What about the Imprecatory Psalms?
W. Gary Crampton
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The Book of Psalms has been aptly described by Garry Brantley as an infallible and inerrant “collection of songs and prayers covering a variety of themes.”(1) Some of the Psalms are Psalms of praise: individual (30, 34) and corporate (66, 75); some are Psalms of pilgrimage (120-134); some are Messianic Psalms (2, 45, 110); some are Psalms which celebrate the universal reign of God (47, 93-99); some are prayers: of individuals (3, 4, 38) and of the community (44, 79); some Psalms are penitential (32, 51); and some are Psalms of imprecation (69, 109). It is the imprecatory Psalms which are the subject of this study.
Imprecatory Psalms, to quote Gleason Archer, are those which “contain appeals to God to pour out His wrath upon the Psalmist’s enemies.”(2) Or in the words of J. A. Motyer, they are “Psalms containing passages seeking the hurt of someone else.”(3) At first glance, such “prayers of destruction” may appear to be out of accord with the Christian’s responsibility to love his enemies (Matthew 5:44). Further reflection, however, will reveal that this is not the case.
As to the number of imprecatory Psalms, there are differing opinions. Some scholars see as few as three, others as many as twenty. The reason for this difference is that there are a number of Psalms that contain elements of malediction. It seems to this writer that there are at least ten such Psalms: 7, 35, 55, 58, 69, 79, 83, 109, 137, and 139.
There are several alleged solutions to the imprecatory Psalms which are inadequate:(4)
1) The liberal or modernist view is that the imprecatory Psalms are merely the uninspired words of the authors. No vengeance of God is to be assumed in these cases; rather, it is the vengeance of the fallible writers.
Such a theory, of course, is unacceptable to those who hold to the Biblical teaching of divine inspiration. “All Scripture,” both the Old as well as the New Testament writings, says Paul, “is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Then too, in 2 Samuel 23:1-2, we read that “the sweet Psalmist of Israel” spoke by the “Spirit of the LORD…His word was on my tongue.” Further, the Psalms of imprecation are quoted in the New Testament by Christ and others as fully inspired (John 2:17; 15:25; Acts 1:20; Romans 11:9-10; 15:3).
2) The Dispensationalist view avers that these Psalms are to be understood in light of the inferior ethical concepts of the Old Testament, which was a dispensation of law. This is now an outmoded ethical system. Therefore, the Psalms in which we find the invoking of justice, calamity, or curse, have no place in the
New Testament era of grace.
There are several problems with this theory. First, the Old Testament system of ethics is not outmoded. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith (19:5),(5) the moral law of the Old Covenant “does forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God, the Creator, who gave it. Neither does Christ in the gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.”
Second, to simply relegate prayers of imprecation to the Old Testament will not do. The New Testament also contains such prayers. In Matthew 23, for example, Jesus pronounces imprecatory “woes” on the scribes and Pharisees. In Galatians 1:8-9 and 5:12, we read of Paul “anathematizing” anyone who preaches “any other gospel” besides the apostolic Gospel. In Revelation 6:10, the martyred saints cry out: “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the Earth?” And in Revelation 8 we are told that it is the imprecatory prayers of the saints that brings God’s judgments against His enemies.
3) Some scholars, such as Charles Spurgeon, contend that these Psalms are not so much imprecations as they are prophetic in nature.(6) In this view the Psalmist is not petitioning God’s wrath, he is merely predicting it.
