The Psalter speaks to real-life situations. It encourages faith (Psalms 11, 23, 27), models praise (Psalms 29, 103), reveals wisdom (Psalms 1, 19, 119), and accompanies pilgrim people (Psalms 120–134). John Calvin’s description of the Psalter as “An Anatomy of All Parts of the Human Soul” in Commentary on Psalms is apt. No wonder the Psalter is a treasure in the church, synagogue, and private prayer-closet.
The Psalter speaks to life’s goodness, but it also speaks to suffering that calls forth lament. In fact, psalms of lament are the single most frequent type or genre of psalm in the Psalter. Laments name pain, petition God for release, and find their way to praise. Their inclusion in the Psalter affirms the appropriateness of such words as prayer. They also remind us – even if we are not in pain – that when we recite, pray, or read them, we stand with and give voice to the pain of those in our parish and our world.
A subcategory of laments is imprecatory or cursing psalms. These psalms express lament and then petition God to curse the enemy. They are laments on steroids. They comprise only five percent of the Psalter, and the curse may be only a verse or two within the lament psalm. For instance, petitioned curses take up six of 28 verses in Psalm 35, and eight of 11 verses in Psalm 58, but only one verse in Psalm 137. Yet they expose the underbelly of prayer, and are so raw they shock us. In Psalm 58, a whole community asks God to break the enemy’s teeth, and wishes their enemy to be like a “like a slug that melts away… like a stillborn child” (8). The community gladly anticipates God’s vengeance so that they might “dip their feet in the blood of the wicked” (10). In another example, Psalm 137 has the exiled community in Babylon resisting their captor’s demand for a song. Instead, the exiles pledge loving remembrance of Jerusalem, and ask God to remember and repay their enemies, envisioning it a happy event when the babies of Babylon have their heads dashed against the rocks (9).
We recoil from such gruesome, graphic language as a matter of course. When it appears in inspired scripture – and within a book that provides models for prayer and praise – the recoil is greater. We generally avoid them, expunging them from our public and private prayers and readings. This is unfortunate. Imprecatory psalms need careful consideration and thoughtful use, but because of (not despite) their invocation of curses, they have a role in the life of faith. More, they are “God-breathed and… useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
Imprecatory psalms bring us face-to-face with several realities. First, that life can really get this bad. Whether as intimate as domestic violence, or as public as the mass removal of the Kurds from their homes, people, governments, and systems are sinful and act sinfully to devastating effect. These prayers give powerful voice to those who suffer. They also call us to consider our own actions: might someone be praying these psalms against us? They call us to mourning, to repentance when needed, and to bring about change.
Second, these psalms reveal that God’s kingly rule is just (Psalms 97, 98). Our judgment is often faulty, but the psalmist is confident God judges rightly. Further, God’s character is to defend the poor and needy. This knowledge is the impetus for the psalmist’s complaint and imprecation. In a backhanded way, complaint and imprecation is praise. It effectively says, “You are a powerful and just God who cares; no one else can help; I’m complaining to the only one who can act rightly!”
Third, imprecatory psalms remind us of the “violence that nests in every human heart,” as Irene Nowell puts it in Pleading, Cursing, Praising: Conversing with God through the Psalms. Our enemies might not be those of the psalmist, but we might wish to lash out against our own enemies in similarly shocking ways. Nowell recounts a story in which a venerable Benedictine Sister objected, “I can’t say those things in church!” Another Sister blurted out, “I don’t know why you can’t say them in church. You say them in the hall!” Yes. We all can wish terrible things against our enemies; honest acknowledgement in prayer (of what God already knows we think) is a route to removing such violence from our hearts.
Fourth, imprecatory psalms remind us that we might (in our secret hearts) wish bad things against our enemies, but vengeance does not belong to us. The psalmist takes seriously God’s injunction that vengeance belongs to him alone (Deuteronomy 32:35–36). The psalmist only asks God to bring about the petitioned curses; never does the psalmist himself or herself act out the violence. Assured that God is just, these psalms direct us to “throw the sword to God,” as Reed Lessing says in “Broken Teeth, Bloody Baths, and Baby Bashing,” published in Concordia Journal. We leave it with God to act rightly, whether that right action aligns with our wishes or not.
These psalms are difficult to read, laced as they are with violence. But for those in deep distress and sustained injustice, they give a powerful pastoral voice to suffering, acknowledging the precious dignity of God’s creation. For all God’s people, these cursing psalms remind us in the midst of a broken world that we long for God’s eschatological kingdom where sorrow, crying, and pain will be no more. By the values of that longed-for kingdom, we shape our own lives and action.
Lissa Wray Beal is the Professor of Old Testament, and chair of the Seminary Bible and Theology Department, at Providence Theological Seminary. An ordained Anglican priest, she also serves in an honorary capacity at the Parish of St. Peter, Winnipeg.