Crisis, Cursing and the Christian: Reading Imprecatory Psalms in the Twenty-First Century

We recently published the latest issue of our theological journal, Foundations. Editor Martin Salter introduces an article by Jamie A. Grant, Vice-Principal (Academic) at Highland Theological College, Scotland:

Dr. Jamie Grant has written on “Imprecation in the Psalms”. Considering the genre and its function in relating to injustice is important for Christians to grapple with. The vocabulary of the psalms provides a way for human beings to express human emotions back to God. Jamie encourages us to think about how we unapologetically appropriate what imprecation has to offer us today.

 

Many Christian readers of the Psalter balk at the psalms that call down curses on particular people in response to wrongs that have been perpetrated by them. We are uncomfortable both with the language and the ethical implications. Effectively, these psalms are omitted from the life and worship of the church. This article argues that this should not be the case. When understood in the light of the constraints of genre and when understood as prayers offered to the Sovereign, these psalms provide us with a spiritual vocabulary which enables us to deal with the horrific injustices of life before the throne of God. 

Introduction

When writing a commentary on Psalm 79, amongst the others in Books 3 and 4 of the psalms, it struck me that there are two elements of that prayer which make contemporary Christians profoundly uncomfortable. The first is its imprecatory content: we are uncomfortable with the idea of asking God to do nasty things to other people (see, for example, Ps 79:6, 12). This type of prayer is known as imprecation, and psalms that include such elements are described as imprecatory – psalms that ask the Lord to take vengeance on an individual or a group of people. Secondly, we are uncomfortable with the lament aspects of many of these psalms. How is it that the psalmist dares to tell God that his people have suffered enough? How dare he insist, as he clearly does, “We have suffered enough! We get the point! It’s time to show mercy!” There is an undercurrent of complaint in this poem, and our contemporary brand of Christian spirituality finds it difficult to accommodate such a manner of approaching God. Properly speaking, imprecation is a subset of lament and each form is marked by a directness of approach and a sense of covenantal expectation that is alien to our normal spirituality.

We are not alone in finding these poems uncomfortable and several scholars suggest that we, effectively, do away with the voice of imprecation from the Psalms. Let me give a few examples: C. S. Lewis describes the imprecatory psalms as “the refinement of malice” and “contemptible”. He goes on to suggest,

We must not either try to explain them away or to yield for one moment to the idea that, because it comes in the Bible, all this vindictive hatred must somehow be good and pious. We must face both facts squarely. The hatred is there – festering, gloating, undisguised – and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it…[1]

Francis Watson has also called into question the continuing validity of the imprecations for Christian readers of Scripture, saying of Psalm 137,

Christian victims of oppression could never legitimately appropriate this psalm in its entirety, however extreme their sufferings, and its use in Christian liturgical contexts can in no circumstances be justified.[2]

While Watson makes clear that his interpretative problems with Psalm 137 are driven by his understanding of New Testament ethics, rather than by any sense of neo-Marcionite superiority, other scholars are sometimes less careful in their outright rejection of imprecations. Several scholars follow the somewhat problematic approach of understanding the imprecations as true reflections of the psalmists’ mental state but argue that this presentation is not exemplary. This is, effectively, a visceral human response before God and one that we, as Christian readers, should always be able to rise above. Alfred Martens summarises this view accordingly:

Ultimately, of course, Christians at prayer will keep in mind that in praying the psalms they find themselves within a pre-Christian and sub-Christian ethos, on a level far surpassed by the Sermon on the Mount.[3]

Clearly, at least within contemporary Western brands of Christianity, we are uncomfortable with the imprecations. In most of our lectionary traditions, imprecatory voices are not read, and the same is true in traditions where psalms are sung. Equally clearly, many interpreters are sceptical about the continued validity of such expressions in the Christian era. What, therefore, are we to do with psalms such as Psalm 69 that calls for the death of enemies or Psalm 137 that appears to eulogise the killing of babies? While remaining troubled by these voices in Scripture, many Christian readers are instinctively cautious about removing, either literally or functionally, sections of Scripture simply because they make us uncomfortable or because they are difficult to understand. So, the question remains: should we, can we, adopt such words as our own in our experience of worship? Before rejecting a category of the canon outright, Erich Zenger’s cautionary words need to be heard. He suggests that we should read the psalms of enmity,

