Bibliotheca Sacra 138 (1981) 35-45
Copyright © 1981 by
A Fresh Look at the
J. Carl Laney
Included in the Psalter are various psalms containing
appeals for God to pour out His wrath on the psalmist's enemies.
These psalms are commonly classified "imprecatory psalms" for
the imprecation forms a chief element in the psalm. These psalms
have been problematic for Bible teachers and preachers because
of the difficulty in reconciling them with Christian thought.
Barnes comments on this problem.
. . . perhaps there is no part of the Bible that gives more perplexity
and pain to its readers than this; perhaps nothing that constitutes a
more plausible objection to the belief that the psalms are the
productions of inspired men than the spirit of revenge which they
sometimes seem to breathe and the spirit of cherished malice and
implacableness which the writers seem to manifest.1
The purposes of this article are to define an "imprecation," iden-
tify the imprecatory psalms, pinpoint the problem that interpre-
ters have with such psalms, recount proposed solutions to the
difficulty, and present a suggested solution to this problem.
The Definition of Imprecation
An "imprecation" is an invocation of judgment, calamity, or
curse uttered against one's enemies, or the enemies of God. The
morning prayer of Moses was an imprecation that the enemies of
Yahweh, who were Moses' enemies as well, would be scattered and
flee from His presence (Num. 10:35). The Song of Deborah
36 Bibliotheca Sacra -- January-March 1981
and Barak concludes with an imprecation that Yahweh's ene-
mies might perish (Judg. 5:31). Jeremiah the prophet used
repeated imprecations against his enemies (Jer. 11:20; 15:15;
17:18; 18:21-23; 20:12). Such imprecations are not limited to
the Old Testament, but are found in the New Testament as well
(Rev. 6:9-10). Other portions of the New Testament are consid-
ered by some to contain imprecations (Acts 13:10-11; 23:3; 1
Cor. 16:22; Gal. 1:8-9; 5:12; 2 Tim. 4:14), but while these verses
contain a curse element, they do not have a specific prayer to the
Lord that the judgment would be carried out.2 Imprecations from
the Psalms, however, are quoted in the New Testament (Acts
1:20; Pss. 69:25; 109:8). Crucial to the definition of an impreca-
tion is that it (a) must be an invocation--a prayer or address to
God, and (b) must contain a request that one's enemies or the
enemies of Yahweh be judged and justly punished.
The Identification of the Imprecatory Psalms
While many imprecations are in the Book of Psalms,3 it is
evident that in some psalms the imprecations form the chief
element. These "imprecatory psalms" have been said to contain
"expressions calling for divine judgment to fall upon the
Psalmist's enemy,"4 which would involve not only the enemy's
personal destruction but also the overthrow of his family and the
crushing of all hope for his future. Leupold states that the term
"imprecatory psalms" is used to designate "those psalms in
which the writer prays that God may afflict the evildoer and
punish him according to his just deserts."5
that these psalms constitute "a reply to the national enemies"
and a call to God "to exercise retribution.”6 In the imprecatory
psalms the imprecation, instead of being a minor element, is
greatly multiplied until it becomes a major element or leading
feature. An imprecatory psalm, then, is one in which the impre-
cation is a major element or leading feature of the psalm.
Although opinion varies as to the number and identity of the
imprecatory psalms, at least these nine may be included, based
on the preceding definition: Psalms 7; 35; 58; 59; 69; 83; 109;
137; and 139. A reading of these psalms reveals that the impreca-
tory element is a leading feature of each psalm and is crucial to
the psalmist's argument. All these imprecatory psalms are David-
ic except for Psalm 83, which is attributed to Asaph, and Psalm
137, which is exilic.
A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms 37
The Problem with the Imprecatory Psalms
The basic problem with the imprecatory psalms is an ethical
one. Vos asks, "How can it be right to wish or pray for the
destruction or doom of others as is done in the Imprecatory
Psalms? . . . Is it right for a Christian to use the Imprecatory
Psalms in the worship of God, and if so, in what sense can he
make the Psalms his own?"7 Beardslee also calls attention to
the ethical problem of these psalms.
