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PSALM 109: DAVID'S POEM OF VENGEANCE
MARTIN J. WARD
The byline of Ps 109 indicates that David is the author of this
Psalm. As H. C. Leupold states, "In view of the reliability of the
headings generally, we feel prompted to accept this claim of Davidic
authorship as being correct."1 It should be noted also that Pss 108
and 110 both carry the superscription "Psalm of David," generally
accepted as being correct. This fact adds additional weight to the ac-
ceptance of David as the author of Ps 109.
Why do I thus emphasize the Davidic authorship of this Psalm?
My reason is that as an Imprecatory Psalm, Ps 109 seems out of har-
mony with so many of the other psalms of David. In fact, Ps 109 is
the most emphatic of the Imprecatory Psalms in calling down curses
on an enemy, and as such has caused commentators to think up
various explanations as to its meaning and the reason for its inclu-
sion in the Psalter.
C. A. Briggs, e.g., maintains that this Psalm is a composite, the
imprecatory section having been joined to a prayer for deliverance.2
He sees this joining to be the work of a much later editor apparently
preparing the psalms for congregational use, the imprecations being
from a Maccabean psalm. E. A. Leslie, as well as others, supplies a
different kind of explanation, namely, that "verses 6-19 . . . are not
part of the psalmist's own prayer, but a recitation by him of the
charges which have been preferred against him."3 He finds support
in the fact that the imprecations are hurled against one man,
whereas the prayer section refers to enemies in the plural; and he
also argues that the imprecations do not fit in with David's
1 H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Columbus, Ohio, 1959), p. 763.
2 Charles Augustus Briggs, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of
Psalms (New York, 1907), pp. 364-366.
3 Elmer A. Leslie, The Psalms (New York, 1949), p. 388.
164 MARTIN J. WARD
By far the greater number of commentators, however, appear
to accept the Psalm as it stands. With reference to the view just men-
tioned, that the Psalmist is quoting his adversaries, IB indicates that
"a more probable interpretation is that in verses 6-19 the psalmist:
himself is speaking, and that for the sake of vividness he refers to his
enemies collectively as one person. ..."4 This concept is supported
by other commentators.5
If we then accept this Psalm without assuming that it is the
work of an editor or that David is quoting his enemies, how do we
explain David's use of such harsh and revengeful imprecations? F.
Delitzsch proposes that "they are explained by the depth of David's
consciousness that he is the anointed of Jahve. . . . It is not the spirit
. . . . "6 Indeed, repeatedly in the OT we find the spirit of vengeance
shown towards God's enemies, the enemies of God's people, and
even against God's people themselves when they continued in their
rejection of God. We should not think it strange, then, that David
should utter words such as these, whether against a personal or na-
tional enemy. In either case, such an enemy must ultimately be an
enemy of God.
With this background, we turn now to a literary study of this
Psalm, which may carry implications as to the Psalm's basic unity as
well as its message.
1. Overall Structure of the Psalm
Ps 109 falls naturally into three main divisions, having an
A-B-A' pattern: A. There is a plea for help because of the wrong
done the Psalmist by his enemies (vss. 1-5). B. Next follow impreca-
tions against his chief enemy in the form of a prayer to God (vss.
6-20). A'. Finally, there is a further plea for help which concludes
with praise to God for his salvation (vss. 21-31).
The Psalm can further be thought of as having six stanzas, each
containing five verses, except the last stanza which has six verses:
Stanza 1 is the Psalmist's plea to God for help; stanza 2 begins the
imprecations against the Psalmist's enemy, with emphasis on his
family; stanza 3 continues the imprecations with emphasis on his
4 IB, 4: 582.
5 E.g., Leupold, pp. 763-764, and The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary
(Washington, D.C., 1954), 3: 878.
6 Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms, trans. Francis Bolton (Grand
DAVID'S POEM OF VENGEANCE 165
enemy's possessions, ancestors, and posterity; stanza 4 concludes the
imprecations with emphasis on his enemy's character; stanza 5 is a
reiteration of the Psalmist's need; and stanza 6 is another plea for
help, ending with praise for the deliverance the Psalmist knows is
2. Literary Features as a Lyric Psalm
Ps 109 must stand high among the lyric psalms for its literary
features. Several will be noted here.
As would be expected in Hebrew poetry, the Psalmist has con-
tinually used thought-parallelism. The outstanding examples are
synonymous parallelism, as in vss. 2, 5, 9, 13, 27:7
For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me,
Speaking against me with lying tongues.
So they reward me evil for good,
And hatred for my love.
May his children be fatherless,
And his wife a widow!
May his posterity be cut off;
May his name be blotted out in the second generation!
Let them know that this is thy hand;
Thou, 0 Lord, hast done it!
