The Psalms are a treasure chest of spiritual enrichment for the soul. Whatever you are experiencing in life – joy and gladness or grief and pain; victory and success or failure and disappointment, thankfulness for God’s care or sorrow over sin, there will be a Psalm for you. I like what John Calvin wrote:
“the Psalms are an anatomy of all parts of the soul; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.”
That includes exasperation, anger and indignation toward mean and horrible people.
Sooner or later, someone is going to pull a dirty on you and leave you fuming. You’ll be watching the aftermath of yet another terrorist attack – children’s shoes and body parts scattered in a market place and you’ll want someone to hang. A convicted child molester will be released from custody because of a technicality in the law and you’ll shake your fist saying, “where is the justice in this land?”
That’s where the imprecatory Psalms come in. The word “imprecate” means to pray evil against, to invoke curses upon. There are 17 of these Psalms all told – Psalm 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 58, 69, 79, 83, 137, 139 and 143. Most Christians have a hard time with them (myself included). That’s because the psalmists pull no punches in expressing their agitation. It bursts out like hot lava from a volcano. Take Psalm 137 for example; it starts off with those beautiful words,
“By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. There we hung up our lyres on the poplar trees, for our captors there asked us for songs, and our tormentors, for rejoicing: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” (Psalm 137:1–3)
The 70’s pop band BoneyM put music to those words and it became an instant hit around the world. But they got the tune horribly wrong. It’s not a happy song. It’s a lament by God’s people who were taken into exile by their enemies. And here’s how it ends:
“Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who pays you back what you have done to us. Happy is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.” (Psalm 137:8–9)
From memory, I’m pretty sure BoneyM left that line out! Or how about these verses from Psalm 56:
“God, knock the teeth out of their mouths; Lord, tear out the young lions’ fangs. They will vanish like water that flows by; they will aim their useless arrows. Like a slug that moves along in slime, like a woman’s miscarried child, they will not see the sun.” (Psalm 58:6–8)
Imagine putting that on a magnet on your fridge door. “Hey kids, we have a new memory verse for the week.” There’s something about these passages just doesn’t quite resonate with us. They just don’t sit right. Didn’t Jesus say we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? And doesn’t it say in 1 Peter 3 that we are to be,
“compassionate and humble, not paying back evil for evil or insult for insult but, on the contrary, giving a blessing, since you were called for this, so that you can inherit a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:8–9)
What Jesus and the NT writers command seems to directly contradict what we read in the Old Testament Psalms. So how are we to make sense of this? What are we to do with Psalms that call for the destruction of the ungodly?
We need to understand them in their context. We also need to see how they fit in the wider framework of God’s revelation. And we need to look at them through the lens of the cross.
Here are 5 things that you need to understand when reading the imprecatory Psalms:
They are part of God’s Word
There are some who think the imprecatory Psalms are unchristian and express the ungodly anger of men. They would like to have them taken out of the bible altogether. But we can’t do that. We can’t carve the bible up into what we do like and what we don’t like. 2 Timothy 3:16 says,
“All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” [emphasis added]
Besides that, both Jesus and the New Testament writers quote from the imprecatory Psalms several times, so they obviously recognized them as part of the inspired Word of God.
They are about God’s honour
They are not about personal revenge. They are not about seeking a personal vendetta. David knows any enemy of his is an enemy of God’s people and any enemy of God’s people is an enemy of God. It is God’s Name, God’s fame and God’s reputation that is at stake, not his own.
When you have a car behind you tailgating so close you can see the insects on his grill; when you hear the howl of tires from a boy-racer doing doughnuts at the end of your cul-de-sac, or you see your neighbor throwing grass clipping over the fence into your backyard, that’s not the time to pull out the imprecatory Psalms! I know it’s tempting sometimes. Last month I flew over to Wellington for a seminar. I grabbed a bed in a hotel in the city. In the early hours of the morning I was woken up by some hooligan, stumbling around in the alley, yelling at the top of his voice and uttering a great variety of obsentities. Now it was very tempting, I tell you, to pray a few curses on that guy! But you see, that’s not what it’s about. It’s not about my sleep (or lack of), my comfort or my needs. It’s about what dishonours God and eclipses his glory.
They are driven by a desire for Gods’ justice
It is not wrong for a Christian to be passionate about administering justice. We should be outraged when Christians are beaten or beheaded. We ought to be incensed by the murder of millions of unborn children every year. We should be outraged by the deplorable act of sex trafficking of millions of young girls, for the mere gratification of uncontrolled lust. We ought to be angered by the soul-destroying effects of the pornography industry, which is the ruin of untold marriages and homes today. If we are not outraged over those things, something is wrong.
They find their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus
Search a little closer and you will find time and time again, portions of the imprecatory Psalms are cited in the Gospels and Acts, particularly around the crucifixion. What does that tell us? The curses on God’s enemies in the Old Testament – particularly David, find their fulfillment in THE enemy of God’s Son at the cross. For example, the lines in Psalm 69:25 “Let his dwelling become desolate; let no one live in it” and Psalm 109:8 “Let someone else take his position” are cited in Acts 1:20 in reference to Judas, who betrayed Jesus.
They are resolved at the cross
The bible tells us that at the cross – every act of injustice, every wrong done to another human being, and every offense committed against a holy God was put on Jesus and then God the Father poured out his righteous anger on him. The bible tells us that Jesus became a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). All those curses in the Old Testament that were heaped on God’s enemies – Jesus bore them all.
And so, when we read the imprecatory Psalms, and we see these curses heaped on the enemies of God, we realize we ourselves were once God’s enemy. We deserve those curses. But Jesus became a curse for us and now we are free. And so, while we long to see justice reign, we also want to see other sinners saved. We always must balance, “Lord, stop this evil person” with “Father, save this lost person!” Because of the cross, every enemy of God is a potential child of God.
The imprecatory Psalms are often difficult for us. They disturb us. But we can’t ignore them or pretend they are not there. Instead we must read them through a redemptive lens. When you hear the Psalmist calling down curses on God’s enemies you should say to yourself,
“I was once an enemy of God. Those curses were intended for me. But Jesus took my place of judgement on that cross. He became a curse for me, so that now I am free. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!”
Note: this post is based on a message I preached from Psalm 109 called “Please God, take him out!” You can listen to the sermon here.