Approaching the Imprecatory Psalms
One of the most frequently asked questions about singing the whole Psalter – all of the psalms with all of the verses – is this question: What about the imprecatory, vengeful psalms — those that call down curses on one’s enemies? How do we sing them as Christians? Didn’t Jesus Himself command us to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us”? Didn’t Jesus model this Himself on the cross when He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”? Doesn’t Paul command us in Romans 12:14 to “bless our enemies; bless and do not curse”? So, if we are truly New Testament Christians, how do these psalms continue to have a place in our prayer life, or our worship life?
There are four lenses for approaching these psalms that may be helpful, but first, a few basic observations are in order. Although there are several psalms that have been categorized officially as “imprecatory psalms,” there are many more psalms that contain verses of imprecation scattered throughout, so the difficulty is much wider and deeper than simply relegating certain psalms as inappropriate for Christian worship as has sometimes been suggested.
In fact, “enemies” are acknowledged in the psalms quite frequently, and the psalmist seems to feel quite comfortable letting God know what he thinks should be done about them. It is still true today that following Christ will not be kindly regarded by those in the world, and that enemies of both body and soul are just as rampant in the world as they ever were.
The question is not so much about the presence of enemies as about our response to them. To pray or sing these verses of the psalms as a congregation will take, most assuredly, some wise guidance and counsel from the leader of worship or the pastor; and to pray them as part of private or family worship will also require prayerful submission to the Lord’s Spirit in our hearts. But deciding to omit these verses takes us down a much more dangerous path, for Jesus said that He did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them.
We cannot decide that part of God’s Word is inappropriate for us, when Christ provides the lens through which all of the Old Testament is illuminated and understood. Better far to wrestle with these verses, to pray for the Lord’s understanding of why they are in Holy Scripture in the first place, and to seek the understanding and deepening of faith that they will bring to us if we are willing to seek His wisdom about them.
Let us consider, then, four lenses that provide a starting point for approaching these turbulent psalms.
Lens 1: Spiritual Warfare
The first lens is found in Ephesians 6:12:
“We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
This first lens for the imprecatory psalms is perhaps the easiest to understand. We acknowledge with Paul, that behind all of the flesh and blood agents of evil and wickedness in this world, lie powers of darkness, spiritual forces, and Satan himself. When we consider the evil spiritual power that is at work in this world, seeking to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10) everything that is good and right and holy, we can cry out with the psalmist for the Lord to put an end to these principalities of wickedness and to break their hold in the lives of people in this world.
The imprecations of the psalms can thus be directed to the spiritual forces that lie behind all of the evil that we encounter, the spiritual powers that attempt to enslave us with addictions or haunt us with unbelief. The ravages of depression in the lives of those you love, the tyranny of poverty and injustice willfully imposed by wealthy dictators upon the poor, the horrors of rape and torture enacted upon innocent victims, the bondages of all kinds which entrap and destroy healthy lives and families – all of these “enemies” are the tangible outworking of principalities and powers which we can fervently denounce along with the psalmist. Evil has many expressions, but there is no doubt that behind those tangible agents is the Evil One who is at work in this world, and it is right to pray for his demise with all of the robust imprecations that the psalms can muster.
Lens 2: Vengeance Transferred
The second lens arises from the Lord’s declaration in Deuteronomy 32:35 (and quoted by Paul in Romans 12:19):
“‘Vengeance is mine,’ declares the Lord; ‘I will repay’”
As those created in the image of God, we are “hardwired for justice.” We have an inner sense of right and wrong implanted in our conscience, and when wrong is done, we feel the need for it to be set right, for righteousness to be vindicated and for evil to be punished. We want the real flesh-and-blood perpetrators of evil to be punished, and the Lord has provided the avenues of government for just that purpose. However, there are times when wrong goes unpunished, when wickedness flourishes unrestrained, or when human systems of justice fail, and we want to take matters into our own hands, striking back with the due retribution that we desire to inflict upon those who have wronged us. But our desire for vengeance and vindication must be transferred into God’s hands, for He alone can dispense justice with true righteousness. When the psalmist calls down curses, this is precisely what he is doing. He is asking the Lord to take vengeance rather than taking it himself; he is pouring all of the anguish of reprisal into a prayer rather than into actions of his own.
