Imprecations in the the Psalms

Note: Articles classified as essays may be long, advanced, or esoteric.

The psalmist David prayed, “Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee?” “Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into hell”;1 Jesus taught, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mat. 5:44).  These contrasting quotations highlight the primary difficulties of inter­preting imprecatory prayers: (1) How does one reconcile the OT saint’s curses upon his enemies with the OT laws that forbid personal revenge and command love for one’s neighbors, or with the clear teaching of Jesus that one should love his enemies?  and (2) What application do these prayers have to believers to­day?  Despite the interpretive challenges that imprecations present, this study contends that imprecatory prayers are in complete harmony with the teach­ings of Scripture on love, and that one should view these psalms as inspired pat­terns of prayer applicable to believers of all ages.

The Definition and Identification of Imprecations

An imprecation is an invocation of judgment, calamity, or a curse upon one’s enemies or the enemies of God.2  Such curses span the breadth of Biblical revelation.3  They form an integral part of the covenant renewal ceremony described in Deuteronomy 27-30, and NT ends with the saints beneath the altar praying, “How long?” till God avenges their blood (Rev. 6:10).  Some of the most powerful imprecations of Scripture, however, are found in the psalms.  Though there are no psalms in which imprecations are the only ele­ment of the composition, imprecations do form a prominent or major element of Psalms 7, 35, 55, 58, 69, 109, 137, and 139.  With the exception of Psalm 137, which is exilic, all of these psalms are Davidic.4

Incomplete or Unsatisfactory Solutions

The interpretation and application of imprecatory prayers have been difficult issues since the early Church.5  One of the earliest solutions to this problem interpreted imprecatory prayer as “a prophecy of one who is telling things to come, not a vow of malediction.”6  Since the psalmist was both poet and prophet, his statements are to be understood as declarations of what will happen to the ungodly.  In support of this position, interpreters have noted that the Hebrew imperfect and jussive are often identical in form.  State­ments which have typically been translated as jussives should, therefore, be translated as future indicatives.7  For example, “Let their way be dark and slippery,” should be read, “Their way will be dark and slippery” (Psa. 35:6).  While this method may be used to interpret some imprecations, it is not a plausible solution for those instances in which the verb under question is parallel to an imperative verb8 or where the context clearly prefers the jus­sive.  In itself, this proposal is inadequate.

Another frequently proposed solution to this problem views these psalms as expressions of the psalmist’s personal feelings toward his enemies.  There are three variations on this view.  The first sees the imprecatory psalms originat­ing from mean-spirited persons whose only thoughts were on conquest and revenge.9  The second interprets these psalms as accurate reflections of the psalmist’s human failing in the midst of difficulty and pressure.  Of all people, David was certainly treated falsely, betrayed, and lied about.  To be “betrayed into occasional outbursts of fierce desire for vengeance,” while wrong, is cer­tainly understandable.10  Though the psalmist felt and prayed this way, these psalms do not constitute a pattern for us to emulate today.11  The third view imagines that these psalms reflect a lower standard of OT ethical behavior.  Proponents of this view contend that, although these prayers do not meet the NT ethical standards, the psalmist was living up to all the light he had.12

All three of these views should be rejected on the following bases: (1) These psalms are not the product of hasty emotional expression.  They reflect the careful crafting of thoughtful writing.  The fact that many of these psalms were intended for public use in the temple worship further supports their intentional nature.13  (2) These views tend to reject or minimize the inspired character of these elements of the psalms, yet the NT reveals that David penned his psalms under the personal and direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:25).14  (3) These views ignore David’s personal character.  The record of Scripture consistently attests that David was a man who did not indulge in personal revenge (1 Sam. 24:1-7; 26:5).  David even testifies, in the midst of an imprecatory prayer, that when his enemies were sick, he afflicted himself in prayer for them (Psa. 35:13; 109:4-5).15  (4) The contextual setting of most imprecatory prayers strongly contradicts these views.16  (5) A proper understanding of OT ethics renders ludicrous the charge that these psalms were written in a dispensation of lower moral light.  The Law explicitly forbade personal vengeance, bearing grudges, or hating one’s neighbor, and commanded love for all men (Lev. 19:17-18).  Paul bases his prohibition against seeking revenge, in Romans 12:19, upon God’s statement in Deuteronomy 32:35, “Vengeance is Mine.”  There is an unbroken continuity of ethical requirements that progresses from the OT into the NT.  When Christ condemned what had been taught in “old time” (Mat. 5:21, 27, 33), he was not referring to the OT, but to the unbiblical “traditions of intertestamental Judaism.”17