…without jumping into the conversation too quickly, without shoving them aside in know-it-all fashion, without expressing judgment out of a sense of Christian superiority, we need to try to understand these texts in their historical context, their linguistic shape, and their theological passion. That is the first task.[4]

If we are to follow Zenger’s sage advice, then four considerations should shape our thinking:

  1. Imprecatory psalms follow clearly-defined genre patterns;
  2. Imprecations take injustice seriously;
  3. Imprecations are prayers;
  4. Imprecations are speech-acts.

Careful consideration of the imprecatory psalms as literature, should lead us to a position whereby the reader can actually attest their continued validity and importance, rather than being slightly embarrassed and generally uncomfortable about their inclusion in Scripture. My aim is to provide a robust apology for the continued and vibrant use of imprecations as part of Christian worship, both private and corporate.

  1. Imprecation as a Genre

David Firth wrote a book about the imprecatory psalms entitled Surrendering Retribution in the Psalms.[5] Surrendering is precisely what occurs in these texts. Rather than encouraging God’s people themselves to seek vengeance against the Babylonians or the mocking Edomites, the psalmist encourages the people of God to offer these offences over to him in prayer. What is more, the psalmist seeks only that retribution from God which is appropriate to the wrongs meted out against his people. In fact, the imprecatory psalms follow a fairly formalised genre structure that indicates that they might not be precisely what they are presented as being.

The underpinning assumption of those who reject the imprecatory psalms is that they are something base, vociferous, hate-filled and vindictive. However, a genre analysis suggests that this is not necessarily the case. Firth comments:

The psalms within each group model a response to violence that is appropriate to the nature of the violence that was experienced… [A] consistent pattern covers all the psalms examined. This pattern reveals itself in these areas: the consistent imminence of violence, the rejection of the right of human retribution and the limitation of the violence that could be sought from God.[6]

Firth’s observations are telling. These poems are not visceral, bile-laden outpourings of rage. They are rather carefully crafted poetic (and prayerful, as we will see in a moment) responses to violence that has already been perpetrated on the psalmist and his community. Tellingly, these prayers are grounded in the lex talionis. They respond to the evils experienced by the community of faith by asking God to revisit similar and proportionate experiences upon those who committed the injustices in the first place.

A good example of this is found in that most unpalatable of enmity psalms, 137. According to historical record, the invading Babylonian armies, such was their rage after the long siege, hurled the children of survivors from the Temple Mount to be dashed on the rocks below. Therefore, the psalmist prays:

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! (Ps 137:8-9, ESV)

A gross wrong has been done and the psalmist prays that Yahweh will meet that injustice in kind, effectively reflecting back the horrors that the people had suffered and calling for a proportionate response from God.

However, again from the historical record, it appears that neighbouring nations, such as Edom, sided with the Babylonians but did not participate in the attack on the city. They mocked both Yahweh and the Judahites (Psalm 79) and egged on the attackers but did not participate in the ensuing atrocities. We see this reflected carefully in the psalmist’s prayer:

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!” (Ps 137:7, ESV)

Careful reciprocity comes into play. It is almost as if the poet doesn’t know how he should pray with regard to the Edomites. They are not tarred by the Babylonians’ horrific actions, yet neither are they entirely guiltless. So the psalmist simply prays that Yahweh will “remember” their actions, the implication being that God will know the proper response to this wrong, even if the poet himself does not.

Firth’s observations are important because they address the under-pinning presupposition that the imprecations are somehow base, vile and vicious. They are not. They are carefully crafted poems, reflecting an accepted poetic style, and they must fall within certain parameters to be included in the canon. They respond to violence, they cede any right to seek revenge and they limit the response that they seek from God to the extent of the harm perpetrated against them.

