9/11 and the Imprecatory Psalms: Two Opinions

Here’s a list of the Lament Psalms known as Imprecatory (Psalm 7, 35, 52, 54, 55, 58, 59, 79, 83, 94, 129, 137, and 140).

Claus Westermann claims that these imprecatory Psalms “have once and for all been taken away from Christ’s congregation.”[1] Some of them[2] appear rather bloodthirsty, pre-Christian and inappropriate for believers to use.  These Psalms call down divine curses upon the enemies of God and express an intense need for justice.

C.S. Lewis claims that it is these Psalms that “have made the Psalter largely a closed book for many modern church-goers.”[3] He did not accept the Imprecatory Psalms as God’s Word. He wrote, “The hatred is there—festering, gloating, undisguised—and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves….They are indeed devilish.”[4] He would claim that the intolerant, vindictive spirit that animates the imprecatory Psalms resists domestication and not even the most reckless allegorizing can Christianize them.

May I share a contrary opinion. The Imprecatory Psalm prayers are “God’s own gift, providing us the words to express to God our rage, to cry out for God’s own justice against those who attack [His people], to take seriously a presence of evil that stands opposed to God’s own love and mercy.”[5] At the bare minimum, these prayers “serve as important reminders of God’s concern for justice in this world and of his judgment on those who [persist in practicing] evil.”[6]

It is evident from redemptive history that there is one who can perfectly and rightfully pray the Imprecatory Psalms – Jesus Christ, the righteous one. We are not disappointed since Jesus did not avoid the Imprecatory Psalms during His earthly pilgrimage. One of the most severe of them (Psalm 69) seems to have been one of His favorite Psalms.  Jesus drew guidance, courage and self-understanding from this Psalm.

He asserts from Psalm 69:4 that “they hated me without cause” (John 15:25). He announces from Psalm 69:9 that “zeal for your house has eaten me up” (John 2:17).  He laments from Psalm 69:21 that “they gave me gall for my food” (Matthew 27:24). Indeed, we do not have to resort to reckless allegorizing for we have the clear statements of Jesus himself to guide us. When we view these Psalms as prayers of Jesus Christ, our understanding of His heart and His sufferings on our behalf deepens and our hearts are filled with gratitude.

There are several helpful guidelines for praying the Imprecatory Psalms. We offer the following four guidelines.[7] First of all, a believer’s prayer should never include the motive of personal revenge (Psalm 109:21). Secondly, vengeance belongs only to God (Romans 12:17-19). Thirdly, in rare cases, it is acceptable for believers today to pray for God to defeat those who oppose His kingdom work – if they do not repent (Psalm 59:13; Acts 13:10-11). Fourthly, the foremost prayer of a believer for his enemies should be that of intercession that they might be changed and converted (Psalm 83:16-18; Matthew 5:44).

What are some of the benefits of praying the Imprecatory Psalms? They help believers by channelling these emotions to God rather than expressing them either verbally or physically at others”[8] It is truly a step of faith to only ventilate your anger to God and let him take care of justice against those who have insulted or abused you.

The pandemic of AIDS, the mass murders on American high school and college campuses, and world-wide terrorism have brought about human evil and suffering on such a pervasive scale that frail, human hearts are vulnerable to despair. If the Holy Spirit is to stir believers to concrete acts of justice and mercy, we must hear the cries of the suffering, the persecuted, and the oppressed. To that end, the Imprecatory Psalms may be a timely gift of the Spirit rather than an embarrassment as they awake us to real injustice, abuse, persecution, and suffering.

What will result in the church if we pray them? James Adams declares that “when these prayers are prayed in the power of the Holy Spirit and with understanding, there will come unsuspected power and glory to the church of Christ.”[9]

Raymond Surburg spells this out in greater detail:

When all is quiet and peaceful in the Church, many may not feel very keenly the need for the use of the Imprecatory Psalms…However, when persecution bursts upon the Church, as has been the case in communistic China, in Cuba where Christian pastors and their flocks have been subjected to torture, inhuman indignities and death, when the faith of God’s people is severely tried by the enemies of the Lord, Christians have instinctively turned to these Psalms. Some people may have considered the Imprecatory Psalms an offense in better days, but their relevancy has been brought home to them, when the forces of evil have persecuted and tortured them because of belief in God and faith in the Lordship of Christ.[10]

Derek Kidner reminds us that the Imprecatory Psalms should not be cut out of the Bible. They serve as an important foreshadowing of a dreadful day in the future when the glory of God’s perfect justice will be magnified:

There is “sorer punishment” revealed in the New Testament than in the psalms, simply because the whole scale of human destiny has come into sight. This is very clear from a comparison of Psalm 6:8 and Matthew 7:23, where the words “Depart from me, all you workers of evil” are transformed from a cry of relief by David into a sentence of death by Christ. The principle is the same: truth and lies cannot live together. “Outside” will be “everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” But it is one thing to be driven off by David; quite another by Christ, to the final exclusion which is also the climax of almost every parable in the Gospels.[11]

[1] Claus Westermann, The Psalms: Structure, Content, and Message, trans. Ralph Gehrke (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Press, 1980), 66-67.

[2] Fourteen Psalms have been classified “imprecatory.”  Psalm 69 and 109 are the most significant.  Other Imprecatory Psalms include:  7, 35, 52, 54, 55, 58, 59, 79, 83, 94, 129, 137, and 140. A brief, introductory treatise on the Imprecatory Psalms can be found in Derek Kidner’s commentary, Psalms 1-72:  An Introduction and Commentary, 25-32. James E. Adams has written a small but insightful book on the Imprecatory Psalms entitled, War Psalms of the Prince of Peace: Lessons from the Imprecatory Psalms, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1991). A more recent treatment of the Imprecatory Psalms is John N. Day’s, Crying for Justice, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2005).

Several Helpful Journal Articles:  J. Carl Laney, “A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms,” Bibliotheca Sacra 138 (January-March 1981): 35-45; John N. Day, “The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 159 (April-June 2002); 166-86 and Chalmers Martin, “The Imprecations in the Psalms,” Princeton Theological Review 1 (1903) 537-53; Alex Luc, “Interpreting the Curses in the Psalms,” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society, (42.3, September 1990) 395-410.

[3] Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 18.

[4] Ibid, 22. Here Lewis seems to embrace the neo-orthodox heresy that the Bible is not the Word of God but rather that it contains the Word of God. Lewis has great difficulty in reconciling the imprecations found in some of the Psalms with the Biblical view of a loving and just God.

[5] Frederick J. Gaiser, “Deliver Us From Evil,” Word & World, (22:1, Winter 2002), 3.

[6] Luc, “Interpreting the Curses in the Psalms, 409.

[7] These guidelines come from Laney, “A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms,” 35-45 and Greg W Parsons, “Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Psalms, Bibliotheca Sacra, 147, (April-June 1990), 178.

[8] Parsons, “Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Psalms,” 178.

[9] James Adams, War Psalms of the Prince of Peace, xiii.

[10] Raymond F. Surburg, “The Interpretation of the Imprecatory Psalms,” Springfielder, 39 (1975), 100.

[11] Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 30.

One thought on “9/11 and the Imprecatory Psalms: Two Opinions

  1. Pingback: Christ in the Psalms « Duluth Benedictine Oblates

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