The Psalms are the most loved and most used part of the Old Testament for very obvious reasons. But they also contain some of the fiercest expressions of hate towards enemies that are found anywhere in Scripture, and many commentators even of quite conservative disposition have lamented the psalmists' lapse from grace. Churches have directed that some whole psalms and parts of others should not be sung. C. S. Lewis, for example, called them "terrible" and "contemptible," Kirkpatrick said they were "barbarous and revolting," and Oesterley "vindictive" and "a disgrace to human nature." Even Derek Kidner thought that Christians could not use these psalms as their own.
In more recent years there has been a change of mood towards these psalms. It is argued by various scholars that the failure to use the lament psalms, of which the imprecatory psalms are a subset, has greatly impoverished Christian worship. Life for many people is not a bed of roses, and therefore they need the opportunity to express their fears, frustrations, and complaints to God in worship. A diet of upbeat songs and positive testimonies does not meet the needs of those suffering disappointment, ill health, or persecution. As the laments constitute the largest group of psalms in the Psalter, it is a great mistake to leave them out
Yet does this justify asking God to wreak vengeance on one's enemies? Among others, D. G. Firth, J. C. McCann and E. Zenger have tackled this issue head on, and their works should be required reading for every ordinand. Here we can give only a brief summary of their approach.
The first point to note is that the psalmists' prayer is that God will treat their enemies as they have treated the psalmists. It is putting into prayer the spirit of talion, [that is, eye for eye and tooth for tooth]. In Psalm 109:
The psalmist's request is in accordance with what most persons, then and now, would say is only fair—the punishment should fit the crime (Deut. 19:18-21). In particular, the enemy deserves no kindness (v. 12, or "steadfast love"), because he showed no kindness (v. 16). The enemy deserves to be impoverished (vv. 8-11), because he mistreated the poor and the needy (v. 16; see Ps. 10:2). The enemy deserves to be cursed, because he cursed others (vv. 17-19, 28-29; see Ps. 62:4). In short, the enemy deserves to die (v. 8), because he pursued others to their death (vv. 16, 31).
Second, the psalmists never suggest that they will do this themselves: they leave the punishment to God. In Psalm 38, for example:
There is no attempt to personally retaliate for the violence received. Although vindication is sought … it is sought only in a context of confession (v. 19), and a desire that Yahweh should be the source of redemption. Personal violence is thus rejected because the expectation of deliverance from sickness and persecution is found only in waiting on Yahweh.
Third, the psalmists pray for God to take action against the wicked not simply for the sake of justice, but for the sake of his reputation. By punishing the wicked he demonstrates his power and his care for the poor and oppressed. Divine inaction is construed by the wicked as proof that he does not care, or cannot act, or even that he does not exist. It is vital that such ideas be scotched.
As poetic prayers, the psalms of vengeance are a passionate clinging to God when everything really speaks against God. For that reason they can rightly be psalms of zeal, to the extent that in them passion for God is aflame in the midst of the ashes of doubt about God and despair over human beings. These psalms are the expression of a longing that evil, and evil people, may not have the last word in history, for this world and its history belong to God.
But why should modern worshipers use these prayers today, if they have not been persecuted or otherwise ill treated? Praying these prayers teaches us to sympathize with those who suffer: it puts their feelings into our mouth. More than that, however, praying these psalms teaches us to hate injustice and violence. McCann writes:
In the face of monstrous evil, the worst possible response is to feel nothing. What must be felt is grief, rage, outrage. In their absence, evil becomes an acceptable commonplace. To forget is to submit to evil, to wither and die: to remember is to resist, be faithful, and live again.
As we pray and reflect upon Psalm 137, we remember and are retaught the pain of exile, the horror of war, the terror of despair and death, the loneliness of a cross.
Zenger suggests another benefit of praying these psalms: they can teach their users to reflect on their own responsibility for oppression and involvement with evil. Psalm 139, after expressing the psalmist's hatred of the wicked, goes on:
Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
O men of blood, depart from me!
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!
Zenger suggests that many who pray the psalms may themselves be guilty of violence and oppression. "Those who pray them are inevitably faced with the question of their own complicity in the web of violence."
To sum up, these appeals for divine intervention, often dubbed the imprecatory psalms, are much more than curses parading as prayer. They are undergirded by the conviction that God is both sovereign and just—indeed, that he cares about the injustice suffered by the poor and downtrodden. The psalmists cry out that God will treat the wrongdoers as they have treated others. In situations where faith in God's goodness seems to be disproved, they reassert that faith, and trust God to vindicate them rather than take revenge themselves.
In the face of monstrous evil, the worst possible response is to feel nothing.
Those who pray these psalms today may be taken aback by their directness, but that may reflect our own sheltered existence and the blandness of the piety with which we have been brought up. These psalms shatter our illusions, make us face life in the raw, and make us ask whether we really believe in a sovereign, loving God. Zenger comments, "Any kind of trust in God or mysticism that is blind to social injustice or does not want to dirty its hands with such things is in fact a form of cynicism." The cry of the poor resounding from one end of the Psalter to the other reaches its highest pitch in these psalms and challenges all who take them on their lips to identify with them and with their Creator.
I fear, though, that some of our listeners to a sermon along these lines may still object that Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." He told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It is overlooked that his prayer at the crucifixion was for the soldiers, not for those who had betrayed him and tried him. Of Judas he said, "Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born" (Matt. 26:24). Interestingly, Psalm 69 is the second most quoted psalm in the New Testament, which applies it directly to Judas's career. And then there is Matthew 23, which I suspect is rarely read in churches, with its string of woes against the scribes and Pharisees, culminating in the prediction that on them will come "all the righteous blood shed on earth" (23:25). These emphases must form part of our picture of Jesus' teaching, not just his calls for forgiveness.
However we react as individuals when we are unjustly treated (and in such situations we may well feel these psalms are highly apposite), we should surely pray them for fellow Christians enduring suffering that God will deliver them from evil. We may leave this vague, whereas the psalms are more realistic in what is required. Finally we can remind our listeners that when we pray, "Thy kingdom come," we are praying for Christ's second coming, otherwise known as the Last Judgment, at which the goats will be told, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41). The imprecatory psalms seem mild in comparison.