  1. Imprecation and Injustice

Erich Zenger further questions the underlying attitudes behind contem-porary Christianity’s reluctance to accept and adopt the imprecations. Is it really the result of ethical tension or does the church no longer believe in a God who intervenes in current human events?

It may be that the directness of the challenge to God and the certainty it expresses that God must be at work in history and society form the real provocation of these psalms for a Christianity whose belief in God has exhausted its historical potential in soteriology or postponed it to an afterlife by a privatist and spiritualising attitude. Here the shrill tones of the psalms of enmity can serve to shock Christianity out of the well-regulated slumber of its structural amnesia about God.[7]

Zenger’s point is a valid one. The imprecations force us to ask ourselves a series of questions: Do we really believe in a God who actively intervenes in the events of human history? One who intervenes to declare wrong that which is wrong and right that which is right? Or is our faith limited to questions of personal salvation and only eschatological judgment? The psalmist clearly believes in an interventionist God.

Zenger goes on to develop his ideas in the light of a series of critiques of contemporary Western spirituality by making some observations drawn from the imprecations. Firstly, enemies are taken quite seriously and literally.[8] Regardless of broader questions of causation and the ultimate origins of immorality – the devil may well be having a field day – evil tends to have a human source; all too often people perpetrate wicked acts against other people. The psalms treat the human identity of evildoers seriously and brings the perpetrators before God in prayer. This is significant. A desire to rise above the harm done to us in response to Christ’s call to “turn the other cheek” (Matt 5:39) does not imply any sort of pretence that the events never happened. Rising above evil out of a genuine Christian ethic does not result in spiritual mutism. Surely, our Father wants to hear about the traumas that we have suffered at the hands of others, including the identity of the human perpetrators.

Secondly, Zenger contends that violence is offensive to God and runs counter to creational norms.[9] If we genuinely believe that Yahweh created a world that is good (Gen 1), a cosmos with his ways ingrained in its warp and woof (Prov 8), then all things that diverge from his goodness and his ways are in some sense counter-creational. They are inherently anti-God. The imprecatory psalms force us to describe evil as evil and to publicly declare that there are actions which are simply abhorrent to God. Reading the imprecatory psalms forces us to question our thought processes: Why do we shy away from proclaiming actions to be wrong, evil and abhorrent in God’s eyes – a flagrant breach of his creational norms? Such evil clearly exists in our world, so why do we tend to reject these poems that give us a vocabulary of approach to God in the context of the experience of this evil?

Thirdly, the imprecations bring attention to violence suffered by the weak.[10] Perhaps our reluctance to appropriate the psalms of enmity is rooted in the comfort of our lives. We face no great harm and we seldom experience personal evils. Most of us would not consider ourselves as having “enemies” per se. Therefore the language of enmity seems alien and, in some sense, inappropriate. There are many people throughout this world – Christians and not – who experience the reality of enmity in ways unimaginable to the majority of us. The imprecations give us a prayer language to address such evil. Whether this is the persecuted church in parts of the Arab world or girls trafficked from abroad and abused on our own doorsteps, the imprecations encourage us, as readers, to personally embody the traumas of others and to declare before the Creator, “That’s not right! You must do something about it!” The wrongs in our world are flagrant, obvious and raw. The imprecations force us to side with the persecuted and to call for cosmic justice.

Fourthly, Zenger contends that the imprecatory psalms challenge our ambivalence towards injustice. As quoted above, their “shrill tones... serve to shock Christianity out of [its] well-regulated slumber”.[11] Do we even see the evil in the world around us anymore? In a generation of twenty-four-hour news, we have become inured to those atrocities of life that should horrify us to our very core. The imprecations force us, as praying people, to bring the horrors of life before the throne of grace, as horrors. There is no need to polish or beautify or make more polite and acceptable that which God sees, and which he sees as tragically gross perversions of his created order. The existence of evil in the world should be heart-breaking to every believer. The psalms of enmity force us to experience that heartbreak in the presence of God rather than apart from him.

Zenger’s careful analysis of the dynamic of imprecation takes us on to a third consideration. 