In our private reading we can scarcely understand why they should
find a place in a book otherwise so universally fitted to stimulate
devotional life. In the public service of the church they are passed in
silence by the preacher as having in them nothing calculated to
educate and elevate the moral character of the people.8
The problem with the imprecatory psalms, or more correctly, the
interpreter's problem with them, is how an apparent spirit of
vengeance can be reconciled with the precepts of the New
Testament and Jesus' command to "love your enemies, and pray
for those who persecute you" (Matt. 5:44). Essentially three prob-
lems are confronted: (1) How can the presence of these impreca-
tions in the Hebrew hymnal be explained? (2) Do they have
application to the life and worship of Christians? (3) Can these
heart cries for vengeance and retribution be as inspired as the
other portions of the Book of Psalms which magnify and elevate
God's character? Evangelicals must answer the second and third
questions in the affirmative, and then begin to deal with the
first question--the ethical or moral problem of the psalms of
The Unsatisfactory Solutions
Many possible solutions to the problem of the imprecatory
psalms have been formulated. A brief review and evaluation of
some major suggestions is necessary before setting forth a fresh
approach to dealing with the ethical problem.9
THE IMPRECATIONS BY DAVID'S ENEMIES
It has been suggested that the imprecations in Psalm 109:6-
20 are not the utterance of David against his enemies, but are the
fierce cursing of David's enemies against David himself.10 To
adhere to this solution one must insert the participle rmexo
38 Bibliotheca Sacra - January-March 1981
("saying ) at the end of verse 5 so that the imprecation would
appear to be sourced in the mouths of David's persecutors. Justi-
fication for this solution is based on the insertion of an implied
participle in Psalm 2:2 in the Authorized Version to explain the
quotation in 2:3 which obviously must be attributed to the
However, this proposed solution is very strained. The transi-
tion from verse 5 to verse 6 in Psalm 109 does not give any
intimation that the words pass from David's prayer to an impre-
cation by his enemies, and the alleged "quotation" (vv. 6-20) is far
longer than the single verse of Psalm 2. Also this solution would
certainly not work in Psalms 7; 35; 58; 59; 69; 83; 137; or 139,
where the imprecation is against a plurality of the psalmist's
enemies. This view must therefore be rejected as an inadequate
THE EXPRESSION OF DAVID'S OWN SENTIMENTS
A second solution offered is that in these imprecations David
is uttering the sentiments of his own heart and not those of the
Holy Spirit. This view is taken by Kittel who considers the impre-
catory psalms to have originated from mean-spirited individuals
who thought only of conquest and revenge. The presence of these
psalms in the Hebrew Psalter witnesses to the fact that at one
time they were accredited to God.11 The suggestion is made
that if David had been a better man, he would not have uttered
such perverse thoughts. This view, however, overlooks the biblical
record of David's character as a man who did not indulge in a
spirit of personal revenge (1 Sam. 24:1-7; 26:5). Also the New
Testament reveals that David wrote the psalms under the person-
al and direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit ("who by the Holy
Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Thy servant, didst
say . . ." [Acts 4:251, and "men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke
from God" [2 Peter 1:21]). To dissect a psalm or any portion of
Scripture into inspired and uninspired sections is a fundamental
error, and therefore an unacceptable solution to the problem of
the imprecatory psalms.
THE INFERIOR PRINCIPLE OF SPIRITUAL LIFE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Still another view offered is that the inspiring principle
underlying the spiritual life of the Old Testament differs from that
of the New.12 It is suggested that since David lived prior to
the full light of the truth about spirituality, as developed in the
A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms 39
New Testament, broad ethical teaching and practice should not
be expected from him. However, while those in the present dis-
pensation of grace do enjoy the benefits and spiritual life pro-
vided by the teachings of Jesus, the Mosaic covenant did provide
David with adequate guidelines for ethical conduct. Hatred for
one's neighbors is forbidden in the Old Testament, as is
vengeance (Deut. 32:35), while love is commanded (Lev. 19:17-
18). This solution to the problem of the imprecatory psalms is
inadequate because it underestimates the Old Testament's provi-
sion of ethical guidelines. Christians do enjoy the benefits of
progressive revelation, but that progress is not from error to
truth; instead, it is a progression from incomplete revelation to a
more full and complete revelation or divine disclosure.
