This article first appeared in the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL, volume 31, number 05 (2008). For further information or to subscribe to the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL go to: http://www.equip.org/christian-research-journal/
O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one,
How blessed will be the one who repays you
With the recompense with which you have repaid us.
How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones
Against the rock! (Ps. 137:8–9)2
What nasty person would say such things? Well—a pretty angry psalmist! This portion of Psalm 137 is one of various “imprecatory psalms” (Pss. 7, 12, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 83, 109, 137, 139). “Imprecation” is the calling down of curses or divine judgments on someone. Imprecatory passages have shocked some modern editors into performing “psalmectomies” on psalter hymnals, excising these verses altogether!3 Biblical poetry contains prayers that God break the arm of the wicked (10:15), scatter their bones (53:5), or slay His enemies (139:19). C. S. Lewis calls them “terrible,” “contemptible,” “devilish,” “profoundly wrong,” and “sinful” prayers.4 Shouldn’t we love and pray for our enemies (Matt. 5:43–48)? How can we make sense of these harsh-sounding passages? Perhaps the following acrostic (I-M-P-R-E-C-A-T-I-O-N) can offer guidance.
Irate reactions to terrible injustices are understandable. Psalm 137’s setting is Israel’s distressing sixth-century BC exile in Babylon following “unshakable” Jerusalem’s destruction (Ps. 46:5)—a very tough pill to swallow! Their captors taunted them to sing “songs of Zion,” which added insult to injury. Of further insult was the fact that Israel’s brothers, the Edomites (descendants of Esau) also joined in the destructive rampage and pillaging. They even blocked fleeing Israelites from escaping, treacherously handing them over to the Babylonians (Obed. 11–14).5 This psalm expresses legitimate moral outrage. Consider how you would react if a neighbor tried to seduce your daughter or give your children drugs. Outrage indicates that we care and take injustice seriously.6 These psalmists cry out to God with understandable, honest, hot-off-the-emotional-press responses.
Modern Western standards should not be imposed on an ancient Near East context. C. S. Lewis wrongly assumed that the Hebrews “cursed more bitterly than the Pagans.”7 We read of standard curses in other ancient Near East “prayer books.”8 In response to devastating injustices of an earlier war, “The (Babylonian) Curse of Akkad” (2400 BC) expresses the wish: “May the cattle slaughterer slaughter his wife” and “May your sheep butcher butcher his child.” An Assyrian text (from 672 BC) wishes leprosy and death followed by the feasting of vultures and jackals on enemies’ corpses.9 Harsh-sounding prayers were common back then.
Passionate responses are upset exaggerations, not calm contemplations. The prophet Jeremiah, after being beaten and placed in stocks, curses the day he was born, wishing he had remained in his mother’s womb until he died (Jer. 20:14–18). Jeremiah does not literally mean this; he simply hasn’t yet “cooled off.” He thus gives a white-hot immediate response to the deep humiliation and injustice he suffered; Jeremiah wants us to feel his pain.10 Old Testament (OT) scholar John Sailhamer observes that Psalm 137’s imagery “is no more intended to be taken literally” than that in psalms that speak of “rivers clapping their hands and mountains singing for joy.”11
Repression of righteous outrage obstructs justice and healing. Naming evils and calling perpetrators to account is the first step toward correcting injustice. Victims of sexual abuse or of a spouse’s adultery often experience healing after they articulate their pain. Consider how Rwanda’s genocide and South Africa’s apartheid have led to commissions in which perpetrators must face surviving victims who name evils, hold their persecutors accountable, and (begin to) heal festering wounds. To love our enemies, we must know who they are and what they’ve done. Hate should be prayed, not stifled. Apathy, not hate, is the opposite of love.12
Enemies are not hated personally by the psalmists. Despite the psalmists’ harsh words, they often exhibit graciousness and personal concern toward their enemies (Pss. 35:1, 12–13; 109:4–5). The psalmist David treated Saul, Absalom, and others with kindness despite their mistreating him (2Sam. 1:1–16; 2:5; 16:11–12; 19:12–23).
Concern for God’s purposes is the psalmists’ passion. The indignation of the psalmists was not primarily personal, but God-oriented. Defying God’s redemptive workings through Abraham/Israel to bless the nations meant opposing God’s purposes. Commitment to God’s plan and reputation prompts David’s use of uncomfortable, harsh terms (“hate,” “loathe”) toward God’s opponents (Ps. 139:21–22). He nonetheless immediately asks God to search his heart, saying, “see if there be any hurtful way in me” (vv.23–24). When the psalmists call on God to do to the wicked what He has promised (Ps. 58:9–10), then, personal vengeance isn’t the point. Our relativistic society could learn from the psalmists’ moral outrage and their passion for God’s will.
Anger takes a back seat to mercy. God desires repentance, not judgment (Ezek. 18:23). Needing conversion himself, Jonah evaded Israel’s enemy Nineveh, knowing that God likely would show mercy in response to repentance: “I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God” (Jonah 4:2; cf. Exod. 34:6). The wicked indeed can avert promised calamity by their repentance (Jer. 18:7–8). Evil king Manasseh’s penitence shows that no matter how morally depraved one becomes, God may be moved by humble repentance (2Chron. 33:9, 12–13). This theme of compassion over judgment is well known to the psalmists (see, e.g., Ps. 106).
