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From Jack Collins’s “Introduction to the Psalms” in the ESV Study Bible:


Many psalms call on God for help as the faithful are threatened with harm from enemies (often called “the wicked”—frequently the unfaithful who persecute the godly, and sometimes Gentile oppressors). In a number of places, the requested help is that God would punish these enemies. Christians, with the teaching and example of Jesus (in passages like Matt. 5:38-48; Luke 23:34; 1 Pet. 2:19-23; cf. Acts 7:6), may wonder what to make of such curses:

How can it possibly be right for God’s people to pray in this way?

Many have supposed that this is an area in which the ethics of the NT improve upon and supersede the OT.

Others suggest that these only apply to the church’s warfare with its ultimate enemy, Satan, and his demons.

Neither of these is fully satisfying, both because the NT authors portray themselves as heirs of OT ethics (cf. Matt. 22:34-40) and because the NT has some curses of its own (e.g., 1 Cor. 16:22; Gal. 1:8-9; Rev. 6:9-10), even finding instruction in some of the Psalms’ curses (e.g., Acts 1:20 and Rom. 11:9-10, using Psalms 69 and 109).

Each of the psalm passages must be taken on its own, and the notes address these questions (e.g., see notes on 5:10; 35:4-8; 58:6-9; 59:11-17; 69:22-28; 109:6-20; and the note on Psalm 137, which contains the most striking curse of all). At the same time, some general principles will help in understanding these passages.

First, one must be clear that the people being cursed are not enemies over trivial matters; they are people who hate the faithful precisely for their faith; they mock God and use ruthless and deceitful means to suppress the godly (cf. 5:4-6, 9-10; 10:15; 42:3; 94:2-7).

Second, it is worth remembering that these curses are in poetic form and can employ extravagant and vigorous expressions. (The exact fulfillment is left to God.)

Third, these curses are expressions of moral indignation, not of personal vengeance. For someone who knows God, it is unbearably wrong that those who persecute the faithful and turn people away from God should get away with it, and even seem to prosper. Zion is the city of God, the focus of his affection (cf. Psalms 48; 122); it is unthinkable that God could tolerate cruel men taking delight in destroying it. These psalms are prayers for God to vindicate himself, displaying his righteousness for all the world to see (cf. 10:17-18). Further, these are prayers that God will do what he said he will do: 35:5 looks back to 1:4, and even 137:9 has Isaiah 13:16 as its backdrop. Most of these prayers assume that the persecutors will not repent; however, in one place (Ps. 83:17), the prayer actually looks to the punishment as leading to their conversion.

Fourth, the OT ethical system forbids personal revenge (e.g., Lev. 19:17-18; Prov. 24:17; 25:21-22), a prohibition that the NT inherits (cf. Rom. 12:19-21).

Thus, when the NT writers employ these curses or formulate their own (as above), they are following the OT guidelines. Any prayer for the Lord to hasten his coming must mean disaster for the impenitent (2 Thess. 1:5-10). Yet Christians must keep as their deepest desire, even for those who mean harm to the church, that others would come to trust in Christ and love his people (cf. Luke 23:34; Rom. 9:1-3; 10:1; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). Hence, when they pray for God to protect his people against their persecutors, they should be explicit about asking God to lead such people to repentance.

With these things in mind, then, it is still possible that the faithful today might sing or read aloud even these sections of the Psalms, if it takes place in a service of worship, under wise leadership, for the good of the whole people of God.


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8 thoughts on “How to Think about Curses in the Psalms”

  1. Andrew Faris says:

    One thing I’d add to this is the reality that humans can have mixed emotions toward people. I can hate those who hate God (Ps. 139) and want them to repent and come to Jesus at the same time.

    An easy example that comes to mind is pornographers. I despise them. I hate them. I want them judged and I want them to experience ruin and devastation. But I also want them to come to Jesus and receive His grace that they, like I, so desperately need. I really do want both of those at the same time. So the cursing aspect doesn’t tell the whole story.

    Andrew Faris
    Someone Tell Me the Story

  2. Chris Spano says:

    Though not perfect, I believe an even more satisfying answer is grounded in what Meredith Klein described as “intrusion ethics.” For a full description, see Jeong Koo Jeon’s article in which he outlines Klein’s view: http://www.kerux.com/documents/keruxv16n1a1.htm

    Specifically regarding the imprecatory Psalms, Jeon describes Klein’s understanding of the situation this way:

    “Kline traces the Psalms and finds imprecations in Psalms 7; 35; 55; 59; 69; 79; 109 and 137. The imprecations by covenant people such as David and Asaph are troublesome for many who face cruel elements of prayer and song against their enemies in the name of God. In the beatitudes, Jesus explains the attitude of the covenant community to their neighbor and enemy under the Old Covenant saying “love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (Matt. 5:43; cf. Lev. 19:18 and Deut. 23:6). However, he proclaims a radical new approach to his followers under the New Covenant, commanding “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44; cf. Lk. 6:27-38). This apparent contradiction creates difficulty for Bible readers and interpreters. Kline argues that the best solution to this problem is to understand the imprecations from the perspective of redemptive history and eschatology.

