THE IMPRECATORY PSALMS
AND CHRISTIAN ETHICS
John N. Day
ONE EMINENTLY TROUBLESOME PORTION of the Scriptures is
the so-called "imprecatory psalms." These psalms express
the desire for God's vengeance to fall on His (and His peo-
ple’s) enemies and include the use of actual curses, or impreca-
tions. Such psalms naturally evoke a reaction of revulsion in many
Christians. For are not Christians to love their enemies (Matt.
5:44), to "bless and not curse" (Rom. 12:14)? How then does one jus-
tify calls for the barbaric dashing of infants against a rock (Ps.
137:9) or the washing of one's "feet in the blood of the wicked"
(58:10)? Are the imprecatory psalms merely a way of venting rage
without really meaning it? Or is cursing enemies the Old Testa-
ment way and loving enemies the New Testament way? Has the
morality of Scripture evolved? And is it in any way legitimate to
use these psalms in Christian life and worship?
The imprecatory psalms have been explained as expressing (a)
evil emotions, either to be avoided altogether or to be expressed
and relinquished,1 (b) a morality consonant with the Old Covenant
John N. Day is Senior Pastor, Bellewood Presbyterian Church,
1 For the former position see C. S.
Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (
Harcourt, Brace, 1958); and idem, Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967). For the latter see Walter Brueggemann, The Message of
the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984); and idem, Praying the Psalms (Winona,
MN: Saint Mary's, 1986).
This position is questionable on five counts. First, it runs counter to 'the prevail-
ing piety of the psalmists-notably David, the principal author of these psalms. Far
from being a man given to rage and revenge, he was quick to exhibit a Christlike
spirit toward his enemies-in particular King Saul (e.g., 1 Sam. 24). Although
David, "a man after [God's' own heart" (13:14; cf. Acts 13:22), was guilty of sin
(adultery, deception, and murder; 2 Sam 11), these acts did not express his pervad-
ing character, which was revealed in his repentance (Ps. 51). Therefore, if the im-
precatory psalms are considered sinful, their presence in the Davidic psalms con-
tradicts what is known of him elsewhere in Scripture. In fact even in the psalms the
utterance of any imprecation comes only after the enemy's repeated return of "evil
for good" (35:12-14; 109:5), or after gross (and frequently sustained) injustice (Pss.
58, 79, 137).
The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics 167
but inconsistent with the New,2 or (c) words appropriately uttered
solely from the lips of Christ, and consequently only by His follow-
ers through Him.3
Second, the purposes that govern the expression of imprecations in the psalms
and the principal themes that run repeatedly through them are on the highest ethi-
cal plane. These include concern for the honor of God and for the public recognition
of` His sovereignty (e.g., 59:13; 74:22), concern for the realization of justice in the
face of rampant injustice, along with the hope that divine retribution will cause
people to seek the Lord (e.g., 58:11; 83:16), an abhorrence of sin (139:21), and a con-
cern for the preservation of the righteous (35:1, 4).
Third, this view is contrary to the inspiration of the psalms. By the testimony of
both David and David's greater Son, the psalms were written under divine inspira-
tion (2 Sam. 23:2; Mark 12:36). And Peter's quotation from both Psalms 69 and
109-two of the most notorious of the imprecatory psalms-is introduced by the
statement that these Scriptures "had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold
by the mouth of David concerning Judas" (Acts 1:16, italics added).
Fourth, to explain the imprecatory psalms as outbursts of evil emotion may
account for the initial writing of the psalms, but it does not adequately explain why
these psalms were included in the Psalter, the book of worship for God's people.
Though this does not of itself demand that the things expressed therein are fault-
less, the sheer quantity of cries for divine vengeance in the Book of Psalms calls into
question the view that they are expressing evil emotions. Nor did later copyists and
compilers feel any need to expunge such material as unfitting for the Scriptures.
Fifth, this view does not adequately account for imprecations in the New Testa-
ment, notably from the lips of the Lord Himself (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21).
2 For example J. Carl Laney, "A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms," Biblio-
theca Sacra 138 (January-March 1981): 35-45; and Chalmers Martin, "The Impre-
cations in the Psalms," Princeton Theological Review 1 (1903): 537-53. Though both
are admirable treatments of this topic, their proposal inadequately accounts for the
presence of imprecations in the New Testament and the enduring validity of the
Abrahamic promise for church-age believers (Gal. 3:6-29). Also this view runs
counter to the internal witness of Scripture and of the Lord Jesus Christ, who as-
serted that the two "great commandments" given in the Old Covenant are the same
two "great commandments" reinforced in the New (Matt. 22:36-40). Thus from Je-
sus' own testimony the morality of the New Covenant in its highest expression is
consistent with that of the Old (cf.
Gal. 5:13-14; 6:2;
Moreover, Martin's assertion that the progress of revelation fundamentally alters
the Christian's stance toward the enemies of God, since the "distinction between the
sin and the sinner was impossible to David as an Old Testament saint" (ibid., 548)
insufficiently characterizes the broader theology of Scripture. There it is not only
"love the sinner but hate the sin," but also paradoxically "love the sinner but hate
the sinner" (cf. Ps. 5:4-6 and 139:19, 21-22 with Matt. 5:44-45). For even according
to the New Testament, sinners-not just sin-will be destroyed, suffering the eter-
nal torment of hell (e.g., Mark 9:47-48). See the observations of John L. McKenzie,
"The Imprecations of the Psalter," American Ecclesiastical Review 111 (1944): 91-93.
3 For example James E. Adams, War Psalms of the Prince of Peace: Lessons from
the Imprecatory Psalms (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1991);
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "A Bonhoeffer Sermon," trans. Daniel Bloesch, ed. F. Burton
Nelson, Theology Today 38 (1982): 465-71; and idem, Psalms: The Prayer Book of
the Bible, trans. James H. Burtness (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1970). This view is
based on the function of David in Scripture as both the genetic and typological fore-
runner of Christ. In response, however, this scriptural portrayal of David is not
meant to disassociate David's words and actions from his person in history. In fact
168 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 2002
This article proposes that the imprecatory psalms have a place
in the New Testament church by establishing (a) that they root
their theology of cursing, of crying out for God's vengeance, in the
Torah--principally in the promise of divine vengeance expressed in
the Song of Moses (Deut. 32:1-43), the principle of divine justice
outlined in the lex talionis (e.g., 19:16-21), and the assurance of
divine cursing as well as blessing in the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen.
12:2-3); and (b) that this theology is carried largely unchanged
through the Scriptures to the end of the New Testament (Rev.
15:2-4; 18:20), thus buttressing its applicability to believers today.