Various other solutions of a less compelling nature include viewing imprecations, from a psychological perspective, as a Biblical pattern for proper actualization of anger,18 taking the imprecations as the statement of David’s enemies rather than his own,19  and directing the imprecations against David’s spiritual foes.  The psalmist’s prayers are, in this view, imprecations against spiritual enemies rather than against real people.20

An Old Testament Curse Theology

Rather than having its root in a vengeful heart, imprecatory prayer springs from an OT curse theology that reflects the holiness of God and His faithfulness to His covenant promises.  A pattern of divine judgment through curses upon those who violate God’s word is evident in the OT.21  God’s unconditional promise to Abraham and his descendants to curse those who cursed them permanently established this as a principle of God’s dealing with his covenant people (Gen. 12:3; 27:29; Num. 22:12; 24:9).22   Deu­teronomy 27, however, provides the backbone of this OT curse theology.23  Within the covenant renewal ceremony, the divine pronouncement of curses upon those who violate God’s word24 clearly illustrates that sin is primarily against God and that the wicked are under divine judgment.  First  Samuel 26:19, a non-poetic setting, reveals the appropriate objects of imprecations: those who have violated God’s word.25  In the psalms, then, this curse theology motivates the psalmist’s pleas for God to fulfill His word in execut­ing judgment upon those He said He would.26

The Purposes of the Imprecations

Apart from the above mentioned purpose, several other motives in­spired imprecations: (1) a desire to see God’s justice vindicated (Psa. 58:11);  (2) a desire to see God’s sovereignty demonstrated (Psa. 59:13); (3) a desire to see the wicked turn to God (Psa. 83:16-18); (4) a desire for the righteous to be established (Psa. 7:9); and (5) an abhorrence of sin (Psa. 139:19-22; Pro. 29:20).27  Besides revealing the OT saint’s hatred for sin, these imprecations also teach God’s attitude toward sin and unrepentant sinners.28

Interpreting and Applying Imprecatory Prayers

To interpret these prayers properly, the interpreter must be alert to the antecedent OT curse theology, the possible purposes that may be moti­vat­ing the imprecation, the possibility that a passage may need to be trans­lated as a future indicative rather than a jussive, and the nature of Hebrew poetry.  In addition to these considerations, the position of the person(s) imprecating is of special significance.  On a national plain, Israel was and is the only nation that God has ever chosen to identify with Himself.  Therefore, when Israel was attacked, God was attacked.  At this level, Israel’s national enemies, when she was serving God, were God’s enemies, and prayers could be directed against them as such.  On an official level, David was the anointed king and representative of God.  Since his enemies were also God’s enemies, David could ask God to destroy them.  On a personal level, David specifically gives testi­mony as to how he responded to his personal enemies.  He mourned and fasted for them (Psa. 35:13-14).  He put on sackcloth and ashes (Psa. 69:11).  He never took vengeance upon his enemies, and was grateful when Abigail stopped him the one time he intended to (1 Sam. 25:32-34). David’s conduct toward Saul (1 Sam. 24; 26) and Shimei (2 Sam. 16:10-12) clearly illustrates how he treated his enemies.  His treatment of those who did take revenge is striking.  He killed both the man who killed Saul (2 Sam. 1:14-15) and Ishbosheth’s assas­sins (2 Sam. 4:9-12).29

With these factors in mind, it is evident that there is complete har­mony between OT and NT revelation on this topic.  The kingdom ethic Jesus set forth in Matthew 5-7 brings the OT precepts established in the Law to their fullest expression.  It in no way supersedes the Law or replaces it any more than a tree replaces the sapling from which it grew.  These impreca­tions express the sentiment toward sin and wickedness of the those who truly love God whole-heartedly.

