ABSTRACT

THE IMPRECATORY PSALMS AND CHRISTIAN ETHICS

by

John N. Day

Dallas Theological Seminary
[© 2000, by John N. Day, cited with permission]

Readers: Prof. Don Glenn, Dr. Rick Taylor, Dr. W. Hall Harris III

 

In this dissertation, I attempt plausibly to demonstrate that the utterance of imprecations (including the appeal for divine vengeance) against the recalcitrant enemies of God and his people—as is found in the Imprecatory Psalms—is consistent with the ethics of the Old Testament and finds corresponding (albeit somewhat lessened) echo in the New. This thesis is rooted (1) in the establishment of the psalms’ theology of imprecation in the very essence of the Torah—especially seen in the promise of divine vengeance expressed in the Song of Moses, the principle of divine justice outlined in the lex talionis, and the assurance of divine cursing as well as blessing articulated in the inaugural covenant of God with his people; and (2) in the presence of this theology carried, in essence, unchanged through to the end of the Christian Canon, and likewise utilized as the foundation for the infrequent imprecations in the New Testament. There is indeed a degree of difference in the progress of the testaments, but it is a difference in degree not a difference in kind. Thus, it is argued that whereas “love and blessing” is the dominant tone and characteristic ethic of the believer of both testaments, “cursing and calling for divine vengeance” is the believer’s extreme ethic—legitimately utilized in extreme circumstances, against sustained injustice, hardened enmity, and gross oppression.

This thesis is developed in four discrete sections: (1) an evaluation of the principal solutions proffered with regard to the Imprecatory Psalms and Christian ethics; (2) an investigation into the broader ancient Near Eastern practice of imprecation; (3) an exploration of the three harshest psalms of imprecation (Pss 58, 137, 109) and the theological foundations upon which their cries were uttered; and (4) an examination of the apparently contradictory statements of the New Testament (“love your enemies” and “bless and curse not”) coupled with the continued presence of imprecations.

 

 


 

THE IMPRECATORY PSALMS

AND CHRISTIAN ETHICS

 

 

 

_______________________

 

 

 

A Dissertation

Presented to

the Faculty of the Department of

Old Testament Studies

Dallas Theological Seminary

 

 

 

_______________________

 

 

 

In Partial Fulfillment

of the Requirements for the Degree

Doctor of Philosophy

 

 

 

_______________________

 

 

 

by

John N. Day

August 2001

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Accepted by the Faculty of the Dallas Theological Seminary in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree Doctor of Philosophy.

 

 

 

 

Examining Committee

 

 

 

 

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To my beloved wife, Lorri

and our dear children

Tiffanie, Hannah, and JohnEzra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

 

ABBREVIATIONS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .       vii

 

Chapter

 

      1.    INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .         1

 

                     Facing the Problem                                                                               

 

                     The Breadth of Definition                                                                    

 

                     The Stigma of Vengeance                                                                     

 

                     Narrowing the Field                                                                              

 

                     The Method of Approach

 

      2.    UNSATISFACTORY SOLUTIONS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .        25

 

                     Evil Emotions

 

                                    Not to Be Expressed                                                               

 

                                    To Be Expressed and Relinquished

 

                     Old Covenant Morality

 

                                    Inferior Morality

 

                                    Differing Dispensations

 

                     Songs of Christ

 

                     Summary

 

 

 

 

iv

 


      3.    THE CULTURAL CONTEXT OF THE CURSE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .        62

 

                     The Function of Imprecation in the Ancient Near East

 

                                    Treaty Curses

 

                                    Inscriptional Curses

 

                                    Incantations to Undo Curses

 

                     The Power of the Curse

 

      4.    THE HARSHEST PSALMS OF IMPRECATION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .        85

 

                     Psalm 58

 

                                    Curse Against a Societal Enemy

 

                                    Theological Foundation

 

                     Psalm 137

 

                                    Curse Against a National Enemy

 

                                    Theological Foundation

 

                     Psalm 109

 

                                    Curse Against a Personal Enemy

 

                                    Theological Foundation

 

      5.    COLLIDING WITH THE NEW TESTAMENT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .      143

 

                     Apparent Contradictions

 

                                    “Love Your Enemies”

 

                                    “Bless, and Curse Not”

 

 

 

 

v

   


  

                     Instances of Imprecation

 

                                    Christ

 

                                    The Apostles

 

                                    The Saints in Heaven

 

                     Conclusion

 

      6.    CONCLUSION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .      176

 

      Appendices

 

      A.    WOE AND CURSE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .      186

 

      B.    THE TEXT OF DEUT 32:43 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .      191

 

      C.    COALS OF FIRE IN ROM 12:19-20 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .      197

 

      BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .     206

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

vi

 


 

 

ABBREVIATIONS

 

 

AER                 American Ecclesiastical Review

 

ANET              J. B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 3d ed

 

BDB                F. Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament

 

BECNT           Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament

 

BHS                 Biblia hebraica stuttgartensia

 

Bib                   Biblica

 

BSac                 Bibliotheca Sacra

 

BZAW             Beihefte zur ZAW

 

CBQ                Catholic Biblical Quarterly

 

DCH                D. J. A. Clines (ed.), Dictionary of Classical Hebrew     

 

ExpTim             Expository Times

 

FN                   Filologia Neotestamentaria

 

GKC                Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, ed. E. Kautzsch, tr. A. E. Cowley, 2d ed

 

HALOT           L. Koehler and W. Baumgartner, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Revised ed

 

HUCA             Hebrew Union College Annual

 

ICC                 International Critical Commentary

 

 

 

vii

 


JAOS                Journal of the American Oriental Society

 

JB                    A. Jones (ed.), Jerusalem Bible

 

JBL                  Journal of Biblical Literature

 

JETS                 Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

 

JNES                Journal of Near Eastern Studies

 

JNSL                Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages

 

JQR                  Jewish Quarterly Review

 

JSNTSup         Journal for the Study of the New Testament—Supplement Series

 

JTS                   Journal of Theological Studies

 

KJV                  King James Bible

 

NEB                New English Bible

 

NICNT            New International Commentary on the New Testament

 

NICOT           New International Commentary on the Old Testament

 

NIDOTTE        W. van Gemeren (ed.), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis

 

NIGTC            New International Greek Testament Commentary

 

NIV                 New International Version

 

NRSV              New Revised Standard Version

 

NTS                 New Testament Studies

 

OTL                Old Testament Library

 

PTR                  Princeton Theological Review

 

RB                    Revue biblique

 

viii

 


RevQ                Revue de Qumran

 

RTR                 Reformed Theological Review

 

TDNT              G. Kittel and G. Friedrich (eds.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament

 

TDOT              G. J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren (eds.), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament

 

TEV                 Today’s English Version

 

TOTC             Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries

 

TNTC             Tyndale New Testament Commentaries

 

TWOT             R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., and B. K. Waltke (eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament

 

TynBul             Tyndale Bulletin

 

VT                   Vetus Testamentum

 

WBC               Word Biblical Commentary

 

WTJ                 Westminster Theological Journal

 

ZAW                Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ix

 


 

CHAPTER 1

INTRODUCTION

 

Facing the Problem

There is hardly an area of biblical theology more troublesome to the Christian conscience than that expressed in the so-called Imprecatory Psalms—those psalms whose characterizing element is the desire for God’s just vengeance to fall upon his and his people’s enemies, including the use of more formal curses or imprecations. These psalms naturally evoke a reaction of revulsion to Christians schooled in the “law of Christ”; the venom these psalms exude collides abrasively with their sweeter instincts. For are not Christians called to “love your enemies” (Matt 5:44), to “bless and not curse” (Rom 12:14)? How, then, can such calls for the barbaric “dashing of infants against the rocks” (Ps 137:9), the “bathing of feet in the blood of the wicked” (Ps 58:10), the “curse passed down to the offender’s children” (Ps 109:10-15) be justified? [1]  Are the Imprecatory Psalms merely a way of venting one’s rage without really meaning it? Has the morality of Scripture evolved? Or is cursing enemies the Old Testament way and loving enemies the New Testament way? And is there any legitimate echo of the substance of these psalms in the New Testament?

There have been a few modern treatments of the Imprecatory Psalms vis-à-vis their relation to biblical theology and the New Testament. However these treatments have been, in large measure, cursory, and the proposed solutions have been, in my view, theologically inadequate. [2]  The Imprecatory Psalms have been unsatisfactorily explained chiefly as expressing (1) evil emotions—whether to be suppressed or expressed (e.g., Lewis, [3]  Brueggemann [4] ), (2) a morality consonant with the Old Covenant but inconsistent with the New (e.g., Zuck, [5]  Laney [6] ), or (3) words appropriately uttered solely from the lips of Christ, and consequently only by his followers through him and his cross (e.g., Adams, [7]  Bonhoeffer [8] ).

In contrast, I will seek to establish that the sentiment expressed in the Imprecatory Psalms is consistent with the ethics both of the Old and New Testaments, [9]  while at the same time recognizing that the New Testament evidences a certain progress in the outworking of that essentially equivalent ethic. This I will do by plausibly demonstrating that the Imprecatory Psalms root their theology of cursing and crying out for God’s vengeance [10]  in the Torah—principally the Song of Moses (Deut 32), the lex talionis (e.g., Deut 19), and the covenant of God with his people (e.g., Gen 12)—and that this theology is carried essentially unchanged through the expanse of the canon to the end of the New Testament (e.g., Rev 15:2-4; 18:20). And yet, there is indeed a degree of difference in emphasis between the testaments: in the New Testament there is a lesser stress on imprecation and the enactment of temporal judgments combined with more frequent and explicit calls for kindness in anticipation of the eschatological judgment. [11]  This is to be expected, for the new era is the age of “grace upon grace” (John 1:16), inaugurated in the coming of Christ.

But this is a difference in degree, rather than a difference in kind. In the progress of revelation, the New Testament reflects a development, not in morality per se, but in the way the divinely ordained ethic is to be lived out in daily life: it becomes a matter of emphasis, which is a matter of significance. Steadfast endurance under unjust suffering for the sake of Christ and after the pattern of Christ, entrusting both temporal and eschatological judgment to God, becomes a more predominant theme in the New Testament, [12]  whereas it is more restrained in the Old. And yet, the New Testament still finds a legitimate place for imprecation, based upon the same elements as serve to justify the imprecations in the Psalms.

 

The Breadth of Definition

As stated in the introductory paragraph, the Imprecatory Psalms as a class refer to those psalms whose characterizing element is the impassioned plea for divine vengeance to fall upon the enemies of God and his people, including the use of what may be con-sidered more formal curses or imprecations proper. By consensus of those works consulted for use in this dissertation, the above represents the breadth of definition involved in the use of the term “imprecation”—particularly in the context of the Imprecatory Psalms, but also in the related passages of both Old and New Testaments. Laney’s definition serves as a characteristic example: “An ‘imprecation’ is an invocation of judgment, calamity, or curse uttered against one’s enemies, or the enemies of God.” [13]  Zuck describes such imprecations simply and broadly as “prayers for the destruction of enemies”; [14]  and Brueggemann addresses the issue in terms of a “yearning for vengeance. [15]  Vos recognizes this definitional breadth and tension when he proffers that “these Psalms are indeed imprecatory if this term be understood in its proper sense of invoking a judgment, calamity or curse” [16] —whether done so directly (e.g., Ps 137:7) or indirectly (e.g., Ps 137:8-9). [17]  Thus, such an understanding will be presumed in the ensuing discussions. So, for instance, although the bold and poignant appeal for divine recompense voiced in Psalm 137 differs markedly from the detailed litany of curses rehearsed in Psalm 109, both are universally recognized as imprecations and Imprecatory Psalms—indeed, they are the premier examples.

 

The Stigma of Vengeance

The central issue of divine vengeance [18]  presents an initial stigma partly because the promise of such vengeance forms much of the basis upon which the psalmists voice their cries of cursing [19]  and partly because of the concept of vengeance itself. [20]  To the modern ear, the word “vengeance” evokes images of malice and revenge; by its very nature it bears sinful and negative connotations. Thus, in this mindset, vengeance—whether human or divine—is in no sense to be construed as virtuous. But to the ancient Israelite, and through the pages of Scripture, the concept of vengeance is tied to the requirements of justice. [21]  Where justice is trampled, vengeance is required. [22]  Specifically, in the presentation of the canon, the enactment of God’s vengeance is coupled with his character as just and holy and his claim as world sovereign. [23]  Indeed, the Scriptures do not equivocate in their proclamation of Yahweh not only as Warrior, but also as Judge and King. As Peels assesses, in his justification of Yahweh’s vengeance: “If it is said of this God, who is King, that He avenges himself, this can no longer be considered to be indicative of an evil humour, a tyrannical capriciousness, or an eruption of rancour. God’s vengeance is kingly vengeance. If He takes vengeance, He does so as the highest authority exercising

punishing justice. The vengeance of God is the action of God-as-King in the realization of his sovereign rule. This action is directed against those who offend God’s majesty through transgression against his honour, his justice or his people.” [24]

Furthermore, the observation of Mendenhall holds true: the significance of divine vengeance derives primarily from the relationship between the recipient of that vengeance and God. “To the rebel it is punishment, but to the God-fearer, it is salvation.” [25]  God’s vengeance is inseparably linked to his lovingkindness; [26]  it is the other side of his compassion, the (perhaps inevitably) “dark side” of his mercy. [27]  The Scriptures are unequivocal in affirming that God is by no means an indifferent Being, but one who has passionately and decisively taken sides for his people in history. [28]  And if he is to save his people from sin, oppression, and injustice, then he must exact vengeance upon his enemies—the enemies of his people.

This understanding of divine vengeance is borne out, for example, by the depictions of Yahweh’s execution of vengeance against Edom [29]  in the Book of Isaiah. There one finds that the language of vengeance is the language of violence—of slaughter and sacrifice, of holy war [30]  and jealous rage. [31]  And consequently, the imagery of vengeance is the gruesome imagery of gore: “Yahweh’s sword is all bloody, it is gorged with fat” (Isa 34:6). Lest Yahweh become relegated, however, to the company of pagan and bloodthirsty deities, it is imperative to note the stated purpose of this violence against the wicked: “to contend for Zion (Isa 34:8). This point is reiterated in the following chapter, which speaks of the paradise of the redeemed arising out of the carnage against the wicked: “Behold, your God, he will come with vengeance; with divine recompense he will come, and he will save you” (Isa 35:4; cf. 63:3-4). Yahweh is a God who saves his people; but without God’s vengeance against his enemies, there can be no salvation for his people. The ramifications of this are weighty. As Swartzbach observes: without a clear understanding of the significance of divine vengeance, “there is no way of comprehending the nature of the Christian God, for we can never speak of the ‘love’ and ‘justice’ of God without reflecting upon his ‘wrath’ and ‘vengeance.’” [32]  And Kraus likewise echoes:

The “vengeance” for which Israel hopes is God’s judgment in response to the scorn and mockery of the enemy nations. The prayer is that Yahweh will not allow his enemies free rein or let their rage go unanswered. It is expected that Yahweh will manifest his power in the world of the nations. Not alone in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament as well there is a certainty that this will not take place in an invisible, ideal realm of retribution, but in the reality of this world. Therefore there rings out a cry for revenge and for God’s judgment in the face of the unbearable suffering and torment of God’s people, on down to the Revelation of John (6:10). To set up a polarity of love and vengeance would involve a total misunderstanding of biblical truth. [33]

 

But the question may yet be asked: How can it be right for an Old or New Testament believer to cry out for divine vengeance and violence, as exampled in the Imprecatory Psalms? Several observations from Scripture cohere to address this question: (1) The vengeance appealed for by the pious in the Psalms is not personally enacted; rather it is called upon from God. (2) This appeal is based upon the covenant promises of God, [34]  most notable of which are: “He who curses you, I will curse” (Gen 12:3), and “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Deut 32:35). And if God has so promised, then it would seemingly not be wrong for his people to petition him (even passionately) for the fulfillment of these promises. [35]  (3) Scripture records, through both testaments, examples of God’s people on earth justly calling down curses or crying for vengeance without any literary or theological intimation of divine disapproval at the expression of such sentiments. Indeed, the implication is that, in its appropriate place, such utterances are commendable (cf. the Imprecatory Psalms, and the Pauline and Petrine curses of Gal 1:8-9 and Acts 8:20, respectively). (4) Scripture further records an instance in which God’s people in heaven, where there is no sin, cry out for divine vengeance and are comforted by the assurance of its near enactment (Rev 6:9-11). And since these martyred saints are presumably perfected, their entreaty would then be presumably “right.”

Thus, whereas “love and blessing” is the dominant tone and characteristic ethic of the believer of both testaments, “cursing and calling for divine vengeance” is the believer’s extreme ethic—legitimately utilized in extreme circumstances, against the hardened deceitful, violent, immoral, unjust. Indeed, when one examines the way of God, of Christ, and of God’s people from a canonical approach, one finds this dual reaction toward enmity exampled: the one reaction characteristic of the divine and Christian life, and the other exhibited in extreme instances. For example, (1) the pattern of God found in Scripture is that of repeated grace; but then comes the point of judgment. The inhabitants of Canaan experienced this extended grace followed by decisive judgment when, after four hundred years, their “iniquity became complete” (cf. Gen 15:16); likewise also, the Israelites of the Exodus, after repeated rebellion and unbelief, were finally barred from the Promised Land (cf. Num 14); [36]  and the generation of the Exile found out what life was like when, after two hundred years of his longsuffering, God’s hand of grace was released and justice given her due (cf. Hosea). [37]  There is longsuffering to God’s grace, but there is also judgment (cf. the balance between the two in that supreme revelation of the character of God, Exod 34:6-7). [38]  (2) The pattern of Christ is also that of repeated grace; but then comes the point of judgment. [39]  In the closing chapters of the canon, both God and Christ are revealed as the Divine Avenger (Rev 6:9-17; 18:21–19:2; 19:11-16); and after the bloody winepress of God’s wrath is trampled (Rev 14:19-20), [40]  the saints in heaven sing the Song of Moses and the Song of the Lamb (Rev 15:3-4). [41]  The same Christ who said, “Love your enemies,” will return one day in vengeance to destroy those who are recalcitrant. (3) So also, the pattern of God’s people is to be that of repeated grace; but there may also come a point in time when judgment must be called for (i.e., the voicing of imprecations), and the righteous will delight to see it accomplished (cf., e.g., Ps 58:11-12; Rev 18:20).

Although in the New Testament the allowable extent of temporal enmity is lessened and the expected extent of temporal kindness is heightened, the tension between the characteristic ethic and the extreme ethic of the Christian toward evil continues. For although Christians are called to continually seek reconciliation and practice longsuffering, forgiveness, and kindness (after the pattern of God, notably portrayed in Matt 5:44-45 and Luke 6:35-36), [42]  there comes a point in time in which justice must be enacted—whether from God directly or through his representatives (in particular the State and its judicial system, cf. Rom 13:1-4).

Narrowing the Field

To address the entirety of the imprecations in the Psalms would require a treatment too voluminous for the constraints of this dissertation. Indeed, the passages in

the Psalms which contain an element of imprecation, or the desire for divine vengeance, are quite numerous, [43]  including at least: 5:11; 6:11; 7:7, 10, 16-17; 9:20-21; 10:15; 17:13; 28:4; 31:18-19; 35:1, 4-6, 8, 19, 24-26; 40:15-16; 52:7; 54:7; 55:10, 16; 56:8; 58:7-11; 59:6, 12-14; 68:2-3, 31; 69:23-26, 28-29; 70:3-4; 71:13; 74:11, 22-23; 79:6, 10, 12; 83:10, 12, 14-19; 94:1-2; 104:35; 109:6-15, 17-20, 29; 129:5-8; 137:7-9; 139:19, 21-22; 140:9-12; 141:10; 143:12. This covers ninety-eight verses in thirty-two psalms. However, those psalms which may be rightly deemed “imprecatory” (i.e., whose characterizing element is the imprecations or cries for divine vengeance found in them) are better limited to fourteen: Psalms 7, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 83, 94, 109, 129, 137, 139, and 140. Yet, even to address each of these extensively would be to overextend the limits of this inquiry.

Therefore, I will be addressing the problem of the Imprecatory Psalms and their relation to Christian ethics via primarily three psalms, each representing one of the three spheres of cursing found within the larger corpus of Imprecatory Psalms: (1) Psalm 58—imprecation against a societal enemy, (2) Psalm 137—imprecation against a national or community enemy, and (3) Psalm 109—imprecation against a personal enemy. All the other Imprecatory Psalms find their lodging in the shade of these three and will be dealt with there but secondarily. Furthermore, I have chosen these three psalms specifically because they contain the harshest language or most severe imprecations against the enemies. Thus, if an answer may be given to these, then an answer may be given to all.

Psalm 58 contains a series of graphic imprecations against what is deemed a societal enemy—judges who have become blatantly unjust, deceitful, and violent. In it, appeal is made to the true Judge to swiftly and decisively mete out true justice:

58:7 O God, smash their teeth in their mouths;

         Break off the fangs of the young lions, O Yahweh!

8 Let them flow away like water that runs off in all directions;

         let him prepare to shoot his arrows, only to find them headless!

9 Like a miscarriage, let him melt away;

         like a woman’s abortion, let them not see the sun!

10 Before your pots feel the heat of the brambles—

         as lively as wrath—may he sweep them away!

11  The righteous will rejoice when he sees vengeance;

         he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked (58:7-11). [44]

 

Under this umbrella Psalm 94 may be subsumed, for it involves the cry for divine vengeance from the “Judge of the earth” (94:2) against a corrupt and oppressive judicial throne (94:5-6, 20-21).

94:1 God of vengeance, Yahweh,

         God of vengeance, shine forth!

2 Rise up, Judge of the earth;

         pay back to the proud what they deserve! (94:1-2).

 

Psalm 137 is a shockingly emotive cry from the bowels of the exiled remnant against those who had, with such carnage and cruelty, devastated Judea:

137:7 Remember, O Yahweh, against the Edomites—

         the day of Jerusalem!

  They cried, “Raze her, raze her—

         down to her foundation!”

8 O Daughter of Babylon, (doomed to be) devastated,

         blessed is he who repays you

         what you deserve for what you did to us!

9 Blessed is he who seizes and shatters

         your little ones against the cliff! (137:7-9).

 

Stationed under Psalm 137, several psalms call for divine vengeance upon a national or community enemy, uttered either by the community itself, or by an individual speaking from the community’s perspective:

68:2 May God arise, may his enemies be scattered;

         may those who hate him flee before him.

3 As smoke is driven away,

         may you drive them away;

 as wax melts before the fire,

         may the wicked perish before God.

         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

31 Rebuke the beast of the reeds,

         the herd of bulls among the calves of the peoples—

 trampled down, bringing bars of silver.

         Scatter the peoples who take pleasure in battle (68:2-3, 31).

 

74:11 Why do you draw back your hand—even your right hand?

         (Draw it) from the midst of your bosom; finish (them)!

         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

22 Rise up, O God, and defend your cause;

         remember how fools mock you all day long!

23 Do not forget the clamor of your foes,

         the uproar of your adversaries, which rises continually (74:11, 22-23).

 

79:6 Pour out your wrath on the nations

         that do not know you,

 and on the kingdoms

         that do not call on your name.

         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

10 Why should the nations say,

         “Where is their God?”

Before our eyes, make known among the nations

         that you avenge the outpoured blood of your servants.

         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

12 Pay back into the laps of our neighbors seven times

         the abuse they have hurled at you, O Lord! (79:6, 10, 12).

 

83:10 Do to them as you did to Midian,

         as you did to Sisera and Jabin at the river Kishon.

         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


12 Make their nobles like Oreb and Zeeb,

         all their princes like Zebah and Zalmunna.

         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

14 O my God, make them like whirling dust,

         like chaff before the wind.

15 As fire consumes the forest

         and as flame sets the hills ablaze,

16 so pursue them with your tempest

         and with your storm-wind terrify them!

17 Fill their faces with shame

         that they may seek your name, O Yahweh.

18 Let them be ashamed and dismayed for ever;

         let them be abashed until they perish.

19 Let them know that you, whose name alone is Yahweh—

         are the Most High over all the earth (83:10, 12, 14-19).

 

129:5 May all who hate Zion

         be turned back in shame.

6 May they be like grass on the roof,

         which withers before it can grow;

7 with it the reaper cannot fill his hands,

         nor the binder of sheaves his arms.

8 May those who pass by not say,

         “The blessing of Yahweh be upon you;

         we bless you in the name of Yahweh” (129:5-8).

 

The majority of the Imprecatory Psalms, however, are situated against a personal enemy, or a collective enemy viewed from the perspective of the individual (notably, David). Of first place, and most offensive, is Psalm 109:

109:6 Appoint a wicked man against him,

         and let an accuser stand at his right hand!

7 When he is tried, let him be found guilty,

         and let his plea be considered as sin.

8 May his days be few;

         may another take his office.

9 May his children be fatherless

         and his wife a widow.

10 May his children wander about and beg,

         and may they be driven from their ruined homes.

11 May a creditor seize all that he has,

         and may strangers plunder what he has gained from his labor.

12 Let there be no one to extend lovingkindness to him,

         nor to take pity on his fatherless children.

13 May his descendants be cut off,

         may their name be blotted out in the next generation.

14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before Yahweh,

         and may the sin of his mother never be blotted out.

15 May they remain before Yahweh continually,

         and may he cut off the memory of his descendants from the earth.

         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

17 He loved cursing—so may it come on him;

         and he found no pleasure in blessing—so may it be far from him.