  1. Imprecations as Prayers

Importantly, imprecatory psalms commit all injustice into God’s hands for his response.[12] They give over the act of retribution into his hands, who will respond to the prayers of his people precisely in the manner that he sees fit. Humans pray in accordance with their best, but inevitably limited, understanding. There is security in such prayer because we know that the Sovereign will respond to our prayers from a position of perfect knowledge. We may pray towards a particular end but we do so in the sure knowledge that Yahweh will respond to this prayer in the way that he knows to be best and that may or may not be aligned to the tenor of our specific requests. Significantly, however, we must recognise that imprecation breaks the cycle of violence because prayer is the best substitute for a violent response to violence.[13]

In the Psalms, human beings reach out to God; the initiative is human; the language is human; we make an effort to communicate. He receives; he chooses to respond or not, according to his inscrutable wisdom. He gives his assent or withholds it.[14]

Imprecation leaves the question of right response entirely in the hands of God. He knows what is best, so offering prayer to the One who is able to do all things is the best response to violence and injustice. Clearly everyone who prays to the God of Scripture knows that there is no place for selfish vindictiveness in our prayers. God will not tolerate such an attitude which would, in itself, also constitute a denial of the divine plan for life on earth. The whole point of imprecation is that we must let that prayer be an honest assessment of reality in the light of God’s design. In giving these matters over to him, we acknowledge that he alone truly knows what course of action is appropriate to the circumstances:

Imprecations affirm God by surrendering the last word to God. They give to God not only their lament about their desperate situation, but also the right to judge the originators of that situation. They leave everything in God’s hands, even feelings of hatred and aggression.[15]

  1. Imprecations as Speech-Acts

One final consideration is important for a proper understanding of biblical imprecation: these poetic prayers are divine speech-acts as well as being human words. Therefore they should never be passed over lightly. Through the process of canonisation these, very human, words have become the word of God to his people. This should not be forgotten. As the name suggests, a speech-act arises where an action occurs out of speech – saying something also does something.[16] Kit Baker argues cogently with regard to the pedagogical intention (the illocutions) of the imprecations that they function as speech-acts which were not only legitimate in their original context but which also remain relevant to the current community of faith.[17] Baker contends,

In short, the illocutionary stance of the Psalter should be counted as the illocutionary stance of God… [The imprecations are] consistent with the illocutionary stance of the Psalter… and the New Testament is consistent with that of the imprecatory psalms.[18]

His carefully-developed argument suggests that it would be inappropriate to marginalise the imprecatory psalms by reading them critically. As readers we tend to side with the psalmist in our reading, even when his experience is different from our own. The arguments laid out by Lewis and others above, suggest that it would be somehow inappropriate for the Christian reader to so read the text. The inescapable conclusion of Baker’s argument is that, should we fail to associate with the voice of the psalmist in the imprecations, we fail to grasp the didactic voice of God. The poets’ prayers reflect the divine voice for his people. God teaches his people through the psalms of imprecation not to reject the psalmists’ voices but to embrace them as a spiritual vocabulary through which we can process the undeniable evils of this world as we seek to live life coram Deo.

Baker goes on to deal with the argument that, while such language may have been appropriate under the Old Covenant, it certainly is not so in the Christian era. Through careful analysis of the way in which imprecatory psalms are used in the New Testament and of how they are adopted by Jesus, particularly in John’s Gospel, he shows that the psalmic teaching does not “misfire” in the NT (i.e. the basic teaching effect continues into the NT) but that cursing is no longer “a necessary response”. In fact, Baker suggests that John actively presents Jesus as an exemplar imprecator in his account (e.g. Ps 69 in John 2 & 15-16 etc.). Ultimately, Baker concludes,

The primary divine illocutions, occurring at a genre level, are invitations to both “suffer without cause” and “seek God” in times of oppression… God affirms the stance of the psalmist within the psalm: his voice, his boldness, his innocence, his zeal, his loyalty and his desire for justice and deliverance. Simultaneously, God reminds the reader of his loyal love, faithfulness and compassion when circumstances suggest the contrary… These original divine illocutions continue to function and the Christological use of the NT supports and expands their illocutionary force.[19]

