Imprecatory psalms – A definition, then a look at Psalm 69

INTRODUCTION. In post #500 on March 8, I had begun a series of articles discussing the so-called “imprecatory psalms” in the Bible. There are a number of these passages in the psalms, and their purpose seems to be to ask the Lord to destroy the psalmist’s enemies. This post will consider specific imprecatory psalms and think about how the believer is to apply these passages.

In the last post about this topic, we had taken time to get the proper mindset for these imprecatory passages. While the Bible does give us these psalms as a means of calling upon the Lord for justice, the calling down of God’s curses and God’s vengeance upon someone is an exceptional act. This is done rarely in cases of unusual cruelty or when the injustice is blatant and heinous. A believer is usually to endure the evil in the world and to persevere through the evil using the ordinary means given to us in the Scriptures. So, the believer is not to call down heaven’s curses and woes on every personal enemy at the first sign of conflict but is rather to bear with the conflict and the difficulty while pressing on in obedience. There comes a time, however, when the injustice is too evil merely to be endured. The time has come for God to stop the evil and to stop the evildoer. “Rise up, O Judge of the earth. Render recompense to the proud” (Psalm 94:2). This is when the believer calls upon the Lord and imprecates the wicked.

DEFINITION

We need to establish a definition for what we mean by “imprecatory.” The Webster’s Dictionary definition for “imprecate” is “to call down evil upon” or “to curse.” When we are referring to imprecatory psalms (verses, really) in the Bible, we mean “when the believer calls upon God to render punishment on perpetrators of evil, cruelty, or destruction.” The evildoer’s crimes and cruelty can no longer go unpunished, but the one committing these heinous, sinful acts is too powerful to be restrained by human means. Therefore, the believer cries out to the Lord, the One who is all-powerful, to observe the shocking injustice and to stop or to destroy or to punish the wicked one.

THE IMPRECATORY PASSAGES

We have talked about these imprecatory passages long enough, and now it is time to take a look at some of them. As we look at these, I want to consider the context of the verses; that is, what prompts the psalmist’s cry to the Lord, as well as the content of the cry.

Two passages stand out as the most obvious of imprecatory psalms, Psalm 69 and 109.

Psalm 69:22-28

22 May their table before them become a snare;
And when they are in peace, may it become a trap.
23 May their eyes grow dim so that they cannot see,
And make their loins shake continually.
24 Pour out Your indignation on them,
And may Your burning anger overtake them.
25 May their camp be desolate;
May none dwell in their tents.
26 For they have persecuted him whom You Yourself have smitten,
And they tell of the pain of those whom You have wounded.
27 Add iniquity to their iniquity,
And may they not come into Your righteousness.
28 May they be blotted out of the book of life
And may they not be recorded with the righteous.

CONTEXT. In this psalm of David, the author is lamenting his oppression by his enemies. The literal context, then, is one of distress from attack and affliction by David’s enemies, and David is pouring out his complaint before the Lord and asking for His intercession.

But this psalm is much deeper than that. This is an overtly Messianic psalm and is about the suffering of the Lord Jesus during His passion in Gethsemane and then His agony on the cross. The foreshadows of Calvary are obvious, for in this psalm we can hear the groans of our Savior as He prepared to bear the wrath of God on our behalf. The psalmist prophetically laments the greatest injustice in human history as by Jesus’ wounds we are healed.  

But there is even more than that because this psalm is also about the persecuted church that, as the body of Christ, suffers the world’s hatred as the witnesses of Christ on the earth. Faithful believers are “hated without cause” (69:4; John 15:25). They are reproached for Jesus’ sake (“reproach” – 69:7, 9, 10, 19, 20). Dishonor, pain, shame, distress, and affliction (“afflicted”) are the words of the psalmist, again picturing the suffering church as they endure the reviling of the world. So, the context of the psalm is suffering, and the lamentations of Christ and then of His church as they fill up His sufferings (Colossians 1:24).

Although these sufferings are God-ordained, they are, nevertheless, evil and deserve to be punished by God. These are wicked acts of injustice, and they demand a just recompense. Therefore, the psalmist calls on the LORD to act and to punish the wicked NOW.

CONTENT. David calls on the LORD to bring specific curses on these wicked men. First, he asks for physical punishment. Let their food be poison and let all peace be taken from them (22). Cause them to go blind and make their legs lose their strength and shake (23). “God, pour out Your indignation and anger upon them for their evil (24).” Let there be strife in their house and may they have no children (25). In the midst of the imprecation, the psalmist speaks explicitly of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 (~300 years before Isaiah wrote his prophecy) and reminds the LORD of the crimes of the wicked (26). The curses conclude with spiritual, condemnatory judgments upon these evil men. May their iniquities be multiplied and never forgiven (27) and may they be blotted out of the book of life (Revelation 3:5; 13:8; 20:15) so that they will never be recorded as righteous. The effect of David’s imprecation is to ask the LORD to condemn these evil men to eternal punishment.

APPLICATION. The psalms are given to us as poetic theology and describe for the believer how they can speak to and pray to their God. How, then, is the believer to apply this psalm? It seems to me that the nature of Psalm 69 limits its application to those situations where the believer, as a member of the body of Christ, is suffering or enduring affliction because they are a follower of Jesus. In other words, the injustice being experienced comes only because a person identifies with Jesus. (See Matt. 5:10-12; 10:16-22; 24:9; John 15:18-21; 1 Pet. 4:12-14, 16, 19.) So, the believer would turn to this psalm when they are being persecuted for their faith in Jesus. Then the believer would cry out with the psalmist for justice from the Lord. Persecution of the righteous is still wrong, and it is still appropriate to cry out to the Lord that He would bring justice to His people and recompence to the evildoer.

But also, the suffering believer would pray through this psalm for perseverance through the suffering, that he would endure as his Savior endured His hour of suffering. The believer would remember that the Lord has ordained all things and that his attitude should be, “Not my will, but Your will be done,” whatever that will is.

Psalm 69 would encourage the believer that part of the calling to Jesus is a call to suffer for His name (Acts 5:41; Phil. 1:29-30). The psalm, then, reminds the believer of the privilege it is to suffer for Jesus’ name and, therefore, to suffer well, to suffer as a Christian should suffer.

ONE QUESTION. One of the issues with these imprecatory psalms, these passages that invoke cursing upon the evildoer, is that they seem to conflict with specific teaching in the New Testament about how the believer is to view their enemies. This is the topic that I want to address in the next post.

SDG                 rmb                 3/14/2022                   #502

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