To Curse or Love Our Enemies?

The Imprecatory Psalms
When reading the largest book in our Bible, the Psalms, Christians throughout the centuries have wrestled with what are called the imprecatory (cursing) psalms. These uncomfortable passages call down destruction on enemies, sometimes in graphic ways. The most notorious example of this is Psalm 137:8-9, where the psalmist declares: “Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” I never heard this verse in Sunday school. Or anywhere in church, for that matter.
Ditto with the so-called “Judas” psalm:
“May the table set before them become a snare;
may it become retribution and a trap.
May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see,
and their backs be bent forever.
Pour out your wrath on them;
let your fierce anger overtake them.
May their place be deserted;
let there be no one to dwell in their tents. . .
Charge them with crime upon crime;
do not let them share in your salvation.
May they be blotted out of the book of life
and not be listed with the righteous.” -Psalm 69:22-25; 27-28
And there are a number of other psalms expressing similar sentiments. What are we to do with these difficult psalms? To further clarify the problem, contrast the psalmist’s cries with the revolutionary statement of Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. -Matthew 5:43-44
If Paul says that all scripture is God-breathed or God-inspired (2 Tim 3:16), then is there a theological contradiction here? The (God-breathed) psalm curses enemies, while Jesus loves enemies. What to do, what to do?
Most Christian traditions simply ignore these psalms like an embarrassing family member at a party. They are cut out of the liturgies, lectionaries, sermons, and songs. In part, this is understandable. They are shocking and jarring.
Some (progressive) Christian traditions condemn these psalms, simply scraping all scripture that offends (which turns out to be quite a lot). Anything that doesn’t snuggle up to our western, (post)modern, individualistic, egalitarian views gets the boot. With the imprecatory psalms in particular, we can think that this represented “primitive” and violent religious sentiments, which have no place in our society today.
Well it’s easy to critique other views, but harder to put forth your own. So I better try. In order to maintain both the credibility of all God-breathed scripture (the Psalms), and Jesus’ command to love our enemies, I think we need to hold a few of the following truths in tension. I have six thoughts on these severe psalms.
1) First, we have to remember the context of the imprecatory psalms. For example, the notorious Psalm 137 is penned in the midst of the Babylonian exile. Most of us have no concept of the horrors of the foreign evasion, eviction, and exploitation that Judah experienced under Babylon. There are few today that can testify to the kind of awful, unjust suffering that the psalmist faced. Before we judge the “vindictive” psalmist from the comforts of our couches, we should consider the situation he faced. Typically we have a lot more understanding and patience with those in great pain; linguistic precision is hardly in order in the emergency room.
2) Second, there have been some helpful studies on the parallels between the imprecatory psalms and the Torah itself (the first five books of the Bible). The Abrahamic Covenant, for example, promises blessings to those who blessed God’s people, and curses to those who curse them (Genesis 12:2-3). The Song of Moses (Deut 32:1-43) and the lax talionis (laws of equal retaliation, like Deut 19:16-21) also include prays for justice. The psalmist is simply (re)using the language God already used for those who violate his covenants.
3) Third, it’s important to note that the psalmist is not taking matters into his own hands. There is no attempt for physical violence or revenge. The psalmist is not punching, but praying. John N. Day says it like this: “in the face of humanly unpunishable injustice, God’s chastised people had no other resource but to turn to him.” The psalmist entrusts his desire for justice to the only One who can actually do something about it.
4) Fourth, all psalms in general and the imprecatory psalms in particular show us that God welcomes our brutal honesty. There are things we can say, like doubts, frustrations, curses, and even accusations when we are alone with God. He can handle it, he invites it, and he would much rather hear our honest pain and imperfect desires than our fake pious platitudes.
5) Fifth, the New Testament isn’t a curse-free zone either. Romans 12:18-21 is a fascinating text on this discussion. On the one hand, believers are to do their best to live in harmony with all people. Never are they allowed to avenge themselves, but instead, they are supposed to “leave it to the wrath of God.” “Vengenge is MINE, declares the Lord.” There is a right way to wait for the justice of God on our enemies. However, lest readers only fixate on the wrath of God and the punishment deserved by enemies, they are still to treat them well and thereby “overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:20-21).
2 Thessalonians 1:5-12 is another strong passage in the area of imprecations and understanding God’s heart. God is said to “consider it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you.” Vengeance, when exacted by God, is a good, holy, and just thing. In fact, the justice is far deeper than anything any Old Testament curse could announce, as Paul refers to the “punishment of eternal destruction.”
6) Sixth, and finally, we should only pray imprecatory prayers in light of the cross. While we express frustration for our enemies to God, we must also remember the way he treated his enemies: he died for them. It’s right to want “the judge of all the earth to do what is right,” but it’s also right and even required to want the restoration of our enemies to relationship with God.