Praying Curses: Imprecatory Psalms

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

Reflections on the Psalms, Part 6

Imprecatory psalms are a grouping that contains harsh judgments upon the psalmists’ enemies. A minimum of seven psalms corresponds to this category to a limited extent: the 35th, 55th, 59th, 69th, 79th, 109th, and 137th. In an ordinate manner, the term “imprecation” emphasizes the psalmist entreating God to bring “curses” upon his enemies; therefore, it may be better to reference these psalms as “psalms of anger” or “psalms of wrath” to more properly describe their intention.

Imprecatory psalms could also be classified as individual laments. They manifest a specific perspective with regard to life and the world. The basis for the imprecatory psalm is the psalmist’s suffering, for which he is predominantly innocent. He declared, “For they have opened the wicked and deceitful mouth against me; they have spoken against me with a lying tongue. They have also surrounded me with words of hatred, and fought against me without cause” (Ps 109:2-3). Nevertheless, the psalmist confessed that his suffering was ultimately for the Lord’s glory (and for that reason, he could endure the persecution). “Because for Your sake I have borne reproach. . . . For zeal for Your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach You have fallen on me” (69:7a, 9).

The undeniable implication of the imprecation is that the psalmist either cursed his enemies, or prayed for God to do so. The meaning of the term “imprecation” is “curses,” and thus indicates that the psalmist prayed for God’s wrath against his persecutor(s). Regarding his tormentors, the psalmist said, “They repay me evil for good, to the bereavement of my soul” (35:12). At times, his agony was magnified by the fact that the doers of evil were his friends. “For it is not an enemy who reproaches me, then I could bear it; nor is it one who hates me who has exalted himself against me, then I could hide myself from him. But it is you, a man my equal, my companion and my familiar friend; we who had sweet fellowship together” (55:12-14a; cf. 109:4-5).

Throughout his ordeals, the psalmist remained confident in the faithfulness and goodness of God. “But You, O GOD, the Lord, deal kindly with me for Your name’s sake; because your lovingkindness is good, deliver me” (109:21). Though others may fail him, the psalmist pleaded, “Help me, O LORD my God; save me according to Your lovingkindness” (v. 26).

The mindset of invoking vengeance upon adversaries is an entire contrast to the spirit of forgiveness taught in the New Testament (Matt 5:44; Rom 12:17-21). The attitude of the psalmist is regarded as being supposedly sub-Christian; that is, acting contrary to how a believing church member should. There are appropriate responses to be made in view of such allegations.

First, the curses do not express the desire for personal revenge. The enemies mentioned are those opposed to God. Psalm 139:21-22 reveals that David rejected and refused those who disregarded the Lord (cf. Ps 1:1). He could not remain neutral toward those who “rise up against” God: “they have become my enemies” (Ps 139:21-22). David certainly did make them his enemies, for they actually made themselves his adversaries. To resist God was to be in opposition to His servant. David was so burdened with the thoughts of God that He wanted any obstacles to be removed, especially those who were hateful toward the Lord (Ps 139:21a). When responding to his personal enemies, David was characterized by forgiveness and longsuffering. Twice, while his friends encouraged him to kill his enemy, David spared Saul’s life (1 Sam 24; 26) and wept at news of his death (2 Sam 1:17-27). Unlike any other Old Testament king, David readily welcomed former adversaries and pardoned those who rebelled against him (2 Sam 3; 19:16-23). By contrast, Abishai and Joab, the sons of Zeruiah, held grudges and acted with vengeance (2 Sam 3:1-39).

Second, the innocence of the psalmist is apparent, which is why he called for curses upon himself if he deserved it. Believers often suffer unjustly through no sin of their own. In the midst of such injustice, God’s people call to the Lord for His intervention on their behalf, trusting Him to right all wrongs. Psalm 7, for instance, is a passionate imprecation, for it invokes God’s judgment and wrath upon threatening foes. God is a righteous Judge who defends His people when they are assaulted.

David searched his heart and prayed, “O Lord my God, if I have done this, if there is injustice in my hands, if I have rewarded evil to my friend, or have plundered him who without cause was my adversary, let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it; and let him trample my life down to the ground and lay my glory in the dust” (Ps 7:3-5). David did not declare sinlessness in his petition; rather, he affirmed blamelessness against the accusations of his accusers. If, however, the slanderous indictments were true, David reasoned that God’s discipline would result in his enemies succeeding in their personal attacks. Having affirmed his blamelessness, the psalmist’s appeal to God was for the Lord to arise in His anger (v. 6). David urged God to achieve justice by defending the righteous and punishing wickedness; with that appeal, he recognized that vengeance belongs to the Lord.

