Maybe you’ve had this experience while reading the Bible. You turn to Psalms for encouragement. You begin to read, say Psalm 139, and find a warm blanket for your soul.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
Are you standing or sitting? He knows. He sees. He cares. Amazing. Your happiness soars as you read how he surrounds you, intervenes in your life (vv. 2–12), how he knew you before there was a “you” to know, knit you together in your mother’s womb (13–16). You seem to climb Jacob’s ladder to golden gates, praising God that the sins of yesterday and last week and last year have not driven him away: You awake, and he is still with you (17–18).
Then you stumble upon verse 19:
Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
O men of blood, depart from me!
You pause and reread. You stop and check if you’re still in the same psalm. This verse, so abrupt, comes with violence. Slay the wicked? Hate them with a perfect hatred? What do you do with these lines? Pretend you didn’t see them? What about when you notice more?
- Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer. (Psalm 10:15)
- Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them! (Psalm 35:6)
- Let burning coals fall upon them! Let them be cast into fire, into miry pits, no more to rise! (Psalm 140:10)
- Let death steal over them; let them go down to Sheol alive. (Psalm 55:15)
- Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime, like the stillborn child who never sees the sun. (Psalm 58:8)
- Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually. (Psalm 69:23)
- 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! (Psalm 109:9–10)
How do you explain curses like these? How do you answer your atheist coworker? How do you pray them in family worship? How do you quiet your own discomforts? What do we do with them as Christians, on this side of the coming of Christ?
C.S. Lewis, perhaps the greatest Christian apologist of the twentieth century, offers us this advice:
We must not either try to explain them away or to yield for one moment to the idea that, because it comes in the Bible, all this vindictive hatred must somehow be good and pious. . . . The hatred is there — festering, gloating, undisguised — and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves. (Reflections on the Psalms, 26)
Devilish, terrible psalms, he goes on to call them, authored by “ferocious, self-pitying, barbaric men” (27). Is he right?
How do we interpret these “imprecatory psalms,” these psalms of curse (more generally, Psalms 55, 59, 69, 79, 109, and 137)? As a brief introduction, consider such curses in four spheres: in the Old Testament, in the New, in heaven, and curses today.
Curses in the Old Testament
First, we’ve already seen curses in the Psalms.
How do we answer the objection that these psalms — mostly written by David — are personal and vindictive? We could spend time looking at David, wondering aloud if he who cut the garment instead of stabbing the back of Saul (not to mention his patience with Doeg, Absalom, and Shimei) was really a vengeful spirit. Instead, notice three threads in the imprecatory psalms.
1. David isn’t cursing directly.
Curses are pronouncements of harm over others, often involving a ritual or sacrifice. May your fields rot, or your wife be barren. “In the ancient Near East in general, life was dominated by the need to cope with the terrifying threat of curses and omens” (New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 397). The ancient world often saw these pronouncements as powerful in themselves.
Israel was different. They knew no curse had decisive power apart from the one true God. Balaam, borrowing an Israelite conception, says, “How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?” (Numbers 23:8). The imprecatory psalms, then, are not direct curses upon the wicked apart from the Almighty. They are prayers offered and entrusted to the wisdom and enforcement of the psalmist’s covenant God.
2. David often prays Scripture.
David wasn’t brooding in his room, writing hate-poems in his little black book. As the king, David meditated day and night on God’s blessings and curses found in the Torah (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 27–28). How should any Israelite feel about the curses? The Lord’s catechized people say, “Amen” (Deuteronomy 27:15–26).
Likewise, David in the Psalms often takes statements of fact about God’s judgments and simply prays them. “In almost every instance, each expression used in one of these prayers of malediction may be found in plain prose statements of what will happen to those sinners who persist in opposing God” (Hard Sayings of the Bible, 280–282). Thus, as one example of this, the statement of fact given in Psalm 1, “The wicked . . . are like chaff that the wind drives away” (Psalm 1:4), becomes for David, “Let them be like chaff before the wind” (Psalm 35:5).