So, the teaching force of the imprecatory psalms revolves around honest life before God in a world that is impregnated with evil. Ignoring the atrocities of this world in the hope that they will go away does no-one any good. Being nice in the face of great social wrong is not commendable. It is, rather, a terrible abrogation of our duty as God’s people in this world and before his throne. These psalms teach and they teach powerfully: Evil in the created order must be named and condemned for what it actually is. We must call upon the sovereign God who commands armies (Yahweh tsevaot, the Lord of hosts) to intervene in this world to bring an end to injustice and to see justice done. This is the radical prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. The imprecations give us a spiritual vocabulary to deal with the wrongs that we witness in life. These poems are affirmed for us by Jesus himself and they should be part of our prayer speak, both private and communal.

  1. Conclusion

I suspect that much of our reticence with regard to the psalms of enmity is culturally rooted, rather than being derived from some sense of ethical discomfort. It is not so much that we feel we should not speak this way. It is, rather, because we do not speak in such a manner that we have grown uncomfortable with the challenging discourse of the imprecations. However, biblical norms and principles should always be allowed to challenge our culturally-derived presuppositions.

The imprecatory voice is every bit as important to the community of faith today as it was in the days of the psalmists. Obviously, there is a teaching task related to this challenge. It would be wrong to appropriate the imprecatory psalms in public worship without first teaching what they are and how they work. Their interface with New Testament ethics is an interesting question and one that creates a slightly different dynamic. However, the essence of what imprecations are and what they do remains essentially unchanged. All of the psalms provide us with a spiritual vocabulary for encounter with God in every circumstance. The psalms of enmity provide the Christian reader with the means of dealing with the evils of human experience in a way that is true to the divine abhorrence of social injustice and to our own loathing of the moral abominations that are all too prevalent in our world. Far from removing ourselves from these psalms, given the world in which we live, we should embrace them as our own.

Jamie A. Grant is Vice-Principal (Academic) at the Highland Theological College UHI. 

Footnotes:

[1] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (London: G. Bles, 1958), 20–2.

[2] Francis Watson, Text and Truth: Redefining Biblical Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), 121. For a similar expression of opinion, see also Watson’s interesting dialogue with Christopher Seitz in “The Old Testament as Christian Scripture: A Response to Professor Seitz”, SJT 52/2 (1999), 227–32.

[3] Alfred Martens, “Praying the Christian Psalms” in Liturgie und Dichtung, vol. 2 (eds. H. Becker and R. Kaczynski; St. Etillion: EOS, 1983), 503.

[4] Erich Zenger, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath (Louisville: WJKP, 1996), 25.

[5] David G. Firth, Surrendering Retribution in the Psalms: Responses to Violence in the Individual Complaints (Paternoster Biblical Monographs; Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005).

[6] Firth, Surrendering Retribution, 139.

[7] Zenger, A God of Vengeance, 74.

[8] Ibid., 63-69.

[9] Zenger, A God of Vengeance, 73-79.

[10] Ibid., 84-86.

[11] Ibid., 74.

[12] Zenger, A God of Vengeance, 76-80.

[13] Ibid., 139–44.

[14] Nahum M. Sarna, On the Book of Psalms: Exploring the Prayer of Ancient Israel (New York: Schocken Books, 1993), 3.

[15] Zenger, A God of Vengeance, 15.

[16] See Richard Briggs’ helpful article “Speech-Act Theory”, in D. G. Firth and J. A Grant, eds., Words and the Word: Explorations in Biblical Interpretation and Literary Theory (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 75–110.

[17] Kit Baker, Imprecation as Divine Discourse: Speech Act Theory, Dual Authorship, and Theological Interpretation (Journal of Theological Interpretation Supplements 16; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2016).

[18] Baker, Imprecation as Divine Discourse, 214.

[19] Baker, Imprecation as Divine Discourse, 216.

 


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