The Imprecatory Psalms – an Excerpt from The Old Testament and Ethics

The following is an excerpt from The Old Testament and Ethics, “Psalms” essay by Joel M. LeMon, edited by Joel Green and Jacqueline Lapsley.

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Cover ArtThere have been many suggestions for how Christians should understand the psalms that curse the enemies and invoke God’s violent actions against them—the so-called imprecatory psalms.

Erich Zenger has helpfully outlined a number of the proposals (13–22). Some interpreters have considered these psalms to reflect a pre-Christian or anti-Christian Judaism that is utterly contrary to Jesus’ teaching of love for one’s enemies (Matt. 5:4; Luke 6:27, 35).

This supersessionist viewpoint has led to the dismissal of certain psalms altogether or at least to the practice of reading only selected verses of problematic psalms so as not to acknowledge the psalmists’ desire for God to act violently against the enemies. The sad irony is that such supersessionism has actually motivated and ostensibly justified brutal acts of violence by Christians against Jews.

In response to this, an increasingly common trend is to find ways to reclaim the psalms of imprecation as appropriate and even vital elements of Christian piety. According to one line of thinking, violent thoughts that go unacknowledged can degrade and pollute the relationship between God and the faithful.

Praying honestly requires voicing these feelings, so these psalms function as a form of theological catharsis for those who suffer greatly (McCann 115). Such catharsis is a necessary step in healing. Similarly, Patrick Miller has suggested that psalms of imprecation are valuable for Christian faith and practice in that they represent a simultaneous “letting go” and “holding back.”

The prayers validate the experience of suffering and acknowledge the need for retribution, even as the psalmists restrain their emotions by praying the violence rather than executing violence themselves (Miller 200). Thus, these psalms in fact present a radical ethic of nonviolence. By placing violence in the context of prayer, the psalmists reject the right of human retribution and trust in God alone to bring about justice (Firth 141).

©2013 edited by Joel B Green and Jacqueline E. Lapsley. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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For more information on The Old Testament and Ethics, click here.