Though some New Testament passages seem to contradict the
cry of the imprecatory psalms, other verses confirm it. The tension
between "loving" and "cursing" can be harmonized, and must be
properly dealt with by God's people in whatever dispensation they
are found. As the character of God does not change, so the essence
of God's ethical requirements does not change. Therefore, as the
imprecatory psalms were at times appropriate on the lips of Old
Testament believers, so they are at times appropriate on the lips of
New Testament believers as well. Moreover, whereas love and
blessing are the characteristic ethic of believers of both testaments,
cursing and calling for divine vengeance are their extreme ethic
and may be voiced in extreme circumstances, against hardened,
deceitful, violent, immoral, unjust sinners. Although Christians
must continually seek reconciliation and practice longsuffering,
forgiveness, and kindness, times come when justice must be en-
acted--whether from God directly or through His representatives
(in particular, the state and judicial system; Rom. 13:1-4).
But how can it be right for Christians to cry out for divine
vengeance and violence,4 as in the imprecatory psalms? Several
delaying these Davidic psalms of imprecation until the cross of Christ and distanc-
ing them from their historical setting and speaker robs them of both their immedi-
ate and archetypal significance and power. Neither does it answer the imprecations
or cries for divine vengeance in the non-Davidic psalms or in other parts of Scrip-
ture--including both testaments. If such are deemed morally legitimate elsewhere,
then this proposal offers no genuine solution to the issue of imprecation in the
Psalms or in general.
4 The central issue of divine vengeance presents a problem partly because the
promise of such vengeance forms much of the basis on which the psalmists voiced
their cries of cursing and partly because of the concept of vengeance itself. To people
today the word "vengeance" bears sinful and negative connotations. But to the an-
cient Israelites the concept of vengeance was tied to the requirements of justice:
Where justice was trampled, vengeance was required. Furthermore God's vengeance
is inseparably linked to His lovingkindness; it is the other side of His compassion,
the (perhaps inevitably) "dark side" of His mercy (Brueggemann, Praying the
Psalms, 62). The Scriptures unequivocally attest that Yahweh has passionately and
decisively taken sides for His people in history. He delivers His people; but without
The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics 169
observations from Scripture address this question. First, the
vengeance appealed for is not personally enacted; rather God is
called on to execute vengeance. Second, these appeals are based on
God's covenant promises, most notable of which are these: "The one
who curses you, I will curse" (Gen. 12:3), and "I will render venge-
ance on My adversaries, and I will repay those who hate Me"
(Deut. 32:41). And since God has given these promises, His people
are not wrong in petitioning Him to fulfill those promises. Third,
both testaments record examples of God's people justly calling
down curses or crying for vengeance, without any intimation that
God disapproved of such sentiments. Fourth, Scripture further re-
cords an instance in which God's people in heaven, where there is
no sin, cry out for divine vengeance and are comforted by the as-
surance of its near enactment (Rev. 6:9-11). Since these martyred
saints are presumably perfected, their entreaty should not be con-
Though the Book of Psalms includes almost one hundred
verses with imprecations,5 this article discusses three representa-
tive psalms: Psalm 58, an imprecation against a societal enemy;
Psalm 137, an imprecation against a national or community en-
emy; and Psalm 109, an imprecation against a personal enemy.
Notably these three psalms contain the harshest language or most
severe imprecations against the enemies.
CURSE AGAINST A SOCIETAL ENEMY
In Psalm 58 who is being cursed and what kind of people are they?
First, the objects of David's imprecations were the rulers or
"judges" within the community--those who were responsible for
seeing that justice is properly meted out. This psalm is framed by
an ironic inclusion of judicial terms and ideas. The human "you
judge" (v. 1) contrasts with the divine "who judges" (v. 11); the hu-
God's vengeance against His enemies, there can be no deliverance for His people
(Isa. 35:4; 63:3-4).
5 The passages in the Psalms that contain imprecations include at least these:
5:10; 6:10; 7:6, 9, 15-16; 9:19-20; 10:15; 17:13; 28:4; 31:17-18; 35:1, 4-6, 8, 19,
24-26; 40:14-15; 52:5; 54:5; 55:9, 15; 56:7; 58:6-10; 59:5, 11-13; 68:1-2, 30;
( 69:22-25, 27-28; 70:2-3; 71:13; 74:11, 22-23; 79:6, 10, 12; 83:9, 11, 13-18; 94:1-2;
104:35; 109:6-15, 17-20, 29; 129:5-8; 137:7-9; 139:19, 21-22; 140:8-11; 141:10;
and 143:1.2-a total of ninety-eight verses in thirty-two psalms. However, fourteen
psalms may be rightly deemed "imprecatory" (i.e., their characterizing element is
imprecations or cries for divine vengeance): Psalms 7, 35, 52, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 83, 94, 109, 129, 137, and 140.
170 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA I April-June 2002
man "gods" (v. 1)6 with the true "God" (v. 11); the lack of human
justice "on earth" (v. 2) with the hope of divine justice "on earth" (v.
11); and the human perversion of "righteousness" (v. 1) with the
divine vindication of the "righteous" (v. 11).
Second, these individuals are described as unjust, whereas jus-
tice should pervade (vv. 1-2), and they are chronically dishonest (v.
3), ferociously violent (vv. 2, 6), and stubbornly wicked and deadly
(vv. 3-5). Thus this psalm calls down God's vengeance not on occa-
sional transgressors of God's laws, who harmed out of ignorance or
whose abuses were casual rather than premeditated and repetitive,
but on those who chronically and violently flaunted their position
contrary to God's righteousness.7 They held positions of governing,
legislative, or judicial authority, and they exploited their power for
evil and their own ends.8
6 The identity of these "gods" as leaders in the land is supported by a number of
textual factors. First, the inclusio of verses 1 and 11 unifies the psalm. Second, in
verse 1 the vocative "0 sons of men" parallels "0 gods." Third, mention of the
"wicked" follows in verse 3 and in the same vein. as verse 1, suggesting that the two
groups are to be equated. Fourth, the "wicked" are manifestly human--they are
born (v. 3) and they bleed (v. 10). Fifth, in verse 1 the "gods" are confronted with a
crime of speaking, as are the "wicked" in verse 3. Sixth, the "gods," if distinct from
the "wicked," mysteriously disappear from the text and escape unscathed; however,
if the "gods" are equated with the "wicked," then they do receive their due punish-
ment. See David P. Wright, "Blown Away Like a Bramble: The Dynamics of Analogy
in Psalm 58," Revue biblique 103 (1996): 219. Cf. Psalm 82 and John 10:34-35.
