Do the Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics Clash?

By Jason Jackson

Read the following text from Psalm 69.

22 Let their table before them become a snare; And when they are in peace, let it become a trap.

23 Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see; And make their loins continually to shake.

24 Pour out thine indignation upon them, And let the fierceness of thine anger overtake them.

25 Let their habitation be desolate; Let none dwell in their tents.

26 For they persecute him whom thou hast smitten; And they tell of the sorrow of those whom thou hast wounded.

27 Add iniquity unto their iniquity; And let them not come into thy righteousness.

28 Let them be blotted out of the book of life, And not be written with the righteous.

Does this text bother you? Do you find it difficult to reconcile the “harsh” language of this passage with others so brimming with love like this one?: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Troubled souls often raise such questions: If all parts of the Bible are equally inspired, how do you explain passages like Psalms 69:22-28, which call for punishment upon one’s enemies? How can you harmonize this judgemental attitude with Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemies?

Several explanations have been offered:

  1. Some writers believe these passages reflect a lower standard of ethics than that espoused by Christ. They allege that this sub-Christian ethic was characteristic of Old Testament times, and that such texts were included in the ancient Scriptures because of “progressive revelation.”
  2. Others claim that the composers of these psalms speak in the indicative mood (the “explanatory” mood), and not in the “imperative mood” (the mood of command or request). That is, they merely were stating what would happen to the wicked; they were not actually asking God to destroy the wicked.
  3. Still, another group of scholars advocate that the psalms are an accurate record of what the psalmists were feeling, but there is no divine approval for the sentiments. Rather, God would have us to love our enemies.

Before responding to these explanations, we need to consider some principles that must guide any endeavor to understand the meaning of Scripture.

(1) We must bear in mind that “every scripture is inspired of God” (2 Timothy 3:16). The book of Psalms belongs in the Bible; it is inspired of God. Our Lord asserted that when David wrote in “the book of Psalms” (Psalm 110) he spoke “in the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 22:43). Christ quoted from the Psalms, and considered them to be on the same plane as the Law and the Prophets (cf. Luke 24:44).

Likewise, the writer of Hebrews, when quoting from the Psalms, often identified a passage as having been spoken by the Holy Spirit (cf. Hebrews 3:7). Any view that would diminish the integrity of Psalms is an attack on inspiration, hence upon God himself.

(2) We must remember that any difficulty that exists in coming to an understanding of this issue is in our minds; the fault is not with the text itself. The Holy Spirit, the ultimate author of the Psalms, and Jesus, the Son of God, are not in conflict with one another.

In consideration of Psalm 69:22-28, we must first observe that this passage belongs to a type of Old Testament literature known as the imprecatory psalms. A number of these psalms appear throughout the inspired collection, wherein the authors pray for the destruction (imprecation) of their enemies, often employing the most vivid language (see Psalms 55, 59, 69, 79, 109, 137).

In light of these principles, let us examine the previously noted explanations of these difficult passages.

(1) Is the “sub-Christian theory” a valid explanation for these passages? No, it isn’t. It reflects a misunderstanding of progressive revelation, promoting the idea that the Christian ideal was a development of religious thought over several centuries. This view fails to recognize that the ultimate author of these inspired prayers was the same one who revealed the New Testament.

As Gleason Archer noted: “Progressive revelation is not to be thought of as a progress from error to truth, but rather as a progress from the partial and obscured to the complete and clear” (1974, 460).

By way of contrast, we actually find a wonderfully high ethic reflected in many of the psalms—an ethic that is consistent with New Testament revelation.

We submit that the sub-Christian theory is woefully misguided and is based on an erroneous presupposition.

(2) Was the Psalmist simply explaining what would happen to the wicked (the “indicative theory”)? Some imprecatory statements may fit with this theory, but this explanation certainly does not satisfy the entire spectrum of these prayers of condemnation—some of which make actual request of God to destroy the enemy.

(3) Are the psalms merely a record of what someone said, just as, for example, the New Testament contains the words of Pilate, Judas, and others—accurately recorded, but not an example to be followed?

It is true that some passages in the Bible are inspired only to the degree that they merely are a correct record of what was said, i.e., the Holy Spirit ensured that the account was recorded without error. This view, however—as it pertains to these passages—fails to take into account what the Bible actually says. Nowhere are the words of Pilate, Judas, etc., attributed to the Holy Spirit.

