Imprecatory Psalms: To Pray or Not to Pray?

Imprecatory psalms are those psalms that contain curses and prayers for punishment of the psalmist enemies.  The following is an excerpt from Psalm 109, the severest of these psalms:

When he is tried, let him come forth guilty;
let his prayer be counted as sin!
May his days be few;
may another take his office!
May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow!
May his children wander about and beg,
seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit!
May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!
Let there be none to extend kindness to him,
nor any to pity his fatherless children!”  (vv. 7-12 ESV)

Should the Christian prayer this in his or her daily praying of the Psalter?  What about love for our enemies?  What about forgiveness?

Commenting on approaches to the Imprecatory Psalms Gordon Wenham writes,

Commentators generally seem to make the point less fiercely, but usually see these psalms as somehow second-class spiritually.  Churches that use these psalms liturgically have in recent times also tended to delete the offensive passages.  In the Church of English, which encourages worshippers to recite the whole Psalter over the course of a month, the 1928 prayer book and the 1980 Alternative Service Book bracketed many of the uncomfortable passages.  Monastic orders are expected to get through the Psalter much more quickly, but they too have been encouraged to leave out the awkward verses since Vatican II.  (The Psalter Reclaimed, p. 129, emphasis added)

Is Marcion–who taught that the god of the Old Testament was not the true God but rather that the true and higher God had been revealed only with Jesus Christ, and truncated Scripture as a result–to be our mentor when it comes to these imprecatory psalms?

What then are we going to do with those graphic images in the book of Revelation describing God’s wrath poured out on unbelievers?

However, when understood in their historical settings, these imprecatory psalms should not be relegated or edited.  Rather, it should be seen that “The passion that drives these laments arises from a belief in God’s just that is called in question by unrestrained evil” and “the language of these psalms, with their talk of divine wrath, highlights God’s hatred of injustice.”

But we in the West live in such comfort and luxury, comparatively speaking, that we find the language of these imprecatory psalms offensive.  But this must change.  We should desire greatly to see all the injustices and wrongs around us put to rights.

Even more, these imprecatory psalms should become prayers on our lips for our brothers and sisters in Christ who continue to face daily injustices and persecutions because of their faith in and witness for in King Jesus–in certain parts of the world.

In the end, “These psalms can serve to wake us from our structural amnesia about God.”

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4 Responses to Imprecatory Psalms: To Pray or Not to Pray?

  1. Colin Heath says:

    Amen to that. We must face these passages, which are still God’s council, and seek the Spirit’s leading in how we read and apply them in our own day. And you are pressing the same buttons I want to press.

    An example from Revelation. One of the Common Lectionary Readings last sunday was Rev 22 v 12-14, 16-17, 20 to end. My fellow Lay Reader who was preaching stuck to that. In fairness it did not detract from the message he was conveying, which was powerful and challenging. But I admit I would have read 12 to the end as a whole, which might or might not have resulted in a modified approach towards the same end. “Come Lord Jesus”

    Of course Cranmer’s original lectionary in the 1662 BCP covered it all.

  2. Jon Hughes says:

    Very thought-provoking post.

  3. TC says:

    Colin, yes, we must continue to seek the Spirit in these matters. Enough cannot be said of Cranmer’s impact. Maranatha indeed.

    Thanks, Jon.

  4. Pingback: Book Review: The Psalter Reclaimed by Gordon Wenham | New Leaven

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