In answer to this contention, it should first be noted that it is true that prophetic utterances regarding God’s vengeance are found in the Psalter. But this does not explain the imperative verbal form that appears in several of the imprecatory Psalms (for example, 55:9; 109:6). Another problem is that in some of the imprecations, such as found in Psalm 137:8-9, the third person is being used in such a way “that the Psalmist obviously is expressing personal satisfaction over the judgment of wrongdoers, not prophetically revealing pending divine retribution.”(7)
4) A fourth unsatisfactory solution regarding these Psalms is the claim that they are to be understood figuratively. That is, the imprecations are addressed, not against human beings, but against spiritual enemies, such as sinful tendencies, temptations, and demonic forces. But this is pure fantasy. There is nothing in the text of the Psalms to suggest such a whimsical solution. As Bushell said, those who “see the condemned persons as mere personifications of evil, are guilty of fanciful and illegitimate exegesis.”(8)
5) Finally, there is the theory that the maledictions are not those of the Psalmist, but of his enemies. This alleged solution necessitates the implied use of the participle “saying” prior to the imprecations. For example, in Psalm 109:6-20, we have the imprecatory prayer of David. And if we add “saying” to verse 5, then we have the imprecations attributed to David’s enemies. Verse 5 would then read: “Thus they [the enemies] have rewarded me evil for good, and hatred for my love, saying….” Psalm 2:2 is appealed to here, where the word “saying” is implied by the context. As Brantley pointed out, however, this solution “is strained.” Whereas “the context of Psalm 2 indicates that verse three records the sentiments of those who ‘took counsel’ against Yahweh (i.e., Jehovah) and His Messiah,” Psalm 109 indicates no such thing. “Furthermore, this solution would not explain other imprecations in which a plurality of enemies is indicated (compare Psalms 35:4-7; 58:3-8; 83:11-17).”(9)
6) Additionally, there is a current-day “misuse” of the imprecatory Psalms, wherein churches are found praying maledictory prayers against those who have either left these particular churches or, as teachers at the church school have filed for unemployment benefits. To pray in such a fashion is to do disservice to the teaching of Scripture on this subject.(10) Great care must also be taken here by the church not to overreact to Islamic terrorists by declaring “holy war” against those who have attacked the United States of America. It is one thing to attack America; it is another thing altogether to attack Christ’s church. Thus David can properly pray against the enemies of the Old Testament church: “Arise, O LORD, confront him, cast him down; deliver my life from the wicked with Your sword, with Your hand from men, O LORD, from men of this world who have their portion in this life, and whose belly You fill with Your hidden treasure. They are satisfied with children, and leave the rest of their possession for their babes” (Psalm 17:13-14).
A proper view of the imprecatory Psalms recognizes the following Biblical principles:
1) First, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 1) says: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” Commenting on the imprecatory sections of Psalm 69, John Calvin wrote: “It was a holy zeal for the divine glory which impelled him [the Psalmist] to summon the wicked to God’s judgment seat.”(11) This being the case, the imprecatory Psalmists are to be seen as men who expressed a burning desire that God be glorified. They earnestly sought the vindication of God’s name (Psalm 9:19-20; 83:16-18). As sin is an affront to the holiness of God, states David, it must be judged accordingly (Psalm 139:19-20).
2) The authors of the Book of Psalms were fully aware of the fact that the meting out of vengeance is a divine prerogative. In Deuteronomy 32:35, we read: “Vengeance is Mine [God’s], and recompense.” The imprecations are to be understood as prayers to God, not the intended actions of the Psalmists themselves. This being so, the Psalmist’s cause is identified with the cause of God (Psalm 139:19-22).(12) The Psalmist, then, is duty bound to pray for the overthrow of God’s enemies. Johannes Vos said it this way:
The total destruction of evil, including the judicial destruction of evil men, is the prerogative of the sovereign God, and it is right not only to pray for the accomplishment of this destruction, but even to assist in effecting it when commanded to do so by God Himself…. God is both sovereign and righteous; He possesses the unquestionable right to destroy all evil in His universe; if it is right for God to plan and effect this destruction, then it is right also for the saints to pray for the same.(13)
3) Contrary to the criticism of the skeptics, the attitude of the Psalmists is not one of vindictiveness. David disclaims any such notion in Psalm 109:5, where we read: “Thus they have rewarded me evil for good, and hatred for my love.” On two occasions, when opportunity availed, David declined to take Saul’s life (1 Samuel 24, 26). Moreover, he even prayed for his enemies when they were in need (Psalm 35:12-14). And in Psalm 83:16-18, we read that the Psalmist sought the ultimate salvation of the wicked: “Fill their faces with shame, that they may seek Your name, O LORD…that men may know that You, whose name alone is the LORD, are the Most High over all the Earth.” Todd Ruddell commented:
The words of the Psalter ought to be understood…not as an expression of an angry author or fulminations of a firebrand, but as the sentiments of God Himself, the thoughts of the Psalmist being raised by that powerful Spirit of prophecy, above mere human vendetta and cursing. The expressions of the Psalmist against sinners are God’s expressions. They are the thoughts of His heart.(14)
4) To pray the imprecatory prayers is to pray for the overthrow of Satan and his minions. If God’s kingdom is to advance, in accordance with the Lord’s Prayer (which believers are enjoined to pray): “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven” (Matthew 6:10), then the kingdom of the evil one must be destroyed. God’s glory necessitates the destruction of the wicked. Imprecatory prayers aim at just this. The Lord’s Prayer is itself a prayer for the overthrow of evil.
