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imprecation in the Psalms

O God, break the teeth in their mouths; 
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!
Let them vanish like water that runs away; 
when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted...  
...Mankind will say, "Surely there is a reward for the righteous; 
surely there is a God who judges on earth."
(Psalm 58:6, 7, 11 ESV)

Fill their faces with shame, 
that they may seek your name, O LORD.
(Psalm 83:16 ESV)

“Imprecation” or “imprecatory” language is to speak a curse upon someone.  It is the opposite of giving a blessing or benediction.  As we read Psalms we are presented with a number of prayers – some quite strong – where the Psalmist calls down a curse, or prays for graphic judgment, upon others. (So, is it okay for us to pray for God to kick somebody in the teeth...?) 

In a journal article last century Chalmers Martin* gives perhaps the best explanation of the place of this language in the Psalter.  He begins by noting that in the Psalms “‘imprecations’ are not mere outbursts of the spirit of vengeance.”  He goes on to give three explanations for imprecations in the Psalms... 

“These so-called imprecations are the expression of the longing of an Old Testament saint for the vindication of God's righteousness.  How much this subject of theodicy, or the justification of the dealings of God with man, engaged the attention of the Old Testament writers is well known. The whole Book of Job is devoted to it...

“The second answer we may give to the question as to the real nature of these so-called imprecatory expressions is that they are, particularly in the mouth of David, utterances of zeal for God and God's kingdom. This will be the more plain when we remind ourselves that the kingdom of God existed at that time not under an ecclesiastical but under a political form--the form, namely, of a theocratic monarchy--and that to this divinely ordained kingship David sustained, and that consciously, a close official relation through the greater part of his life...

“Once more, and finally, these so-called imprecations are prophetic teachings as to the attitude of God toward sin and impenitent and persistent sinners. The psalms are not merely lyric poems, embodying the feelings of their authors; they are lyric poems composed under the influence of the Spirit of Inspiration, and as such are a part of God's revelation of Himself...

This can guide us, as New Testament believers today, in how to use these psalms in our own worship and prayer. So we are praying that the Lord's Kingdom will come in power, glory, and judgment. That all evil be judged. We can pray for the fulfillment of Romans 16:2 ("The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet") and 2 Thessalonians 1:50-8, for example.


*Above quotes of Chalmers Martin are found in the Princeton Theological Review 1.4 (1903) 537-53.  Public Domain.  The full article here


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