Christians often balk at “imprecatory” psalms, which ask God to curse and judge enemies. They appear sub-Christian, unloving, and mean-spirited. The problem is, imprecations aren’t rare in the Psalter. Forty or so psalms include prayers for judgment (5:8-10; 7:6-16; 9:19-20; 10:2, 15; 12:1-5; 17:13-15; 28:3-5; 31:17; 35:1-8; 40:13-17; 49:13-15; etc.), and others promise God will destroy his enemies without asking him to do so (e.g., 21:7-13). Excising imprecations would leave the Psalter as tattered as Jefferson’s edition of the Gospels.
Imprecations aren’t a barbaric residue, but express fundamental biblical convictions about God and the world. When we pray for justice, we’re praying for God to be what he truly is—Judge of all the earth. More specifically, imprecations are based on Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham and Israel. Yahweh promised to curse those who curse Abraham (Gen. 12:3). When David asks God to deflect curses back onto the cursers, he’s asking him to be faithful to the Abrahamic covenant. Imprecations are rooted in Torah’s principle of retribution, the lex talionis, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” The wicked of Psalm 109 open a “deceitful mouth” to speak with a “lying tongue,” acting as David’s accusers; David asks Yahweh to surround them with accusers. David’s enemies refuse mercy, so David asks that they receive no mercy. They persecute the weak, so David asks that they be persecuted. They clothe themselves with curses, so David asks Yahweh to wrap them in dishonor and shame.
As Trevor Laurence has argued, imprecatory psalms reach back to the beginning of the Bible. David characterizes enemies as predatory beasts (35:17; 58:6), often as serpents. The unjust “gods” of Psalm 58 are children of vipers who attack “sons of Adam.” Like Eden’s serpent, they’re liars. David asks Yahweh to break their teeth, so they can’t poison anyone else. At the end of the psalm, David imagines himself as the promised seed of the woman, trampling serpents (cf. Gen. 3:15); his heel crushes their heads and he bathes his feet in their blood.
Psalm 83 characterizes the enemies of Israel as “crafty” or “shrewd,” like the tempter in the garden (Gen. 3:1), and alludes to demonic enemies of Israel who died of head wounds: Jael pounds a tent peg through Sisera’s skull (83:9; Judg. 4:21-22; 5:26), Ephraimites bring the heads of Oreb and Zeeb to Gideon (83:11; Judg. 7:25), and Gideon defeats Zebah and Zalmunna so they “raised their heads no more” (83:11; Judg. 8:28). As Laurence puts it, Psalm 83 “begs that God will crush the heads of the crafty serpent nations in the same way he shattered serpent skulls in former days.”
Psalm 68 also speaks of broken heads and trampling feet, and the king of Psalm 72 leaves his enemies licking dust like a serpent (cf. Gen. 3:14). Psalm 109 is part of a three-psalm sequence (Pss. 108-110). Psalm 108, Laurence says, contrasts Yahweh’s former triumphs with Israel’s present defeats, while Psalm 110 depicts a victorious David who brings enemies under his feet, shattering the heads of kings. Nestled between these psalms, Psalm 109 asks Yahweh to give victory over satans, accusers, and slanderers, so the king can ascend to rule at Yahweh’s right hand. In Psalm 140, David’s enemies have tongues as sharp as serpents’ and viper poison under their lips, so David asks Yahweh to cast them into the fire.
As Laurence points out, this cry for justice and for deliverance from satanic powers embraces the entire Psalter. Psalm 1 shows Yahweh blowing away the wicked as chaff, and Psalm 2 introduces Yahweh’s royal Son who shatters nations and kings like pottery. Near the end of the Psalter, Psalm 149 promises that the saints will do the shattering, binding kings and executing justice. The Psalter hands the Son’s rod of iron over to us, because the Psalter is a rod of iron. Singing psalms, we break teeth, blunt arrows, disable unjust hands, silence lying tongues.
Singing the “mean” psalms is thus part of the church’s mission. These psalms arouse a hunger and thirst for justice, as we take up the prayers of the destitute as our own. They expand the scope of our prayers. We may not be under threat, but these psalms keep before us the daily dangers of persecuted brothers and sisters. Imprecatory psalms ground us in the real world, counteracting our instinct for over-spiritualized, anodyne, Pollyannaish piety. They’re a form of church discipline, as we ask Jesus to uproot liars and predators from his field, the church. Through these prayers, we defend the house and kingdom of God, and participate in the Lord’s work of establishing justice, vindicating the innocent, defending the helpless. As we sing the “mean” psalms, Satan is trampled under our feet (Rom. 16:20).
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.
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