BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 159 (April-June 2002): 166—86

         Copyright © 2002 by Dallas Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.    

 

 

            THE IMPRECATORY PSALMS

                AND CHRISTIAN ETHICS

 

                                 John N. Day

 

ONE EMINENTLY TROUBLESOME PORTION of the Scriptures is

the so-called "imprecatory psalms." These psalms express

the desire for God's vengeance to fall on His (and His peo-

ple’s) enemies and include the use of actual curses, or impreca-

tions. Such psalms naturally evoke a reaction of revulsion in many

Christians. For are not Christians to love their enemies (Matt.

5:44), to "bless and not curse" (Rom. 12:14)? How then does one jus-

tify calls for the barbaric dashing of infants against a rock (Ps.

137:9) or the washing of one's "feet in the blood of the wicked"

(58:10)? Are the imprecatory psalms merely a way of venting rage

without really meaning it? Or is cursing enemies the Old Testa-

ment way and loving enemies the New Testament way? Has the

morality of Scripture evolved? And is it in any way legitimate to

use these psalms in Christian life and worship?

            The imprecatory psalms have been explained as expressing (a)

evil emotions, either to be avoided altogether or to be expressed

and relinquished,1 (b) a morality consonant with the Old Covenant

 

John N. Day is Senior Pastor, Bellewood Presbyterian Church, Bellevue, Washing-

ton.

1           For the former position see C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York:

Harcourt, Brace, 1958); and idem, Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand

Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967). For the latter see Walter Brueggemann, The Message of

the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984); and idem, Praying the Psalms (Winona,

MN: Saint Mary's, 1986).

            This position is questionable on five counts. First, it runs counter to 'the prevail-

ing piety of the psalmists-notably David, the principal author of these psalms. Far

from being a man given to rage and revenge, he was quick to exhibit a Christlike

spirit toward his enemies-in particular King Saul (e.g., 1 Sam. 24). Although

David, "a man after [God's' own heart" (13:14; cf. Acts 13:22), was guilty of sin

(adultery, deception, and murder; 2 Sam 11), these acts did not express his pervad-

ing character, which was revealed in his repentance (Ps. 51). Therefore, if the im-

precatory psalms are considered sinful, their presence in the Davidic psalms con-

tradicts what is known of him elsewhere in Scripture. In fact even in the psalms the

utterance of any imprecation comes only after the enemy's repeated return of "evil

for good" (35:12-14; 109:5), or after gross (and frequently sustained) injustice (Pss.

58, 79, 137).


                                              The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics 167

 

but inconsistent with the New,2 or (c) words appropriately uttered

solely from the lips of Christ, and consequently only by His follow-

ers through Him.3

 

Second, the purposes that govern the expression of imprecations in the psalms

and the principal themes that run repeatedly through them are on the highest ethi-

cal plane. These include concern for the honor of God and for the public recognition

of` His sovereignty (e.g., 59:13; 74:22), concern for the realization of justice in the

face of rampant injustice, along with the hope that divine retribution will cause

people to seek the Lord (e.g., 58:11; 83:16), an abhorrence of sin (139:21), and a con-

cern for the preservation of the righteous (35:1, 4).

Third, this view is contrary to the inspiration of the psalms. By the testimony of

both David and David's greater Son, the psalms were written under divine inspira-

tion (2 Sam. 23:2; Mark 12:36). And Peter's quotation from both Psalms 69 and

109-two of the most notorious of the imprecatory psalms-is introduced by the

statement that these Scriptures "had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold

by the mouth of David concerning Judas" (Acts 1:16, italics added).

Fourth, to explain the imprecatory psalms as outbursts of evil emotion may

account for the initial writing of the psalms, but it does not adequately explain why

these psalms were included in the Psalter, the book of worship for God's people.

Though this does not of itself demand that the things expressed therein are fault-

less, the sheer quantity of cries for divine vengeance in the Book of Psalms calls into

question the view that they are expressing evil emotions. Nor did later copyists and

compilers feel any need to expunge such material as unfitting for the Scriptures.

Fifth, this view does not adequately account for imprecations in the New Testa-

ment, notably from the lips of the Lord Himself (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21).

2           For example J. Carl Laney, "A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms," Biblio-

theca Sacra 138 (January-March 1981): 35-45; and Chalmers Martin, "The Impre-

cations in the Psalms," Princeton Theological Review 1 (1903): 537-53. Though both

are admirable treatments of this topic, their proposal inadequately accounts for the

presence of imprecations in the New Testament and the enduring validity of the

Abrahamic promise for church-age believers (Gal. 3:6-29). Also this view runs

counter to the internal witness of Scripture and of the Lord Jesus Christ, who as-

serted that the two "great commandments" given in the Old Covenant are the same

two "great commandments" reinforced in the New (Matt. 22:36-40). Thus from Je-

sus' own testimony the morality of the New Covenant in its highest expression is

consistent with that of the Old (cf. Gal. 5:13-14; 6:2; Rom. 13:8-10; 1 John 4:20-21).

Moreover, Martin's assertion that the progress of revelation fundamentally alters

the Christian's stance toward the enemies of God, since the "distinction between the

sin and the sinner was impossible to David as an Old Testament saint" (ibid., 548)

insufficiently characterizes the broader theology of Scripture. There it is not only

"love the sinner but hate the sin," but also paradoxically "love the sinner but hate

the sinner" (cf. Ps. 5:4-6 and 139:19, 21-22 with Matt. 5:44-45). For even according

to the New Testament, sinners-not just sin-will be destroyed, suffering the eter-

nal torment of hell (e.g., Mark 9:47-48). See the observations of John L. McKenzie,

"The Imprecations of the Psalter," American Ecclesiastical Review 111 (1944): 91-93.

3           For example James E. Adams, War Psalms of the Prince of Peace: Lessons from

the Imprecatory Psalms (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1991);

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "A Bonhoeffer Sermon," trans. Daniel Bloesch, ed. F. Burton

Nelson, Theology Today 38 (1982): 465-71; and idem, Psalms: The Prayer Book of

the Bible, trans. James H. Burtness (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1970). This view is

based on the function of David in Scripture as both the genetic and typological fore-

runner of Christ. In response, however, this scriptural portrayal of David is not

meant to disassociate David's words and actions from his person in history. In fact



168 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 2002

 

This article proposes that the imprecatory psalms have a place  

in the New Testament church by establishing (a) that they root

their theology of cursing, of crying out for God's vengeance, in the

Torah--principally in the promise of divine vengeance expressed in

the Song of Moses (Deut. 32:1-43), the principle of divine justice

outlined in the lex talionis (e.g., 19:16-21), and the assurance of

divine cursing as well as blessing in the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen.

12:2-3); and (b) that this theology is carried largely unchanged

through the Scriptures to the end of the New Testament (Rev.

15:2-4; 18:20), thus buttressing its applicability to believers today.

