Making Sense of the Imprecatory Psalms
When we say that the psalms encompass every human emotion, we mean every human emotion. This includes not only grief and lament but also hatred and anger. There is a subtype of psalms known as the imprecatory psalms that deal with these very emotions. And, as Tremper Longman aptly noted, “For Christian readers today, the imprecations (or curses) are among the most troublesome features of the book of Psalms.”
However, these psalms should not be as troubling as some make them out to be. When we consider their context and intent, we will see how these psalms are in keeping with the rest of the Word of God. Also, we will see how these psalms can be helpful on a practical level today.
What Is an Imprecatory Psalm?
First, imprecatory psalms are not in of themselves a type of psalm but a characterization of certain psalms. Most imprecatory psalms are primarily psalms of lament. So, we are already dealing with deep emotional trauma, be it grief, mourning, betrayal, etc., and it is very natural for anger to be mixed in with this kind of emotional pain.
These psalms are called imprecatory because these are prayers of cursing (not foul language as we think of it). To imprecate (hence imprecatory) is to utter or invoke a curse upon someone or something. However, it must be noted that this is not the type of cursing that God forbade in the Old Testament (cf. Exodus 21:17; 22:28; Leviticus 19:14, etc.). The curses uttered in these psalms were within the framework of God’s covenant. They may be characterized as deep cries for justice to be executed quickly under the provisions of the covenant. This has all been a way to preface our study this morning of Psalm 55, and then we will make some New Testament applications.
- vv.1-3 – Here, we have the language of lament. The psalmist (David) comes to God, “Give ear to my prayer, O God,” with his complaint (emotional pain). “I am restless in my complaint.” David is being pursued by wicked men who are against David without cause.
- vv.4-8 – Here, David pours himself out entirely to God. He expresses his lament, his pain, in the strongest language he knows.
- vv.9-11 – Here is the first of the imprecations, “Confuse, O Lord, divide their tongues.” But this curse is not a personal vendetta. Next, we see why David prays for these wicked persons to be cursed. It is because of their object wickedness, perversion of justice, and oppression. In short, David prays this curse because they have violated the covenant of God.
- vv.12-15 – We do not need to try and name the individual that David has been betrayed by. The text tells us that it was someone David considered an equal and at one time a good friend (“a man, my equal, my companion and my familiar friend.”). v.15 is the second imprecation of the psalm. And, like before, we are given the reason why this prayer is just. It is because “evil is in their dwelling, in their midst.”
- vv.16-21 – In the language of lament, here we see David choosing to trust in God despite his circumstances and the deep betrayal he is experiencing. “As for me, I shall call upon God” (v.16).
- vv.22-23 – We have the call to trust in God and a reminder of both blessing and curse that come with God’s covenant. We also have a reminder that Jehovah is just and righteous. And it is God’s very justice that allows David to pray about this and leave it to God.
It Is All About Justice
Dene Ward, in an article titled “Turning Around the Imprecatory Psalms,” made these accurate observations about the writers of the imprecatory psalms:
- The writer has their relationship with God in good order.
- The psalmist is under attack.
- Not for anything evil they have done.
- The psalmist’s cause is the Lord’s cause.
- They request that God would act.
- Their own faith has not been affected.
- They are “concerned that what the weak see will turn them away from God and destroy their faith.”
Furthermore, they summed up the imprecatory psalms in the following. They said, “It is about justice. It is about God keeping His covenant. Remember when the people stood on Mt. Gerizim and receive the blessings of the covenant? The other half of the people stood on Mt. Ebal and recited the curses – that’s what an imprecation is – a prayer to curse. Curses are every bit as much a part of the covenant as blessings are. These psalmists are asking God to keep the covenant for His sake, not theirs.”
Leave Room for the Wrath of God
When we get to the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus, it may be tempting to think that this type of language is absent, but such is not the case. We find ready examples of imprecation in the New Testament.
- “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached, he is to be accursed!” Galatians 1:8. The NIV translates anathema (NASB accursed) as “under God’s curse.”
- “I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves.” Galatians 5:12
However, it needs to be noted that this cursing is not a personal vendetta or personal vengeance. Paul has said elsewhere that we are to “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord” Romans 12:19. Note, though, that the text tells us that God will repay. So, as the psalmist of old prayed that God would execute justice quickly, we too have the same prayer when we see injustice and wickedness.
How do the imprecatory psalms teach us? They show us that, first of all, we are allowed to be angry. The psalmist writes, “Be angry, but sin not.” Psalm 4:4 RSV. This is the psalm that Paul quotes in Ephesians 4:26-27 where he writes, “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.” Secondly, the imprecatory psalms teach us how we can be angry and not sin. Gordon Fee’s “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth” made these two appropriate and helpful points about the imprecatory psalms that I would like to end with.
- “By expressing our anger directly to and through God rather than by seeking to return evil to those who have done evil to us. Imprecatory psalms harness our anger and help us express it (to God) by using the same sorts of obvious, purposeful exaggeration know to us from other types of psalms.”
- “The biblical command is to do love, not to feel love. In a related way, the imprecatory psalms help us, when we feel anger, not to do anger.”
When we are faced with injustice, wickedness, unrighteousness, etc., pray to God. Express your emotions to Him. But once you are done, leave it with Him to execute justice in His perfect time. To quote the Apostle Paul again, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord” Romans 12:19.
 Tremper Longman III, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, ed. David G. Firth, vol. 15–16, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2014), 51.
 Dene Ward. Turning Around the Imprecatory Psalms.
2 thoughts on “Leave Room for Wrath”
Thank you, brother, for providing this explanation of the import of imprecatory psalms. I appreciate you sharing the point about “doing” love and not “doing” anger. Truly, we have emotions that can be harnessed for good, and we have the imprecatory psalms to show us how. Praise God that we are made in His image, and praise God that He knows how to (and will) deal with things that cause “negative” emotions!
Thanks brother. When God said He has given us everything that pertains to life and godliness He really meant it.