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Should Christians Pray the Imprecatory Psalms?

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Liberty University

Should Christians Pray the Imprecatory Psalms?

A research paper submitted to Dr. B. Keith Lester.
In partial fulfillment of the Requirements for the course OBST 520

Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary


Lynchburg, Virginia
Friday, July 03, 2015

Contents INTRODUCTION 3 IMPRECATORY PSALMS 3 Context Matters 4 Problematic Solutions 7 Author’s view of Imprecations 9 Should Modern Day Christians Pray Imprecatory Prayers? 10 “Wrong” is not the same as “Sinful” 12 Concluding Thoughts 13 Bibliography iv

INTRODUCTION Between the September 11th terrorists, ISIS, and other terror plots and organizations which openly call for the extension of Christians, more Christians than ever are wondering how to properly think about and handle such violent and gruesome persecution. One idea which is regaining traction is imprecatory prayers or “cursing” prayers. These prayers of cursing are found throughout the Bible but the most notable examples are found in Psalms. Christians struggle, however, with whether or not praying these prayers is in keeping with the orthodox teachings of Christ whose teachings involved mercy, grace, and forgiveness. So can and should Christians utilize the imprecatory psalms as part of their regular prayer life or not? This paper will attempt to answer this question by first briefly examining an example of an imprecatory psalm and the context surrounding it and then comparing it to the New Testament teachings of Christ.
IMPRECATORY PSALMS According to The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible:
Psalms which contain curses (imprecations, maledictions) against enemies. These elements do not make up an entire psalm, but verses of this nature appear in more than a dozen (5, 17, 28, 35, 40, 55, 59, 70, 71, 79, 80, 94, 129, 137, 139, 140). A number of other psalms express the same ideas as future or accomplished acts of the Lord. Usually these expressions are couched in the form of a prayer or a wish. They voice the desire that evil may come upon an enemy as judgment or retribution.
As noted above imprecations appear in over a dozen Psalms at least. It is worth noting, however, that a true “imprecatory Psalm” is only labeled as such (as a specific literary genre) if the imprecations themselves are deemed the major element of the psalm. In other words, a mere mention of a curse or wish for bad or evil to befall one’s enemy is not in and of itself enough to merit the label of a full imprecatory psalm.
Context Matters At first glance many of these imprecations are consider harsh and not keeping with the nature of a Godly person. For example, consider the following two passages, both from the Old Testament. First, from Exodus 23:4-5: “If you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey that has strayed away, take it back to its owner. If you see that the donkey of someone who hates you has collapsed under its load, do not walk by. Instead, stop and help.
Now from the infamous Psalm 109:
7 When his case comes up for judgment, let him be pronounced guilty. Count his prayers as sins.
8 Let his years be few; let someone else take his position.
9 May his children become fatherless, and his wife a widow.
10 May his children wander as beggars and be driven from their ruined homes.
11 May creditors seize his entire estate, and strangers take all he has earned.
12 Let no one be kind to him; let no one pity his fatherless children.
13 May all his offspring die. May his family name be blotted out in the next generation.
14 May the Lord never forget the sins of his fathers; may his mother’s sins never be erased from the record.
15 May the Lord always remember these sins, and may his name disappear from human memory.
So clearly David must not be reading from the same Torah as the rest of the Jewish nation, right? These passages certainly seem to be in direct contrast to one another but context is key. First, while there are some Psalms which are prophetic in nature, the vast majority of the Psalms are poetic and the book itself is considered a book of poetry. It would be very dangerous for one to attempt to glean deep level theological truths from books of poetry or wisdom. Much of these books are general or guiding principles which are good ideas. Furthermore, books of poetry are meant to show human emotion. In fact the New Bible Dictionary puts it this way:
The psalms are clear examples of biblical lyric, as is the Song of Songs, as both are personal expressions of deeply-held emotions. Indeed, the psalms explore the whole emotional spectrum, from the brightest joy to the darkest anger and grief, just as the love poems in the Song of Songs portray the full range of romantic sentiments
In other words biblical lyric (a style of Old Testament poetry) is not meant necessarily to reflect the heart or nature of God but instead the “spectrum” of human emotions felt by God’s people. While David is indeed considered “a man after God’s own heart” that doesn’t necessarily indicate that all this thoughts and all his actions all the time were Godly and are to be copied or celebrated. Consider, for example, his actions with Bathsheba.