All of the principles that motivated imprecations in the OT are appli­cable to today.  Zeal for God’s reputation, concern for the lost, desire for righteousness to be established, and the acquisition of God’s per­spective on sin are all principles that should be reflected in a NT believer’s life.  The crux in applying these prayers to today is what or who is the appro­priate object of imprecatory prayers in the NT.  The clear distinction in the NT between people as the pawns of Satan, and the “spiritual wickedness in high places” against which we really fight was not clearly evident in the OT.

The NT believer’s attitude and treatment of those who persecute him for his faith or are his personal enemies should reflect those of David.  Not one of the imprecations in the psalms is directed against  the personal enemies of the psalmist.  There are, however, enemies of the believer which are not his personally.  The clearest instance of this is the spiritual foes that are arraigned against him.  It is completely appropriate to utilize these prayers in petitioning God against the Enemy of our soul.  Further, there are persons whose complete purpose is to hinder and destroy the work of God wherever it may be.  As people who have set themselves against God, a two-fold petition is appropriate for them.  Since it is God’s will that all be saved, it is appropriate to pray for their salvation.  Yet as God knows the hearts of men and knows who will and will not be saved, it is ap­propriate to ask God to remove, through whatever means He sees fit, those who oppose the Gospel.  Paul prayed such an imprecation against those who were endeavoring to undermine the Gospel in Galatia–that they would be cut off (Gal. 5:12).  In conclusion, imprecatory prayers are patterns for NT believers to follow in praying against their spiritual foes and against those people who oppose the advancement of God’s kingdom.

 


 

