people.

Yet if we read them people are obviously meant. Sometimes they are named, for example in Psalm 52 we read about Doeg.

3) Some say this is an example of the difference between the Old and New Testament.

They say that the Old has to do with the law and being cursed, the New to do with grace and love, and yet there are verses of cursing in the New Testament: For instance 1 Corinthians 16:22 and Galatians 1:8. There are also verses of love and forgiveness in the Old. Psalm 103. The Old and New Testament are about the same unchanging God!

4) Some say that God has chosen to include these verses in his Word as examples of wrong reactions, thoughts and words.

One writer says “They give us not God’s precept but man’s defective prayers”. The great Christian author C S Lewis says “The hatred is there – festering, gloating, undisguised-and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it or worse still used it to justify similar passions in ourselves”.

Now it is true that the Bible does record on many occasions wicked and bad words, and examples of wrong actions. However is this explanation for the imprecatory Psalms? Are they just examples of good men praying bad prayers? The answer is no. Why? Because the New Testament writers are not the least embarrassed about the imprecatory Psalms. In fact they not only quote freely from them, they also quote from imprecatory passages themselves. Here are two examples:

Look at Acts 1:20. Peter quotes from Psalm 69:25 and 109:8. He is applying these invocations of judgment and a curse to Judas. Look at Romans 11: 9. Paul quotes from Psalm 69:22. Here Paul is talking about why Israel has not obtained salvation. Paul says that God hardens those who have hardened themselves (v. 8) and that therefore the unbelieving Jews will get what they deserve – judgment (v. 9). Finally, as we have seen, there are examples of such prayers in the New Testament.

This leads us to the fifth and I believe correct view. These Psalms are part of God’s Word and they do speak the truth. It was right for the Psalmists to use this language of judgment and cursing on God’s enemies. God is behind what is said. God cannot commit murder. He is the giver and taker of life. All men deserve judgment. If God so chooses to curse a person or nation he is just and right to do so.

Peter says the Bible writers were “holy men of God who spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit”. Note the emphasis on the word “holy”. It is unthinkable that such men would include anything in a form of prayer that was not holy and pure and perfect.

However this only leads us to a whole series of other questions:

With God’s help we will seek to answer these questions by asking four further questions.

1) Are the words we are reading an imprecatory prayer or is it a prophecy?

We need first to understand whether what we are reading is a prayer or whether it is a prophecy. The Bible clearly warns of a coming judgment day, and also tells us that God has intervened many times in history to bring a judgment on a nation. In the book of Isaiah we read chapter after chapter of warning about judgment that would fall on many nations, not just Israel. Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Syria, Egypt etc. are all mentioned and all these prophecies have been fulfilled. Those nations were punished exactly as God had said they would be.

We find such prophecies in the Psalms. These words are therefore not prayers. We saw an example of this in Psalm 52. Here David prophesied about the death of Doeg (v. 5)

Let us look at another example: Psalm 137. Here are some of the most difficult words in the Bible to read, let alone to understand. The situation is that the Jews are in captivity, where a godly Jew composes a lament. Their captors are tormenting them. “Give us a happy song” they say. But how can they when they think of the destruction of Jerusalem, the slaughter of their people?

Now look at the verses 8 and 9. Is this a prayer or a prophecy? I think it is a prophecy. The writer is saying “You Babylonians will be repaid for what you have done. Your little ones will be killed just as to have killed the little ones of others”. Did the Babylonians deserve such things to happen to them? The answer is “yes”. They themselves did the same things when they conquered other nations. We know this from Nahum 3:10. Here we read what the Babylonian army did when they conquered Nineveh in 612 BC. Jerusalem was laid waste 15 years later so it is almost certain that children were killed then as well.

So, in this Psalm we have the burning words of righteous indignation. God’s people have been shamed, humiliated and dreadfully treated. Babylon will not go unpunished. As God’s Law says: “An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth”. The words may seem harsh to our refined ears, yet, who are we to criticise their words as we sit in the comfort of our church in a safe and orderly society? If an army invaded our country, destroyed our churches, demolished our homes, raped our wives, slaughtered our children before our eyes, carried us off into slavery and then mocked us maybe then we might also cry to God for justice. We might also understand and truly sympathise with the sentiments in this Psalm. So, sometimes the so called cursing words are not prayers but are prophecies, yet, on most occasions the language clearly points to them being a prayer rather than a prophecy. This is true of Psalm 69:22. “Let their table become a snare…let their eyes be darkened…”. So how are we to understand this? By asking our second question:

2) Who is praying the imprecatory prayers?

This I think is the crucial question. Is the person praying these prayers just an ordinary believer like you and me? The short answer is no. Who is praying? It is a spirit filled prophet who is being inspired to write down the very words of God. Most were written by King David, but all the writers of the Psalms were also prophets. The psalmists, as with all those who wrote the Bible, wrote with a divine, anointed authority. They wrote infallibly as they were led by the Holy Spirit. Therefore when the writer pronounced a curse on their enemies it is really God issuing that curse. There is a divine authority in it. In other words we are not reading the words of an ordinary believer, but the words of an anointed prophet.

