Some Brief Thoughts on the Imprecatory Psalms (Part 1)

Last Tuesday Jess and I just completed the Psalms of lament for our Spring bible study focusing on Psalm 69. While discussing this Psalm we lead ourselves into a discussion of imprecation as Psalm 69:22-28 illustrates. This sparked an interesting dialogue on whether or not it is still biblical to recite this genre of Psalms that is to plead with the Lord to act on our behalf and destroy any who oppose His children. To follow up with this discussion we will be dealing with the imprecatory Psalms next week. In preparation for our study next week I thought I might give some ground and lay some brief thoughts on this issue.

Imprecation could be synonymous to “a curse” or maybe even more accurately a “psalm of anger” or “wrath”. It is an invocation of judgment and wrath on the enemies of God. Psalms 5:10; 10:15; 28:4; 31:17-18; 35:4-6; 40:14-15; 58:6-11; 69:22-28; 109:6-15; 139:19-22; 140:9-10 fall within this genre with 35, 69, and 109 being the strongest.

How can Christians with a clear conscious pray for the annihilation of our enemies when Christ has explicitly commanded us to “love your enemies” (Matt 5:44)? Do we have the right as New Testament believers to pray for the desolation and ruin of our enemies?

There are many (possible) ways to look at these psalms:

· By seeing these psalms as prophecies of future judgment.

· By seeing these psalms as some kind of spell to cast on the adversary.

· By interpreting the imprecatory statements as exaggerations to draw across the intense emotions of the psalmist from a poetic standpoint. A type of literary device to convey the degree of indignation the writer is expressing.

· By seeing these statements as a lesser Old Testament ethic in relation to the more superior ethic of Christ in the New Testament to love our enemies. This is an approach developed from progressive revelation.

· By removing the divine intentions of the psalmist and seeing his expressions as their own human vindictiveness without any motivation from God.

· By interpreting these psalms as a general pursuit to exercise justice to all humanity wherever injustice is present regardless of it’s relation to God.

· By interpreting these psalms as judgment on a nation as a whole and not focusing in on specific individuals.

· By interpreting these psalms as speaking in the indicative mood rather than the imperative mood of a command. In other words these passages state what would potentially happen to those enemies if the did not repent.

The Grounds from a Covenant Relationship
Before we discuss the Christian’s approach to these psalms a healthy and even more importantly, a biblical way of understanding the imprecatory psalms should be to look at them within the backdrop of Israel’s covenant with the Lord that is too view them from a historical context. As descendents of Abraham God has promised to curse those who curse His people as part of God’s covenant dealings with them (Gen 12:3; 27:29). We must remind ourselves that there has not been a nation that God has specifically chosen as his own possession therefore any offense against Israel can be ultimately looked at as an offense against Him. After all the psalms are essentially Israel’s covenantal prayer book. We can comfortably say this as NT believers as well (Gal 3:6-29).

Towards a Theology of Curse in the OT
Within this backdrop of covenant we should also consider an Old Testament theology of the concept of “curse”. In Deuteronomy 27 Moses sanctions the covenant for entering in the land which is fulfilled by Joshua (Josh 8:30-35) through a ceremony by which the representative would declare with a “loud voice” those who would be cursed. This was a reminder to the people of God that a covenant relationship with God should be taken with the utmost seriousness. This was also a reminder that there was a standard of obedience that has been set for Israel. So one should ask who are these sins of disobedience ultimately towards? Answer: God. From this view one might add that an appropriate response is that God should deal justly with those who blatantly disobey his commandments (Ps 9:8). I am not excusing the limits in which man sins against man but am simply trying to make the point that the offense of the disobedience is ultimately directed to the one who initially commanded obedience in the first place regardless of degree.

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