THE IMPRECATIONS AGAINST DAVID'S SPIRITUAL FOES
It has also been suggested that the imprecatory psalms are
the psalmist's spiritual antagonists rather than human person-
ages. According to this view evil spiritual influences are personi-
fied as evil men. Mowinckel suggests that the imprecations in
these psalms are curses uttered in the name of God who is a sure
defense against the powers of darkness and is able to defy and
overthrow the hosts of evil which stir themselves up against His
servants.13 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.
Many of the psalms were written in a time of oppression from
enemies like Doeg the Edomite (Ps. 52:1; 1 Sam. 21:7) and
Shimei (2 Sam. 16:5-8), and it is therefore difficult to believe that
David would have had nonphysical enemies in mind.
THE IMPRECATIONS ARE PROPHETIC
Another proposed solution to the problem is that the impre-
catory psalms are to be understood as prophetic. The psalmist
was not only a poet, but was also a prophet declaring what would
happen to the ungodly. This is one of the solutions offered by
Barnes, and was held by Augustine, Calvin, and Spurgeon.14
This view throws the responsibility for the imprecation on God,
and thus relieves the psalmist from the charge of speaking out of
a spirit of bitterness or revenge. It is pointed out by advocates of
40 Bibliotheca Sacra - January-March 1981
this view that the imprecations are quoted in the New Testament
(Pss. 69:25 and 109:8
in Acts 1:20; and Ps. 69:22-23 in
11:9-10), and that therefore all the imprecations are prophetic.
Against this view is the fact that the imperfect form of the verb is
sometimes preceded by an imperative, in which case the imper-
fect form is translated as a jussive (Ps. 69:25-26).15 The impreca-
tion in such a case is not a simple declaration of what will
happen, but is a wish or prayer that it may happen. In Psalm 137
the imprecation involves the third person in such a way as to
show that the speaker is not simply uttering the divine will as a
prophet, but is expressing his own feeling as a man. Psalm
137:8-9 is an expression of the personal satisfaction the psalmist
will feel when judgment overtakes the wrongdoers.
THE HUMANITY OF THE PSALMIST
A recent view of Psalm 137 is that it simply expresses the full
humanity of the psalmist who loved
passionately. According to Bright, the psalmist is "God's wholly
committed man, yet a man who is estranged from God's spirit."16
Bright asserts that the psalm must not be read and received as
God's Word for today in and of itself, but that it must be read in
light of the gospel. The psalmist expresses a conclusion which is
"unworthy and sub-Christian," but he records the frustration of
the whole man who must be confronted by Christ. The psalmist's
thoughts are not approved, but are understood to be an expres-
sion of humanity's need for Christ. While Bright deals only with
Psalm 137, presumably he would also apply this principle of
interpretation to the other imprecatory psalms. While this view
does offer an application of these psalms to Christians, it does
not adequately explain the inspiration of Psalm 137 and the
reason for its inclusion in the Psalter. This view appears to deny
the divine authorship of the imprecatory psalms in an arbitrary
attempt to distinguish between that which is the expression of
humanity and that which is the expression of the Spirit. Such a
dichotomy fails to grasp the unity of the divine and human
authors of Scripture (cf. Acts 4:25).
Steps toward a Satisfactory Solution
Having investigated several unsatisfactory solutions to the
ethical problem of the imprecatory psalms, several factors toward
a satisfactory solution may now be considered.
A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms 41
THE PURPOSES OF THE IMPRECATIONS
An awareness of the ethical and revelational purposes of the
imprecatory judgments will enable one to understand better the
imprecatory psalms. Six purposes are evident.
1. One major purpose of the judgments against evildoers is
to establish the righteous. As God judges the wicked, He is also
invoked to establish the righteous (Ps. 7:8-9). A concern for
righteousness and the righteous is foundational to the impreca-
tion found in Psalm 7:6-11.
2. A second purpose of the imprecatory judgments is that
God may be praised when the psalmist is delivered (Pss. 7:17:
35:18, 28). Closely related to this is the anticipation of rejoicing
when the psalmist sees the vindication taking place (58:10).
3. A third purpose in requesting judgment against the wick-
ed is that men will see the reward of the righteous and recognize
that it is God who judges the earth (58:11). Both the righteous
and the wicked will know that God is concerned with justice and
that He executes judgment on the earth.