18 He clothed himself with cursing as his coat;

         so may it enter into his body like water,

         and into his bones like oil.

19 May it be like a cloak wrapped about him,

         and like a belt tied forever around him.

20 May this be Yahweh’s payment to my accusers,

         even to those who speak evil against my life.

         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

28 Let them curse, but may you bless;

         may those who rise up against me be put to shame,

         but may your servant rejoice.

29 May my accusers be clothed with disgrace

         and may they be wrapped in their own shame as in a robe (109:6-15, 17-         20, 28-29).

 

Under this plethora of imprecations, the various and remaining personal Imprecatory Psalms may be comprehended:

5:11 Declare them guilty, O God!

         Let them fall by their own intrigues.

For their many transgressions, cast them out,

         for they have rebelled against you (5:11).

 

6:11 May all my enemies be ashamed and greatly troubled;

         may they turn back in sudden disgrace (6:11).

 

7:7 Rise up, O Yahweh, in your anger;

         raise yourself up against the rage of my enemies!

         Rouse yourself on my behalf with the judgment you have decreed.

         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

10 Bring an end to the evil of the wicked!

         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

16 He dug a pit and scooped it out—

         so may he fall into the pit he has made.

17 Let the trouble he has caused recoil on his head;

         and let the violence he has wreaked descend on his pate! (7:7, 10, 16-17).

 

9:20 Rise up, O Yahweh, let not man prevail;

         let the nations be judged in your presence.

21 Strike them with terror, O Yahweh;

         let the nations know they are but men (9:20-21).

 

10:15 Break the arm of the wicked and evil man;

         may you seek out his wickedness

         that would not be found out (10:15).

 

17:13 Rise up, O Yahweh, confront them, bring them down;

         rescue my life from the wicked by your sword (17:13).

 

28:4 Repay them in accordance with their deeds

         and in accordance with their evil work;

 in accordance with what their hands have done, repay them,

         and bring back upon them what they deserve (28:4).

 

31:18 O Yahweh, let me not be put to shame,

         for I call on you;

let the wicked be put to shame

         and go silent to the grave.

19 Let their lying lips be silenced,

         which speak arrogantly against the righteous

         with pride and contempt (31:18-19).

 

35:1 Contend, O Yahweh, with those who contend with me;

         fight against those who fight against me.

         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

4 Let them be put to shame and humiliated

         who seek my life;

 let them be turned back in dismay

         who plot my ruin.

5 Let them be like chaff before the wind,

         with the angel of Yahweh driving them away;

6 let their path be dark and slippery,

         with the angel of Yahweh pursuing them.

         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

8 Let ruin overtake them by surprise;

         and let their own net they hid ensnare them,

         let them fall into the pit, to their ruin.

         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

19 Let not those rejoice over me

         who are wrongfully my enemies;

 let not those who hate me without cause

         (maliciously) wink the eye.

         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

24 Vindicate me according to your righteousness, O Yahweh my God;

         and let them not rejoice over me.

25 Let them not say to themselves, “Aha, just what we wanted!”

         Let them not say, “We have swallowed him up.”

26 Let them be put to shame and confusion altogether,

         who rejoice at my ruin;

 Let them be clothed with shame and disgrace

         who exalt themselves over me (35:1, 4-6, 8, 19, 24-26).

 

40:15 Let them be put to shame and confusion altogether

         who seek to take my life;

let them be turned back in disgrace

         who desire my ruin.

16 Let them be appalled at their own shame

         who say to me, “Aha! Aha!” (40:15-16).

 

52:7 So, may God tear you eternally down:

         may he snatch you up and tear you from your tent;

         and may he uproot you from the land of the living! (52:7).

 

54:7 May he repay with evil those who watch me with ill intent.

         In your faithfulness annihilate them! (54:7).

 

55:10 Swallow them, O Lord, divide their speech,

         for I see violence and strife in the city.

         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

16 Let death take them by surprise;

         let them go down alive to the grave,

         for evils find lodging among them (55:10, 16).

 

56:8 For (such) wickedness, will they escape (punishment)?

         In your anger, O God, bring down the nations (56:8).

 

59:6 And you, O Yahweh God of Hosts, God of Israel,

         awake to punish all the nations;

         show no mercy to all wicked traitors.

         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

12 Do not kill them, lest my people forget;

         make them tremble by your power, and bring them down,

         O Lord, our shield.

13 For the sins of their mouths,

         for the words of their lips,

         let them be captured in their pride.

And for the curses and lies they utter,

14       consume them in wrath,

         consume them till they are no more.

Then it will be known to the ends of the earth

         that God rules over Jacob (59:6, 12-14).

 

69:23 May their table set before them become a snare;

         may it become retribution and a trap.

24 May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see,

         and their loins tremble forever.

25 Pour out your wrath upon them;

         and let your burning anger overtake them.

26 May their camp be deserted;

         let there be no one to dwell in their tents.

         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

28 Add iniquity to their iniquity;

         and let them not enter into your righteousness.

29 Let them be blotted out of the book of life,

         and let them not be listed with the righteous (69:23-26, 28-29).

 

70:3 Let them be put to shame and confusion

         who seek my life;

 let them be turned back in disgrace

         who desire my ruin.

4 Let them turn back because of their shame

         who say, “Aha! Aha!” (70:3-4).

 

71:13 May they be put to shame and perish

         who accuse me;

 may they be covered with reproach and disgrace

         who seek my ruin (71:13).

 

104:35 May sinners vanish from the earth,

         and may the wicked be no more (104:35).

139:19 If only you would slay the wicked, O God!

         Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!

         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Yahweh,

         and abhor those who rise up against you?

22 I hate them with perfect hatred;

         I count them my enemies (139:19, 21-22).

 

140:9 Do not grant, O Yahweh, the desires of the wicked;

         do not let their plans succeed,

         or they will become proud. Selah

10 The heads of those who surround me—

         may he cover them with the trouble of their lips.

11 May (fiery) coals fall upon them;

         may He throw them into the fire,

         into watery pits—may they never rise!

12 Let men of slander not be established in the land;

         men of violence—may evil hunt them down swiftly! (140:9-12).

 

141:10 Let the wicked fall into their own nets,

         while I safely pass by (141:10).

 

143:12 And in Your lovingkindness annihilate my enemies

         and destroy all my foes,

         for I am Your servant! (143:12).

 

The Method of Approach

In this dissertation, I will seek to establish the plausibility that the utterance of imprecations or appeals for the onslaught of divine vengeance in the face of sustained injustice, hardened enmity, and gross oppression—as is found in the Imprecatory Psalms—is consistent with the ethics of the Old Testament and finds corresponding (albeit lessened) echo in the New.

In the development of this thesis, I will investigate first the principal solutions proffered with regard to the Imprecatory Psalms and Christian ethics and evaluate their legitimacy. Secondly, I will seek to settle the Imprecatory Psalms in their ancient Near Eastern context, in which cursing was an every-day facet of life. Following this, in the major focus of the dissertation, I will explore the three harshest psalms of imprecation (Pss 58, 137, 109) in greater detail and seek to ascertain the theological foundations upon which their cries were uttered. Lastly, I will examine the categorical and apparently contradictory statements of the New Testament (particularly the command of Jesus to “love your enemies” and of Paul to “bless and curse not”) vis-à-vis the imprecations in the psalms, coupled with an attempt to account for like imprecations in the New Testament.

Moreover, I will approach the issue at hand from a biblical-theological, rather than a systematic-theological, standpoint. Therefore, I will limit my inquiry into the ethics of such imprecations to the corpus of the Old and New Testaments as they have been progressively revealed. This approach further entails the recognition of a direct connection between the testaments: that the Old and New Testaments speak alike of the same God, [45]  and essentially of the same people of God, [46]  who are governed by essentially the same ethic. [47]  Indeed, the New Testament, by its own testimony and inference, is both the necessary complement and completion of the Old. [48]

 



[1]  Partly based upon a negative reaction to the invectives hurled against their enemies by the psalmists, Gunkel asserts: “the opinion that the Old Testament is a safe guide to true religion and morality cannot any longer be maintained.” Hermann Gunkel, What Remains of the Old Testament and Other Essays, trans. A. K. Dallas (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1928), 16.

 

[2]  The reasons for their respective inadequacy will be dealt with below. Chiefly and summarily, a theologically adequate reconciliation of the Imprecatory Psalms with Christian ethics must deal fairly with the entirety of scriptural revelation.

 

[3]  C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958). Idem, Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967).

 

[4]  Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984). Idem, Praying the Psalms (Winona, MN: Saint Mary’s Press, 1986).  

 

[5]  Roy Ben Zuck, “The Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms” (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1957).

 

[6]  J. Carl Laney, “A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms,” BSac 138 (1981): 35-45.

 

[7]  James E. Adams, War Psalms of the Prince of Peace: Lessons from the Imprecatory Psalms (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1991).

 

[8]  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “A Bonhoeffer Sermon,” trans. Daniel Bloesch, ed.  F. Burton Nelson, Theology Today 38 (1982): 465-71. Idem, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, trans. James H. Burtness (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1970).

[9]  Therefore, the Imprecatory Psalms—or their like tenor—were at times appropriate on the lips of both Old and New Testament believers.

[10]  Both of these elements are included as characteristic of an imprecatory psalm (cf., e.g., Pss 58, 79, 109, 137).

[11]  The New Testament evidences markedly fewer imprecations, and the imagery of those which exist (save, notably, the imprecatory sentiments in the Book of Revelation), are markedly muffled. For example, the horridly explicit and characteristic calls, such as “smash their teeth in their mouths!” (Ps 58:7), are conspicuously absent from the New Testament.

 

[12]  The New Testament epistle of 1 Peter, for example, which addresses Christians in the context of persecution and advocates endurance in the midst of suffering, speaks nothing of imprecating one’s enemies. Rather, it heralds the importance of patiently awaiting the return of Christ the Judge. This is significant, in that it starkly underscores what is to be considered the characteristic Christian approach to persecution and oppression—indeed, the characteristic Christian ethic. For example, 1 Pet 2:18-23 adjures Christian slaves to endure unjust beatings, based upon the example of Christ, entrusting their lives and the realization of justice to the God of justice. It is the life of blessing and endurance which is to characterize the Christian life (cf. 1 Pet 3:9; 4:12-19). To this the epistle speaks. And in principle, this is the dominant mood of the New Testament, and also (albeit in a more subdued tone) of the Old as well. However, the imprecatory passages of both Old and New Testaments supplement this general tenor, articulating the minor—yet complementary—ethic evidenced in instances of extremity.

 

[13]  Laney, “A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms,” 35.

 

[14]  Zuck, “The Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms,” 6.

 

[15]  Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 57.

 

[16]  Johannes G. Vos, “The Ethical Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms,” WTJ 4 (1942): 123. Zenger prefers to refer to these “psalms of cursing” as “psalms of enmity,” averring that the common label “invites misunderstanding—because they do not curse; they present passionate lament, petition, and desires before God.” Erich Zenger, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), viii. Now, although he overstates the issue, Zenger’s observational assertion nonetheless serves as a helpful corrective.

 

[17]  The gruesome cries of Psalm 137:8-9 are not technically imprecations, as narrowly defined, but are nonetheless universally recognized as the infamous exemplars of imprecations—as such are commonly defined. These verses are a wish addressed to Babylon directly (although indirectly to God, as the context elucidates) and express the desire for calamity to befall her. This breadth of definition, including the element of wish or threat, is likewise reflected in Webster’s explanation of the curse as a “pronouncement of doom to evil fate or vengeance,” or a “prayer or invocation for harm or injury to come upon one; an imprecation; malediction.” Furthermore, such a curse “implies the desire or threat of evil, declared solemnly or upon oath.” Of the synonymous terms listed in the preceding definition, an imprecation “denotes an invocation of evil or calamity”; and a malediction “is a more general term for bitter reproach or proclamation of evil against some one.” William Allan Nielson et al., eds., Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, 2d ed., unabridged (Springfield, MA.: G. & C. Merriam Company, Publishers, 1944), 648.

 

[18]  To my knowledge, the only detailed monograph on the subject of divine vengeance in the Scriptures is H. G. L. Peels, The Vengeance of God: The Meaning of the Root NQM and the Function of the NQM-Texts in the Context of Divine Revelation in the Old Testament, Oudtestamentische Studiën, ed. A. S. Van der Woude, vol. 31 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995). His thoroughness and depth make this an invaluable work. Cf. also Joel Noel Musvosvi, Vengeance in the Apocalypse, Andrews University Seminary Doctoral Dissertation Series, vol. 17 (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1993).

 

[19]  More will be said in this regard under the discussion surrounding Psalm 58.

 

[20]  McKeating is one who expresses his offense at the presentation of divine vengeance in the Old Testament. He asks: “Why the stress on the vengeful character of God? Does God require in man a nobility and a charity which He Himself is not prepared to display? There is plenty of evidence for the idea that God is one whose vengeance is quite inescapable, and who pursues vengeance even where a mere man would let the matter rest. . . . When the Israelite refrains from taking vengeance he thinks of himself as deliberately acting unlike God. Man ought to refrain from taking vengeance precisely because God will do so. God, therefore, though it appears that He approves of men forgiving one another, does not do it Himself, or not so readily. . . . The argument of the New Testament, ‘Be merciful, as your Father in heaven,’ . . . [has] no place in the Old. . . . It is at this point, the perception that there is an analogy between human and divine behaviour, and that human forgiveness should be an imitation of that of God, that the New Testament forgiveness concept develops away from that of the Old.” Henry McKeating, “Vengeance is Mine: A Study of the Pursuit of Vengeance in the Old Testament,” ExpTim 74 (1963): 243-45. However, his analysis runs counter to the self-testimony of the character of God as found in, e.g., Exodus 34:6-7, ignores the eschatological realization of divine vengeance heralded throughout the New Testament (notably 2 Thess 1; Rev 16-19), and sets up an antithetical and adversarial relationship between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New, who are one and the same.

[21]  Peels notes that the biblical concept of vengeance “is determined by the notion of legitimate, righteous, even necessary enactment of justice by a legitimate authority.” Peels, The Vengeance of God, 265.

 

[22]  So, for instance, note the frequent pairing of MqAnA, “vengeance,” with MUl.wi or lUmG;=, “recompense”—paying back what is deserved (e.g., Isa 34:8; 35:4).

 

[23]  Cf., e.g., Deut 32:34-43; Pss 58:10-11; 94:1-2; Isa 34:1-2; 59:15b-20; Luke 18:1-8; Rev 6:10; 16:5-7; 18:4-8, 20; 19:1-2.

 

[24]  Peels, The Vengeance of God, 278.

 

[25]  G. E. Mendenhall, “The Old Testament Concept of Vengeance,” JBL 68 (1949): viii-ix. Thompson concurs: “The term vengeance (naqam) denotes the zeal of God in the discharge of justice. To the repentant, God’s zeal issues in forgiveness and salvation. To the unrepentant and the rebel, God’s zeal issues in judgment.” J. A. Thompson, Deuteronomy, TOTC, ed. D. J. Wiseman (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1974), 302.

[26]  Though “lovingkindness” is an archaic rendering of the Hebrew  ds,H,, I believe it reflects much of the richness inherent in the term.

[27]  Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 62.

[28]  However, the culmination of this dual relationship comes only in the eschaton.

[29]  Edom is used in Isaiah 34 as typical of the nations (cf. 34:2 with 34:5), the prime exhibit of the enemies of Israel. She is nearer geographically and ethnically than the great Babylon; and her kinship to Israel makes the affront of her enmity the more severe.

 

[30]  Cf. Isa 34:2, 5. In the language of “holy war,” whatever was labeled Mr,He@ was dedicated to God almost invariably for the purpose of utter annihilation.

 

[31]  Cf. the imagery that culminates in Isa 34:8. From the prophet’s perspective, divine jealousy expressed on behalf of his covenant Bride is a virtue.

 

[32]  Raymond H. Swartzbach, “A Biblical Study of the Word ‘Vengeance’,” Interpretation 6 (1952): 457. Smick elaborates: “The Bible balances the fury of God’s vengeance against the sinner with the greatness of his mercy on those whom he redeems from sin. God’s vengeance must never be viewed apart from his purpose to show mercy. He is not only the God of wrath, but must be the God of wrath in order for his mercy to have meaning. Apart from God himself the focus of the OT is not on the objects of his vengeance but on the objects of his mercy.” Elmer B. Smick,    MqanA,” TWOT, 2:599.

 

[33]  Hans-Joachim Kraus, Theology of the Psalms, trans. Keith Crim (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), 67.

 

[34]  As Surburg notes, “The imprecations and maledictions in the Psalter may be understood to ask God to do with the ungodly and wicked exactly what the Bible says that God has done . . . , is doing, and will do.” Raymond F. Surburg, “The Interpretation of the Imprecatory Psalms,” Springfielder 39 (1975): 99.

 

[35]  Dabney notes that “righteous retribution is one of the glories of the divine character. If it is right that God should desire to exercise it, then it cannot be wrong for his people to desire him to exercise it.” Robert L. Dabney, “The Christian’s Duty Towards His Enemies,” in Discussions by Robert L. Dabney, ed. C. R. Vaughan, vol. 1 (Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1890), 715. Similarly, Beardslee notes that as the soul comes to stand where God stands, as it becomes progressively conformed to the image of its Creator (Col 3:10), it will feel as God feels and speak as God speaks. Thus, not only will there be a deep abhorrence of sin, but there will also be a righteous indignation against the willful and persistent wrongdoer. J. W. Beardslee, “The Imprecatory Element in the Psalms,” Presbyterian and Reformed Review 8 (1897): 504.

[36]  See especially Num 14:22-23, in which the Israelites are said to have tested Yahweh “ten times” and thus treated him with contempt.

[37]  After enduring two centuries of the worship of the golden calves at Bethel and Dan, as instituted by Jeroboam (1 Kgs 12:26–13:2), and of the increasing compromise to pagan ways and the worship of Baal, as instituted by Ahab (1 Kgs 16:30-33), God said, in essence, “No further!” For example, Hosea 8:1 speaks of Israel’s imminent destruction by the image of a “vulture (poised) over the house of Yahweh” (8:1); her “days of punishment/recompense have come” (9:7), in which God will “remember their wickedness” (8:13; 9:7; cf. Jer 14:10; contrast with Jer 31:34, in which God promises to “remember their sin no more”); their sins have reached the point where God has “hated/rejected” them (9:15, 17); because of which they will be subject to the depth of human depravity—“their little ones dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open” (14:1 [Heb.]); they will “return to Egypt” (8:13; 9:3; 11:5)—that shocking reversal of their redemption story (though even here hope is held out, 11:11); they will no longer be shown compassion (1:6), no longer be called “my people” (1:9, and Yahweh will no longer be their “I Am”)—though even here hope is held out (2:1-3; 2:16-25 [Heb.]; chapter 3). For similar expression of the severity of God toward his people for their stubborn sin, cf. Jer 7:16; 11:14; 14:11. In each of these, Yahweh tells Jeremiah not to pray for them.

[38]  “Yahweh, Yahweh, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and faithfulness, maintaining lovingkindness to thousands, and forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. Yet he by no means leaves the guilty unpunished . . . .”

[39]  Indeed, if the fullness of the character of Christ is to be known, the prime exhibit in Heb 12:2-3 of enduring the cross and opposition from sinful men must be expanded to include his symbolic curse on the nation who rejected him (Mark 11:12-21)—a curse realized in that generation in the desolation of Jerusalem.

[40]  This is a judgment in which Christ, the “Son of Man,” participates (Rev 14:14-16).

[41]  Notice here how the Song of Moses—the song of divine vengeance—is equated in some measure with the Song of Christ the Lamb.

[42]  The radical demands of love Jesus places on his followers are patterned after the example of God: “Love your enemies . . . so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:44-45); and “Love your enemies . . . and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and evil. Be compassionate, just as also your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:35-36).

[43]  Versification here and throughout the dissertation follows that of the Massoretic Text as reflected in BHS.

 

[44]  The translations of Scripture throughout this work are the author’s own.

 

[45]  For example: in Rev 1:17 Jesus is, by ascription, equated with Yahweh (alluding to Isa 44:6; 48:12); and in Rev 21:3, 7 God proclaims the culmination of the defining covenant declaration (cf. Gen 17:7-8; Lev 26:11-12; 2 Sam 7:14; Jer 31:33).

 

[46]  For example: 1 Pet 2:9 speaks of the New Testament church in language drawn from that inaugural declaration of Old Testament Israel as the people of God (Exod 19:5-6); Gal 3:29 attests that those who are in Christ are heirs of the Abrahamic promise; and Rom 4 affirms Abraham as our father in the faith and the exemplar of our faith. Although there have been historical disagreements between covenantal and dispensational theologians regarding the degree of continuity versus discontinuity between the testaments and the people of God, dispensationalism, as it has been most recently expressed, embraces an essential unity to the people of God. Ware argues that “we can think responsibly about the continuity and discontinuity between Israel and the church as both entities relate within the one people of God.” He elaborates: “Israel and the church are in one sense a united people of God (they participate in the same new covenant), while in another sense they remain separate in their identity and so comprise differing peoples of God. (Israel is given territorial and political aspects of the new-covenant promise not applicable to the church.) Israel and the church are in fact one people of God, who together share in the forgiveness of sins through Christ and partake of his indwelling Spirit with its power for covenant faithfulness, while they are nonetheless distinguishable covenant participants comprising what is one unified people. As the title of this chapter suggests, they are in fact the united ‘people(s) of God,’ one by faith in Christ and common partaking of the Spirit, and yet distinct insofar as God will yet restore Israel as a nation to its land. One new covenant, under which differing covenant participants join together, through Christ and the Spirit, as a common people of God—this, then, is the grace and the glory of the marvelous provision of God.” Bruce A. Ware, “The New Covenant and the People(s) of God,” in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition, ed. Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 69, 96-97. Blaising and Bock agree, rooting this unity in the person and work of Christ: he “is the key to the dispensations. . . . He gives the dispensations their unity—a unity in historical development, not a static transcendental ahistorical unity—and He gives the redeemed their identity as the people(s) of God.” Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Wheaton, IL: BridgePoint, 1993): 300-01.

[47]  For example: in Matt 22:36-40 our Lord distills the essence of the Old Testament commands as that of love for God and love for one’s neighbor (quoting from Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18); in 1 John 4:21 this same dual-faceted command is given to govern God’s New Covenant people; and in Gal 5:13–6:2 the “law of Christ” is linked to this very “law of love.”

[48]  For example: in Matt 5:17 Christ asserts that he came not to abolish the Old Testament, but to fulfill it; 2 Cor 1:20 teaches that all God’s promises find their ultimate realization in Christ—and thus also to those united to him; and Rev 21–22 and Gen 1–3 together form an overarching inclusio to the Scriptures in their entirety.


 

 

CHAPTER 2

UNSATISFACTORY SOLUTIONS

 

Across the centuries much has been written regarding the relation of the Christian to cries of imprecation as are found in the Psalms. Yet even in modern treatments of this vital issue, there have been little more than cursory efforts to integrate such imprecations holistically into the larger trans-testamental biblical theology, [1]  and the solutions proposed have proven theologically inadequate for reasons outlined below. The Imprecatory Psalms have been unsatisfactorily explained as chiefly (1) expressions of evil emotions—either to be suppressed or expressed, (2) utterances consonant with Old Covenant morality but inconsistent with New Covenant ethics, or (3) words appropriately spoken solely by Christ in relation to his work on the cross, [2]  and thus only by his followers through him.

 

Evil Emotions

Not to be expressed. The esteemed C. S. Lewis of last generation England, whose works have been a well-spring of inspiration for people of all ages, finds that “in some of


the Psalms the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth” [3] —the worst of which is perhaps Psalm 109. But “even more devilish in one verse is the, otherwise beautiful, 137 where a blessing is pronounced on anyone who will snatch up a Babylonian baby and beat its brains out against the pavement.” [4]  Lewis uses such phrases to describe these psalms as: “terrible or (dare we say?) contemptible,” [5]  “indeed devilish,” [6]  “wicked” and “sinful,” [7]  “this fury or luxury of hatred,” [8]  “ferocious” and “dangerous.” [9]  He further believes with regard to them that “we must face both facts squarely. The hatred is there—festering, gloating, undisguised—and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves.” [10]  

However, to embrace this position is questionable on four counts. Firstly, to insist that the numerous Imprecatory Psalms breathe words of hateful revenge and, as such, are not to be repeated by those trained in the school of Christ who taught his followers to “love your enemies,” is to run counter to the prevailing piety of the psalmists—notably that of David, the principal author of these psalms. Though he did succumb to the temptation of rage and revenge (e.g., 1 Sam 25:21-22) and committed gross sin (notably, the account of his adultery, deception, and murder in 2 Sam 11), these failings did not express his pervading character, which was rather revealed in his repentance (cf. Ps 51; 1 Sam 25:32-34). Moreover, he was quick to exhibit a Christ-like spirit toward his enemies—in particular, King Saul. [11]  It would thus appear an unlikely inconsistency if this principal author of the Imprecatory Psalms (23 of the 32 bear his explicit seal of authorship [12] ) were to exhibit in these psalms a heart consistently far from the character of Christ. [13]  To the contrary, we find as a core practice that precedes the personal imprecations of David a pattern of love-in-action. Indeed, the utterance of any imprecation in the psalms comes only after the enemy’s repeated return of “evil for good” (Pss 35:12; 109:5), or after gross (and frequently, sustained) injustice (cf. Pss 58, 79, 137). For example, in Psalm 35:12-14, David relates:

12 They repay me evil for good—

         what bereavement to my soul!