Triumphalism does not characterize the psalmists. Hardly self-righteous, the psalmists know that Israel, when rebelling, isn’t above God’s righteous judgment. They exhibit no double standard—they know that unfaithful Israel can expect God’s promised wrath: “As I plan to do to [the corrupt Canaanites], so I will do to you” (Num. 33:56; cf. Josh. 23:15; Lamentations). In Psalm 89, God is “full of wrath,” having “cast off and rejected” His “anointed” (v.38). He isn’t playing favorites.
Inspiration for the New Testament’s emphasis on loving and forgiving enemies is rooted in the Old Testament. Reinforcing Jesus’ message to love one’s enemy and pray for one’s persecutors (Matt. 5:43–48), Paul exhorts: “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone.… ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink….’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17–20), citing Proverbs 25:21–22 (“if your enemy is hungry…”) as the ideal. Other OT Scriptures emphasize the same theme (Exod. 23:4–5; Lev. 19:17–18; Prov. 24:17). Believers must move beyond imprecation to the higher ideal of desiring the salvation of their enemies, blessing rather than cursing (Matt. 5:43–48; 1Pet. 2:23; 3:9; Rom. 12:14–21). This is God’s own attitude, whose love is “complete” or “perfect” (Matt. 5:48): He doesn’t just love those who love Him, but also loves His enemies, and sends rain and sunshine on both groups of people (Matt. 5:44–45). This point, here and elsewhere in Scripture, does not negate the New Testament emphasis on God’s judgment against those resisting His rule; it does, however, stress the primacy of God’s love, who reluctantly allow people to go their own way and separate themselves from Him permanently.
Old Testament moral perspectives, however, are sometimes tolerated as less-than-ideal. We can reject the psalmists’ cries for brutal vindication in its most literal sense, and look toward Jesus’ example of blessing instead of cursing—prayer instead of imprecation—in response to personal enemies. We have seen that bashing-babies-against-rocks imprecations are not literal, but remember also that certain ancient Near East practices Israel adopted—slavery, polygamy, tribalism, patriarchalism—are permitted in the Scriptures because they are expressions of humanity’s hardness of heart (cf. Matt. 19:8)—rather than reflections of God’s ideal (Gen. 1:26–28; 2:24), which Christ’s redemption seeks to restore (cf. Gal. 3:28). So, as Christians reflecting on the imprecatory psalms, we should desire God’s ideals—our enemies’ good and their salvation—but we also should desire that God’s justice prevail, like the martyrs did in Revelation 6:9–11. This, however, will mean judgment on the unrepentant. John Stott reminds us that we can’t desire sinners’ salvation “in defiance of their own unwillingness to receive it,” and we should desire their—and our—judgment if we repudiate or ignore God’s grace.13
New battle lines have been drawn for God’s people, the church. OT (national) Israel’s enemies were often other nations—with their idolatries and immoralities. The psalmists’ curses on Babylon or Edom flow from this profoundly religious framework.14 Unlike the church—the new, true interethnic Israel (Rom. 2:28–29), national Israel fought physical battles against enemy nations that opposed God’s purposes. Christians, using imprecatory prayers, fight spiritual battles against the forces Christ came to defeat (Matt. 12:22–29; John 12:31; 16:11; Col. 2:14–15); we must pray that the gospel and its influence may spread (2 Cor. 10:4; Eph. 6:19; 1 Pet. 5:8–9).
With certain qualifications, then, we can learn from the imprecatory psalmists by identifying with their outrage and dismay when humans and spiritual powers oppose God’s just and good purposes. Anger is often understandable, but grace-receiving Christians should pray for grace on their enemies—and also for God’s just reign to be established: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
Paul Copan (Ph.D., Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin) is Professor and Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University (West Palm Beach, Florida). He is the author and editor of many books on philosophy of religion and apologetics, including When God Goes to Starbucks (Baker, 2008) and Loving Wisdom (Chalice Press, 2007), and a contributor to the Apologetics Study Bible (Holman, 2007).
- Shortened from a chapter in Paul Copan, When God Goes to Starbucks: A Guide to Everyday Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker 2008).
- All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.
- Eugene H. Peterson, Answering God (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1989), 98.
- C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), 20–33.
- Elizabeth Achtemeier, Preaching Hard Texts of the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998), 105–10.
- Peterson, 100; Lewis, 30.
- Lewis, 30–31.
- I draw from William Webb, “Bashing Babies against the Rocks” (paper presented to the Evangelical Theological Society, Atlanta, November 2003).
- D. J. Wiseman, The Vassal-Treaties of Esarhaddon (London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq, 1958), 60–78.
- D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 97–98.
- John H. Sailhamer, The NIV Compact Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 346.
- Peterson, 98.
- John Stott, Favorite Psalms (Chicago: Moody, 1988), 121.
- Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101–150, Word Biblical Commentary 21 (Waco, TX: Word, 1983), 242–43.