Though some New Testament passages seem to contradict the

cry of the imprecatory psalms, other verses confirm it. The tension

between "loving" and "cursing" can be harmonized, and must be

properly dealt with by God's people in whatever dispensation they

are found. As the character of God does not change, so the essence

of God's ethical requirements does not change. Therefore, as the

imprecatory psalms were at times appropriate on the lips of Old

Testament believers, so they are at times appropriate on the lips of

New Testament believers as well. Moreover, whereas love and

blessing are the characteristic ethic of believers of both testaments,

cursing and calling for divine vengeance are their extreme ethic

and may be voiced in extreme circumstances, against hardened,

deceitful, violent, immoral, unjust sinners. Although Christians

must continually seek reconciliation and practice longsuffering,

forgiveness, and kindness, times come when justice must be en-

acted--whether from God directly or through His representatives

(in particular, the state and judicial system; Rom. 13:1-4).

But how can it be right for Christians to cry out for divine

vengeance and violence,4 as in the imprecatory psalms? Several

 

delaying these Davidic psalms of imprecation until the cross of Christ and distanc-

ing them from their historical setting and speaker robs them of both their immedi-

ate and archetypal significance and power. Neither does it answer the imprecations

or cries for divine vengeance in the non-Davidic psalms or in other parts of Scrip-

ture--including both testaments. If such are deemed morally legitimate elsewhere,

then this proposal offers no genuine solution to the issue of imprecation in the

Psalms or in general.

4           The central issue of divine vengeance presents a problem partly because the

promise of such vengeance forms much of the basis on which the psalmists voiced

their cries of cursing and partly because of the concept of vengeance itself. To people

today the word "vengeance" bears sinful and negative connotations. But to the an-

cient Israelites the concept of vengeance was tied to the requirements of justice:

Where justice was trampled, vengeance was required. Furthermore God's vengeance

is inseparably linked to His lovingkindness; it is the other side of His compassion,

the (perhaps inevitably) "dark side" of His mercy (Brueggemann, Praying the

Psalms, 62). The Scriptures unequivocally attest that Yahweh has passionately and

decisively taken sides for His people in history. He delivers His people; but without



The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics 169

 

observations from Scripture address this question. First, the

vengeance appealed for is not personally enacted; rather God is

called on to execute vengeance. Second, these appeals are based on

God's covenant promises, most notable of which are these: "The one

who curses you, I will curse" (Gen. 12:3), and "I will render venge-

ance on My adversaries, and I will repay those who hate Me"

(Deut. 32:41). And since God has given these promises, His people

are not wrong in petitioning Him to fulfill those promises. Third,

both testaments record examples of God's people justly calling

down curses or crying for vengeance, without any intimation that

God disapproved of such sentiments. Fourth, Scripture further re-

cords an instance in which God's people in heaven, where there is

no sin, cry out for divine vengeance and are comforted by the as-

surance of its near enactment (Rev. 6:9-11). Since these martyred

saints are presumably perfected, their entreaty should not be con-

sidered wrong.

Though the Book of Psalms includes almost one hundred

verses with imprecations,5 this article discusses three representa-

tive psalms: Psalm 58, an imprecation against a societal enemy;

Psalm 137, an imprecation against a national or community en-

emy; and Psalm 109, an imprecation against a personal enemy.

Notably these three psalms contain the harshest language or most

severe imprecations against the enemies.

 

                                            PSALM 58

 

CURSE AGAINST A SOCIETAL ENEMY

 

In Psalm 58 who is being cursed and what kind of people are they?

First, the objects of David's imprecations were the rulers or

"judges" within the community--those who were responsible for

seeing that justice is properly meted out. This psalm is framed by

an ironic inclusion of judicial terms and ideas. The human "you

judge" (v. 1) contrasts with the divine "who judges" (v. 11); the hu-

 

God's vengeance against His enemies, there can be no deliverance for His people

(Isa. 35:4; 63:3-4).

5 The passages in the Psalms that contain imprecations include at least these:

5:10; 6:10; 7:6, 9, 15-16; 9:19-20; 10:15; 17:13; 28:4; 31:17-18; 35:1, 4-6, 8, 19,

24-26; 40:14-15; 52:5; 54:5; 55:9, 15; 56:7; 58:6-10; 59:5, 11-13; 68:1-2, 30;

( 69:22-25, 27-28; 70:2-3; 71:13; 74:11, 22-23; 79:6, 10, 12; 83:9, 11, 13-18; 94:1-2;

104:35; 109:6-15, 17-20, 29; 129:5-8; 137:7-9; 139:19, 21-22; 140:8-11; 141:10;

and 143:1.2-a total of ninety-eight verses in thirty-two psalms. However, fourteen

psalms may be rightly deemed "imprecatory" (i.e., their characterizing element is

imprecations or cries for divine vengeance): Psalms 7, 35, 52, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 83,

94, 109, 129, 137, and 140.        



170 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA I April-June 2002

 

man "gods" (v. 1)6 with the true "God" (v. 11); the lack of human

justice "on earth" (v. 2) with the hope of divine justice "on earth" (v.

11); and the human perversion of "righteousness" (v. 1) with the

divine vindication of the "righteous" (v. 11).

Second, these individuals are described as unjust, whereas jus-

tice should pervade (vv. 1-2), and they are chronically dishonest (v.

3), ferociously violent (vv. 2, 6), and stubbornly wicked and deadly

(vv. 3-5). Thus this psalm calls down God's vengeance not on occa-

sional transgressors of God's laws, who harmed out of ignorance or

whose abuses were casual rather than premeditated and repetitive,

but on those who chronically and violently flaunted their position

contrary to God's righteousness.7 They held positions of governing,

legislative, or judicial authority, and they exploited their power for

evil and their own ends.8

 

6           The identity of these "gods" as leaders in the land is supported by a number of

textual factors. First, the inclusio of verses 1 and 11 unifies the psalm. Second, in

verse 1 the vocative "0 sons of men" parallels "0 gods." Third, mention of the

"wicked" follows in verse 3 and in the same vein. as verse 1, suggesting that the two

groups are to be equated. Fourth, the "wicked" are manifestly human--they are

born (v. 3) and they bleed (v. 10). Fifth, in verse 1 the "gods" are confronted with a

crime of speaking, as are the "wicked" in verse 3. Sixth, the "gods," if distinct from

the "wicked," mysteriously disappear from the text and escape unscathed; however,

if the "gods" are equated with the "wicked," then they do receive their due punish-

ment. See David P. Wright, "Blown Away Like a Bramble: The Dynamics of Analogy

in Psalm 58," Revue biblique 103 (1996): 219. Cf. Psalm 82 and John 10:34-35.