5) Along this same line of thought, the inspired writers recognized that God is the only true defense for the elect, as they are being assaulted by the reprobate. Hence, to pray against the Psalmist’s enemies is to pray for the help of God’s people. In Psalm 7:9-10, for instance, we read: Oh let the wickedness of the wicked come to an end, but establish the just….My defense is of God, who saves the upright in heart.”
A Biblical view of the imprecatory Psalms does not recognize them as problematic. To invoke divine retribution on the enemies of God and His people is to pray in accordance with the revealed will of God. After all, these Psalms are a part of the infallible and inerrant “collection of songs and prayers covering a variety of themes.” And they, being as fully inspired as the rest of Scripture, are “profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
This being so, Vos correctly concluded:
Instead of being influenced by the sickly sentimentalism of the present day, Christian people should realize that the glory of God demands the destruction of evil…[therefore] instead of being ashamed of the imprecatory Psalms, and attempting to apologize for them and explain them away, Christian people should glory in them and not hesitate to use them in the public and private exercises of the worship of God.(15)
Soli Deo Gloria
(1) Garry K. Brantley, “Prayers of Destruction,” Reason and Revelation (Montgomery: Apologetics Press, Volume XII, Number 12, December 1992), 45.
(2) Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1964, 1974), 460. As we will see, the Psalmist’s enemies are also God’s enemies.
(3) J. A. Motyer, “Imprecatory Psalms,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 554.
(4) Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, 1977), 34-37; Johannes G. Vos, “The Ethical Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms,” The Westminster Theological Journal, edited by Paul Woolley and John Murray (Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, November 1941 to May 1943), Volumes IV and V, 124-130; Brantley, “Prayers of Destruction,” 46-47. The writers listed in this footnote do not adhere to these “inadequate” theories; rather, they claim them to be “inadequate.”
(5) All references to the Westminster Standards, comprised of the Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, is from Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1994). The English has been modernized.
(6) Charles H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David (Grand Rapids: Guardian Press, 1981), III: 266. C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch also take the position that although there is a way in which the New Covenant saint can sing the imprecatory Psalms, these Psalms are primarily to be seen as predictions (Commentary on the Old Testament, translated by James Martin [Grand Rapids: reprinted in 1980], V: 74-75).
(7) Brantley, “Prayers of Destruction,” 46.
(8) Bushell, The Songs of Zion, 35-36.
(9) Brantley, “Prayers of Destruction,” 46-47.
(10) For more on this, see John Robbins, “The Reconstructionist Road to Rome,” The Trinity Review May-June 1992.
(11) John Calvin, Commentaries, Volumes 1-22 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981), Commentary on Psalm 69:22.
(12) See Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 18, “The Miscellanies” 501-832, edited by Ava Chamberlain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), Miscellany 640.
(13) Vos, “The Ethical Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms,” 135-136.
(14) Todd Ruddell, “Psallo,” The Confessional Presbyterian, edited by Chris Coldwell (Volume 1, 2005), 164.
(15) Vos, “The Ethical Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms” 138.
