We use the term “imprecatory psalms” to describe those psalms that contain curses or prayers for the punishment of the psalmist’s enemies. We will study each of these curses in our commentary on the psalms in which they occur, but here we would like to summarize some of the general principles which apply to all of them.
People are often shocked by some of the prayers in the psalms. One of the harshest is the prayer against the Babylonians in Psalm 137: “O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us–who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” Similar prayers are contained in Psalms 55, 56, 58, 69, 109 and other psalms.
Many commentators dismiss these prayers as remnants of a less developed stage of religion, which we have now outgrown. They claim that such prayers are no longer valid in New Testament times, since we are now told to love our enemies and not to take revenge (Matthew 5:38-44). Such claims, however, are not supported by a careful study of these psalms or of the rest of Scripture. These prayers, harsh as they sound, were proper prayers when they were first uttered, and they are still proper today.
These curses are part of God’s inspired word. It is true that Scripture sometimes reports improper statements made by believers in moments of distress. For example, not all of the statements made by Job and his friends in the book of Job were proper. However, the curses in the psalms do not fall into this category, because Scripture itself shows that they were proper prayers. Several of these curses occur in Messianic psalms as the words of Christ himself. For example, one of the strongest curses is recorded in Psalm 69, a Messianic psalm quoted in the New Testament: “May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous” (Psalm 69:28). Curses found in Psalms 69 and 109 are quoted by Peter in Acts 1:20 as finding their fulfillment in God’s judgment on Judas.
These curses can hardly be explained away as due to a bloodthirsty, vengeful spirit on the part of David. On the contrary, David was an example of patience, who on more than one occasion refused to avenge himself on his persecutor Saul (1 Samuel 24 and 26). If David had a weakness in this regard, it was being too lenient with such offenders as Shimei, who cursed him (2 Samuel 16), and his son Absalom, who rebelled against him (2 Samuel 18, 19). David refused to seek personal vengeance on his enemies, but he could hardly pray that Saul should win or that God’s promise to David, which included the promise of the Savior, should be overthrown by Saul or Absalom. He very properly opposed their schemes with prayer.
Luther once commented that we cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer without cursing. Every time we pray, “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” we are praying that the plans of Satan and all who serve him will fail and that they will receive the judgement which they deserve. We should indeed pray that God will lead our enemies to repentance and forgiveness as Christ and Stephen did, but we must also pray that all who continue to defy God will receive the justice they deserve.
God is a God of absolute holiness. It is in harmony with God’s character and his attributes revealed in Scripture when the psalmist prays, “If only you would slay the wicked, O God!..Do I hate those who hate you, O LORD, and abhor those who rise up against you?” (Psalm 139:19-21). When the psalmist uttered such prayers, his concern was for God’s glory and for the success of God’s plans.
The psalmist (or in some cases the Messiah, who was speaking through him) was being persecuted “without cause,” since the attacks on him were not because of anything he had done, but because of his role in God’s plans (Psalms 69:4,7,9; 35:19, 109:3). Even when the psalmist prayed such prayers, he still hoped that God’s judgements would serve as a warning that would lead at least some of the wicked to repentance. “Cover their faces with shame so that men will seek your name, O LORD” (Psalm 83:16).
Similar prayers for God to display his justice occur in the New Testament. Paul prayed for God’s judgment against those who opposed his preaching of the gospel (Galatians 1:8, 2 Timothy 4:14). Even the saints in heaven pray, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Revelation 6:10).
Scripture delivers strong warnings against taking personal vengeance on our enemies, but it also promises us that the just God will repay the wicked. “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). To punish the ungodly with force is the duty of God and of government as the servant of God, but we should oppose the enemies of God with prayer.
by John F. Brug for The People’s Bible, wels .net/nph/catalog>Northwestern Publishing House
Reprinted with permission.
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