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Preaching Imprecatory Psalms


Arise, O Lord, in your anger;
  rise up against the rage of my enemies.
Awake, my God;
  decree justice.
    Psalm 7:6

The psalms are filled with imprecations or curses like the one quoted above. They pray that God would act to curse, defeat, or destroy the psalmist's enemies. While there are only a very few psalms that are sometimes categorized as imprecatory, there are numerous psalms that contain imprecations.[2] Indeed, Scripture itself is filled with imprecations in various forms and contexts both in the Old[3] and New Testaments.[4] The New Testament alludes to, quotes and even applies some of the Old Testament imprecations.[5] Consequently, curse texts are fairly pervasive in Scripture.

However, Christians are generally uncomfortable with these texts and they are rarely preached in the contemporary church. Both our understanding of Christianity and the cultural climate of pluralistic toleration undermine the facile use of these psalms in the church. But these points are misguided, and the church ought to take up again the praying and preaching of the imprecatory psalms.

My purpose is to enable Christian people to reclaim the rightful use of biblical imprecations. First, I will offer a theological framework that grounds the legitimacy of biblical imprecations and their contemporary application. Second, I will examine various options in the Christian use of these imprecations. Lastly, I will use Psalm 7 as a homiletic example.

A Theological Framework for Imprecatory Psalms

When God created the cosmos he intended to bless humanity with life and fellowship. What God created was "very good" (Genesis 1:31). However, human rebellion destroyed the peace of God's good creation. As a result the cosmos was cursed (Genesis 3:14, 18) and subjected to futility (Romans 8:20). God's good creation fell. But God did not give up on his intent. Instead he pursued his people with redemptive love through Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets and ultimately in Jesus. Yet, alongside this redemptive love was God's righteous judgment. The redemption of God's people involved the destruction God's enemies in the Flood, Sodom, Exodus, Monarchy and Cross. God's judgment is his redemption and his redemption involves his judgment. The holy God seeks communion with his people and redeems them, but in his redemption the holy God destroys sin, evil and injustice. In order to redeem Israel, God destroyed Egypt (Exodus 15). When God destroyed Satan in the cross and resurrection, he redeemed the church. And in the eschaton, God will bless his people with a new heaven and a new earth, but he will destroy his enemies in the second death (Revelation 20:11-21:8).

At present, however, we live in a fallen world filled with sin, suffering and death. We are burdened, so we groan. We suffer, so we lament. We yearn for the time when God will fully reveal his kingdom and destroy evil in the world (Romans 8:18-25; 2 Corinthians 5:1-5). Indeed, we pray for the coming of God's kingdom in heavenly glory when God will take vengeance on the wicked (1 Corinthians 16:22; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9; 2 Timothy 4:1). We "cry for the kingdom," as Grenz has aptly entitled his book on prayer (Grenz 1987).

In light of this groaning, it is not surprising to discover that half of the Psalter is lament, and that most of the imprecations occur in these laments. The majority of psalms containing imprecations are individual laments (e.g., 7, 35, 109), many are community laments (e.g., 58, 137), and a few are hymns (e.g., 68) and thanksgivings (e.g., 41). The imprecations are the voice of distressed saints in a fallen world who are frustrated, angered and sometimes even embittered by the evil in the world. They express a zeal for God's holiness as well as a commitment to God's agenda. Indeed, imprecations "functioned within Israel's worship as a declaration of loyalty" to their covenant God (Childs 1986: 210). They testify that God's people seek God's kingdom, righteousness and justice.

The imprecations, then, reflect God's holy zeal against sin and simply call upon God to do what he promised to judge evil and remove injustice from the earth. Vengeance belongs to God (Deuteronomy 32:35), and imprecations simply call upon God to execute the vengeance he has promised. They ask God to act according to his righteousness. Even the Compassionate One who called us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-47) is also the Just One who himself cursed the wicked (Matthew 23:13-36). Paul called us to love our neighbor but expected God to execute vengeance (Romans 12:17-21).

How do we reconcile imprecations for God's justice with our call to love? In response to evil people, we always seek the other's ultimate good: we are committed to love for everyone, even our enemies. We return good for evil (1 Thessalonians. 5:15; 1 Peter 3:9). But we give to God our righteous indignation. We offer imprecatory prayers to God against evil and fallenness. While sinful anger is condemned, as it reflects our impatience with our surroundings because we do not get what we selfishly desire, righteous anger is sanctified as zeal against evil and fallenness because fallenness is not what God intends for his world. Consequently, we ask God to act with vengeance against evil. We do not act with vengeance. We do not "take the law into our own hands." Imprecation puts the matter into God's hands.