13 Yet I, when they were sick, I clothed myself in sackcloth,

         I humbled myself in fasting,

         but my prayers returned unanswered.

14 As though for my friend or brother, I paced back and forth;

         as though mourning for my mother, I bowed my head in grief.

 

Secondly, the purposes which govern the expression of imprecation in the psalms and the principal themes that run repeatedly through them are of the highest ethical plane: (1) a concern for the honor of God (e.g., Ps 74:22, “Rise up, O God, and defend your cause; remember how fools mock you all day long!”); (2) a concern for the realization of justice amidst rampant injustice (e.g., Ps 58:12, “Then men will say . . . ‘Surely there is a God who judges in the earth!’”); (3) a concern for the public recognition of the sovereignty of God (e.g., Ps 59:14, “Then it will be known to the ends of the earth that God rules over Jacob”); (4) the hope that divine retribution will cause men to seek Yahweh (e.g., Ps 83:17, “Fill their faces with shame so that they may seek your name”); (5) an abhorrence of sin (e.g., Ps 139:21, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Yahweh?”); and (6) a concern for the preservation of the righteous (e.g., Ps 143:11-12, “For the sake of your name, O Yahweh, preserve my life! . . . And in your lovingkindness annihilate my enemies and destroy all my foes, for I am your servant”).

Thirdly, to maintain that the expressions in the Imprecatory Psalms are evil and exude a spirit far distant from the Spirit of God is contrary to the inspiration of the Psalms. [14]  By the testimony of both David and David’s greater Son, the Psalms come under the purview of divine inspiration. David’s own attestation in 2 Samuel 23:2 is that “the Spirit of Yahweh spoke through me”—and this David is the premier human author of the Imprecatory Psalms. Furthermore, Jesus, in Mark 12:36, stated that “David himself spoke by the Holy Spirit.” He used this clause preparatory to a quotation from the Psalms. [15]  Moreover, and perhaps most pertinent, is the quotation of Peter from both Psalms 69 and 109—two of the most notorious of the Imprecatory Psalms—introduced by the statement that these Scriptures “had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas” (Acts 1:16, 20). Indeed, Lewis himself recognized that there is a certain compromise of the divine inspiration of the Psalms that is necessitated when his view is held. Since he believed that the Imprecatory Psalms were “so full of that passion to which our Lord’s teaching allows no quarter,” [16]  he courted the middle territory “that all Holy Scripture is in some sense—though not all parts of it in the same sense—the word of God.” [17]   

Fourthly, this view is contrary to the nature of the Psalms as a book fashioned for the worship of Yahweh by his people. To explain the Imprecatory Psalms as outbursts


of evil emotion not to be emulated may well account for the initial writing of the Psalms, but it does not adequately explain why these psalms were incorporated into the canon—indeed, the book of worship for God’s people! Gunn perceptively observes that to regard the Imprecatory Psalms “as wholly vindictive may be a sufficient explanation for the writing of them, because anyone in certain given circumstances of distress and provocation may have surrendered to this dark spirit. What we have to account for, however, is not the writing of them but their incorporation into the Psalter at the time when it was compiled, and in view of the purpose for which it was compiled. It is as nearly certain as can be that there was a higher reason for their inclusion in a collection that was intended solely for use in the worship of God.” [18]  Indeed, these troubling curses and cries for vengeance appear with such frequency that they form an integral part of the canonical Psalter [19] —and this without any literary or theological intimation of divine disapprobation for the expression of such sentiments. [20]  Nor was there felt any need by later copyists and compilers to expunge such material as unbefitting the Book of God. Gunn further muses that there


must be some thought—albeit vivid and painful—in these psalms which the compilers “regarded as seemly and necessary in the people’s approach to God in worship; and they took the risk—a very large one—of the misunderstanding which would arise and has constantly arisen from the type of language in which that thought was clothed.” [21]  This reality must be duly grappled with. [22]

 

To be expressed and relinquished. Walter Brueggemann, in a related position, understands the Imprecatory Psalms as hateful cries for revenge—but cries which Christians must move beyond. Yet this way beyond the psalms of vengeance “is a way through them and not around them.” [23]  He feels that rather than disowning them, Christians ought fully to embrace these harsh psalms as their own. They voice a common sentiment, for humans are vengeful creatures. “Our rage and indignation must be fully owned and fully expressed. Then (and only then) can our rage and indignation be yielded to the mercy of God.” [24]  Rather than banning such rage from the worship of God and the life of faith, Brueggemann nobly insists that this “rage is rightly carried even to the presence of Yahweh,” [25]  that it may be relinquished there. [26]  

This position is to be commended (1) for seeking to maintain the rightful place of the Imprecatory Psalms in the life of the Christian and in Christian worship, and (2) for contending that all of life is to be brought to God in prayer and relinquished to his lordship. However, in yet viewing the imprecations therein as “evil,” Brueggemann fails to reckon fully with the presence of similar imprecations in the New Testament, as well as the Old Testament foundations upon which the imprecations are voiced. [27]  Indeed, the larger trans-testamental testimony appears to exonerate and even commend them in limited and appropriate instances. These “curses” are based upon the covenant promises of God, and if that is so, then it would apparently not be inherently evil for his people to—albeit passionately—petition him for the fulfillment of these promises.  

And initially, this yearning for God’s just vengeance on the inveterately wicked that we find in the Psalms is far from evil—Jesus himself was known to display the rage evoked by stubborn sin. Prominent in this regard are: “He looked around at them in anger, deeply grieved at their stubborn hearts” (Mark 3:5), and “Snakes! Brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to Gehenna?!” [28]  (Matt 23:33). In both cases Christ was reacting against the hardened unbelief and opposition of the religious leaders of his day. Although neither of these statements is strictly imprecatory, they do bear the same sense and intensity: they exhibit a similar sentiment (i.e., the yearning for divine vengeance) [29]  expressed through a similar emotional state (i.e., rage), which are the cornerstones of Brueggemann’s contention that the imprecations in the Psalms are indeed evil. And if this is the example of the supremely ethical Jesus, then a righteous “rage” has been reclaimed. In addition, an instance of actual imprecation from the lips of Christ is recorded in Mark 11:12-14, 20-21 (cf. Matt 21:18-20). As both the near context and the larger development of the Gospel elucidate, Christ’s cursing of the fig tree is a not-so-veiled imprecation against faithless and fruitless Israel—an Israel who had so stubbornly rejected him. [30]  

Moreover, weighted against the contention that the Imprecatory Psalms pulsate with the venom of malice and revenge is the sheer volume of Imprecatory Psalms in the Psalter. If imprecations or calls for divine vengeance against the inveterately evil or unjust are to be construed as expressions of the faithful believer’s dark side—even if intended as a teaching tool, how is the inclusion in the Psalter of such a disproportionately large contingent of imprecations to be explained? Indeed, their prevalence in the Book of Worship by those of established piety [31]  lends credence to the opinion that such cries are to be embraced as the believer’s justified appeal to divine power and rectification in the midst of human powerlessness and oppression, rather than utterances to be desperately avoided.

 

Old Covenant Morality

Inferior morality. Approaching the issue from a dispensational and progressive-revelational standpoint, Roy Zuck seeks to alleviate the difficulty aroused by the Imprecatory Psalms by claiming that “the unfolding of revealed truth in the Word of God is accompanied by a similar advancement of morals,” [32]  and that “the Old Testament is on a lower moral plane than the New Testament.” [33]  Of principal support for his thesis is the observation that, “though there are many passages which speak of tenderness and kindness toward others, even toward enemies, the Old Testament never speaks of forgiving or loving avowed enemies of God.” [34]  This assertion is placed opposite the words of Jesus in the New Testament, in which he urged his disciples to “love your enemies” (Matt 5:44), and adjured his Father to “forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). In the entire Old Testament, Zuck finds only two passages which speak of consideration for one’s enemy—neither of which “says anything about forgiving or loving that enemy!” [35]  The verses cited are Exodus 23:4-5 and Proverbs 25:21, which state, respectively: “If you happen upon the stray ox or donkey of your enemy, you must surely return it to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you fallen under its load, do not fail to help him; you must surely help him with it.” “If one who hates you is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.”

However, there are two principal objections to this proposed solution to the problem of the Imprecatory Psalms and Christian ethics. Firstly, the narrow understanding of love placed upon the Old Testament (or the New, for that matter) is countered by the broader teaching and example of Scripture. In both testaments, love is expressed tangibly in acts of kindness, so that a deed of kindness is viewed as an act of love. For example, Leviticus 19, from which the second great commandment arises, is replete with various “actions” that reveal a heart of love for one’s neighbor. These include such things as “intentionally leaving the edges of the harvest field for the poor and the foreigner” (Lev 19:9-10); “paying your workers in a timely fashion” (Lev 19:13); “showing respect for the elderly” (Lev 19:32); and “treating the foreigner as if he were a native” (Lev 19:34). Indeed, in this latter passage, Yahweh goes on to command the Israelites to “love him [the foreigner] as yourself, for you were foreigners (Myrige) in the land of Egypt.” [36]  This helps us to understand that the reference to “loving one’s neighbor” in Leviticus 19:18, though paralleled with “one of your people,” is by no means meant to be confined there. Rather, that dictum is intended to apply to anyone nearby whose need one may meet, to whom one can show tangible love. This, in many ways, laid the foundation for Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in answer to the query, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29-37). Furthermore, in Matthew 5:45 (cf. Luke 6:35), Jesus established the command for loving one’s enemies upon the example of the kindness of God, who “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” alike. Moreover, this kindness toward one’s enemies is both unquestionably commanded (Exod 23:4-5; Prov 25:21) and exampled in the Old Testament (e.g., Elisha in 2 Kgs 6:18-23; [37]  Naaman’s slave girl in 2 Kgs 5; [38]  and Yahweh vs. Jonah in Jonah 3-4 [39] ). To distance deeds of kindness from the definition of love would be to limit the intent of Scripture without warrant. Thus, the Old Testament does indeed speak of loving one’s enemies—but this enemy-love is placed in the language, command, and example of enemy-kindness, which is love in action.

Secondly, the approach which seeks to explain the ethics of the Imprecatory Psalms on the basis of a morality inferior to that which we possess in the New Covenant runs counter to a proper understanding of progressive revelation. Hibbard has insightfully explained the nature of progressive revelation: God withholding from one age what he has bestowed upon a subsequent one. “But what the Holy Spirit actually commanded, or inspired the Old Testament writers to utter, on moral subjects, is, and must be, in harmony


with absolute morality.” [40]  And Archer well echoes that “progressive revelation is not to be thought of as a progress from error to truth, but rather as a progress from the partial and obscure to the complete and clear.” [41]  There is indeed a degree of difference in the progress of the testaments; but it is a difference in degree not in kind. Beardslee freely admits this development, yet rightly insists that “in essence there is only one principle in regard to morals pervading the Scriptures.” [42]  

This essential moral principle is articulated by Jesus, who asserted that the two “great commands” given in the Old Testament are the same two “great commands” reinforced in the New. When he was tested by one of the Pharisees with the question, “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22:36-40). Thus, from Jesus’ own testimony, the morality of the New Covenant in its highest expression is constant with that of the Old. [43]  The way that morality is expressed in the varying dispensations, however, may indeed vary. This is due, among other things, to the centralized status of God’s people in the Old Testament versus the decentralized status in the New. In the Old Testament, God’s people were surrounded by enemy nations: the necessity of their survival and the fulfillment of God’s promises required a prevailing posture of caution or war. [44]  But with the coming of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit as the culmination of the ages and the climax of promise has come a more explicit embrace of enemy-love and enduring abuse [45]  and the opening of the nations to the gospel of grace.

On a similar basis as the above, Chalmers Martin distances the praying of the Imprecatory Psalms from the New Testament believer when he asserts that the “distinction between the sin and the sinner was impossible to David as an Old Testament saint,” [46]  but is a distinction which must rightfully now be made. According to Martin, the progress of revelation alters the Christian’s stance toward the enemies of God from one of enmity against the whole being to one of mere hatred of the governing principle of sin operating through the sinner. This conclusion is similarly echoed by Althann who, after examining the use of imprecation in the Psalms vis-à-vis the cultural milieu in which they appear, proposes a solution to our present repugnance for such severe and unseemly language by “interpreting the expressions about the extermination of the godless in terms of the eradication of the causes of disequilibrium in the private and community life of Yahweh’s faithful. . . . Thus, a Christian re-reading turns the execration of individuals into a denunciation of the unjust situation provoked by them.” [47]

Yet, however common this sentiment may implicitly be in modern Christendom, [48]  it insufficiently characterizes the broader theology of Scripture. Therein, it is not merely “love the sinner but hate the sin,” but also paradoxically, “love the sinner but hate the sinner.” [49]  For even in the New Testament, the fullness of revelation’s progress, it is sinners—not just sin—who will be destroyed, suffering the eternal torment of hell. [50]

On the part of God, this seeming paradox of “loving yet hating the sinner” is evidenced by his raining both judgment and blessing upon them, as seen by the compari-son of Psalm 11:5-6, “the wicked and him who loves violence his soul hates. He will rain [51]  


on the wicked coals of fire [52]  and sulfur,” with Matthew 5:44-45, “Love your enemies . . . so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he . . . sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” alike. It is further compounded by the comparison of Isaiah 63:3-4, “I trampled them in my anger . . . their blood splattered my garments . . . for the day of vengeance was in my heart,” with Ezekiel 33:11, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” As Piper muses upon this paradox, he observes that “God is grieved in one sense by the death of the wicked, and pleased in another.” [53]  This is evidence of what he labels “the infinitely complex emotional life of God,” [54]  in which he is able simultaneously both to love and to hate unbelievers—loving them in the sense of his common grace distributed “commonly,” and hating them in the sense that they stand as rebellious sinners before a holy God.

And this life of God is a life the Christian is to emulate—albeit in a vastly inferior manner. [55]  In so much as the Christian is able, as a finite being, to image the

character and sentiment of God, he is called to do so. [56]  In this endeavor he finds as his pattern the person of Christ, who both lived pervasive love, yet did not shy away from severe denunciations against the (even religious) unrepentant wicked. [57]  On the Christian’s part, then, this paradox is lived out practically and particularly with regard to those hardened sinners deemed “beyond the ken of repentance;” [58]  and imprecations of judgment against them are uttered “on the hypothesis of their continued impenitence.” [59]  Under such circumstances, “to wipe out the sins results in the destruction of the sinner.” [60]  This is most often seen in the necessity of public justice executed against flagrant criminals. And it is against men such as these—“bloodthirsty men”—that David cried, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Yahweh?” (Ps 139:21). [61]  

 

Differing dispensations. In a distinct but related dispensational approach, Carl Laney sees the issue as one not of inferior morality versus superior morality, but as one simply of differing dispensations. He astutely observes that “the fundamental ground on which one may justify the imprecations in the Psalms is the covenantal basis for the curse on Israel’s enemies” [62]  as found in the Abrahamic Covenant of Genesis 12:1-3, which promised blessing on those who blessed Abraham’s seed and cursing on those who cursed them. But because he views Abraham’s seed as including solely those of the race and nation of Israel, he asserts that “it would be inappropriate for a church-age believer to call down God’s judgment on the wicked.” [63]

However, in addition to ignoring the manifest presence of imprecations on the lips of saints in the “dispensation of grace,” [64]  this position runs counter to the testimony of the New Testament which affirms the enduring validity of the Abrahamic promise for those who embrace Christ through faith (cf. Gal 3:6-29). [65]  Laney’s restriction of the Abrahamic promise to “Israel according to the flesh” (1 Cor 10:18) is parried by Paul’s affirmation in Galatians 3:29 (cf. Rom 2:28-29) that “if you belong to Christ, then you belong to Abraham’s seed, (and are thus) heirs according to the promise.” And if one is an heir of the Abrahamic Covenant through Christ, one is an heir—in some measure at least—to the promise of blessing as well as cursing found therein. [66]  

Bobby Gilbert follows in a kindred line of argument. After establishing the trans-temporal justice of the lex talionis [67]  as the basis upon which the author of Psalm 137 cries out for violence against the violators, he retreats in response to the question of whether this same attitude would be appropriate for a Christian. The basis upon which he asserts that the Christian is unable to respond in such a manner is that “the lex talionis was a civil law given to the nation Israel as a means of administering justice under Israel’s theocracy. As a civil law, it is not binding upon the New Testament believer. It cannot, therefore, be the basis of New Testament imprecations.” [68]

This proposed solution is to be questioned, however. Gilbert rightly insists that the divinely instituted lex talionis “is based upon the retributive nature of God himself.” [69]  Although Yahweh is a God of love, he “is also a God of retribution who deals with His creature’s trespasses against His holiness on the basis of His retributive justice.” [70]  This is seen most clearly and poignantly in the necessity of the cross—and it is the cross which both bridges and binds the two testaments. Since, moreover, it is a grounding assertion of Scripture that the nature of God does not change (e.g., Mal 3:6; Heb 13:8), the principle of divine justice based upon that nature, as encased in the lex talionis, must as well remain constant. [71]

Although he approaches the problem of the Imprecatory Psalms from a covenantal perspective, Meredith Kline comes to a similarly dispensational conclusion. He posits that the Old Covenant witnesses to “Intrusion ethics”—that the ethics of the consummation have been “intruded” into the era of common grace. He believes that the ethics of the Sinaitic Covenant in particular are “an anticipatory abrogation of the principle of common grace” [72]  inappropriate for the New Testament age, but which will be realized as the ethics of the age to come. He notes in this regard the example that believers in the eschaton, in patterning their ways after God’s, “will have to change their attitude toward the unbeliever from one of neighborly love to one of perfect hatred.” [73]  The Imprecatory Psalms, then, in their expressions of hatred and their cries for vengeance, witness to this divine abrogation of common grace and, as such, would be illegitimately echoed by the New Testament church.

One of the principles of common grace, as Kline elucidates, is that “we may not seek to destroy those for whom, perchance, Christ has died.” [74]  Mennega shares his sentiment, claiming that “we do not by special revelation know who are and who are not reprobate, as the psalmists of old did. We can therefore never use these psalms to refer them to particular individuals or groups of individuals who at any specific time by their actions display enmity at God’s kingdom. Those who are enemies of God at present may be his choice vessels tomorrow.” [75]  Now, however true this latter statement may be, to the larger construction it must be objected that nowhere in Scripture is it affirmed that the psalmists knew by God’s Spirit who were reprobate in the divine decree [76] —but they did know who were the inveterate enemies of God and his people! And neither does Scripture categorically forbid the cry for judgment against such people. [77]  Zuck rightly admits the presence of unmistakable imprecations in the dispensation of grace (and he cites 1 Cor 16:22; Gal 1:8-9; 5:12; 2 Tim 4:14; Rev 6:9-10), which he explains as voiced against “those who are the avowed adversaries of the Lord,” and “who are inexorably opposed and relentlessly antagonistic to the gospel of Jesus Christ.” [78]  And this, it ought be noted, is the very point of the Old Testament imprecations. They also are voiced against the “inveterate adversaries of the Lord.” [79]  Furthermore, Christians are never called to make the unerring judgment delineating those who are “permanently identified with the kingdom of evil.” [80]  But Christ himself has given the guiding principle by which to detect, in a practical man-ner, [81]  the elect from the reprobate: “By their fruit you shall know them” (Matt 7:16, 20). [82]  

Moreover, whereas Kline seeks to uphold the permanent validity of the moral law of Moses by insisting that “the distinction made is not one of different standards but of the application of a constant standard under significantly different conditions,” [83]  his assertion is not lived out in practice. Rather, in the development of his thesis, the ethics of common grace are thoroughly pitted against the ethics of the consummation. For example, in his discussion of the ethics of the Conquest, Kline asserts that 

. . . if Israel’s conquest of Canaan were to be adjudicated before an assembly of nations acting [solely] according to the provisions of common grace, that conquest would have to be condemned as an unprovoked aggression and, moreover, an aggression carried out in barbarous violation of the requirement to show all possible mercy even in the proper execution of justice. . . . It will only be with the frank acknowledgment that ordinary ethical requirements were suspended and the ethical principles of the last judgment intruded that the divine promises and commands to Israel concerning Canaan and the Canaanites come into their own. Only so can the conquest be justified. [84]  

However, the primary issue and ethical justification of the conquest of Canaan rests on the people’s obedience to the command of God—the God of all mercy and justice. Moreover, Van Til rightly comments that “there is essentially one principle of ethics running through both the Old and the New Testaments.” [85]  This may be evidenced by, if nothing else, the repetition on the lips of Christ of the two great commands of the Old Testament [86]  as the two great commands of the New: a wholehearted love of God and neighbor. [87]  

In like manner to Kline, Peels believes that, although it is incorrect to condemn the Old Testament imprecatory prayer from the perspective of New Testament ethics, “it is also impossible within the New Testament situation to raise the imprecatory prayer in the same manner as was done by the psalmists of the Old Testament.” [88]  This he bases on the fundamental change that has occurred in the cross. Indeed, the imprecatory prayer “must


necessarily undergo modification because the cross of Christ is the definitive, visible revelation of God’s justice.” [89]  He advocates that the imprecatory prayer, when properly transformed into a New Testament context, would be characterized by an eschatological and partially spiritualized focus, which “could take the form of a general anathema against all opposing powers” [90] —especially the kingdom and power of the Evil One. In this Longman agrees when he insists that, although David appropriately uttered curses against personal enemies, it would be wrong for a New Testament believer to follow suit. Rather, he argues, since the Christian’s warfare is against Satan and the spiritual forces of evil, his curses are to be reserved for them. [91]

Two objections may be noted, however. While there is indeed more explicit emphasis on the spiritual warfare of New Testament saints and their eschatological hope—as expanded and clarified in the progress of revelation, both elements were central in the experience of Old Testament saints as well. Theirs was the daily awareness of the opposing “gods” of the various surrounding nations, [92]  and theirs was the hope of the eschaton in its varied facets as iterated repeatedly through the prophets. [93]

The second issue regards the presence of personalized and extreme maledictions in the New Testament, with no implication of condemnation attached to them. Of particular note are (1) Paul’s vehement “anathema” against the Judaizers who had infiltrated the Galatian churches and proclaimed a “gospel” of legalism: “If anyone preaches a gospel to you other than the one you received, let him be damned!” (Gal 1:9); and (2) Peter’s curse of Simon the Sorcerer, who sought to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit: “May your money perish with you!” (Acts 8:20). In addition, these examples demonstrate the drawing of a marked conclusion as to the eternal status in the decree of God of those imprecated, even though the hope of repentance is ever implicit or is actually offered (e.g., Acts 8:22). Moreover, although the justice of God was definitively revealed in the cross of Christ, this does not relieve the persistent injustices against God’s people nor wholly assuage their justification for calling down God’s justice (e.g., Luke 18:1-8). Neither do the words of Christ from the cross: “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34), [94]  of necessity


mute their plea. Rather, the New Testament records the utterance of imprecations and petitions for divine vengeance on the lips of earth-bound and heaven-arrived saints alike (notably Rev 6:9-10). [95]  

 

Songs of Christ

The question is sometimes asked, “Who is the ‘I’ of the Psalms? Who is it who petitions God to destroy his enemies?” Is it the individual believer or the covenant community? Is it David or the Davidic monarch? Or is it Christ himself who prays these prayers, and the Christian through him? Indeed, for Jay Adams, this “is really the critical issue with the imprecatory psalms. If you were to ask God to destroy your personal enemy, that would be in essence cursing that enemy and, therefore, sinful. But if the King of Peace asks God to destroy His enemies, that is another matter!” [96]  Adams further states that these psalms are not “the emotional prayers of angry men, but the very war cries of our Prince of Peace!” [97]  Indeed, these psalms “can only be grasped when heard from the loving lips of our Lord Jesus.” [98]


In this, Adams concurs with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German martyr of World War II, who likewise denies that one can simply echo the prayers of David in the Imprecatory Psalms, [99]  grounding his assertion on the basis that “according to the witness of the Bible, David is, as the anointed king of the chosen people of God, a prototype of Jesus Christ. What happens to him happens to him for the sake of the one who is in him and who is said to proceed from him, namely Jesus Christ. . . . David was a witness to Christ in his office, in his life, and in his words. . . . These same words which David spoke, therefore, the future Messiah spoke through him. The prayers of David were prayed also by Christ. Or better, Christ himself prayed them through his forerunner David.” [100]  Thus, Bonhoeffer argues, although David did, in fact, utter these prayers of imprecation against his enemies, he did so only as the type of Messiah Jesus who was to arise from his line. [101]  


He further contends that “David could never have prayed for himself against his enemies in order to preserve his own life. We know that David humbly endured all personal abuse. But Christ, and therefore the church of God, is in David. Thus his enemies are the enemies of Jesus Christ and his holy church. For that reason Christ himself is praying this Psalm in David—and with Christ the universal holy church.” [102]  So, to the question initially raised, “Who prays the Imprecatory Psalms?” Bonhoeffer answers: “David (Solomon, Asaph, etc.) prays, Christ prays, we pray. We—that is, first of all the entire community in which alone the vast richness of the Psalter can be prayed, but also finally every individual insofar as he participates in Christ and his community and prays their prayer.” [103]  

Moreover, Bonhoeffer views the Imprecatory Psalms as prayers, not so much for the execution of God’s vengeance on instances of gross injustice, but rather for the execution of God’s judgment on sin in general—a judgment in history fully and solely satisfied in the cross of Christ. 