In the last distich, there is also, in vs. 31, an example of syn-
thetic parallelism of reason:
For he stands at the right hand of the needy,
To save him from those who condemn him to death.
It is interesting to note that of the thirty-one verses in this Psalm
(as given in our English Bible), twenty-eight are distichs. The other
three are tristichs.
Figures of Speech
Another important lyric aspect in Ps 109 is the use of figures of
speech, as in vs. 18:
He clothed himself with cursing as his coat,
May it soak into his body like water,
Like oil into his bones!
7 All quotations herein from the Psalms are from the RSV, used by permission of the
Division of Education and Ministry of the National Council of the Churches of Christ
166 MARTIN J. WARD
Here the first line employs a metaphor to state that the enemy cursed
so much that it was as if curses were continually around him as a
coat is around a man. Then the Psalmist uses similes, "like water"
and "like oil," to imply that the curses instead of being around his
enemy should enter wholly into him and become part of him, thus
acting on his life rather than on those originally cursed. This
thought is further emphasized by the use of two more similes in vs.
Another metaphor and simile combination is found in vs. 29:
May my accusers be clothed with dishonor;
May they be wrapped in their own shame as in a mantle!
The first line gives the metaphor "clothed with dishonor" in re-
questing that everything about the enemy should only bring
dishonor to him. The Psalmist then continues the synonymous
parallel by employing a simile saying that his enemy's shame should
cover him just as a mantle covers the body.
Vs. 23 furnishes an interesting example of a sequential use of
I am gone, like a shadow at evening;
I am shaken off like a locust.
The Emotional Element
Leland Ryken states that "the emotional element in a lyric
poem is often considered its chief identifying trait — its differentia."8
Ps 109 is built around emotion. Section 1 (vss. 1-5) portrays a plea to
God for help, uttered because of the depths of despair and
helplessness in which the Psalmist found himself. His enemies spoke
lies against him, attacked him without cause, and even returned
hatred for love. What more could the Psalmist do than appeal to
God? In section 2 (vss. 6-20), the Psalmist speaks from a heart filled
with anger as he hurls imprecations against his chief adversary. He
asks that his enemy's life be short, his goods be seized, his posterity
be cut off, his sins be ever before the Lord and that all curses should
become part of him. Although it is obvious that these curses arise
from a heart full of anger seeking vengeance, it is not clear whether
these curses are David's wishes against a personal enemy or whether
they are uttered in behalf of the Lord God whose representative the
8 Leland Ryken, The Literature of the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1974), p. 123.
DAVID'S POEM OF VENGEANCE 167
Psalmist is. Section 3 (vss. 21-31) is built on two emotions. First
there is a repetition of the despair mentioned in section 1, and then
the mood changes to gratitude and praise. The Psalmist's physical
condition or position has not changed, but with the hand of faith he
has grasped God's promises as having already been fulfilled, and he
gives thanks for them.
Use of Concrete Terms
One other important literary aspect of this work is the
Psalmist's use of concrete terms rather than abstractions. This is par-
ticularly true in section 2, where it would have been possible to utter
abstract imprecations against his enemy. However, this section is
brought to life by the use of concrete details, illustrated by the
following, in vss. 9, 11, 13:
May his children be fatherless, And his wife a widow!
May the creditor seize all that he has; . . .
May his posterity be cut off; . . .
Each time, the concrete detail furnishes an added facet to the pic-
ture of ultimate destruction and oblivion that the Psalmist wishes on
What meaning, then, can we get from this Psalm? The obvious
or primary meaning is David's plea for divine help and his curses on
his chief adversary. In addition, we could see this as a prophetic
Psalm (cf. Peter's quoting of vs. 8 and applying it as a fulfilled pro-
phecy in the experience of Judas Iscariot [Acts 1:20]), and we might,
indeed, view the imprecations of this Psalm as prophetic utterances
against all bad men.
Moreover, as R. G. Moulton reminds us, "We in modern times
are quite accustomed to feel enthusiasm for the abstract thing we
call ‘a cause’; with the ancient world it was necessary for the cause to
be embodied in a concrete party. . . . When the psalmist's hatred of
evil men has once been translated into the form of hatred against
evil, it will be felt that the passages cannot be too strongly worded."9
When viewed in the light of this concept, the overall structure and
the lyric features we have noted above speak to the unified theme of
9 Richard G. Moulton, The Literary Study of the Bible (
168 MARTIN J. WARD
Ps 109, but also raise another pertinent question: Can we not in
this Psalm see more than merely a desire for a particular adversary
to be brought low? Can we not indeed see David's desire for sin or
wickedness itself to be extirpated? If so, moreover, can we not
ourselves much more readily identify with David as Psalmist?
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