by Dr. Michael Chan
The Old Testament contains numerous poems in which people ask for help, protest their suffering and plead with God for intervention. Some of these poets even ask God to act violently against their enemies and oppressors. Biblical scholars call these “imprecatory” poems. “Imprecatory” refers to calling down evil upon a person. Here are just a few examples:
Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me;
fight against those who fight against me!
Take hold of shield and buckler,
and rise up to help me!
Draw the spear and javelin
against my pursuers;
say to my soul,
“I am your salvation.”
Let them be put to shame and dishonor
who seek after my life.
Let them be turned back and confounded
who devise evil against me.
Let them be like chaff before the wind,
with the angel of the Lord driving them on.
Let their way be dark and slippery,
with the angel of the Lord pursuing them.
For without cause they hid their net for me;
without cause they dug a pit for my life.
(Psalm 35:1-7 NRSV)
The poet attempts to enlist God’s assistance in confronting relentless, life-threatening enemies, hoping that God will meet contention with contention.
The book of Jeremiah is full of conflict between the prophet and his opponents. Jeremiah, for his part, lashes his persecutors with a ferocious tongue. After learning about a plot against him, Jeremiah spews forth these venomous words:
Give heed to me, O Lord,
and listen to what my adversaries say!
Is evil a recompense for good?
Yet they have dug a pit for my life.
Remember how I stood before you
to speak good for them,
to turn away your wrath from them.
Therefore give their children over to famine;
hurl them out to the power of the sword,
let their wives become childless and widowed.
May their men meet death by pestilence,
their youths be slain by the sword in battle.
May a cry be heard from their houses,
when you bring the marauder suddenly upon them!
For they have dug a pit to catch me,
and laid snares for my feet.
Yet you, O Lord, know
all their plotting to kill me.
Do not forgive their iniquity,
do not blot out their sin from your sight.
Let them be tripped up before you;
deal with them while you are angry
Whenever I teach these texts in congregations or at the seminary, my students are often appalled and even embarrassed when they recognize that texts such as these belong in Holy Scripture alongside verses like Matthew 4:44-45: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” The surprise is at least partially due to the fact that the Lectionary regularly hides these texts from us—perhaps for our own “protection.” These psalms are treated like the family secret that everybody knows but that nobody mentions, especially in polite company. I certainly do not blame anyone for being embarrassed or revulsed by these texts. I share these sentiments. The imprecatory poems leave many of us wondering why they are in Scripture first place and what role they might play in Christian study of the Bible.
But first I need to confess that I’m also skeptical of these surprised reactions, especially when I look honestly at my own heart. One of the things I have come to learn about myself (and I suspect that it is true of others as well) is that I do not respond very well to being mistreated. When I am slighted, unjustly handled or grossly misrepresented, my anger is ignited, even if externally dampened by years of finely-honed bourgeois social sensibilities. If those visceral reactions were given a soundtrack, it might sound something like the texts above. And unlike the authors mentioned above, nobody has ever tried to kill me—at least as far as I know.
I distrust my revulsion of these imprecatory poems because I think I have more in common with them than I would care to admit. I think all of us do. The desire for retribution and vengeance are not unfamiliar territory to any human being. In fact, human history demonstrates that the desire to punish one’s enemies is the norm and not the exception. This impulse is not limited to a particular class, race, gender, etc. The desire for retribution is a human desire. Spend a few minutes on Twitter and Reddit and you will find that human beings are every bit as vindictive as the authors of these poems. The imprecatory poems are not an embarrassing family secret to be hidden away. They are a mirror that shows us who we are.
The famous reformer John Calvin once famously uttered these words about the book of Psalms: “I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, ‘An anatomy of the Parts of the Soul’; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror” Calvin’s statement is true of the psalms of praise. It is true of the petitions. It is true of the psalms of laments. But it is also true of the rage and vindictiveness. When we read poems that wish harm upon our neighbors, call down violence on enemies, and wish harm upon those who harm us we are looking squarely into a mirror and seeing ourselves. The painful truth is that these poems show us who we are.
If that is true, then what role could the imprecatory poems play in Christian spiritual life and practice? How could they possibly contribute to a life shaped by Jesus’ words, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44)?
For my part, these poems remain vitally important to the life of faith. As a starting point, if thoughts and feelings of rage and vindictiveness are a regular part of human existence, then these poems help us to tell the truth about the world and about ourselves. In this sense they serve as confessions. They help us acknowledge before God and before one another that the Holy Spirit’s presence in our life is not an end-all cure for base human emotions such as anger, hate and vengefulness. As Paul says, “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members (Romans 7:23). We can fruitfully read the imprecatory poems alongside texts like 1 John 1:8: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
Thinking about the imprecatory poems as confessional statements also opens new possibilities for Christian worship. I recently spoke with a Jewish colleague about his synagogue’s celebration of Purim, a festival centered on Esther and the Jews’ deliverance from Haman’s conspiracy to annihilate them. The book of Esther contains many verses, themes, and ideas that modern readers rightly view as sexist and diminishing toward women. The cantor at this year’s Purim service was a woman, and whenever she encountered such verses, she would sing them according to the tune of a lament—a song of sorrow. She preserved the words of the text but musically interpreted them in a way that drew attention to their more troubling features. We can do something similar with the imprecatory poems. They do not have to be read approvingly, with pride, or even with anger. They can be read with the recognition that wishing harm upon the neighbor is both human and lamentable.
These poems can also teach us how to pray on behalf of others. You may presently be in a place where you are not feeling rage, anger, and vindictiveness. But there are people in the world who do feel that way as a result of mistreatment, injustice, or brutality. To borrow from Ellen Davis’ comments on psalms of complaint, “When you are not yourself in grief, let them instruct your compassion.” If you cannot relate to the imprecatory poems, ask if there is someone in your life who can, and let that realization stir you to pray and act on their behalf. And if in the process you discover that you are the reason for their anger, then the imprecatory poem offers you another gift—the chance to repent of your sins and repair the relationship.
In the American context, the church is commonly criticized for its inauthenticity and avoidance of honest conversation. But what if the church made space for people to expose the voices and realities that live deep within them, as beautiful or ugly as they may be—not in order to legitimate them, but instead to expose them to the light of God in the context of a community grounded in reconciliation? It is worth noting that the poets of the imprecatory poems embedded their curses within the context of prayer. They are requests for God to undertake these acts, not the poet. By lifting these requests up to God, the poets show us precisely where such prayers belong—in the hands of a Messiah who willingly took the full brunt of human violence and hatred into his own body. Taking up violent words in prayer may be the best possible way of detaching ourselves from its corrosive effects.
So how exactly should Christians treat the imprecatory poems, especially given Jesus’ command to “love your enemies and pray for (not against!) those who persecute you” (Matthew 4:44). Praying for someone who mistreats you may be Jesus’ most difficult command. It requires the kind of love that only God can show and that only the Spirit can give. The imprecatory poems of the Old Testament are probably not the kind of prayers that Matthew 4 has in mind, but they may represent a crucial waypoint on the path to deeper compassion.
 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 1:xxxvi-xxxvii.
 Ellen Davis, Getting Involved with God (Cambridge, Massachusetts : Cowley Publications, 2001), 20.
Michael Chan is Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. He is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University (B.A.), Luther Seminary (M.A. in Old Testament), and Emory University (Ph.D.). Chan has written many articles and books including Exploring the Bible (with Eric Barreto). In addition to being a sought-after speaker and author, he also hosts the Gospel Beautiful podcast, which interviews guests about the challenging task of preaching the Gospel in the 21st century.
Categories: March 2021: "Grieve"