How Should We Understand the Imprecatory Psalms in which Enemies Are Cursed?

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (11:46)

The psalmists write of terrible injustices done to the righteous at the hands of enemies -- slandering them, hunting them down, and slaying them. Many of the laments are evidence of the pain of injustice, the fruit of unrighteousness. Indeed, the whole creation groans in eager expectation for God to usher in the age of the Messiah when all wrongs are righted, all injustices judged, where righteousness reigns.

Imprecations and Curses

But along side that longing for justice to finally come, we occasionally hear the psalmists utter terrible curses against their enemies. These words are called imprecations, from "imprecate," "to invoke evil on, curse." Psalms that contain such passages are called imprecatory psalms. Let me give you a sampling of these curses:

Psalms Passage Example
7:6-16 "O righteous God, who searches minds and hearts, bring to an end the violence of the wicked and make the righteous secure." (7:9) Pretty mild so far.
35:4-10 "May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame; may those who plot my ruin be turned back in dismay. May they be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the LORD driving them away." (35:4-5)
59:10-13 "But do not kill them, O Lord our shield, or my people will forget. In your might make them wander about, and bring them down. For the sins of their mouths, for the words of their lips, let them be caught in their pride. For the curses and lies they utter, consume them in wrath, consume them till they are no more." (59:11-13a)
69:22-28 "May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever. Pour out your wrath on them; let your fierce anger overtake them..... Charge them with crime upon crime; do not let them share in your salvation. May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous." (69:23-24, 27-28)
83:9-18 "Make them like tumbleweed, O my God, like chaff before the wind. As fire consumes the forest or a flame sets the mountains ablaze, so pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your storm." (83:13-15)
109:6-20 "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." (109:9-13)
137:7-9 "O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us -- he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks" (137:8-9)
139:19-22 "Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD, and abhor those who rise up against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies. (139:21-22)

Some of these are pretty terrible indeed! How do we understand them?

A Story of Persecution and Hatred

When I was a young pastor I had an elderly couple in my congregation from Czechoslovakia. The husband had been a Baptist pastor, first in Czechoslovakia and later in Chicago. But now they were retired. I would visit them and bring them the Lord's Supper as their health failed.

And I would ask them about their life and ministry. When they spoke of their time as leaders of a Protestant congregation in Eastern Europe you could almost sense them begin to tighten up in anger. They and their flock had suffered terrible persecution from Roman Catholics in their district. And though their tormenters had probably died by this time, the hate that evil had engendered lived on in this couple -- especially the wife.

If she were a psalmist, I could almost imagine the kinds of poetic curses she would hurl at her enemies. What a tragedy! What a tragedy that this hatred was between people who both name the name of Christ. What a tragedy that this otherwise sweet couple was so very bitter! Christ came to end the hatred.

A Longing for Justice and Judgment

When it comes to the Psalms, first we need to see what is "right" and "righteous" about these psalm invectives against one's enemies. Three attitudes are quite appropriate:

  1. Hating evil and injustice. We need to be very clear about our position against evil. The world waffles and excuses. We must be sure that our desire to be tolerant doesn't water down our own value system.
  2. Desiring that justice be executed to end the tyranny of sin. Our justice system has terrible consequences for criminals, but it is very important for our society that justice is actually done and, where appropriate, criminal behavior is punished.
  3. A zeal that God's good name not be discredited by evil continuing to be allowed. This zeal goes hand in hand with the shame that God's people feel when sin is exalted and righteousness is condemned.

So far, so good. But the psalmists sometimes cross the line.

The Fine Line between Justice and Revenge

There is a very fine line between (1) a desire for justice to prevail over unrighteousness and (2) a personalization of that unrighteousness. It's easy to say, "Hate the sin, love the sinner," but this is easier said than done. If we are not careful -- and empowered by God's Spirit -- we very easily begin to hate both the sin and the sinner, especially if the sinner is intent on destroying us.

That's what happened to my retired pastor couple. Their bitterness set in and they justified it. They became blind to their own passionate hatred for their persecutors because they despised oppression and injustice so keenly.

This is tricky stuff. Before we condemn David and the other psalmists to harshly, let's examine our own hearts, too. We may be a bit more sophisticated about our unforgiveness, but so long as we hold unforgiveness towards our persecutors, we too stand under the same judgment that we would render towards the psalmists.

Christ Our Exemplar and Judge

Of course, the one who will judge us is Christ himself. Oppression had borne fruit in hatred for millennia before the Messiah came. David and his descendents were but types and shadows of the true King, who would usher in the Kingdom of God. When Messiah Jesus came, he instituted in himself a new era of love. He taught us what it is like to truly love our neighbor.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5:10-12)
"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:43-48)

That is what Messiah taught us in his words. Then he completed his teaching by demonstrating what this meant. They slandered him at his trial. They brutally scourged him. They mocked him. And finally they crucified him, inflicting on the Son of the Living God, their Savior, the most cruel and prolonged of punishments. And he said:

"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34)

He, the Righteous One, died for the unrighteous who were killing him, in order to bear their sins and iniquities away. Forgiveness did not come cheap to Jesus. Nor is forgiving our enemies easy for us.

Progressive Revelation

So while recognizing that hating our enemies and wishing horrible things to happen to them isn't Christian, let's give them a break. The psalmists were pre-Christian. They hadn't heard Christ's teaching. They hadn't witnessed Christ's forgiveness at his death.

We believe in "progressive revelation" -- that all the truth is not understood or unwrapped in the Old Testament. Some revelation awaited the coming of the Messiah to bring it. The Old Testament saints understood faith pretty well. But they sometimes came up short when it came to love. They lived according to the light they had. But "the true Light that gives light to every man was coming into the world" (John 1:9).

How to Respond to the Psalmists' Terrible Curses

Experiencing the Psalms, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, a Bible study on Psalms in 12 lessons
Now all the lessons are available together in e-book and paperback formats.

When you come to an imprecatory psalm where the writer curses his enemies, here's how I recommend you handle it:

  1. Recognize the rightness of hating sin and unrighteousness.
  2. Acknowledge that the psalmist's curses are an example of pre-Christian attitudes. They are understandable. They are human. But they are not to be examples for our lives as Christians.
  3. Examine your own heart to see if that same kind of bitterness and hatred is lurking deep within. And if the Lord allows you to see it there, repent and forgive. Let it go, and claim the higher road of Christ and his cross.

To study this matter further I recommend that you read:

  • Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72 (InterVarsity Press, 1973, pp. 25-32. Kidner offers a carefully nuanced examination of curses in the Psalms and in the New Testament. Well worth reading!
  • C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958), chapter 3, pp. 20-33. Lewis offers an essay, a thoughtful reflection on the sin of cursing one's enemies. While not excusing the curses, he concludes that the moral indignation behind such curses is better than the amorality that isn't upset about injustice.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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