Summary: We’re told to love our enemies, yet the "Imprecatory Psalms" seem to curse them. How are we to understand what appears to be some troubling, problematic prayers?
“Psalms of Hate?” Psalm 69:22-28 Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
“Let the bountiful table set before them become a snare and their prosperity become a trap. Let their eyes go blind so they cannot see, and make their bodies shake continually. Pour out Your fury on them; consume them with Your burning anger. Let their homes become desolate, and their tents be deserted. To the one you have punished, they add insult to injury; they add to the pain of those You have hurt. Pile their sins up high, and don’t let them go free. Erase their names from the Book of Life; don’t let them be counted among the righteous. I am suffering and in pain. Rescue me, O God, by Your saving power. Then I will praise God’s name with singing, and I will honor Him with thanksgiving.”
Jesus tells us to “love our enemies” and to “bless those who curse you.” When I served in Desert Storm I think we proved that an army could even go to war without hating the enemy. We saw the Iraqis as victims of an oppressive regime. There was none of the hate-rhetoric of previous conflicts. Nonetheless, it’s not always easy to show love to the unlovable.
When we open the book of Psalms we encounter a shocking perspective. It’s one thing to ask God to resolve conflict with those who oppose us…it’s entirely another to pray for their destruction. Yet this seems to be the case in what is called the “Imprecatory Psalms,” which pray curses upon one’s enemy. We find such prayers problematic and difficult to reconcile with Christian thinking.
None of us want to become militant, religious fanatics who call for the death of unbelievers. We wince, reading the rhetoric of Psalm 69 and similar prayers. Many people pray the Psalms, but most would find it difficult praying with the language of Psalm 69 and others like it. However, with the news this week of the torture and execution of PFCs Kristian Menchaca and Thomas Tucker at the hands of terrorists, calling on God for justice doesn’t seem like an inappropriate prayer.
Some scholars claim that these prayers don’t express desire for a sinner’s doom but merely predict it. They are stating what will happen to the wicked, but are not asking God to destroy the wicked. Some psalms seem to fit this explanation, but not all.
The Scriptures give a covenantal promise of blessing for God’s people and calamity upon their enemies. God told Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you.” Psalm 69 is rooted in God’s pledge to Israel.
Another explanation is that these prayers express accurately what the psalmists were feeling, but there is no divine approval for the sentiments. We’re encouraged to tell God exactly what’s bothering us. God wants us to tell Him exactly how we’re feeling, with gutsy honesty. He can handle it. These prayers may simply be honest expressions of how passionate David felt about his conflict.
Scripture is inspired, but sometimes Scripture records human opinions. A few examples: in Ecclesiastes Solomon speaks from an agnostic perspective to show the futility of such thinking. In Job, his friends give him a lot of unsolicited advice, much of which is wrong. And the ultimate example--the times we hear the devil talking, his wicked words are full of lies. The context can help us understand. If we have a problem with any passage, our problem lies with us, and our limited comprehension. We do not find fault with Scripture, but rather we struggle to grasp its meaning. The one limitation of Scripture is that God had to use human language to express heavenly truth, and language itself has limitations. This is why we revise translations of the Bible, because language changes. Communication is an art. Words can mean many things, and we’re apt to be misunderstood even when we’re trying hard to be clear.
Yet David wrote “in the Spirit” while composing psalms. And he had good reason to ask God for justice. His very life and the life of his people were being threatened, and God had promised to protect and preserve Israel. David rightly viewed attacks against Israel as attacks against God. According to former Gordon-Conwell Seminary President Walter Kaiser, David is not praying to God out of malice or vindictiveness against people he dislikes; he’s not seeking personal vengeance. These harsh statements reflect David’s awareness of God’s justice and intolerance of sin. David never asks God that he himself might be permitted to destroy his enemies, but always that God would be the Avenger. Psalm 69 is not a personal vendetta, but an expression of zeal for the Kingdom of God. David is calling for vindication; his passion is for justice. One scholar warns, “We need to beware lest in pity for the sinner we condone the sin, or relax the struggle against evil” (A.F. Kirkpatrick).