“O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:8-9)
Any Christian who has a high view of the normativity of all of Scripture (OT and NT) for the Christian church will wrestle with the language of cursing and imprecation found in the Psalms. Are we not called to love our enemies? How then can a Christian take such language upon his lips? Are not certain Psalms no longer relevant to Christians?
In the book Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm Singing for the Twenty-First Century (Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), David Murray contributes a useful chapter to the discussion entitled “Christian Cursing?” (See pgs. 111-121) The chapter is short, but contains several good insights.
Murray begins with what he deems wrong approaches to the imprecatory Psalms. Though some have appealed to shifts in redemptive historical epochs, sin on the Psalmists’ part, demons as the objects of the curses instead of people, a prophetic genre rather than prayer, and hyperbole, Murray feels that each appeal is problematic. In the place of these, he offers “ten helps” for understanding these Psalms, hoping that this will enable us to read and sing these Psalms better.
Rooted in the first gospel promise. The curses of the Psalms are rooted in the curse upon the serpent that accompanied the protoeuangelion in Gen 3:14-15. Murray says that the imprecations are essentially a prayer to God, asking him to be faithful to his own word and character as a just and holy God: “God, be faithful to your promise to curse those who curse me.”
David’s forgiving character. Generally speaking, Scripture portrays David as “one who prayed for his enemies and sought to do them good.” Though Murray does not comment further, his implication is that this portrayal should create in us a hermeneutic of trust. David must have reconciled these two seemingly contradictory stances in his own mind, thus we too should approach these Psalms with an openness to hear how they are in harmony with other passages expressing love for enemies.
The king represented God. Murray explains: “As the king was God’s representative, God’s reputation was tied up with the king’s. Offending God’s anointed king was equivalent to offending God.” The Psalmists were thus not seeking to take human revenge upon human offense, but were calling down divine vengeance upon divine offense.
Multiple New Testament quotations. The NT cites several imprecatory Psalms “without any reserve or qualification.” Murray cites this material to remind us that NT believers have been taking the imprecatory Psalms upon their lips from the beginnings of Christianity. (As a side note, G.K. Beale speaks to the NT use of imprecatory Psalms in his very short, but very excellent booklet The Morality of God in the Old Testament. This is a highly recommended volume.).
New Testament imprecations. This is related to the NT’s use of OT imprecatory Psalms, but here Murray demonstrates that the NT provides some imprecations of its own (e.g., Gal. 1:8-9, 5:11-12; 2 Tim. 4:14; 1 Cor 16:22). Though many in our day take a Marcionite approach to the OT and NT, Murray reminds us that “God’s justice and God’s love are found in both testaments….”
Based on justice. Though we live in a day when retribution is not at the forefront of judicial policy, Murray reminds us that retribution was the foundation of biblical justice. God’s justice must be satisfied. Murray explains: “The substance of the imprecatory Psalms is that justice be done and the innocent righteous vindicated, which is a New Testament theme also (Luke 18:1-8).”
Thy kingdom come. “The imprecations of Scripture reflect the zeal of God’s people of the kingdom of God and their passionate hatred of sin and evil…. God’s kingdom comes by defeating and destroying competing kingdoms.” Murray continues: “This is really saying that blessing and cursing are two sides of the same coin. Real compassion for the wronged can exist only beside indignation against wrong-doing (Matt. 23).” Murray cites a helpful statement of John Piper with the conclusion that “prayers of imprecation should not be our first reaction to evil, but our last.” There are other prayers that come first and there are aspects to God’s kingdom that take priority in our thinking over others. Nevertheless, with the desire for the coming of God’s kingdom comes a desire for the fullness of God’s kingdom. One cannot desire that fullness without also desiring the destruction of evil that is part of it.
Vengeance is God’s. It is noteworthy that the imprecatory Psalms are not narratives of how Psalmists took vengeance into their own hands. (Note that even in the settlement narratives and herem (חֶרֶם) warfare of Joshua, astute readers will note that this was not a humanly devised genocide. Again, G.K. Beale speaks well to this matter in his booklet The Morality of God in the Old Testament). Murray explains: “An imprecation is a prayer for God to take vengeance. The psalmist does not take vengeance himself but turns the situation over to God.”
Judgments aiming at salvation. Murray notes that the imprecations often have the good of the sinner at their heart: “God will often use judgments to bring sinners to himself.” Passages Murray cites include Psalm 83:16; Daniel 4; and Acts 13:9-12. In a long citation of Martin Luther, Murray shows that our prayers for the enemies of Christ are two-fold; on the one hand, that they might fail in their efforts to persecute Christ’s own, and on the other hand, that they might be brought to faith in Christ themselves.
Point us to Christ. The imprecatory language of the Psalms is most perfectly sung by Christ himself who one day will return to destroy all evil and opposition to the Father’s will, and consummate God’s perfect rule of the age to come. Because Christ is the perfect singer of the imprecations, we can have confidence and “patiently wait for God to fulfill his promises, despite the temporary triumphing of the wicked and the affliction of the godly.”
In conclusion, David Murray offers some important points for Christians to consider when interpreting the imprecatory language of the Psalms. Certainly each of these points is open to objection; I thought of possible responses to each as I was typing this up. Nevertheless, I also thought of rejoinders to each critique that embrace the substance of Murray’s answer even if I needed to mitigate or nuance the language of the “ten helps.” Had Murray’s chapter been longer, he could have fleshed out these helps a bit more, but as they stand, they are a good orientation to the discussion and an initial foray into some answers to the question.
Furthermore, not every one of what Murray deems “wrong solutions” is equally misguided. Here too, with exceptions of course, better versions of these arguments can indeed offer some explanatory power. This is especially the case with the shift in redemptive historical epochs as the land-typology under the Mosaic covenant does provide an arena for “intrusion” of divine wrath that is no longer appropriate for this present epoch.
Murray’s chapter is a useful resource and a valuable help. We must always remember that ours is not the first generation of Christians to struggle with how to read and interpret the imprecatory language of the Psalms. Many have come before us and provided the groundwork for further believing responses to these challenging – but nevertheless God glorifying – passages. Resources abound so take up and read!
R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)