Editor’s note: This piece comes from an upcoming book by Gary Yates and David Croteau, Urban Legends of the Old Testament, a sequel to Urban Legends of the New Testament.
The Legendary Teaching on the Imprecatory Psalms
Many Christians regularly read the Psalms devotionally and find great comfort in promises that the Lord is a caring “shepherd” (Ps 23) and “a refuge and strength” in times of trouble (Ps 46:1). Mixed among the beautiful poetry of the Psalms, however, are a number of shocking and disturbing prayers known as the “imprecatory psalms,” in which the psalmists petition God to bring curses and death upon their enemies. These vicious and vindictive prayers are reflective of the inferior ethos of the old covenant, and even if they were appropriate prayers to the wrathful God of the Old Testament, they are not prayers that followers of Jesus should offer to the gracious and merciful God of the New. These prayers endorse a hatred that contradicts Jesus’ instructions to love one’s enemies and to pray for them (Matt 5:43–47; Luke 6:27–28) and are at odds with Paul’s exhortations to “bless and not curse” (Rom 12:14). The inclusion of the imprecatory psalms within Scripture does not remove the fact that they are “barbarous” and “a disgrace to human nature.”
Countering the Legendary Teaching
There are imprecatory prayers and curses against the enemies of the psalmists in at least forty different psalms, and imprecations are also prominent in the prayers of Jeremiah and Lamentations. In the more severe imprecations, the psalmist asks God to destroy not only his enemy but also his enemy’s family (Ps 109:6–20), looks forward to the righteous bathing their feet in the blood of the wicked (Ps 58:10), and pronounces blessing on those who bash the skulls of infants (Ps 137:9).
Rather than expressions of venomous hatred or “curses parading as prayers,” imprecations in the Old Testament are cries for God’s judgment in times of extreme injustice and violent oppression. The downtrodden and oppressed cry out when divine intervention is their only recourse against their powerful enemies. Erich Zenger observes that these psalms often reflect a conflict “between the powerless poor and the too-powerful rich.” Those who pray for the destruction of Edom and Babylon in Psalm 137 are survivors of the fall of Jerusalem who have lived through the atrocities of military siege and the trauma of deportation. Zenger notes that this psalm “is not the song of people who have the power to effect a violent change in their situation of suffering, nor is it the battle cry of terrorists.” In Psalm 58, the psalmist prays for God to knock out the teeth of his enemies because they are like powerful lions in their assaults on him (v. 6). Rather than taking the punishment of the wicked into his own hands, the psalmist is giving judgment over to God in recognition that vengeance belongs to him (cf. Deut 32:35, 41, 43; Rom 12:19). Gordon Wenham notes that nothing suggests in these prayers that the psalmist himself “will take revenge or even dictate a time table for divine retribution.”
Intense and Passionate Cries for Justice
In assessing the imprecations, we need to remember that the psalmists often express their prayers to God in highly figurative and hyperbolic language. Rather than reading the curses and imprecations in the Psalms in a strictly literal manner, the interpreter recognizes the psalmist to be expressing the depth of his emotion, the severity of his suffering, and the urgency of the need for divine intervention. The psalmist no more expects God to literally cause his enemy to melt away “like a slug that moves along in slime” (Ps 58:8) than he is wanting God to believe that he is swimming in a bed of tears (Ps 6:6) or eating a meal of tears and ashes (Pss 42:3; 102:9). Curse language was incorporated into various types of covenantal relationships within the ancient Near East, including the one between Yahweh and Israel (cf. Lev 26; Deut 28). It is thus only natural that divine judgment of the wicked would be conceived of in these terms as well.