On the other hand, David (and the other psalmists) wrote “in the Spirit” while composing psalms. We therefore find this view lacking a proper concept of the Psalms’ inspiration.

How, then, can we resolve the seeming difficulty of the inspired text speaking in one place of hatred for enemies, and yet, in another, enjoining love for one’s enemies?

(1) We must take into account that the Old Testament did encourage a high ethic in dealing with one’s fellow-man (see Leviticus 19:18), just as the New Testament requires us to “abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good” even today (Romans 12:9).

(2) Probably the most important key to understanding this issue is this: David is not praying to God out of malice and vindictiveness against someone he dislikes personally. It is not a matter of personal revenge; rather, these “harsh” statements reflect David’s awareness of God’s justice and his intolerance for sin.

Walter Kaiser has observed:

They [these hard sayings] are not statements of personal vendetta, but they are utterances of zeal for the kingdom of God and his glory. To be sure, the attacks which provoked these prayers were not from personal enemies; rather, they were rightfully seen as attacks against God and especially his representatives in the promised line of the Messiah (1988, 172).

(3) Sin has not disappeared, and there are still enemies of the redemptive plan of God. God feels the same today toward rebellion as he did in David’s time. The Bible is not in conflict with itself over truths written in plain prose in both Testaments—namely, the righteous will be rewarded, and the wicked shall be punished (cf. Psalm 1; Matthew 25:46).

If these prayers of malediction were intrinsically sinful, one would have a difficult time explaining the Lord’s “curse” upon Capernaum (Matthew 11:23-24), Paul’s prayer of anathema upon false teachers (Galatians 1:8-9), the apostle’s denunciation of Alexander the coppersmith (2 Timothy 4:14), and the prayer of those martyrs who, under the altar of God, asked for vengeance from the Lord (Revelation 6:10).

C. S. Lewis was correct when he wrote: “[T]he ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that . . . is hateful to God” (1958, 33).

Alexander McClaren challenges the modern reader, “Perhaps, it would do modern tenderheartedness no harm to have a little more iron infused into its gentleness, and to lay to heart that the King of Peace must first be King of Righteousness” (1892, 375).

(4) We must bear in mind what it means to love enemies. As William Holladay put it: “The call to love one’s enemies must be exercised within the context of the claims of justice: if an injustice has been done, then it needs to be made right” (1993, 311-12).

The Greek word used in connection with the love of enemies is agape. This is a love of the will whereby one chooses to treat others, even enemies, within the context of their eternal welfare. God has proved his agape to us, in that while we were yet enemies, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

Loving one’s enemies would be expressed in the following thoughtful actions: one would pray for them, be reconciled to them (if possible), do good to them (e.g., feeding them – cf. Matthew 5:44; 5:25; Luke 6:27; Romans 12:20). The goal is that by one’s good works, he may convert the enemy (cf. Matthew 5:13-16; 1 Peter 2:12).

However, if a person chooses to remain an “enemy of the cross” (Philippians 3:18) and continues to afflict us, Paul warns that justice will be served by God “at the revelation of our Lord Jesus from heaven with the angels of his power in flaming fire, rendering vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9).

This is not a desire for personal revenge; rather it is a comfort that the will of God shall prevail.

May God help us to deepen our concern for the souls of people. Too, may we desire to see every wicked way abolished, so that people will be rescued from the destiny of the wicked.

A love for truth will inevitably lead to a hatred of error (Amos 5:15). A love for righteousness will direct us to have a hatred for wickedness. All the while, we must love the enemy, while we hate the enmity. We must be concerned for their souls, and treat them accordingly.

A. F. Kirkpatrick admonishes: “Men have need to beware lest in pity for the sinner they condone the sin, or relax the struggle against evil” (1906, xciii).

The difficulty for many, presented in these passages, may not be in understanding them, nor in reconciling the teaching of Scripture. Rather, the challenge is bringing our lives to conform to God’s will.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Archer, Gleason. 1974. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago, IL: Moody Press.
  • Holladay, William. 1993. The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
  • Kaiser, Walter. 1988. Hard Sayings of the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  • Kirkpatrick, A. F. 1906. The Book of Psalms. Cambridge, England: University Press.
  • Lewis, C. S. 1958. Reflections on the Psalms. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, and Co.
  • McClaren, Alexander. 1892. The Psalms. Vol. 3. New York, NY: George Doran Company.