One year, I decided to read one Psalm each day and turn it into a personal prayer. It was easy to find something relatable in each psalm for the most part. However, there were some passages and whole psalms that I struggled to connect with. For example, Psalm 3 asks God to “break the teeth of the wicked” (3:7). Another prays that the wicked may “be like a slug that melts away as it moves along” and states that the righteous will be glad when “they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked” (58:8,10). One even pleads,
“Charge them with crime upon crime;
do not let them share in your salvation.
May they be blotted out of the book of life
and not be listed with the righteous.” (69:27-28)
These passages are examples of what’s known as imprecatory psalms, after the word imprecation, meaning curse. This type of Scripture calls down God’s wrath or judgment on a group of people. The idea of calling down a curse on someone is not a comfortable one for us today. However, there are many such passages in the Bible and in the book of Psalms specifically.
These psalms didn’t seem to fit with the ideal of charity and forgiveness that seemed to be expected of me as a Christian. Doesn’t God want us to love our enemies? What about Matthew 5:44: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you “? When it says to pray for them, I don’t think it means to pray for them to turn into a slug!
There are differing opinions on the place of imprecations in today’s worship and the best response to them. I’ve tried to explain a few here. There are more positions and more nuance than I can discuss here, so I encourage you to explore on your own and form your own opinion if you’re interested in this subject. I’ll also add my own thoughts later, but remember that mine is just one perspective on a complex subject.
Position 1: Some see imprecatory psalms as imperfect responses by human beings to difficult circumstances. They are historical details not meant to be positive examples for us to follow.
Position 2: Others believe these psalms were appropriate for the time when Israel and Judah were in a much more warlike period. Things look different on the other side of the cross, and we’re expected to respond to our enemies differently. Passages like Matthew 5:38-48 seem to command a different reaction to wickedness and injustice than those portrayed in many psalms. While God has not changed, some aspects of our obedience have.
Position 3: Others emphasize that the whole of Scripture, including both the Old and New Testaments, applies to us today. There is essentially no difference between Old Testament belief and now. In this position, we can and should pray imprecatory psalms as part of worship today.
No matter what your position on imprecatory language for today, I think there are a few things we can take away from these challenging passages:
Permission to feel feelings
Psalms, and all the other writings in the Bible, didn’t happen in a vacuum. They are outpourings of very real individual and collective feelings grounded in Jewish history. Throughout the Psalms, we see how people related to God and poured out their emotions, fears, and desires before Him in worship. The imprecatory psalms are no different.
A gut wrenching portrayal of how dark sin is
Some of the language in the imprecatory psalms and other similar passages can be shocking. In context with the rest of Scripture, we can place many of them with equally difficult historical events, such as wars, betrayal, cruelty, and persecution. If we ever forget that we’re living in a broken world, these psalms can remind us.
A recognition that God and God alone is judgment giver
Essentially, imprecatory psalms are a cry out to God for justice. Rather than a cry for personal vengeance, they can be seen as a request for God to fulfill His promise to make things right in the world again. Specifically, to Israel, He promised to fight for them and defend them against enemies. So it’s easy to see why their worship would call out for this to take place. Whether or not we feel it’s right to call out for this type of justice today or wait for the final judgment at Jesus’ return, we know that God will someday bring His enemies to justice, a thought that should sober all of us.
Personally, I’m still not sure I’m comfortable praying
imprecatory prayers. Certainly, we may feel a righteous desire for justice, especially when great injustices have been committed, and I feel it’s appropriate to carefully, soberly, and humbly ask God to deliver justice. I also believe it’s a good thing to bring our anger to God and seek His help in dealing with it rather than letting it fester on our own. However, we should beware of invoking God’s wrath on another human being simply because we’re angry with them or don’t agree with something they’ve done. Ultimately, vengeance and final judgment are not up to us. If we pray these prayers, we should do so very carefully. In the meantime, we can learn more about the history of God’s people and how they understood His character through imprecatory psalms.