God’s vengeance did not strike the sinners, but the one sinless man who stood in the sinners’ place, namely God’s own Son. Jesus Christ bore the wrath of God, for the execution of which the psalm prays. He stilled God’s wrath toward sin and prayed in the hour of the execution of the divine judgment: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do!’ . . . God hates and redirects his enemies to the only righteous one, and this one asks forgiveness for them. . . . Thus the imprecatory psalm leads to the cross of Jesus and to the love of God which forgives enemies. I cannot forgive the enemies of God out of my own resources. Only the crucified Christ can do that, and I through Him. . . . In this way the crucified Jesus teaches us to pray the imprecatory psalms correctly. [104]

 

However, although divine justice toward the redeemed was fully satisfied in the cross, divine justice toward the reprobate is not fully satisfied except in the torments of eternal hell. [105]  And it is out of the scourges of injustice from such as these that the cry of the righteous arises. In addition, according to the testimony of Scripture, David does indeed function both genetically and typologically as the forerunner of Christ. But this is not meant to disassociate his words and actions from his person in history. Indeed, delaying these Davidic psalms of imprecation until the cross of Christ, and distancing them from their manifestly historical setting and speaker, robs them of both their immediate and archetypical [106]  significance and power.

Furthermore, this proposed solution does not adequately answer the problem aroused by the presence of imprecations in non-Davidic Imprecatory Psalms, for not all of the Imprecatory Psalms designate David as their author (notably Ps 137). [107]  And this


objection is not satisfactorily addressed by subsuming all of the Psalms under the aegis of his name. [108]  Neither does it answer the imprecations or cries for divine vengeance in other parts of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments alike. If imprecations against one’s enemies and the enemies of God are deemed morally legitimate in other parts of Scripture—and these are not rendered legitimate by placing them on the lips of Christ, then this proposal offers no genuine solution to the issue of imprecation in the Psalms, nor to the issue of imprecation in general.

 

Summary

In recent decades, numerous solutions to the problem of the Imprecatory Psalms and Christian ethics have been proffered. Although they address the issue from vastly differing perspectives, the tendency of these varied proposals is to distance the utterance of imprecations, as embodied in the Imprecatory Psalms, from Christian ethics. Representatives of these principal proposals have been examined and their positions found biblically and theologically unsatisfactory for the reasons enumerated below.

The view of Lewis that the Imprecatory Psalms are to be explained as the expression of evil emotions to be utterly avoided fails to adequately account for the prevailing piety of the psalmists, the elevated ethics promoted in these psalms, the


inspiration of the Imprecatory Psalms, and the presence of the Imprecatory Psalms in the canon—indeed, in its book of worship. The related position of Brueggemann that views such utterances as evil—and yet as an evil to be expressed to God and relinquished there—admirably answers the objection of these psalms in worship. However, it yet fails to fully reckon with the presence of like imprecations in the New Testament, the Old Testament theological foundations upon which they are uttered, and the profusion of such imprecations in the psalms.

The view that understands such imprecations as consistent with Old Covenant morality but inappropriate for the New Era is also expressed in two forms. The stance of Zuck that sees such imprecations as evidence of an inferior morality operative in the Old Testament overly restricts the biblical definition of love and minimizes the fundamental ethical continuity between the testaments in its application of progressive revelation. The explanation of Martin and Althann downplays the inextricable tie in both testaments between the sinner and sin. The related positions of Laney and Gilbert that exonerate the morality of the Imprecatory Psalms and yet consider it inappropriate for the New Testament believer based solely on the difference in dispensations rightly find a covenantal and theological foundation for such imprecations. However, they fail to adequately address the enduring validity of the Abrahamic promise and the implications inherent in the unchanging character of God. The perspective of Kline essentially pits the ethics of the Old Covenant against the New. The approach of Peels and Longman fails to reckon with the eschatological hope and spiritual awareness of the Old Testament believer, along with the presence of personalized imprecations in the New Testament.

The view of Adams and Bonhoeffer which asserts that the Imprecatory Psalms are appropriately prayed solely by Christ and only by his followers through him and his work on the cross overstates David’s typological function, understates his historical situation, and evades the issue of such expressions in non-Davidic Imprecatory Psalms and in the remainder of Scripture.

Given the noted inadequacies of the prevailing proposed solutions to the problem of the Imprecatory Psalms and Christian ethics, the need for a biblically and theologically sound solution remains—a need I will seek to address and to fill.



[1]  The ongoing works of Walter Brueggemann are nearest the exception.

[2]  I.e., in the fulfillment of the demands of divine justice.

 

[3]  C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958), 20.

[4]  Ibid., 20-21.

[5]  Ibid., 21-22.

[6]  Ibid., 25.

[7]  C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967), 120-21.

[8]  Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 27.

[9]  Ibid., 33.

[10]  Ibid., 22. Kittel echoes the sentiment that these notorious Imprecatory Psalms originated from superficial, mean-spirited persons, found among the pious of all times. “It is not necessary to excuse them; they belong to the past; to palliate them would be quite as foolish as to blame them; to repeat them would be blasphemy, and not to be thought of in these days.” Rudolph Kittel, The Scientific Study of the Old Testament, trans. J. Caleb Hughes (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1910), 142-43.

[11]  For example, after having been hounded relentlessly by the madly jealous King Saul, David finally had the choice opportunity to dispatch him while he was ignobly positioned in the cave in which David and his henchmen were hiding. However, David’s conscience would not allow him to strike down “Yahweh’s anointed.” After Saul had gone back to his troops, David called out to him from the cave, “May Yahweh judge between me and you. And may Yahweh avenge me for what you have done, but my hand will not be against you” (1 Sam 24:13). And Saul’s response is enlightening, “When a man finds his enemy, does he send him on his way unharmed? May Yahweh reward you well for the way you treated me today” (1 Sam 24:20).

[12]  There is a certain level of debate, ambiguity, and uncertainty surrounding the use of the introductory  l in the superscriptions of the psalms. Indeed, its fluidity of meaning is patently evidenced by the three-fold use in Ps 18:1: hvAhyla rB,Di rw,xE dvidAl; hvAhy; db,f,l; Hace.nam;la, “for the choir director, of David, the servant of Yahweh, who spoke to Yahweh . . .”. Granting this, however, I adopt the traditional understanding of the lin, e.g.,  dvidAl; as the lamedh of authorship for the following reasons: (1) The extended superscription found in Ps 18:1 makes the matter of authorship indicated by dvidAl; explicit. Moreover, it is likely that dvidAl; is the abbreviated form of the longer and frequent, e.g., dvidAl; rOmz;mi, “a psalm of David.” That this is so to be construed, rather than as a psalm “for” or “concerning” David is buttressed by the like use in the prophecy of Habakkuk 3:1, where authorship is again explicit: qUq.baHEla hlA.pit;, “a prayer of Habakkuk . . .”. (2) Such an understanding is consonant with David’s reputation as both musician and composer (e.g., 2 Sam 23:1; Amos 6:5; 1 Chr 15–16). (3) Both Christ and the apostles considered David himself to be the author of those psalms which bore the imprint dvidAl; (e.g., Mark 12:35-37; Acts 2:25-35). (4) The Tell Qasile ostraca (c. 8th cent. B.C.) evidence a use similar to that of the psalms: jlml, “Belonging to the king.” John C. L. Gibson, Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions, vol. 1, Hebrew and Moabite Inscriptions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 15-17. Moreover, Deutsch and Heltzer have catalogued numerous early Hebrew inscriptions on personal articles, the preponderance of which are likewise introduced by the l of ownership. Cf. R. Deutsch and M. Heltzer, Forty New Ancient West Semitic Inscriptions (Tel Aviv-Jaffa: Archaeological Center Publication, 1994); and ibid., New Epigraphic Evidence from the Biblical Period (Tel Aviv-Jaffa: Archaeological Center Publication, 1995). Furthermore, Gesenius long ago observed that “the introduction of the author, poet, &c., by this Lamed auctoris is the customary idiom also in the other Semitic dialects, especially in Arabic.” GKC, 420.  

[13]  This is not to assert that David was in any way a stranger to sin and rebellion. But the governing principle of his life was ds,H,. And it must be remembered that these Imprecatory Psalms of David were incorporated into the Psalter for Israel’s worship. Though this does not of itself demand that the things expressed therein are faultless, the sheer quantity of the cries for divine vengeance in the Psalms calls into question the view that they are not, in some measure at least, exemplary.

[14]  But, it may well be asked, how can divine inspiration be applied to the Psalms, which, by their very nature, are the response of men back to God. How can the words of men to God be the Word of God to men? In what sense, and to what extent, can we admit that they bear the stamp of the Holy Spirit? To these questions it is readily admitted that there is a measure of mystery. But the larger testimony of Scripture as well the history of God’s people (including the process of canonization) witness that the Psalter, in its entirety, is included under the aegis of  “God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16)—by the Holy Spirit through godly men (cf., e.g., Heb 3:7, in which a quotation from Ps 95 is introduced by, “as the Holy Spirit says”).

[15]  Although these words are in specific reference to Psalm 110, the implications are farther reaching.

[16]  Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 19.

[17]  Ibid. Lewis later elaborates: “The total result is not ‘the Word of God’ in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God; and we . . . receive that word from it . . . by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.” Ibid., 112. Zenger likewise compromises the doctrine of the divine inspiration of the Psalms in his defense of their appropriate use in the modern church. He baldly asserts that he is “not interested in a fundamentalist defense of the psalms of enmity and vengeance that are experienced as difficult or genuinely offensive, as if they must necessarily be retained because they are ‘the word of God’ and ‘revelation’.” Erich Zenger, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 63. Rather, “these psalms confront us with the reality of violence and, especially, with the problem of the perpetrators of this suffering and their condemnation by the judgment of God. In the process, they very often compel us to confess that we ourselves are violent, and belong among the perpetrators of the violence lamented in these psalms. In that way, these psalms are God’s revelation.” Ibid., 85. Barnes, on the other hand, sought to defend the inspiration of the Imprecatory Psalms by insisting that “all that inspiration is responsible for is, the correctness of the record in regard to the existence of these feelings:—that is, the authors of the Psalms actually recorded what was passing in their own minds. They gave vent to their internal emotions. They state real feelings which they themselves had; feelings which, while human nature remains the same, may spring up in the mind of imperfect man, anywhere, and at any time.” Albert Barnes, Notes, Critical, Explanatory, and Practical, on the Book of Psalms, vol. 1 (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1868), xxxviii. However, as Bush notes, the question is not “whether these imprecations are ‘truthful,’ but rather how this truth can be approved by God!” L. Russ Bush, “Does God Inspire Imprecation? Divine Authority and Ethics in the Psalms” (Evangelical Philosophical Society Presidential Address, November 16, 1990), 5.

[18]  George S. Gunn, God in the Psalms (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1956), 99. Similarly, Martin observes that the psalms included for use in the public worship of God contain an implicit claim that the poet’s expressed feelings are “in some sense true and right, such as others should sympathize with and, it may be, adopt as their own.” Chalmers Martin, “The Imprecations in the Psalms,” PTR 1 (1903): 540.

[19]  As Bush notes, the “prominence of the imprecatory material is an internal evidence that the biblical writers themselves did not see any inconsistency in their devotion to God and their call for judgment upon the wicked.” Bush, “Does God Inspire Imprecation?,” 6.

[20]  Although it may be argued that such expressions were retained to show succeeding generations that all things may be rightly brought to Yahweh in prayer—even our rage and revenge (see below), this would have to be inferred, for such a limit and intent is nowhere explicitly stated. Moreover, it yet leaves open the question: Why are there so many Imprecatory Psalms?

[21]  Gunn, God in the Psalms, 99.

[22]  It is significant to note that the proposed solutions addressed in this chapter (with the exception of Brueggemann and those aligned with his position; cf. below) end up, in the final analysis, in distancing the praying of the Imprecatory Psalms from the present expression of the people of God—a distance which is manifestly foreign to the apparent intent of the psalms as they have been passed down. Indeed, the Psalter in its entirety was incorporated into the Christian Canon, with the tacit affirmation of its continued status as the Book of Worship for God’s people. For example, the characteristic Christian life includes “speaking to one another with ‘psalms’” (Eph 5:19). As Drijvers concludes, the psalms, viewed as a whole and from a redempto-historical standpoint, “are sung by the Church now when she comes to meet him who is both holy and present, now when she experiences the riches of salvation and the neediness of the pilgrim state, now when she looks forward with longing to the full communion with God in heaven, where all the uncertainty of man’s life on earth shall be at an end. The psalms are the Songs of the New Covenant!” Pius Drijvers, The Psalms: Their Structure and Meaning (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967), 214.

[23]  Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms (Winona, MN: Saint Mary’s Press, 1986), 68.

[24]  Ibid.

[25]  Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984), 85.

[26]  This conviction is echoed by Craigie, who concurs that although the sentiments expressed in the Imprecatory Psalms “are in themselves evil, they are a part of the life of the soul which is bared before God in worship and prayer.” Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1–50, WBC, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, vol. 19 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 41. Zenger likewise notes that the Imprecatory Psalms bring us face to face with “the fundamental biblical conviction that in prayer we may say everything, literally everything, if only we say it to GOD.” Zenger, A God of Vengeance?, 79.

[27]  These Old Testament theological foundations and New Testament imprecations will be dealt with in later chapters.

[28]  I.e., hell. Gehenna (gevenna) is a transliteration of the Hebrew  Mno.hi  [-Nb,] xyge, “Valley of [the Son of] Hinnom.” This was the valley on the south side of Jerusalem where the notorious infant sacrifices to the pagan gods Molech and Baal were carried out, and which received the severest of denunciations from Yahweh (e.g., Jer 32:35). It was also the place for the dumping of refuse. This location of abominable terror and burning served as a vivid picture of eternal damnation, of hell.

[29]  Cf. Luke 12:49, “I have come to cast fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (cf. the impassioned “woe” of Christ uttered against Judas in Matt 26:24).

[30]  This passage will be dealt with in more detail in chapter five.

[31]  Cf. discussion above, pp. 26-28.

[32]  Roy Ben Zuck, “The Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms” (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1957), 73. Hammond similarly estimates “that prayers for the temporal and even capital punishment of the wicked, while unlawful and unjustifiable on the lips of Christian men, were nevertheless, under certain conditions, perfectly lawful and perfectly natural on the part of those to whom life and immortality and a judgment to come had not been brought to light.” Joseph Hammond, “The Vindictive Psalms Vindicated: Part IV,” Expositor 3 (1876): 452. This assertion is countered, however, when one encounters imprecations in the New Testament which bear the same or a similar likeness.

[33]  Zuck, “The Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms,” 70. He adds: “The difference in the dispensations of law and grace demands an acceptance of the fact that the moral standards of the Old Testament were not on the high level of that of the New Testament. For example, love for one’s enemies as found in the New Testament is foreign to Old Testament morality.” Ibid., 73 (italics added). However, although it is rightly espoused that the New Testament ethic of enemy-love is made more explicit and given greater emphasis, and the ramifications of that ethic are more widely explored and applied, it is not wholly new. Indeed, the concept of enemy-love is not “foreign” to Old Testament morality; rather it is latent or subdued, finding full flower in Christ. The radical command of Christ to “love your enemies” (Matt 4:43-48) is addressed in chapter five.

[34]  Ibid., 60.

[35]  Ibid.

[36]  Thus, although the term rge speaks generically of a “resident alien,” in this context there is the added nuance of a basic and natural enmity as well. For, although Israel entered Egypt on friendly terms, their “sojourn” in Egypt was characterized by the enmity of denigration and oppression of slavery. It is this mistreatment of the Israelites by the Egyptians that Yahweh seeks to counter among his own people, counter to their inclinations (cf. Deut 10:19).

 

[37]  This account of kindness—of love—towards one’s enemies, is one of the most dramatic in all of Scripture. When the Israelites were hopelessly caged in the town of Dothan by their perennial enemies, the Arameans, the prophet Elisha prayed that God would blind the eyes of the enemy army. By a ruse, he then led them to the Israelite capital of Samaria. Once inside “their” enemy territory, their sight was returned, and the Israelite king asked Elisha if he should kill them. Elisha declined, and directed the king instead to give them food and water, and to send them back unharmed. And from that point on, there was a period of peace between them.

 

[38]  The Arameans of Elisha’s day were the epitome of the enemy. And Naaman’s unnamed slave girl, acquired by an army raid, surprisingly sought the welfare of her foreign master—the Aramean army commander; and Elisha likewise responds to his need with grace and kindness.

 

[39]  This example of Yahweh’s “unexpected” compassion toward the Assyrians—his inveterate adversaries and the oppressors of his people—is contrasted with the unbecoming response of Jonah.

 

[40]  F. G. Hibbard, The Psalms Chronologically Arranged, with Historical Introductions; and a General Introduction to the Whole Book, 5th ed. (New York: Carlton & Porter, 1856), 107.

[41]  Gleason L. Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, revised and expanded ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 500. Although not technically imprecatory, Rev 22:18-19, the culmination of revelation’s progress, issues grave warnings in a manner reminiscent of certain ancient Near Eastern curses (cf. chapter 3, note 31). This example further illustrates the close relation between actual imprecation and divine threat: that they are not two entirely distinct domains, but rather ones which bear a certain measure of semantic overlap, as evidenced by, e.g., Deut 28, in which the divine threats are defined as “curses” (for further discussion of this relation, cf. Appendix A).

[42]  J. W. Beardslee, “The Imprecatory Element in the Psalms,” Presbyterian and Reformed Review 8 (1897): 496.

[43]  Cf. Gal 5:13-14; 6:2; Rom 13:8-10; 1 John 4:20-21. Thus, Zuck’s contention in “The Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms” (56, 58) that “in Old Testament times God did not require as much of those who were not permanently indwelt by the Holy Spirit as he does of us today” and “that David lived in a dispensation when the higher moral precepts of the New Testament were not in existence” is largely illegitimate, for the two great commands remain constant through both dispensations. Therefore, it is not a matter of higher versus lower moral precepts—they have ever remained fundamentally constant; rather, it is a matter of differing administrations and the outworking of those precepts in the progress of redemption. As Edwards notes: “Because the same God is the author of both dispensations, what is essentially bad, at one period, must be so at all times.” B. B. Edwards, “The Imprecations in the Scriptures,” BSac 1 (1844): 101.

 

[44]  And yet even to these, love/kindness was demonstrated in certain discrete instances (cf. examples noted above).

 

[45]  Cf., e.g., Matt 5:43-44; 1 Pet 2:21-23.

 

[46]  Martin, “The Imprecations in the Psalms,” 548. He continues: “This impossibility arose out of the fact that the doctrine of Satan, which makes it easy for us to pity the sinner while we hate and condemn the sin, was then very imperfectly revealed. We pity the sinner because we view him as not exercising an unconstrained choice of evil, but as being the victim of a cruel compulsion. . . . They thought of these men as choosing evil simply because they loved it, and therefore as being worthy to be hated by all those who loved and chose the good.” Ibid. This, however, is a misreading of the biblical evidence. Although the doctrine of Satan was in its fledgling stage in the Old Testament, nowhere in the New Testament is it affirmed that as sinners humans are mere victims of Satan’s whim. Rather, the New Testament echoes the sentiment of the Old, that without God people do indeed love and freely choose evil (e.g., Rom 3:10-18 as a collage of quotes from the Psalms and Isaiah).

[47]  Robert Althann, “The Psalms of Vengeance against Their Ancient Near Eastern Background,” JNSL 18 (1992): 10.

[48]  E.g., C. S. Lewis, in reflecting upon the imprecations in the psalms, denies that God looks upon the psalmists’ enemies as they do (i.e., with hatred). While he asserts that God doubtless “has for the sin of those enemies just the implacable hostility which the poets express,” he maintains that such hatred is directed “not to the sinner but to the sin.” Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 32.

[49]  McKenzie rightly observes that “sin as an abstraction has no existence. The sin which we hate has its concrete existence in human wills.” John L. McKenzie, “The Imprecations of the Psalter,” AER 111 (1944), 91. It is for such reason as this, he argues, that law-abiding citizens may consent to the execution of a murderer—not because of the pleasure his killing gives them, but because his death restores the order of justice which his crime has violated. Ibid., 90. Moreover, McKenzie, speaking out of the context of the Second World War, contends that “we would not carry on the war if we did not regard our enemies as evil and desire efficaciously to inflict evil upon them. This is a species of hatred.” Ibid. He then further perceptively muses: “there is a lawful hatred of the sinner; and indeed there must be, since such a hatred is the obverse of the love of God. The love of God hates all that is opposed to God; and sinners—not merely sin—are opposed to God. And if such a sentiment is lawful, its expression is lawful; and one may desire that the evil in another receive its corresponding evil—provided that this hatred is restrained within the limits of that which is lawful. These limits are: 1. Hatred must not be directed at the person of one’s neighbor; he is hated for his evil quality. 2. One may desire that the divine justice be accomplished in the sinner; but it must be a desire for divine justice, not a desire for the personal evil of another out of personal revenge. 3. The infliction of evil may not be desired absolutely, but only under the condition that the sinner remains obdurate and unrepentant. 4. It must be accompanied by that true supernatural charity which efficaciously desires the supreme good—the eternal happiness—of all men in general, not excluding any individual who is capable of attaining it. In a word, the sinner may lawfully be hated only when he is loved.” Ibid., 92-93. In like manner before him, Aquinas had affirmed that “God hates the detractor’s sin, not his nature. So we may hate detractors in the same way without sin.” Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, vol. 35, Consequences of Charity, trans. Thomas R. Heath (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1972), 11. Sutcliffe similarly argues that God’s hatred of sinners—and thus ours as well—“is a hatred of the sinner precisely as a sinner or in other words it is a hatred of his sinful character.” E. F. Sutcliffe, “Hatred at Qumran,” RevQ 2 (1960): 347.

[50]  Cf., e.g., Isa 66:24; Mark 9:47-48; Rev 14:9-11.

 

[51]  Although the form of  rFem;ya here is jussive rather than imperfect, the sense is evidently to be construed as imperfect, as suggested by the context and so rendered by a consensus of translations (likewise, cf. the LXX’s future e]pibre<cei).

 

[52]  Reading ymeHEPa, “coals of” (cf. Symmachus’  a@nqrakaj), in lieu of the MT’s MyHiPa, “snares.” The difficulty of the MT as it stands is exacerbated in that it portrays an unparalleled metaphor for judgment, and evidently arose due to an accidental transposition of the yod and mem in a consonantal text. Moreover, the adopted reading yields better line symmetry (5:4) than that of the MT (3:6), which reads instead (supported by the LXX): “He will rain on the wicked snares; fire and sulphur and a scorching wind will be the portion of their cup.”

[53]  John Piper, The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1991), 66.

 

[54]  Ibid.

 

[55]  Humans are created in God’s image (and thus are to image Him, Gen 1:26-28); Christians are being renewed in that image (Col 3:10); and they are to follow the example of Christ (as patterned by Paul, 1 Cor 11:1).

 

[56]  In this regard it is instructive to place that “patently offensive outburst” of David, uttered in Ps 139:19, 21-22, in tandem with the description of God’s character and sentiment toward the wicked expressed in Ps 5:5-7. By doing so, it may be seen that David is seeking but to image God’s character and echo his sentiment.

 

5:5 Surely, you are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness;

         evil cannot dwell with you.

6 The boastful cannot stand before your eyes;

         you hate all who practice iniquity.

7 You destroy those who tell lies;

         bloodthirsty and deceitful men Yahweh abhors (5:5-7).

 

139:19 If only you would slay the wicked, O God!

         Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!

21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Yahweh,

         and loathe those who rise up against you?

22 I hate them with perfect hatred;

         I count them my enemies (139:19, 21-22).

 

 

[57]  Cf., e.g., John 4:4-42 and 8:2-11 with Matt 11:20-24 and 23:1-39 (the relation of woe to imprecation is discussed in Appendix A).

 

[58]  Surburg, “The Interpretation of the Imprecatory Psalms,” 100.

 

[59]  This creative tension of loving yet hating the hardened sinner is ably represented by Thrupp: “Imprecations of judgment on the wicked on the hypothesis of their continued impenitence are not inconsistent with simultaneous efforts to bring them to repentance; and Christian charity itself can do no more than labour for the sinner’s conversion. The law of holiness requires us to pray for the fires of divine retribution: the law of love to seek meanwhile to rescue the brand from the burning.” Joseph Francis Thrupp, An Introduction to the Study and Use of the Psalms, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Macmillan and Co., 1860), 202.

 

[60]  Surburg, “The Interpretation of the Imprecatory Psalms,” 100. Indeed, in God’s economy, “the wages of sin is death” for the sinner (Rom 6:23). And for all whose sins are not wiped out in the cross of Christ, they remain under the condemnation of God (John 3:18, 36).

 

[61]  In many ways, this “hating” is a relational term, realized as a distancing of oneself from the wicked: notice how David prefaces his remark of hatred with, “Away from me!” (Ps 139:19). Additionally, the godly Judean King Jehoshaphat was chided by Jehu the seer, following his return from the ill-fated war alliance with the wicked Israelite King Ahab, for “loving those who hate Yahweh” (2 Chr 19:2; i.e., allying himself with one so opposed to God, passively affirming his wickedness).

 

[62]  J. Carl Laney, “A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms,” BSac 138 (1981): 41-42. And upon this basis, “David had a perfect right . . . to pray that God would effect what He had promised.” Ibid., 42.