7 F. G. Hibbard notes an enlightening illustration in this regard, which occurred
in his family: "I happened to be reading one of the imprecatory psalms, and as I
paused to remark, my little boy, a lad of ten years, asked with some earnestness:
‘Father, do you think it right for a good man to pray for the destruction of his ene-
mies like that?’ and at the same time referred me to Christ as praying for his ene-
mies. I paused a moment to know how to shape the reply so as to fully meet and
satisfy his enquiry, and then said, ‘My son, if an assassin should enter the house by
night, and murder your mother, and then escape, and the sheriff and citizens were
all out in pursuit, trying to catch him, would you not pray to God that they might
succeed and arrest him, and that he might be brought to justice? 'Oh, yes!' said he,
but I never saw it so before. I did not know that that was the meaning of these
Psalms.' ‘Yes,’ said I, ‘my son, the men against whom David prays were bloody men,
men of falsehood and crime, enemies to the peace of society, seeking his own life,
and unless they were arrested and their wicked devices defeated, many innocent
persons must suffer.’ The explanation perfectly satisfied his mind" (The Psalms
Chronologically Arranged, with Historical Introductions; and a General Introduc-
tion to the Whole Book,
5th ed. [
8 The venom of this psalm is reserved for those who, when they should be pro-
tecting the helpless under their care, instead prey on them. Jesus also used harsh
language against people such as this. Speaking against the religious leaders of His
day, He warned, "Watch out for the teachers of the law.... They devour widows'
houses.... Such men will be punished most severely" (Mark 12:38, 40, NIV). It is
important to emphasize here that David himself did not seek to exact revenge; he
appealed to the God of vengeance. See Roy B. Zuck, "The Problem of the Impreca-
tory Psalms" (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1957), 67-70, 74-75.
The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics 171
Thus by vivid imagery and simile David appealed to Yahweh
to render these injurious "gods" powerless and even to destroy
them if need be (vv. 6-8). The realization of this longed--for venge-
ance would vindicate and comfort the righteous who had suffered
so grievously and would establish Yahweh as the manifest and su-
preme Judge of the earth (vv. 10-11). For with the prevalence of
such societal evil, the honor of God and the survival of His faithful
were at stake. The joy of the righteous at the bloody vengeance of
God (v. 10) is to be understood against this background.9 Moreover,
this expression of exultation over the destruction of the enemies of
God and His people is seen. throughout Scripture. It begins in the
Song of Moses (Deut. 32:43), finds utterance in the Psalms (Ps.
58:10), is proclaimed in the prophets (Jer. 51:48), and climaxes in
the Book of Revelation (18:20).
The Pentateuch is the foundational revelation of God not only be-
cause it was given first but; also because much of biblical theology
is present there in germinal form and then is developed more fully
in succeeding portions of Scripture. Not surprisingly, then, the im-
precatory psalms base their theology of imprecation in the Torah.
And here the principal basis on which David uttered his heated
cries for divine vengeance is the covenantal promise of divine
vengeance--a promise given its initial and classic articulation in
Deuteronomy 32, the "Song of Moses."
In two major elements it is likely that Psalm 58 alludes to the
9 But how could David--or now, a Christian--pray in such hideous terms? Two
points may be noted in response to this question. First, what is voiced here is po-
etry, and biblical poetry often uses vivid imagery. Where a concept in narrative form
may be described dispassionately, in poetry it may well be expressed emotively. H.
G. L. Peels perceives that the phraseology of Psalm 58:10b, which seems "so offen-
sive to modern ears, simply intends to employ a powerful image, borrowed from the
all too realistic situation of the battlefield following the fight (wading through the
blood), to highlight the total destruction of the godless" (The Vengeance of God: The
Meaning of the Root NQM and the Function of the NQM-Texts in the Context of Di-
Revelation in the Old Testament [
Moreover, much of Scripture's "immoderate" language is heard from the lips of Je-
sus Christ Himself. Second, passionate rhetoric naturally and rightly arises out of
extreme circumstances. Here in Psalm 58 the invectives hurled one after the other
serve to express both the psalmist's sincere desire and, his sense of outrage at the
flagrant; violations of justice. John Calvin commented that, patterned after the ex-
ample of God, the righteous should "anxiously desire the conversion of their ene-
mies, and evince much patience under injury, with a view to reclaim them to the
way of salvation: but when wilful obstinacy has at last brought round the hour of
retribution, it is only natural that they should rejoice to see it inflicted, as proving
the interest which God feels in their personal safety" (Commentary on the Book of
trans. James Anderson [reprint,
172 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 2002
latter half of the Song of Moses.'° First, the context out; of which
David spoke is that of powerlessness in the face of oppression, and
he cried out in confidence to God, who could act decisively on behalf
of His defeated people. This element runs strongly through the fi-
nal verses of Deuteronomy 32. When all the power (literally,
"hand") of His rebellious people is gone because of their heathen
oppressors (v. 36), God demonstrates the power of His hand, from
which none can deliver (v. 39). He lifts it to heaven with a self-
imposed oath (v. 40), and draws His sword with His hand to bring
vengeance on His enemies (v. 41).
Second, similar words and concepts exist between the two pas-
sages. In Psalm 58 David taunted the unjust "gods" (v. 1), asserting
that indeed "there is a God who judges on earth" (v. 11); and in
Deuteronomy 32 Yahweh taunted the pagan gods (v. 37), asserting
that "He alone is God" (v. 39) and that He is the God of justice (v.
4). David likened the wicked oppressors to the venom (non) of a
snake and a deaf cobra (Nt,P,, Ps. 58:4); and in Deuteronomy 32
Yahweh promised that one of the evils He would heap on His re-
bellious people would be such venom (tmaHE, v. 24)." Then later
Moses associated the persecutors of God's people with the imagery
of venomous (tmaHE) serpents and deadly (MynitAP;, cobras v. 33). In
Psalm 58:10 bloody vengeance is longed for, while in Deuteronomy
32:41-43 graphically bloody vengeance is promised. And in the
hope of its realization the righteous are said to "rejoice" (v. 43; Ps.
Moreover, this promise of divine vengeance found in Deuteron-
omy 32 is central to the theology and hope of both testaments of
Scripture. It is carried from the Law through the Prophets and the
Psalms into the New Testament. Indeed Deuteronomy 32:35 is
quoted by the apostle Paul in his discussion of New Testament
ethics (Rom. 12:19).13 And in Revelation 6:9-11 both the cry of the
saints in heaven for this vengeance, and the context out of which
they cry--their martyrdom--bluntly hark back to the promise of
God in the Song of Moses to "avenge the blood of His servants"
10 Compare also Psalm 79:5-10 with Deuteronomy 32:21-43.
11 Although this refers ostensibly to a curse of literal snakes, the psalmist bor-
rowed the imagery and used it metaphorically, as even the Song of Moses did in
12 Although the verb p7 in Deuteronomy 32:43 differs from the verb not? in Psalm
58:10, the two are related and are poetically synonymous (cf. Ps. 32:11).
