BASH THEM, SMASH THEM!
– UNDERSTANDING THE PSALMS OF VENGEANCE
By R. Herbert
“Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy; let an accuser stand at his right hand. When he is tried, let him be found guilty, and may his prayers condemn him. May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes. May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor. May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children. May his descendants be cut off, their names blotted out from the next generation” (Psalm 109:6-13).
The so-called imprecatory psalms have a way of getting our attention. Their name comes from the verb “imprecate” which means “to invoke a curse upon,” as these compositions invoke judgement, punishment or curses on – and may even express hatred for – the individuals or groups they are directed against.
The psalms given this label include 5, 10, 17, 28, 31, 35, 40, 58, 59, 69, 70, 79, 83, 109, 129, 137, 139, and 140, though some of these compositions only contain a few verses of an imprecatory nature. But the extreme nature of the curses all these psalms call down seems to be at total odds with Christ’s command that we love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). How are we to understand them then, as inspired compositions within the Bible as a whole?
Apologists have tried to explain these psalms in various ways. The most common rationale for the assumed disparity between the curses of the imprecatory psalms and Christian attitudes is that psalms of this type belong to an “Old Covenant” dispensation and that they reflect a sub-Christian ethical standard that was replaced with the teachings of Christ. But this view fails to take into account the fact that Christ himself frequently quoted the imprecatory psalms (for example, Psalm 69 – quoted in Matthew 27:24, John 2:17, John 15:25, etc.), and the apostle Paul states that certain individuals should be “accursed” in a very similar manner (Galatians 1:8-9, etc.).
Another view is that the psalmist was simply stating what would happen to the wicked rather than wishing evil on them, and that these psalms were spoken in the “indicative mood,” explaining the punishment that would occur, and not in the “imperative mood,” commanding or requesting the punishment. But that theory does not fit the wording of a number of the psalms which make clear requests to God to destroy the offending individual or enemy.
Various other approaches suggest that the curses found in these psalms were “cathartic” for emotional or ritual cleansing or for release of frustration (we might say “blowing off steam”), or even just quoting other people’s words, but these and similar explanations are all unconvincing in trying to avoid the simple reality that the imprecatory psalms seem to be in direct contradiction to an attitude of forgiveness.
There are two much more likely possibilities for understanding the imprecatory psalms. The first centers on the fact that in a great many of these compositions, there seems to be a background of some kind of accusation. For example, in Psalm 109 the curses (quoted at the beginning of this article) are preceded by the statement: “… people who are wicked and deceitful have opened their mouths against me; they have spoken against me with lying tongues. With words of hatred they surround me; they attack me without cause. In return for my friendship they accuse me …” (Psalm 109:2-4 and see vs. 31). In the same way, after reciting the curses of this psalm, the psalmist exclaims: “May this be the Lord’s payment to my accusers, to those who speak evil of me” (Psalm 109:20).
It is known that in many cultures of the ancient Near East curses were invoked on those who acted as false witnesses. If the imprecatory psalms follow this pattern, we should see their curses as the “legal boilerplate” of the day rather than as personal expressions of hatred or vengeance. This view is an attractive one in that many of the Psalms are known to utilize the specific religious and social vocabulary of their time.
Two Sides of the Same Truth
But although this understanding of the nature of the imprecatory psalms makes very good sense, there is also another and perhaps even better explanation for them – that their curses are exactly what they seem to be and that this need not, in fact, contradict the Christian ethic of forgiveness.
Viewed this way, the curses of the Old Testament reflect the psalmist's firm belief in both God’s justice and his intolerance for sin. Taking this view, the biblical scholar Walter Kaiser wrote:
“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” (Hard Sayings of the Old Testament, Downers Grove, IL, 1988, p. 172).
This approach certainly fits a great many of the facts we have. In Psalm 109 – the example we have used throughout this article – the psalmist stresses that the attacks on him were not from enemies, but from friends who had falsely turned on him (Psalm 109:3-5). This is a common theme that the attackers who had turned on the anointed king equally displayed wickedness in their rebellion against God: “Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies” (Psalm 139:21-22).
When we attempt, as Christians, to forgivingly love the sinner while hating the sin, this is very different from the situation in which David is, under inspiration, looking at the sin from the perspective of God’s judgment. That there is nothing “unchristian ” about this is seen in the fact that Christ himself essentially did the same thing in declaring “woe” on the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:1–39) or on the inhabitants of the towns around Capernaum (Matthew 11:20-24), and that Paul quoted the imprecatory Psalm 69:22-23 in Romans 11:9-10 and he himself also leveled imprecation against certain individuals.
In his book Reflections on the Psalms (London and New York, 1958, p. 33), C. S. Lewis wrote: “The ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that . . . is hateful to God.” This is perhaps the most realistic way to look at the imprecatory psalms – that they describe hatred for extreme sin and its practitioners at a level in which the two are not separated, which is completely different from the Christian approach of looking at individuals from the perspective of God’s love and willingness to forgive and thus separating the sinner from the sin.
Both approaches look at sin from God’s perspective, but one view – seen in the words of Christ and Paul as well as those of David – is based on God’s judgment, and the other (also seen in the words of Christ and Paul as well as those of David) is based on God’s mercy. As has often been said, we must not ever presume that one aspect of God’s character obliterates any other. The imprecatory psalms represent God's justice, just as the scriptural call to forgiveness represents his mercy.
* You can download a free copy of our e-book Spotlight on the Psalms – available on our sister site in three versions for reading on computers or e-book readers – here.