3. The psalmist’s enemies are God’s enemies.
Whose enemies are they in Psalm 139:19–22? “Against you,” “your enemies,” “your name,” “those who hate you,” “who rise up against you.” These men became David’s enemies by proxy — “I count them my enemies.” Here we find another crucial element about the imprecatory Psalms: They often stem from righteous indignation about how the wicked treat God, God’s people, and God’s Anointed King.
David’s epic showdown with Goliath illustrates this. What was his personal history with the giant? Goliath hadn’t killed David’s father, like the six-fingered man in The Princess Bride. He had no ill will but this: Goliath dared to defy the armies of the living God.
Do we ever grow warm with righteous anger? Not because we are insulted, but because God is? In 1945, communist Soviet Union occupied Romania. To pay tribute to the new state order, the communists convened a congress comprised of four thousand Christian leaders and broadcasted it to the country. Richard and Sabina Wurmbrand were in attendance. One after another, Christian leaders stood and hailed the atheistic state and promised church allegiance.
Sabina leaned over to her husband, “Richard, stand up and wash away this shame from the face of Christ! They are spitting in his face!” “If I do so,” he replied, “you lose your husband.” “I don’t wish to have a coward as a husband,” came her reply. And so he did. He later wrote, “Afterward I had to pay for this, but it was worthwhile” (Tortured for Christ, 10).
Do we ever take our occasions, however much smaller, to wipe the spit from the face of Christ? Have we become insensible to hearing Christ’s name dragged through the mud? John Stott comments,
[The psalmist] has completely identified himself with the cause of God, [and] hates them because he loves God. . . . That we cannot easily aspire to this is an indication not of our spirituality but of our lack of it, not of our superior love for men but of our inferior love for God, indeed of our inability to hate the wicked with a hatred that is “perfect” [as in Psalm 139:22] and not “personal.” (The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 116–117)
Do we ever say anything uncomfortable in the presence of evil — or worse, do we even care? The psalmists did. We accuse them of cruelty; they accuse us of a twisted sentimentality. We accuse them of not considering man; they accuse us of not considering God.
Curses in the New Testament
Do we have curses in the New Testament? Yes.
Peter exclaims, “May your silver perish with you!” (Acts 8:20). Paul hands people over to Satan and curses anyone to hell who preaches a different gospel or refuses to love Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:8–9; 1 Corinthians 16:22). Even Jesus curses a fig tree — and blasts the Pharisees with mighty woes (Matthew 23:13–36).
But more to our consideration: How did Jesus and his apostles view imprecatory psalms?
The New Testament authors, from John to Paul to Peter to Jesus himself, quote unhesitatingly from these psalms. The apostles did not have the qualms of so many modern scholars. Not one New Testament author gives the kind of preface we do when recommending a good television show: “It is really good — except that one part.” They treat such psalms as we should: with reverence as sacred Scripture.
Consider the New Testament’s usage of Psalm 69, which includes one of the longest sustained imprecations (Psalm 69:22–28) and the most severe imprecation in the Psalter: “Add to them punishment upon punishment; may they have no acquittal from you” (verse 27). Keep the blows coming. No mercy. No forgiveness. Let them be damned. Surely the New Testament would avoid such sentiments, right?
The psalm is actually one of the favorites of the New Testament, including citations from the imprecations themselves (Romans 11:9; Acts 1:20). Let’s limit the quotes here to the beloved and gentle apostle John. He takes up this psalm to explain the temple-cleansing incident with Jesus and the whip: “zeal for your house has consumed me” (Psalm 69:9; John 2:17). He records Psalm 69:4 upon Jesus’s lips in the upper room, as the Lord explains how the Jews “hated me without a cause” (John 15:25). And most stunningly, upon the cross itself: “Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), ‘I thirst’” (John 19:28) — a reference to verse 21, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.”