Righteous anger is given to God for his own execution of justice. We do not take the vengeance into our own hands. This balance is modeled in 1 Samuel 24. Even though God delivered Saul into David's hands he refused to kill him (1 Samuel 24:10-11). David would not take personal vengeance even when God gave him the opportunity. Instead, David offered an imprecation. He prays, "May the Lord judge between you and me. And may the Lord avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you" (1 Samuel 24:12). David loved Saul and he respected God's justice. Consequently, he left Saul's judgment in the hands of God, but he trusted that God's righteousness would one day avenge the wrongs Saul had committed against him. Through imprecation, David left judgment in the hands of God and thus modeled the balance to which Paul calls us in Romans 12.

In summary, then, my basic theological framework looks like this (Hicks 1999). God intends to redeem his fallen people and he acts to deliver them, but his holy presence consumes those who do not love him, reflect his mercy, or seek his face (Brueggemann 1985). God has acted in Christ to redeem everyone from the curse (Galatians 3:10-14). His gracious initiative in Christ canceled the debt of our sins and gave expression to his fundamental intent to bless. Nevertheless, in Christ God also condemned sin and triumphed over evil. God rejects those who do not seek his face but have chosen their own way. They will receive the full weight of the curse.

We yearn for the coming of the kingdom, and we pray for it. But the coming of the kingdom means the destruction of the wicked along with the Evil One. To pray the Lord's Prayer is to implicitly offer to God an imprecation against evil. We pray for the destruction of Satan and his kingdom. We yearn for God's kingdom, groan over fallenness, seek love for everyone, trust in the gracious initiatives of God, and yet we also hope in God's righteous judgment against evil. Just as we pray for God's redemption, so we also pray for God's righteous judgment, that is, we offer imprecations.

Typology for the Christian Interpretation of Imprecatory Psalms

The use of imprecatory psalms has varied from justification for "holy wars" (crusades) to their exclusion from hymnals and lectionaries as "unchristian." The following typology attempts to group various understandings in order to grasp the essentials of different interpretative approaches.

Inappropriate Desires for Vengeance

Many interpreters reject the contemporary use of these psalms because they reflect values which undermine a Christian understanding of God. These prayers, it is argued, reflect an earlier, more primitive stage in the development of biblical religion. More liberal scholars (e.g., Gunkel 1967; Kittel 1910; Mowinckel 1962) understand this development on an evolutionary scale in the context of a "history of religions" ideology. Israel's theology evolved from a militant polytheistic tribal religion to a national faith in a monotheistic God of vengeance who protects his people against their enemies. Christianity reflects a higher form of religious evolution that universalizes God's love and rejects any imprecations.

More moderate and conservative scholars (e.g., Kirkpatrick 1910, Lewis 1958, Anderson 1983, Weiser 1962) root their rejection of imprecatory psalms in a strong disjunction between Old and New Testament spirituality. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ supersedes and surpasses the revelation of God in these psalms. New Testament spirituality has progressed beyond prayers of imprecation (Barnes 1868; Bright 1967; Holladay 1993; Kidner 1973, 1975). Kirkpatrick provides a clear example of this perspective:

In what light then are these utterances to be regarded? They must be viewed as belonging to the dispensation of the Old Testament; they must be estimated from the standpoint of the Law, which was based upon the rule of retaliation, and not of the Gospel, which is animated by the principle of love; they belong to the spirit of Elijah, not of Christ; they use the language of the age which was taught to love its neighbor and hate its enemy (Matt. v.43).

Our Lord explicitly declared that the old dispensation, though not contrary to the new, was inferior to it; that modes of thought and actions were permitted or even enjoined which would not be allowable for His followers; that He had come to 'fulfill' the Law and the Prophets by raising all to a higher moral and spiritual level, expanding and completing what was rudimentary and imperfect....These utterances then belong to the spirit of the O.T. and not of the N.T....It is impossible that such language should be repeated in its old and literal sense by any follower of Him who has bidden us to love our enemies and pray for them that persecute us
(Kirkpatrick 1910: lxxxix, xciii).