13 Christians are called to seek the benefit of those who hate them (Rom. 12:14),
but when grace is repeatedly spurned, divine vengeance is assured (v. 19; cf. the use
of such imagery in Ps.. 140:9-10).
The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics 173
(Deut. 32:43). This eschatological tie is made explicit in Revelation
15:2-4, in which, at the close of the ages and following the bloody
vengeance described in 14:19-20, the saints in glory are said to
sing "the Song of Moses" and "the Song of the Lamb" (15:3)--a song
that proclaims the greatness of God's justice and the consequent
worship to arise from the nations (cf. Deut. 32:43). And in the
that will occur against eschatological
cent of Jer. 51:48) comes the call to "rejoice" at this execution of
divine retribution (Rev. 18:20).
CURSE AGAINST A NATIONAL OR COMMUNITY ENEMY
Psalm 137 has been understandably styled “the ‘psalm of violence’
par excellence.”14 Verses 8-9 in particular have been called “the
ironical ‘bitter beatitudes,’” whose sentiment is "the very reverse of
true religion," and "among the most repellant words in scripture."15
Disturbed by such wishes in the psalm, many Christians have re-
jected its last three verses altogether as being inappropriate for
New Testament believers. Others, in an attempt to maintain the
psalmist's piety and that of others who would haltingly echo these
words and to avoid the violence inherent in the text have sug-
gested that these words be interpreted allegorically.16
However, the psalm's historical context argues against these
interpretations. This communal lament is sung from the context of
the Babylonian exile-an exile preceded by the horrors of ancient
Babylonians, goaded on by the treacherous Edomites (Obad.
10-16), was a national atrocity that both virtually wiped out and
deported the community of faith. Moreover, in her demise were de-
stroyed the bastions of that faith: the Davidic monarch, the chosen
ther demolished or uprooted.
Siege warfare in the ancient Near East; was frighteningly
cruel; and the most brutal and all-too-common practice of conquer-
ors was the dashing of infants against rocks in the fury and totality
14 Erich Zenger, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath,
trans. Linda M. Maloney (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 46.
15 R E. 0, White, A Christian Handbook to the Psalms (
16 For example,
Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms,
174 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 2002
of war's carnage (2 Kings 8:12; 1,15:16). This barbarous slaughter of
the most helpless of noncombatants "effected total destruction by
making war upon the next generation."17 The Scriptures make fur-
ther use of this gruesome picture in judgment oracles against Is-
rael (Hos. 13:15),
most notably this fate is also promised to
The abrupt and appalling shriek in Psalm 137:7-9, then, is
essentially the "passionate outcry of the powerless demanding jus-
tice!"18 In the face of humanly unpunishable injustice God's chas-
tised people had no other recourse but to turn to Him. And it is to
Him that their appeal for strict retaliation in both kind and degree
is made and surrendered. But does even this historical back-
ground prepare the reader for or justify the sentiment expressed in
the emotional climax of the psalm? Indeed these verses raise the
question with which the faithful, of both testaments must surely
grapple: How could a pious psalmist cry for such violence and re-
venge that he would call "blessed" those who take up enemy infants
and dash them mercilessly against the rocks?
The basis on which the psalmist pleaded for such horrid retribu-
tion, though interlaced with extreme emotion, is not the vicious
fury of bloodthirsty revenge but the principle of divine justice itself,
particularly as it is expressed in the so-called lex talionis, stated
three times in the Pentateuch (Exod. 21:22-25; Lev. 24:17-22;
Deut. 19:16-21). Rather than serving as a sanction for personal
vengeance, this Old Testament command actually protected
against the excesses of revenge. Essentially it was designed to en-
sure justice--that the punishment would fit the crime. Thus rather
than being a primitive and barbaric code, this Old Testament stat-
ute forms the basis for all civilized justice. It was a law of just rec-
ompense, 19 not of private retaliation.20 Indeed the implementation
17 Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150, Word Biblical Commentary (
1983), 237. This action serves as a macabre illustration of the depth of human de-
pravity. Sin always destroys, and destroys mercilessly.
18 Zenger, A God of Vengeance? 47.
19 Gordon J. Wenham observes that the phrase's "eye for an eye" and "tooth for a
tooth" were likely "just a
formula. In most cases in
It meant that compensation appropriate to the loss incurred must be paid out. Thus
if a slave lost an eye, he was given his freedom (Exod. 21:26). The man who killed an
ox had to pay its owner enough for him to buy another (Lev. 24:18). Only in the case
of premeditated murder was such compensation forbidden (Num. 35:16ff.). Then the
principle of life for life must be literally enforced, because man is made in the image
of God (Gen. 9:5-6)" (The Book of Leviticus, New International Commentary on the
The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics 175
of this law was in a judicial rather than a personal context.21
In addition the psalmist; was probably familiar with the recent
prophecy of Jeremiah 50-51 for in both Psalm 137:8 and Jeremiah
51:56 the words "destroy," "recompense," and "repay" occur in rela-
tion to the expected
judgment against brutal
only was the lex talionis
instituted by God Himself in
law code, but also it was a law "based upon the very nature of God.
Yahweh, although a God of love, is also a God of retribution who
deals with His creature's trespasses against His holiness on the
basis of His retributive justice."22 This is seen most clearly and
poignantly in the necessity of the Cross. Since the nature of God
does not change, the principle of divine justice based on that na-
ture, as encased in the lex talionis, must also remain constant.23
Therefore in Psalm 137:7-9 the psalmist asked Yahweh for
exact recompense against the treacherous Edomites and the mer-
ciless Babylonians--utter destruction by means of the violent
slaughter of the enemy's infants.24 The cry was for a punishment
commensurate with the crime committed. The one who would carry
out such justice was called "blessed" (vv. 8-9), for through him Jus-
tice would be realized, the honor of God would be upheld, and a
certain measure of the world gone wrong would be righted. Such
matters are to be received with a measure of sober rejoicing. In-
deed, this rejoicing is commanded at the future devastation of
Old Testament [
20 By Jesus' day the lex talionis, contrary to its intent, had indeed become a "law of
retaliation," sanctioning that mindset of revenge rendered by the phrase, "Do unto
others as they have done unto you." Jesus' words in Matthew 5:38-42, however,
were given to "shock" His followers back to the original intent of the law, not by
explaining its proper use as such, but by prohibiting its perversion--any "rights" of
private retaliation--and by inculcating an attitude of longsuffering (see Prov. 20:22; 24:29; Matt. 7:12).