Secondly, during the time of David, God’s people were to leave vengeance to the Lord. (See Deut. 32:35). While this doesn’t necessarily avail David, it does explain a possible point of origin for his thoughts. David was forbidden from taking revenge on his enemies so it is natural for him to cry out to God to seek revenge on the enemies of His people, the chosen Jewish nation. Since God acted as king in the Old Testament this was a reasonable request albeit a harsh one. This, however, does not fully justify the use of the extremely harsh language in some of the imprecatory Psalms but merely acts as more of an explanation for their origin.
Third, it should be noted that these imprecations were part of a private dialogue between God and David. God, in both the Old and New Testaments, deals with his people in a relational, authentic way. He desires true and real emotions. There is no evidence that these curses were in any way verbalized to the people or to David’s men during the time they were written. Instead, taken at their most natural reading, they are a dialogue between God and man. This view is supported by Eric Zenger when he writes: “…the fact that these psalms are poetic prayers "distinguishes them from insistent complaint and propagandistic rhetoric” Even if not in keeping with His nature, God has always desired honesty and truth over false praise and religiosity. It is why, even when praying harsh curses upon his enemies, David can still be called a man after God’s own heart because he is being honest and open with God about his feelings during times of great trouble and distress. He is not turning to false idols or flesh pleasing alternatives but to God Himself.
The final note for this section involves the Jewish retribution principle. The Harper-Collins Bible Dictionary puts it thusly:
…the concept of repaying in kind. Retribution as a principle of human law was well established in antiquity, and biblical Israel was no exception. The most famous expression of this principle is the “law of retaliation” (Lat. lex talionis) stated in Deuteronomy: “Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (19:21).
This principle would have been deeply engrained in the minds and hearts of the Jewish people and therefore it would not have been outside the realm of normal for a Jewish man to pray that God would punish in kind those who did evil or wrong. Modern readers would do well to remember that although there are indeed examples of God calling on the Jews to be forgiving to their enemies (see aforementioned example in this very paper from Deut.) they did not have the same teachings that modern Christians have from Jesus Christ. All of the above, although not nearly a complete list, hopefully give the reader some idea of the context surrounding the Ancient Near Eastern mindset and circumstances surrounding David’s prayer of imprecations. Nothing stated thus far should be viewed as a theological justification for wishing evil upon another but instead an explanation as to why a Godly man might pray such things.
Problematic Solutions
This section will briefly examine some possible, yet in this author’s opinion problematic solutions to the concept of imprecations. The first is the idea that the imprecations themselves were not those of David but actually those of David’s enemies. Alex Luc does a fine and sucking job of explaining the weakness in this view:
…interpretation that considers the imprecations in Psalm 109 as the words of psalmist's enemies, so their harshness, and not as the words of the psalmist. The strongest evidence supporting this view is the shift of pronouns between v. 5 ("they") and w. 6-19 ("he"), a shift regarded as confirmed by v. 20, where the psalmist asks God to return on his "accusers" the evils spoken in w. 6-19 by them.4 Those who reject this interpretation argue that the text lacks any indicator (a word such as "saying") in v. 6 to support such a change of speaker, and that in view of the harshness of the imprecations, the psalmist would have clearly indicated the shift if those were not his words.5 Even if the imprecations in w. 6-19 are from the enemies, the problem of harshness is not lessened, because in v. 20 the psalmist turns around and wishes the same things on his enemies: "May this be the Lord's payment to my accusers." Moreover, the quotation approach explains only Psalm 109 and not the imprecation phenomenon of the Psalms as a whole. Commentators will still face the challenge of interpreting the harsh language of the other imprecatory psalms.
As Luc stated, this view only explains one Psalm, albeit one of the harsher ones, and does not explain the others. Moreover, this requires one to step outside the natural reading and commit a hermeneutical eisegesis and add to the text rather than extrapolate from it. This also, in this author’s mind, fails to take into positive consideration the contextual considerations listed in section one of this very paper.
Another interesting, albeit problematic conclusion comes from Luc himself. Luc concludes that the imprecatory Psalms are merely another version or flavor of prophetic psalms (similar in vein to the messianic psalm). From Luc himself:
An analysis of the imprecatory psalms suggests that in interpreting the curses we must take into account the prophetic nature of the Psalms, the language of the imprecations, and their Scriptural bases.
