Bibliotheca Sacra 138 (1981) 35-45

          Copyright © 1981 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

 

 

 

                      A Fresh Look at the

                      Imprecatory Psalms

 

        

                                           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

 

35



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 Harrison remarks

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

imprecation.

 

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

psalmist's enemies.

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

explanation.

 

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 Rom.

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 Zion but who hated his foes

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.

 

THE COVENANTAL BASIS FOR A CURSE ON ISRAEL'S ENEMIES

The fundamental ground on which one may justify the im-

precations in the Psalms is the covenantal basis for a curse on

Israel's enemies. The Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12:1-3) prom-

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 throughout Israel's

existence as a nation. Balaam is an example of one who received

judgment for cursing Israel (Num. 22-24; 31:16). Actually

Balaam was unable to curse Israel, and he fell under God's judg-

ment because of his attack on Israel by undermining the spir-

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 Israel (31:1-18). Truly those

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 Israel. David's enemies were a great

threat to the well-being of Israel! The cries for judgment in the

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 Israel was God's chosen

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.

 

Conclusion

 

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 Israel. It is also helpful 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).

 

Notes

 

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

church age.

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;

141:10; 143:12.

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.

6 Roland K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids:

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1969), p. 997.

7 Johannes G. Vos, "The Ethical Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms,"

Westminster Theological Journal 4 (May 1942), p. 123.

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 Israel's Worship. traps. D. R. Ap-

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 (Nashville: Abingdon Press.

1967), p. 238.

 

 

 

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