However, this is a much too simplistic reading of the biblical data. Leaving aside the "history of religions" or evolutionary approach to Old Testament faith, there are several reasons to reject this hermeneutical approach to the imprecatory psalms. First, the New Testament quotes or alludes to several of these psalms in a positive way. Second, there are similar imprecations in the New Testament, even on the lips of Jesus. Third, both the Old and New Testament evidence the same tension between cursing and blessing (e.g., Paul calls us to love our enemies but also curses those who do not believe in Christ; Romans 12:12-17; 1 Corinthians 16:22). At bottom, then, these psalms are not spiritually inferior to the New Testament. In fact, there is a strong continuity between the imprecations of the psalms and the appearance of similar imprecations, including a similar theology in the New Testament.

The ground of these psalms is not personal vengeance, but God's righteousness, holiness and faithfulness. These psalms function as the liturgy of Israel and they give voice to theologically legitimate imprecations. The New Testament establishes their legitimacy by quoting them and applying them in their own context (e.g., Paul applies Psalm 69 to hard-hearted Jews in Romans 11:7-10).

Liturgical Prayers for God's Justice

Conservative scholars, along with the vast majority of interpreters in Christian history, have understood these prayers as petitions for God's justice. They formed part of the worship of Israel in which God's people petitioned God to curse their enemies. There are several different ways in which this general approach has been understood, although none of them are mutually exclusive.

Eschatological/Prophetic Prayers (Augustine 1983; Calvin 1949; Delitzsch 1883; Chalmbers 1903; Henry 1841; Spurgeon 1950). The imprecations of the psalmist are either eschatological predictions, that is, what God will do in the eschaton (the final judgment), or they are actually forms of didactic teaching by prophets for the assembled people of God. Chalmbers, for example, argues that "these so-called imprecations are prophetic teachings as to the attitude of God toward sin and impenitent and persistent sinners" (Chalmbers 550). Consequently, they are expressions of a zeal for God and an abhorrence of sin. They are not the personal wishes of the psalmists, but rather they are either a prediction of God's judgment against evil and/or an expression of the psalmists' zeal against sin in the light of God's holiness. The function of these psalms, then, is to proclaim God's ultimate victory over evil and to teach the people of God about God's zeal against that evil.

However, these psalms do not always envision an eschatological end. They also address situations in the present. While some have a future orientation, others do not. The psalmists do not typically look into the eschaton for God's imprecatory action, but they ask for it in the present. They seek God's curse upon their enemies now, not later. Further, the curses are not typically didactic tools, but actual prayers for the curse. They do not simply express God's zeal against evil, they actually petition God to engage evil by cursing it, including destroying enemies.

Christological Prayers (Adams 1991; Bonhoeffer 1970; Calvin 1949; Webster 1907). Since the New Testament often puts the words of the psalms on the lips of Jesus (e.g., Hebrews 2:12; 10:5-7), it is argued that "the Lord Jesus Christ is praying these prayers of vengeance" (Adams 1991: 33). This hermeneutic is rooted in a typological understanding of David as the one through whom Christ speaks. When David speaks Christ speaks because David is a type of Christ.

David, for example, was a type and spokesman of Christ, and the imprecatory Psalms are expressions of the infinite justice of the God-man, of His indignation against wrong-doing, of His compassion for the wronged. They reveal the feelings of His heart and the sentiments of His mind regarding sin. They represent His attitude as the King and Judge of His Church (Webster 1907: 306-7).

This view of the Psalms is inappropriate. To that that every psalm is really spoken by Christ obscures the actual situation in which the psalm is spoken and devalues the meaning of the prayer for Israel in its Old Testament setting. The principles of these psalms are theocentric and may be christologically applied (as they are so applied in the New Testament). Their application is valid, not because these psalms were actually spoken by Christ, but because they reflect theological principles which are rooted in the character of God. Christ, as one who stands among us as the Incarnate One, may voice these psalms along with the people of God because they are theologically legitimate, but they are not uniquely or simply his prayers. They are the real prayers of real saints in the Old Testament.

Covenant Curses/Divine Justice (Beardslee 1897: 490-505; Harmon 1995; Kaiser 1983; Laney 1981; Shepherd 1997; Lewis 1982; McKenzie 1944; Mennega 1959; Scofield 1917; Hart 1979; Vos 1942; Wenham 1974; Zuck 1957). These prayers ask God to implement his covenant curses (Deuteronomy 27:14-26; 28:15-68) as his response to sin in the world.