4. The imprecatory judgments are also designed to demon-
strate to everyone that God is sovereign. David prayed that his
enemies would be destroyed so that men from the ends of the
earth may know that God rules in Jacob (59:13).
5. A fifth purpose of the imprecatory judgments is to prevent
the wicked from enjoying the same blessings as the righteous.
David prays that those who persist in wickedness may be blotted
out of the book of life (the register of the living), that is, may be
judged by physical death (69:28).
6. A sixth purpose of the imprecatory judgments is to cause
the wicked to seek the Lord. Asaph prays that God would judge
and humiliate His enemies so that they would seek His name and
acknowledge Him as the sovereign God (83:16-18).
These purposes of the imprecations give a divine perspective
to the seemingly human cries for judgment. It would appear that
the high ethical and revelational purposes of the imprecatory
psalms clear them of the charge of being sourced in the bitter
spirit of a bloodthirsty, carnal man.
COVENANTAL BASIS FOR A CURSE ON
The fundamental ground on which one may justify the im-
precations in the Psalms is the covenantal basis for a curse on
ised blessing on those who blessed Abraham's posterity, and
42 Bibliotheca Sacra - January-March 1981
cursing (rraxA) on those who would curse (ll.eq;). Abraham's
posterity. Because of the unconditional nature of the covenant,
its promises and provisions remain in force
existence as a nation. Balaam is an example of one who received
judgment for cursing
was unable to curse
ment because of his attack
itual life of the nation (31:8). All the Midianites except for the
little ones and the virgin girls were slain because of their part in
the attack against the spiritual life of
who had cursed were cursed!
On the basis of the unconditional Abrahamic covenant,
David had a perfect right, as the representative of the nation, to
pray that God would effect what He had promised--cursing on
those who cursed or attacked
threat to the well-being of
imprecatory psalms are appeals for Yahweh to carry out His
judgment against those who would curse the nation--judgment
in accordance with the provisions of the Abrahamic covenant.
THE ATTITUDE OF THE IMPRECATOR
The attitude of the psalmist is a key consideration in seeking
to interpret and appreciate the imprecatory psalms. While the
psalmist might appear to be a bloodthirsty and vindictive
avenger, a closer examination demonstrates that this is not the
case. Four significant points must be taken into consideration.
1. It is significant that David never prayed that he may be
permitted to take vengeance on his enemies, but always that God
would become his avenger. David's prayer was always that
Yahweh would rise against his adversaries (Pss. 7:6; 35:1; 58:6;
59:5) and overthrow, smite, and destroy as the psalmist's own
Avenger. The power and right to avenge belonged to God (Deut.
32:35), and David, realizing that a crisis had come, simply re-
quested that God use judgmental retribution for His own glory
and for the deliverance of His servant.
2. It is also important to distinguish between "vindication"
and "vindictiveness." The psalmist's passion was for justice, and
the imprecatory psalms are not sourced in personal vindictive-
ness or bitter malice that seeks revenge. David was capable of
generosity under personal attack (2 Sam. 16:11; 19:16-23), yet
no ruler was more deeply stirred to anger by unscrupulous ac-
A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms 43
tions even when they appeared to favor his cause. What David
pleaded for in his imprecations was that justice be done and that
right be vindicated. He simply asked for the judgmental interven-
tion which any victim of injustice deserved. David's concern was
for vindication—justice--a concern which also the New
Testament upholds (e.g. Luke 18:1-8).
3. David's concept of kingship sheds considerable light on
the attitude of the imprecator. The king of
man (Deut. 17:15), sitting on an earthly throne as God's
representative. David had great respect for the anointed king and
refused to stretch forth his hand against Yahweh's anointed (1
Sam. 24:10: 26:11). To have done so would have been not only
treason but also utter sacrilege and disregard for the theocratic
office. When the office of king was conferred on David, he then
regarded himself and everything that concerned him in light of
his official relationship to God and the theocratic government. As
the representative of God to the people, an attack on the king--
the theocratic official--differed in no wav from an attack on
Yahweh! David saw attacks against him as attacks on the name of
Yahweh. He thus prayed for the destruction of the wicked, not out
of personal revenge, but out of his zeal for God and His kingdom.
