Worldview: The Imprecatory Psalms

These are the psalms where the author prays evil or invokes a curse against his enemies. The word “imprecatory” comes from the Latin word imprecatio, meaning the “invoking of evil,” or “prayer.” For New Testament Christians, these psalms are particularly troubling because they seem to be in contradiction to Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Psalms 35, 69 and 109 are the three primary imprecatory psalms, but we also find imprecatory-type verses in Psalms 5, 10, 17, 58, 59, 70, 79, 83, 129, 137 and 140. 

Pete F. Wilbanks

So how do we interpret verses like Psalm 137:8-9: “O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, how blessed will be the one who repays you with the recompense with which you have repaid us. How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock” (emphasis mine)? One thing we as Bible believers do not want to do is ignore, overlook or avoid these psalms. Also, we cannot resort to claiming that these psalms were uninspired. We must face them squarely and ask questions. 

First, we should ask about the historical context of the psalm. The superscriptions, or the writing just above the psalms, can tell us the author, event, or other pertinent matters. In Psalm 137, even though no superscription is present, we know that this psalm occurs either during or after the 587-539 B.C. Babylonian exile. Here, the anonymous author desires that God send a nation to judge the Babylonians for their violent treatment of the Israelites during the destruction of Jerusalem. God told the prophet Habakkuk that He was going to destroy the Babylonians — that is, after God used the Babylonians to bring judgment upon His own people by destroying Jerusalem. Therefore, the call for judgment against the Babylonians is commensurate with another part of God’s Word. Perhaps the graphic nature of the language is shocking, but we must acknowledge that conquests in the ancient world were violent. There was no Geneva Convention to aid in the safe treatment of women, children and other noncombatants; conquerors killed babies and little ones. 

Second, ask the interpretational question of “descriptive or prescriptive.” A descriptive text tells the modern reader what actually happened or what was actually said in the past; a prescriptive text tells the reader how to live in the present — it prescribes a course of action for our lives. The imprecatory psalms are descriptive. Nowhere in these psalms are we instructed to pray this way, but we should remember that the Apostle Paul called for people who preached an erroneous gospel, harmed the furtherance of the true gospel, or did not love the Lord, to be cursed (anathema in Greek). (See 1 Corinthians 16:12; Galatians 1:8-9, 5:12; 2 Timothy 4:14.)

Third, attempt to identify with the author. For most of us in the Western Christian tradition, we have seen or read about the many gross abuses foisted onto the people of Europe or the Americas in the name of Christianity (taxation, slavery, inquisitions, etc.). We believers who live in North America have never experienced the physical persecution that our brothers and sisters in Christ who live on other continents have experienced. We are almost embarrassed by the imprecatory psalms because of the relative ease of our lives. But what about persecuted Christians? While listening to a “Focus on the Family” radio broadcast two years ago, I heard a discussion regarding the imprecatory psalms between two friends, an American Christian and an African Christian. While the imprecatory psalms troubled the American Christian, the African Christian stated that the imprecatories were some of his favorite psalms! When a devoted Christ-follower actually lives under unjust persecution, he or she can rejoice (Matthew 5:10-12) but can also rightly identify with the imprecatory authors and the prayer of Revelation 6:10.

Fourth, admit the raw, human emotion that is present in these psalms. All of us have had thoughts we would never express publicly. The psalmists are simply being candid enough to express some of those thoughts. Such an admission of human emotion, coupled with more such statements in Jeremiah and Job, can actually help us “identify” with biblical characters — they could get angry, too. 

Fifth, ask if the author is demonstrating personal vindictiveness or righteous indignation. The answer is righteous indignation. Many interpreters point out that these psalmists left the vengeance and righteous judgment to God. They did not take the matters of justice and vengeance into their own hands.

Sixth, and last, know that unjust suffering is real and that we must embrace the victims of it. As followers of Christ, let us be about the work of reconciliation and justice. Let us stand with our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us work to see racial and economic injustice eliminated. One day, there will be no more suffering for Christ-followers. Until then, let us work; and also, let us appreciate these raw and visceral psalms.  

— Pete F. Wilbanks is professor of Christian studies at North Greenville University.