We can go a stage further. We have seen that in all the Psalms, like a golden thread, we find Christ Jesus. He is the Word, the prophet. We have seen again and again that at one level say David is writing about his own experience, but then at another level it is all about Christ. There are two interesting verses in Hebrews that shed light on this. Look at Hebrews 2:11 – 12. Now the “he” is Jesus. When did Jesus say these words? We only find them in Psalm 22, not in the gospels. Look at Hebrews 10:5. The “he” is Jesus again. When did Jesus say that? It is not in the gospels, only in Psalm 40.

Can we not say that the spirit of Christ is in all the Psalms? Isn’t he the judge of all the earth and the King of kings? Is there not a sense that whenever we read one of this curses, it is words from the lips of him who will ultimately bless or curse every human being? Look at what will happen on the last day: Matthew 24:31-46. Look at Psalm 69 verse 21 for instance. Who is speaking? Jesus of course. Who therefore is speaking in verse 22? Jesus! So, we have no right to curse but Christ and his prophets do.

That is why Paul could pronounce a curse on those who were preaching another gospel (Galatians 1:8) and on those who do not love the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 16:22). He was a prophet. God inspired him to say that. It is worth making another most solemn point. As these curses were uttered by men under the inspiration of God they will all be fulfilled. Those who preach another gospel and do not repent of it will be cursed for ever. Those who do not love the Lord Jesus will be cursed for ever. All of David’s enemies were defeated. This brings us to a most important point.

3) Can we pray these Psalms?

Sometimes people call the book of Psalms a prayer book. Strictly speaking that is not correct. It does contain prayers but that does not mean that we have warrant to pray them. Just because a prayer is recorded in the Bible does not mean that we can make it our own. For instance we can read Psalm 22. This is undoubtedly a prayer, but what believer in their right mind would ever want to make that their prayer? The words are a prayer of the Lord Jesus himself on the cross. This principle applies to the imprecatory passages in the Psalms. Why? Because Bible clearly teaches that we have no warrant to curse others. In the Old Testament there were commands forbidding cursing the blind, parents, rulers or God. Look for instance at Exodus 21:17. In the New Testament Jesus spoke very clearly on the subject: Matthew 5: 43 to 48. We are called to return love for hate and blessing in place of cursing. It is most telling that Jesus specifically says that we should pray for those who spitefully use us.

There is no place in the Christian life for personal vengeance or cursing another person. Instead we must pray that our enemies and tormentors might repent before they die. However, although we cannot call down a curse on the wicked we can still pray that God will end their wickedness. Think of the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer “Your kingdom come”. What does that mean? What are we praying? It is a prayer that the strongholds of Satan will come crashing down. It is asking for the destruction of all other kingdoms. Think of the similarity between such a prayer and a curse. What is the result of the curse of Psalm 109:8? Ruin for Judas. What is the result of the many prayers offered up against Nazi Germany? (an evil regime. if ever there was one) Ruin.

As one writer put it “Advance and victory for the Church means retreat and defeat for the kingdom of darkness”. Now there are two ways in which people in the kingdoms of darkness are brought down. Either they surrender and join the kingdom of light or they are defeated and are banished to the place of utter darkness. So can we pray for the bringing down of the wicked, for the falling of Satan’s strongholds in the earth? Yes we can. Not by calling down a curse but by praying that God will act, God will save, God will judge. Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 10:4 of us having mighty spiritual weapons for the bringing down of the strongholds of the enemy. There are some striking verses in Revelation 6: 9 to 11. Here are the martyred saints in heaven. What are they doing? Praying! It is the only place in the Bible when we learn what they are praying in heaven. And what are they praying? “How long Lord until you judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on earth?” Their great prayer is “Your kingdom come Lord, your judgment come Lord”.

What can we learn from these imprecatory psalms?

1) Here we see God speaking curses against his enemies. We see here a glimpse of the utter holiness of God and his hatred for sin in all its forms. Sin must be punished, will be punished and is being punished. Let us remember that God is a HOLY God who hates sin! One thing is certain. In heaven we will have perfect minds and will understand perfectly God’s justice and holiness and love. In heaven we will rejoice that all of God’s enemies have been defeated, crushed and destroyed. Let us read Revelation 19: 1 to 6. There will be no puzzling over these Psalms in heaven!

2) We can pray “Lord your kingdom come. Lord deal with the ungodly. Lord, bring down the kingdoms of Satan, nullify the efforts of the false cults, the false religions, the false ideologies.” But we should never curse another person. In fact our first prayer should always be that the human enemies of the Gospel should be brought down… to be saved.

3) We should pray not in a vengeful spirit, but in a spirit that wishes to see God vindicated, God glorified. It is interesting that in all the imprecatory passages I only found one verse where the writer asks that he might repay his enemy. On all other occasions the writer asks God to act. In the one exception (Psalm 41:10) I believe David was speaking in his official capacity as king of Israel.

4) If you are a Christian remember these three great facts that we find in Galatians 3: 10 to 13:

1) You once were cursed. Galatians 3: 10

2) You have been redeemed from the curse. You are now one of the blessed!

3) Jesus Christ became accursed for you. Galatians 3: 13.

Thank you for reading this message. If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact us.

Quotations are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible, copyright Thomas Nelson Inc.

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