Answering War, Violence, and Evil with the Imprecatory Psalms
The recent invasion of Ukraine by order of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has confronted the world with heartbreaking images of violence, death, and devastation. The bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol, the execution of civilians with hands tied behind their backs in the streets of Bucha, drone footage of a couple gunned down in front of their five-year-old son at a Russian roadblock, and countless other atrocities stir feelings of horror, anger, and helplessness. How can one person, in this case Vladimir Putin, have so much unchecked power and his victims so little?
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Power in this world is too often unaccountable, imposing the whims of the mighty with no one at hand to deliver the helpless.
Whether the aggression of foreign invaders like today’s Putin or unrestrained oppression by a land’s own wealthy elites, imbalanced power was a common feature of life in the ancient world. Due to that reality, the Hebrew book of praises, the Book of Psalms, includes hymns of imprecation, or cursing. Readers today often pass over the imprecatory psalms. Cries of condemnation seem, to many modern readers, out of harmony for a book of praises. But the psalms of imprecation are actually an important facet of the Hebraic model of praise.
Current events, including a powerful tyrant wielding virtually unchecked violence, give context to rediscover the place of imprecation in biblical praise.
The Hebraic model of praise functions differently than typical worship practices in the modern West. American churches, for example, often practice a declarative model of praise. They sing songs that declare the goodness and glories of God. These songs are like a spread of desserts that invite singers to relish all that is delightful in God.
The psalms also include much declarative praise, but the Hebrew hymnal includes other kinds of songs as well—such as psalms of lament and psalms of cursing. These other kinds of praise are like medicine rather than dessert. They are given to treat the heart that is struggling, to restore the aching soul to praise.
The Hebrew psalms meet people where they are—in their griefs, doubts, and sufferings as well as in their joys—to move even the most downcast heart toward praise.
Imprecations are one of the least common psalm types in the psalter. Psalms 69, 109, and 137 are among the clearest examples, although there are elements of cursing throughout the psalter. Imprecation was not a frequent staple of Hebrew hymnody. But it was a crucial facet of praise for those suffering under the heel of unchecked power with no recourse in sight.
Judgment and Rest
To understand the importance of imprecation, we must first appreciate the place of judgment in the biblical vision of rest. Noah’s flood offers a striking picture of this double-sided coin of judgment and rest.
Genesis introduces Noah with this comment about his name: “Lamech . . . fathered a son and called his name Noah (Heb., noach), saying, ‘ . . . This one shall bring us rest (Heb., nacham) . . .'” (Gen 5:28–29, a.t.). The story of the flood judgment is introduced as a story about rest. In a world where “the evil of humanity was great” and “every intention of the thoughts of the heart was only evil all the time” (Gen 6:5, a.t.), rest was not possible until evil was judged.
Granted, the most important way to remove evil from the world is through the repentance of evildoers. Biblical faith champions the grace of God and the promise of peace through atonement. Since many refuse to repent, however, God’s promise of peace is ultimately backed by his judgment.
Psalms of imprecation invite God’s people to grab onto the assurance of judgment by giving them the very verdicts of heaven to recite. The verdicts of God may not be administered yet, but allowing the sufferer to hear and invoke heaven’s verdicts now, amid their anguish, with confidence that these are God’s curses and not their own, frees even the distraught heart to praise.
Consider one of the boldest psalms of imprecation, Psalm 109. It opens with the following words of suffering:
Be not silent, O God of my praise!
For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me,
speaking against me with lying tongues.
They encircle me with words of hate,
and attack me without cause . . . (ESV)
Those lines give words to one who is engulfed by injustice. Later lines in the psalm will narrow focus upon one specific oppressor. But the language of many mouths and encirclement in the psalm’s opening capture the overwhelming power of that oppression. The sufferer is helpless before waves of hatred from all sides.
Quickly then, the psalm turns to curses. It offers sober words of condemnation to pray upon those who cause that injustice:
Appoint a wicked man against him,
let an accuser stand at his right hand.
When he is tried, let him come forth guilty . . .
May his days be few . . .
Let there be none to extend kindness to him,
nor any to pity his fatherless children! . . .
For he did not remember to show kindness . . .
He loved to curse; let curses come upon him!
Those are powerful words. They are filled with emotions equal to the intense hatred of the oppressor. But they are declarations of just judgment; the psalm is not answering evil with evil. The psalm offers the sufferer tracks to channel their pain into appeals for justice, rather than leaving those suffering unjustly to bottle up their pain or respond in kind.
Not all of the imprecatory psalms include such explicit references to the courtroom, but Psalm 109 illustrates the judicial character of the psalter’s curses. Note how the curses in Psalm 109 expect the wicked to stand trial before God with a powerful prosecutor (“an accuser”) at their side to expose their evils. Then in lines of poetic justice, the exact same horrors that the wicked one has been inflicting on others now are visited against them by due administration of God’s court.
Once again, redemption is the most celebrated way for an evildoer to right the horrors of such violence. The humbling of Nebuchadnezzar, the king who devastated the temple and families of Israel, is a prime example of a tyrant’s repentance (Dan. 4:1–37). There are many psalms that celebrate the beauty of forgiveness. But the biblical promise of rest is ultimately backed by the assurance of judgment, indicating the need for psalms of imprecation also.
Furthermore, the authoritative power of the imprecatory psalms depends upon their royal character. It is dubious for individuals to curse others in their own name. But the Book of Psalms contains the psalms of David, Israel’s divinely anointed king. They are curses from the throne that God granted authority to judge. Not all of the psalms were written by David himself, but they were all composed under the authority of his divinely anointed throne. That is what makes the psalms of imprecation authoritative and appropriate for Israel’s use.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul points out the reason God’s people are to abstain from revenge against evildoers. Quoting from Deuteronomy, Paul wrote, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom 12:19; quoting Deut 32:35).
The reason God’s people are not to take personal revenge is that they look to God to administer due vengeance. God has delegated that work of justice to human courts (Rom 13:1–5) and ultimately to the Messiah (John 5:27). When human justice fails to defend the oppressed, psalms of imprecation give access to the judgment of the anointed king (the Messiah) and his court. In this way, God’s people abstain from revenge but not from the due expectation of justice. And that expectation of justice is an important facet in the Hebraic model of praise facilitated by the imprecatory psalms.
The Importance of Imprecation
Psalms of imprecation are a minor note in the overall chorus of praises in the psalter, but they offer a certain kind of medicine that restores praise to hearts downtrodden by unchecked oppressors.
Even today, we can benefit from reading and singing them. There are many circumstances in which evil reigns unchecked in this world. Rest only comes when that evil is removed, ideally through repentance but finally through judgment. In fact, any Jew or Christian who longs for the coming/return of the Messiah is participating in that hope for judgment and the rest it brings.
Until heaven’s justice is finished, imprecatory psalms enable the powerless to take back power today. They give the weak ready access to the verdicts of heaven to pronounce with their own lips when no other source of justice will do so.
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