Question: How can the “imprecatory” Psalms be explained, and exactly what does that word mean?
Answer: The word “imprecatory” means “to curse or pronounce evil upon.” Sometimes David, or others, would call down the most vivid kinds of judgment on their enemies.
“Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow (9)…Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following (the second generation) let their name be blotted out.” (Psalm 109:9,13).
Other imprecatory Psalms are 35,69, and 137. The problem these Psalms pose is ethical. How can one love his enemies, yet engage in calling down curses upon them? Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44). Several factors should be kept in mind when interpreting these Psalms:
- First, the judgment called for is based on Divine Justice and not based on human grudges. David clearly affirmed in an imprecatory Psalm that he did not have personal ill feelings. He wrote in Psalm 109,
“…but I give myself unto prayer (for them). And they have rewarded me evil for good, and hatred for my love.” (Verses 4,5).
David did not hate his enemies, but loved them and prayed for them. He did, however, in the imprecatory prayer, commit them to the Justice of God for their due reward. The actions of David in relation to Saul are vivid proof that revenge was not a motivation behind his imprecatory prayers. David forgave Saul and, even on occasion, spared his life. (1 Samuel 24 and 26).
- Judgment is expressed in the thought patterns of the day. For the Hebrews there was no sharp distinction made between the sinner and his sin; both were conceived personally. Further, a man and his family were considered a unit. They stood or fell together. Reference: Noah (Gen. 7:1,13]) and Achan (Joshua 7).
- The phenomenon of imprecation is not unique to the Old Testament. Jesus urged His disciples to curse cities that did not receive the Gospel. (Matthew 10:14; Luke 10:11,12). Jesus, Himself, called down judgment on Tyre and Sidon. (Matthew 11:20, 22. Paul declared “Anathema” (“accursed”) any who did not love the Lord Jesus. (1 Corinthians 16:22). Even the saints in Heaven during the Tribulation Period are pictured as beseeching God for vengeance on those who killed the martyrs. (Revelation 6:9,10).
Imprecations are obviously not a primitive or purely Old Testament phenomenon. They are the reverse side of love; that is, prayers based on the Holiness and Justice of God, attributes which imply judgment on sin.
Even in these imprecations, one can see an aspiration for Christ. All judgment has been given to the Son. (John 5:22). Those who long for justice are really aspiring for Christ’s Return to execute judgment.
“And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from Heaven with his mighty angels, (7)
In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: (8)
Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power; (9)
When he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day.” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-10).