The most common question I’m asked about putting all 150 Psalms to music (besides what translation I use) is this: “How are you going to pull off Psalm 119?” It’s a good question, since, at 168 verses, Psalm 119 is by far the longest Psalm. (My answer: it’s going to be a rap song.) Honestly, I’m far more troubled by the prospect of making a song out of Psalm 109. Why Psalm 109? You’ll understand once you read verses 6-15:
6 Appoint a wicked man over him,
And let an accuser stand at his right hand.
7 When he is judged, let him come forth guilty,
And let his prayer become sin.
8 Let his days be few;
Let another take his office.
9 Let his children be fatherless
And his wife a widow.
10 Let his children wander about and beg;
And let them seek sustenance far from their ruined homes.
11 Let the creditor seize all that he has,
And let strangers plunder the product of his labor.
12 Let there be none to extend lovingkindness to him,
Nor any to be gracious to his fatherless children.
13 Let his posterity be cut off;
In a following generation let their name be blotted out.
14 Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord,
And do not let the sin of his mother be blotted out.
15 Let them be before the Lord continually,
That He may cut off their memory from the earth. (Psalm 109:6-15)
What to make of passages like this? Is this God-breathed Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15-16)? Should it be de-canonized? Adapted and culturally updated to fit the New Testament ethic espoused by Christ? Whatever your answer is to those questions, I’m guessing Psalm 109 isn’t high on your list of favorite Psalms.
Bible scholars refer to these Psalms as the “imprecatory Psalms.” The word “imprecatory” derives from the Latin verb “precatus”, which literally means “to pray.” The prefix “im” adds the sense of “praying into.” Over the years, however, this particular term has come to refer specifically to praying curses upon someone else, to pray for evil to come upon them. Many Psalms contain imprecatory passages, and though they trouble many Christians, they are seldom discussed, let alone taught from the pulpit.
So what to make of passages like Psalm 109:6-15? Here are some thoughts that may help us put these passages into perspective:
1.) The imprecatory Psalms are primarily prayers for justice. The psalmists never pray for horrible things to happen to people out of petty or selfish motives like jealousy or personal prejudice. They pray for just things to happen to people who are spending their lives doing horrible things to innocent people. There’s very much a Western sense of justice here: God, don’t let them get away with what they’ve done. May they experience just punishment for their crimes. This concept of justice derives directly from God’s law in the Old Testament. If someone wrongs someone else, it is fair, just, and even wise for them to be punished for that wrongdoing – even, in some cases, in a way that causes them (and, by extension, their families) to suffer in like manner.
Even though almost everyone acknowledges the fairness inherent in the concept of retributive justice, some Christians are still troubled by the prayers for justice in the Psalms since they seem inconsistent with Jesus’ teaching in The Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth,’ but I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn them the other cheek as well.” (Matthew 5:38-39).
This passage, Matthew 5:38-39, is one of the most misused, misquoted, and misunderstood in the entire Bible. Looking at the context of these verses, and of the testimony of Scripture as a whole, it is obvious that Jesus is speaking against petty retaliation, about desire for personal vengeance rather than punishment that benefits the common good. Petty retaliation is not justice, but foolishness that ultimately brings no closure to the dispute. Jesus’ point is that the “eye for an eye” law was not to be used as justification for petty personal retaliation. That is Jesus’ point.
Let’s take the literal “no resistance” interpretation to its logical conclusion: Is Jesus really telling us not to defend a wife and children against violent attackers? To not rescue sex trafficking victims if force is necessary to do so? To not prosecute nor imprison a murderer, but just continue to let him roam the streets? Is that what Jesus means by not “resisting” evil? What exactly would be “loving” about that? Was Jesus throwing away the concept of justice entirely? Hardly. To suggest so makes nonsense of the holistic testimony of Scripture, and of Jesus himself, a Jew who affirmed the truth of the Old Testament and the Law.
