Ten Helps on the Imprecatory Psalms
by David Murray
1. In the first gospel promise (Gen 3.14-15), God promises a curse on the serpent and his seed. Prayers in the psalms for God to curse are really a prayer for that first gospel promise to be fulfilled.
2. David was not a vindictive person – in fact he was a very forgiving character. So this is not personal vindictiveness. The Bible portrays David as a merciful and gracious man who often prayed for his enemies. The imprecatory psalms he wrote, then, sprang not from a vindictive temper, but from a heart on fire for God’s glory.
3. The king represented God. God’s reputation was tied up with the king. Offending the king was offending God’s anointed. And David was God’s anointed in a particularly special, Christological way.
4. There are multiple New Testament quotations from the imprecatory psalms. 35, 69 and 109 are the most frequently quoted Psalms in the New Testament after 2, 22, 110 and 118. So clearly the New Testament is not embarrassed about these psalms.
5. The New Testament has its own imprecations. Jesus himself pronounced curses on the Jewish leaders in Matthew 23. Also Gal 1:8-9 and famously 1 Cor 16:22: “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.”
6. The imprecatory psalms are based on the justice of God. The theme of the imprecatory psalms is that justice be done and the innocent righteous vindicated. Furthermore, the foundation of biblical justice was retribution: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”—a principle to which the psalms often appeal (“Let the net that he hid ensnare him,” Ps. 35:8). If the idea of retributive justice is lost or devalued, then the imprecatory psalms will never be properly understood.
7. The Psalmist is really praying “Thy kingdom come” – which involves not just the upbuilding of God’s kingdom, but the destroying of competing kingdoms. Preferably by conversion, but if not, by removal.
8. The eighth help is a reminder that “vengeance is the Lord’s.” To pray the imprecatory psalms is to deny one’s own right to vengeance and leave it to God’s wisdom. It’s hard in our context to relate right away to these psalms, since we live easily in a land with no imminent persecution. But God’s Kingdom is still at war, and these are war psalms.
9. An imprecatory prayer will often have the good of the sinner at its heart, because God will often use judgments to bring sinners to himself.
10. Finally, the imprecatory psalms point us to Christ, who at the end of time will return to punish the wicked and vindicate his people. Ultimately the imprecatory psalms will be answered and fulfilled in the return of Christ and the last judgment.