The Bible is more than an academic theology guide. There is an intellectual side to the Bible, but there is also an emotional or experiential side that is, in some ways, no less important. The Bible covers the gamut of human emotions, and unless we have felt the joy or pain or anger or perplexity that prompted many of the Biblical authors, we might be able to understand the Bible only on a surface level and no further.
1. C.S. Lewis’ perspective of the imprecatory psalms
For example, Christian writers have often differed widely on their interpretation of the “imprecatory” or cursing psalms. These are psalms wherein the psalmist is petitioning God to punish or pour out his wrath on the psalmist’s enemies. Two of the more prominent examples are Psalm 69 and Psalm 109. Given Christ’s command in the Sermon on the Mount to “love your enemies” and to “bless those who curse you”, C.S. Lewis in classic Reflections on the Psalms reasoned that the imprecatory psalms are fundamentally at odds with New Testament morality.
Lewis didn’t discard them though. He said that, if nothing else, the imprecatory psalms show us the natural result of injustice—the justified resentment that inevitably is created in the heart of the sufferer. In that sense, the imprecatory psalms help us to take more seriously the injustice we have been guilty of, reminding us of the extent of the distress we cause people whenever we sin against them.
Lewis didn’t think Christians who affirmed the Sermon on the Mount could in good conscience pray the imprecatory psalms against their own enemies today. David might have been able to in a pre-Christian era, but things are different today. Lewis even called some of the more vengeful psalms “wicked”.
This is one area where this examiner is inclined to disagree with Lewis. This examiner has come to believe that the imprecatory psalms can, in some situations, be prayed in good conscience by New Testament Christians without doing damage to Christ’s teaching on the Sermon on the Mount.
2. How the imprecatory psalms can be used by Christians
First of all, we must remember that the imprecatory psalms are not well reasoned, intellectual treatises carefully crafted in a theological ivory tower. They are emotional, impassioned pleas for God to avenge enemies who have falsely accused and perpetrated all manner of injustice. They are gut reactions to being mistreated. Anybody who goes to seminary and learns ancient Hebrew can form a “scholarly” opinion about these imprecatory psalms, and there is a place for such scholarship in the church. However, to really be able to relate to the psalmists, to be able to understand, on a gut level, what prompted the psalms, one would have to experience something akin to what they themselves experienced. Unless you’ve had a paranoid, homicidal father-in-law who wanted so badly to kill you that you had to flee for your life and wonder around in caves for months at a time, you can’t really understand why David wrote the way he did. Unless you’ve walked a mile in the psalmist’s shoes you can’t fully appreciate what they wrote. No one is really qualified to critique the imprecatory psalms unless he or she has endured similar circumstances.
There are heinous forms of injustice that people experience, cruelty and oppression so horrific that it boggles the mind. In moments like that, shedding blood, taking justice into your own hands, seems like the most sensible, natural thing in the world. People can get angry—justifiably angry—to the point where killing makes perfect sense. In moments like these, the imprecatory psalms can be a balm for a sick soul. David experienced appalling injustice at various times in his life. Once he even had to flee for his life because of a rebellion perpetrated by his own son, Absalom. David no doubt felt the urge to avenge his own enemies at times, to take matters into his own hands. The imprecatory psalms, when understood in this context, are far more than bloodthirsty cries for vengeance from God. They are acts of faith; they are David saying to God, “I’m mad and want to take matters into my own hands, but I trust you. You know that I’ve been wronged, and I know that you are a just God and will set right everything that is wrong. Please hurry up and do it!”
In the famous incident when David had the opportunity to kill Saul, but instead merely cut the edge of his robe off, David later assured Saul that he wouldn’t harm him since he was the Lord’s anointed. David did assure Saul, though, that God would vindicate him. David didn’t plan to slay Saul, but he fully expected (and no doubt in some sense anticipated) God doing it.
There are times when a soul can get so low that prayer of any sort seems out of the question. At times like these, the imprecatory psalms can be helpful. If we don’t know how else to pray, God would rather us pray the imprecatory psalms than give him the silent treatment. God knows what it’s like to be angry, to suffer injustice. No one has ever suffered more than Christ. God can handle our emotions. God is the safest place in the world for us to take our anger. What God doesn’t want us to do is bottle our anger up and keep it to ourselves. If you’re made enough to kill someone, let God know about it. There’s no danger of shocking him; he understands.
3. Are the imprecatory psalms compatible with the New Testament?
The Bible, in the Old and New Testament, makes a distinction between “righteous indignation” and anger that is merely of the flesh, or unrighteous. It is not being “vengeful” in a way that violates the Sermon on the Mount to want justice to be done if you’ve been wronged. We know this because in the book of Revelation, the apostle John sees the martyrs in heaven who have been slain for their faith. They ask God, “How long, O Lord, until you avenge our blood?” These are perfected souls, saints in heaven, in the very presence of God. If they in their perfect state can ask God when he is going to avenge them, that tells us, if nothing else, that it’s possible to be fully consecrated to God and still pray for and long for God to vindicate you and avenge perpetrators of injustice.
Of course, we must be careful. We are likely to think that the time has come to pray the imprecatory psalms, a moment of real “righteous indignation”, when in reality our pride has merely been hurt and Christ wants us to pray blessings upon our enemy. We mustn’t hastily think it’s okay to ask God to avenge. It’s a sobering thought to remember that if we are asking God to punish those who’ve hurt us, there’s a chance that those whom we have hurt are praying to God against us as well.
We must remember that all people, even the most demonically wicked, are image-bearers of God, and even as we petition God to pay our enemies back for the injustice they inflict on us, we should hope on some level that our enemies themselves will one day disentangle themselves from wickedness and “become human” again. If God can salvage us, perpetrators of far more sin than we could ever realize us, he can rehabilitate anyone.