Third, the psalmist always expected God to execute justice as opposed to it being self-initiated. Indeed, this would be the primary contrast between Yahweh war and jihad (holy war). God (Yahweh) initiated the war, as necessitated by the nature of His relationship with Israel as an elect nation. Moreover, by initiating the process, God would empower His chosen people (or individuals, as in Elijah or Cyrus, for example; 1 Kgs 18:40; Isa 45:1) to accomplish the war. Victory was guaranteed if all His conditions were satisfied. In the case of Elijah specifically, the wicked crimes of the Baal prophets demanded the death penalty (cf. Deut 13:13-15; 17:2-5). Genesis 3:15 indicates a higher order of conflict between God and the spiritual forces that strive against His holy will. The imprecatory psalms state the abuse that the psalmist’s enemies have perpetrated against him, and then reference that mistreatment in the context of the Lord’s greater plan: “Because for Your sake I have borne reproach; dishonor has covered my face” (Ps 69:7).

Fourth, many of the curses are related to the national life of Israel (cf. Ps 144:5-7). Even today, it is not uncommon for a nation’s leader to pray for victory against an enemy. Moreover, warfare in ancient Israel was closely related to the worship of God; victory in battle always involved worshiping the Lord prior to the conflict, and praising Him alone for the victory. David’s prayer for God to “flash forth lightning and scatter” his enemies is related to the Lord’s purposes for the psalmist and for the community (v. 12).

The psalmist’s spiritual wellness was motivated by his awareness of community. He identified the negative effects upon others arising from the accusations and taunting of his foes. Concerned that his persecution might weaken the faith of the community, David prayed, “May those who wait for You not be ashamed through me, O Lord GOD of hosts; may those who seek You not be dishonored through me, O God of Israel” (69:6). He called upon those who favored his vindication to “shout for joy and rejoice,” because He “delights in the prosperity of His servant” (35:27). There were good reasons to glorify the Lord, which is why David would magnify God and speak of his praises “all day long” (v. 28). 

Prayers related to the national life of God’s people must always be understood as redemptive and gracious. As a consequence of the fall of humanity, God decreed to elect a people through whom all nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:1-3). However, it was not until their bondage in Egypt that God assumed the role of Warrior on behalf of His covenant relationship with Israel (as Father to Son). What must not be confused in God’s warlike nature in redeeming Israel is that the conflict was not specifically between the God of Israel and Pharaoh/Egypt; rather, it was between Yahweh and the Egyptian gods. In Yahweh war, the true and living God demonstrated His glory and power against spiritual darkness and wickedness, and against those realms that transcend the earthly and human (Gen 3:15; Exod 15:1, 4-5; Job 1:6-12; 2:2-6).

God is holy; therefore, His people must be likewise. Yahweh war was one of the primary means in the Old Testament era to protect the holiness of the Lord; it was unique historically and does not apply to the church age. No argument from Scripture to justify any type of “holy war” can be made today. Yahweh war will not be initiated again until the end of the age, when God returns to earth in power and glory to establish His everlasting kingdom (and He will accomplish victory this time directly; Matt 25:31-46; Rev 19:15).

Fifth, the prosperity of the wicked in the time of the Old Testament appeared to disprove God’s holiness and justice. Therefore, a believer naturally desired to witness the vindication of God’s character through His judgment of the wicked. The psalmist appealed to the Lord as a God of justice, expecting the Lord to contend with those who wronged him (Ps 35:1). The holiness and justice of God necessitated divine intervention against David’s oppressors because, in reality, they were opposed to the Lord Himself. Therefore, the psalmist did not appeal to God for his own advantage; rather, his concern was the advancement of the Lord’s glory.

When one considers the extent and nature of the imprecatory psalms, the intent is readily apparent, even though the personal reason may not be. To regard the psalms of anger and wrath comprehensively is to discern that these imprecations were not prayers for personal comfort or vengeance; rather, the primary focus was the glory of God. Moreover, the psalmist knew the impact of his personal suffering upon the community, and did not want others who trusted in the Lord to become discouraged by the opposition of his adversaries. Nothing malicious can be identified in the imprecatory psalms; these appeals were motivated by fervent zeal for the Lord’s glory, and thus invoke divine judgment and wrath upon the psalmist’s adversaries, who were enemies of God. The psalmist appealed to God for success as he accomplished the Lord’s work even among his persecutors.

Midnight Call - 02/2020

ContactAbout UsPrivacy and Safety