While Luc goes on to list evidence as to why these imprecations are in fact future judgments he fails in one key area; Luc fails to address why the most natural reading of these particular psalms is incorrect. Why should the reader not conclude that in a book of poetry designed to show the reader the wide spectrum of the human experience that the imprecations are merely an extension of that premise? With something like the messianic psalm the reader, when considering the entire framework of the Bible, has clear empirical evidence that the Psalmist was uttering prophetic words regarding Jesus Christ. No real such evidence exists when reading the imprecatory Psalms. Luc also writes the following “Any approach that compartmentalizes the prophetic speeches and the psalms into two very distinct genres imposes arbitrary patterns on these biblical texts.” This statement by Luc is problematic. While it is certainly true that genes can and do indeed overlap, categorized biblical literature is by no means arbitrary. Who is the decider then on what is poetic and what is prophecy? Is no categorization allowed? Who draws the line? It seems that Mr. Luc would have the reader decide at his or her own will what is meant to be taken as prophetic and what is to be taken as mere human expression. While an interesting thought this idea that the imprecations are not mere expressions of a scared, angry young king and instead prophetic utterances simply falls short of evidence and forces the reader out of the most natural reading of the text.
Finally, another interesting idea comes from Laney in his article entitled “A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms”. He appeals to the Abrahamic Covenant as follows:
The fundamental ground on which one may justify the imprecations in the Psalms is the covenantal basis for a curse on Israel's enemies. The Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12:1-3) promised blessing on those who blessed Abraham's posterity, and cursing (ΊΊΚ) on those who would curse (*?!??) Abraham's posterity.
Laney makes a good case for this idea but falls just short because of one main reason. In some of the imprecatory Psalms it is clear that David is wishing ill on his own enemies and not necessarily the enemies of the nation itself. Consider once again Psalm 109 where David laments over his enemies telling lies about him.
Author’s view of Imprecations
In light of the aforementioned evidence it is this author’s belief that the imprecatory Psalms are merely an expression of David’s heart during a time of great trial and tribulation both for him personally and the nation as a whole. David is shown again and again throughout 1 and 2 Samuel as a passionate man whose emotions run deep and sometimes astray. Consider David’s reaction to Nabal or Goliath or cutting off double the amount of foreskins (1 Sam 18:27) or Bathsheba. David was by all accounts someone who experienced very deeply the entire array of human emotion and the psalms are an inside look into the heart of this great warrior. He was human and did human things and felt real human emotions. It is because of the things like the imprecatory psalms that the modern day Christian can remove David from the stained glass window of hero and understand him as an everyday human whom God used to do mighty things. To attempt to justify or explain away the imprecations in any other way violates, in this author’s opinion, a basic hermeneutical principle: exegesis never eisegesis. It is the very humanizing of David that makes him a more compelling and well-rounded historical figure, unlike those of other heroic A.N.E. literature. While two sources for this very paper (Luc and Laney) firmly disagree with this finding, they fail to offer any compelling evidence to remove the reader from the most natural (historical-grammatical) rendering and reading of the text.
Should Modern Day Christians Pray Imprecatory Prayers?
The short answer is no, in general Christians should not pray the imprecatory prayers. Christians should strive, as their namesake implies, to be like Christ. Christ overwhelmingly taught that the Christian should be about the business of mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Over and over again the New Testament Christians are taught to be slow to become angry, judge not, love their enemies, turn the other cheek, and pray for those who persecute them. Christ came not to condemn the world but to save it. He even prayed a prayer for forgiveness while dying to those who were mocking and killing Him. While there are some exceptions to this and there were times in which Christ displayed a righteous indignation, it is far far more often that Christ displayed incredible amounts of kindness, mercy, and restraint. Instead of looking for times when it is okay to curse one’s enemies, Christians should be constantly seeking to love on those who hate them and win, via the power of the Holy Spirit, those who persecute them to Christ.
As aforementioned there are some exceptions to this rule, however, these should be viewed as rare and controlled exceptions. One such major exception is the Christian counseling setting. Hankle describes this exception as follows:
Imprecatory psalms provide a valuable mechanism for the cathartic release of negative emotion. The psalms in general work very well in providing voice to negative emotions in the Christian counseling setting. The difficulty with the imprecatory psalms is that if taken at face value, the client may find themselves trapped in justified anger. The vindictive language has value in Christian counseling but must be tempered with proper exegetical and theological understanding.