Update on Clark and His Critics
Clark and His Critics, Volume 7 of The Works of Gordon H. Clark, will go to press soon. This is the long awaited republication of The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark edited by Ronald Nash combined with Clark Speaks From the Grave. This new volume in the signature series should be out by late spring or early summer. Contents:
A Wide and Deep Swath - Carl F. H. Henry
The Wheaton Lectures: (1) Secular Philosophy (Epistemology, Science, Ethics, Religion)
The Wheaton Lectures: (2) The Axiom of Revelation (A Suggested Axiom, God Otherwise Unknowable, Definition of Revelation, Does This Beg All Questions?, Is The Principle Broad Enough?, The Law of Contradiction, Logic and God, Logic and Scripture, Logic in Man, A Subsection on Analogy, An Alternate View, Biblical Intellectualism, Trivial Technicalities, Conclusion and Anticipation)
The Wheaton Lectures: (3) Several Implications (Herman Dooyeweerd, History, Politics, Ethics, Religion, Conclusion)
To My Esteemed Critics
Gordon Clark’s Theory of Knowledge - Nash (Logic, Logic and Being, Logic and Language, Logic and Skepticism, Logic and God, Logic and Man, Logic and Faith, Logic and Truth, How Does Man Know God?, Empiricism, Apriorism, Revelation, Natural Theology, Revelation as Encounter, Verbal Revelation, The Existence of God, The Argument From Coherence, The Argument From the Nature of Truth, Truth Exists, Truth Is Immutable, Truth Is Eternal, Truth Is Mental, Truth Is Superior to the Human Mind, Truth Is God, God’s Knowledge and Man’s Knowledge, A Theological Problem, Two Philosophical Problems, An Ethical Problem, The Metaphysical Implications of Clark’s Epistemology, Clark’s Later Theory of Knowledge) - Reply to Ronald H. Nash (Exposition or Construction, Disagreements, Persons and Propositions, What Is Truth?, The Bible and Truth, Ethics)
Theism and the Problem of Ethics - Westphal (Parts I - V) - Reply to Merold Westphal
The Philosophical Methodology of Gordon Clark - Holmes (The Disjunctive Argument, The System) - Reply to Arthur E. Holmes
Revelation and Epistemology - Mavrodes (What Can Be Deduced From the Axiom?, Can We Axiomatize Christian Doctrine?, Biblical Revelation and Sense Experience, Revelation and the Westminster Principle) - Reply to George I. Mavrodes
Gordon Clark’s Philosophy of Language - Freeman (Exposition, Criticism) - Reply to David H. Freeman
Gordon Clark’s Philosophy of Education - Rushdoony
Gordon Clark: Christian Apologist - Weaver (The Basic Premise, Taking the Offensive, In Defense of Christianity, The Existence of God, The Problem of Human Knowledge, Comrades-in-Arms, Clark and Buswell, Clark and Carnell, Clark and Van Til, Critique, The Test For Truth, The Problem of Common Ground) - Reply to Gilbert Weaver
Gordon Clark’s View of the State - Singer (Basic Assumptions, The State and the Problem of Sovereignty, The Origin of the State, The Powers of the State, Conclusion)
Gordon Clark’s Philosophy of Science - Hartzler
A Philosophical Appraisal of Clark’s View of Science - Stahl (Exposition and Criticism, Miracles) - Reply to John T. Stahl
Gordon Clark’s Philosophy of History - Montgomery (Prolegomena: Philosophy of History in A Christian View of Men and Things, Modern Secular Philosophers of History under Clark’s Critical Guns, The Christian Corrective: Augustine, Clark as Critic of Contemporary Theology of History, Clark vis-a-vis Barth, Clark Contra Bultmann, The Deeper Issues, The Problem of Time, The Lord of History: God and Determinism, The Choice Between Philosophies of History, The Presuppositionalist Dilemma and the Christian Philosophy of History Revisited, The Surd Problem in Clark’s Historiographical Presuppositionalism, An Unsuccessful Rehabilitation, A Proposed Refocusing of Christian Philosophy of History)
The Theology of Gordon Clark - Nicole (Gordon H. Clark’s Commitment to Biblical Authority, Gordon H. Clark’s Commitment to Presbyterian Theology, Gordon H. Clark’s Commitment to Rationalism, Conclusion) - Reply to Roger Nicole
About the Contributors
Clark Speaks From the Grave
Foreword: America’s Augustine: Gordon H. Clark
Vern S. Poythress
Robert L. Reymond
Gordon R. Lewis
John Warwick Montgomery
The Problem of Individuation
The Works of Gordon Haddon Clark
The Crisis of Our Time