Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Imprecatory Psalms: "let curses come upon him!"

"It is legitimate at times for God's present people to utter prayers of imprecation or pleas for divine vengeance--like those in the psalms--against the recalcitrant enemies of God and his people. Such expression is consistent with the ethics of the Old Testament and finds corresponding echo in the New." Crying for Justice: What the Psalms Teach Us About Mercy and Vengeance in an Age of Terrorism (pg. 109)

The imprecatory (cursing) psalms have been a point of debate and sometimes embarrassment for Christians.  What do we do with psalms that say things like "let curses come upon him!" and "May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow!"? They are in God's Word, so unless you want to dispense with divine inspiration (which some do, but that is another debate), then you have to figure out what to do with them. I want to recommend this book: Crying for Justice: What the Psalms Teach Us About Mercy and Vengeance in an Age of Terrorism by John N. Day. It is an excellent resource that argues for a righteous place for the imprecatory psalms "in extreme instances, used when God's people face sustained injustice, hardened enmity, and gross oppression." (pg. 115)

Day starts out by stating the case he is going to argue and some basic tenants that should guide the discussion (see the below quote from his conclusion). Then, in Part 1, he analyzes some of the common attempts to rationalize (or ignore) these psalms and finds them wanting. He also brings the much-needed cultural context to the imprecatory psalms by analyzing cursing in the context of the Ancient Near East. This is extremely important because in our modern culture we think of cursing very differently from the ancient Hebrews, Canaanites, Mesopotamians, Hittites, etc. Day reminds modern-day readers:
[I]n the community of Israel, as in the broader ancient Near East, the legitimate curse was an expression of human powerlessness.... It was directed against powerful or unconvictable offenders. Indeed, the legitimate curse was an act of faith that God's desire for justice, as expressed in the Law and ethical teachings of religion, would be reflected in real life. When viewed in this light, the so-called imprecatory psalms and other imprecatory texts, which seem so vicious and strange to the modern reader, are seen to be expressions of faith in the just rule of Yahweh in situations in which the covenant member or community can see no other source of help or possible means of securing just treatment. (pg. 37)
In Part 2, Day takes a look at the three toughest psalms--Psalm 58; 109; 137--because they represent the three major categories of imprecation--social enemy, personal need, and national need. Justification for these three psalms will give one the lens through which to view the smaller, less harsh imprecatory psalms. Finally, in Part 3, Day looks at the imprecatory Psalms in light of the New Testament. He irons out the apparent contradictions and shows examples of New Testament imprecation (cursing) that fall into the category of use "in extreme instances." Overall, the New Testament shows us that:
Whereas "love and blessing" is the dominant ethic for the believer within both testaments, "cursing and calling for divine vengeance" reflect the believer's extreme ethic. They are a legitimate resort in extreme circumstances, against the hardened, deceitful, violent, immoral, and unjust. (pg. 115)
Finally, Day sums up his whole book in his conclusion. This is the most useful part of the book. If you do not have time to read the whole book, read the conclusion (about seven pages). Day pretty much writes his own book review in the conclusion by summarizing his main argument and all of his chapters. If you run across something you are not sure about or do not understand, then you can go to that chapter for the expanded discourse. Below is the beginning of that conclusion:
This present work has argued and defended the premise that the imprecatory psalms' retain an appropriate place in the life of the Christian church. It is legitimate at times for God's present people to utter prayers of imprecation or pleas for divine vengeance-like those in the psalms-against the recalcitrant enemies of God and his people. Such expression is consistent with the ethics of the Old Testament and finds corresponding echo in the New.

This position is rooted, first, in the establishment of the psalms' theology of imprecation as the very essence of Torah. The principles of such theology were well established in the promise of divine vengeance expressed in the Song of Moses, the principle of divine justice outlined in the lex talionis, and the assurance of divine cursing as well as blessing articulated in the inaugural covenant of God with his people. Second, this theology continues essentially unchanged through to the end of the canon and is used to undergird the imprecations in the New Testament, infrequent though they are.

Moreover, in addressing this issue of imprecations in the psalms, certain factors were initially noted.

First, the vengeance appealed for by the pious in the imprecatory psalms was never personally enacted. Rather the appeal was always explicitly or implicitly addressed to God. The realization of that vengeance was left to him alone.

Second, the characteristically impassioned imprecatory pleas were based on the covenant promises of God. The most notable of these promises is "he who curses you, I will curse" (Gen. 12:3), and "vengeance is mine, I will repay" (Deut. 32:35).

Third, both testaments record examples of God's people on earth calling down curses or crying for vengeance, the expression of neither sentiment accompanied by any textual hint of divine disapproval. Rather, in their limited and appropriate circumstance, such utterances are presented as justified and commendable. Indeed, Scripture records an instance in which God's perfected saints in heaven appeal for divine vengeance, using language reminiscent of certain of the imprecatory psalms. They are comforted by the assurance that judgment is near (Rev. 6:9-11). (pp. 109-10)
If you want to read more you will have to buy the book or borrow a copy. I really recommend that because it is well worth your time. (I would say you can borrow my Kindle copy but I just check and apparently this book is one of the few you cannot loan from Kindle to Kindle.) If nothing else, the perhaps Day's closing words will convince you to read this book:
Thus, Christians can find in the imprecatory psalms a divinely instilled source of strength and honor and can feel permitted to use them, as appropriate, in corporate and individual worship. In this, the Christian must embrace the tension inherent in reflecting both "the kindness and severity of God" (Rom. 11:22). It is a tension that previous generations of the faithful have also faced. The imprecatory psalms are a reminder that a war is raging. It is a war of opposing powers, with casualties, traitors, and triumphs. The principal weapon of that warfare is the dual-edged message of the gospel--a message not of sweet passivity, but of life and death itself. (pg. 116)
By His Grace,

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