21 Of the three instances Deuteronomy 19:16-21 makes this most explicit.
22 Bobby J. Gilbert, "An Exegetical and Theological Study of Psalm 137" (Th.M.
thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1981), 69 (italics his).
23 The similar "law of sowing and reaping" is evident in several passages (Prov. 26:27; Hos. 8:7; 10:12-13; Gal. 6:7--8), and in Jesus' words, "By your standard of measure it will be measured to you" (Matt. 7:2).
24 But was this appeal legitimate in light of God's command that children not be put to death for the sins of their fathers (Deut. 24:16)? In answer Deuteronomy
24:16 refers to judicial sentence to be carried out by men; God, on the other hand,
retains the prerogative to visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children (Exod.
34:7; cf. God's command for the
annihilation of the entire populace of
entry of is people there). God has rights that people do not have, for only He is
God. Harsh though His justice may appear, believers are called to trust His good-
ness in the midst of His justice and to accept any concomitant tensions.
176 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 2002
Thus the psalmist appealed Yahweh as the Judge to mete out
justice according to His own edict. Though Christians in particular
are shocked by the request, it falls within the bounds of divine ju-
risprudence and is divinely promised and divinely enacted. So the
principle of judicial retaliation cannot be maligned without at the
same time maligning the character of God.
But can Christians legitimately and in good conscience echo
this cry? Although Allen insists that the "Christian faith teaches a
new way, the pursuit of forgiveness and a call to love," he percep-
tively asks, "Yet is there forgiveness for a Judas (cf. John 17:12) or
the Antichrist?25 As
of the Antichrist, as were Judas and false teachers in the first cen-
tury of this era, times may come in which believers may join with
their brothers and sisters of past ages and appeal for the devasta-
tion of a current manifestation of "Antichrist"--and in language
appropriate to the offense. These words may certainly be offered for
and sisters in, for example, the
enced widespread rape, murder, mutilation, and enslavement at
the hands of a wicked regime. In such circumstances of horrible
brutality, where there is the very real temptation to "forget" (Ps.
137:5) or abandon the faith for the sake of one's life and comfort,
Psalm 137 appeals to God, the sole source of power in the midst of
powerlessness and of hope in the midst of hopelessness.
CURSE AGAINST A PERSONAL ENEMY
This psalm, above all others, has been severely criticized. For ex-
ample it has been styled "as unabashed a hymn of hate as was ever
written."26 Unquestionably "this is one of the hard places of Scrip-
ture, a passage which the soul trembles to read."27 The yearning for
such detailed and appalling retaliation as is found in this psalm is
vividly confrontational--particularly in light of the commands to
"love your enemies" (Matt. 5:44) and to "bless and curse not" (Rom.
12:14). Indeed David28 imprecated his enemy in a manner starkly
25 Allen, Psalms 101-150, 242.
26 Lewis, Christian Reflections, 118.
27 C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David (reprint [7 vols. in 31,
28 By whom were the vehement curses of verses 6-19 voiced-David or his enemy?
In modern treatments of the psalm verses 6-19 are often put in quotation marks, as
The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics 177
reminiscent of certain ancient Near Eastern curse formulas.29 Fur-
thermore this psalm has been sorely misused in the life of the
broader Christian community. Calvin records the reprehensible
abuse of this psalm in his day in which some people prayed for the
death of others in return for a price.30
The issue that spawned the denunciations of David was no
petty or transient matter. His enemies had returned hatred for his
sustained love, and evil for his sustained good (Ps. 109:4-5; cf.
135:11-15, 19; 38:19-20). David was in desperate need (109:16, 22,
31) and had already shown concern for his enemy. However, this
concern had been spurned and returned with repeated enmity.
Moreover, even in the midst of the enemy's litigations and David's
counter imprecations he expressed a measure of concern for the en-
emy in his prayers (109:4). In light of his enemy's appalling lack of
lovingkindness, climaxing in his abuse of the legal system (vv. 2-7,
31), David resorted to his only remaining recourse for rectifica-
the words of David's enemy uttered against him. If this is correct, then the offense
of the psalm is largely alleviated and a moral dilemma avoided (but this does noth-
ing to alleviate the offense of other imprecatory psalms; cf. also the striking parallel
to 109:6-19 in Jer. 18:19-23). This view is not without support. Principally first,
whereas 109:6-19 castigates the enemy in the singular, the. verses that both precede
and follow present the enemy in the plural. And second, the psalms are known to make
frequent use of unintroduced quotations, whether brief (e.g., 22:8; 137:3) or lengthy
difficulties with this view outweigh the apparent support. First,
whereas the use of nonexplicitly introduced quotations is common in the psalms, they
are in general contextually quite clear and readily recognized as such. This is not the
case in Psalm 109. Second, the change from the plural to the singular, and
back again., is not unknown in the psalms, notably Psalm 55. There this literary
phenomenon is utilized by David to single out the crucial element of enmity against
him-a friend turned traitor. And this same convention may be at work in Psalm
109 as well. Third, the designation "afflicted and needy," a key phrase synonymous
with the pious in the Psalms, is used in both verses 16 and 22, in what appears to be
an intentional verbal and emotional tie betwen the two. Fourth, the exclamations in
verses 16-18 (e.g., he "loved cursing," v. 17) are certainly not true of David; even his
enemies would find it difficult to label this man in such language. And fifth, this
view runs counter to Peter's application of the imprecation in 109:8 as the words of
David regarding Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:16, 20). See also Zuck, "The Problem of the
Imprecatory Psalms," 42-44.
29 Psalm 109:18, "So may it enter into his body like water, and into his bones like
oil" (author's translation), is redolent of this imprecation embedded in the vassal
treaties of Esarhaddon: "[As oil
en]ters your flesh, (just so may] they cause this
curse to enter into your flesh" (D. J. Wiseman, The Vassal-Treaties of Esarhaddon
30 John Calvin, "Commentary on the Book of Psalms," trans. James Anderson, in
Calvin's Commentaries (reprint,
31 James 5:1-6 speaks in a similar caustic manner against the rich who had ex-
ploited their workers and manipulated the court system to condemn the innocent for
178 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 2002
David asked the divine Judge to extend to his enemy the de-
mands of the lex talionis.32 And again, although a known personal
enemy33 was imprecated, David did not react in private revenge, as
might be expected in such a circumstance. Instead, he released the
retaliatory demands of justice to the One in whose jurisdiction it
rightfully lies. He voiced his cry for vengeance to God (vv. 21,
26-29)--a cry that would transform to public praise when divine
deliverance was realized (vv. 30-31). Such is the nature of God's
acts; vengeance on His enemies means salvation for His people.
