The so-called “Cursing Psalms,” in which the Psalmist prays for the destruction of his enemies, are difficult passages for modern readers, who recognize a sharp contrast between the harsh words and the Christian call to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). There is a way to misinterpret these psalms, but there is also a key to understanding them, a key that may illuminate the whole Psalter.
Psalm 69 begins as a petition for deliverance, but quickly devolves into a list of complaints: “You know how I am scorned, disgraced and shamed . . . / I looked for sympathy, but there was none, / for comforters, but I found none.” Instead of finding anyone sympathetic to his plight, the Psalmist is given gall for food and vinegar for drink. He returns the insult: “let their own table before them become a snare / let their sacrificial feast be a trap” (69:22). Just as gall and vinegar are ironic antidotes to hunger and dehydration, the Psalmist petitions the Lord to turn the nourishment and sacrifices of his enemies into their own bodily and spiritual undoing.
The problem this psalm poses for many readers is its vitriolic lack of charity, which goes against the moral norms of Christianity and Judaism. And the contrast is quite jarring. Numerous passages and laws in the Pentateuch prohibit doing evil to one’s rivals, and some even command love. Lost animals must be returned to their owner, even if he is a rival or enemy in court (Exod. 23:4-5). In Leviticus, we read, “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). And in the Gospels the commandment to love your neighbor is second only to the commandment to love the Lord (Mark 12:31; Matt. 22:39).
Knowing that God, as a true author of Scripture, would never wish ill upon his creation, some faithful readers resolve the difficulty by saying the anger is directed toward the sin and not the sinner. And perhaps this knowledge of God’s authorship combines with a certain anti-judgmental sentiment prevalent in modernity. The problem with this line of reasoning, however, is that it forgets the intention of the mortal writer. Dei Verbum makes clear that Scripture's human authors are true authors who, using their own abilities, were moved to write down only those things that God desired. In other words, “everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit.” Whatever the author wrote down and meant by his words is intentional, without error, and truthful. The vitriolic sentiment in Psalm 69, therefore, cannot be ignored.
For Christians, the Cursing Psalms raise a further difficulty: Within the Christian mind, the words of the psalms and the voice of Christ often converge. The Gospel writers frequently interpose the words of the psalms into the mouth of their Savior, who most famously quotes Psalm 22 at the hour of his death: “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” Like the Psalmist in Psalm 69, Christ is given vinegar and gall to drink while on the cross (Matt. 27:33). However, he then expresses the opposite sentiment of the psalm: He petitions his Father to have mercy on his executioners.
How are we, then, to understand these words coming out the mouth of a righteous disciple of the Law of Moses, and how are we to understand them as coming out of the mouth of the most Holy Son?
The solution to the first question is simple: The anger is not personal but political. In the beginning of Psalm 69, the Psalmist indicates the motivation of his neighbor's treatment of him: “It is for thy sake I have borne reproach.” It is because of his close association with God that the Psalmist suffers ridicule; however, he is not alone in this close association with God. The whole nation of Israel, as the adopted son of God, bears that identity and suffers a similar fate as the Psalmist at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians. The Psalmist is not merely speaking for himself but for his own people about the troubles of the nation, and their outrage over being kept from the land where they can worship their God.
The anger displayed in this Cursing Psalm thus enters a new moral sphere. The Psalmist is not merely seeking revenge on those who have personally wronged him; instead, he is the personified voice of Israel that desires the political overthrow of his nation’s captors who prevent their religious freedom.
How are we to understand the Cursing Psalms when uttered by Christ? The Mystery of the Incarnation often illuminates difficult texts, and in a similar fashion, the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ can help us understand Psalm 69. That is, just as God the Son can say “I thirst” (John 19:28) in virtue of his human nature, he also speaks in place of the nation of the faithful who are mysteriously united to him in his Sacred Body. The words of Psalm 69, when spoken by Christ, thus take on a similarly political character.
But they take on a deeper meaning as well. In the Gospels, Christ’s presence in the world is at once a cause of union and of division. There are those who believe in him, and those who do not (6:47). There are those who eat of his Body, and those who do not (6:53). There are sheep, and there are wolves (10:1–21). There is light, and there is darkness (1:5). The very idea of unity calls to mind its opposite, and even presumes it. Psalm 69 in the mouth of Christ thus comes to represent the faithful united in Christ and their struggle against the forces of evil, under which circumstances the language of violence and anger is certainly justified. Let us not forget that the Christ who asked the Father to forgive his executioners is the same Christ who cleansed the vendors from the Temple with a whip (3:13-16) and called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 3:7).
The difficulty posed by the Cursing Psalms is thus solved by remembering that the human author personifies the voice of a nation, and that Christ, through the mystery of his Mystical Body, has united himself to that Holy Nation, embodying its voice in his very person. In virtue of its unity, it will necessarily have boundaries, limitations. That is, there are those with Christ within the nation working to extend and preserve the mystical unity, and there are enemies without. Perhaps those enemies are not specified in the psalm, but they surely exist, even if only in the spiritual realm. And they deserve the anger and punishment expressed in the Cursing Psalms.
Will Eby is pursuing a master’s degree in Sacred Theology at the International Theological Institute in Austria.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?