Imprecatory psalms are those psalms that contain curses or prayers for the punishment of the psalmist's enemies. To imprecate means to invoke evil upon, or curse. Psalms 7, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 109, 137 and 139 all contain prayers for God's judgment on the psalmist's enemies. Example imprecatory statements from the Psalms follow:

"Let death take my enemies by surprise; let them go down alive to the grave."Psalm 55:15

"O God, break the teeth in their mouths." Psalm 58:6

"May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous." Psalm 69:28

"May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow."Psalm 109:9

"How blessed will be the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks." Psalm 137:9

Paul's quotation of Psalm 69

  • Psalm 69:22-23 in Romans 11:9-10
  • Psalm 69:9 in Romans 15:3

Multimedia

Imprecatory Psalms and Christian ethics

Various difficulties arise as attempts are made to harmonize the imprecatory attitude of the psalms with Jesus’ teaching that one should love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). Several explanations have been proposed:

A reflection of godly thinking

"There is a kind of hate for the sinner (viewed as morally corrupt and hostile to God) that may coexist with pity and even a desire for their salvation... [T]hat there comes a point of such extended, hardened, high-handed lovelessness toward God that it may be appropriate to call down anathema on it." John Piper [1]

"...it is appropriate that we pray that Christ would vindicate his holy name and program by destroying the enemies of righteousness, just as he preserves those who love his name." ^[2]^

Not a matter of personal revenge

The imprecatory Psalms are not a matter of personal revenge; rather, these “harsh” statements reflect the Psalmist's (David’s) awareness of God’s justice and his intolerance for sin. Walter Kaiser has observed:

“They [these hard sayings] are not statements of personal vendetta, but they are utterances of zeal for the kingdom of God and his glory. To be sure, the attacks which provoked these prayers were not from personal enemies; rather, they were rightfully seen as attacks against God and especially his representatives in the promised line of the Messiah.” [3]

Explanations of what would happen

"...they merely were stating what would happen to the wicked; they were not actually asking God to destroy the wicked." [4]

Application

Some hold that Jesus introduced a "new" law appropriate for this dispensation. This view sees the NT admonition to love our enemies and pray for the welfare of our persecutors (Matthew 5:44) as incompatible with imprecatory Psalms of the Old Testament. This perspective is typified in the following quote:

"... whilst we need not suppose that the indignation which burns so hotly is other than a righteous indignation, yet that we are to regard it as permitted under the Old Testament rather than justifiable under the New. Surely there is nothing in such an explanation which in the smallest degree impugns the Divine authority of the earlier Scriptures. In how many respects have the harsher outlines of the legal economy been softened down by 'the mind that was in Christ Jesus.' ... As in the Sermon on the Mount He substitutes the moral principle for the legal enactment, so here He substitutes the spirit of gentleness, meekness, endurance of wrongs, for the spirit of fiery though righteous indignation. The Old Testament is not contrary to the New, but it is inferior to it.” [5]

However this view ignores the many imprecations in the New Testament:

  • Matthew 23:13 But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.
  • Matthew 26:23-24 And he answered and said, He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me. 24 The Son of man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born.
  • 1 Corinthians 16:22 If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha.
  • Galatians 1:8-9 But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. 9 As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.
  • Galatians 5:12 I would they were even cut off which trouble you.
  • 2 Timothy 4:14 Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works:
  • Revelation 6:10 And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?

Notes

  1. Do I Not Hate Those Who Hate You, O Lord?, by John Piper
  2. The Living Word (Lesson 12)
  3. Walter Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Old Testament, Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 1988, p. 172.
  4. Do the Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics Clash?, by Jason Jackson
  5. Perowne, I, p. 64, quoted in Psalm 109: A Prayer for the Punishment of the Wicked, by Bob Deffinbaugh

See also

External Links