The imprecations of the Psalter require a biblical-theological perspective so that they can be viewed as an integral part of the covenantal expression of Old Testament faith. The same God who gave the formal arrangement of covenant to his people enabled the singers of Israel to use the covenant curses as they called on God to vindicate his honor and to declare his righteousness. The imprecations are covenantal curses incorporated into the hymnology of Israel (Harmon 1995: 72).

While recognizing the legitimate nature of these imprecations, this perspective nevertheless removes these prayers from a Christian context. For some the prayers are so abstract that they are disconnected from the real life of the victims (McKenzie). For others they are simply eschatological projections so that we can only think about these psalms in terms of the eschatological judgment and we cannot pray them with reference to anything in particular (Mennega and Vos). Others locate these psalms uniquely in the Old Testament so that while they may have been appropriate for a dispensation of law, they are out of character in the new dispensation of grace (Scofield 1917: 599; Laney, and Zuck). For still others they are so tied to the inspiration of the author that they are ultimately useless and/or inappropriate for the present believer (Lewis 1982). While this perspective appeals to the legitimate principle of "covenant curse" (Scharbert 1958), it does not connect the psalms with the life of the believer then or now. It depersonalizes them and renders them an abstraction.

The Liturgical Voice of Victims

Imprecations appear in the liturgical handbook of Israel. They appear in Israel's hymnal. As a result, they were regularly used by the people of God to express their faith and make their appeals to God. Their appearance in the Hebrew canon as liturgical prayers means that the community accepted them as legitimate expressions of faith. They are the appeal of victims to their covenant God whom they expect to answer. They are the cries of victimized people who do not understand why God has not defeated their enemies or protected them from harm.

Expressions of Victimization (Brueggemann 1984; Carney 1983: 116-20; Craigie 1983; Doyle 1996: 122-48; Edwards 1844: 97-110; Miles 1995: 151-75; Miller 1986; Zengar 1996). The imprecatory psalms express the anger, hurt and disillusionment of victims. They cry out for vengeance and justice much like citizens complain about their being victimized by criminals. But these cries, though they arise out of faith, are often disoriented and lack a proper focus. They express the real anguish of victimization, but they are not always guided by the best of moral principles. But they are nevertheless appropriate expressions of faith because this is all that is left to the victim who continues to believe in the covenant God. Zengar explains:

In the process, they very often compel us to confess that we ourselves are violent, and belong among the perpetrators of the violence lamented in these psalms. In that way, these psalms are God's revelation, because in them, in a certain sense, God in person confronts us with the fact that there are situations of suffering in this world of ours in which such psalms are the last things left to suffering human beings--as protest, accusation, and cry for help. It is obvious on the face of it that these psalms are contextually legitimate on the lips of victims, but a blasphemy in the mouths of the executioners, except as an expression of willingness to submit oneself, with these psalms, to God's judgment (Zengar 1996: 85).

This view takes seriously the human dimensions of the psalms and it offers the church a form for venting our confusion over human suffering and fallenness. Although representatives of this view vary along a continuum, mere expressions of victimization do not take seriously enough the idea that these psalms are also the word of God adressed to us as well as the word of human beings addressed to God. The psalms embody, in liturgical form, the theology of Israel's praise/life before God. The canonical form legitimizes the expressions of the psalms in the life of Israel and consequently in the life of the church. Israel voiced the psalms not only as legitimate expressions of victimization, but also as righteous appeals to their covenant God. These psalms, then, function as the Word of God to humanity as well as human prayers to God. Pauls makes this point well:

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has once noted, in the Psalms we find that the words of men to God have become the Word of God to us. What originally took the shape of prayers directed to God are now redirected and reinterpreted as the Word of God to humanity...[we] must not lose sight or touch of the real human element that lies within these prayers so devotionally rich, allowing us and calling us to relate in an intimate way to the struggles and joys of the psalmists in their own walk with our is important that we take seriously the human reality that stands behind the prayers we find in the Psalter. This demands granting the Psalms credibility as real, meaningful, and effectual prayers to God (Pauls 1993: 78).

Consequently, the value of this perspective is the emphasis it gives to the human situation. It sees clearly that these imprecations arise out of the faithful's encounter with fallenness. The faithful are vexed by evil and they cry to God out of their anguish. However, what this perspective does not always remember is that these prayers are not only human words to God, they are also expressions of faithfulness before God. Consequently, they are also words of God to humanity. Their canonical function is to guide and shape the imprecatory prayers of God's people.