While the punishments prayed for by the psalmists are often harsh and severe, these requests were informed by God’s own revealed standards of justice. God had promised Abraham that he would “bless those that blessed him and curse those that cursed him” (Gen 12:3). In petitioning for the curses of divine judgment against those who had mistreated them, the psalmists were praying for God to fulfill his covenant promises. The Mosaic Law had also established the principle of lex talionis (“eye for eye, tooth for tooth”) (Deut 19:16–21) as a standard of justice and retribution, and the imprecatory prayers of the Old Testament regularly ask God to act in accordance with this standard as he redresses wrong. As horrific as the imprecation calling for the death of Babylonian infants in Psalm 137:9 may appear, the Babylonians had committed similar atrocities in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. The principle of lex talionis is not God’s final ethical word or ultimate standard of righteousness, but it was one that God himself had established to regulate the punishment of crimes in ancient Israel.
The imprecatory prayers in the Old Testament are not reflective of an ethic that allowed Israel to hate their enemies. Imprecations are not the only prayers that the people of God pray concerning the wicked or their enemies in the Hebrew Bible. In Psalm 35, David prays for God to judge his enemies (vv. 4–10) because of the duplicitous way in which they had repaid “good for evil” by seeking David’s downfall after he had prayed and grieved for them when they were gravely ill (vv. 11–16; cf. Ps 109:4–5). Jeremiah instructed the exiles to pray for the “peace of Babylon” (Jer 29:7) in the same way that faithful Israelites were to pray for the “peace of Jerusalem” (Ps 122:6). As Michael Widmer has noted, this directive from the prophet is amazingly call to pray for those “who have killed your kin, destroyed your home, and given your land to others.” These Old Testament examples reflect an ethic in line with Jesus’ instruction for his disciples to pray for their enemies (Matt 5:44–47; Luke 6:27–29).
The Imprecatory Psalms from a New Testament Perspective
While the imprecatory prayers in the Old Testament remain instructive for the church today, there are elements of discontinuity, important covenantal shifts, and aspects of progressive revelation that inform the Christian application of the imprecatory psalms. Ancient Near Eastern curse language no longer carries the same cultural significance that it did in the world of the Old Testament. Israel as the people of God in the Old Testament was a national entity who was promised security in its land and military victory over its enemies as a reward for obedience to Yahweh’s commands. Israel’s military victories were important moments in redemptive history. In contrast, the church exists among the nations and is no longer called to advance God’s kingdom purposes through war and military conquest. Jesus radically alters the concept of holy war in his willingness to die for his enemies, and disciples of Jesus follow his example in their willingness to lay down their lives rather than take lives for the advance of the gospel. Rather than a holy war against human enemies and armies, followers of Jesus are now engaged in a spiritual battle against Satan and the forces of evil (Eph 6:12–18).
While the people of God were called to love their enemies under the old covenant, new covenant believers have an elevated ethic of love in light of how God has demonstrated his love through the cross. Stephen reflects the highest imitation of Jesus when he prays for God to forgive his persecutors (Acts 7:60), just as Jesus prayed for God’s forgiveness of his enemies responsible for his death (Luke 23:34). The progressive revelation of the New Testament concerning the afterlife also adds needed perspective on the working out of God’s judgment of the wicked. This fuller revelation clarifies that the ultimate judgment of the ungodly will occur in the final judgment, and thus believers can pray for this final reckoning as the means by which God will make right all injustices rather than praying for physical death and retribution in this life against the wicked (cf. 2 Thess 1:6–10).
In spite of these discontinuities, there remains a legitimate place for imprecation as a righteous response to the extreme evil and injustice that exists in our fallen world. The coming of Jesus did not eradicate human wickedness, and thus these prayers give continued expression to the valid desire of Christians to see God act as a righteous judge in redressing these wrongs and bringing an end to evil. Christians in the West may not resonate with these psalms as much as believers in other parts of the world who regularly encounter violent opposition and persecution. In Revelation 6:10–11, Christian martyrs gathered around the throne of God continue to cry to out to God for vindication and for his vengeance against those responsible for shedding their blood. Followers of Jesus in the New Testament express imprecations against those who actively pervert or oppose the gospel message (Gal 1:8–9; 5:12; 1 Cor 16:22). It would even seem that praying for the final judgment of the wicked would be one of the ways that God’s people hasten the coming of God’s kingdom of peace and righteousness to earth (cf. 2 Pet 3:12)
Because of their own experience of divine grace, followers of Jesus give priority to prayers for divine grace and mercy for even the worst of their enemies. The fact that Paul was a violent persecutor of the church before his conversion reminds us that no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. When Simon attempted to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter responded to him, “May your silver be destroyed with you” (Acts 8:20), but he also called for the sorcerer to repent and to pray for the forgiveness of his sins (Acts 8:24). While love and blessing are the primary disposition of followers of Christ, prayers for divine judgment and justice are particularly appropriate “in extreme circumstances against hardened, deceitful, violent, immoral unjust sinners.”