 

[63]  Ibid., 44. In like manner, he dismisses the cry for divine vengeance of the martyrs in heaven (Rev 6:10) as “not applicable to the church age.” Ibid.

 

[64]  Most notable of which are Gal 1:8-9 and Acts 8:20. These passages, among others, will be addressed in chapter five.

 

[65]  According to the argument of Paul in Gal 3, in which he plays off the ambiguity latent in the collective singular spe<rma/fraz, (Gal 3:16; Gen 12:7; 13:15; 22:18), Messiah Jesus is “the Seed” par excellence, of whom the covenant promise was made—as interpreted through the development of the promise in the Davidic and New Covenants. As Matt 1:1 presents him, he is the Son of David and the Son of Abraham. Both Solomon, the initial fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant (2 Sam 7:12-16), and Isaac, the initial fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen 21:12) are swallowed up in Christ. He is the “yes” of all God’s promises (2 Cor 1:20); thus, all who share in Christ share in the promises. Indeed, Donaldson argues that Paul’s fundamental concern in Gal 3:1—4:7 is “the inclusion of uncircumcised Gentile believers among the true ‘seed’ of Abraham.” T. L. Donaldson, “The ‘Curse of the Law’ and the Inclusion of the Gentiles: Galatians 3.13-14,” NTS 32 (1986): 94. This inclusion of all races and classes into the Abrahamic promise as his “seed” through Christ “the Seed” comes to a focus in Gal 3:26-29, the latter verse of which proclaims: “If you belong to Christ, then you belong to Abraham’s seed, (and are thus) heirs according to the promise.”

 

[66]  This blessing of the Covenant, which is the focus of Paul’s discussion, is articulated as the blessing of life, of sonship, of the Spirit (Gal 3:14, 26; 4:4-7); and the curse (taken from the Mosaic Covenant) is the curse of death and condemnation (Gal 3:10-13). This “blessing” is drawn specifically from Gen 12:3b, which promises that the Gentiles would be “blessed” through Abraham; and thus, the distilled argument of Paul is that the Gentiles through faith in Christ, the Seed of Abraham, fully partake in the Covenant made to Abraham. This covenant also promised: “I will bless those who bless you; and I will curse him who curses you.” Granted, the blessings of the Covenant explicitly mentioned by Paul, which the Gentiles inherit, are spiritual in nature. However, this is arguably not meant to categorically exclude the more “physical” elements of the Abrahamic Covenant. Rather, it is for the sake of emphasizing the fundamental issues of the promise in the progress of revelation—which issues are most germane to his argument in this epistle.

Indeed, although Paul’s address of the curse in this context is contrary to the sense in Gen 12:3a (for the sake of his emphasis and argument), his earlier example in this very epistle implies that he understood the element of divine cursing, as intended in the Abrahamic promise, to apply in some measure—in extreme instances—to Christian ethics. In Gal 1:8-9, an impassioned Paul called down the divine curse on the grievous enemies of the church. Also, Peter freely applied the imprecations of Pss 69 and 109 to the traitor Judas (Acts 1:15-20). And Jesus instructed his disciples on their first mission that, if they were welcomed into a home, they were to let their peace remain on it (i.e., God, through his disciples, would “bless those who blessed them”); 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 (i.e., God, through his disciples, would “curse those who cursed them”) (Matt 10:11-15).

The relevance of the Abrahamic curse in the daily life of the New Covenant believer is further intimated by the apostle Paul when he assured his protégé Timothy that a certain Alexander, who “cursed” God’s people by strongly opposing both Paul and the gospel message, would in turn be “cursed” by God with divine retribution (2 Tim 4:14-15). It is of interest to note that significant elements of early Christianity understood Paul’s statement to convey an imprecatory sense. Indeed, although undoubtedly a secondary reading, the Byzantine tradition (along with a portion of the Western) explicitly transmitted this imprecatory intent, as evidenced by the optative a]pod&<h (cf. KJV).

 

[67]  I.e., “the law of just recompense,” which legislated that the punishment was to fit the crime: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life” (Exod 21:23-25; Lev 24:17-20; Deut 19:18-21).

 

[68]  Bobby J. Gilbert, “An Exegetical and Theological Study of Psalm 137” (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1981), 81. Gilbert dismisses the lex talionis as a proper foundation upon which the New Testament believer could utter imprecations. Instead, he argues that “when Paul requests the judicial wrath of God upon those who do not love the Lord (1 Cor. 16:22) or upon those who preach a different gospel (Gal. 1:8, 9), he does so on the basis that it is God’s revealed will that sin be punished (Rom. 6:23) and that it is God’s will that evil men will one day be eternally condemned (Rev. 20:11-15).” Ibid., 82. However, it is difficult to see how this differs materially from the issue in the Old Covenant. Saints in both testaments appeal to the revealed will of God as the basis of their imprecations, and this revealed will of God in both testaments is essentially identical. One may listen, for example, to how the Song of Moses—particularly the refrain, “It is mine to avenge, I will repay” (Deut 32:35), lilts its way through the pages of Scripture: as the basis of many of the imprecations in the Psalms (e.g., “God of vengeance, shine forth!” Ps 94:1), as the foundation of New Testament ethics in Rom 12:19, and as the song of triumph at the close of the canon (Rev 15:3-4; 19:1-2; in response to Rev 6:9-11).

 

[69]  Ibid., 58.

 

[70]  Ibid., 69.

 

[71]  Indeed, this trans-testamental law in its cousin formulation, “the law of sowing and reaping,” is expressed in such diverse passages as Prov 26:27, Hos 8:7 and 10:12-13, and Gal 6:7-8; and Jesus’ own version of the divine law of retribution is stated in Matt 7:2: “With the measure you use it will be measured to you.” Notice also how the cry of Ps 137:7-9 finds its ultimate realization in Rev 18:5-6, 20-21. Further example of the operation of the lex talionis in the New Testament is seen in the apostle Paul’s confrontation with Elymas the magician in Acts 13:8-11. Indeed, although Allen insists that the “Christian faith teaches a new way, the pursuit of forgiveness and a call to love,” he perceptively asks: “Yet is there forgiveness for a Judas (cf. John 17:12) or for the Antichrist?” Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101–150. WBC, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, vol. 21 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 242. The issue of the lex talionis will be addressed in more detail in chapter four.

[72]  Meredith G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), 160. His contention is based in large measure on the deduction that the Israelite theocracy was divinely instituted to typify the perfected kingdom of God. Ibid., 167.

[73]  Ibid., 160.

[74]  Ibid., 161. For Kline, it is only the principle of intrusion that makes the destruction of physical enemies in the Old Covenant, and the cries for such in the Psalms, permissible. For in the consummation, “no longer will there be the possibility that the enemy of the saint is the elect of God.” Ibid., 162.

[75]  Harry Mennega, “The Ethical Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms” (Th.M. thesis, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1959), 87. Likewise, Vos proffers the same assertion in proscribing Christians from offering petitions to God (like the psalmists’) for the physical death of particular persons, because the Christian “does not know which wicked persons, in the secret counsel of God, are reprobates and which are included in the election of grace.” Vos, “The Ethical Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms,” 138. Thomas, in seeking to justify the prayer of the martyrs in Rev 6 (which he believes is guaranteed to be free of any selfish motive, since it is uttered in heaven), asserts that they are able to pray this way because they had been given some special revelation which identified the reprobate—a knowledge possessed only in divine perspective. Robert L. Thomas, “The Imprecatory Prayers of the Apocalypse,” BSac 126 (1969): 129-30. This, however, merely evades the issue.

[76]  Divine inspiration of the Psalter, which is explicitly affirmed, does not entail a special knowledge of the human author into God’s secret decree.

[77]  Jesus’ words: “Love your enemies,” along with Paul’s “bless and do not curse,” will be addressed later in chapter five. For Jesus’ address of the lex talionis in personal ethics (Matt 5:38-42), cf. chapter four, note 84.

[78]  Zuck, “The Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms,” 64, 66.

 

[79]  Ibid., 66.

 

[80]  Mennega, “The Ethical Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms,” 94.

 

[81]  Though this method is by no means foolproof (cf. the example of Saul–Paul), it is, nonetheless, the Christian’s sure and proverbial guide in daily living.

 

[82]  Cf. Calvin who, in commenting on 2 Tim 4:14, adjures Christians to pronounce sentence “only against reprobates, who, by their impiety, give evidence that such is their true character.” John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, first published 1556, trans. William Pringle (n.p., n.d.; reprint, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948), 269.

 

[83]  Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority, 160.

 

[84]  Ibid., 163.

[85]  Cornelius Van Til, “Christian Theistic Ethics” (Class syllabus, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1952), 14. Indeed, even with respect to the ethical requirements of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which are often placed in contradistinction to the ethical aura of the Old Testament, Ladd understands that “if Jesus’ ethics are in fact the ethics of the reign of God, it follows that they must be absolute ethics. . . . Jesus’ ethics embody the standard of righteousness which a holy God must demand of men in any age.” George Eldon Ladd, The Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 290-91.

[86]  As has been recognized for some time, these two commands are the essence of the Decalogue: the heart of the law of Moses.

[87]  Although there is indeed a different level of emphasis between the testaments regarding the believer’s status toward his enemies (i.e., loving vs. hating them), due in large part to the different stage of the outworking of God’s plan among and through his people, a love of neighbor, expressed in kindness, which included one’s enemies in their time of need, was both commanded and exampled in the Old Testament (cf. discussion above, pp. 36-40).

[88]  H. G. L. Peels, The Vengeance of God: The Meaning of the Root NQM and the Function of the NQM-Texts in the Context of Divine Revelation in the Old Testament, Oudtestamentische Studiën, ed. A. S. van der Woude, vol. 31 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995), 246.

[89]  Ibid., 245. He further elaborates that, in the cross of Christ, God’s judgment is fundamentally completed in an anticipatory way, awaiting the final revelation of this judgment by Christ on the last day. Ibid.

 

[90]  Ibid., 246.

 

[91]  Tremper Longman III, How to Read the Psalms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 139. He grounds his conclusion on the observation that, as the Scriptures unfold from Genesis to Revelation, God radically changes the relationship of his people with those outside the community of God.

 

[92]  E.g., Deut 32:16-17; Josh 24:14-15; 1 Sam 4–6; 1 Kgs 17–18.

 

[93]  E.g., Isa 2; 4; 11; 19:16-25; 24–27; 34–35; 60–62; 65:17–66:24.

 

[94]  It is of interest to note that Jesus’ words, assuming their authenticity (though they are absent from a few important and diverse early manuscripts, notable among which are Ã75, Àa, B, D*, and W—all from the third to fifth centuries), are more probably directed toward the Romans rather than the hardened and antagonistic Jewish religious leaders. For those, Jesus had a different sentence (cf. Matt 23). That the Romans are the ones specifically addressed is implied by the context directly surrounding the appeal. The antecedent of “them” in Luke 23:33 is the Romans who crucified him in v. 32; and in v. 33b, it is the Romans again who are observed to divide up his clothes. Reiling and Swellengrebel agree: “autoi" may refer to the Jewish high priests or to the Roman soldiers. The latter is preferable.” J. Reiling and J. L. Swellengrebel, A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Luke, Helps for Translators, vol. 10 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971), 731. Marshall likewise equates the antecedent with the Roman executioners, yet also considers that it possibly includes all who were involved in Christ’s crucifixion. I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, NIGTC, ed. I. Howard Marshall and W. Ward Gasque (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), 867. In contrast, the echo of Christ’s words from the cross on the lips of the dying martyr Stephen are notably directed toward religious Jews. However, their level of “stubbornness” (Acts 7:51) is apparently deemed to be of a different caliber than their earlier counterparts (cf. Acts 6:9; 7:59-60).

[95]  Here, in particular, this cry of the martyred saints in heaven for divine vengeance is in language strikingly reminiscent of the Imprecatory Psalms (cf. especially Ps 79:10). For such breadth of definition as inherently germane to the discussion, cf. chapter 1, pp. 4-6.

[96]  Jay E. Adams, War Psalms of the Prince of Peace: Lessons from the Imprecatory Psalms (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1991), 21.

[97]  Ibid., 33.

[98]  Ibid.

[99]  With regard to Psalm 58, Bonhoeffer asserts, “Is this frightful Psalm of vengeance our prayer? Are we actually allowed to pray in such a manner? . . . No, we are certainly not permitted to pray like that.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Bonhoeffer Sermon,” trans. Daniel Bloesch, ed. F. Burton Nelson, Theology Today 38 (1982): 467. And with regard to this same psalm, Adams seeks to assert that, although David is the author of this psalm, since he is not innocent it is Christ who is praying this psalm with David; for “only one who is just can rightfully accuse others of injustice; only someone who is guiltless can pray this way.” Adams, War Psalms of the Prince of Peace, 103. Regarding Psalm 83, Adams likewise asks, “Without assistance how can we ever righteously pray this prayer? I answer this question unequivocally: We never can! We cannot pray this prayer on our own.” Ibid., 56. However, laying aside hermeneutical issues of historical credibility, this approach confuses absolute innocence and justice with relative innocence and justice. As in much of the Old Testament in particular, the latter is meant here; otherwise no believer, no matter how godly, could rightly plead for God’s justice or accuse of sin—no matter how extreme (which is patently false, as even the teaching of Christ admits—e.g., Matt 7:1-6).

 

[100]  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, trans. James H. Burtness (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1970), 18-19.

 

[101]  A weakness in this position is its failure to adequately address the issue of confessions of sin in the Davidic psalms. E.g., Psalm 40, which is applied in part (vv. 6-8) by the author of Hebrews to the person of Christ (Heb 10:5-10), also contains a frank acknowledgment of personal sin (v. 12)—which was foreign to Christ’s experience, but known to David’s.

[102]  Bonhoeffer, A Bonhoeffer Sermon,” 467. The invalidity of the assumption that David could not have lawfully uttered such imprecations against his own enemies will be progressively addressed in chapter four.

[103]  Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, 21.

[104]  Ibid., 58-60. Although Bonhoeffer admits that Satan’s activity in inciting the enemies of Christ and his church to acts of violence and injustice will continue until the day of judgment, he yet insists that Christ, in vicariously praying these imprecatory psalms for us, centers their call for God’s just vengeance solely in his own innocent suffering on the cross. Cf. Bonhoeffer, A Bonhoeffer Sermon,” 471.

 

[105]  Cf., e.g., 2 Thess 1:5-10; John 3:16-18, 36; Rev 14:9-11; 20:15.

 

[106]  Calvin, commenting on Psalm 109, observes that David, although he “here complains of the injuries which he sustained, yet, as he was a typical character, everything that is expressed in the psalm must properly be applied to Christ . . . and to all the faithful, inasmuch as they are his members; so that when unjustly treated and tormented by their enemies, they may apply to God for help, to whom vengeance belongs.” John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 4, trans. James Anderson (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Printing Company, 1847), 268.

 

[107]  Ps 137 dates from the Babylonian exile; Pss 74, 79, and 83 list Asaph as their author, and Pss 71, 94, 104, and 129 are anonymous.

[108]  Bonhoeffer readily affirms that “not all the Psalms are by David, and there is no word of the New Testament which places the entire Psalter in the mouth of Christ.” Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, 20. Nevertheless, he believes that the intimations of Scripture point to the entire Psalter as “decisively bound up with the name of David.” Ibid. However true this may be, Bonhoeffer’s position is dependent, not on a generic association, but on the genetic and typological link of historical David to historical Jesus, rendering the legitimacy of this extrapolation invalid. And certain of the Imprecatory Psalms are unquestionably non-Davidic (cf. note 107 above).


 

 

CHAPTER 3

THE CULTURAL CONTEXT OF THE CURSE

 

The use of “the curse” in the Psalms, as elsewhere in Scripture, though shocking to our modern Western sensibilities, arises out of a cultural milieu in which cursing was an integral part of life [1] —both domestic and international, personal and covenantal. This is evidenced by the numerous extant examples of treaty curses, inscriptional curses, and incantations to undo curses, among others. [2]  Indeed, it is proper to speak of a common ancient Near Eastern curse tradition, from which also the psalmists of Israel drew.


The curse played a significant role in the daily life of the ancient Middle East. In all areas of private as well as communal life (social-economic, juridical, cultic, political) the practice of cursing was applied. The curse was to bring the truth to light (in juridical procedures, e.g., in the ordeal), force obedience (with treaties and regulations), frighten off thieves, plunderers and vandals (with inscriptions on graves, boundary stones and buildings), guarantee honesty (in economic transac-tions), etc. The oath, which was uttered under a vast number of circumstances, is a form of self-cursing. The deity could also employ the curse as a preventive measure or in punishment. [3]

 

Thus, the mere presence of curses or calls for divine vengeance as are found in the Psalms would not have aroused the moral indignation of the ancient Israelite. They were not in and of themselves shocking or hateful outbursts. Rather, in his world the distinction was made between a “legitimate” and an “illegitimate” curse—the one proper, and the other reprehensible. The illegitimate curse was uttered out of malice against an innocent party for personal gain, or “as a private means of revenge to smite a personal enemy,” [4]  often in secret and with the aid of magic. The legitimate curse, on the other hand, was uttered fundamentally for egregious infraction of the moral order, and often in a public forum with appeal to deity. [5]  Notably, it is this latter kind that we find uttered in the Imprecatory Psalms. Moreover, in the Psalms “it is precisely the godless enemy to whom such illegitimate curses are attributed (Ps. 10:7, 59:13, 62:5, 109:17, 28). The psalmist, with his imprecatory prayer, does not commit the same sin as his enemies. His prayer, including the curse formulations, is fundamentally of another nature and posits justice against injustice, the appeal of God in contrast to the cursing of the godless.” [6]

Furthermore, in the community of Israel, as in the broader ancient Near East as well, the legitimate curse was an expression of human powerlessness, utilized when people were unable to adequately help or protect themselves. It was the voice of the oppressed, the victim, and the unjustly accused, among others, directed against powerful or unconvictable offenders. [7]  Indeed, it was the ultimate means of ensuring that the will of God, divine judgment, and divine acts of vengeance proclaimed in the judicial system, in ethics, and in religion were executed. When viewed in this light, the so-called Imprecatory Psalms and other imprecatory texts, which seem so vicious and strange to the modern reader, are seen to be expressions of faith in the just rule of Yahweh in situations in which the covenant member or community can see no other source of help or possible means of securing just treatment. [8]  

 

The Function of Imprecation in the Ancient Near East

Treaty curses. Ancient Near Eastern suzerain-vassal treaties, as a genre, generally conform to a consistent pattern, the basic elements of which are (1) the preamble, which introduces the setting and the suzerain, extolling him in grandiose terms; (2) the historical prologue, [9]  which delineates the past relationship between the two parties; [10]  (3) the stipulations, which form the core of the covenant, and state the obligations imposed upon, and accepted by, the vassal; (4) a statement concerning the storage and transmission of the treaty document; (5) the list of witnesses, principally divine, who would be invoked to enact due punishment should the covenant be broken; [11]  and (6) the blessings and curses—blessings for obedience to the covenant and curses for disobedience. The purpose of these promised blessings and curses was to ensure the vassal’s loyalty to the sovereign and to the covenant. Although the suzerain played an active role in bestowing favor and enacting retribution vis-à-vis his vassal, the blessings and curses outlined in this section of the ancient Near Eastern treaty specified not primarily what the suzerain would do “in the event of either faithfulness to or violation of the treaty, but rather, the actions of the gods either for or against the vassal.” [12]  This lays the groundwork in the mind of the faithful Israelite that the fulfillment of the curse must be left up to God. It is out of this under-standing that the Imprecatory Psalm is uttered.

The covenant curses of the ancient Near East are pronounced upon the totality of the vassal’s life and the lives of his family, [13]  as the Hittite treaty between Mursilis and Duppi-Tessub of Amurru concisely demonstrates: “should Duppi-Tessub not honor these words of the treaty and the oath, may these gods of the oath destroy Duppi-Tessub together with his person, his wife, his son, his grandson, his house, his land and together with everything that he owns.” [14]  These curses, here stated in Hittite brevity, are expanded in exhaustive and often hideous detail in the Assyrian vassal-treaties of Esarhaddon (dated 672 B.C.), [15]  parallels of which may be found in Deuteronomy 28. [16]  The distilled essence of the pronounced curses, however, is the request that Ashur, king of the gods, “[decree for you] evil and not good.” [17]  The following excerpts from the extensive curses of this treaty flesh out what this synopsis entails:

May he never grant you fatherhood and attainment of old age. [18]

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

[May Sin], the brightness of heaven and earth, clothe you with

[a lep]rosy; [may he forbid your entering into the presence of the gods]

[or king (saying): ‘Roam the desert] like the wild-ass (and) the gazelle.’

[May Shamash, the light of the heavens and] earth [not]

[judge] you justly (saying): ‘May it be dark

in your eyes, walk in darkness’. [19]

[May Ninurta, chief of the gods,] fell you with his swift arrow;

[may he fill] the plain [with your corpses;] may he feed

your flesh to the eagle (and) jackal.

[May Venus, the brightest of the stars,] make your wives

lie [in the lap of your enemy before your eyes]; may your sons

[not possess your house]; may a foreign enemy divide your goods. [20]  

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

May they make your ground (hard) like iron so that

[none] of you may f[lourish].

Just as rain does not fall from a brazen heaven [21]

so may rain and dew not come upon your fields

and your meadows; may it rain burning

coals instead of dew on your land. [22]

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Just as a starving ewe puts

[the flesh of her young] in her mouth, even so

may he feed you in your hunger


with the flesh of your brothers, your sons (and) your daughters. [23]

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

[As oil en]ters your flesh,

[just so may] they cause this curse to enter

into your flesh, [24]  [the flesh of your brothers],

your sons and your daughters. [25]

 

As in the ancient Near Eastern treaty curses, called down upon the vassal who breaks covenant with his suzerain, so also in many of the Imprecatory Psalms. The curses found therein are frequently voiced because the psalmist views his enemy as having grossly violated the covenant, and consequently, as deserving of the covenant’s curses. And as the treaty curses were viewed as extending not only to the offender but also to his children, so also the curses in the Psalms are seen to extend at times to the enemy’s posterity (notably Psalms 109 and 137).

Furthermore, in the ancient Near East, word was often united with ritual, to enhance the effect of the pronounced curse. In the late fifteenth century B.C. Hittite soldier’s oath, ritual is utilized to reinforce and dramatize the curse: “He sprinkles water on the fire and speaks to them as follows: ‘Just as this burning fire is snuffed out—whoever breaks these oaths, even so let these oaths seize him! Let this man’s vitality, vigor and future happiness be snuffed out together with (that of) his wife and his children! Let the oaths put an evil curse upon him!’” [26]  So also, in the mid-eighth century B.C. Assyrian treaty between Ashurnirari V and Matiáilu of Arpad, a spring lamb is brought out

. . . to sanction the treaty between Ashurnirari and Matiáilu. If Matiáilu sins against (this) treaty made under oath by the gods, then, just as this spring lamb, brought from its fold, will not return to its fold, will not behold its fold again, alas, Matiáilu, together with his sons, daughters, officials, and the people of his land [will be ousted] from his country, will not return to his country, and not behold his country again. This head is not the head of a lamb, it is the head of Matiáilu, it is the head of his sons, his officials, and the people of his land. If Matiáilu sins against this treaty, so may, just as the head of this spring lamb is torn off, and its knuckle placed in its mouth, [ . . . ], the head of Matiáilu be torn off, and his sons [ . . . ]. [27]

 

The Syrian/Aramean mid-eighth century treaty between Bir-Gaáyah, king of KTK, [28]  and this same Matiáilu (vocalized below as Matîàel), king of Arpad, witnesses to a profuse display of curses should the vassal betray the suzerain—including curses upon the land of Arpad, ritually underscored curses against the person of Matîàel and his nobles, and

 

curses against any who would mar or fail to guard the inscribed treaty. After introducing the gods of the two nations as witnesses to the treaty comes a list of “futility” curses on the land and fertility of Arpad. It is of import to note that the fulfillment of these curses is under the purview of the witnessing gods. For example, the treaty says, “(And) [may Ha]dad [pour (over it)] every sort of evil (which exists) on earth and in heaven and every sort of trouble; and may he shower upon Arpad [ha]il-[stones]! . . . May the gods send every sort of devourer against Arpad and against its people!” [29]  Following this come a litany of curses with accompanying rites. For example, “Just as this wax is burned by fire, so shall Matî[àel be burned by fi]re. . . . [Just as] this calf is cut in two, so may Matîàel be cut in two and may his nobles be cut in two.” [30]  The treaty concludes with a curse on any who would deface the treaty inscription: “Whoever will not guard the words of the inscription which is on this stele or will say, ‘I shall efface some of his (its) words’ . . . on any day on which he will do so, may the gods overturn th[at m]an and his house and all that (is) in it.” [31]  

 

Inscriptional curses. In addition to their role in ancient Near Eastern treaties, curses—though without accompanying blessings—are characteristically found in inscriptions on tombs, statues, and boundary stones (kudurrus) [32]  as warnings against would-be violators, thus protecting the materials to which they were attached. In these, they “appear to be the last resort in situations when conventional means fail to provide needed security: where hidden tombs cannot defeat the cleverness of grave robbers, where respect for the dead does not prevent the living from jealously effacing a predecessor’s name from a record of his or her accomplishments,” [33]  or where the promise of economic gain overshadows common respect for another’s property. Thus, in consonance with the Imprecatory Psalms, inscriptional curses were uttered out of a context of powerlessness, and their fulfillment was directed at deity. Therein it is the gods who are either explicitly [34]  or implicitly [35]  the ones called to enforce the curse should the threatenings be ignored; they do not of themselves “magically” come into force. [36]

 

Incantations to undo curses. The legitimate curse in ancient Mesopotamia, which sought to protect from harm, or to repair and recoil harm, “was a highly developed legal and religious ceremony, universally practiced and respected. It not only figured in ceremonies of great occasions, but also penetrated into the everyday life of the people.” [37]  Witness to this prevalence is found, for example, in the mid-twelfth dynasty Egyptian Execration Texts, [38]  but it figures most prominently in the various series of Assyrian incantation rituals—the three principal collections of which are Maqlû, Šurpu, and Utukki Limnûti. By means of these rites, the sufferer seeks release from the effects of a curse placed upon him either by a malevolent witch, demon, or some other unknown cause.