  1. Psalm 139:21; 55:15.
  2. J. Carl Laney, “A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms,” Bibliotheca Sacra 138 (1981): 35.  This definition purposefully includes imprecations which are of divine origin (Deu. 27:15-26; 28:16-19) and those which are uttered apart from the context of prayer (1 Sam. 26:19; Job 3:1-10).  This inclusion provides a broader database from which to derive the theology that engenders such curses.  The specific problems under consideration, however, are the ethics and applicability of imprecatory prayers.
  3. The following list contains the majority of the imprecatory statements in Scripture: Num. 16:15; 22:6-11; 23:7-8; 24:9, 10; Deu. 11:29-30; 27:11-13; 33:11; Jos. 8:33-34; Jud. 16:28; 2 Sam. 16:10-12; Neh. 4:4-5; 5:13; 6:14; 13:29; Job 3:1-10; 27:7; Psa. 5:10; 6:10; 7:9; 9:20; 10:2, 15; 25:3; 28:4; 31:17-18; 35:4, 8, 26; 40:14-15; 54:5; 55:9, 15; 56:7; 58:7; 59:5, 11, 15; 68:1-2; 69:23-24, 27-28; 70:2-3; 71:13; 79:10-12; 83:13-17; 94:2; 109:7, 9-20, 28-29; 119:78, 84; 129:5; 137:8-9; 139:19-22; 140:9-10; 143:12; 144:6; Jer. 11:20; 12:3; 15:15; 17:18; 18:21-23; 20:12; Lam. 1:22; 3:64-66; Gal. 1:8-9; 5:12; 2 Tim. 4:14-15; Rev. 6:10.  Orville J. Nave, Nave’s Concise Topical Bible (Albany, Oregon: SAGE Software, 1996), 1436.
  4. Laney, 36.
  5. Augustine writes, “Here indeed arises a question in no way to be blinked, that to this precept of the Lord, wherein He exhorts us to love our enemies, . . . many other parts of Scripture seem to . . . stand opposed; for in the prophets there are found many imprecations against enemies, which are thought to be curses . . . .” Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, 1.22.71.
  6. Augustine, 1.6.3.  In his Reply to Faustus, Augustine gives the clearest statement of  his view: “The curses of prophecy are not hostile imprecations, but announcements of coming judgment. Hostile imprecations are forbidden, for it is said, “Bless, and curse not” (16.22).  Besides Augustine, Calvin and Spurgeon advocated this view (Laney, 39).
  7. Adam Clarke takes this view in Job to Song of Solomon, vol. 3 of Clarke’s Commentary: The Old Testament (New York: T. Mason & G. Lane, 1840), 439, where he states, “The execrations here [Psa. 69:22] and in the following verses should be read in the future tense, because they are predictive; and not in the imperative mood, as if they were the offspring of the psalmist’s resentment.”
  8. An example of this is Psalm 69:22-25.  The LXX translates these verses with aorist passive imperatives, and the NT quotation follows that translation (Rom. 9:11).  In the light of the NT’s use of imperatives, there are no grounds for taking these as future indicatives.  For a more complete treatment of this issue see J. J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms (London: George Bell & Sons, 1878-1879; reprint, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1989), 305-306
  9. Rudolph Kittel, The Scientific Study of the Old Testament (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1910), 143. He views these psalms as inferior witnesses “to what was at one time accredited to God.  It is not necessary to excuse them; they belong to the past; . . . to repeat them would be blasphemy” (143).  C. S. Lewis’s treatment of these “cursings” in Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958), 20-33, is similar.  He says, “We must not either try to explain them away or yield for one moment to the idea that, because it comes in the Bible, all this vindictive hatred must be good and pious.  We must fact both facts squarely.  The hatred is there–festering, gloating, undisguised . . .” (22).
  10. Chalmers Martin cites this view in “Imprecations in the Psalms,” in Classical Evangelical Essays in Old Testament Interpretation, ed. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Co., 1972), 116.
  11. Albert Barnes, vol. 1 of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Co., 1950), xxxvii-xl, suggests this as a possible solution, but holds it as one among many which may be used depending on the nature of the psalm.  P. C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, vol. 19 of Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word Books, 1983), 41-42, takes these as expressions of wrong, even sinful feelings.  Alexander Maclaren adopts this view as well in The Psalms, vol. 3 (New York: Hodder & Stroughton, n.d.; reprint, Minnea­polis: Clock & Clock Christian Publishers, Inc., 1981), 174-75.
  12. “They must be viewed as belonging to the dispensation of the OT, . . . [and] estimated from the standpoint of the Law, which was based upon the rule of retaliation, and not of the Gospel . . . .  They belong to the spirit of Elijah, not of Christ; they use the language of the age which was taught to love its neighbor and hate its enemy (Mat. 5:43).”  A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, in The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges (Cambridge: at the University Press, 1939), lxxxix.
  13. Specifically among those psalms classified as imprecatory, the following psalms have the phrase xCnml “to the choir director” in their superscription: 5, 7, 55, 58, 59, 69, 109, 139.
  14. J. B. Payne, “Book of Psalms,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), 4:939.
  15. Martin, 118-120.
  16. Psalm 139 provides a typical example of the strong piety in the context surrounding imprecations.  Verses 19-22, which speak of David’s hatred for God’s enemies, are followed immediately in verses 23-24 by a plea for God to search his heart to see if there be any grievous way in him.  It is absurd to think David would pray that which is contrary to God’s word just prior to making such a request.  The hyperbolic nature of Semitic poetry should also be factored into one’s interpretive process.  Ibid., 116-17.
  17. Payne, 939.  Martin, 116-17.
