Please Zap Them, Lord!

Psalm 35:5 - May they be like chaff before the wind.

Psalm 55:15 - Let death take my enemies by surprise; let them go down alive to the grave.

Psalm 58:6 - O God, break the teeth in their mouths.

Psalm 69:28 - May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous.

Psalm 109:9 - May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.

Psalm 137:9 - How blessed will be the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

Please zap them, Lord! That sure doesn't sound like a prayer from the Bible, does it? Well, look again at our selected texts from the Psalms. Isn't the essence of these prayers a request for zapping? But how could such prayer requests be included in the Bible? Didn't Jesus say, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:39)? How are we to explain this apparent inconsistency in the Bible?

The quotations above were all taken from what are known as the imprecatory psalms. To imprecate means to invoke evil upon, or curse. Psalms 7, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 109, 137 and 139 all contain prayers for God's judgment on the psalmist's enemies. The imprecatory psalms have bothered many growing Christians in view of the New Testament's overwhelming emphasis on showing love to everyone--including our enemies (Matthew 5:44). The imprecations of these psalms seem so far removed from love that some Christians have concluded that David and other psalm writers were mistaken when they prayed these prayers about their enemies. The psalmists are to be forgiven, these Christians would say, because they were living in Old Testament times before the New Testament teaching of Christian love. In this view, the imprecatory psalms are included in Scripture to show how different our attitudes should be now that Christ has come and we live in the light of the New Testament truth.

While it is true that the interpretation of any Scripture must always take the historical context in which it was written into account, the imprecatory psalms cannot be explained away as mere Old Testament ignorance of God's later revelation concerning love for our enemies. Listen to what David wrote in one of the imprecatory psalms regarding his love for those who were against him. "In return for my love they act as my accusers, but I am in prayer. Thus they have repaid me evil for good, and hatred for my love" (Psalm 109:4-5). Remember also David's acts of kindness to King Saul who, because of jealousy, was out to kill David. (See 1 Samuel 24 and 26.)

It is not true that love for your neighbor and for your enemy is a concept only revealed in the New Testament. When the Lord Jesus commanded that one should love his neighbor as himself, He was quoting the Old testament Law. (See Leviticus 19:18.) As for showing love to your enemies, this is also part of the Old Testament law. Exodus 23:4-5 states, "If you come across your enemy's ox or donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; you shall surely help him with it." Love for your enemy is also part of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. Proverbs 24:17 says, "Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice." No, the imprecatory psalms cannot be explained away as Old testament ignorance of New Testament truth.

Furthermore, the imprecatory psalms cannot be looked on as just the record of psalmists who lost their cool under pressure or persecution, let fly with some momentary outbursts and then regained their serenity--something we all do on occasion. No, the imprecatory psalms aren't historical narrative--they are lyric poems. They were not dashed off in unguarded moments but methodically composed at unhurried times. In fact, it can be seen from the titles that most of the imprecatory psalms were written to be sung in public worship!

In order to adequately answer the difficult question of the imprecatory psalms, a number of points need to be considered. First of all, it should be noted that imprecation is a relatively minor theme of the Psalms. Even in the so-called imprecatory psalms, the amount of actual imprecation is considerably limited. In fact, it would be more proper to speak of "imprecations in the psalms" rather than "imprecatory psalms". Let us understand, then, that our question concerns a theme which does not characterize the Old Testament or the Psalms or even most of the imprecatory psalms.

Another point to keep in mind is that hyperbole (purposeful exaggeration or excessive language) is a figure of speech which is often used in Hebrew poetry. Consider, for example, David's lament in Psalm 6:6. "Every night I make my bed swim, I dissolve my couch with my tears." Hardly is such an extravagant description to be taken literally! While the colorful fervent overstatement of Hebrew poetry does not explain away the imprecations of the Psalms, it does help explain such expressive terms as "break teeth" and "dash infants".

A very significant consideration to our question is the fact that none of the imprecations of the Psalms (or any other book of the Bible) is a request for personal revenge. When the context surrounding the imprecations is examined, we find that the psalmist is not involved in a personal vendetta but rather desires to see the righteous standards of God upheld by His judgment of the wicked for their sin. Look, for example, at the conclusion of Psalm 58. "The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will wash his feet in the blood of the wicked. And men will say, `Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth!'" Notice, for another example, the reason for the imprecation of Psalm 109. In verses 16-18 we read, "Because he did not remember to show kindness, but persecuted the afflicted and the needy and the brokenhearted, to put them to death. He also loved cursing, so it came to him; and he did not delight in blessing, so it was far from him. He wore cursing as his garment; it entered into his body like water, and into his bones like oil."