    [Citing Klein] ‘Normally the believer’s attitudes toward the unbeliever are conditioned by the principle of common grace. During the historical process of differentiation which common grace makes possible, before the secret election of God is unmistakably manifested at the great white throne, the servants of Christ are bound by his charge to pray for the good of those who despitefully use and persecute them. Our Lord rebuked the Boanerges when they contemplated consuming the Samaritans with fire from heaven (Luke 9:54; cf. Mark 3:17). We may not seek to destroy those for whom, perchance, Christ has died.’

    ‘But in the final judgment the Lord will not rebuke James and John if they make similar requests. Then it will be altogether becoming for the saint to desire God’s wrath to descend upon his unbelieving enemy. No longer will there be the possibility that the enemy of the saint is the elect of God. Then the grain harvest will be ripe for the gathering of the Son of Man and the clusters of the vine will be fully ripe for the great winepress of the wrath of God.’

    As such, Kline understands the imprecations in the Psalms as the intrusive phenomena of the ethics of eschatological consummation, which is sharply different from regular ethics under the principle of common grace. So, he suggests that we have to distinguish the consummation ethics from common grace ethics because “the imprecations in the Psalms” are the unusual pattern of ethical conduct which informs “the ethics of the consummation.” The intrusion by divine inspiration constitutes “a divine abrogation, within a limited sphere, of the ethical requirements normally in force during the course of common grace.

    Furthermore, Kline argues that the imprecations in the Psalms inspired by the Spirit of God were conducted within the typological kingdom of Israel which is the type and intrusion of the eternal kingdom. Therefore redemptive historical interpretation of the imprecations is a concrete hermeneutical principle which ought to be applied.”

    Collins fails to cite one NT text that sounds strikingly similar to the imprecatory Psalms: 2 Timothy 4:14. “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm. The Lord will repay him according to his deeds” (ESV). As Klein rightly points out, “We may not seek to destroy those for whom, perchance, Christ has died.” Yet with Paul–and, I think, also the martyrs in Rev 6–Christians can also take comfort knowing there will come a time when justice will be served: in the final judgment. In a world in which the kingdom of God has been inaugurated but not yet consummated, prayerful love for our enemies and a desire for divine vengeance upon them (should they persist in unrepentant sin) are not necessarily incompatible–even if this is a perilously difficult balance to strike.

  3. Al Bennington says:

    I think these are great comments and I agree generally with the above approach. That is, any desire for justice will necessarily involve judgement on the unrepentant.
    The trouble for me is Psalm 137. I read my ESVSB note and it said that the Psalm doesn’t endorse the action, but it actually seems like more than an endorsement. It sounds like praise for the one who carries it out. It sounds to me like the author would do it if he got the chance because he sees it as a blessed activity to be desired. How else are we to understand “blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks!”?
    I’m afraid a particular theory of inspiration (that all the words of the bible are inspired by God and thus represent God’s own thoughts and desires) drives some to force the text to say something it doesn’t say, as here, that “the Psalm doesn’t endorse the action”. Because none of us would like to think of God as desiring this activity (rightly so). But that twists the text beyond recognition. I think a better solution is to say that yes, God does inspire a yearning for justice, but at times human nature and hatred take it too far (as I believe the psalmist does here). If we see the Psalms as brutally honest prayers from real people to a faithful and just God, then we can expect the author’s honesty to reveal his weakness at times (like here). But if we have to believe that all the words of the prayer are also God’s very own words from God’s own mouth, then we run up against a huge problem here, and as a result, we have to try to make the text not say what it clearly does say. I think that should cause us to re-evaluate our understanding of inspiration.

  4. Bonhoeffer’s beautiful and beautifully short book ‘Psalms: the Prayer Book of the Bible’ is very helpful in praying the psalms. His chapter on ‘Enemies’ is especially helpful in regards to this subject.

    May I commend it to all.

  5. Don Sartain says:

    That is definitely a rough, bittersweet mix. Praying for Christ’s return and the consummation of His kingdom is also praying for the beginning of eternal, perpetual torment for those who are not in Christ.

    Even though God is sovereign in election, and the answering of that prayer doesn’t lessen the number of people who will be in Christ’s kingdom, it still stings to realize the dual nature of the desire to see Christ’s kingdom come to complete fruition. As it should.

  6. Great thoughts, Justin. Very helpful.

  7. Tom says:

    Since I am teaching through the Psalms, I have been wrestling with these issues significantly. I find the more I think about it, the more complex the issue appears to me.

    It can be hard to reconcile love your enemies and bless those who curse you with praying for God to curse others. And, as is often pointed out, we can’t take the simple route of chalking it up to progressive revelation.

    I wonder if the distinction between praying in general against God’s enemies (and the enemies of his people) and praying against people in specific comes to bear on the issue. This seems to me like the best solution. We can pray against God’s enemies in general, because he knows those who will finally inherit nothing but curse. And yet to pray condemnation on a specific person who we can rightfully hope may yet repent seems to go against the spirit of Christian love.

    Any thoughts or criticisms on this way of dealing with it?

  8. Hermonta Godwin says:

    I think the best short examination of the imprecatory psalms for New Testament Saints is this article by John Day http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=19-09-032-f

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Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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