The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics -- By: John N. Day

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 159:634 (Apr 2002)
Article: The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics
Author: John N. Day


The Imprecatory Psalms
and Christian Ethics

John N. Day

John N. Day is Senior Pastor, Bellewood Presbyterian Church, Bellevue, Washington.

One eminently troublesome portion of the Scriptures is the so-called “imprecatory psalms.” These psalms express the desire for God’s vengeance to fall on His (and His people’s) enemies and include the use of actual curses, or imprecations. Such psalms naturally evoke a reaction of revulsion in many Christians. For are not Christians to love their enemies (Matt. 5:44), to “bless and not curse” (Rom. 12:14)? How then does one justify calls for the barbaric dashing of infants against a rock (Ps. 137:9) or the washing of one’s “feet in the blood of the wicked” (58:10)? Are the imprecatory psalms merely a way of venting rage without really meaning it? Or is cursing enemies the Old Testament way and loving enemies the New Testament way? Has the morality of Scripture evolved? And is it in any way legitimate to use these psalms in Christian life and worship?

The imprecatory psalms have been explained as expressing (a) evil emotions, either to be avoided altogether or to be expressed and relinquished,1 (b) a morality consonant with the Old Covenant

but inconsistent with the New,2 or (c) words appropriately uttered solely from the lips of Christ, and consequently only by His followers through Him.3

This article proposes that the imprecatory psalms have a place in the New Testament church by establishing (a) that they root their theology of cursing, of crying out for God’s vengeance, in the Torah—principally in the promise of divine vengeance expressed in the Song of Moses (Deut. 32:1–43), the principle of divine justice outlined in the lex talionis (e.g., 19:16–21), and the assurance of divine cursing as well as blessing in the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 12:2–3); and (b) that this theology is carried largely unchanged through the Scriptures to the end of the New Testament (Rev. 15:2–4; 18:20), thus buttressing its applicability to ...

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