This post is a chapter excerpted from my upcoming book, “Gory Stories of the Bible.”
The Psalms make excellent crocheted throw pillow and flowery Instagram material. They’re inspirational. They’re beautiful. They’re relatable.
And many of them are very violent.
Alongside such familiar classics like, “The Lord is my shepherd,” are a whole other category of Psalms that are often overlooked and misunderstood: the imprecatory psalms. “Imprecate” is a big word that means, “To call down curses on a person,” which gives you a clue as to how delightfully gory some of these songs can be. The imprecatory psalms range from relatively benign (Psalm 5:10- “make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsel”) to brutal (Psalm 3:7- “break the teeth of the wicked!”).
My personal favorite is Psalm 137:9:
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!
Yikes. Smashing babies on rocks… did you know that was in the Bible? Have you ever Instagrammed or crocheted this verse? Ever seen it on a baby shower greeting card? (Please, somebody make a greeting card with this verse, give it to a new mom, and record their reaction for me).
This is one of those verses that makes even the most staunchly Bible-believing Christians do a double-take. It makes us uncomfortable, perhaps even a little doubtful. And then, when you consider that this is a psalm—that is, a prayer of worship—it gets really weird. How in the world is baby-smashing worship? (Hey Chris Tomlin, I’ve got a great idea for a new praise song…)
I have three observations that will help you make sense of the imprecatory psalms:
First, take a closer look at these prayers for judgment, and you’ll see that these are not calls for capricious violence, but rather pleas for God to respond to evil the way he always does: by turning evil upside down and impaling it on its own sword. When David prays against his enemies, “Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsel,” he’s asking for God to simply return their own evil on their heads. “The wicked man digs a pit and falls into the hole he has made,” Psalm 7:15 exults. “Let evil self-destruct!” is the prayer of the imprecatory psalms.
Even the brutal baby-killing Psalm 137 follows a similar logic. Written in the ruins of the exile, after the Babylonians destroyed, burned, raped, and murdered their way through Jerusalem, the song captures the grief and hope of the exiles:
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be
blessed shall be he who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall be he who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock! (Psalm 137:8-9)
Just like in the Exodus, when God turned Pharaoh’s murderous intentions back onto his own household, this prayer holds out hope that God will similarly defend his people now. In response to the Babylonian brutality, Psalm 137 pleads for God to rise up and rescue his people from their oppressors.
Praying for the wicked to fall into their own pits isn’t a desire for some sort of impersonal, cosmic karma—bad things happen to bad people, hurray! Instead, these prayers ask that God would defend what he loves most—his people, his beloved ones, the apple of his eye. These prayers aren’t about revenge; rather, in the face of an implacable and unrelenting enemy, these are pleas for rescue.
From our comfortable perch in our suburban ivory towers, the imprecatory psalms can seem grotesque, a distasteful holdover from a more primitive time. But the experience of God’s people in persecution around the world today—let alone recent world history—tells a different story. The imprecatory psalms make sense in a world where ISIS beheads Christians on beaches. They are an appropriate, measured response to holocausts and genocides and apartheids. The imprecatory psalms plead for God to defend those whom he loves. In the face of unspeakable evil and violence, nobody wants a teddy bear god anymore; we want (and need) a warrior. In a world of brutal violence, love sometimes looks like a sword.
The second observation to help us make sense of the imprecatory psalms concerns the nature of the psalms themselves. We like to appropriate the psalms as personal songs, a private hymnal for our own individual use. But the psalms not our songs—they aren’t about us, and they don’t belong to us. The psalms are the songs of God’s King—God’s chosen human ruler reigning over God’s chosen people. That’s why the royal imagery of God’s King feature so prominently across all 150 psalms—they’re about him, not you.
That means that only God’s King has the authority to wield the imprecatory psalms. These are not your prayers to pray—they are his. In the same way that only the President can launch a retaliatory strike against a terrorist group, only God’s King has the right to call down judgment on God’s enemies. The US military doesn’t hand out rocket launchers to every redneck who wants to go hunt ISIS. And God doesn’t give us the imprecatory psalms as a license to hate our enemies. He gives them to us as a reminder that, in the end, his kingdom of perfect justice triumphs over all of his enemies.
That brings us to the third observation: what these imprecatory psalms have to do with you. If you are a Christian, you have pledged your allegiance to this King, and you are a part of his coming kingdom. So learn from your King, and see how he wielded the imprecatory psalms during his earthly ministry.
That is: he didn’t wield them. In fact, he resisted their application. In one story from Luke 9, Samaritans drove Jesus’ ministry out of their town simply because he was Jewish (Samaritans and Jews were mortal enemies). Jesus’ disciples helpfully suggested that it was time for some imprecation: “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But Jesus rebuked them. He had not come on a mission of judgment, but of mercy. Even for his enemies.
Learn from Jesus: if the one person qualified to wield the imprecatory psalms laid them down in love for his enemies, how much more should we drop our petty quarrels and grudges and do the same?
But don’t stop there, frozen in a simplistic “be nice to everyone” stance. Because, while your King reigns in mercy, he also reigns in justice. The one who came first on a mission of mercy will one day return on a mission of justice, coming with a sword in his hand. The arc of the moral universe is long, but on that day the King will bend it towards perfect justice, and all wrongs will be repaid and made right.
This promise of perfect justice holds out a surprising application for us today, caught in the midst of personal enemies and systemic evil. “Never avenge yourselves,” Romans 12 instructs us, “but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mind, and I will repay,’ says the Lord.” You can lay down your thirst for revenge, knowing that God’s vengeance is better than yours. All crimes will be accounted for and paid in full, either on the cross or in hell.
So even if you can’t muster up the emotional energy to love your enemies—and especially if you have been the victim of tremendous injustice or evil—you can rest knowing that God can deal with them better than you can. The Judge of all the earth will wield the imprecatory psalms with perfect precision; justice wins in the end. Justice is God’s job. Trusting him is yours.