Imprecatory Language in the Psalms

Many psalms contain language which seems at odds with Jesus’ instruction that believers should love their enemies. The same language stands in contrast too with basic modern ethics of tolerance, as well as common-sense morality. Because of this apparent incoherence between the Psalms and New Testament teaching, some interpreters use the Psalms selectively. In some cases whole psalms are omitted from official liturgical worship. In other cases psalms are edited whereby the ‘offending’ verses are omitted; effectively deleting them from the canon. What appears to be a solution to modern or Christian sensibilities, however, creates new, and I would suggest ultimately insurmountable, problems for seeing the Psalms as Scripture.

Whatever our detailed theology of Scripture, surely it is meant to be authoritative. How can we preserve its normative role if we allow ad hoc omission of parts of the whole? Once we employ criteria from outside Scripture to limit it we reject its authority over us.

Is there another way? Can we account for the imprecatory nature of some psalms language in a manner which does not deny New Testament teaching or modern, and in this case commendable, sensibilities.

Perhaps our starting point should be to note that there is no necessity to see every word the psalmist utters as entirely just and correct. Though the psalmist appears to claim righteousness, we aren’t naive enough to believe that this was actually always the case! Might it not be plausible to give priority to seeing the language of the psalms as being emotionally honest rather than ethically ideal?

Psalm 137’s call to have infants dashed against rocks is undoubtedly abhorrent, as much as it is perhaps understandable emotionally in the context of the sort of national tragedy described in for example the book of Lamentations. Does our use of Psalm 137 mean that we own the psalmist a wishes? I don’t think so. Can it not instead be seen as an honest recognition that in the most dire of circumstances it is better to commit our darkest and most unsavoury wishes to God rather than suppress our emotions. The articulation of such wishes is perhaps a psychological necessity for dealing with such emotion and allowing God to begin a healing process. Is it perhaps the case that only comfortable Western world-views that inform a spirituality where emotional honesty is suppressed beneath intellectual niceties?

Another useful point that needs to be noted us that the psalmist nearly always looks to Yahweh to carry out his dark wishes. This is ultimately a placing of what we want in God’s hands, thus recognising the provisionality of our wishes as we attempt to align ourselves with God’s wishes.

These initial thoughts are probably not very original and they don’t offer a complete solution to the imprecatory words of the Psalms. They do, however, I hope offer a starting point for more nuanced views on using using language that tends to jar against our attempts to domesticate Scripture.

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

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