In the series Maqlû, “the longest and most important Mesopotamian text concerned with combating witchcraft,” [39]  a curse “is pronounced upon those who have bewitched the complainant and thus caused him to suffer.” [40]  The ritual begins with a description of the supplicant’s status of suffering brought about by the supposed witch’s curse:

I have called upon you Gods of the Night:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Because a witch has bewitched me,

A deceitful woman has accused me,

Has (thereby) caused my god and goddess to be estranged from me (and)

I have become sickening in the sight of those who behold me,

I am therefore unable to rest day or night,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Because evil did she perform against me, and baseless charges has she          conjured up against me,

May she die, but I live! [41]  

The climax of this complex ceremony is the declarative wish which seeks, in effect, to reverse the original curse: [42]  “Die Zauberin, die mich bezaubert hat: mit dem Zauber, mit dem sie mich bezaubert hat, bezaubere du sie!” [43]  Voiced again: “May the curse of my mouth extinguish the curse of your mouth!” [44]  And, as its name “burning” implies, wax or wooden figurines of the sorcerer or—more often—the sorceress who bewitched the supplicant are melted or burnt in the fire, and the conjurations that compose this series address, with very few exceptions, either these witches—in effigy—or the fire-god who is to destroy them. [45]  

The series Šurpu, on the other hand, though it also means “burning,” is a rite of personal purification from an unknown offense rather than the retributive sympathetic magic of Maqlû. [46]  In this ceremony, the sufferer seeks release from the ill effects of some presumable sin of omission or commission, by which he has “offended the gods and the existing world-order.” [47]  

An evil curse like a gallû-demon has come upon (this) man,

dumbness (and) daze have come upon him,

an unwholesome dumbness has come upon him,

evil curse, oath, headache.

An evil curse has slaughtered this man like a sheep,

his god left his body,

his goddess . . . usually full of concern for him, has stepped aside.

Dumbness (and) daze have covered him like a cloak and overwhelm him incessantly.

Marduk noticed him,

went into the house to his father Ea and cried out:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

‘I do not know [what] to do, what would quiet him’.

Ea answered his son Marduk:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

‘Go, my son Marduk!

Take him to the pure house of ablutions,

undo his oath, release his oath,

that the disturbing evil of his body,

—be it the curse of his father,

be it the curse of his mother,

be it the curse of his elder brother,

be it the curse of a bloodshed unknown to him—

by pronouncing the charm of Ea the oath

may be peeled off like (this) onion,

stripped off like (these) dates,

unraveled like (this) matting.

Oath, be adjured by the name of heaven, be adjured by the name of the earth!’ [48]

 

In Utukki Limnûti, “Evil Spirits,” the third major collection of Mesopotamian magical incantations, the afflicted pleads for deliverance from the curse of bodily illness, believed to have been caused by demonic influence:

Evil fiends are they!

From the Underworld they have gone forth,

They are the Messengers of Bel, Lord of the World.

The evil Spirit that in the desert smiteth the living man,

The evil Demon that like a cloak enshroudeth the man,

The evil Ghost, the evil Devil that seize upon the body,

The Hag-demon (and) Ghoul that smite the body with sickness,

The Phantom of Night that in the desert roameth abroad,

Unto the side of the wanderer have drawn nigh,

Casting a woeful fever upon his body.

A ban of evil hath settled on his body,

An evil disease on his body they have cast,

An evil plague hath settled on his body,

An evil venom on his body they have cast,

An evil curse hath settled on his body,

Evil (and) sin on his body they have cast,

Venom (and) wickedness have settled on him,

Evil they have cast (upon him).

The evil man, he whose face is evil, he whose

         mouth is evil, he whose tongue is evil,

Evil spell, witchcraft, sorcery,

Enchantment, and all evil,

Which rest on the body of the sick man. [49]

 

Notice even here, in an incantation ostensibly directed against demons, that the human element of cursing through word and magic is yet connected.

The Power of the Curse

It has been commonly alleged that, in the practice of the larger ancient Near Eastern world, the curse was viewed as “automatic or self-fulfilling, having the nature of a ‘spell,’ the very words of which were thought to possess reality and the power to effect the desired results.” [50]  Or, as Sigmund Mowinckel succinctly states: “Der Fluch wirkt ganz ex opere operato. [51]  It is “ein giftiger Stoff . . . eine verheerende Macht, die alles das zerstört, was sie trifft.” [52]  According to ancient opinion, in this view, the power of the curse was inherent in its form, [53]  and the more powerful the speaker, the more powerful the curse. [54]  

A certain measure of support has been legitimately claimed from the Mesopotamian incantation series in which, even though there is periodic appeal to deity to effect the curse’s release, the essence of the incantations is magic. By means of established

word and rite, the desired release is (ostensibly) effected. Reflecting upon this intimate connection between fervent prayer and symbolic act, Scharbert expresses the prevalent impression “that people in the ancient Near East actually believed that the gods could be forced by such formulas and acts to intervene in the manner desired.” [55]  

However, whereas there is a measure of evidence that the broader ancient Near Eastern world embraced to some extent a magical view of the power of the curse—particularly with regard to the curses of witches and the incantations to undo these curses, this was by no means embraced wholesale. Indeed, and fundamentally, it was believed that the gods were the ones under whose jurisdiction lay the execution of at least the formal legitimate curses. This is evidenced by a number of extant treaty and inscriptional curses. Therein, the curses are either explicitly stated or implicitly understood to be enacted by the gods, rather than by virtue of some inherent power in the words themselves. It was not the curse formula per se, but the authority of the gods in which the power of the curse lay. For example, in the mid-eighth century B.C. treaty between Bir-Gaáyah and Matîàel addressed earlier, the litany of futility curses threatened (should Matîàel cease to observe the covenant stipulations) are said to fall under the purview of the gods called as witnesses to the treaty: “[May Ha]dad [pour (over it)] every sort of evil . . . . May the gods send every sort of devourer against Arpad and against its people!” [56]  Moreover, the scope of divine enforcement extended even to the treaty inscription itself: “Whoever will not guard the words of the inscription which is on this stele or will say, ‘I shall efface some of his (its) words,’ . . . may the gods overturn th[at m]an and his house and all that (is) in it.” [57]

Support for a magical understanding of the power of the curse in the ancient Near East has been further sought from the Hebrew Scriptures and the religion of early Israel. Two passages frequently claimed to evidence this magical view of the curse (and blessing) in the life of ancient Israel are Judges 17:1-2 and the account of Balaam in Numbers 22–24. In the former passage, it is relayed that Micah’s mother had uttered a curse against a thief who had stolen from her a large sum of money. Upon her son’s confession that he was the culprit, she immediately cries out: hvAhyla yniB; j`UrBA, “Blessed be my son by Yahweh!” Blank believes this to be a forcible illustration of counter-magic—that a curse may be effectively neutralized by administering a blessing as an antidote. [58]  However, even if that supposition be granted (and it is far from certain that it may rightly be so), it is important to note that this passage by no means recounts orthodox Israelite theology, as the context elucidates. Verses three and following relate the relativism and idolatry characteristic of syncretism. And indeed, there has always been in Israel’s history the tendency toward syncretism, and Yahweh has ever denounced it. Thus, if a proposition is to be legitimately established, it must be done via genuine expressions rather than perversions of Israelite religion.

In the latter passage, the Moabite king Balak pleads a summons to the famed Balaam: [59]  “Come now, curse for me this people. . . . For I know that whomever you bless are blessed, and whomever you curse are cursed” (Num 22:6). [60]  It has been commonly inferred from this that Balaam possessed an unusual aptitude to produce, by mere utterance, profound effect for blessing or cursing. That this was the pagan perception of Balaam’s abilities may partly be granted. However, the preponderance of evidence identifies Balaam as a diviner, [61]  and further suggests that he belonged to a class of Akkadian diviners known as barû, who were believed to accurately ascertain the will of the gods by means, typically, of the examination of the entrails or liver of a sacrificed animal. [62]  In this scenario, the desire of Balak is for Balaam, with his superior knowledge of his craft and proven record of success, to ascertain the divine will (and also influence that will to his favor). [63]  Perhaps, then, the apparent power of Balaam’s curse, as evidenced by his reputation, was in his ability to “manipulate” the intent of the gods [64] —something he found himself blatantly unable to do with Yahweh. Moreover, since this account records a pagan king’s perception of a pagan diviner’s power to curse, repeatedly thwarted and overturned by Yahweh, it is more germane to the larger ancient Near Eastern understanding than it is specifically to the understanding of ancient Israel.

Additionally, the observation that Hebrew curse formulas favor the passive construction (notably rUrxA, “cursed be”) is further said to evidence an understanding of the inherent power in the curse [65] —that no divine agency is needed to fulfill it. However, this supposition overlooks the larger testimony of the Old Testament, in which Yahweh himself is portrayed as either the implicit or explicit agent behind the curse. Indeed, in the theology of orthodox Israel, nothing operates independently of him. He is the ground of all being and the source of all power—including the power of blessing and cursing. Apart from his will, no curse is effected; [66]  and in his sovereignty he can transmute cursing into blessing [67]  and blessing into cursing. [68]  In this regard, Scharbert, himself a hesitant advocate of the magical view of the power of the curse, cautions against the adoption of “a purely magical understanding of the curse formula” [69]  in the religion and community of ancient Israel. He does so by noting one such usage of the passive rUrxA formula in which the agency of Yahweh is by no means concealed. In his estimation, the use of the phrase rUrxA hvAhy; ynep;li wyxihA (“Cursed be the man before Yahweh”) in the ancient Hebrew text of Joshua 6:26 “justifies the conjecture that the activation of misfortune was closely connected with an intervention of Yahweh.” [70]  Most significantly, however, in the inaugural promise to Abraham, which forms the basis upon which Yahweh’s covenant with his people


throughout the Scriptures is built, the active construction of rrx is used, with Yahweh the explicit actor. Therein, Yahweh emphatically places upon himself the prerogative for the enforcement of curses uttered against his people. In Genesis 12:3 Yahweh declares:       rxoxA j~l;l.,qam;, “He who curses you I will curse.” [71]  And it is this declaration that forms the foundation for all personal curses appealed to out of the covenant context.

Thus, in the life of Israel, and for the heirs of her religion, the effect of the spoken curse depends wholly on the will of Yahweh. [72]  Moreover, as will be demonstrated, the Hebrew curse is either a veiled or blatant appeal to this God of justice to exact the punishment due for the guilt of the one cursed. For this cause, the Hebrew proverb can confidently assert: “Like a fluttering sparrow, like a darting swallow, so an undeserved curse does not come to rest” (Prov 26:2). Thus, in contrast to the broader concept of the curse in the ancient Near East—which allowed the curious blend of both divine and automatic enactment, the curse in Israel entirely loses its magical character. [73]  What remains for her is a sovereign, just, and compassionate covenant God.



[1]  Gevirtz well defines that, by the term “curse” in this context, we are to understand not the profane oath or interjectory exclamation, “but rather the deliberate, considered expression of a wish that evil befall another.” Stanley Gevirtz, “West-Semitic Curses and the Problem of the Origins of Hebrew Law,” VT 11 (1961): 140.

[2]  The curse even figured prominently in one of the most popular compositions in the Old Babylonian scribal curriculum, which chronicled the rise and fall of the first great Mesopotamian empire: the Curse of Agade. Jerrold S. Cooper, The Curse of Agade (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 5. This composition concludes with a horrific litany of curses on the city by the gods, which includes:

 

Enlil, may the city that destroyed your city, be done to as your city.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

May the cattle slaughterer slaughter his wife,

May your sheep butcher butcher his child,

May your pauper drown the child who seeks money for him!

May your prostitute hang herself at the entrance to her brothel,

May your cult prostitutes and hierodules, who are mothers, kill their children! Ibid., 61.

 

[3]  H. G. L. Peels, The Vengeance of God: The Meaning of the Root NQM and the Function of the NQM-Texts in the Context of Divine Revelation in the Old Testament, Oudtestamentische Studiën, ed. A. S. van der Woude, vol. 31 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995), 237.

[4]  Josef Scharbert, “rrx,” TDOT, 1:416.

[5]  Examples of the use of such “legitimate curses” from the cultural milieu of the ancient Near East are noted in the material which follows.

[6]  Peels, The Vengeance of God, 238.

[7]  See Robert Althann, “The Psalms of Vengeance against Their Ancient Near Eastern Background,” JNSL 18 (1992): 3-4.

[8]  Scharbert, “rrx,” TDOT, 1:417-18.

[9]  Walton notes that there are two basic elements that distinguish the Hittite treaties of the second millennium B.C. from the Syrian and Assyrian treaties of the first: (1) the Hittite family of treaties is characterized by the use of the historical prologue to an extent not found elsewhere; and (2) the treaties from Syria and Assyria show a much greater emphasis on the curses that are used to enforce the treaty. John H. Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1989), 101. This two-fold observation lends credence to the opinion that the Book of Deuteronomy is a mid-second millennium B.C. covenant document, for it bears a form strikingly similar to that of the early Hittite covenants. This issue is relevant here, for the Imprecatory Psalms, at many significant junctures, hark back to the promised divine vengeance and curses of the Deuteronomic covenant.

 

[10]  Emphasis is placed here both on the suzerain’s power and on his kind acts on behalf of the vassal. The vassal, then, is expected both to be grateful in his acceptance of the treaty terms as well as fearful of violating them.

 

[11]  The Song of Moses in Deut 32 fits into this “witness” category, for it affirms Yahweh’s ability to enforce the terms of the covenant. Of particular significance are vv. 39-43, in which Yahweh takes an oath to exact vengeance on behalf of his people. Ibid., 104.

 

[12]  Ibid.

[13]  Mercer observes that “when a curse was pronounced it often comprised in its malediction the whole activity of a man’s life. His every work and interest were placed under a ban. Not only the man himself but also his seed was doomed to destruction.” Samuel A. B. Mercer, “The Malediction in Cuneiform Inscriptions,” JAOS 34 (1914): 302. For Scriptural example of the curse extended to the next generation, cf. Pss 109:10-15; 137:8-9.

[14]  ANET, 205.

[15]  There are several copies of this treaty—the most complete copy of which was made “with a chieftain of the Medes names Ramataia of Urukazaba(r)na. The remaining texts were duplicates except that they named different city-governors, or chieftains, as the other party to the agreement.” D. J. Wiseman, The Vassal-Treaties of Esarhaddon (London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq, 1958), 1.

[16]  Weinfeld avers that, because of the striking similarity of subject matter and sequence between these two texts (especially when comparing lines 419-30 of Esarhaddon’s treaty with Deut 28:26-35), this “attests that there was a direct borrowing by Deuteronomy from Assyrian treaty documents.” Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 121-22. However, Hillers observes that none of these parallels appears to be the product of “simple copying, but the possibility of influence of treaty-curses on Israelite literature, or of mutual influence, or of dependence on common sources, cannot be disregarded.” Delbert R. Hillers, Treaty-Curses and the Old Testament Prophets, Biblica et orientalia 16 (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1964), 78. Rather, “the point to be grasped is that both in Israel and elsewhere there were living and primarily oral traditions of curses on which writers and speakers might draw for various purposes, either leaving the material as they found it or recasting it into their own style. The authors of Deut 28 and Lev 26 drew on this tradition, each in his own way.” Ibid., 42. Queen Sutherland agrees: “Although agreement has been sought and found between the biblical curse-lists and extra-biblical materials, with the possibility of dependence a valid option, parallels in general may be explained by the accessibility of a traditional set of curses. These curses afforded the prospect of a gathering and adaptation of the maledictions in order to fit a particular situation or need. Similarities found between Deuteronomy 28, Leviticus 26, and some of the ancient Near Eastern treaties offer evidence of the combination and reworking of traditional curses in order to address specific situations.” Kandy Maria Queen Sutherland, “The Futility Curse in the Old Testament” (Ph.D. diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1982), 153-54.

Further support for this interpretation of the comparative evidence may be seen in the similarity between the futility curses of the bilingual (Assyrian–Aramaic) inscription engraved on the Tell Fekherye royal statue (late second millennium or early first millennium B.C.), the Sefire I treaty (circa mid-eighth century B.C.), and Deut 28:17-18. The Aramaic lines 20-22 of the Tell Fekherye statue threaten with the curse: “may one hundred ewes suckle a lamb but let it not be sated, may one hundred cows suckle a calf but let it not be sated, may one hundred women suckle a child but let it not be sated, may one hundred women bake bread in an oven but let them not fill it.” Jonas C. Greenfield and Aaron Shaffer, “Notes on the Curse Formulae of the Tell Fekherye Inscription,” RB 92 (1985): 54 (cf. Lev 26:26). Although the order is different, Sefire I lines 21-23 likewise warn, “should seven nur[ses] anoint [ . . . and] nurse a young boy, may he not have his fill; and should seven mares suckle a colt, may it not be sa[ted; and should seven] cows give suck to a calf, may it not have its fill; and should seven ewes suckle a lamb, [may it not be sa]ted.” Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Aramaic Inscriptions of Sefire I and II,” JAOS 81 (1961): 185. Deut 28:17-18 states in a similar, albeit more generic fashion: “Cursed be your basket and your kneading trough. Cursed be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your land, the offspring of your cattle and the young of your flocks.”

[17]  Wiseman, The Vassal-Treaties of Esarhaddon, 60, 78. Cf. use of like language—albeit in the indicative—in Pss 109:5 and 35:12 (cf. also 38:21), “They repay me evil for good.” Although here stated as a description of the enemies’ actions, rather than imprecation against them, this summary phrase serves as the ground for the curses which either precede or follow.

[18]  Cf. Ps 109:8, “May his days be few,” and Ps 69:29, “May they be blotted out of the book of life.”

[19]  Cf. Deut 28:29, “You will be groping around at midday like a blind man gropes around in the darkness.” The curse of blindness was a common ancient Near Eastern curse motif. Ps 69:24 echoes, “May their eyes grow too dim to see.” Furthermore, in the Ugaritic tale of Aqht, upon learning of the death of his son Aqht, Danáel cries out against those who had a part in his son’s death. Among the curses uttered is: à wrt. yštk. bà l, “May Baàlu make you blind.” Manfried Dietrich, Oswald Loretz, and Joaquín Sanmartín, The Cuneiform Alphabetic Texts from Ugarit, Ras Ibn Hani and Other Places (KTU: Second, Enlarged Edition), Abhandlungen zur Literatur Al-Syrien-Palästinas und Mesopotamiens, vol. 8, ed. Manfried Dietrich and Oswald Loretz (Munster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1995), 60 (KTU 1.19 IV 5). Margalit, however, believes that contextually it is better to translate this phrase as “May Baal stop-up thy well-spring(s).” Baruch Margalit, The Ugaritic Poem of AQHT, BZAW, ed. Otto Kaiser, vol. 182  (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1989), 164, 416-17.

[20]  Cf. Deut 28:26-35, in which likewise the curses of war’s carnage, skin diseases, blindness, rape, and pillaging prominently figure.

[21]  Cf. Deut 28:23, “The sky over your head will be bronze, and the ground beneath you iron”; and the reverse imagery in Lev 26:19, “I will make your sky like iron and your ground like bronze.”

[22]  Cf. Ps 140:11, “Let burning coals fall upon them!” and the emended Ps 11:6, “May he rain on the wicked coals of fire and brimstone” (the MT evidences, it would seem, an early and inadvertent transcriptional error; cf. chap. 2, n. 52 above).

[23]  Cf. the more extended treatment of the curse of familial cannibalism in Deut 28:53-57.

[24]  Cf. Ps 109:18, “He wore cursing as his coat; so may it enter into his body like water, and into his bones like oil.”

[25]  Wiseman, The Vassal-Treaties of Esarhaddon, 60-78. The curse is seen to extend naturally to the family and descendents of the contracting party.

[26]  ANET, 354.

[27]  ANET, 532. McCarthy notes that rites such as these “are simply a form of curse” and are “aimed at one end: symbolizing and effecting the ruin of the oath-breaker.” Dennis J. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant: A Study in Form in the Ancient Oriental Documents and in the Old Testament (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1978), 151. The oath-taker shares in these covenant dramas in the acting out or witnessing of “what he calls down on himself should he be faithless. Word and vivid rite have become very much one.” Ibid., 149.

[28]  This otherwise unknown king (“son of majesty”) and locale may possibly be pseudonyms for Ashurnirari V and Assyria, and this treaty the Aramaic counterpart of the Assyrian treaty between the two kings. Simo Parpola and Kazuko Watanabe, eds., Neo-Assyrian Treaties and Loyalty Oaths, State Archives of Assyria, ed. Robert M. Whiting, vol. 2 (Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 1988), xxvii. Gibson prefers to view KTK as a small state or the capital of a small state in the region of Urartu, east of the Euphrates near the source of the river Balih. John C. L. Gibson, Aramaic Inscriptions, vol. 2, Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 22. And Fitzmyer favors the position that Bar Gaáyah is the alternate name of Sardur III, king of Urartu. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Aramaic Suzerainty Treaty from Sefire in the Museum of Beirut,” CBQ 20 (1958): 475.

[29]  Fitzmyer, “The Aramaic Inscriptions of Sefire I and II,” 185.

[30]  Ibid.

[31]  Ibid., 187. Though the phraseology is not strictly imprecatory, it is of interest to note that the Book of Revelation concludes in words strikingly reminiscent of the ancient inscriptional curses that accompanied certain treaty documents, gravely warning any who would tamper with its words: “If anyone should add to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone should take away words from this book of prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (Rev 22:18-19).

[32]  “The bulk of kudurru-inscriptions are to be dated . . . roughly from the latter half of the Second Millennium BC to the first half of the First Millennium. The kudurru was made to protect private property and especially the boundaries of property by extensive curse-formulae in the name of various gods. Any person who should damage the monument or cause the monument to be damaged, would inflict on himself all the curses of the inscription.” F. Charles Fensham, “Common Trends in Curses of the Near Eastern Treaties and Kudurru-Inscriptions Compared with Maledictions of Amos and Isaiah,” ZAW 75 (1963): 158.

[33]  Timothy G. Crawford, Blessing and Curse in Syro-Palestinian Inscriptions of the Iron Age, American University Studies: Series 7, Theology and Religion, vol. 120 (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1992), 97.

[34]  For example, the funerary inscription of Sin-zer-ibni warns: “Whoever you are (who) shall remove this image and couch from its place, may ŠHR and ŠMŠ and NKL and NŠK tear out your name and remainder of life! And (with an evil) death may they kill you! And may they cause your seed to perish!” Gevirtz, “West-Semitic Curses and the Problem of the Origins of Hebrew Law,” 148.

[35]  On a late-eighth century B.C. tomb at the entrance to the village of Silwan (Siloam), adjacent to Jerusalem, the following words are inscribed: “This is (the tomb of Sheban)iah the royal steward. There is no silver or gold here, only (his bones) and the bones of his maidservant with him. Cursed be the man who opens this.” John C. L. Gibson, Hebrew and Moabite Inscriptions, vol. 1, Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 24.

 

[36]  Contra Fensham, who believes that if, in particular, “the stipulations on a kudurru should be transgressed, the religious function in the form of punishment would immediately come automatically into force. The curses were regarded as coming into operation directly after the transgression as a kind of magical process.” Fensham, “Common Trends in Curses of the Near Eastern Treaties and Kudurru-Inscriptions Compared with Maledictions of Amos and Isaiah,” 157.

 

[37]  Mercer, “The Malediction in Cuneiform Inscriptions,” 309.

 

[38]  From the Old Kingdom period through the Roman era, Egyptian priests “performed official ritual cursings of the potential enemies of Egypt. The ceremonies included the breaking of red pots and figurines inscribed with formal ‘Execration Texts’ listing Nubians, Asiatics, Libyans, living and deceased Egyptians, as well as generally threatening forces. The texts themselves contain no explicit curses, but instead serve to identify the fate of the enemies with that of the destroyed pot or image.” William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger Jr., eds., Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, vol. 1, The Context of Scripture (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 50.

 

[39]  Tzvi Abusch, “The Demonic Image of the Witch in Standard Babylonian Literature: The Reworking of Popular Conceptions by Learned Exorcists,” in Religion, Science, and Magic: In Concert and In Conflict, ed. Jacob Neusner et al., 27-58 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 40.

 

[40]  Stanley Gevirtz, “Curse Motifs in the Old Testament and in the Ancient Near East” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1959), 114.

