What about the “Cursings” in the Psalms?

Sprinkled throughout the psalms, we read shocking prayers that are made to God from the respective psalmist. These are called the “imprecatory psalms” by theologians, because these prayers seem to invoke cursing on the enemies of Israel:

(Ps. 58:10 NASB) The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; He will wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.

(Ps. 68:21 NASB) Surely God will shatter the head of His enemies, The hairy crown of him who goes on in his guilty deeds.

(Ps. 69:27 NASB) Add iniquity to their iniquity, And may they not come into Your righteousness.

(Ps. 79:12 NASB) And return to our neighbors sevenfold into their bosom the reproach with which they have reproached You, O Lord.

(Ps. 109:12 NASB) Let there be none to extend lovingkindness to him, Nor any to be gracious to his fatherless children.

(Ps. 137:9 NASB) How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones Against the rock.

(Ps. 139:21-22 NASB) Do I not hate those who hate You, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? 22 I hate them with the utmost hatred; They have become my enemies.

Critics of the Bible read these passages as proof that the Bible is a cruel book of ancient barbaric men. At the very least, they claim that these prayers contradict Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” (Mt. 5:44). In this way, they argue that the “God of the Old Testament” is different than the “God of the New Testament.” Is this the case? In response, a number of points can be made:

First, these prayers encourage divine judgment –not human judgment. David says in Psalm 109:5 that he has treated his enemies fairly, but they have treated him with hatred. Therefore, David’s actions were kind, but his prayer was for divine justice. Moreover, when we look at David’s life, we see that he refused to kill Saul (1 Sam. 24); instead, he trusted that God would judge Saul in his own timing.

Second, the prayers that encourage divine judgment exist in the NT. Jesus commanded that his disciples should curse cities who did not receive the gospel (Mt. 10:14). Jesus himself cursed such cities (Mt. 11:21-24; Lk. 10:13) and people (Mt. 23). Paul cursed people for volitionally defying God with false teaching (Gal. 1:6-9; 1 Cor. 16:22; 2 Tim. 4:14). The martyred saints also cried out for divine justice (Rev. 6:9-10). Even the Lord’s Prayer includes the request that God’s kingdom will come (Mt. 6:10). When we read the book of Revelation, we see that God’s kingdom will come with violent justice. John Wenham writes,

When we pray ‘Thy kingdom come’, we pray for the overthrow of evil. We know that the answer to that prayer will be partly by grace and partly by judgment. It is not for us to choose which it shall be… We are strangely inconsistent in our attitude to prayers for judgment. When we pray for victory in war, even if it is a prayer with many qualifications in it, we are praying for the forcible and painful overthrow of the enemy. We are not usually so realistic (and perhaps not so honest) as the psalmists, and do not picture even to ourselves what we are actually praying for. We are praying that the whole pitiless machinery of war may go forward to bring, if possible, a speedy con­clusion.[1]

Third, the subject of mercy and forgiveness exists in the OT. Clearly, the OT prescribed forgiveness and withholding from personal retribution.

(Lev. 19:17-18 NASB) You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.

(Prov. 25:21-22 NASB) If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; 22 For you will heap burning coals on his head, And the LORD will reward you.

(Prov. 24:17-18 NASB) Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, And do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; 18 Or the LORD will see it and be displeased, And turn His anger away from him.

(Prov. 20:22 NASB) Do not say, “I will repay evil”; Wait for the LORD, and He will save you.

(Prov. 24:29 NASB) Do not say, “Thus I shall do to him as he has done to me; I will render to the man according to his work.”

(Job 31:29-30 NASB) “Have I rejoiced at the extinction of my enemy, Or exulted when evil befell him? 30 “No, I have not allowed my mouth to sin By asking for his life in a curse.”

In one instance, David even calls down divine wrath on himself.

(Ps. 7:3-5 NASB) O LORD my God, if I have done this, If there is injustice in my hands, 4 If I have rewarded evil to my friend, Or have plundered him who without cause was my adversary, 5 Let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it; And let him trample my life down to the ground And lay my glory in the dust.

The Jewish people were even told to pray a curse upon themselves, if they disobeyed God (Deut. 27:11-26). Therefore, it seems clear that the OT and NT are not in conflict on this issue. OT theology is far more robust that the critics claim.

Fourth, most of these prayers are not petitions. If you look again at these psalms, you will notice that most of them are not petitions or requests. That is, the psalmist is typically not asking that God will judge them in this way; instead, he is trusting that God will judge in his own timing.

Fifth, children were judged along with their families. In Hebrew culture, the family unit was unified. Therefore, pronouncements on children were simply part and parcel with divine judgment. For instance, if a person was rescued, then the family would be rescued (as with Noah in Gen. 7-8). If a person was judged, then the family would be judged (as with Achan in Josh. 7). Therefore, these prayers were not specified at the children, but the children were judged along with their family in Hebrew thought.

Sixth, these prayers trusted in God’s judgment, because the nations were so cruel and barbaric in their judgments against Israel. For instance, in Psalm 137, the psalmist speaks judgment against Babylon. When the Babylonians conquered Israel, they were unusually cruel, stealing the children for slavery, raping the women, and killing the men. The psalmist was agonizing over this judgment, trusting that God would judge this evil nation.

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[1] Wenham, John William. The Goodness of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1974. 165-166.