A few of my friends have asked me why I have not preached any of the “imprecatory psalms” in the current preaching series at King of Glory Lutheran during the early months of 2018. I’m surprised that I have been asked this a few times. I even asked myself this question when laying out the Psalms series. Yes, I chose not to include one or a few of these psalms in the list of psalms to preach. There were just too many other psalms that I wanted to preach. I did want this series to have a more “positive” tone about it, so the imprecatory psalms were squeezed out. But, today, they get a blog post.
Before I get any further, we need to know what we are talking about here. What is an “imprecatory psalm”? Thanks for asking. The word “imprecatory” means to call down curses (or evil) on another person. The “imprecatory psalms” are a handful of psalms that express curses upon enemies. They are Psalm 35, 55, 59, 69, 79, 109, and 137. Here’s a sample that leads us to raise our eyebrows: “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:8-9). The imprecatory psalms contain verses like this. The psalmist feels free to cry out for the destruction of their enemies or the enemies of God.
Why are they included in the Bible? What benefit can they be for us? After all, Jesus taught, “Love your enemies.” How could it be loving to call down curses on a person?
One of the things I love most about the imprecatory psalms is that they dispel the Christianese notion of niceness. “Be nice” we are told by well-meaning people in authority positions. When we are told to “be nice” we might bottle up that anger or wrath that we feel is necessary to be poured out on the one who has hurt us.
The rawness, the realness, and the ragged emotions that come out of imprecatory psalms show us that God knows we feel hurt, scarred, and angry when we are sinned against. God cares deeply about injustice. We learn from imprecatory psalms that life is messy, life hurts, and people do bad stuff against us, even as we also sin against others. We can admit that and not pretend it doesn’t happen.
Yet, there is something that’s different about the imprecatory psalms compared to a general calling down of curses on others. God is firmly in the picture in the imprecatory psalms. The psalmist is directing this cursing in the direction of God, pleading for Him to bring justice. We should never curse out a fellow person, even if they deserve it. When we are honest with our hurt, we cry out to God to do something about it. He will. He will make all things right. If we in our own power call down curses on others or take it upon ourselves to bring justice, we won’t carry it out to the fullest extent. But God does. Thankfully. As verse 22 in the imprecatory Psalm 55 reminds us, “Cast your burden upon the Lord and He will sustain you; He will never allow the righteous to be shaken.” And, hey, it might be helpful for you to read one of the imprecatory psalms on a day when you have been hurt by someone. It will, at least, force you to cry out to God in your hurt.