I spent last weekend away with a group of 50-or-so students from my old university church, teaching on the Psalms and prayer. It was a great weekend – as good for my soul as I hope it was for theirs.
A key point I made was that the psalms are actual prayers–not lectures in prayer, or relics of past prayers, or a gallery of inimitable virtuoso artworks. Rather, they’re vocational training; they’re liturgical tools which we should speak aloud, getting their words in our mouths. As we pray them, we learn them, and so can pray them again. And, in time, they form us and eke out into the rest of our prayer life.
Of course, this inevitably threw up the question of the “imprecatory psalms” – or, we could say “the cursing psalms”, since that’s what “imprecation” means. These are the psalms which call for God’s judgement to fall on the wicked. And the psalms are replete with this. In fact, the first proper prayer of the Psalter, after the introductory Psalms 1 and 2, is Psalm 3, which wastes no time: “Arise, O LORD! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked!” (3:7, ESV). There’s no bones about it: God has a proven right-hook, and David wants him to use it. And, according to the heading of the psalm, David has his own rebellious son Absalom in mind.
This is the first of many such requests – too many to count. So what do Christians do with them? Can we pray these prayers? Must we pray these prayers? A friend once told me that, during his gap year, he tried writing out each psalm, The Message style, in his own words each day. But the sheer frequency of prayers like this stopped him fairly early on, because he couldn’t get his head around what they meant for him.
My response is, with fairly few qualifications: yes, Christians should very much pray these prayers.
However, some great Christian minds have said the opposite, arguing that, to varying extents, the imprecatory psalms should not be part of a New Testament Christian’s prayer life. C.S. Lewis is the most famous example:
“We must not either try to explain them away or to yield for one moment to the idea that, because it comes in the Bible, all this vindictive hatred must somehow be good and pious. We must face both facts squarely. The hatred is there – festering, gloating, undisguised – and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it.”
In Lewis’ estimation, the imprecatory psalms seem to be in Scripture for much the same reason that David’s affair with Bathsheba is: to demonstrate his imperfections. Lewis tries, in a fashion, to safeguard the divine inspiration of these texts, squaring up to their presence in Scripture, but not granting them any wisdom (rather like the speeches of Job’s friends).
However, I think that most evangelicals (a label which, we must always remember, does not apply to Lewis) become quickly uncomfortable with this. It flies in the face of the prima facie presentation of the psalms as things for us to pray and sing. What’s more, it leaves us with the rather bitty task of parsing out which bits of the psalms are positive exemplars and which are negative – something rather akin to trying to pick the meat out of a spaghetti bolognese.
A “softer” approach is found in Tim Keller. Writing on Psalm 69:22-23 in his psalms devotional, he says this:
“The psalmist prays that his betrayers be damned (verses 22-28). How do we read this? First, this “startles us into feeling something of the desperation that produced” it–keeping us from being complacent about injustice in the world. But the foreshadowing of Jesus’s sufferings (verses 4, 7, and 21) reminds us we stand in a different place from the psalmists–on the other side of the cross. Stephen looked to Jesus for vindication, not retribution, and prayed for his enemies as they killed him (Acts 7:54-60), as did Jesus himself (Luke 23:34). The psalmist is right to want judgment on evil, but Jesus takes it himself. This forever changes our view of our own deserts and the way we seek justice.”
In Keller’s view, such psalms are things we can pray, but are they the best thing we can pray? Apparently not, for us New Testament Christians. We have been shown a better way by the Gospel, something beyond the ken of David, who lived under the Mosaic law.
Keller’s exegesis seems preferable at first, I think, to most evangelicals, playing as it does on a strong law/Gospel dynamic. But I think it’s actually far more troubling than Lewis’ approach. Lewis at least categorically relegates the imprecations to the status of Job’s useless counselors. Keller’s approach plays disappointingly into the lite-Marcionism that prevails in much of our thinking, pitting a supposedly less forgiving Old Testament against a supposedly more generous New Testament.
It doesn’t take long to poke holes in Keller’s approach. John 1:16-17 describes the ministry of Christ following on from that of Moses as “grace upon grace” (ESV) or “grace in place of grace already given” (NIV), and so presents the Law as a form of grace. And yet, on the other side of the cross, we find the Apostles and New Testament authors very happy to apply to imprecatory psalms in an unambiguous fashion – in fact, they apply the very verses Keller is talking about! Speaking about the death of Judas in Acts 1:20, Peter applies Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8:
“For it is written in the Book of Psalms,
‘May his camp become desolate,
And let there be no-one to dwell in it’;
‘Let another take his office.’”
Being on the other side of the cross, then, didn’t seem to stop Peter from taking the imprecatory psalms at face value.
What’s more, Keller’s interpretation falls apart when we actually consider David himself. The psalms are full of David’s requests for God to justly vanquish his enemies, and yet who was more merciful to his enemies than David? Psalm 3, written as he fled from Absalom, prayed for God to strike his rebel son on the jaw and break his teeth; but when Absalom is killed, David is distraught: “And the king was deeply moved and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept. And as he went, he said, ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”” (2 Sam. 18:33).
The same goes for Saul. Psalm 18 is addressed by David to God “on the day when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies. And from the hand of Saul.” David rejoices here that he “beat [his enemies] fine as dust before the wind” and “cast them out like the mire of the streets” (18:42). And yet, when Saul is actually killed in battle, he sings “You daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you luxuriously in scarlet, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle!” (2 Sam. 1:24-25).
Keller’s approach, then, doesn’t really stand up. It isn’t really that far away from Lewis, in the end: both see the imprecatory psalms as below par in the psalmist’s prayer life, as things he would not have said on his best days.
I am not pretending that the imprecatory psalms are not unpleasant for modern Westerners to read. They are jarring, at the very least. And some seem far worse than others–Psalm 137 is the prime example, which I hope to write about soon.
And yet Reformed and evangelical readers arrive at the psalms with some big theological commitments already in place: divine inspiration, scriptural inerrancy, the unity of the covenants, and allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture. Even though Lewis and Keller (in different ways and to different extents) both fold their approach to imprecation into these broader commitments, I think they make moves which they would be very uncomfortable making elsewhere.
Where, for instance, does Lewis’ approach to unsavoury Old Testament speech end? If we can pick out and discard certain psalms because they seem to be driven by hatred, can we do the same with the Song of Moses in Exodus 15? Or Deborah’s song in Judges 5? I don’t think most of us think so, and I’m not sure Lewis would either.
And where does Keller’s approach end? If we view Old Testament believers as sub-optimally gracious because they had not had the fullness of the Gospel revealed to them, then likewise: should we shy away from Moses’ song because Christ was drowned in the Red Sea of judgement for us at the cross? Should we find better words than Deborah’s because Jesus was pierced for our transgressions with the tent-peg of God’s wrath? Again, I don’t think any of us stand there thinking “oh Moses, if only you had known a better way to pray!”
This post has been more of a deconstructive project than a constructive one. We’ve (to some extent) dismantled Lewis and Keller’s objections to praying the imprecatory psalms, but not built too much of a positive case for praying them. But I hope that those of us with broader Reformed commitments on the nature of Scripture, and the relationship between the Old and New covenants, can see that, if Lewis and Keller’s approaches can’t be countenanced (even though they try to do justice to those broader commitments), then our obligation as Christians to pray the imprecatory psalms is the only logical conclusion. And if we want a proof-text, we’ve got two: the explicit commands in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 to speak and sing psalms to one another–something whcih presumably includes the (very large number of) imprecatory psalms.
Of course, that throws up many questions. It’s not an easy thing for many of us to consider. But it seems that this is the way. I hope to write more on it soon.