7           F. G. Hibbard notes an enlightening illustration in this regard, which occurred

in his family: "I happened to be reading one of the imprecatory psalms, and as I

paused to remark, my little boy, a lad of ten years, asked with some earnestness:

‘Father, do you think it right for a good man to pray for the destruction of his ene-

mies like that?’ and at the same time referred me to Christ as praying for his ene-

mies. I paused a moment to know how to shape the reply so as to fully meet and

satisfy his enquiry, and then said, ‘My son, if an assassin should enter the house by

night, and murder your mother, and then escape, and the sheriff and citizens were

all out in pursuit, trying to catch him, would you not pray to God that they might

succeed and arrest him, and that he might be brought to justice? 'Oh, yes!' said he,

but I never saw it so before. I did not know that that was the meaning of these

Psalms.' ‘Yes,’ said I, ‘my son, the men against whom David prays were bloody men,

men of falsehood and crime, enemies to the peace of society, seeking his own life,

and unless they were arrested and their wicked devices defeated, many innocent

persons must suffer.’ The explanation perfectly satisfied his mind" (The Psalms

Chronologically Arranged, with Historical Introductions; and a General Introduc-

tion to the Whole Book, 5th ed. [New York: Carlton & Porter, 1856], 120).

8           The venom of this psalm is reserved for those who, when they should be pro-

tecting the helpless under their care, instead prey on them. Jesus also used harsh

language against people such as this. Speaking against the religious leaders of His

day, He warned, "Watch out for the teachers of the law.... They devour widows'

houses.... Such men will be punished most severely" (Mark 12:38, 40, NIV). It is

important to emphasize here that David himself did not seek to exact revenge; he

appealed to the God of vengeance. See Roy B. Zuck, "The Problem of the Impreca-

tory Psalms" (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1957), 67-70, 74-75.



The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics 171

 

Thus by vivid imagery and simile David appealed to Yahweh

to render these injurious "gods" powerless and even to destroy

them if need be (vv. 6-8). The realization of this longed--for venge-

ance would vindicate and comfort the righteous who had suffered

so grievously and would establish Yahweh as the manifest and su-

preme Judge of the earth (vv. 10-11). For with the prevalence of

such societal evil, the honor of God and the survival of His faithful

were at stake. The joy of the righteous at the bloody vengeance of

God (v. 10) is to be understood against this background.9 Moreover,

this expression of exultation over the destruction of the enemies of

God and His people is seen. throughout Scripture. It begins in the

Song of Moses (Deut. 32:43), finds utterance in the Psalms (Ps.

58:10), is proclaimed in the prophets (Jer. 51:48), and climaxes in

the Book of Revelation (18:20).

 

THEOLOGICAL FOUNDATION

 

The Pentateuch is the foundational revelation of God not only be-

cause it was given first but; also because much of biblical theology

is present there in germinal form and then is developed more fully

in succeeding portions of Scripture. Not surprisingly, then, the im-

precatory psalms base their theology of imprecation in the Torah.

And here the principal basis on which David uttered his heated

cries for divine vengeance is the covenantal promise of divine

vengeance--a promise given its initial and classic articulation in

Deuteronomy 32, the "Song of Moses."

In two major elements it is likely that Psalm 58 alludes to the

 

9 But how could David--or now, a Christian--pray in such hideous terms? Two

points may be noted in response to this question. First, what is voiced here is po-

etry, and biblical poetry often uses vivid imagery. Where a concept in narrative form

may be described dispassionately, in poetry it may well be expressed emotively. H.

G. L. Peels perceives that the phraseology of Psalm 58:10b, which seems "so offen-

sive to modern ears, simply intends to employ a powerful image, borrowed from the

all too realistic situation of the battlefield following the fight (wading through the

blood), to highlight the total destruction of the godless" (The Vengeance of God: The

Meaning of the Root NQM and the Function of the NQM-Texts in the Context of Di-

vine Revelation in the Old Testament [Leiden: Brill, 19951, 218; cf. Ps. 68:21-23).

Moreover, much of Scripture's "immoderate" language is heard from the lips of Je-

sus Christ Himself. Second, passionate rhetoric naturally and rightly arises out of

extreme circumstances. Here in Psalm 58 the invectives hurled one after the other

serve to express both the psalmist's sincere desire and, his sense of outrage at the

flagrant; violations of justice. John Calvin commented that, patterned after the ex-

ample of God, the righteous should "anxiously desire the conversion of their ene-

mies, and evince much patience under injury, with a view to reclaim them to the

way of salvation: but when wilful obstinacy has at last brought round the hour of

retribution, it is only natural that they should rejoice to see it inflicted, as proving

the interest which God feels in their personal safety" (Commentary on the Book of

Psalms, trans. James Anderson [reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979], 2:378).



172 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 2002

 

latter half of the Song of Moses.'° First, the context out; of which

David spoke is that of powerlessness in the face of oppression, and

he cried out in confidence to God, who could act decisively on behalf

of His defeated people. This element runs strongly through the fi-

nal verses of Deuteronomy 32. When all the power (literally,

"hand") of His rebellious people is gone because of their heathen

oppressors (v. 36), God demonstrates the power of His hand, from

which none can deliver (v. 39). He lifts it to heaven with a self-

imposed oath (v. 40), and draws His sword with His hand to bring

vengeance on His enemies (v. 41). 

Second, similar words and concepts exist between the two pas-

sages. In Psalm 58 David taunted the unjust "gods" (v. 1), asserting

that indeed "there is a God who judges on earth" (v. 11); and in

Deuteronomy 32 Yahweh taunted the pagan gods (v. 37), asserting

that "He alone is God" (v. 39) and that He is the God of justice (v.

4). David likened the wicked oppressors to the venom (non) of a

snake and a deaf cobra (Nt,P,, Ps. 58:4); and in Deuteronomy 32

Yahweh promised that one of the evils He would heap on His re-

bellious people would be such venom (tmaHE, v. 24)." Then later

Moses associated the persecutors of God's people with the imagery

of venomous (tmaHE) serpents and deadly (MynitAP;, cobras v. 33). In

Psalm 58:10 bloody vengeance is longed for, while in Deuteronomy

32:41-43 graphically bloody vengeance is promised. And in the

hope of its realization the righteous are said to "rejoice" (v. 43; Ps.

58:10).12

            Moreover, this promise of divine vengeance found in Deuteron-

omy 32 is central to the theology and hope of both testaments of

Scripture. It is carried from the Law through the Prophets and the

Psalms into the New Testament. Indeed Deuteronomy 32:35 is

quoted by the apostle Paul in his discussion of New Testament

ethics (Rom. 12:19).13 And in Revelation 6:9-11 both the cry of the

saints in heaven for this vengeance, and the context out of which

they cry--their martyrdom--bluntly hark back to the promise of

God in the Song of Moses to "avenge the blood of His servants"

 

10          Compare also Psalm 79:5-10 with Deuteronomy 32:21-43.

11          Although this refers ostensibly to a curse of literal snakes, the psalmist bor-

rowed the imagery and used it metaphorically, as even the Song of Moses did in

verse 33.

12          Although the verb p7 in Deuteronomy 32:43 differs from the verb not? in Psalm

58:10, the two are related and are poetically synonymous (cf. Ps. 32:11).

13          Christians are called to seek the benefit of those who hate them (Rom. 12:14),     

but when grace is repeatedly spurned, divine vengeance is assured (v. 19; cf. the use

of such imagery in Ps.. 140:9-10).