 

[41]  Abusch, “The Demonic Image of the Witch in Standard Babylonian Literature,” 32-33. Notice the similarity of symptoms (and the locus of their cause in “baseless charges”) between this series and the Psalms of Lament, of which the Imprecatory Psalms and the Psalms of Illness are a part. The similarity is such that Mowinckel located the array of Illness Laments in a like Sitz im Leben: they were recited to counteract the curses of the psalmist's enemies. These Nv,xA ylefEPo were “practitioners of magic”—whether officially or unofficially—who, by means of powerful words and gestures, sought to destroy the psalmist and had caused his illness. Cf. Sigmund Mowinckel, Psalmenstudien, I, Åwän und die individuellen Klagepsalmen (Amsterdam: Verlag P. Schippers, 1966), 29-31; and idem, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, vol. 2, trans. D. R. Ap-Thomas (New York: Abing-don Press, 1967), 3-7. However, although such a mentality and activity were common in the larger cultural context, it is far from certain that this is what is represented in the psalms. Indeed, whereas the element of sorcery or witchcraft may constitute a minor element in the psalms, given this milieu and similarity of language, such is nowhere rendered explicit. In addition, the key phrase, Nv,xA ylefEPo, rather than designating those who “practice sorcery,” appears to be used in a more generic fashion as those who “practice iniquity”—whether it be oppression, bloodshed, cursing, slander, etc. (cf. e.g., the use of Nv,xA ylefEPo in Pss 14, 59, 64, 94, 141). Moreover, this understanding of Mowinckel lends too much credence to the magical view of the world and of words—a view abhorred by the orthodox Yahwism championed in the psalms.

 

[42]  Cf. Ps 7:17, “Let the trouble he has caused recoil on his head.”

 

[43]  “The witch who bewitched me, with the witchcraft with which she bewitched me, bewitch her!” Gerhard Meier, Die assyrische Beschwörungssammlung Maqlû (Berlin: Archiv für Orientforschung, Beiheft 2, 1937), 12. Meier renders well the verbal playfulness of the Akkadian: fkaššaptu  tak-šip-an-ni  kiš-pi  tak-šip-an-ni  ki-šip-ši.

 

[44]  Tzvi Abusch, “An Early Form of the Witchcraft Ritual Maqlû and the Origin of a Babylonian Magical Ceremony,” in Lingering Over Words: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Literature in Honor of William L. Moran, ed. Tzvi Abusch et al., 1-57 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990), 18.

 

[45]  Erica Reiner, Šurpu: A Collection of Sumerian and Akkadian Incantations (Graz: Archiv für Orientforschung, Beiheft 11, 1958), 2-3.

 

[46]  Although burning plays a less significant role in this series as compared to Maqlû, the Šurpu ritual is nonetheless “an act of sympathetic magic; it consists of the burning of various objects that symbolize the sins and sufferings of the patient,” by means of which he is liberated. Ibid., 1.

[47]  Ibid., 3.

 

[48]  Ibid., 30-31. In like manner, the Lipšur litanies are performed to undo a curse: e.g., “May the curse recede like the water from the body of NN” . . . “May a bird take the curse up to the sky.” Erica Reiner, “Lipšur Litanies,” JNES 15 (1956): 141, 143.

[49]  R. Campbell Thompson, The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia, vol. 1 (London: Luzac and Co., 1903; reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1976), 5, 7.

[50]  Sheldon H. Blank, “The Curse, Blasphemy, the Spell, and the Oath,” HUCA 23 (1950–51): 78. Indeed, Speiser believes that “supernatural spell” is the basic meaning behind the Akkadian and Hebrew root á rr. E. A. Speiser, “An Angelic ‘Curse’: Exodus 14:20,” JAOS 80 (1960): 198. Alternatively, Pedersen conceives of the exchange of blessing and cursing as fundamentally a transfer of “soul power” rather than an element inherent in the words itself. In his view, the power of the curse “lies in the mysterious power of the souls to react upon each other. He whose soul creates something evil for another—be it in thought, in word or in deed—he puts the evil into the soul of his neighbour, where it exercises its influence.” Johannes Pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture, I-II, trans. Mrs. Aslaug Møller (London: Oxford University Press, 1926), 441.

 

[51]  “The curse operates entirely ex opere operato.” Sigmund Mowinckel, Psalmenstudien, V, Segen und Fluch in Israels Kult und Psalmdichtung (Amsterdam: P. Schippers, 1966), 74. Although Mowinckel views the curses in the Psalms largely in common with the curses of the surrounding culture, i.e., that they are uttered in the context of religious ritual to counteract the curses of sorcerers uttered against them, he mollifies this remark by insisting that “we are not justified in concluding from this that the psalmists thought that without the will and help of Yahweh the word of cursing by itself could deliver them from the enemy.” Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, vol. 1, trans. D. R. Ap-Thomas (New York: Abingdon Press, 1967), 202-03.

 

[52]  The curse is “poisonous stuff . . . a disastrous power, that destroys everything it strikes.” Mowinckel, Psalmenstudien, V, 61.

 

[53]  See Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, trans. D. M. G. Stalker, vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965), 81.

 

[54]  Blank applies this to the imprecatory prayer: “men can appeal to God to curse one whom they wish cursed—and consider such a one more effectively cursed.” Blank, “The Curse, Blasphemy, the Spell, and the Oath,” 80.

[55]  Scharbert, “rrx,” TDOT, 1:416. Brichto rightly remarks that the religion of Israel stands in stark contrast to this ideology: for whereas Mesopotamia is steeped in magic, Israel is unrelenting in its campaign against it; and whereas in Mesopotamia even the gods are subject to the forces of magic, in Israel Yahweh is supremely independent of outside power—indeed the source of all power. Herbert Chanan Brichto, The Problem of “Curse” in the Hebrew Bible, JBL Monograph Series, vol. 13 (Philadelphia: Society of Biblical Literature, 1968), 212.

[56]  Fitzmyer, “The Aramaic Inscriptions of Sefire I and II,” 185.

[57]  Ibid., 187.

[58]  Blank, “The Curse, Blasphemy, the Spell, and the Oath,” 94.

 

[59]  The record of his reputation exceeds the limits of Scripture, for in an Aramaic text discovered at Deir àAllah in Jordan and dated circa 700 B.C., mention is made of a certain Balaam, son of Beor, who is described as a “seer of the gods” (hizh . á lhn) and known for his ability to curse. J. Hoftijzer and G. van der Kooij, eds., Aramaic Texts from Deir à Alla, Documenta et monumenta orientis antiqui, vol. 19, eds. W. F. Albright and J. Vandier (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1976), 173-82.

 

[60]  Cf. Num 22:12, in which Yahweh warns Balaam: “Do not curse the people, for they are blessed.”

 

[61]  Balaam is called “the diviner” (MseOq.ha) in Josh 13:22. Note also the (fee for) divination (MymisAq;) extended to Balaam by the emissaries of Balak in Num 22:7 to entice his services, as well as his description as “seer of the gods” (n. 59 above). In the language of 2 Pet 2:16, Balaam is styled a “prophet.”

 

[62]  Mitchell argues that, as a ba, the strength of Balaam’s curse is not in the power of the words, but in the accurate discernment of what the gods have in store.” Christopher Wright Mitchell, The Meaning of BRK “To Bless” in the Old Testament, Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series, ed. J. J. M. Roberts, vol. 95 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987), 92. Similarly, cf. Robert R. Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 132-33; 147-50. Allen in large measure concurs with this assessment of Balaam’s caste, although he posits the possibility that in the figure of Balaam one finds the combination of both ba (diviner) and  apī lu (prophet, as evidenced at Mari). Ronald Barclay Allen, “The Theology of the Balaam Oracles: A Pagan Diviner and the Word of God” (Th.D. diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1973), 202-03. Although his identity as diviner is prominent, Yaure perceives the weight of emphasis to be on Balaam as seer, and on his reception of revelation through dreams. L. Yaure, “Elymas–Nehelamite–Pethor,” JBL 79 (1960): 310-14 (cf. Num 22:8-13; 24:2-4). And Moore argues for a more composite approach to the understanding of his identity and function. Michael S. Moore, “Another Look at Balaam,” RB 97 (1990): 359-78.

 

[63]  The curses of Balaam, then, become predominantly declarations of divine intent. This informs our understanding of Num 23:8, nestled amidst his first oracle from Yahweh, in which Balaam confesses his inability to curse apart from the prior determination of Yahweh to curse. For, as a ba, Balaam can ostensibly do no more than divine the will of the God under whose auspices Israel lay.

 

[64]  Notice the tie between Balaam’s divination and “sorcery” (whana) (Num 23:23; 24:1). The context of Num 22–24 suggests a complexity to the identity and activity of Balaam, and to the ancient Near Eastern phenomenon of cursing.

 

[65]  Blank writes: “Apparently, then, no external agent was assumed and, apparently, the spoken curse was itself and alone conceived to be the effective agent. This is the significance of the habitual preference for the passive construction in the curse formula and the consequent absence of any reference to an external agent, demonic or divine.” Blank, “The Curse, Blasphemy, the Spell, and the Oath,” 78.

[66]  Cf. Num 23:8, “How can I curse when God has not cursed?” and Num 23:20, “He has blessed, and I cannot change it.”

[67]  E.g., Deut 23:6, “However, Yahweh your God would not listen to Balaam, but Yahweh your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because Yahweh your God loves you.”

[68]  Cf. Yahweh’s stern admonition to his priests in Mal 2:2, “‘If you do not listen, and if you do not set your heart to give honor to my name,’ says Yahweh of Hosts, ‘then I will send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings—indeed, I will curse them, because you have not so set your heart.’”

[69]  Scharbert, “rrx,” TDOT, 1:412.

[70]  Ibid. Indeed, in the later passage which relates the fulfillment of this curse, it is commented explicitly that Yahweh is the one who spoke this curse through Joshua and implicitly that he is the one who brought it about (1 Kgs 16:34).

[71]  Although both lle.qi and rraxA bear a measure of semantic overlap in that they both mean “to curse” (cf. the interchange in Deut 28:15, 45; 28:16-19), the former may carry the lesser nuance “to treat with contempt” (cf., e.g., Ex 21:17), whereas the latter is characteristically the more severe and often refers to a divine judicial sentence (cf., e.g., Deut 27:15-26).

[72]  Thus, the opinion of even that staunch opponent of word-magic, Anthony Thiselton, is in part deficient, for although he rightly avers that among the faithful in Israel the one who utters a curse is in practice invoking God, he yet apparently believes that the effectiveness of the curse depends in large measure both on the strength and status of the speaker who pronounces the curse, as well as on the receptivity of the person who is being cursed. Anthony C. Thiselton, “The Supposed Power of Words in the Biblical Writings,” JTS 25 (1974): 295.

 

[73]  Althann, “The Psalms of Vengeance against Their Ancient Near Eastern Background,” 4.


 

CHAPTER 4

THE HARSHEST PSALMS OF IMPRECATION

 

In the corpus of the Psalter reside numerous psalms characterized by imprecations or cries for divine vengeance. To address them in their entirety would exceed the bounds and intent of this dissertation. Therefore, I will approach the problem of the Imprecatory Psalms and their relation to Old and New Testament ethics by means of primarily three psalms—each representing one of the three major spheres of imprecation found within the larger body of the Psalms: (1) Psalm 58—imprecation against a societal enemy, (2) Psalm 137—imprecation against a national or community enemy, and (3) Psalm 109—imprecation against a personal enemy. Moreover, these three psalms in particular have been chosen because they contain the harshest language or most severe imprecations voiced against enemies to be found in the Psalter. Thus, if an answer may be given to these, then an answer may be given to all. These harshest psalms of imprecation will be explored by examining both the circumstances out of which their cries of cursing came, as well as the theological foundation upon which such words were uttered.

 

Psalm 58

Curse against a societal enemy.

                     :MTAk;mi dvidAl; tHew;Ta-lxa HacE.nam;la 1

              NUrBedaT; qk,c,   [1] Mlixe MnAm;xuha 2

                           :MdAxA yneB; UFP;w;Ti MyriwAyme

                                        NUlfAp;Ti tloOf bleB;-Jxa 3

                     :NUsle.paT; Mk,ydey; smaHE   [2] Cr,xABA

                                                   MH,rAme MyfiwAr; Urzo 4

                                 :bzAkA yreb;Do NF,B,mi UfTA

                                  wHAnA-tmaHE tUmd;Ki OmlA-tmaHE 5

                         :Onz;xA MFex;ya wreHe Nt,p,-OmK;

                            MywiHElam; lOql; fmaw;yi-xlo rw,xE 6

                                     :MKAHum; MyribAHE rbeOH

                                                                             OmypiB; Omyne.wi-srAhE Myhilox< 7

                         :hvAhy; Cton; MyriypiK; tOfTl;ma

                                                                      OmlA-Ukl.ahat;yi Myima-Omk; UsxEmA.yi 8

                                                                 :UllAmot;yi OmK; vycA.Hi j`rod;yi

                                                                                 j`loHEya sm,T, lUlB;wa Omk; 9

                              :wm,wA UzHA-lBa tw,xe lp,ne

                                                                         dFAxA Mk,ytEroys.i UnybiyA Mr,F,B; 10

                           :Ur,fAw;yi NOrHA-OmK; yHa-OmK;

                                       MqAnA hzAHA-yKi qyDica HmaW;yi 11

                            :fwArAhA MdaB; CHAr;yi vymAfAP;

                                qyDica.la yriP;-j!`xa MdAxA rmaxyov; 12

                     :Cr,xABA MyFip;wo Myhilox<-wyE j`xa


1 For the director of music: “Do Not Destroy”; a miktam of David.

2 Do you indeed, O “gods,” decree what is right?

         Do you judge with equity, O sons of men? [3]

3 No, in your heart you plan injustice;

         in the earth you weigh out the violence of your hands.

4 The wicked are estranged from the womb;

         they go astray from birth, speaking lies.

5 Their venom is like the venom of a serpent,

         like a deaf cobra that stops its ears,

6 that does not heed the sound of the charmers,

         the skillful binders of spells.

7 O God, smash their teeth in their mouths;

         Break off the fangs [4]  of the young lions, O Yahweh!

8 Let them flow away like water that runs off in all directions; [5]

         let him prepare to shoot his arrows, [6]  only to find them headless! [7]

9 Like a miscarriage, [8]  let him melt away;

         like a woman’s abortion, let them not see the sun!

10 Before your pots feel the heat of [9]  the brambles—

         as lively [10]  as wrath—may he sweep them away! [11]

11 The righteous will rejoice when he sees vengeance;

         he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.

12 Then men will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;

         surely there is a God who judges in the earth!”

 

When considering the imprecatory nature of this individual lament, two questions must first be asked and answered: (1) Who are being cursed?, and (2) What kind of people are they? Firstly, the objects of David’s imprecations are the rulers or “judges” of the community—those whose position involves ensuring that justice is properly meted out. Indeed, this psalm is framed by an ironic inclusio of judicial terms and ideas: contrast the human UFP;w;Ti (v. 2) with the divine MyFip;wo (v. 12); the human Mlixe (v. 2) with the divine Myhilox< (v. 12); the lack of human justice MyFpwo (v. 2) with the hope of divine justice Cr,xABA (v. 12); and the human perversion of qd,c, (v. 2) with the divine vindication of the qyDica (v. 12).

The identity of these Mlixe, “gods,” as the leaders of the land is borne out not only by the context of this psalm, but also by that of its sibling, Psalm 82, in which the rulers of the people are spoken of as “Myhilox<.” In arrangement of structure, development of theme, and manner of address, Psalm 82 is much like that of Psalm 58. And although Psalm 82 begins with the imagery of the divine assembly over which God presides, it condescends immediately to the realm intended by that imagery—that of corrupt human leadership: even these “gods” will yet die like men (82:7). [12]  Moreover, in the settings of Exodus 21:6; 22:7-8, 27 [Heb.], there is some ambiguity in the use of the term Myhilox<(hA)—whether it refers to God or to his representatives who function judicially under his authority. [13]  This ambivalence is reinforced in Deuteronomy 19:17, where the two parties in dispute are called to “stand before Yahweh, before the priests and the judges.” Here, in Psalm 58:2, the psalmist sarcastically addresses what we might call these “gods of government” “to inquire whether they are ruling according to the demands of their positions under God’s sovereignty.” [14]

In addition, that the widespread injustice and violence in the earth is to be attributed to the dereliction of duty by the divinely endued human authorities rather than, as Weiser asserts, by “the ‘gods’ who constitute the celestial court of Yahweh and are to dispense justice on earth as his servants and functionaries,” [15]  whose lackeys are the MyfiwAr;, is supported by  a number of textual factors: (1) the crafted inclusio of vv. 2 and 12 unifies the psalm; [16]  (2) the plausibly vocative “O sons of men” parallels “O gods” in v. 2; (3) mention of the MyfiwAr; follows immediately and in the same vein as v. 2, making it appear that the two groups are to be equated; (4) the MyfiwAr; are manifestly human—they are born and they bleed (vv. 4, 11); (5) the Mlixe are confronted with a crime of speaking in v. 2; likewise the  MyfiwAr; in v. 4—perpetual deception; and (6) the Mlixe, if distinct from the MyfiwAr;, mysteriously disappear from the text and escape unscathed; however, if the Mlixe are equated with the MyfiwAr;, then they do receive their due punishment. [17]  

Secondly, the character of these individuals, especially in regard to their societal capacity, is described as unjust where justice should pervade (vv. 2-3), chronically dishonest (v. 4), ferociously violent (vv. 3, 7), and stubbornly wicked and deadly (vv. 4-6). Hibbard notes an enlightening illustration in this regard, which once occurred during family worship:

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 enemies like that?’ and at the same time referred me to Christ as praying for his enemies. 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. [18]

 

Thus, in this psalm David is calling down God’s vengeance, not upon transient transgressors of God’s laws, who harm out of ignorance or whose abuses are casual rather than premeditated and repetitive, but upon those who chronically and violently flaunt their position contrary to God’s righteousness. In particular, its cry resounds against those in positions of governing, legislative, or judicial authority who exploit their power for evil and their own ends. Indeed, the venom of this psalm is reserved for those who, when they should be protecting the helpless under their care, instead persecute and prey upon them. [19]  For such as these, even Jesus reserved the harshest sentence. [20]  It is important to note, however, that in this psalm David himself is not seeking to exact revenge. Rather, he appeals to the God of vengeance. As Bonhoeffer observes, “whoever entrusts revenge to God dismisses any thought of ever taking revenge himself.” [21]  

Moreover, in light of this sustained reality of surrounding societal injustice, Psalm 58 functions as the voice of faith responding to an implied barrage of pointed questions—whether from the psalmist himself or from others to the psalmist—which strike at the very heart of that faith: Is there really a sovereign God who executes justice on this earth? Does it make any sense for the righteous still to trust in him, when, by all appearances, evil goes unpunished and uncontested? Indeed, “the foundational principles of existence are on trial.” [22]  As Piper passionately articulates: if God were never to bring vengeance on his enemies and the oppressors of his people, “then he is an unfaithful God whose covenant is worthless. For he would be saying in effect that it is a matter of complete indifference whether one trusts in him or not. He would be discounting the greatness and worthiness of his own name by admitting that faith and blasphemy are for him as good as equal. Or even worse, he would be awarding blasphemy the greater portion.” [23]  It is against just such a background as this that the joy of the righteous must be understood. The righteous rejoice when God comes in vengeance to break the rule of the wicked and to punish injustice, and through this restoration of justice to put to rest all doubts and questions. It is the joy and the eternal relief of heaven and God’s people to see the liberation of saints, the restoration of justice, and the acquittal of God. [24]

In this regard, Calvin’s insights are instructive. Reflecting on Psalm 58:11 Calvin comments that patterned after the example of God, the righteous should “anxiously desire the conversion of their enemies, and evince much patience under injury, with a view to reclaim them to the way of salvation: but when wilful [sic] 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.” [25]  Now although he is generally hesitant to promote the utterance of imprecation, Calvin does affirm its appropriateness on extreme occasions. For example, commenting on Psalm 109:16, he advises that since “we cannot distinguish between the elect and the reprobate, it is our duty to pray for all who trouble us; to desire the salvation of all men; and even to be careful for the welfare of every individual. At the same time, if our hearts are pure and peaceful, this will not prevent us from freely appealing to God’s judgment, that he may cut off the finally impenitent.” [26]

Furthermore, this joy of God’s people over the destruction of her and God’s enemies, in like language and imagery, is a motif that runs through the canon of Scripture. It begins in the Song of Moses (Deut 32:43), [27]  finds expression in the Psalms (Ps 58:11), [28]  is proclaimed in the Prophets (Jer 51:48, [29]  against literal Babylon), and climaxes in the Book of Revelation (18:20, [30]  against anti-typical Babylon).

Thus in summary, in Psalm 58 David addresses the rulers of the community, ironically labeling them “gods,” to inquire whether they do indeed rightly fulfill their judicial function and responds to his own query with a resounding “No” (vv. 2-3), after which he describes their character as wholly wicked and injurious (vv. 4-6). Verses 7-10 comprise the curses which characterize the psalm as imprecatory, in which, by the use of vivid imagery and simile, David appeals to Yahweh to render them powerless—and even to destroy them if need be. The realization of this longed for divine vengeance will serve both to vindicate and comfort the righteous who have suffered so grievously, and to establish Yahweh as the manifest and supreme Judge of the earth (vv. 11-12). For with the prevalence of such societal evil, the honor of God and the survival of his faithful are at stake.


But one may ask, “What about the intensity of the imagery? How could the psalmist pray in such hideous terms?” Without a doubt, this psalm—and verse 11 in particular—“is one of the most fearful passages in the Old Testament. The combination of vengeance, joy and bloody foot-bath all in one text causes an intuitive aversion.” [31]  In response to this query, one must first recognize that what is voiced here is poetry, and that inherent in the nature of poetry is the use of vivid imagery. Where a concept in narrative may be described dispassionately, in poetry it is more likely to be expressed emotively. Coupled with this, the ancient Semites tended to speak in terms which the modern Western world prefers to phrase more delicately. For example, one may note the free use the Old Testament makes of the word “hate” to denote both rejection as well as the negative passion [32]  (cf. the various nuances in such passages as Mal 1:2-3; [33]  Hos 9:15, 17; [34]  Ps 139:21-22 [35] ), and the prevalent use of bloody terminology as is found here and in much of the eschatological prophecies. Peels perceives that Psalm 58:11b—“he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked”—phraseology which seems “so offensive 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.” [36]  Moreover, much of Scripture’s “immoderate” language is heard from the lips of Jesus himself, so that from the perspective of faith, it may not be unduly—if at all—slighted. And lest one think that Christ merely accommodated his tone to that of a more savage age, it is instructive to note that the Christian canon closes with like language (e.g., Rev 14:19-20; 18:4-8, 20; 19:1-3, 15), but in the tongue of the more “rational” Greek culture.

Secondly, one must grapple with the realization that passionate rhetoric naturally and rightly arises from extreme circumstances. As Kidner observes, “the words wrung from these sufferers as they plead their case are a measure of the deeds which provoked them. Those deeds were not wrung from anyone: they were the brutal response to love (109:4) and to pathetic weakness (137).” [37]  And here in Psalm 58, the invectives hurled one upon the other serve to express both the psalmist’s sincere desire and his sense of outrage at the flagrant violations of justice. [38]  These sentiments must be uttered with passion. This is done by means of the free use of potent simile, metaphor, and even limited hyperbole: in Psalm 58:7-8, David pleads for Yahweh to break the power of the wicked “gods” or judges; in Psalm 58:9-10, he further seeks their sudden demise; and in Psalm 58:11, his confidence in Yahweh’s intervention of vengeance is depicted by the image of total battle victory. In its fiery outbursts, this psalm “fights for the indispensable union of religion and ethics,” [39]  the intertwined embrace of life and faith.

 

Theological foundation. The Torah is the foundational revelation of God—not only because it was given first, but also because in it lies latent and in germinal form the expanse of theology that is developed more fully in succeeding revelation. Not surprisingly, then, the Imprecatory Psalms base their theology of imprecation in the Torah­­­—notably the promise of divine vengeance in the Song of Moses (Deut 32:1-43), the principle of divine justice in the lex talionis (e.g., Deut 19:16-21), and the promise of divine cursing in the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen 12:2-3). Imprecations in the Psalms are fundamentally cries for God’s vengeance to fall upon the stubborn enemies of God and his people. And here in Psalm 58 particularly, as in others, [40]  the principal basis upon which David utters his heated cries is this covenantal promise of divine vengeance. This theology of divine vengeance promised to God’s people in their distress is given its initial and most classic articulation in Deuteronomy 32—the song of rehearsal and remembrance [41]  for God’s people, the “Song of Moses.”