The Yearning for Salvation (Bernardino 1986; Blenkinsopp 1968: 83-7; Hayes 1976; Pauls 1992; Pauls 1993). While these psalms do express the hurt and pain of fallenness, they also seek justice and redress from the only one who can give it. They seek justice from their covenant God. But this justice is no abstract, impersonal demand. Rather, it arises out of the experience of God's people as victims and brings that victimization into the presence of God through prayer. Yet, the focus is not primarily on victimization, but on the plea for deliverance, rescue and salvation. It is a yearning for deliverance. This yearning for God's salvation, however, involves the destruction of God's enemies.

The imprecations of the psalmists represent real and honest pleas for the destruction of their enemies. These pleas, however, arise in the context of larger pleas for deliverance from seemingly insurmountable suffering and distress. Such prayers for destruction, then, were not merely expressions of vengeance, although this certainly may apply, but primarily appeals to Yahweh for his salvation. As such they brought to Yahweh both the experience of suffering and the emotional consequences of that suffering, and placed them before him in an honest expression of the psalmist's experience and his faith in Yahweh to deliver (Pauls 1992: 122).

From the exodus to the eschaton, the deliverance of God's people involved the defeat of God's enemies (and theirs). Whether it is Israel standing at the Red Sea or the church awaiting the second Advent, the salvation of God's people means that God will destroy his enemies. Consequently, the pleas for salvation moved naturally into imprecation because through God's vengeance God's people are delivered. Thus, in one sense they are not "imprecations" (personal curses), but rather they

are conventional appeals for redress from an innocent yet wronged servant of Yahweh bringing his case to the One who will vindicate the righteous and justly repay the wicked. It is a legitimate plea arising not from personal vindictiveness but from a firm conviction that vengeance belongs to God, who will affirm his righteous Name and his commitments to his people (Bernardino 1986: abstract).

This balances the humanity of these psalms with their legitimate appeals to God's justice, holiness and faithfulness. These imprecations are both human words to God and divine words to humans where the tension of divine righteousness (including God's initiative in faithful redemption) and human injustice meet. They provide a form through which victims may appeal to divine justice and at the same time condemn human injustice. They are the appeals of the powerless for divine deliverance from human injustice. Thus, in Childs' language, the function of these psalms is to give "a living voice [to] present human suffering" in the hope of divine deliverance (Childs 1979: 523).

Understanding and Preaching an Imprecatory Psalm

Given the above theological framing and typology, how do we understand and proclaim the message of an imprecatory psalm? Psalm 7 is an individual lament which contains an explicit imprecation. It is occasioned by a false accusation. In response to this accusation the psalmist presents himself at the temple (1 Kings 8:31-32) and offers an "oath of cleansing" in the temple sanctuary (Kraus 1987: ). The accused seeks vindication in the light of this false accusation (Bellinger 1986: 463-9). Consequently, he prays to his covenant God.

The theme of the psalm is "righteousness." The righteous God, he believes, delivers the righteous from the false accusations of the wicked. The cognates of "righteous" are used five times: three times in reference to God (7:9, 11, 17) and twice in reference to humanity (7:8, 9; also "upright" in 7:10). The psalmist expects God's righteousness to prevail. He expects to be vindicated because he knows he has been falsely accused.

The following chart outlines the structure of the psalm.

  I. Prayer for God's Righteousness (1-11)

    A. The Appeal: "O Lord My God" (1-5)
      1. Prayer for deliverance (1-2).
      2. Oath of Innocence (3-5).

    B. The Petition: Judicial Imprecation (6-11).
      1. The Imperatives (6-8).
      2. The Righteous God (9-11).
        a. Petition (9).
        b. Ground (10-11).

  II. Praise of God's Righteousness (12-17).

    A. Imprecation Against the Wicked (12-16).
      1. The Oath Against the Wicked (12-13).
      2. Pronouncement of the Wicked's Fate (14-16).

    B. Vow of Praise (17).

The accused turns to God as the righteous judge. He seeks God's sanctuary rather than personal vengeance. He confesses his innocence ("not guilty" to the charge of his enemies). This is not self-righteousness, but integrity. He has been falsely accused; he does not claim sinlessness. Rather, his integrity is at stake because he has been charged with something he did not do. Consequently, he petitions God as the righteous judge to establish his innocence.