The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics 173

 

(Deut. 32:43). This eschatological tie is made explicit in Revelation

15:2-4, in which, at the close of the ages and following the bloody

vengeance described in 14:19-20, the saints in glory are said to

sing "the Song of Moses" and "the Song of the Lamb" (15:3)--a song

that proclaims the greatness of God's justice and the consequent

worship to arise from the nations (cf. Deut. 32:43). And in the

judgments that will occur against eschatological Babylon (reminis-

cent of Jer. 51:48) comes the call to "rejoice" at this execution of

divine retribution (Rev. 18:20).

 

                                       PSALM 137

 

CURSE AGAINST A NATIONAL OR COMMUNITY ENEMY

 

Psalm 137 has been understandably styled “the ‘psalm of violence’

par excellence.”14 Verses 8-9 in particular have been called “the

ironical ‘bitter beatitudes,’” whose sentiment is "the very reverse of

true religion," and "among the most repellant words in scripture."15

Disturbed by such wishes in the psalm, many Christians have re-

jected its last three verses altogether as being inappropriate for

New Testament believers. Others, in an attempt to maintain the

psalmist's piety and that of others who would haltingly echo these

words and to avoid the violence inherent in the text have sug-

gested that these words be interpreted allegorically.16

However, the psalm's historical context argues against these

interpretations. This communal lament is sung from the context of

the Babylonian exile-an exile preceded by the horrors of ancient

siege warfare. Jerusalem's demise at the hands of the pitiless

Babylonians, goaded on by the treacherous Edomites (Obad.

10-16), was a national atrocity that both virtually wiped out and

deported the community of faith. Moreover, in her demise were de-

stroyed the bastions of that faith: the Davidic monarch, the chosen

city, and the temple of Yahweh. All those things that had rooted

Israel's identity as a nation and as the people of God had been ei-

ther demolished or uprooted.

Siege warfare in the ancient Near East; was frighteningly

cruel; and the most brutal and all-too-common practice of conquer-

ors was the dashing of infants against rocks in the fury and totality

 

14          Erich Zenger, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath,

trans. Linda M. Maloney (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 46.

15          R E. 0, White, A Christian Handbook to the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1984), 200.

16             For example, Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 136.



174 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 2002

 

of war's carnage (2 Kings 8:12; 1,15:16). This barbarous slaughter of

the most helpless of noncombatants "effected total destruction by

making war upon the next generation."17 The Scriptures make fur-

ther use of this gruesome picture in judgment oracles against Is-

rael (Hos. 13:15), Jerusalem (Luke 19:44), and Assyria (Nah. 3:10).

And most notably this fate is also promised to Babylon (Isa. 13:16).

The abrupt and appalling shriek in Psalm 137:7-9, then, is

essentially the "passionate outcry of the powerless demanding jus-

tice!"18 In the face of humanly unpunishable injustice God's chas-

tised people had no other recourse but to turn to Him. And it is to

Him that their appeal for strict retaliation in both kind and degree

is made and surrendered. But does even this historical back-

ground prepare the reader for or justify the sentiment expressed in

the emotional climax of the psalm? Indeed these verses raise the

question with which the faithful, of both testaments must surely

grapple: How could a pious psalmist cry for such violence and re-

venge that he would call "blessed" those who take up enemy infants

and dash them mercilessly against the rocks?

 

THEOLOGICAL FOUNDATION

 

The basis on which the psalmist pleaded for such horrid retribu-

tion, though interlaced with extreme emotion, is not the vicious

fury of bloodthirsty revenge but the principle of divine justice itself,

particularly as it is expressed in the so-called lex talionis, stated

three times in the Pentateuch (Exod. 21:22-25; Lev. 24:17-22;

Deut. 19:16-21). Rather than serving as a sanction for personal

vengeance, this Old Testament command actually protected

against the excesses of revenge. Essentially it was designed to en-

sure justice--that the punishment would fit the crime. Thus rather

than being a primitive and barbaric code, this Old Testament stat-

ute forms the basis for all civilized justice. It was a law of just rec-

ompense, 19 not of private retaliation.20 Indeed the implementation

 

17          Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word,

1983), 237. This action serves as a macabre illustration of the depth of human de-

pravity. Sin always destroys, and destroys mercilessly.

18          Zenger, A God of Vengeance? 47.

19          Gordon J. Wenham observes that the phrase's "eye for an eye" and "tooth for a

tooth" were likely "just a formula. In most cases in Israel it was not applied literally.

It meant that compensation appropriate to the loss incurred must be paid out. Thus

if a slave lost an eye, he was given his freedom (Exod. 21:26). The man who killed an

ox had to pay its owner enough for him to buy another (Lev. 24:18). Only in the case

of premeditated murder was such compensation forbidden (Num. 35:16ff.). Then the

principle of life for life must be literally enforced, because man is made in the image

of God (Gen. 9:5-6)" (The Book of Leviticus, New International Commentary on the



The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics 175

 

of this law was in a judicial rather than a personal context.21

In addition the psalmist; was probably familiar with the recent   

prophecy of Jeremiah 50-51 for in both Psalm 137:8 and Jeremiah

51:56 the words "destroy," "recompense," and "repay" occur in rela-

tion to the expected judgment against brutal Babylon. Moreover,

riot only was the lex talionis instituted by God Himself in Israel's

law code, but also it was a law "based upon the very nature of God.

Yahweh, although a God of love, is also a God of retribution who

deals with His creature's trespasses against His holiness on the

basis of His retributive justice."22 This is seen most clearly and

poignantly in the necessity of the Cross. Since the nature of God

does not change, the principle of divine justice based on that na-

ture, as encased in the lex talionis, must also remain constant.23

Therefore in Psalm 137:7-9 the psalmist asked Yahweh for

exact recompense against the treacherous Edomites and the mer-

ciless Babylonians--utter destruction by means of the violent

slaughter of the enemy's infants.24 The cry was for a punishment

commensurate with the crime committed. The one who would carry

out such justice was called "blessed" (vv. 8-9), for through him Jus-

tice would be realized, the honor of God would be upheld, and a

certain measure of the world gone wrong would be righted. Such

matters are to be received with a measure of sober rejoicing. In-

deed, this rejoicing is commanded at the future devastation of

 

Old Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 19791, 312 [italics his]).

20          By Jesus' day the lex talionis, contrary to its intent, had indeed become a "law of

retaliation," sanctioning that mindset of revenge rendered by the phrase, "Do unto

others as they have done unto you." Jesus' words in Matthew 5:38-42, however,

were given to "shock" His followers back to the original intent of the law, not by

explaining its proper use as such, but by prohibiting its perversion--any "rights" of

private retaliation--and by inculcating an attitude of longsuffering (see Prov. 20:22; 24:29; Matt. 7:12).

21          Of the three instances Deuteronomy 19:16-21 makes this most explicit.

22             Bobby J. Gilbert, "An Exegetical and Theological Study of Psalm 137" (Th.M.

thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1981), 69 (italics his).