But if Psalm 109 includes the curses of David against a personal
enemy, how can these words be justified, particularly the curse
passed down to the enemy's children (vv. 10-15)? In addition to the
principle expressed in the lex talionis, the basis on which David
could justifiably call down such terrible curses was the promise of
God to curse those who cursed His people: "I will bless those who
bless you, and the one who curses [from llaqA] you I will curse [from
rraxA]" (Gen. 12:3). The Abrahamic Covenant, of which this promise
is a part, assured God's blessing on those who would bless Abra-
ham's faith-descendants and cursing on those who would treat
them with contempt.34 David, then, appealed to God to do as He
had promised, to curse those who had so mistreated him.35
their own gain. Although not identical to the character of the imprecatory psalms,
verses 1-11 do reveal a similar ethic, namely, that it is appropriate at times for the
righteous to proclaim, cry out for, or even call down the judgment of God on severe
or violent oppressors, while at the same time remaining steadfast in suffering, re-
linquishing the enactment of that judgment to the divine Judge.
32 Psalm 109:2a is answered by verses 6a and 7a; verse 4a is answered by verses
6b and 20a; verse 16a mirrors verse 12a; verse 16b corresponds to the curses in
verses 8-12; verses 17-18 exhibit point and counterpoint; and verse 18a is paral-
leled by the plea in verse 29a. The imprecations wished on the enemy in verses 8-15
characterize the crimes the enemy himself had committed (vv. 16-20).
33 Other psalms that were voiced against known--and even named--personal
enemies are 7, 52, 54, 56, and 59.
34 Laney argues that the cries for judgment in the imprecatory psalms uttered in
accord with the provisions of the Abrahamic Covenant, "are appeals for Yahweh to
carry out His judgment against those who would curse the nation" ("A Fresh Look
at the Imprecatory Psalms," 42 [italics added]). As such, they are "inappropriate for
a church-age believer" to express (ibid.). However, the emphasis in the Abrahamic
Covenant of Genesis 12:2-3 is not so much on the nation Israel as it is on all the
people of God. This is made clear not only in Galatians 3, but also in the curses of
Covenant promised against rebellious
35 Cf. Exodus 23:22. The Hittite treaty between Mursilis and Duppi-Tessub in-
cludes a similar prescription: "With my friend you shall be friend, and with my en-
The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics 179
Literary echoes of Genesis 12:3 occur in Psalm 109. Most di-
rectly, in verse 28 the enemy's cursing (from llaqA) is contrasted with
Yahweh's blessing (cf. vv. 1.7-18). In addition David's imprecations
allude to earlier cursing formulas in the Mosaic Covenant (which
builds on the Abrahamic Covenant). For instance verse 9, "Let his
children be fatherless and his wife a widow,"makes explicit appeal
to talionic justice in harking back to the words of Yahweh to the
Israelites in Exodus 22:22-23, "You shall not afflict any widow or
orphan. If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will
surely hear his cry; and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill
you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your
children fatherless" (cf. Deut. 27:19). In essence David was re-
minding God to be true to His promise.
But is this covenant promise of divine cursing relevant to
Christians? The New Testament affirms the enduring validity of
the Abrahamic promise for those who embrace Christ through faith
(cf. Gal. 3:6-29). "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's
descendants-heirs according to promise" (v. 29). And if one is an
heir of the Abrahamic Covenant, one inherits both its promise of
blessing as well as its promise of cursing.36 This dual-edged prom-
ise, moreover, was not merely a spiritual abstraction; it applied as
well to the physical life of God's people in their times of extremity.
For example, when Jesus first sent out the Twelve, He instructed
them that if they were welcomed into a home, they were to let their
peace remain on it; but if they were refused, they were to shake the
dust off their feet as a sign of peace's antithesis-the curse of
coming judgment.37 This action, though voiceless, was an implicit
imprecation (Matt. 10:11-15; cf. 2 Tim. 4:14).
Psalm 109 is a harsh and explicit appeal to the Lord of the
covenant to remain true to His promise to curse those who curse
His people (cf. Luke 18:1-8). In its function in the community of
faith, then, this psalm is the cry of the child of God who has no
other recourse for justice-when no other aid is available for the
emy you shall be enemy" (James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Re-
lating to the Old Testament,
3d ed. [
36 Although Paul articulated the blessing of the covenant, which the Gentiles in-
herit through faith in Christ, as that of life, of sonship, of the Spirit (Gal. 3:14, 26;
4:4-7), this was not meant to exclude the more "physical" elements of the Abra-
hamic Covenant. Rather, it was for the sake of emphasizing the fundamental issues
of the promise in the progress of revelation--which issues are most germane to his
37 That is, God (through His disciples) would bless those who blessed them, and
would curse those who cursed them (cf. Gen. 12:3).
180 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 2002
redress of grievous personal wrongs, when the abuses of one's ene-
mies have reached the extent that the question of theodicy is
evoked, when the name of God and the enduring faith of His people
are at stake. From such a context this prayer was first offered, and
in such a context it may be voiced again.38
IMPRECATIONS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
After such a barrage of imprecations and pleas for divine venge-
ance against one's enemies (who are also God's enemies), the de-
mands of Jesus and His apostles are at first startling. These in-
junctions initially seem to counter and even overthrow the ethics of
that "harsher age" as expressed in the imprecatory psalms. How-
ever, the New Testament too is interspersed with imprecations.
In Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), that grounding expres-
sion of Christian ethics, He commanded His followers, "Love your
enemies" (5:44). Matthew 5:17-48 is replete with radical state-
ments that seem to contradict the Old Testament; yet these con-
tradictions are more apparent than real. Jesus introduced His sev-
eral internalized and intensified "restatements" with the words,
"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did
not come to abolish but to fulfill" (v. 17). He did not set Himself up
as a rival to the Old Testament; He did not disparage or discredit
what had come before. Rather, the Old Testament propelled people
toward Christ, is summed up in Christ, and must be interpreted
through Christ (cf. Luke 24:27, 44-45; John 5:39-40, 46).
In Matthew 5:21-4739 Jesus affirmed the Old Testament by
reiterating by means of hyperbole the original intent of several
commands, contrary to the prevailing pharisaical and scribal un-
derstanding of them. This He did by plunging to the heart of the
matter--the intent and implications of the commands, climaxed by
His words in verses 43-45, 48. "You have heard that it was said,
‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to
you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so
38 Walter Brueggemann suggests that the cry of this psalm could be, for example,
"the voice of a woman who is victimized by rape, who surely knows the kind of rage
and indignation and does not need ‘due process’ to know the proper outcome.... For
such as these, the rage must be carried to heaven, because there is no other court of
appeal. ‘Love of neighbor’ surely means to go to court with the neighbor who is
grieved" (The Message of the Psalms, 87).
