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To Understand the Imprecatory Psalms

The imprecatory Psalms are prayers focused on invoking curses upon enemies. Examples of these can be found in Psalms 58:6-11, Psalms 69:22-28, Psalms 83:9-18, Psalms 109:6-20, Psalms 137:8-9, Psalms 149:6-9 and others. Among them, the most frequently quoted is, “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.” (ref. Psalms 137:8-9) This line seems to advocate revenge, displaying an appallingly low level of ethics that even target innocent babies.

Christians often feel uncomfortable reading these verses as they appear contradictory to Jesus’ teachings of loving our enemies (ref. Matthew 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-31). In the eighteenth century, John Wesley once forbade church members from singing the imprecatory Psalms, and in most of the cases, he chose to omit them. For a long time, interpreting these cursing verses has been challenging. Using Psalms 137:8-9 as an example, this article attempts to illustrate the curses in the Psalms.

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Understanding its context

To grasp the meaning of imprecatory Psalms, it is essential to delve into their historical context. Unraveling the real intention behind these curses and prayers necessitates connecting them with the specific historical circumstances. Typically originating from the oppressed, these Psalms reflect a fervent desire for God’s justice. With a limited concept of an afterlife, the psalmist asked God to rectify injustices promptly.

Psalms 137 lacks a title to provide the creation background, but its content reveals events during the captivity of the Jews in Babylon. The Chinese Union Version titled it “Elegy of the Captived Israelites”. The Psalm narrates the experience of the poet, once captured and brought to Babylon. Sitting on the riverbank, the nostalgic poet lamented the destruction of Zion, the political and religious heart of the Israelites, by the Babylonian army.

The poet, formerly a talented singer and dancer, fell into grief over homesickness and the loss of homeland. To make it even worse, Babylonian soldiers mockingly asked the poet to sing a song of Zion, the joyful hymn that praises God for protecting Zion (see Psalms 46, 48, 76, etc.) However, after Zion’s defeat, singing these songs would signify that the faith fell apart and God was unable to save Zion.

Faced with the words of irony and sarcasm from the enemy, the psalmist refused to sing songs of God and tried to avoid these mockeries, while expressing the love for Jerusalem. In Psalms 137: 5-6, the poet uttered two oaths that pledged to sacrifice musical talent to demonstrate loyalty to Jerusalem: “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.” Psalms 137:8-9 were about putting curses on the Babylonians out of the love and loyalty to Jerusalem.

Understanding its intention

The imprecatory Psalms were not meant to advocate revenge; instead, they represented the voices of victims appealing to God for justice. The poems never implicitly described the Isralites maltreating Babylonian babies. They chose to entrust the matter to God, delivering wrath to the Lord instead of seeking revenge on their enemies. This aligns with the teaching of the Lord -- “It is mine to avenge; I will repay.” (ref. Deuteronomy 32:35, 43; Romans 12:19) The poet had faith that the Lord would raise up the people He needed to punish the sinful Babylonians so as to glorify His justice.

Psalms 137:9 provides a clue to what had happened to the Israelites at that time -- “seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” It revealed how the Babylonians treated the Israelites. Throwing the babies against the rocks was a common practice among the Gentiles after they won a battle. The vicious actions of the Babylonians reflected the prevalent atrocity of ancient wars (ref. Isaiah 13:16; Hosea 10:14, 13:16; Hahum 3:10). The evildoing of Babylonian soldiers was rampant after they occupied Jerusalem (ref. 2 Kings 25:7, Lamentations 5:11-12).

Some may ask the retribution they deserve, and “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” could be an answer -- to repay them according to the grief and damage they caused. But who can punish them? The poet did not specify, leaving the punishment in the hand of the Lord and blessing those who execute justice.

There were two instances of “happy is ...” in Psalms 137:8-9, proclaiming that one who repays the Babylonians according to the Lord’s justice is blessed. The curses directed at Babylon were uttered through these two declarations, as the Babylonians were the culprits behind the destruction of the city of Zion. The deep love for Zion led to the fervent cursing of its enemy. In other words, the curse on the Babylonians was an expression of loyalty to Zion and the Lord.

Zion, in this context, is more than a mountain (ref. Psalms 125:1), or a synonym for Jerusalem; instead, it is a symbol and a metaphor that represent the sovereignty of the Lord, the city of the Great King (ref. Psalms 48:2), where the holy temple resided and later symbolized the nation of Israelites (ref. Isaiah 51:16). Consequently, the destiny of the holy temple in Jerusalem, the holy city Zion, and the holy people of Israel is intertwined. The poem expressing the nostalgia and loyalty to Zion and Jerusalem also encompasses the faithfulness to the Lord, the people of Israel, and the nation.

So the true intention behind composing this poem is not to express hatred, but to demonstrate loyalty to the people and the nation. Understanding from this perspective is crucial to avoid misunderstanding the psalmist.

How should we interpret it correctly?

Derek Kidner suggested that Christians should not use the imprecatory Psalms, much like we cannot repeat the curses of Jeremy or Job’s protest to God. We can acknowledge God’s judgement and rebuke demons as our true enemies. But for those made of flesh and blood, who are the enemies of the cross, or set themselves against us, we should pray for them rather than resist them. We should try to make them turn from Satan to God, conquering evil with good, and never set foot on their path.

Our Lord Jesus Christ and Saint Paul the Apostle gave teachings on loving our enemies, conquering evil with good, and overcoming hatred with love (ref. Matthews 5:38-48, Romans 12:17-21). As Christians, we should forgive our enemies like the way Jesus and Stephanas did (ref. Luke 23:34, Acts 7:60), and live a life guided by the spirit of love.

However, from a societal perspective, Erich Zenger believed that one value of the imprecating Psalms is to unveil the real violence and oppression in human society from the voices of victims who compose poems to utter their miseries. But this may challenge those with little hardships, because they are asked to empathize with the suffering of others.

Dr. Zhang Zhicong, my tutor, who authored an essay titled “Rethink the Cursing Psalms” in the Newsletters of Zhongnan Theological Seminary, deems that reading these cursing poems is a means to vent disappointment and anger within the space of worship. In an era full of injustice and atrocity, people of faith should not turn a blind eye to existing suffering. Nevertheless, the psalmist, even in an environment that upholds violence against violence, handed over the sovereignty of revenge to God, whom the poet prayed to. Regardless of how challenging the circumstances, individuals can not punish others. Admist sorrow seeking comfort and problems to be resolved, the poet was patient for God’s judgment.

In conclusion, the cursing Psalms embody the request for justice from the underprivileged, telling the truth affirmed by both the Old and New Testaments: God is the Creator, the Sovereign and the Judge, and the ultimate Judge responsible for the Final Judgement. The author of the cursing Psalms did not avenge, but confided all injustices, grievances and sufferings before God and entrusted Him to judge and rectify, because the Lord said “vengeance is mine, I will repay.” (ref. Romans 12:19) The imprecatory Psalms can help individuals give vent to hatred and wrath, regulate their feelings of pain and offer solace to the wounded soul, which enables them to await God’s judgement of justice to bring order out of chaos.

Author: Tang Shiwen

Translator: Bei Feng