23             The similar "law of sowing and reaping" is evident in several passages (Prov. 26:27;

Hos. 8:7; 10:12-13; Gal. 6:7--8), and in Jesus' words, "By your standard of measure it will

be measured to you" (Matt. 7:2).

24          But was this appeal legitimate in light of God's command that children not be put to

death for the sins of their fathers (Deut. 24:16)? In answer Deuteronomy

24:16 refers to judicial sentence to be carried out by men; God, on the other hand,

retains the prerogative to visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children (Exod.

34:7; cf. God's command for the annihilation of the entire populace of Canaan at the

entry of is people there). God has rights that people do not have, for only He is

God. Harsh though His justice may appear, believers are called to trust His good-

ness in the midst of His justice and to accept any concomitant tensions.



176 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 2002

 

Babylon according to the lex talionis (Rev. 18:6, 20; cf. Jer. 51:48).

Thus the psalmist appealed Yahweh as the Judge to mete out

justice according to His own edict. Though Christians in particular

are shocked by the request, it falls within the bounds of divine ju-

risprudence and is divinely promised and divinely enacted. So the

principle of judicial retaliation cannot be maligned without at the

same time maligning the character of God.

But can Christians legitimately and in good conscience echo

this cry? Although Allen insists that the "Christian faith teaches a

new way, the pursuit of forgiveness and a call to love," he percep-

tively asks, "Yet is there forgiveness for a Judas (cf. John 17:12) or

for the Antichrist?25 As Edom and Babylon were ancient examples

of the Antichrist, as were Judas and false teachers in the first cen-

tury of this era, times may come in which believers may join with

their brothers and sisters of past ages and appeal for the devasta-

tion of a current manifestation of "Antichrist"--and in language

appropriate to the offense. These words may certainly be offered for

brothers and sisters in, for example, the Sudan who have experi-

enced widespread rape, murder, mutilation, and enslavement at

the hands of a wicked regime. In such circumstances of horrible

brutality, where there is the very real temptation to "forget" (Ps.

137:5) or abandon the faith for the sake of one's life and comfort,

Psalm 137 appeals to God, the sole source of power in the midst of

powerlessness and of hope in the midst of hopelessness.

 

PSALM 109

 

CURSE AGAINST A PERSONAL ENEMY

 

This psalm, above all others, has been severely criticized. For ex-

ample it has been styled "as unabashed a hymn of hate as was ever

written."26 Unquestionably "this is one of the hard places of Scrip-

ture, a passage which the soul trembles to read."27 The yearning for

such detailed and appalling retaliation as is found in this psalm is

vividly confrontational--particularly in light of the commands to

"love your enemies" (Matt. 5:44) and to "bless and curse not" (Rom.

12:14). Indeed David28 imprecated his enemy in a manner starkly

 

25          Allen, Psalms 101-150, 242.

26          Lewis, Christian Reflections, 118.

27          C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David (reprint [7 vols. in 31, Peabody,

MA: Hendrickson, 1990), 2:436.

28          By whom were the vehement curses of verses 6-19 voiced-David or his enemy?

In modern treatments of the psalm verses 6-19 are often put in quotation marks, as



The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics 177

 

reminiscent of certain ancient Near Eastern curse formulas.29 Fur-

thermore this psalm has been sorely misused in the life of the

broader Christian community. Calvin records the reprehensible

abuse of this psalm in his day in which some people prayed for the

death of others in return for a price.30

The issue that spawned the denunciations of David was no

petty or transient matter. His enemies had returned hatred for his

sustained love, and evil for his sustained good (Ps. 109:4-5; cf. 135:11-15,

19; 38:19-20). David was in desperate need (109:16, 22,

31) and had already shown concern for his enemy. However, this

concern had been spurned and returned with repeated enmity.

Moreover, even in the midst of the enemy's litigations and David's

counter imprecations he expressed a measure of concern for the en-

emy in his prayers (109:4). In light of his enemy's appalling lack of

lovingkindness, climaxing in his abuse of the legal system (vv. 2-7,

31), David resorted to his only remaining recourse for rectifica-

tion.31

 

the words of David's enemy uttered against him. If this is correct, then the offense

of the psalm is largely alleviated and a moral dilemma avoided (but this does noth-

ing to alleviate the offense of other imprecatory psalms; cf. also the striking parallel

to 109:6-19 in Jer. 18:19-23). This view is not without support. Principally first,

whereas 109:6-19 castigates the enemy in the singular, the. verses that both precede

and follow present the enemy in the plural. And second, the psalms are known to make

frequent use of unintroduced quotations, whether brief (e.g., 22:8; 137:3) or lengthy

(e.g., 50:7-15).

However, the difficulties with this view outweigh the apparent support. First,
whereas the use of nonexplicitly introduced quotations is common in the psalms, they
are in general contextually quite clear and readily recognized as such. This is not the
case in Psalm 109. Second, the change from the plural to the singular, and

back again., is not unknown in the psalms, notably Psalm 55. There this literary

phenomenon is utilized by David to single out the crucial element of enmity against

him-a friend turned traitor. And this same convention may be at work in Psalm

109 as well. Third, the designation "afflicted and needy," a key phrase synonymous

with the pious in the Psalms, is used in both verses 16 and 22, in what appears to be

an intentional verbal and emotional tie betwen the two. Fourth, the exclamations in

verses 16-18 (e.g., he "loved cursing," v. 17) are certainly not true of David; even his

enemies would find it difficult to label this man in such language. And fifth, this

view runs counter to Peter's application of the imprecation in 109:8 as the words of

David regarding Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:16, 20). See also Zuck, "The Problem of the

Imprecatory Psalms," 42-44.

29          Psalm 109:18, "So may it enter into his body like water, and into his bones like

oil" (author's translation), is redolent of this imprecation embedded in the vassal

treaties of Esarhaddon: "[As oil en]ters your flesh, (just so may] they cause this   
curse to enter into your flesh" (D. J. Wiseman, The Vassal-Treaties of Esarhaddon

[London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq, 1958], 78).

30          John Calvin, "Commentary on the Book of Psalms," trans. James Anderson, in

Calvin's Commentaries (reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 4:276

31          James 5:1-6 speaks in a similar caustic manner against the rich who had ex-

ploited their workers and manipulated the court system to condemn the innocent for



178 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 2002

 

David asked the divine Judge to extend to his enemy the de-

mands of the lex talionis.32 And again, although a known personal

enemy33 was imprecated, David did not react in private revenge, as

might be expected in such a circumstance. Instead, he released the

retaliatory demands of justice to the One in whose jurisdiction it

rightfully lies. He voiced his cry for vengeance to God (vv. 21,

26-29)--a cry that would transform to public praise when divine

deliverance was realized (vv. 30-31). Such is the nature of God's

acts; vengeance on His enemies means salvation for His people.