As aforementioned in this very article even if the Christian is having emotions that is not in keeping with the attributes of God, God still desires that beloved child be open and honest about his or her heart. This demonstrates an open, honest and authentic relationship with God and allows the believer to grow and understand more about not only God but his or her own heart. On a day-to-day horizontal-relational level (relationships between believers and other humans) this same principle applies. Negative emotions and feelings left unchecked can lead to a whole host of emotional, psychological and even spiritual issues. By giving, as Hankle says, a voice to these emotions, it allows the child of God to acknowledge these feeling exist, and that even someone as revered as David once experienced these same emotions at one point and yet he was credited as a “man after God’s own heart”. (This is yet another reason as to why attempting to explain away these imprecations as anything other than the emotional outpouring of a distraught man is both inaccurate and harmful).
Another instance where imprecations are satisfactory to use are when prayed for the purpose of justice and salvation, not just destruction for the fleshly satisfaction of the believer. God is a God of justice and believers, via the power of the Holy Spirit desire justice. As Dr. Thomas Metallo once said “Government is a gift from God for the orderly procedure of man”. Therefore a Christian may rightfully pray that a criminal be caught and brought to the full measure of justice for the explicit purposes of removing him both from the opportunity to harm but also from harm itself in order that he or she may reach a point where he or she cries out to God. In other words the ultimate goal should be to see a sinner saved and justice served. The goal should not be simply for the wrath of justice alone for that indicates a spirit of vengeance and is not necessarily in keeping with the teachings of Jesus Christ.
While there are other possible examples not listed, Christians again should be very cautious when looking for reasons to pray or wish curses on those around them. Instead Christians, when feeling these feelings of anger or even hatred should take time to reflect on their own heart and use such time as a period of growth.
“Wrong” is not the same as “Sinful”
While all things may be permissible, not all things are profitable. Such is true with prayers or thoughts of imprecation. There may be ways beyond this author’s understanding in which imprecations can be prayed or thought without reaching the point of sin. Nothing written above or below should be construed as equating a wish of harm on one’s enemies of even the enemies of God as sinful. The author does think it is not in keeping with the teachings of Christ but it should also be noted that God is not only mercy but wrath. There will be a time for swift judgment and it will involve bloodshed and torment. Lest it be forgotten also that Hell is a very real place where those who refuse to accept Christ will go. It is simply this author’s belief from historical-grammatical perspective Christians should leave the judgment up to God and allow him to deal with the imprecations and instead pray for the salvation of all so they will never have to face His wrath.
Concluding Thoughts
There are a variety of thoughts and opinions on the cursing psalms and of cursing prayers in general. David was indeed a righteous man and yet his thoughts and prayers of wishing deep levels of harm and evil on his foes and even his foes children is part of the canonical scripture Christians read today. These verses must be read with care and caution and cannot be ignored. While scholars have tried to explain these curses using various methods, none truly offer full and convincing evidence that they should be taken as anything other than poetry seeing as how they are written in a book of songs and poems. While the thought of them being prophetic utterances is interesting and the thought of these evil words being those of David’s enemies and not David is comforting both ideas simply do not stand the test of evidence. Laney himself writes the following when discussing one such solution (David’s foes as spiritual rather than human:
This solution introduces an unfortunate subjectivity and indefiniteness to the meaning of the biblical language. How is one to determine when to make the transition from a literal to a spiritual interpretation of a particular passage? Also if the psalmist's enemies are evil principles and forces of darkness, it is strange that their families should be mentioned in Psalm 109.
This author couldn’t agree more with Laney, not only on this solution but on just about every solution that defies a historical-grammatical principal. Such solutions are simply too subjective and outside of any compelling evidence should be viewed with caution. David was a man who felt deeply and at times wore his heart on his sleeve and at its most natural reading the imprecations reflect just that…a very scared, angry man crying out to God.
Hankle, Dominick. “THE THERAPEUTIC IMPLICATIONS OF THE IMPRECATORY PSALMS IN THE CHRISTIAN COUNSELING SETTING.” Journal of Psychology and Theology 38, no. 4 (2010): 275–80.
Laney, J. Carl. “A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms.” Bibliotheca Sacra 138, no. 549 (1981): 35.
Luc, Alex. “Interpreting the Curses in the Psalms.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42, no. 3 (September 1999): 395.
Metallo, Dr. Thomas. “Introduction to Government.” Oral presented at the Govt. 220, Liberty University, 2005.
Owen, John J. “THE IMPRECATORY PSALMS.” Bibliotheca Sacra; A Theological Quarterly 13, no. 49 (1856): 551.
PARK, EDWARDS A. “THE IMPRECATORY PSALMS, VIEWED IN THE LIGHT OF THE SOUTHERN REBELLION.” Bibliotheca Sacra; A Theological Quarterly 19, no. 73 (1862): 165.
Zenger, Erich. A God of Vengeance?: Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath. Lst ed. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.