John Piper comments,
According to the apostle John, Jesus died fulfilling Psalm 69. What more glorious tribute could be paid to a psalm? The very psalm that we tend to think is a problem because of its imprecations was the one Jesus lived in and the one that carried him to the cross and through the cross. (Shaped by God, 61)
Here we find the foundational reality. God allows curses into this world for the glory of Jesus — to paint a dark and bloody and beautiful picture of his sacrificial love. Sodom and Gomorrah, the flood, Korah’s rebellion, Canaan’s ban, the cry over Egypt’s firstborns — all shadows compared with the tremendous doom of this one who cries, “I thirst,” from the cross. He plunged into the depths of hell itself. Curses exist to explain this good news to you:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” (Galatians 3:13)
Christ became a cursed one, a doomed and condemned man — why? For us. The bread, broken — for you. The wine, poured out — for you. The judgment drank to the bottom — for you. The history of all curses for every human on the planet ends here, at the cross, or in hell. Nowhere else.
This clarifies our call in evangelism:
“Sir, can I speak with you about Jesus?”
“Why would I need to hear about him? — I’m happy enough.”
“Because, sir, sin has placed you under God’s curse, whoever does not believe is condemned already, the wrath of God remains upon you, and only Christ, who became a curse for all who would repent and believe, can remove it.”
Curses in Heaven
Now, a question you may not have asked: Are there imprecatory prayers in heaven? Yes.
John records the voices of martyrs slain for God’s word, crying out in a loud voice,
“O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. (Revelation 6:10–11)
The martyrs — perfected and with the Lord in glory — pray for their blood to be avenged on earth. Or again in Revelation 18:6, against spiritual Babylon:
Pay her back as she herself has paid back others,
and repay her double for her deeds;
mix a double portion for her in the cup she mixed.
And as God’s enemies fall, how does heaven respond? God’s vengeance on the wicked fuels their hallelujahs,
“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” Once more they cried out, “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever.” (Revelation 19:1–3)
Don’t our own children’s stories reveal that we know this is good? They end the same: the witch is cursed, the monster slain, the evil king dethroned and punished. Do we weep when Scar is fed to hyenas? No, not even our children. Why? Because we know, even at a young age, the rightness of villains being punished. What is hard for us to bear is that, outside of Christ, we (and those we love) are the villains.
Psalms of curse were prayed in the Old Testament, approved in the New, and this same heart has its counterpart in heaven. But what about us today? Should we pray them?
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. . . . Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. . . . Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:14, 17, 19)
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44)
These texts clearly teach that we leave personal grievances with God to repay. They teach that God’s wrath — exhausted at the cross or in hell — frees us to love those who have hated us and bless those who have cursed us.
But are they incompatible with praying the imprecatory psalms? Personal vengeance, after all, is outlawed in both covenants (Leviticus 19:17–18). That vengeance belongs to God was not new (Deuteronomy 32:35; Psalm 94:1). The next verse in Romans 12 is a quote from Proverbs 25:21: “To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head’” (Romans 12:20).
Some evil is so pronounced and prolonged (especially against the global church) that we are right to pray that if the wicked are not stopped by converting mercy (the kind of mercy that stopped Saul), that God stop them by any other means. As James Hamilton exhorts Christians today,
Pray that God would either save those who destroy families and hurt little children or thwart all their efforts and keep them from doing further harm. . . . Pray that God would either redeem people who are right now identifying with the seed of the serpent, or if he is not going to redeem them, that he would crush them and all their evil designs. (Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches, 201)
Whether you conclude that mercy should silence these prayers today or not, be assured, it isn’t because judgment isn’t coming, and at any moment. The pressing question, then, in conclusion, is not why judgment and curse exist, but why aren’t we all drowned beneath it every moment?
That was the angel’s perplexity: generation after generation of mercy to sinful men — but how? The blood of goats? Until they saw it, a greater enigma still: The only blessed Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords who took on human flesh, earned every blessing by perfect obedience, now exhausting every curse for his people upon the tree. In this Christ has arrived the day of salvation for all under the curse. “Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:12).