The Cursing Psalms

The book of Psalms is best known for its songs of praise and worship, as well as songs of lament. But there are also occurrences of psalms of cursing or vengeance, known as imprecatory psalms. Within these passages, the author “hurls God’s curses on his enemies, in no uncertain terms.”[1] Day proposes that the curses within the psalms are not to be discarded by today’s church due to “a reaction of revulsion,” but seen in a broader context of Old and New Testament verses that call for “divine vengeance” used “in extreme circumstances, against hardened, deceitful, violent, immoral, unjust sinners.”[2]

Day argues that imprecations cannot be avoided or minimized. God’s people face evil in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and in modern times. To the extent a need exists today for divine intervention due to unrepentant sin, there is a need for imprecatory prayers.[3] One of his strongest arguments for the applicability of imprecations to the modern church is that “the character of God does not change, so the essence of God’s ethical requirements does not change.”[4] God’s righteousness and vengeance will not be understood by humanity, but He is unchanging (Rev 1:8). The love He showed as He parted the Red Sea for Israel is also reflected in His action that brought the Sea crashing down, drowning the Egyptians. And what about the New Testament? Did Jesus’s ministry bring with it an end to cursing God’s enemies? Day contrasts two passages, one from the Old Testament, and one from the New. In the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen 12:3) God promises blessings upon those who bless Abraham’s descendants, and curses upon those who curse them. The same sentiment is expressed, Day cites, in Matthew 10:11-15. Jesus sends out the twelve disciples with instructions to bless those who receive them, and to curse those who do not. In fact, Jesus alludes to Old Testament judgement, saying that those who do not receive the disciples will be judged more harshly than were the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The entirety of scripture remains consistent in its declaration to love God and love others, even our enemies. In the Old Testament, Proverbs 24 and 25 contain instruction to provide food and water to enemies and a reminder to not rejoice when enemies stumble. Providing food and water is one thing, but we see in the Old and New Testaments a call for Christians to turn the other cheek to evildoers (Lam 3:30, Matt 5:39). Looking at these instructions through modern eyes, we might assume that Christians are called to sacrificially accept abuse. The good news is that is not the case. In scriptural context, “turning the cheek” means a believer’s response to abuse cannot take the form of a similarly evil act.[5]

Context is important, as is the act of wrestling with difficult passages of scripture. It might be less confrontational to avoid imprecatory scripture. But in our wrestling, we add to our understanding of the complex character of our God. As Moisés Silva observes, “Everyone must struggle with the dilemma of reconciling the surface meaning of such biblical narratives and texts with the need to show how these same texts edify contemporary readers.”[6]

A wrong interpretation might cause further harm to victims that was never intended. Taken to an extreme, an abused woman who seeks biblical counsel might be told to “turn the other cheek” and thus believe her only option as a Christian is to stay in the abusive relationship. However, if taught in context, and with the inclusion of imprecations, the counsel would align with the consistency of God’s character and demonstrate love, protection, and judgement. A more contextual counsel might encourage the woman to not return violence against her abuser (Mat 5:39, Luk 6:29, Lam 3:30), to pray for her abuser (Luke 6:28), and to leave the presence of the abuser (Luk 9:5).

As a woman who has experienced a destructive and abusive relationship, I see a tangible role for imprecation in the lives of Christians today. Providing victims with contextually accurate teachings reinforces the power of God’s love, the refuge found under His protection, and His role as the sole arbiter of justice. Yes, we must understand that we are called to love God and love others. But loving others sometimes means that we remove ourselves from their midst, so they can no longer sin against us. It is a reminder that we are sent out into this world as “sheep in the midst of wolves” which requires us to sometimes “shake the dust off” our sandals when peace is not extended within a household (Matt 10:13-16).

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If you need resources about destructive relationships, and a community of support, contact me. I will be happy to connect you with some of the books and people that helped me sort through my experience, and connect to scripture and a God who loves me and values my heart more than my marital status.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Henry H. Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook, Deluxe Ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2014), 307.

[2] John N. Day, “The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics,” Bibliotheca Sacra (April-June 2002): 166, 168.

[3] Ibid., 186.

[4] Ibid., 168.

[5] William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary, Ed. Arthur L. Farstad (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), 948, 1330.

[6] Walter C. Kaiser Jr. and Moisés Silva, Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning, Rev. and Expanded Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 322.

 

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