Some Christians have long struggled with how to understand the imprecatory psalms. Just what exactly is an imprecatory psalm, you ask? Imprecation means to curse. Therefore, an imprecatory psalm is a psalm that invokes God to curse the psalmist’s enemies. While we can perhaps understand their significance in the storyline of the Bible, is it permissible for Christians to offer imprecatory prayers? Let’s let the NIV Halley’s Study Bible guide us through this topic with the article on the Psalms of Vengeance.

Imprecatory Psalms: The Psalms of Vengeance

There are seven psalms in which the psalmist hurls God’s curses on his enemies, in no uncertain terms (Ps 6; 35; 59; 69; 83; 109; 137). These psalms are also called the imprecatory psalms because the psalmist showers imprecations (curses) on his enemies. Fourteen other psalms include an imprecatory prayer (for example, 3:7; 5:10; 7:14–16). The expression of hatred and the desire for vindication are also found in the prayers of Jeremiah (11:18–20; 15:15–18; 17:18; 18:19–23; 20:11–12) and Nehemiah (6:14; 13:29).

Vengeance or Love?

What are we to do with these psalms that seem to squarely contradict Jesus’ command to love our enemies (Lk 6:27–28)? Some people simply write them off. They feel that the Old Testament preaches law and vengeance, whereas the New Testament teaches love for God and neighbor. Therefore these psalms have no place in the Christian life. But they forget that Jesus took the two great commandments (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and . . . soul and . . . mind. Love your neighbor as yourself,” Mt 22:37–39) directly from the Old Testament (Dt 6:5; Lev 19:18). And his command to love our enemies is also found in the Old Testament:

“Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice . . . If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink” (Pr 24:17; 25:21).

And “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Ex 21:24) is not, as is often assumed, a legalization of vengeance. Rather, it limits those who have been wronged to the recovery of actual damages rather than punitive damages. It is a humane law, designed to prevent an ever-escalating spiral of revenge.

Jesus Imprecates

The Old Testament already contains the key teachings of Jesus—and the New Testament clearly does not teach only “sweetness and light.” Jesus condemned Chorazin and Capernaum (Mt 11:21–24) and severely criticized the leaders and the unbelief of the Jews (Mt 7:23 [compare with Ps 6:8]; Mk 12:9). The apostles also had very strong words for heretics and evildoers (1Co 5:5; Gal 1:8–9; 5:12; 2Ti 4:14 [compare with Ps 62:12]; 2Pe 2; 2Jn 7–11; Jude 3–16).

Love and Hate Are Not Mutually Exclusive

The fact is that in both the Old and the New Testament we find the requirement to love as well as the requirement to hate evil.

What bothers us about the imprecatory psalms is their concreteness. “God hates sin but loves the sinner” was as true in the Old Testament as it is now. But in the Old Testament, sin and evil are not viewed as abstractions; rather, they exist in their concrete manifestations—real actions by real people.

In the Old Testament, God’s people, the nation of Israel, is a concrete reality. The nation lives in a specific place, the promised land. The temple is an actual place where God is present. And above all, the God of Israel is known through his concrete acts in history, foremost among them the exodus from Egypt. And just as God’s presence is known through his concrete acts in history, so evil is known through its concrete manifestations.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask, “Deliver us from the evil one” (or, “from evil”). The psalmists make the same request, but in more concrete form: deliver us from evil by delivering us from the evil ones. In the New Testament, evil and sin oppose the coming of God’s kingdom. In the Old Testament, evil and sin oppose the kingdom of God’s people, Israel. But in both cases, sin and evil are an assault on God himself by opposing that which is dearest to his heart.

Conclusion on Imprecatory Psalms

The imprecatory psalms are a constant reminder that evil is not an abstraction but a stark, everyday reality. They remind us that God hates evil, not in the abstract, but in people’s actions or failure to act—whether these are actions of unbelievers or of God’s own people. And note how often the psalmists cry out for forgiveness for their own sins.

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1 Comment

  1. The article leaves the question unanswered. Do we or don’t we curse our enemys?

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