39 These restatements of Christ are framed by an inclusio of "impossible right-
eousness" (5:20, 48)-a reminder that the demands of God are impossible apart from
divine enabling and may be truly obeyed only by relying on God and His grace.
The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics 181
that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He
causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on
the righteous and the unrighteous.... Therefore you are to be per-
fect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Jesus' words "You shall love your neighbor" are a quotation
from Leviticus 19:18-words that come directly after a prohibition
against revenge or a personal grudge, and that are considered the
second greatest commandment by Jesus' own testimony (Matt.
22:39; Mark 12:31). The words "hate your enemy," however, are not
found in the Old Testament. Yet there is a likely representation of
mindset behind this quotation in the Rule of the
Community (1QS).40 Apparently many people in Jesus' day had
come to believe that when the Old Testament commanded the love
of one's neighbor, that command implied the hatred of one's enemy.
This understanding is given expression in the apocryphal book of
Sirach 12:7, "Give to the good man, but do not help the sinner."41
When Jesus said, "Love your enemies," He shockingly asserted
the unthinkable: that believers are to "love" those they "hate" (or
who hate them). This does not discount that they are yet one's en-
emy; but in a sense one's enemy becomes his neighbor.42 Even in
Leviticus 19 "neighbor" is broader than its immediate parallel,
"brother," and it includes everyone within one's bounds (even resi-
dent aliens, who were in some sense "the enemy"). In Leviticus 19
both fellow Israelites and resident foreigners were to be loved in
like manner--"as yourself' (vv. 19:18, 34).43 Jesus, then, rather
40 This document begins with the resolve of the members "to love all the Sons of
Light-each according to his lot in the counsel of God, and to hate all the Sons of
Darkness--each according to his guilt at the vengeance of God" (1QS 1:9-11). This
hatred was such that it involved even the withholding of compassion from the
(1QS 10:20-21) (James H. Charlesworth, ed., Rule of the Community and Related
vol. 1 of The
41 Bruce M. Metzger, ed., The
Version, expanded ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 143.
42 In Matthew 5:43-48 Jesus defined "enemy" in such a way as to include both
those who are foes in the customary politico-national sense, but also those against
whom enmity may exist among one's own people (who in Lev. 19:18 are considered
one's "neighbor"). Indeed this latter element is His point of emphasis. Also in the
introduction to and parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, Jesus ex-
panded the concept of "neighbor." In this parable Jesus emphasized that the heart of
the command "Love your neighbor" implies, at least to a certain extent, "love your
enemy." One's "neighbor" may be his "enemy"; for the one who is in need, and whose
need may be met, is one's neighbor-whoever he may be. And this expression of
indiscriminate kindness is essentially "love" in action.
43 Cf. Leviticus 19:18, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," with verse 34
182 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 2002
than presenting a novel (or imposing even a foreign) interpretation
on the passage, was both distilling and radicalizing the essence of
the Old Testament teaching in this regard.
In addition, in certain instances the Old Testament unques-
tionably commands kindness toward enemies. For example Prov-
erbs 25:21-22 states, "If your enemy is hungry, give him food to
eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap
burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you."44 And
command was carried out by Elisha, who counseled the
ite king to feed rather than kill the enemy Arameans (2 Kings
6:18-23), and by Naaman's Israelite slave girl, who sought the wel-
fare of her enemy master, the Aramean army commander (5:1-3).
While it must be granted that the specific command "love your
enemies" is not in the Old Testament,45 the concept "cannot be con-
fined to the words themselves. When enemies are fed and cared for,
rather than killed or mistreated, then in effect love for the enemy
is being practiced."46
However, how can a Christian love his enemies while he voices
such barbaric pleas as expressed in the imprecatory psalms? In
extreme circumstances even Jesus did not shirk from uttering ex-
coriating woes (e.g., Matt. 11:20-24; 23:13-39)47 and pronouncing
imprecations (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21)--all against hardened unbe-
lief. Yet one cannot accuse Him of acting out of accord with His
own radical dictum. 48 By Jesus' own example love for one's enemy
“and you shall love him [the foreigner in your midst] as yourself." Verse 34 includes
the foreigner who may also be an enemy (cf. Lev. 19:33 and Exod. 23:9, in which the
natural reaction to such a foreigner would be "mistreatment" and "oppression," and
Exod. 23:22-23, in which God specified which enemy nations were to be destroyed
when the Israelites entered
44 Paul quoted Proverbs 25:22 in Romans 12:20 (cf. also Exod. 23:4-5).
45 Zuck, "The Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms," 76.
46 William Klassen, Love of Enemies (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 28. As is re-
peatedly illustrated in Scripture, loving one's enemies is shown primarily by deeds
of kindness to them.
47 Though not identical to imprecation, the cry of "woe" in the ancient Near East
bore a measure of semantic overlap-and in certain contexts it took on "all the
characteristics of a curse" (Waldemar Janzen, Mourning Cry and Woe Oracle, Bei-
heft zur Zeitschrift fiir die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft [
1972], 3). See also Zechariah 11:17 and Luke 6:20-26.
48 The ultimate expression of enemy love, and of blessing those who persecute and
curse, are the words Jesus Himself voiced from the cross--the height of human cru-
elty-regarding the ones who had nailed him there: "Father, forgive them; for they
do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). This may be compared to the crea-
tive tension in the differing responses to degrees of enmity Paul wrote about. Of
Alexander, a hardened enemy of Paul and the gospel, the apostle solemnly affirmed,
The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics 183
means showing him or her sustained and indiscriminate kindness.
However, if the enemy's cup of iniquity has become full, this love is
overtaken by the demands of justice and divine vengeance. Jesus'
approach in this regard was strikingly similar to the approach of
the psalmists who penned such harsh words. Notable among them
is David, who showed kindness toward those who were his ene-
mies, and for his repeated kindness received abuse (Pss. 35:12-17;
109:4-5). In the broader view, then, rather than being completely
incompatible, enemy love and enemy imprecation strangely com-
plement each other.49 And the imprecatory psalms illustrate the
appropriate time for the cry of vengeance.
INSTANCES OF IMPRECATION
An instance of imprecation from Jesus' lips is recorded in Mark
11:14. On the way to the temple courts He cursed a fig tree that
had all the appearance of vitality but no fruit. As both the near r
context and the larger development of the Gospel make clear (Mark
11-13), this cursing of the fig tree was an imprecation against
Him.50 This rejection culminated in the Crucifixion, and Christ's
climaxed in the destruction of
The curse of Christ marks the distinct end of one era and the
beginning of another: "May no one ever eat fruit from you again!"
