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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Imprecatory Psalms - A Summary

Q&A on the Imprecatory Psalms

Was the imprecation of Psalm 137 wrong?
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.2 There on the poplars we hung our harps,3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill .6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.7 Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. "Tear it down," they cried, "tear it down to its foundations!"8 O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us-9 he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

Was the imprecation of Psalm 137 wrong? “Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” My response at this point is to say “no.” The imprecation was made within a specific covenant between God and Israel that brought the Israelites under an umbrella of blessings and curses: Those who would trouble Israel would be dealt with harshly by God. Hence, the Israelites were perfectly justified in calling down destruction on Babylon because God himself had promised that this would happen. God did not specify that infants would be dashed to the rocks, but this phrase “dashing the infants to the rock” in the ancient Hebrew world is most likely a reference to the defeat of a nation. This brutality in warfare is difficult for us to grasp in a day and age when we bomb our enemies with both weapons and humanitarian aid! But the reference to infants likely meant a total destruction of Babylon – of the same level of brutality that had been meted out to Israel. In light of God’s promise to curse those who curse Israel, this imprecation seems to be justified.

Yet even if we consider the imprecation “wrong,” saying, instead, that it is always and forever wrong to call down curses upon someone; then I am still inclined to think that the imprecatory Psalms have a great deal of value. I see one of the primary functions of Psalm 137 as being therapeutic. This is a deeply expressive Psalm that is packed with emotion. When individuals and nations face such intense trauma, it is absolutely essential to express all the feelings of rage, hate and anger that come very naturally to us. In the past, the church has tended to view these emotions as “wrong.” I am inclined to think that this thinking is incorrect and foreign to the biblical writers. Jesus himself was a very emotionally expressive person. I believe the imprecatory Psalms should not be neglected any longer by contemporary Christians, but should be explored for their insight into the human response to suffering. I suggest, therefore, that the imprecatory Psalms hold within their disturbing words the power to lead us toward healing, redemption and even forgiveness. So, even if the imprecation was wrong, then it was still not wrong!

Should Christians Imprecate Today?

This is, perhaps, the hottest question of them all. Stated a different way, “If we are not operating under the same umbrella of “blessings and cursings” that the Israelites were operating under, then does that exclude us from being able to make the same imprecation?”

I would answer first by saying that we have the right to express our anger and even hatred when we are wrongfully abused. Even if we do not call down an imprecation or a curse upon those who have wronged us, at a minimum we would have to say that it is essential to express the natural feelings we find ourselves experiencing – regardless of how ugly these emotions may be. It is simply an essential aspect of human existence that we need to find an outlet for traumatic feelings, particularly when our anger and hate may be the result of wrongful abuse by others. This is one of the key reasons why the imprecatory passages in Scripture are so important: They teach us that it is ok to express our pain.

Secondly, and more controversially, I believe we may even have the right to call down an imprecation. We must understand that human beings are created in the image of God. Hence, when anyone acts wrongly towards another human being they have not just harmed and hurt the person, they have in some way violated the law of God. There is a record being kept and God takes our treatment of others very seriously. So, in this sense, we have a right to call down curses upon those who have wronged us of no fault of our own because the laws of justice (the “eye for an eye” idea – Leviticus 24:20) apply in a universal sense to anyone who is wronged.

Don’t the Imprecatory Passages Contradict the teachings of Jesus?

The imprecatory Psalms, of course, seem to create a bit of a dilemma for the follower of Christ who encounters the words of Jesus “bless those who curse you” and “turn the other cheek.” (see particularly Matthew 5:38-48) Did Jesus come to overturn the rights of human beings who, because they were made in the image of God, were entitled to respect and fair treatment? Did Jesus come to overturn basic human rights and dignity? To say that God no longer respected the rights of the violated and the abused? That they must simply turn the other cheek with no thought to the pain suffered or the rights that were violated?

My suggestion is that what Jesus is doing here is emphasizing the end of a process of forgiveness. For the Christian the goal is always forgiveness, restoration and the healing of the individual and relationships. This is not only ideal in a theoretical sense, but it is also the most healthy place for the spiritual and psychological well-being of the person. And yet we know from observation and experience that true forgiveness can only be granted by a person who has truly explored the ramifications of the pain that has been caused. For example, if an individual is abused or violated in some way and they live in a state of denial about the actual abuse or the pain that it has caused, then this person cannot, in my opinion, truly forgive. True forgiveness only occurs when we have truly acknowledge the depth to which a violation or abuse has occurred. Hence, forgiveness will only occur at the end of a process of dealing with the consequences and severity of being wronged.

Conclusion and Summary

To conclude and summarize, it seems that the imprecatory Psalms reveal to us the depth of emotion that is associated with being abused and wronged. We are people who suffer when we are unjustly violated, and God is a God of justice who will upholds the rights of individuals and does not deal lightly with those who violate the legitimate rights of other people. The expression of these feelings and the recognition that we have the right to curse those who wrong us is often a necessary element as we move through the process of forgiveness and personal healing and restoration. Hence, Jesus’ ideal of forgiveness does not, in any way conflict with the imprecatory Psalms; rather, it compliments the Psalms and leads us to real and genuine forgiveness. Because, as the imprecatory Psalms demonstrate in a very vivid way, sometimes the ultimate goal of forgiveness takes us down a road that makes us confront and express the ugliest of emotions.