George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 1

3. The Imprecatory Psalms

Certain psalms are commonly called “imprecatory psalms” because they invoke the judgments of God against His enemies. The psalms most generally placed in this category are 7, 35, 58, 59, 69, 83, 109, 137, and 139. A number of other psalms, as well as other parts of Scripture, contain brief imprecations; but these nine have imprecation as their chief element.

The basic question with these psalms, as many interpreters see it, is an ethical question: How can it be right to wish or pray for the destruction of others when the Bible teaches elsewhere and often that one should love his enemies, and pray for those who persecute him (Matt. 5:44)?

To this question, generally stated, there have been numerous answers:

  1. The imprecations were by David’s enemies: It has been suggested (H.A. Whittaker, Enjoying the Bible, pp. 205,206) that the imprecation in Psalm 109:6-20, as one example, is not the utterance of David against his enemies, but is the cursing of those enemies against David himself (cp. 2 Sam. 16:5-13). This solution requires the insertion of the word “saying” at the end of verse 5. Some might consider the suggestion of an insertion as “adding unto the word” (Deut. 4:2; Prov. 30:6; Rev. 22:13). However, justification for this sort of approach may be found in the italicized word “saying” in Psalm 2:2 (AV) to explain the quotation in 2:3 which must obviously be attributed to David’s enemies. This proposal has merit in the single case, and could perhaps apply to some others; but a similar approach to all eight imprecatory psalms would probably be stretching the point.
  2. The imprecations expressed David’s own sentiments only: This suggestion is that David is, in such psalms, speaking the sentiments of his own heart and not those of the Holy Spirit. According to this view, the inspiration of David’s curses does not mean that God approved of the anger in David’s heart when he wrote those curses (Alan Hayward, God’s Truth, p. 195). This view, however, overlooks or perhaps does not give sufficient weight to the scriptural record of David as a man who did not indulge in a spirit of personal revenge (1 Sam. 24:1-7; 26:5). And furthermore, this view could lead down the treacherous path by which we are faced continually with the dilemma: ‘Is this verse, or that, inspired and meaningful as an example to me? Or is it merely David (or Isaiah, or Moses, or Paul) expressing his own personal sentiment rather than God’s?’
  3. The imprecations demonstrate the inferior principle of spiritual life in the Old Testament: This view is the favorite of many “orthodox” scholars, being founded on the doctrine of “progressive revelation”. By this is meant that the Old Testament worthies could not have been expected to show any of the kinder and gentler and more “Christian” virtues of character, since they had not the slightest inkling in their day that such qualities were even desirable! This approach is, as it should be, totally unacceptable to Christadelphians, who rightly take Old and New Testaments to be equally inspired and infallible. Also, such passages as Leviticus 19:17,18; Proverbs 20:22; 24:17,18; 25:21,22; and Job 31:29,30 show that, in the matter of personal vengeance, the Old Testament is every bit up to the standard of the New.
  4. The imprecations are prophetic: According to this view, David was not only a poet, but also a prophet declaring what would happen to the ungodly. His statements, then, were not private and personal at all, but instead the judgments of God. It is pointed out, in defense of this view, that some of the imprecatory psalms are quoted in the New Testament as being fulfilled then (Psa. 69:25 and 109:8 in Acts 1:20; Psa. 69:22,23 in Rom. 11:9,10). But, linguistically speaking, in both English and Hebrew, the “imprecations” are not simple declarations of what will happen, but rather wishes or prayers for what may happen. Thus, what appears at first sight to be a very satisfactory solution may be seen as going only half the way to answering the question: “How could David pray as he did?”
  5. Finally, the imprecations are calls to God to remember His covenant: The fundamental ground of justification for the presence of the imprecatory psalms is the Abrahamic covenant, specifically Genesis 12:1-3: “Now the Lord had said unto Abram, ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee; and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.’ ”

On the basis of this covenant, David, the seed of Abraham, the divinely-selected representative of the nation, had every right to pray that God would do what He had promised — that is, curse those who cursed Abraham’s seed!

What is crucial to appreciating the imprecatory psalms is this: David never prayed that he might be permitted to avenge himself, but always that God would rise up to avenge His Anointed (Psa. 7:6; 35:1; 58:6; 59:5). Like Jesus later, David was capable of generosity and “turning the other cheek” when under personal attack (2 Sam. 16:11; 19:16-23). Yet, like Jesus again, he loved righteousness and hated the iniquity which flaunted itself against the honor of God, and he could be utterly ruthless in suppressing such iniquity when he knew the time was right!

Finally, God’s judgments are essential if the righteous are ever to be established and glorified on the earth. To pray “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth” is therefore no different than to pray “Let them (thine enemies) be confounded....troubled....put to shame....perish....” — once it is understood that there is no personal vindictiveness involved.

Therefore, the imprecations of the Bible are not mere human cries for vengeance, nor the expression of some inferior Old Testament “righteousness”, nor merely prophecies. They are righteous, heartfelt calls upon God to remember His covenant, and to perform it, come what may. For David and the other “imprecators” recognized that only then, when God’s enemies are finally and completely cursed, will He be able to get on with the business of glorifying His Name in the earth:

“So let all Thine enemies perish, O Lord: but let them that love Thee be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might” (Judg. 5:31).
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