 

THEOLOGICAL FOUNDATION

 

But if Psalm 109 includes the curses of David against a personal

enemy, how can these words be justified, particularly the curse

passed down to the enemy's children (vv. 10-15)? In addition to the

principle expressed in the lex talionis, the basis on which David

could justifiably call down such terrible curses was the promise of

God to curse those who cursed His people: "I will bless those who

bless you, and the one who curses [from llaqA] you I will curse [from

rraxA]" (Gen. 12:3). The Abrahamic Covenant, of which this promise

is a part, assured God's blessing on those who would bless Abra-

ham's faith-descendants and cursing on those who would treat   

them with contempt.34 David, then, appealed to God to do as He

had promised, to curse those who had so mistreated him.35

 

their own gain. Although not identical to the character of the imprecatory psalms,

verses 1-11 do reveal a similar ethic, namely, that it is appropriate at times for the

righteous to proclaim, cry out for, or even call down the judgment of God on severe

or violent oppressors, while at the same time remaining steadfast in suffering, re-

linquishing the enactment of that judgment to the divine Judge.

32          Psalm 109:2a is answered by verses 6a and 7a; verse 4a is answered by verses

6b and 20a; verse 16a mirrors verse 12a; verse 16b corresponds to the curses in

verses 8-12; verses 17-18 exhibit point and counterpoint; and verse 18a is paral-

leled by the plea in verse 29a. The imprecations wished on the enemy in verses 8-15

characterize the crimes the enemy himself had committed (vv. 16-20).

33          Other psalms that were voiced against known--and even named--personal

enemies are 7, 52, 54, 56, and 59.

34          Laney argues that the cries for judgment in the imprecatory psalms uttered in

accord with the provisions of the Abrahamic Covenant, "are appeals for Yahweh to

carry out His judgment against those who would curse the nation" ("A Fresh Look

at the Imprecatory Psalms," 42 [italics added]). As such, they are "inappropriate for

a church-age believer" to express (ibid.). However, the emphasis in the Abrahamic

Covenant of Genesis 12:2-3 is not so much on the nation Israel as it is on all the

people of God. This is made clear not only in Galatians 3, but also in the curses of

the Sinaitic Covenant promised against rebellious Israel. The faith of Abraham, not

the nation Israel, is the cardinal mark of identity (Rom. 2:28-29; Gen. 12--22).

35          Cf. Exodus 23:22. The Hittite treaty between Mursilis and Duppi-Tessub in-

cludes a similar prescription: "With my friend you shall be friend, and with my en-



The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics 179

 

Literary echoes of Genesis 12:3 occur in Psalm 109. Most di-

rectly, in verse 28 the enemy's cursing (from llaqA) is contrasted with 

Yahweh's blessing (cf. vv. 1.7-18). In addition David's imprecations

allude to earlier cursing formulas in the Mosaic Covenant (which

builds on the Abrahamic Covenant). For instance verse 9, "Let his

children be fatherless and his wife a widow,"makes explicit appeal

to talionic justice in harking back to the words of Yahweh to the

Israelites in Exodus 22:22-23, "You shall not afflict any widow or

orphan. If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will

surely hear his cry; and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill

you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your

children fatherless" (cf. Deut. 27:19). In essence David was re-

minding God to be true to His promise.

But is this covenant promise of divine cursing relevant to

Christians? The New Testament affirms the enduring validity of

the Abrahamic promise for those who embrace Christ through faith

(cf. Gal. 3:6-29). "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's

descendants-heirs according to promise" (v. 29). And if one is an

heir of the Abrahamic Covenant, one inherits both its promise of

blessing as well as its promise of cursing.36 This dual-edged prom-

ise, moreover, was not merely a spiritual abstraction; it applied as

well to the physical life of God's people in their times of extremity.

For example, when Jesus first sent out the Twelve, He instructed

them that if they were welcomed into a home, they were to let their

peace remain on it; but if they were refused, they were to shake the

dust off their feet as a sign of peace's antithesis-the curse of

coming judgment.37 This action, though voiceless, was an implicit

imprecation (Matt. 10:11-15; cf. 2 Tim. 4:14).

Psalm 109 is a harsh and explicit appeal to the Lord of the

covenant to remain true to His promise to curse those who curse

His people (cf. Luke 18:1-8). In its function in the community of

faith, then, this psalm is the cry of the child of God who has no

other recourse for justice-when no other aid is available for the

 

emy you shall be enemy" (James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Re-

lating to the Old Testament, 3d ed. [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,

19691, 204).

36          Although Paul articulated the blessing of the covenant, which the Gentiles in-

herit through faith in Christ, as that of life, of sonship, of the Spirit (Gal. 3:14, 26;

4:4-7), this was not meant to exclude the more "physical" elements of the Abra-

hamic Covenant. Rather, it was for the sake of emphasizing the fundamental issues

of the promise in the progress of revelation--which issues are most germane to his

argument here.

37          That is, God (through His disciples) would bless those who blessed them, and

would curse those who cursed them (cf. Gen. 12:3).



180 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 2002

 

redress of grievous personal wrongs, when the abuses of one's ene-

mies have reached the extent that the question of theodicy is

evoked, when the name of God and the enduring faith of His people

are at stake. From such a context this prayer was first offered, and

in such a context it may be voiced again.38

 

IMPRECATIONS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

 

After such a barrage of imprecations and pleas for divine venge-

ance against one's enemies (who are also God's enemies), the de-

mands of Jesus and His apostles are at first startling. These in-

junctions initially seem to counter and even overthrow the ethics of

that "harsher age" as expressed in the imprecatory psalms. How-

ever, the New Testament too is interspersed with imprecations.

 

APPARENT CONTRADICTIONS

 

In Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), that grounding expres-

sion of Christian ethics, He commanded His followers, "Love your

enemies" (5:44). Matthew 5:17-48 is replete with radical state-

ments that seem to contradict the Old Testament; yet these con-

tradictions are more apparent than real. Jesus introduced His sev-

eral internalized and intensified "restatements" with the words,

"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did

not come to abolish but to fulfill" (v. 17). He did not set Himself up

as a rival to the Old Testament; He did not disparage or discredit

what had come before. Rather, the Old Testament propelled people

toward Christ, is summed up in Christ, and must be interpreted

through Christ (cf. Luke 24:27, 44-45; John 5:39-40, 46).

In Matthew 5:21-4739 Jesus affirmed the Old Testament by

reiterating by means of hyperbole the original intent of several

commands, contrary to the prevailing pharisaical and scribal un-

derstanding of them. This He did by plunging to the heart of the

matter--the intent and implications of the commands, climaxed by

His words in verses 43-45, 48. "You have heard that it was said,

‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to

you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so

 

38          Walter Brueggemann suggests that the cry of this psalm could be, for example,

"the voice of a woman who is victimized by rape, who surely knows the kind of rage

and indignation and does not need ‘due process’ to know the proper outcome.... For

such as these, the rage must be carried to heaven, because there is no other court of

appeal. ‘Love of neighbor’ surely means to go to court with the neighbor who is

grieved" (The Message of the Psalms, 87).