[ 1 ]. Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1023.
[ 2 ]. Eugene H. Merrill, The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville, Tenn: B&H Academic, 2011).
[ 3 ]. Tyndale House Publishers, Holy Bible: New Living Translation. (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004).
[ 4 ]. Ibid.
[ 5 ]. T. Longman, “In the Old,” New Bible Dictionary (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 939.
[ 6 ]. Erich Zenger, A God of Vengeance?: Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath, lst ed (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).
[ 7 ]. W. Sibley Towner and Mark Allan Powell, “Retribution,” ed. Mark Allan Powell, The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 877.
[ 8 ]. Alex Luc, “Interpreting the Curses in the Psalms,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42, no. 3 (September 1999): 395.
[ 9 ]. Ibid.
[ 10 ]. Ibid.
[ 11 ]. J. Carl Laney, “A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms,” Bibliotheca Sacra 138, no. 549 (1981): 35.
[ 12 ]. Dominick Hankle, “THE THERAPEUTIC IMPLICATIONS OF THE IMPRECATORY PSALMS IN THE CHRISTIAN COUNSELING SETTING,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 38, no. 4 (2010): 275–80.
[ 13 ]. Dr. Thomas Metallo, “Introduction to Government” (Oral presented at the Govt. 220, Liberty University, 2005).
[ 14 ]. Laney, “A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms.”

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