Right in the heart of the Bible are some passages that are uncomfortable. The imprecatory psalms are among the hymns sung by the people of God but are far removed from current cultural conceptions of Christian “niceness” or a gentle Jesus as you can imagine. These are not the psalms of praise and thanksgiving to God for His goodness and mercy, but rather psalms that call for God’s mercy to be withheld and His wrath to be unleashed against our enemies.
For example, Psalm 69 says:
“Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them. May their camp be a desolation; let no one dwell in their tents.”
Psalm 83 declares:
“O my God, make them like whirling dust, like chaff before the wind. As fire consumes the forest, as the flame sets the mountains ablaze, so may you pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your hurricane!”
Then there’s Psalm 109: “May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow! May his children wander about and beg, seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit!”
Most disturbing of all is Psalm 137. Written after the people of Judah had been conquered and enslaved by the Babylonians, the psalmist cries out:
“O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”
We don’t know what to do with these words. We wonder why these psalms are in the Bible, and if the author was an awful person. We ask ourselves how they fit with the self-sacrificing God we’ve known and loved.
Not everything contained in the Bible is, of course, prescriptive. Many of the passages we struggle with are descriptive, describing evils or wrongs that took place. These passages, however, are hymns, even prayers of God’s people. So, in the case of imprecatory psalms, the confusion remains.
At times when world events, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, shake us out of moral lethargy, these cries for justice and wrath make more sense. We, too, become enraged. In the last few weeks, the world has looked on with horror as Russian forces violated the peace with those they claimed were their brothers. Millions have been displaced and thousands are now dead. As Moscow’s become increasingly frustrated at its lack of success, its leaders have resorted to indiscriminate shelling and intentional targeting of noncombatants.
It is right at these times to want justice, and to want it now! It is right to weep at the horrors of human existence, as Billie Holiday did with her mournful song about lynchings in the Jim Crow South, “Strange Fruit.” Passages like Psalm 88 describe the struggle to find hope in God, and to lament the injustice in the world. Sometimes, the only possible moral response is to appeal for God’s judgment on evildoers. Anger is a proper response to real evil in this world, a world that was created good.
At the same time, we should pray that evildoers will see their sin and approach the throne of grace for forgiveness and salvation. After all, Paul was a persecutor of the Church, yet he was saved and used by God to take the Gospel across the Roman world. At the same time, just three chapters after Paul’s salvation, another persecutor, Herod Agrippa, is struck down by God, and, as the text colorfully notes, was eaten by worms. The same Jesus who came gently riding a donkey into Jerusalem will one day come to establish the New Jerusalem riding a warhorse.
Imprecatory psalms affirm our sense that there’s real wrong with the world, that we are right to be angry about it. They speak of the psalmist’s pain in their realness and rawness. They remind us that God is not afraid of our anger. In fact, He, too, is grieved and angry at evil borne of the sin we have committed against one another.
These psalms, these imprecatory words, remind us that we can come to God in our anger and ask that He do something about it. The rest of the Psalms, and the rest of the Bible, remind us that He is trustworthy. As Abraham said of God, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” He will, and we can count on it.
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