Interpreting The Curses In The Psalms -- By: Alex Luc

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 42:3 (Sep 1999)
Article: Interpreting The Curses In The Psalms
Author: Alex Luc

Interpreting The Curses In The Psalms

Alex Luc*

Imprecations or curses in the Psalms are not confined to the familiar imprecatory psalms of 35, 58, 69, 83, 109 and 137. The last two psalms are especially known for their harsh language, which calls for the destruction of the children of the psalmists’ enemies. The phenomenon of psalmic imprecations is further complicated by the use of some of these psalms as Scriptural witnesses in the NT. Previous studies have not given adequate attention to the Biblical basis of these imprecations and the similarity of their language to the other parts of the OT, especially the prophetic writings. Through examining the prophetic role of the psalmists, the imprecatory parallels in prophetic speeches, and the prior Scriptural bases of the psalmic imprecations, this study will suggest that it is best to consider the imprecations as prophetic judgment proclamations, and that in light of this consideration a proper understanding of the psalmic curses themselves and their contemporary implications for Christians may be attained.

I. Approaches To Psalmic Imprecations

In this study, the term “imprecatory psalm” does not suggest a genre but refers to a psalm that contains one or more verses of imprecation. The imprecations are basically the psalmists’ call or wish for divine punishments on the enemies. They are generally expressed in the form of a jussive statement (as in 55:15, “Let death come upon them!”), sometimes in the form of an imperative (as in 59:11, “Make them totter by your power, and bring them down!”), or a mix of the two, as in Psalm 109, which begins with an imperative and then continues with jussives: “Appoint a wicked man over him! … Let his days be few; let another take his office. Let his children be orphans, and his wife a widow” (vv. 6–9).

Chalmers Martin suggests that there are only 18 psalms that “contain any element of imprecation” in the Psalms. 1 But his calculation is too conservative. On the other hand, R. M. Benson lists 39 psalms in the category of what he labels as “comminatory” psalms, but some of these psalms do not contain imprecations in the jussive or imperative mode. 2 When we survey all the statements or the so-ca...

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