He petitions God to wake up and act on his behalf. The call for God to "awake" draws upon the "sleeping God" metaphor of the ancient Near East. This metaphor denotes "the deity's absolute dominion over the heavens and the earth and the underworld" so that it reflects "Israel's active faith in Yahweh's universal rule even in the midst of gross injustice and manifest evil" (Batto 1987: 164, 172). His prayer expresses his confidence that God will reveal the distinction between the righteous and the wicked. God will make that distinction clear and it will vindicate him. Consequently, he vows to praise God's righteousness and name.

The prayer assumes a covenantal relationship between God and the accused. He appeals to Yahweh, "my God" (7:1, 3). The accused asserts his loyalty to God's covenant. He asserts his integrity before God's covenant and invites God to test his heart. The imprecation is rooted in God's righteousness as the one who saves the upright in heart. God is active in his world to test the hearts of the righteous and destroy the wicked. God's righteousness pursues evil through its own self-destructive character. God wars against the impenitent, and God is praised for his righteousness which exalts the righteous and destroys the wicked. Mays is surely correct when he writes:

A prayer made on the basis of one's own righteousness and integrity poses a serious question. How can anyone possibly ground prayer on such a basis with honesty? Part of the answer comes from recognizing the purpose for which this prayer and others like it were composed. They are not intended to be a litany of self-righteousness before God. The psalms know that there is no autonomous independent righteousness on the basis of which human beings can deal with God (130:3; 143:2). Such prayers were composed for a person who was in the right in comparison with an antagonist. They are the expression of a good conscience before hostility and opposition. They are a profession of faithfulness to the Lord. In the matter at hand, the psalmist had clung to the Lord and the Lord's ways. The wrong lies in the hostility that puts faithfulness in question. Faithfulness is a possibility for those who know the Lord as "my God," and this prayer is the voice of that faithfulness (Mays 1994: 63-4).

What is the contemporary function of this imprecatory prayer and oath of innocence? It is the prayer of all who have been unjustly accused. It is an expression of anger against personal injustice by an appeal to the just God. It offers us a biblical form through which to express our yearnings for justice, our anger against injustice and our trust in God's righteousness.

How can we develop this homiletically? We must first permit people to enter into the experience of the falsely accused. They will never understand the intensity of the psalm nor the claims of integrity unless they can first empathize with that experience. Is this not a psalm Richard Jewel could have prayed as he was falsely accused of the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta? Is this not a psalm a secretary can pray if she has been falsely accused by a co-worker so that her job is endangered? If we can enter into the experience of the righteous victim, then we can read and pray this psalm empathetically. However, we must balance that empathetic reading with a vision of God's righteousness. This is not a prayer about personal vengeance, but about God's righteous judgment.

As we proclaim the message of this psalm, we must give expression to its theological heart and soul. It offers a form through which we may: (1) confess our commitment to God's righteousness; (2) petition God to manifest his righteousness in this specific situation; and (3) confess our trust in God's ultimate righteousness. The psalm, then, as a prayer to God, is both a confession and a petition. The psalmist affirms his loyalty to God; he is committed to God's covenant. But also he petitions for God's loyalty. He asks God to act out of his own faithfulness. Even when we are surrounded with the uncertainty of hostile accusers, we trust in God's faithfulness and we will not return evil for evil. Rather, we trust that God will vindicate his righteous people even as we complain and protest the injustice of the situation in which we find ourselves.

Paul, for example, called for slaves to endure their hardship and perform their tasks even if their situation was unjust. Paul reminds them that even if they must suffer injustice here, and never receive vindication from their masters, they can be assured that "anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong" (Colossians 3:25). Indeed, this is the example of Christ. For "when they hurled insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly" (1 Peter 2:23).

Christians who suffer injustice--whether from their government, neighbors or employers--should entrust themselves to the God who judges justly. The imprecatory psalms teach us that we may pray that God will judge evil and that we may pray for vindication as long as our motive is God's holiness rather than our own personal vengeance. Christians who have been unjustly accused may pray Psalm 7 and trust that God will ultimately vindicate his people according to his own righteousness.

The homiletic point is this: when we are falsely accused, we should turn our righteous indignation over to the righteous judge. We take our anger to God and we trust his judgment. We seek his holiness and we do not take vengeance into our own hands. God will vindicate his saints, and we patiently wait and pray for that vindication (Luke 18:1-8).