39          These restatements of Christ are framed by an inclusio of "impossible right-

eousness" (5:20, 48)-a reminder that the demands of God are impossible apart from

divine enabling and may be truly obeyed only by relying on God and His grace.



The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics 181

 

that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He

causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on

the righteous and the unrighteous.... Therefore you are to be per-

fect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Jesus' words "You shall love your neighbor" are a quotation

from Leviticus 19:18-words that come directly after a prohibition

against revenge or a personal grudge, and that are considered the

second greatest commandment by Jesus' own testimony (Matt.

22:39; Mark 12:31). The words "hate your enemy," however, are not    

found in the Old Testament. Yet there is a likely representation of

the mindset behind this quotation in the Rule of the Qumran

Community (1QS).40 Apparently many people in Jesus' day had

come to believe that when the Old Testament commanded the love

of one's neighbor, that command implied the hatred of one's enemy.

This understanding is given expression in the apocryphal book of

Sirach 12:7, "Give to the good man, but do not help the sinner."41

When Jesus said, "Love your enemies," He shockingly asserted

the unthinkable: that believers are to "love" those they "hate" (or

who hate them). This does not discount that they are yet one's en-

emy; but in a sense one's enemy becomes his neighbor.42 Even in

Leviticus 19 "neighbor" is broader than its immediate parallel,

"brother," and it includes everyone within one's bounds (even resi-

dent aliens, who were in some sense "the enemy"). In Leviticus 19

both fellow Israelites and resident foreigners were to be loved in

like manner--"as yourself' (vv. 19:18, 34).43 Jesus, then, rather

 

40         This document begins with the resolve of the members "to love all the Sons of

Light-each according to his lot in the counsel of God, and to hate all the Sons of

Darkness--each according to his guilt at the vengeance of God" (1QS 1:9-11). This

hatred was such that it involved even the withholding of compassion from the

(1QS 10:20-21) (James H. Charlesworth, ed., Rule of the Community and Related

Documents, vol. 1 of The Dead Sea Scrolls: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek Texts with

English Translations [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994], 6-7, 46-47).

41          Bruce M. Metzger, ed., The Oxford Annotated Apocrypha, Revised Standard

Version, expanded ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 143.

42          In Matthew 5:43-48 Jesus defined "enemy" in such a way as to include both

those who are foes in the customary politico-national sense, but also those against

whom enmity may exist among one's own people (who in Lev. 19:18 are considered

one's "neighbor"). Indeed this latter element is His point of emphasis. Also in the

introduction to and parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, Jesus ex-

panded the concept of "neighbor." In this parable Jesus emphasized that the heart of

the command "Love your neighbor" implies, at least to a certain extent, "love your

enemy." One's "neighbor" may be his "enemy"; for the one who is in need, and whose

need may be met, is one's neighbor-whoever he may be. And this expression of

indiscriminate kindness is essentially "love" in action.

43          Cf. Leviticus 19:18, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," with verse 34



182 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 2002

 

than presenting a novel (or imposing even a foreign) interpretation

on the passage, was both distilling and radicalizing the essence of

the Old Testament teaching in this regard.

In addition, in certain instances the Old Testament unques-

tionably commands kindness toward enemies. For example Prov-

erbs 25:21-22 states, "If your enemy is hungry, give him food to

eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap

burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you."44 And

this command was carried out by Elisha, who counseled the Israel-

ite king to feed rather than kill the enemy Arameans (2 Kings

6:18-23), and by Naaman's Israelite slave girl, who sought the wel-

fare of her enemy master, the Aramean army commander (5:1-3).

While it must be granted that the specific command "love your

enemies" is not in the Old Testament,45 the concept "cannot be con-

fined to the words themselves. When enemies are fed and cared for,

rather than killed or mistreated, then in effect love for the enemy

is being practiced."46

However, how can a Christian love his enemies while he voices

such barbaric pleas as expressed in the imprecatory psalms? In

extreme circumstances even Jesus did not shirk from uttering ex-

coriating woes (e.g., Matt. 11:20-24; 23:13-39)47 and pronouncing

imprecations (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21)--all against hardened unbe-

lief. Yet one cannot accuse Him of acting out of accord with His

own radical dictum. 48 By Jesus' own example love for one's enemy

 

and you shall love him [the foreigner in your midst] as yourself." Verse 34 includes

the foreigner who may also be an enemy (cf. Lev. 19:33 and Exod. 23:9, in which the

natural reaction to such a foreigner would be "mistreatment" and "oppression," and

Exod. 23:22-23, in which God specified which enemy nations were to be destroyed

when the Israelites entered Canaan).

44          Paul quoted Proverbs 25:22 in Romans 12:20 (cf. also Exod. 23:4-5).

45          Zuck, "The Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms," 76.

46          William Klassen, Love of Enemies (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 28. As is re-

peatedly illustrated in Scripture, loving one's enemies is shown primarily by deeds

of kindness to them.

47          Though not identical to imprecation, the cry of "woe" in the ancient Near East

bore a measure of semantic overlap-and in certain contexts it took on "all the

characteristics of a curse" (Waldemar Janzen, Mourning Cry and Woe Oracle, Bei-

heft zur Zeitschrift fiir die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft [Berlin: de Gruyter,

1972], 3). See also Zechariah 11:17 and Luke 6:20-26.

48          The ultimate expression of enemy love, and of blessing those who persecute and

curse, are the words Jesus Himself voiced from the cross--the height of human cru-

elty-regarding the ones who had nailed him there: "Father, forgive them; for they

do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). This may be compared to the crea-

tive tension in the differing responses to degrees of enmity Paul wrote about. Of

Alexander, a hardened enemy of Paul and the gospel, the apostle solemnly affirmed,



The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics 183

 

means showing him or her sustained and indiscriminate kindness.

However, if the enemy's cup of iniquity has become full, this love is

overtaken by the demands of justice and divine vengeance. Jesus'

approach in this regard was strikingly similar to the approach of

the psalmists who penned such harsh words. Notable among them

is David, who showed kindness toward those who were his ene-

mies, and for his repeated kindness received abuse (Pss. 35:12-17;

109:4-5). In the broader view, then, rather than being completely

incompatible, enemy love and enemy imprecation strangely com-

plement each other.49 And the imprecatory psalms illustrate the

appropriate time for the cry of vengeance.

 

INSTANCES OF IMPRECATION

 

An instance of imprecation from Jesus' lips is recorded in Mark

11:14. On the way to the temple courts He cursed a fig tree that

had all the appearance of vitality but no fruit. As both the near    r

context and the larger development of the Gospel make clear (Mark

11-13), this cursing of the fig tree was an imprecation against

faithless and fruitless Israel, who had so stubbornly rejected

Him.50 This rejection culminated in the Crucifixion, and Christ's

imprecation climaxed in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

The curse of Christ marks the distinct end of one era and the

beginning of another: "May no one ever eat fruit from you again!"