The reason for the imprecation of Psalm 55 is also clear. "For evil finds lodging among them." The context of Asaph's imprecation in Psalm 79 obviously pertains to the support of God's righteous reputation. "Pay back into the laps of our neighbors seven times the reproach they have hurled at you, O Lord" (Psalm 79:12). The wicked are the psalmist's enemies because they are the enemies of God. "Do I not hate those who hate You, O Lord, and abhor those who rise up against You? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies" (Psalm 139:21-22). Even the harsh language about "seizing the infants and dashing them against the rocks" in Psalm 137 must be seen in context. The previous two verses identify the psalmist's enemy. "Remember, O Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. `Tear it down', they cried, `tear it down to its foundations!' O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction. How blessed will be the one who repays you for what you have done to us." This Psalm was written by the Hebrews who were in captivity, and directed against the pagan Babylonians (along with the supporting Edomites) who had defiled and destroyed God's sanctuary in Jerusalem and committed many unspeakable atrocities against the nation of Israel. This cry for justice was answered about 50 years later when Persia overthrew Babylon in 539 B.C.

Thus we see that the psalm writers were not out to get personal revenge, but longed to see the righteousness of God revealed in government on earth. This was particularly important during Old Testament times because the concepts of the final judgments taking place after death had not yet been fully revealed. Growing Christians have a much better appreciation today of how everything "will come out in the wash" in the end times because we have a completed Bible. For the Old Testament believer, however, seeing the ungodly and wicked judged in thislife was extremely important because God and His righteous standards were vindicated. This was especially true for David (who wrote most of the imprecatory psalms) because of his office as king of Israel. As the anointed ruler over God's chosen people, David knew that his government reflected God's standards of righteousness. We see from his last words in 2 Samuel 23:1-7 that David realized he had the responsibility as king to be God's spokesman and to uphold righteousness.

Another obvious answer, then, to the question of the imprecatory psalms is that they show forth the righteous side of God's character. God is not only loving and gracious; He is righteous and holy and He abhors sin. He must deal with sin in judgment. The very phrases that are prayers in the imprecatory psalms are definitive statements of God's actions against the wicked in other psalms. Consider the following selections: "The wicked are like the chaff which the wind blows away" (Psalm 1:4). "For You have struck all my enemies on the jaw; You have broken the teeth of the wicked" (Psalm 3:7). "But transgressors will be altogether destroyed; the posterity of the wicked will be cut off" (Psalm 37:38). "But You, O God, will bring them down to the pit of destruction; the bloodthirsty and deceitful will not live out half their days" (Psalm 55:23).

A final consideration which should be mentioned is that imprecation is not foreign to the New Testament. The Lord Jesus taught and practiced unconditional love, but He also imprecated the unbelieving cities of Capernaum, Chorazin and Bethsaida. He said that they were under greater judgment than Tyre, Sidon or Sodom! (See Matthew 11:20-24.) The imprecations of Psalm 69 (including the solemn "book of life" statement) could be said to be the very words of Christ. This is because Psalm 69 is a Messianic psalm spoken in the first person. The pronouncement of the unpardonable sin (Mark 3:22-30) was also an imprecation of the Lord Jesus. It was a judgment upon the Pharisees who had attributed His miracle-working power to Satan.

Imprecation in the New Testament is not limited to our Lord's statements in the Gospels. In the closing of his first letter to the Corinthians Paul wrote, "If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed" (1 Corinthians 16:22). The word "accursed" is a strong word and could be translated "damned". Paul used this same word twice in Galatians 1:8-9. "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!" One aspect of the entire book of Revelation is that it is an answer to the imprecatory prayers of the saints to bring justice to this earth. "How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (See Revelation 6:10.)

The desire for personal revenge is never an option for the Christian and we should always have the mind and heart of God "not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). But at the same time we do not want the name and character of our God blasphemed. We long for and pray for the time when God's righteousness will be realized "on earth as it is in heaven." We pray these prayers knowing full well that in the final analysis the universal reign of righteousness by a holy God demands the eternal punishment of the wicked. The imprecatory psalms are the Old Testament expression of this godly attitude.
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