When one has experienced unspeakable horror, seen family members raped and slaughtered, or been the victim of unmitigated violence, there must be a channel for the anguish and anger to pour out. If there is not, the rage will burst forth into reciprocal violence, and the escalation of evil will continue. But if anger and anguish and retribution can be expressed to God in all of their rawness, uncensored and unrestrained, then they can be released and left there, in the hands of the One who has also suffered and who we can trust to bring proper vindication.
These psalms are, after all, prayers – not the actions themselves. In fact, the prayers offer an alternative action, providing the necessary and healthy channel for anger to be vented without erupting into violence. By taking this action, anger can be transferred into the hands of God, who has promised to bring about His holy judgment with perfect equity. It is through this sometimes dark channel of expression and transference that we can emerge into the light of forgiveness and wholeness, and find the power of the Holy Spirit to walk in newness of life.
Lens 3: The Curse Absorbed
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written:
‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13).
This verse from Galatians provides the third lens for understanding the imprecatory psalms. Just as the second lens enables us to transfer our anger and need for vengeance into the Lord’s hands, this lens reminds us of the terrifying reality that all of the curses which belong upon the wicked are transferred onto Christ. As we encounter the vivid descriptions of curses that are called forth in the psalms, we are suddenly caught off guard by the stark reality that these, even these terrible curses and so much more than we could ever fathom, have been laid upon Christ in the crucifixion.
God hears every curse that we voice, accepts every cry for vengeance that we sob, and holds every wrong that we suffer in His cup, which Christ absorbs upon the cross. All the punishment that the wicked deserve falls upon Christ. All the curses which the Fall brought into this world come upon Christ. Every imprecation that is directed to an enemy (whether spiritual forces or physical agents) is carried by Christ. This is transference in reverse. We transfer our anger and vengeance into God’s hands, and Christ takes upon himself all the wrath that we deserve (along with all that our enemies deserve). He becomes the curse. He carries our sorrows. He suffers on our behalf. He absorbs the weight of all of the wickedness, all of the evil, all of the demonic onslaught, all of the imprecations, and all of the righteous wrath due for sin – it is all absorbed and extinguished as He cries, “It is finished.” When we voice these imprecations, we see more vividly the depth of the love of Christ, who became a curse for us.
Lens 4: The Final End
The fourth lens is that of eschatology – the unfolding of final things:
Revelation 11:15 – “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He will reign forever and ever.”
Though Christ has taken the curse for all who trust in Him, the judgment of God will still come upon all those who do not take refuge in Him. Many of the imprecations in the psalms carry an element of finality to them; they evoke bold images of total and permanent destruction. These curses seem very frightening unless we remember that our greatest hope lies in God setting all things right in His New Creation. The ultimate goal toward which all of creation is heading is the joyous rule and reign of God, where evil is banished forever, never to rise again. The judgment of God upon the forces of wickedness is not something to be feared – it is our greatest hope and comfort. Indeed, the judgment of God against the wicked is the way in which God demonstrates His love and mercy for the world. For example, Psalm 137:8-9 has often troubled Christians, but we must see the larger eschatological vision.
When the infant children of evil Babylon (who represent Babylon’s ability to regenerate and carry on her wickedness) are utterly destroyed (as God himself predicted in Isaiah 13), it is God’s fulfillment of His long-awaited promise that there will be a time when sin and evil, darkness and death, wickedness and depravity, will all be ended, never to rise again. God is the one who will do this. “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!…With great violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again…Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments. He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries. He has avenged on her the blood of his servants…Hallelujah! For the Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory!” (from Revelation 18 and 19).
This is the great hope of Christians. Someday, there will be a final end to all evil, and it will never rear its head again. Someday, there will be a final end to all suffering, and we will live in the New Creation with no tears, no sorrow, no pain, and no death. But this can only come about if the Lord God puts an end to wickedness once and for all, a victory that was secured in the cross of Christ, but awaits consummation at the final judgment. The imprecations which cry out for this final destruction, for this definitive end to evil, are pointers to that great hope. They should fill us with longing for that Day, and with great hope in the present that God’s victory is secure, and that someday the enemy of our souls will haunt us no more. These psalms are pointers, reminders, and beacons of hope in our God who has triumphed over sin and death, and will bring both to a final end.
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