  18. Representatives of this view are Thomas L. Mowbray, “The Function in Ministry of Psalms dealing with Anger: The Angry Psalmist,  Journal of Pastoral Counseling 21 (1986): 34-39; and Sheila Carney, “God Damn God:  A Reflection on Expressing Anger in Prayer,” Biblical Theology Journal 13 (Oct., 1983): 116-120.  This view imposes a psychological framework upon these psalms that is completely foreign to their stated or implied purposes.
  19. J. W. Beardslee, “The Imprecatory Element in the Psalms,” Presbyterian and Reformed Review 8 (1897): 491, cited in Laney, 37-38. Beardslee suggested this particularly in reference to Psalm 109:6-20.  He maintained this by adding the participle rm,ao at the end of verse five on the analogy of a similar insertion by the AV at Psalm 2:2.  As Laney notes, the exegesis is very strained and is contextually impossible in most other imprecatory psalms.
  20. Though Laney, 39,  cites Mowinckel as an example of this view, Mow­inckel’s view is more complex than this.  His whole approach assumes a motivational and purposive kinship between OT curses and those of other ANE cultures. “More often the worshipper complains of the evil enemies” as opposed to some “demon of illness.”  Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, trans D. R. Ap-Thomas (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962) 2:9-10.  This approach is too subjective in determining what elements of a psalm are literal and which are to be taken spiritually.
  21. Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:17); Cain (4:11); Noah curses Canaan (Gen. 9:25); Joshua curses the rebuilder of Jericho (Jos. 6:26), and the Gibeonites (9:23); the angel of the Lord curses Meroz (Jud. 5:23).
  22. Laney, 41-42.  Laney argues that “the fundamental ground on which one may justify the imprecations in the Psalms is the covenantal basis for a curse on Israel’s enemies” (43). However, this view is too narrow.  He ignores pertinent NT data (Gal. 5:12) in order to conclude that “it would be inappropriate for a church-age believer to call down God’s judgment on the wicked . . . .  The imprecations in the Psalms should not be applied to church-age saints” (44).
  23. For a discussion of the relationship of OT curses to ANE parallels, see P. C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), 339-41.  Victor P. Hamilton’s article “rra” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 1:168-69, provides a substantial bibliography on this topic.
  24. The specific violations are idolatry (v. 15); dishonoring parents (16); moving property boundaries (17); mistreating the handicapped (18); injustice to aliens, orphans, or widows (19); various sexual sins (20-23); secret or bribed murder (24-25); not keeping the law (26).
  25. “If the LORD has stirred you up against me, let Him accept an offering; but if it is men, cursed are they before the LORD, for they have driven me out today so that I would have no attachment with the inheritance of the LORD, saying, ‘Go, serve other gods’ ”[emphasis mine].  David’s curse falls on those who drove him out, telling him to serve other gods, and were thereby violating the law concerning idolatry (Deu. 27:15).
  26. For an alternative, albeit Neo-orthodox, investigation of the theological underpinnings of imprecatory prayers see Erich Zenger, A God of Vengeance?  Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath, trans. Linda M. Maloney  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 63-86.
  27. Laney,  41.
  28. Martin, 128.  A potentially fertile ground for interpretive help, untouched in this paper, is the use of imprecatory psalms by Christ and His apostles.  Martin, 131, notes that imprecatory psalms are quoted more frequently than any other psalms by our Lord and His apostles.
  29. At first appearance, David’s character as a forgiving person seems at odds with the fact that he authored the majority of the imprecatory psalms.  In actuality, this contrast highlights David’s faith in God.  By relinquishing all vengeance into God’s control he demonstrated his complete confidence that the Judge of all the earth would do right.
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
  1. Archer, Gleason Jr. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Rev. ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1994.
  2. Barnes, Albert.  Vol. 1 of Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Co., 1950.
  3. Bullock, C. Hassell. An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books. Chicago: Moody Press, 1979.
  4. Craigie, P. C. Psalms 1-50. Vol. 19 of Word Biblical Commentary. Waco: Word Books, 1983.
  5. ________. The Book of Deuteronomy. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.
  6. Kirkpatrick, A. F. The Book of Psalms.  In The Cambridge Bible For Schools and Colleges. Cambridge: at the University Press, 1939.
  7. Kittel, Rudolph. The Scientific Study of the Old Testament.  New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1910.
  8. Laney, J. Carl. “A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms.” Bibliotheca Sacra 138 (1981): 35-45.
  9. Leupold, H. C. The Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Co., 1969.
  10. Lewis, C. S. Reflections on the Psalms. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958.
  11. Martin, Chalmers.  “Imprecations in the Psalms.” In Classical Evangelical Essays in Old Testament Interpretation. Edited by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Co., 1972.
  12. Mowinckel, Sigmund. The Psalms in Israel’s Worship. Vol. 2.  Translated by D. R. Ap-Thomas. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962.
  13. Payne, J. B. “Book of Psalms.” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Edited by Merrill C. Tenney. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975.
  14. Zenger, Erich. A God of Vengeance?  Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath. Translated by Linda M. Maloney. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.