The Book of Deuteronomy is structured after the pattern of ancient suzerain-vassal treaties and, in this form, Deuteronomy 32:1-43 functions as a “witness” of the covenant—a character underscored by its intended repetition in the lives of God’s people. [42]  Moreover, the Song of Moses has an ongoing prophetic function, as a witness to the ongoing covenant of God with his people—the application of which carries through to the end of the canon, wherein the cry for divine vengeance for the blood of saints spilt is yet raised (Rev 6:9-10) and its accomplishment rejoiced in (Rev 19:1-2). This is illustrative of both the primary and secondary purposes of the Song: primarily as a witness against Israel for their rebellions (cf. Deut 31:19-21, 28; 32:5-30), but also secondarily as a testimony to the faithfulness of God (in the face of his people’s faithlessness), which issues in his vengeance against her oppressors (cf. Deut 32:4, 31-43). [43]  

The most relevant portions for the discussion here are verses 33-43: 

                                MnAyye Mniyni.Ta tmaHE 33

                     :rzAk;xa MynitAP; wxrov;

                                     . . . . . . . . . . .   34

                                [44]  Mle.wiv; MqAnA yli 35

                                                                       


                                      MlAg;ra FUmTA tfel;

                                          MdAyxe MOy bOrqA yKi

                                        :OmlA tdotifE wHAv;

                                              Om.fa hvAhy; NydiyA-yKi 36

                                     MHAn,t;yi vydAbAfE-lfav;

                                      dyA tlaz;xA-yKi hx,r;yi yKi

                                    :bUzfAv; rUcfA sp,x,v;

                                               Omyhelox< yxe rmaxAv; 37

                                              :Ob UysAHA rUc

                                                       . . . . . . . . . . . .      38

                              xUh ynixE ynixE yKi hTAfa Uxr; 39

                                    ydimA.fi Myhilox< Nyxev;

                                                hy.,HaxEva tymixA ynixE

                                    xPAr;x, ynixEva yTic;HamA

                                       :lyci.ma ydiyA.mi Nyxev;

                                    ydiyA MyimawA-lx, xWA.x,-yKi 40

                         :MlAfol; ykinoxA yHa yTir;maxAv;

                                        yBir;Ha qraB; ytiOn.wa-Mxi 41

                                   ydiyA FPAw;miB; zHextov;

                                                yrAcAl; MqAnA bywixA

                                        :Mle.waxE yxan;Wam;liv;

                                                MDAmi ycaHi ryKiw;xa 42

                                     rWABA lkaxTo yBir;Hav;

                                              hyAb;wiv; llAHA MDami

                                 :byeOx tOfr;Pa wxrome

                                                 Om.fa MyiOg Unynir;ha 43

                    [45] Myhlx lk vl vvHtwhv

                                          MOq.yi vydAbAfE-Mda yKi

                                       vyrAcAl; bywiyA MqAnAv;

                                 [46] :Omfa OtmAd;xa rP,kiv;

 

33 Their [i.e., the heathen oppressors’] [47]  wine is the venom of serpents,                      the cruel poison of cobras.

34  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

35 Vengeance is mine, I will repay.

         In due time their [i.e., the oppressors’] foot will slip;

    for the day of their disaster is near

         and their doom comes swiftly.’

36 Surely, Yahweh will vindicate [48]  his people

         and have compassion on his servants

       when he sees that their power is gone

         and none remains—bond or free.

37 Then he will say, ‘Where are their [i.e., his rebellious people’s] gods,

         the rock in whom they took refuge?

38  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

39 See now that I, I am he,

         and there are no gods besides me.

   I put to death and I bring to life,

         I have wounded and I will heal,

         and no one can deliver out of my hand.

40 Surely, I lift my hand to heaven

         and declare: As I live forever,

41 when I sharpen my flashing sword

         and my hand grasps it in judgment,

       I will take vengeance on my adversaries

         and repay those who hate me.

42 I will make my arrows drunk with blood

         and my sword will devour flesh—

   drunk with the blood of the slain and the captives,

         with the long-haired heads of the enemy.’


43 Rejoice, O nations, with his people,

         and let all the gods worship him.

    Surely, the blood of his servants he will avenge;

         he will take vengeance on his adversaries

         and make atonement for the land of his people.

 

There are several points at which it is likely that Psalm 58 broadly alludes to the latter half of the Song of Moses as the literary and theological quarry of its cry. [49]  Firstly, the psalm arose out of a faith context and was to be used in the worshiping community. Thus, the divine vengeance itself, so earnestly longed for, must have been addressed in prior revelation in such a manner as to convey that the righteous might expect such from their covenant God. And from the temporal standpoint of David, the consummate articulation of this promised divine vengeance is found in Deuteronomy 32.

Secondly, the social context out of which the psalmist speaks is that of powerlessness in the face of oppression, and he cries out in confidence to the God who can indeed act decisively on behalf of his defeated people. This very element runs strongly through the final verses of the Song of Moses: when all the power (literally “hand,” dyA) 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 grasps his sword with his hand to wreak vengeance on his enemies (v. 41).

And thirdly, although there is not a consistently precise identity of terminology, there is the conspicuous similarity of verbiage and linkage of concepts between the two passages, making it probable that the psalmist was aware of the Song as he uttered his cry, and subtly invoked its promise. In Psalm 58, David taunts the unjust “gods” (v. 2), asserting that indeed “there is a God (Myhilox<-wye) who judges in the earth” (v. 12); likewise in Deuteronomy 32, Yahweh taunts the pagan gods (v. 37), asserting that “there are no gods (Myhilox< Nyxe) besides me” (v. 39) and that he is the God of justice (v. 4). [50]  In Psalm 58,

David likens the wicked oppressors [51]  to venomous (tmaHE) snakes and deaf cobras (Nt,p,) (v. 5); [52]  likewise in Deuteronomy 32, Yahweh associates the persecutors of his people with the imagery of venomous (tmaHE) serpents and deadly cobras (MynitAP;) (v. 33). [53]  Lastly, in Psalm 58:11 bloody vengeance (MqAnA) is longed for, while in Deuteronomy 32:41-43 it is such graphically bloody vengeance (MqAnA) that is promised. And in the hope of its realization, the righteous are said to “rejoice” (Ps 58:11; Deut 32:43). [54]  

There are also others of the Imprecatory Psalms which hark back to the language and imagery of the latter part of this Song as the theological foundation and justification for their cries for vengeance. Psalm 94 begins with an appeal to the “God of vengeance” to repay the evil oppressors (vv. 1-2). But even more germane, and most overt in its allusion to Deuteronomy 32, is Psalm 79. After laying before Yahweh Israel’s hopeless and helpless situation, the psalmist Asaph locates the cause of their calamities in the anger and jealousy of Yahweh against his people for their sins (vv. 5, 8). He then pleads for compassion and forgiveness (vv. 8-9) and for the outpouring of divine wrath instead on the ungodly nations who have wreaked such havoc (vv. 6-7). This pattern is that which we find in Deuteronomy 32. In vv. 21-22, Yahweh is provoked to jealousy and anger against his people by their stubborn rebellions against him. Out of this jealous wrath, Yahweh promises to send various evils against them, including the ravages of the nations (vv. 23-33). [55]  But at the point of their powerlessness, Yahweh promises compassion, vindication, and vengeance (vv. 34-43). Psalm 79:10 makes the most explicit comparison, however. It pointedly requests of Yahweh that “the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants” (j`UpwA.ha j!yd,bAfE-MDa tmaq;ni) be known among the “nations.” This is the promise of Deuteronomy 32:43, which calls on the “nations” to rejoice, for Yahweh “avenges the blood of his servants” (MOq.yi vydAbAfE-Mda).

Moreover, far from being an isolated and peripheral portion of Old Testament biblical theology, this promise of divine vengeance found in Deuteronomy 32 is central to the theology and hope of Scripture—both Old and New Testaments alike. It is carried from the Law through the Prophets [56]  and the Psalms into the New Testament through to the end of the Christian canon. Indeed, Deuteronomy 32:35 is quoted by the apostle Paul in Romans 12:19 in his justification of New Testament ethics. [57]  In addition, 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 latter portion of the Song of Moses to “avenge the blood of his servants” (Deut 32:43).

9 And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered because of the word of God and the testimony they held on to. 10 They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, O Master, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait yet a little longer, until (the number of) their fellow servants and brothers who were about to be killed, as they had been, was completed.

 

Moreover, 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 Revelation 14:19-20, the saints in glory are said to sing “the Song of Moses [58]  and the Song of the Lamb” (15:3)—a song which proclaims the greatness of God’s justice revealed, and the consequent worship to arise from the nations (cf. Deut 32:43).  


2 And I saw . . . those who had been victorious over the beast and over his image and over the number of his name . . . holding harps (given them) by God. 3 And they were singing the Song of Moses the servant of God and the Song of the Lamb:

 

        ‘Great and marvelous are your works,

               O Lord God Almighty.

         Just and true are your ways,

               O King of the nations.

      4 Who does not (now) fear (you), O Lord,

               and glorify your name,

               who alone is holy?

         All the nations will come

               and worship before you,

               for your judgments have been revealed.’

 

And amidst the extended judgments—those which occur against eschatological Babylon (reminiscent of Jer 51:48)—comes the call to “rejoice” at this execution of divine retribution (Rev 18:20; cf. Deut 32:43).

The Song of Moses is sung in a covenant context, and the promise of vengeance is founded upon the reality that God has entered into covenant with his people. Although the Song of Moses was intended fundamentally to be a “witness against” Israel upon her breach of covenant with Yahweh (Deut 31:19, 21, 28), it was also given as a song of hope (Deut 32:36, 43)—that Yahweh will not abandon his people regardless of their faithlessness, but will come to their aid, avenge their blood, and take vengeance on his enemies. [59]  The cry for vengeance then arises out of this context and appeals to the terms of the covenant, which included this promise of vengeance against the enemies of God and his people—a promise applicable not solely to the Israel of the Old Covenant but also to the inheritors of the New Covenant, as affirmed by Revelation 6:10. [60]  

 

Psalm 137

Curse against a national or community enemy.

                                                    lk,BA tOrhEna lfa 1

                                  UnykiBA-MGa Unb;wayA MwA

                                        :NOy.ci-tx, Unrek;zAB;

                                              h.kAOtB; MybirAfE-lfa 2

                                           :UnyteOrno.Ki UnyliTA

                                                      UnUlxew; MwA yKi 3

                                       rywi-yreb;Di UnybeOw

                                          hHAm;wi UnylelAOtv;

                                :NOy.ci rywi.mi UnlA Urywi

                                      hvAhy;-rywi-tx, rywinA j`yxe 4

                                          :rkAne tmad;xa lfa

                                            MlAwAUyr; j`HEKAw;x,-Mxi 5

                                                :yniymiy; HKaw;Ti

                                              yKiHil; yniOwl;-qBad;Ti 6

                                          ykireK;z;x, xlo-Mxi

                             MlawAUry;-tx, hl,fExa xlo-Mxi

                                       :ytiHAm;Wi wxro lfa

                                                                                      MOdx< ynebli hvAhy; rkoz; 7

                                         MlAwAUry; MOy txe

                                               UrfA UrfA Myrim;xohA

                                           :h.BA dOsy;ha dfa

                                                                                           hdAUdw;.ha lb,BA-tBa 8

                                                                     j`lA T;l;maGAw, j`leUmG;-tx,

                         :UnlA T;l;maGAw, j`leUmG;-tx,

                                                                                            CPeniv; zHexyo.w, yrew;xa 9

                                                                      :flasAha-lx, j`yilalAfo-tx,


1 By the rivers of Babylon,

         there we sat and we wept,

         when we remembered Zion.

2 On the poplars in her midst

         we hung our lyres.

3 For there they demanded of us—

         our captors, song;

         and our slave-drivers, [61]  mirth:

         “Sing for us one of the songs of Zion!”

4 How can we sing Yahweh’s song

         on foreign soil?

5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

         may my right hand forget . . . ! [62]

6 May my tongue cling to my palate

         if I do not remember you,

   if I do not lift up Jerusalem

         as my chief joy.

7 Remember, O Yahweh, against [63]  the Edomites—

         the day of Jerusalem! [64]

   They cried, “Raze her, raze her—

         down to her foundation!”

8 O Daughter of Babylon, (doomed to be) devastated, [65]

         blessed is he who repays you

         what you deserve for what you did to us!

9 Blessed is he who seizes and shatters

         your little ones against the cliff! [66]

 

The beautifully crafted—yet disturbing—Psalm 137 [67]  has been understandably dubbed “the ‘psalm of violence’ par excellence, and, at least in its full text, to be rejected by Christians.” [68]  For are not Christians schooled in the law of Christ to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you,” and “turn the other cheek” (Luke 6:27-29)? And have they not been steeped in his words from the cross, the height of human cruelty and maltreatment: “Father, forgive them


. . .” (Luke 23:34)? The words of vv. 8-9 in particular have been coined “the ironical ‘bitter beatitudes,’” whose sentiment is “the very reverse of true religion,” and “among the most repellant words in scripture” [69] —a frightfully cruel outcry of “blind hate and vulgar rage.” [70]  Many Christians of a supposedly milder age, scandalized by such a wish contained therein, have jettisoned the last three verses of this psalm from the worship of the church and the life of the faithful altogether—a solution which runs counter to the usefulness and inspiration of Scripture. [71]  Others of like mind have sought to salvage these verses by relegating them to that age before the cross—now antithetical to what Christians are called to be. Bright, for example, claims that the composer of Psalm 137 “is typical of that man in every age who is godly and devoted to the things of God,” yet who responds “from a pre-Christian perspective and in a not-yet-Christian spirit”—a man, indeed, “to whom the gospel must come as a strange thing. We know this man well: there is more than a little of him in most of us.” [72]

Alternatively, in a seeming attempt to maintain the psalmist’s piety (and that of all the later faithful who would—even haltingly—echo these words) and yet to avoid the inherent violence in the text, some have urged an allegorical interpretation of these words. For instance, Lewis has mused:

Of the cursing Psalms I suppose most of us make our own moral allegories. . . . We know the proper object of utter hostility—wickedness, especially our own. . . . From this point of view I can use even the horrible passage in 137 about dashing the Babylonian babies against the stones. I know things in the inner world which are like babies; the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments, which may one day become dipsomania or settled hatred, but which woo us and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so helpless that in resisting them we feel we are being cruel to animals. They begin whimpering to us ‘I don’t ask much, but’, or ‘I had at least hoped’, or ‘you owe yourself some consideration’. Against all such pretty infants (the dears have such winning ways) the advice of the Psalm is the best. Knock the little bastards’ brains out. And ‘blessed’ is he who can, for it’s easier said than done. [73]  

 

And in a more corporeal vein, Osgood sought to remove the offense of vv. 8-9 by arguing that the Hebrew  j`yilalAfo referred more to relationship than to age, and so viewed the “children” of Babylon as her adult progeny who chose and followed in her sins. [74]

Noble (and poignant) though these sentiments be, looking at the psalm in light of its historical context, however, lends itself to an understanding contrary to the “higher morality” and “allegorical” interpretations common in Western Christianity. This communal lament is sung from the context of the Babylonian exile—an exile preceded by


the unthinkable horrors of ancient siege warfare. Jerusalem’s demise at the hands of the pitiless Babylonians, goaded on by the treacherous Edomites, was a national atrocity that both virtually wiped out and deported the community of faith. Moreover, in her demise were destroyed the bastions of that faith: the Davidic monarch, the chosen city, the temple of Yahweh. All those things which had rooted Israel’s identity as a nation and—more specifically—as the people of God had been either demolished or uprooted.

Siege warfare in the ancient Near East was frighteningly cruel. [75]  For example, in the Vassal-treaties of Esarhaddon, many of the consequences promised in the event of covenant disloyalty bespeak these horrors of the siege:

May Shamash plow up your cities with an iron plow.

Just as this ewe is cut open and the flesh of its young placed in its mouth,                 so may he (Shamash?) make you eat in your hunger the flesh of your               brothers, your sons, and your daughters.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Just as honey is sweet, so may the blood of your women, your sons and         daughters taste sweet in your mouths.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

            Just as honeycomb is pierced through and through with holes, so may holes be

pierced through and through in your flesh, the flesh of your women, your brothers, your sons and daughters while you are alive. [76]

 

In addition to these cruelties, the most brutal—and all too common—practice of city conquerors was the dashing of infants against the rocks in the fury and totality of war’s carnage. [77]  This barbarous slaughter of the most helpless of non-combatants “effected total destruction by making war upon the next generation.” [78]  The Scriptures make further use of this graphic and gruesome picture in its judgment oracles against rebellious Israel (Hos 14:1 [Eng 13:16]), Jerusalem (Luke 19:44), and cruel Assyria (Nah 3:10). And, most notably here, it is a fate promised as well to Babylon (Isa 13:16). 

The abrupt and appalling shriek emanating from vv. 7-9, then, may be distilled as the “passionate outcry of the powerless demanding justice!” [79]  Indeed, in the face of such blatant and humanly unpunishable injustice, the ravages of a wicked regime, God’s chastised people had no other recourse but to turn to Yahweh and plead for his justice. In the midst of their helplessness and humiliation, he was “their only hope for a righteous and just sentence of condemnation.” [80]  And it is to Yahweh that Judah’s appeal for strict retaliation in both kind and degree is made—and surrendered. [81]  In such circumstances of all-too-real and horrible brutality, where there is the very real temptation to “forget” (cf. vv.


5-6) or to utterly abandon the faith for the sake of one’s life and comfort, this psalm explodes upwards to the sole source of power in the midst of powerlessness, and hope in the midst of hopelessness. As Gilbert summarizes, the possibility, indeed, the necessity of such an appeal for retaliatory justice in the midst of blatant injustice “is the predominant theological teaching of this psalm.” [82]  But does even this context justify the sentiment expressed in the emotional climax of the psalm? How could the supposedly pious psalmist ring out a cry for such violence and revenge that he would call “blessed” those who take up enemy infants and dash them mercilessly against the rocks—a death none ought lightly visualize? [83]

 

Theological foundation. The basis upon which the psalmist pleads for such horrid retribution, though interlaced with extreme emotion, is not the base and vicious fury of bloodthirsty revenge but the principle of divine justice itself, particularly as it is expressed in the so-called lex talionis, thrice iterated in the Torah—again, that seedbed of all subsequent theology (cf. 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 ensure justice—that the punishment would indeed fit the crime. Thus, rather than being a primitive and barbaric code, this Old Testament statute forms the basis for all civilized justice. It was not a law of private retaliation, [84]  but a law of just recompense. [85]

Furthermore, the evidence of Scripture is heavily weighted that the implementation of this lex talionis was in a judicial, rather than personal, context. Of the three instances, Deuteronomy 19:16-21 makes this most explicit:

16 If a malevolent witness should rise up against a man to accuse him of a crime, 17 then the two men involved in the dispute are to stand before Yahweh, before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time. 18 Then the judges are to investigate the matter completely, and if the witness is found to be a false witness, falsely accusing his brother, 19 then you are to do to him as he intended to do to his brother, and so you will purge the evil from your midst. 20 The rest will hear and be afraid, and


never again will this evil thing be done in your midst. 21 Your eye must show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

 

Additionally, in Leviticus 24:17-21, the chiastically fashioned [86]  lex talionis in expanded form is nestled amidst a pericope (vv. 10-23) in which appropriate judgment for blasphemy was placed before Yahweh, awaiting his sentence. The divine verdict then forms the stage from which Yahweh reiterated the principle of justice by which his people were to be governed. That principle had first been uttered in Exodus 21:22-25. Even there, the punishment for personal injury was to be placed before both the wronged party and “the judges” (MyliliP;) for appropriate judgment (v. 22). And as the canon continued, the restriction on personal (as opposed to judicial) retaliation was made even more explicit. Indeed, it was as strictly forbidden in the Old Covenant as it is in the New. Proverbs 24:29 warns: “Do not say, ‘Just as he did to me, so I will do to him; I will pay that man back for what he has done’” (cf. Prov 20:22). [87]  Jesus himself likewise summed up the Law and the Prophets in words reminiscent of these: “In all things, then, whatever you would like people to do to you, so also you do to them” (Matt 7:12).

Moreover, the psalmist was evidently familiar with the barely-elapsed prophecy of Jeremiah 50–51, and had taken its promise of divine retribution to heart when he uttered his impassioned plea. This tie is most pronounced in the comparison between Psalm 137:8 and Jeremiah 51:56, for in both verses the roots ddw, [88]  lmg, and Mlw occur together in relation to the expected judgment against brutal Babylon:

hdAUdw;.ha lb,BA-tBa

            j`lA-Ml,.way;w, yrew;xa

         :UnlA t;l;maGAw, j`leUmG;-tx,

 

O Daughter of Babylon, (doomed to be) devastated,

       blessed is he who repays you

       what you deserve for what you did to us! (Ps 137:8).

                  

ddeOw lb,BA-lfa hAyl,fA xbA yKi

                         . . . . . . . . . . . .

                  hvAhy; tOlmuG; lxe yKi

                           :Mle.way; Mle.wa

 

Indeed, a devastator will come against Babylon,

         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

For Yahweh is a God of recompense;

         he will surely repay! (Jer 51:56).

 

As such, then, this psalm is as much a response to Scripture as it is to events. [89]  Further striking parallels include: (1) the designation “Daughter of Babylon” (cf. Jer 50:42; 51:33 with Ps 137:8); (2) the depiction of her demise by the image of being rolled off “the cliffs” (MyfilAs;.ha)—she who once was the invincible destroying mountain will soon be so no more (cf. Jer 51:25 with Ps 137:9); and (3) the ironic use of the violent term “shatter” (Cpn)—she who once was used of Yahweh to “shatter” the nations will soon find her little ones likewise “shattered” (cf. its repeated use in Jer 51:20-23 with Ps 137:9).

In addition, Jeremiah 50–51 skillfully and repeatedly weaves together the twin themes of the promise of divine vengeance and the principle of divine justice—or, the promise of vengeance in kind (Jer 50:15, 28-29; 51:6, 11, 24, 35, 36, 49, 56). [90]  The former is classically expressed in the Song of Moses [91]  (Deut 32:35), the latter in the lex talionis. And this dual-edged promise, well encapsulated in Jeremiah 51:6: “For it is the time of

Yahweh’s vengeance; he will repay her what she deserves!” (lUmG; hvAhyla xyhi hmAqAni tfE yKi

:h.lA Mle.wam; xUh), finds its echo not only in Psalm 137:7-9, but also in that other communal imprecatory prayer—Psalm 79:10, 12. [92]

Thus, in Psalm 137:7-9 the psalmist asks Yahweh for exact recompense against the treacherous Edomites and the merciless Babylonians—utter destruction as depicted by,


and actually enacted in, the violent slaughter of the enemy’s infants. The cry is for a punishment commensurate with the crime committed. Here the crime was the height of barbarity and ought be repaid in kind. As has been hinted, “a feeling of universal love is admirable, but it must not be divorced from a keen sense of justice.” [93]  The appeal is made to Yahweh to fulfill that justice as expressed in the lex talionis; the vehicle for its fulfillment is called “blessed,” for through her justice would be realized, the honor of God would be upheld, and a certain measure of the world gone wrong would be righted. Such matters as these are not to be received by the righteous with regret, but with a measure of—albeit in a sense sober—rejoicing. Indeed, this very measure of rejoicing is commanded at the culmination of the New Testament canon of both heaven and God’s saints over the future devastation of anti-typical Babylon according to the requirements of this same lex talionis (Rev 18:6, 20): “Give back to her just as she has given, and pay her back double for what she has done. . . . Rejoice over her, O heaven and saints and apostles and prophets! [94]  For God has judged her for the way she treated you.”

But the question may yet be asked, “Was the psalmist’s appeal to the lex talionis legitimate—particularly in light of God’s command that children not be put to death for the sins of their fathers (Deut 24:16), when that is indirectly what is being asked for here?” [95]  In response, it must be noted that 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 upon the children (Exod 34:7). The most conspicuous example of this is when, after God’s longsuffering over their sin, he commanded the annihilation of the entire populace of Canaan at the entry of his people there. God has rights that man cannot have, for only he is God. Harsh and revolting though his justice may appear, the believer is called to trust his goodness even in the midst of his justice and accept any concomitant tensions.

 Thus, in line with the ethics of the Old Covenant (as of the New), [96]  the psalmist in 137:7-9 appeals to Yahweh as the judge supreme to mete out justice according to his own edict. And since, in God’s economy, there was to be no ransom allowed for murder (cf. Num 35:31), the psalmist cries out for the divine judgment of compensatory bloodshed. Although the appalling request is both shocking and horrifying—for it scales the reaches of revulsion—it does indeed fall within the bounds of divine jurisprudence and is both a sentence divinely promised (cf. Isa 13:16; Jer 50–51) and divinely enacted. Thus, the principle itself of strict judicial retaliation cannot be maligned without at the same time maligning the character of God who both established and promised it. As such, then, the psalmist bears no guilt for his cry, though its jarring effect remains.

 

Psalm 109

Curse against a personal enemy.

                                                       rOmz;mi dvidAl; Hace.nam;la 1

                                                 :wraH,T,-lxa ytilA.hit; yhelox<

                                                   hmAr;mi-ypiU fwArA ypi yKi 2

                                                                UHtAPA ylafA

                                           rq,wA NOwl; yTixi UrB;Di

                                                       yniUbbAs; hxAn;Wi yreb;div; 3

                                                         :Mn.AHi yniUmHElA.y.iva

                                                       yniUnF;W;yi ytibAhExa-tHaTa 4

                                                              :hlA.pit; ynixEva

                                      hbAOF tHaTa hfArA ylafA UmyWiyA.va 5

                                              :ytibAhExa tHTa hxAn;Wiv;

                                                             fwArA vylAfA dqep;ha 6

                                         :Onymiy;-lfa dmofEya NFAWAv;

                                                          fwArA xceye OFp;w.AhiB; 7

                                        :hxAFAHEl hy,h;Ti OtlA.pit;U

                                                 MyFii.fam; vymAyA-Uyh;yi 8

                                                  :rHexa Hq.ayi OtDAquP;

                                                             MymiOty; vynABA-Uyh;y; 9

                                                        :hnAmAl;xa OTw;xiv;

                                                  Ulxewiv; vynAbA UfUnyA faOnv; 10

                                              :Mh,yteObr;HAme [97]  Uwr;goy;

                                  Ol-rw,xE-lkAl; hw,On wq.enay; 11

                                                 


                              :Ofygy; MyrizA Uz.boyAv;

                                                   ds,HA j`wemo Ol-yhiy;-lxa 12