(11:14; cf. Matt. 21:19). Immediately following His curse Christ

moved into the temple precincts where, in lieu of the expected pu-

 

"The Lord will repay him according to his deeds" (2 Tim. 4:14), whereas concerning

those who had abandoned Paul in his time of trial and need he pleaded, "May it not

be counted against them" (v. 16)--reminiscent of the dying words of the Lord Jesus.

49          The resolution is found in the phrase: "Be quick to bless and slow to curse." Just

as God is slow to anger (Exod. 34:6; Nah. 1:3), so too believers should be slow to

anger (James 1:19). Yet in extreme circumstances God expressed anger (Nah. 1:2;

Mark 3:5), and so in extreme circumstances believers may express anger without

sinning (Eph. 4:26).

50          In the Old Testament the fig tree was frequently associated with the nation

Israel. When fruitful, it betokened divine blessing on Israel; yet when withered, it

served as "a vivid emblem of God's active punishment of his people" (William R.

Telford., The Barren Temple and the Withered Tree: A Redaction-critical Analysis of

the Cursing of the Fig-tree Pericope in Mark's Gospel and Its Relation to the Cleans-

ing of the Temple Tradition [Sheffield: JSOT, 19801, 135 [italics his]). In certain

passages, moreover, God's judgment against Israel's fig trees is associated with her

rabid idolatry and perversion of worship. Of particular note is Hosea 9:10-17, in

which Yahweh spoke of Israel's beginnings as "the earliest fruit on the fig tree" (v.

10), but because of their gross iniquity God said He would "drive them out of My

house" (the temple, v. 15). And they who were named "Ephraim" (i.e., "fruitfulness")

were instead "withered" and bore no fruit (v. 16). Mark's readers would have readily

understood Christ's cursing of the barren fig tree as a judgment against Israel, and

especially against her religious center, the temple (cf. also Mal. 3:1-5; 4:6).



184 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 2002

 

rity of worship, He found the basest form of corruption: greed. Af-

ter Jesus purged the temple, Peter took notice of this same tree

and marveled at the effect of Christ's curse: "Rabbi, look, the fig

tree which You cursed has withered!" (Mark 11:21). As the context

strongly intimates, this curse of Christ was not directed against

the fig tree as such, as much as it was directed (for His disciples'

benefit) against His unrepentant people as a sign of their divine

visitation in judgment. This is marked by the intentional crafting

of this pericope as an inclusio to the temple cleansing (vv.

12-21)--the dramatic locus of the rejection of Christ by His people

and of His people by Christ (cf. vv. 14, 18). At His approach to the

temple, then, in its state of acute corruption, and in view of the

patent and repeated rejection of Him by the leaders of His people,

this curse was called down by Christ.

            In addition, in Galatians 1:8-9 (cf. 1 Cor. 16:22) Paul uttered

what is unquestionably a curse of the severest magnitude: that of

eternal damnation. "But even if we, or an angel from heaven,

should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to

you, he is to be accursed [a]na<qema e@stw]. As we have said before, so

I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to

what you received, he is to be accursed!"'

            In the Septuagint the term a]na<qema was used to translate the

Hebrew Mr,He--a term associated with the Israelite "holy wars"

whatever was so designated was dedicated to Yahweh for total de-

struction. Paul's use of the term likewise refers to being brought

under the divine curse-here the curse of eternal condemnation.51

The intended recipients of Paul's imprecation were perverting the

gospel of grace by enslaving it to the rigors of legalism. Those who

seek to undermine the ground and sustenance of the Christian's

salvation truly merit the harshest of denunciations, for the name of

Christ is at stake (cf. Gal. 5:12; 2 Pet. 2:14; Jude 11-13).

            Furthermore when Simon the Sorcerer52 sought to purchase

from Peter the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter uttered the caustic

curse, "May your silver perish with you" (Acts 8:20). Yet, however

severe, this apostolic curse was to be carried out only if there was

 

51          This connotation is confirmed by Romans 9:3, where Paul startlingly expressed

the desire to become "accursed ... from Christ [a]na<qema ... a]po> tou? Xristou?]" if

that would result in the salvation of his people.

52          In Acts 13:9-11 Paul, "filled with the Holy Spirit," evidently uttered an impreca-

tion of blindness against another sorcerer, Elyrnas (reminiscent of Deut. 28:28-29),

in accord with the principle embodied in the lei: talionis. Since Elymas had sought

to keep the proconsul in spiritual blindness, Elymas was cursed with physical

blindness.



The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics 185

 

continued sin and impenitence. This is evidenced by the exchange

that followed, in which Peter voiced a plea for repentance along

with the offer of release: "Repent of this wickedness of yours, and

pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be

forgiven you" (v. 22). Even in the midst of such impreca-

tion-whether by a psalmist or an apostle--there is implicit or ex-

plicit the hope of repentance and restoration.53

Additionally Revelation 6:10 records the cry of martyred

saints. "How long, 0 Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from

judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?"

This harks back to the divine promise in the Song of Moses to

"avenge the blood of His servants" (Deut. 32:43), and is a plea

characteristic of the imprecatory psalms (cf. Pss. 58:10-11; 79:5,

10; 94::1, 3). Moreover much that follows in the Book of Revelation

is God's response to the martyrs' cry (e.g., Rev. 15:3, "the Song of

Moses"; 16:6; 18:20, 24; and 19:1-2, "Hallelujah! . . . He has

avenged the blood of His bondservants"). Significantly the condi-

tion of these martyred saints, having moved on to their heavenly

abode, "guarantees the absence of any selfish motives in their

prayer life."54 What is striking about their petition, however, is the

consequent justification of similar prayers uttered by the saints on

earth. If it is praiseworthy for perfected saints to pray in this way,

then it is appropriate for believers now.

 

                                          CONCLUSION

 

This article has sought to demonstrate that at times it is legitimate

for God's people to utter prayers of imprecation or pleas for divine

vengeance--like those in the Psalms-against the recalcitrant

enemies of God and of His people. This is based on the psalms' the-

ology of imprecation in the Torah, and on the presence of this the-

ology carried essentially unchanged to the end of the canon.

 

53          As Derek Kidner observes, "For all their appearance of implacability they are to

be taken as conditional. . . . Their full force was for the obdurate; upon repentance

they would become `a curse that is causeless', which, as Proverbs 26:2 assures us,

does not alight"' (Psalms 1-72, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries [Downers

Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973], 30).

54          Robert L. Thomas, "The Imprecatory Prayers of the Apocalypse," Bibliotheca

Sacra 126 (1969): 130. Thomas is not justified, however, in further asserting that

the martyred saints are able to pray this way (as are the psalmists) because they

had been given some special revelation as to "which persons are reprobate, a knowl-

edge possessed only in divine perspective" (ibid., 129-30). This merely evades the

issue. Jesus Himself encouraged His followers, practically speaking, to identify the

“reprobate" when He said, "You will know them by their fruits" (Matt. 7:16).

 


This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204

            www.dts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu

            Thanks to Brendan McGee for help with proofing.