What Should We Think About the Imprecatory Psalms?

angel-clouds-weather-vera-161199Imprecatory psalms (e.g., Pss 5, 10, 17, 35, 58, 59, 69, 70, 79, 83, 109, 129, 137, 140) are those psalms which call upon God to destroy the enemies of God. They come from the anguished hearts of persecuted Israelites, and they include some of the most shocking words in the Bible. Take just a few examples.

Psalm 35 provides one of the most acceptable imprecatory Psalms. Verses 4–6 read,

Let them be put to shame and dishonor
who seek after my life!
Let them be turned back and disappointed
who devise evil against me!
Let them be like chaff before the wind,
with the angel of the LORD driving them away!
Let their way be dark and slippery,
with the angel of the LORD pursuing them!
(Psalm 35:4–6)

In Psalm 109, the language gets more severe as David calls for the personal ruination of the wicked.

Appoint a wicked man against him;
let an accuser stand at his right hand.
When he is tried, let him come forth guilty;
let his prayer be counted as sin!
May his days be few;
may another take his office!
May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow!
May his children wander about and beg,
seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit!
May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!
Let there be none to extend kindness to him,
nor any to pity his fatherless children!
May his posterity be cut off;
may his name be blotted out in the second generation!
May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the LORD,
and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out!
Let them be before the LORD continually,
that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth!
(Psalm 109:6–15)

Finally, in Psalm 137 David pronounces a benediction on those who destroy the children of the wicked:

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
(Psalm 137:7–9)

Due to their graphic violence and divine approval—they are in the Bible, after all—many Protestant liberals have charged the God of Israel with violence unbecoming a deity. Other modern readers have written off Christianity entirely because of the imprecatory Psalms and Israel’s violent history. Even for gospel-loving, grace-proclaiming Christians, the inspired cries for vengeance make us feel uncomfortable. They don’t immediately fit our normal grid for a God who is love. What, therefore, should we think about the imprecatory Psalms?

A few years ago, my PhD Supervisor and good fried, Stephen Wellum, gave a Sunday School lesson on these psalms, and what follows is an amplified outline of his lesson. Continue reading

Psalm 137:9 and the Imprecatory Psalms

Here is a post from Wellum’s Couples“Wednesday Word.”  It is a summary of Dr. Wellum’s biblical-theological consideration of the Imprecatory Psalms from Sunday, August 31, 2008.

The imprecatory psalms are some of the most shocking words in the Bible. Take Psalm 137:9: “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” This week, Dr. Wellum walked through these challenging verses in the Psalter and encouraged students of the Bible to read these verses in the full context of God’s revelation.

A Christ-Centered Interpretation
Due to the shocking nature of many of these imprecatory psalms, three primary interpretive responses have been proffered. Some have attempted to dismiss the imprecatory psalms as vengeful cries from a primitive people. Unfortunately, in making this assertion they disregard Scripture’s unity and authority, and they make themselves self-sufficient arbiters of God’s Word. A second approach is similar. In the progress of redemption and revelation, the New Testament imperative to love your enemies has trumped this Old Testament ethic of retribution. While acknowledging the place of these psalms in history, they make them out to be obsolete. The problem again is that this method disjoints the Bible, when in fact the NT interprets these psalms in light of Christ.

A third approach, advocated by Dr. Wellum, is to read these imprecations in the light of Christ. As we put these Davidic words in Jesus’ mouth, we begin to understand his pleas from the cross. Likewise, we better understand the purpose of these troubled psalms. On this side of the cross, we can read these psalms fearfully as we consider the eschatological retribution that will be poured out on Christ’s aggressors, who have not trusted in his own wrath-bearing atonement. This nuanced approach is most faithful to the Bible and most in accord with the progress of revelation.

A Biblical-Historical Context
To understand these wrathful psalms it is necessary to put them in their proper place in redemptive history. Since the uprising in the garden, all creation has been sentenced under a curse to receive the judgment of God (Gen. 3:14-19; cf. Rom. 8:19-22). Appropriately, the imprecatory psalms excoriate those persons, nations, and societies that wage war with God—in truth, this is all humanity. Simultaneously, the imprecatory psalms assert the coming vindication of God. In Genesis 3:15, a ray of light shines in the cursed skies, “a seed of the woman would crush the head of the seed of the serpent.” This promise is embedded in the context of cosmic conflict—the serpent’s offspring will rage against the children of God (cf. Ps. 2). This spiritual warfare must be seen as the underlining context of the imprecatory psalms.

Carried out in the fullness of time, this head-crushing seed of the women is Jesus Christ. Contending in his life against the powers and principalities, he is hoisted on a cross to die. This act of weakness turns out to be his moment of triumph, for in his death delivers to Satan his death blow (cf. Col. 2:15; Rev. 12). The imprecatory psalms point to this eschatological event (Ps. 69; cf. Matt. 27:34; Jn. 19:28ff). On the cross, Jesus Christ endured the imprecatory wrath called down on the enemies of God, and he did this in order to reconcile enemies of God to the Father (cf. Rom. 5:10). In this light then, the destruction of the Babylonian children in Psalm 137 is seen as imagery depicting the serpent’s demise. Moreover, Psalm 137:9, written in under the skies of Babylon, retells the hope of the proto-evangelium, a seed-crushing son. This is also explains the counter-intuitive notion that the destroyer of reptilian infants is “blessed.”

Modern sensitivities may militate against such violent language, but the biblical notion of peace comes at the price of blood. The imprecatory psalms are cries of justice for the Righteous God to carry out his judgment. This was done through military conflict in the OT (i.e. the language of the imprecatory psalms), and in the NT it was finished on the cross. Today, as we read these challenging verses we are confronted to ask ourselves, “What Spirit shall we hear?” The spirit of this age tells us to dismiss these hard sayings as archaic folly, but the Spirit of Christ points us to swallow these bitter words and look to the cross and to the end of the age when Jesus will come again to put all things under his feet.

As we close, consider three applications: 1) Renewing our minds with the message of these psalms affirms in our own hearts the righteousness of God and the sinfulness of humanity; 2) Embracing these imprecations moves us to exalt God in his mercy and in his justice; and 3) Petitioning God according to these Psalms prepares us for the Day of Judgment, and prompts us to cling to the cross.

May we this week cry out to God, Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus! And may we tell everyone we know how to escape the coming wrath foretold in the imprecatory psalms.

Listen to the whole lesson: The Imprecatory Psalms