4. It is also helpful to see that the imprecations in the Book of
Psalms reflect an Old Testament saint's abhorrence of sin and
evil. Those against whom the imprecations were directed were
not the private enemies of David, but those who opposed God and
His cause. Divine judgment was called down on those who were
the very incarnation of wickedness. David's heart was sensitive to
sin (Pss. 51:3, 9; 139:23-24), and out of his abhorrence for sin
and evil he appealed to God for justice and the execution of
judgment on the wicked.
The imprecatory psalms present to the Bible student the
problem of reconciling the apparent spirit of vengeance with the
precepts of the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus. The
key to solving this ethical problem is to understand that the
imprecations are grounded in the Abrahamic covenant (Gen.
12:1-3), in which God promised to curse those who cursed
Abraham's descendants. The psalmist, then, merely appealed for
God to fulfill His covenant promise to
44 Bibliotheca Sacra - January-March 1981
note that the imprecations were motivated by a desire to promote
righteousness (Ps. 7:6-11), to demonstrate God's sovereignty
(58:11; 59:13), to cause the wicked to seek the Lord (83:16-18),
and to provide an opportunity for the righteous to praise God
(7:17; 35:18, 28). Therefore out of zeal for God and abhorrence of
sin the psalmist called on God to punish the wicked and to
vindicate His righteousness.
In light of the fact that the Abrahamic covenant reflects God's
promise to Abraham and his descendants, it would be in-
appropriate for a church-age believer to call down God's judg-
ment on the wicked. One can appreciate the Old Testament
setting of the imprecatory psalms and teach and preach from
them. However, like the ceremonial dietary laws of the Old
Testament, the imprecations in the Psalms should not be applied
to church-age saints. This is clear from Paul's exhortation in
Romans 12:14, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and curse
not." Paul admonished the Romans, "Never take your own re-
venge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is
written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (12:19).
Paul's words in 2 Timothy 4:14 indicate that he practiced what
he preached. Rather than calling down divine wrath on Alexan-
der the coppersmith, Paul simply stated, "The Lord will repay
him according to his deeds." And John makes it clear that God in
the future will judge the wicked for their sin (Rev. 20:11-15).
1 Albert Barnes, Notes, Critical, Explanatory, and Practical on the Book of
Psalms, 3 vols. (London: Blackie & Son, 1868), 1: xxv-xxvi.
2 The cry of the martyred tribulation saints in Revelation 6:10 for God's
vengeance, while similar to the psalmist's imprecations, is not applicable to the
3 Psalms 5:10; 6:10: 9 9; 10:2, 15: 17:13a; 28:4; 31:17b-18; 40:14-15: 55:9,
15; 68:1-2: 70:2-3; 71:13; 79:6, 10, 12: 94:1: 97:7: 104:35; 129:5-6: 140:9-11;
4 J. W. Beardslee, "The Imprecatory Element in the Psalms," Presbyterian and
Reformed Review 8 (1897), p. 491.
5 H. C. Leupold, The Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House. 1969), p. 18.
Roland K. Harrison, Introduction to the
Old Testament (
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1969), p. 997.
7 Johannes G. Vos, "The Ethical Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms,"
8 Beardslee, "The Imprecatory Element in the Psalms," p. 491.
9 For an overview of other solutions that have been proposed see Roy B. Zuck,
"The Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms" (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological
Seminary, 1957), pp. 45-58.
10 Beardslee, "The Imprecatory Element in the Psalms," pp. 491-92.
A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms 45
11 G. Kittel. The Scientific Study of the Old Testament. p. 143. quoted in G. S.
Gunn, God in the Psalms (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1965), p. 102.
12 Beardslee. "The Imprecatory Element in the Psalms," p. 496.
13 Sigmund Mowinckel. The Psalms in
Thomas. 2 vols. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), 1:44-52.
14 Barnes. The Book of Psalms. 1: xxx.
15 E. Kautzsch, ed., Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, trans. A. E. Cowley, 2d En-
glish ed. (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press. 1910), p. 322.
16 John Bright. The Authority of the Old Testament (
1967), p. 238.
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