Imprecatory Psalms

by Dr. Stephen Kim

As Christians, when we read of the atrocities committed by ISIS, there is a part of us that desires to pray imprecatory prayers. Imprecatory psalms are those psalms within the Bible that call God’s judgment, curses, and even death upon the enemies of psalmist. Take a look at this passage from Psalm 139:

19 Oh, that You would slay the wicked, O God!
Depart from me, therefore, you bloodthirsty men.
20 For they speak against You wickedly;
Your enemies take Your name in vain.
21 Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate You?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against You?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.

Modern sensibilities are often riled when such passages of Holy Scripture are read. First of all, we see that it is not a sin to have legitimate enemies. And of course, the great difficulty is reconciling such passages with passages such as Jesus’ words found in Matthew 5:44:

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

Questions begin to swirl: Do we love our enemies or do we hate them? Do we pray for them or do we pray for their destruction? Is God a vindictive Being? Can we pray imprecatory prayers?

POSSIBLE EXPLANATIONS

Modern Christians often try to employ one of three explanations when it comes to the imprecatory prayers of David:

  1. Progressive Revelation. Some Christians believe these passages reflect a lower standard of ethics than that espoused by Christ. They allege that this sub-Christian ethic was characteristic of Old Testament times, and that such texts are not meant to teach us anything except some historical context. Supposedly, they were included in the Bible because of “progressive revelation.” We’ve all outgrown that stuff now.
  2. God Disapproves. Lastly, another group of scholars believe that the imprecatory psalms are an accurate record of what the psalmists were emotionally experiencing, but there is no approval from God for the sentiments. In fact, God disapproves the hatred of the psalmist and instead, God would have us to love our enemies.
  3. Indicative Tense. Some Christians claim that the writers of these psalms speak in the indicative mood (the “explanatory” mood), and not in the “imperative mood” (the mood of command or firm request). In other words, they merely were stating what would happen to the wicked if they did not repent. In this view, the writers were not actually requesting God to destroy the wicked.

AN EXAMINATION OF THE EXPLANATIONS

Alexander McClaren once said, “Perhaps, it would do modern tenderheartedness no harm to have a little more iron infused into its gentleness, and to lay to heart that the King of Peace must first be King of Righteousness” (McClaren, Alexander. 1892. The Psalms. Vol. 3. New York, NY: George Doran Company, 375). If we put off our modern, politically-correct, sensitivities aside for a moment, we will find much truth in McClaren’s words–particularly as relating to the imprecatory psalms.

Option one clearly does not work for those of us who believe in the divine inspiration of the Holy Bible. The God of the New Testament is the God of the Old Testament. God does not change. In fact, immutability is a divine attribute that effectively differentiates us fickle humans from the divine. God instructed us to love our neighbors in the Old Testament (cf. Lev 19:18). Things have not changed much. Furthermore, although revelation is progressive, progressive revelation is not the belief that wrongdoing is later rectified into proper teaching. Rather, progressive revelation is simply the belief that theological truths that were once obscure are now more clear (e.g., the doctrine of the Trinity, or the Holy Spirit’s work).

Option two seems as if it might work–but there’s one major problem: the imprecatory psalms were written by men who were underneath the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Yes, sometimes the Bible merely records words as part of an account without giving theological support for the statements (cf. Jephthah’s words, Judas’ words, or even the denials of Simon Peter). However, these psalmists are clearly said to be “in the Spirit” when writing these Psalms. Hence, we can definitively and conclusively know that God, Himself, has the same perspective as the psalmist.

Option three works for some passages, but it doesn’t work for all. Some passages clearly have the psalmist actually calling for the deaths of his enemies (cf. verse 19 above).

CONCLUSION AND SOLUTION

So where do we go from here? Is the God of the Old Testament some sort of monster? Do we just throw out the entire Bible for its apparent contradictions?

Before we rush to judgment, let’s get one thing clear: Jesus said some harsh things Himself. Take for example, a scenario where due to a seemingly haphazard accident, eighteen people died. What was Jesus’ response? You’d be surprised: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4-5).

Too often, we have a higher view of man’s morality than what is truly warranted. Hence, in our minds, no sin ever warrants the divine punishment meted out. In our minds, Sodom was bad–but it didn’t deserve fire and sulfur. In our minds, Korah was bad–but he didn’t deserve to be eaten alive by the earth. In our minds, all Uzzah did was touch the Ark of the Covenant to keep it from falling–he didn’t deserve to be struck dead on the spot. We have the same perspective of every catastrophe that occurs in our contemporary era. We are indeed an entitled bunch. A. F. Kirkpatrick admonishes us saying, “Men have need to beware lest in pity for the sinner they condone the sin, or relax the struggle against evil” (Kirkpatrick, A. F. 1906. The Book of Psalms. Cambridge, England: University Press, xciii).

So what of those imprecatory psalms?

They prove that our God is as righteous as He is loving. They prove that the sin and the sinner are inextricable. They prove that we all have an internal craving for divine justice. They prove that God is in control, that hell and heaven are real, and that God is burning bright with holiness. In a sense, they are theodicies.

The scholarly and benign, C. S. Lewis, once wrote: “[T]he ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that . . . is hateful to God” (Lewis, C. S. 1958. Reflections on the Psalms. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 33). That much is very true. Evil is objective and God objectively hates it.

And quite frankly, it should be hateful to us as well. Have such prayers ceased for the elect? Au contraire, Scripture reveals quite the opposite. It reveals a future where our brethren in glory will still pray that way–even after death:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev 6:9-10)

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About Dr. Stephen Kim

Dr. Stephen Kim is the senior pastor of Mustard Seed Church in New York City. He has also served as Associate Director of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, NYC Extension Center. Pastor Stephen is the happy husband of one beautiful woman and the joyous father of four beautiful children. As a pastor and writer, he is passionate about accurately feeding Christians the Word of God: “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time?" (Matthew 24:45).
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One Response to Imprecatory Psalms

  1. Nisp says:

    Thanks Pastor Kim for explaining this. I appreciate your insights as I no longer going to church. Churches, for the most part, have devolved into the cult of niceness. Where being loving is an invocation to overlook sin.

    Did you know that many church goers are cohabiting? Why should I waste my time associating with an institution that mocks God with their actions?

    Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
    and have washed my hands in innocence.

    Like

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