(11:14; cf. Matt. 21:19). Immediately following His curse Christ
moved into the temple precincts where, in lieu of the expected pu-
"The Lord will repay him according to his deeds" (2 Tim. 4:14), whereas concerning
those who had abandoned Paul in his time of trial and need he pleaded, "May it not
be counted against them" (v. 16)--reminiscent of the dying words of the Lord Jesus.
49 The resolution is found in the phrase: "Be quick to bless and slow to curse." Just
as God is slow to anger (Exod. 34:6; Nah. 1:3), so too believers should be slow to
anger (James 1:19). Yet in extreme circumstances God expressed anger (Nah. 1:2;
Mark 3:5), and so in extreme circumstances believers may express anger without
sinning (Eph. 4:26).
50 In the Old Testament the fig tree was frequently associated with the nation
served as "a vivid emblem of God's active punishment of his people" (William R.
the Cursing of the Fig-tree Pericope in Mark's Gospel and Its Relation to the Cleans-
ing of the
passages, moreover, God's judgment
rabid idolatry and perversion of worship. Of particular note is Hosea 9:10-17, in
which Yahweh spoke of
10), but because of their gross iniquity God said He would "drive them out of My
house" (the temple, v. 15). And they who were named "Ephraim" (i.e., "fruitfulness")
were instead "withered" and bore no fruit (v. 16). Mark's readers would have readily
understood Christ's cursing of the
barren fig tree as a judgment against
especially against her religious center, the temple (cf. also Mal. 3:1-5; 4:6).
184 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 2002
rity of worship, He found the basest form of corruption: greed. Af-
ter Jesus purged the temple, Peter took notice of this same tree
and marveled at the effect of Christ's curse: "Rabbi, look, the fig
tree which You cursed has withered!" (Mark 11:21). As the context
strongly intimates, this curse of Christ was not directed against
the fig tree as such, as much as it was directed (for His disciples'
benefit) against His unrepentant people as a sign of their divine
visitation in judgment. This is marked by the intentional crafting
of this pericope as an inclusio to the temple cleansing (vv.
12-21)--the dramatic locus of the rejection of Christ by His people
and of His people by Christ (cf. vv. 14, 18). At His approach to the
temple, then, in its state of acute corruption, and in view of the
patent and repeated rejection of Him by the leaders of His people,
this curse was called down by Christ.
In addition, in Galatians 1:8-9 (cf. 1 Cor. 16:22) Paul uttered
what is unquestionably a curse of the severest magnitude: that of
eternal damnation. "But even if we, or an angel from heaven,
should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to
you, he is to be accursed [a]na<qema e@stw]. As we have said before, so
I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to
what you received, he is to be accursed!"'
In the Septuagint the term a]na<qema was used to translate the
Hebrew Mr,He--a term associated with the Israelite "holy wars"
whatever was so designated was dedicated to Yahweh for total de-
struction. Paul's use of the term likewise refers to being brought
under the divine curse-here the curse of eternal condemnation.51
The intended recipients of Paul's imprecation were perverting the
gospel of grace by enslaving it to the rigors of legalism. Those who
seek to undermine the ground and sustenance of the Christian's
salvation truly merit the harshest of denunciations, for the name of
Christ is at stake (cf. Gal. 5:12; 2 Pet. 2:14; Jude 11-13).
Furthermore when Simon the Sorcerer52 sought to purchase
from Peter the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter uttered the caustic
curse, "May your silver perish with you" (Acts 8:20). Yet, however
severe, this apostolic curse was to be carried out only if there was
51 This connotation is confirmed by Romans 9:3, where Paul startlingly expressed
the desire to become "accursed ... from Christ [a]na<qema ... a]po> tou? Xristou?]" if
that would result in the salvation of his people.
52 In Acts 13:9-11 Paul, "filled with the Holy Spirit," evidently uttered an impreca-
tion of blindness against another sorcerer, Elyrnas (reminiscent of Deut. 28:28-29),
in accord with the principle embodied in the lei: talionis. Since Elymas had sought
to keep the proconsul in spiritual blindness, Elymas was cursed with physical
The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics 185
continued sin and impenitence. This is evidenced by the exchange
that followed, in which Peter voiced a plea for repentance along
with the offer of release: "Repent of this wickedness of yours, and
pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be
forgiven you" (v. 22). Even in the midst of such impreca-
tion-whether by a psalmist or an apostle--there is implicit or ex-
plicit the hope of repentance and restoration.53
Additionally Revelation 6:10 records the cry of martyred
saints. "How long, 0 Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from
judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?"
This harks back to the divine promise in the Song of Moses to
"avenge the blood of His servants" (Deut. 32:43), and is a plea
characteristic of the imprecatory psalms (cf. Pss. 58:10-11; 79:5,
10; 94::1, 3). Moreover much that follows in the Book of Revelation
is God's response to the martyrs' cry (e.g., Rev. 15:3, "the Song of
Moses"; 16:6; 18:20, 24; and 19:1-2, "Hallelujah! . . . He has
avenged the blood of His bondservants"). Significantly the condi-
tion of these martyred saints, having moved on to their heavenly
abode, "guarantees the absence of any selfish motives in their
prayer life."54 What is striking about their petition, however, is the
consequent justification of similar prayers uttered by the saints on
earth. If it is praiseworthy for perfected saints to pray in this way,
then it is appropriate for believers now.
This article has sought to demonstrate that at times it is legitimate
for God's people to utter prayers of imprecation or pleas for divine
vengeance--like those in the Psalms-against the recalcitrant
enemies of God and of His people. This is based on the psalms' the-
ology of imprecation in the Torah, and on the presence of this the-
ology carried essentially unchanged to the end of the canon.
53 As Derek Kidner observes, "For all their appearance of implacability they are to
be taken as conditional. . . . Their full force was for the obdurate; upon repentance
they would become `a curse that is causeless', which, as Proverbs 26:2 assures us,
does not alight"' (Psalms 1-72, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries [Downers
Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 19731, 30).
54 Robert L. Thomas, "The Imprecatory Prayers of the Apocalypse," Bibliotheca
Sacra 126 (1969): 130. Thomas is not justified, however, in further asserting that
the martyred saints are able to pray this way (as are the psalmists) because they
had been given some special revelation as to "which persons are reprobate, a knowl-
edge possessed only in divine perspective" (ibid., 129-30). This merely evades the
issue. Jesus Himself encouraged His followers, practically speaking, to identify the
“reprobate" when He said, "You will know them by their fruits" (Matt. 7:16).
Thanks to Brendan McGee for help with proofing.
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