What I find fascinating is how some people will bemoan the wishing of any kind of harm upon anyone for any reason, yet quickly turn around and lust for justice to be done to someone who personally harms their own family, or who does something they find personally and particularly odious. Talk to any family who has had a family member tragically harmed or killed by a selfish, evil act. The desire to see justice done to the offending party is overwhelming. When justice does come, it is cathartic and comforting, even if (especially if) it involves harm to the offending party.
So then, justice, when experienced firsthand, is perfectly natural to our moral sensibility. Nobody, when pressed, has a problem with justice. The question is, whose justice? Who defines justice? Man or God? For the Psalmists, it was Yahweh, the one true God, the “I AM” who appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai. The result is quite shocking to our modern Western ears.
2.) The Psalms are poems often expressing personal feelings. One very important principle in Scriptural interpretation is that the mention of something does not necessarily mean it’s being condoned. When Solomon takes hundreds of concubines and Jepthah makes a rash vow, the author is not saying those things are okay. They just are. In all types of literature, stories and poems invite readers to draw conclusions about the actions presented, keeping in mind their ultimate intent and result. So when the Psalmist says something like, “Please cause so-and-so to die and suffer,” they’re not necessarily declaring they know the perfect mind of God regarding the situation – it’s just how they feel, based on their Scripturally-informed sense of justice. If the Psalmist says “I’m depressed,” is he advocating that everyone should be depressed? Obviously not. He’s expressing feelings in a deeply felt prayer to God.
Did some of the psalmists go too far with their prayers against their enemies? I don’t think so, since most seem to be quite well-aligned with Old Testament conceptions of justice. But even if they did go too far with this prayer or that, such expressions of emotion would not compromise the integrity of the Scriptures.
3.) There are instances of praying for the good of enemies in the Psalms.
The Psalmists also pray for the conversion of their enemies, even in the context of punishment! These instances would indicate that their prayers for their enemies run deeper than the desire to see them justly punished. After praying divine judgment upon his enemies for most of Psalm 83, the psalmist (here indicated as Asaph) writes, “Fill their faces with dishonor, that they may seek Your name” (Psalm 83:16). Here is not simply punishment for the sake of suffering, but punishment for the sake of beneficial correction. That’s an ethic far above most people’s desire for petty retaliation or expression of personal hatred.
4.) The Psalmists didn’t take vengeance into their own hands, but placed vengeance in God’s hands.
This point cannot be overstated, since it is an ethic far above that of carnal men who scorn at the imprecatory Psalms. We always see the Psalmists calling upon God for justice and retribution, and waiting on Him, since His justice alone is perfect. Never do we see them seeking vengeance themselves in petty personal ways just to “get even.” For the Psalmists, judgment is about God’s glory, not about “getting back” at people who have injured them. This point may not be readily apparent to our modern ears while reading the Psalms (it’s so hard for us to even conceive of such an ethic, considering our vindictive nature, self-centeredness, and inability to wait on the Lord), but it is certainly so. This practice of leaving vengeance to the Lord is certainly consistent with the entirety of Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New (Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19).
So we see in fact that the “mean” Psalms were not really “mean” at all, any more than any desire for justice is “mean.” Justice glorifies God, even if (and again, sometimes especially if) it involves harm to others, as long as that harm is inflicted by a perfectly just God according to His perfectly just Word.
So should we pray the imprecatory Psalms as Christians? Absolutely, although we must do so in the New Testament context of our war being a spiritual one, and not a theocratically nationalistic one as it was for Israel (Ephesians 6:12). We are to pray and wait for God’s perfect vengeance, and not for our own personal vengeance deeply marred by our fallen humanity. And ultimately, our prayers for our enemies, while leaving room for the justice of God, should ultimately point toward their conversion and their good. Psalm 83:16 is perfectly in line with these words of Jesus, with which I’ll close: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you…for if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?… Do not even the Gentiles do that?…Therefore be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).