Imprecatory psalms are the cries of distressed victims who sense that there is something terribly wrong with the world. And there is something wrong with it. The cosmos has fallen and it is filled with death and injustice. The people of God groan over this fallenness and they lament their plight. But more than that, they yearn for a time when God's righteousness will be fully revealed, a time when God will destroy evil and the earth will be filled God's justice. God's people seek his holiness. So we yearn for his salvation and we pray for it.

If the people of God do not pray imprecatory psalms, then they might well lose the urgency, hatred and vexation of evil's reign (Psalm 139:19-22). Praying these psalms reminds us that God hates evil, that God's justice will win, and that the people of God have nothing to fear. They are laments, but laments offered in faith. They trust that the righteous God will one day establish his righteousness in full and vindicate his people. The only question is whether the people of God will continue in faithful lament and prayer and whether, when the Son of man returns, he will find faith upon the earth (Luke 18:8).


[1] This is written in honor of Dr. Clyde Woods who first introduced me to the study of the Old Testament at Freed-Hardeman College. I am grateful for his dedication to the study of the Old Testament and the inspiration it has given to me and many other students over the years.

[2] While "imprecatory" may not function as a literary genre in the Psalms, the following are sometimes labeled such: 7, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 82, 83, 94, 109, 137, 139. However, the following texts contain imprecations: 3:7; 5:10; 7:4-6; 9:18-20; 10:2, 15; 11:5; 12:3; 17:13; 21:8-10; 25:19; 28:4; 31:17-18; 35:1, 4-6, 8, 19, 24-26; 37:2, 9-10, 15, 20, 35-36; 40:14-15; 41:10; 54:5-6; 55:9, 15, 23; 56:7; 58:6-8; 59:5, 11-14; 68:1-2, 30; 69:22-25, 27-28; 70:2-3; 71:13; 74:23; 79:6, 10-12; 80:16; 83:9-18; 94:1-4; 97:7; 104:35; 109:6-19, 29; 115:7-8; 119:84; 129:5-7; 135:17-18; 137:7-9; 139:19, 21-22; 140:8-11; 141:10; 143:12.

[3] They are also found in law genre (Deuteronomy 11:26-32; 21:23; 27:14-26; 28:15-68; 30; 32:39-43; Leviticus 26:14-29; and Numbers 5:16-28) and in the prophetic "Woe Oracles" (Isaiah 5:8, 11, 18, 20-22; 10:1, 5; 28:1, 15; 30:1; 31:1; 33:1; 45:9, 10; Jeremiah 15:10; 22:13; 23:1; 48:1; 50:27; Ezekiel 13:3, 18; 34:2; Amos 5:18; 6:1; Micah 2:1; Nahum 3:1; Habakkuk 2:6,9,12,15,19; Zephaniah 2:5; 3:1; Zechariah 11:17; cf. Janzen 1972).

[4] For example, the woes of Matthew 11:20-24; 23:13-36 (cf. Garland 1979); the cursings of Simon (Acts 8:20) and Elymas (Acts 13:10-11); the Pauline curses of Galatians 1:8-9 and 1 Corinthians 16:22 (cf. Morland 1995) and the curses of the Apocalypse such as in Revelation 18 (cf. Collins, 1980).

[5] For example, Psalm 6:8 in Mt. 7:23 (Luke 13:27); Psalm 35:19 (69:4) in John 15:25; Psalm 41:9 in John 13:18; Psalm 69:9 in John 2:17; Psalm 69:21 in Mt. 27:34, 48; Luke 23:36; Mark 15:36; Psalm 69:25 and 109:8 in Acts 1:20; Psalm 69:25 in Mt. 23:38 and Luke 13:35; Psalm 79:10-11 in Luke 18:7; Psalm 137:9 in Mt. 21:43-44 and Luke 19:44; 20:18; Psalm 5:9 in Rom. 3:13; Psalm 10:7 in Rom. 3:14; Psalm 69:22-23 in Rom. 11:9-10; Psalm 69:9 in Rom. 15:3; Psalm 94:11 in 1 Cor. 3:20; Psalm 79:6 in 2 Thes. 1:8; and Psalm 28:4, 79:12, and 94:2, 23 in 2 Tim. 4:14.

Cited References

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Anderson, B. W.
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First appeared as "Preaching Imprecatory Psalms," in A Heart to Study and Teach: Essays Honoring Clyde M. Woods, ed. by Dale W. Manor (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman University, 2000).


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