What are the imprecatory psalms? How should we apply them to our Christian lives today? Today, W. Robert Godfrey provides guidelines for interpreting these thought-provoking texts.
NATHAN W. BINGHAM: Joining us on the Ask Ligonier Podcast this week is one of our Teaching Fellows, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey. Dr. Godfrey, how should Christians view the imprecatory psalms today?
DR. W. ROBERT GODFREY: That’s a great question, and an interesting one. The New Testament shows us, first of all, that the psalms are really important to the life of Christians. The Book of Psalms is one of the very most quoted books in the New Testament. The Apostles were clearly thoroughly conversant with the Book of Psalms and saw no distance between the life of a Christian and the life of the psalmist. So, to sort of split the people of God into two halves in a way that would make the psalms irrelevant for New Testament Christians is not to follow the example of the Apostles at all. So, we’re encouraged by the New Testament to know the Psalter, to regard the Psalter as our book as Christians. That’s all easy to say until you come to the problem of the imprecatory psalms. Now, the imprecatory psalms are the psalms that pray for God to curse God’s enemies.
And this has raised questions in the minds of some Christians. Is it appropriate for Christians to pray for God to curse their enemies? After all, doesn’t the New Testament say we should love our enemies, that we should pray for our enemies, that we should turn the other cheek? How is it compatible with New Testament ethics about loving the enemy to pray for curses on the enemy? And I think there are several ways in which we try to answer that question. The first is that we never curse our enemies. We curse God’s enemies. And that was true in the Old Testament, as well as the New Testament. God’s people in the Old Testament were not encouraged just randomly to curse people. The imprecations of the Psalter are directed against the enemies of God and His purposes, and of His people. Still, that doesn’t entirely remove the problem. Should we be cursing enemies?
And I think part of the answer is, well, not all the time. Not a lot of the time. We need to kind of follow the balance of the Psalter. The Psalter doesn’t curse enemies all the time either. Nonetheless, I think we mustn’t sentimentalize Christian ethics. Paul says in Romans, after all, that we love our enemies so that in the final judgment, more coals will be heaped on their heads. So, the loving of the enemy is not the elimination of judgment to come. Loving the enemy is not eliminating the reality that justice has to be maintained in the world. And when you think about it, even prayers that we don’t think of as imprecations, contain imprecations. When we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” that obviously is a prayer that He would come to bless His people, that He come to save His people, that He would come to make all things new.
But in the process of His coming, there will also be judgment on the wicked. And in that sense, contained in the prayer, implicitly, “Come, Lord Jesus” is an imprecation on the wicked. So, we have to think about all of that. Nonetheless, there are such strong statements in the Psalter that it does cause us to pause and to think, certainly. When in Psalm 69, we pray that the enemy would be cut out of the Book of Life, we may think, “Do we really want to pray that?” Again, we have to look at the context. What the prayer is not saying is that someone should be cut out of the Lamb’s Book of Life, which is the list of the elect whom Christ has saved, but it’s really be cut out of the covenant community and the prayers, that they should be cut out of the covenant community, because they’ve betrayed that community, because they’ve revolted against God.
And in that sense, what you see in the Psalter, when you read a number of psalms together, almost always in relation to an imprecation, is a prayer for repentance, so that the enemies are not just cursed. There’s also prayer that they might repent. And the curse always then comes. The prayer for judgment always comes on those who refuse to repent, on those who remain enemies of God. The most severe imprecation, certainly to modern ears, is the one at the end of Psalm 137, where the psalmist prayed that God would take the babies of the wicked and dash them against the rocks. That’s a tough one for modern Christians, and understandably so. When you look at the Old Testament as a whole, what you find is that in a number of places, there is a sense that the enemy, as a whole has to be destroyed, uprooted, root and branch, for their wickedness not to reassert itself. And in the context of Psalm 137, it’s clear that the Edomites had dashed Israel’s children against the rocks.
So, as difficult as this is, and I don’t want to minimize the difficulty, it is a prayer for thorough judgment on the wicked, so that the righteous will be protected. And when we think about the final judgment, we realize that that is what’s going to happen in the final judgment. And we have to be sure we don’t become so sentimental that the final judgment itself becomes a problem for us. And in that sense, the Psalms help us even in their imprecations.
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