Believers should rightly feel anger, just as God does over mass shootings or the beheading of Christians in the Middle East. To feel nothing or to become desensitized to such horrific evil is the worst possible response. Rather than acting on their anger in an escalating cycle of violence and retribution, the faithful trust God to defend their cause. By praying the imprecatory psalms, Christians learn to empathize with the oppressed and are reminded of their responsibility to relieve suffering in every way that they possibly can.
The imprecatory psalms also have value for Christians today in reminding them of God’s holy hatred of sin, evil, and injustice. Christians not only petition for the judgment of the wicked but also for sin and evil to be expunged from their own hearts. After asking for God to slay the wicked in Psalm 139, David asks for God to search his heart for any sin and wickedness (vv. 23–24). God’s people cannot genuinely pray for the judgment of the wicked without hating their own sinfulness and lack of righteousness.
Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids:
Helpful discussions of divine violence in the Old Testament and the specific problem of the imprecatory psalms.
Zenger, Erich. A God of Vengeance: Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath. Translated by
Linda M. Maloney. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996.
The definitive critical work on the imprecatory psalms.
Ross, Allen P. A Commentary on the Psalms. 3 vols. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2012–2016.
Scholarly, evangelical commentary providing detailed exegesis and exposition of the Psalms.
Day, John N. “The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics,” Bibliotheca Sacra 159 (2002):
166–86. http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/19-psalms/text/articles/day_imprecatoryps_bs.htm. Accessed July 2, 2017.
Offers a compelling case for the ongoing validity of the imprecatory prayers for Christians today.
Storms, Sam. “10 Things You Should Know About the Imprecatory Psalms.” February 6, 2017.
Offers helpful perspectives on why these prayers appear in the Psalms and how they represent righteous cries for divine justice.
 C. S. Lewis wrote concerning the imprecatory psalms, “The hatred is there – festering, gloating, undisguised – and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves.” C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (London: Collins, 1961), 22
 Gordon J. Wenham, Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically, Studies in Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 179.
 Erich Zenger, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 12.
 Ibid., 48.
 Wenham, Psalms as Torah, 173.
 John N. Day, “The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics,” Bibliotheca Sacra 159 (2002): 169.
 Ibid., 168.
 Zenger, A God of Vengeance? 49–50. Zenger (p. 50) also suggests that the children in view in Ps 137:9 would be the royal children, and thus the verse expresses hope for the extermination of the “dynasty of terror” that has inflicted great violence on the Jewish people. The image of killing infants also conveys primarily the idea of complete and total military defeat (cf. Isa 13:16; Nah 3:10).
 Wenham, Psalms as Torah, 171.
 Michael Widmer, Standing in the Breach: An Old Testament Theology and Spirituality of Intercessory Prayer, Siphrut 13: Literature and Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2015), 439.
 Jesus rebukes James and John when they ask if they should pray for fire to come down from heaven against the Samaritans (Luke 9:54–55). The Samaritans are also not guilty of the violence and injustice that normally occasion the OT imprecations.
 Some would argue that the contemporary application of the imprecatory psalms is simply the idea that believers can be honest in prayer, even if their prayers are not in line with God’s desires. See Ben Witherington, The Living Word of God: Rethinking the Theology of the Bible (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), 25.
 Widmer, Standing in the Breach, 416.
 Day, “The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics,” 168.
 Wenham, Psalms as Torah, 177–78.