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Acadia Divinity College

Praying the Imprecatory Psalms

Presented in Partial Fulfillment


of the Requirements for the Course DMIN 8253 X5
Psalms
Dr. R. Glenn Wooden

By

Christopher W. McMullen (100133729)

July 30, 2017


Praying the Imprecatory Psalms

Outline:

I. Introduction: A Canadian Anglican Quandary (Page 2)

II. What are the Imprecatory Psalms, and Why are They in Scripture? (Page 3)

III. A Covenantal Theology of Blessing and Cursing (Page 6)

IV. Imprecation and the New Testament (Page 9)

V. A Case in Point: Psalm 58, Exegetical Notes and Choices (Page 13)

VI. Psalm 58 as a Christian Prayer (Page 16)

VII. Conclusion: Praying With All Our Heart (Page 20)

Appendix One: Sermon, Praying When Angry and Frustrated (Page 23)

Appendix Two: Psalm 58 Paraphrased as a Hymn (Page 31)

Bibliography (Page 32)

[1]
Praying the Imprecatory Psalms

I. Introduction: A Canadian Anglican Quandary

Anglicans are expected to follow the spiritual discipline of their Celtic Christian heritage

and pray the psalms regularly. A public service should always incorporate the congregational

praying of the psalms.1 In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer the entire Psalter is to be prayed in

the Morning and Evening offices, sequentially, over each month. The Canadian Book of Common

Prayer however omits certain verses from the original 1662 Church of England BCP, including

the entire Psalm 58.2 In the Canadian Book of Alternative Services the daily offering of the

psalms is changed to the seven-week rotation which I personally follow.3 Though no psalms are

omitted, there are bracketed verses and whole psalms in the Daily Lectionary, with alternative

psalms suggested. The list of optional verses is similar to that of the omissions on the Book of

Common Prayer 1962.4 No explanation is given for these omissions, but the assumption is that

they may not be appropriate for prayer and worship, usually because of their imprecatory nature.

N.T. Wright objects to this discrimination in his advocatory The Case for the Psalms. He

even insists that [w]e should say or sing the puzzling and disturbing bits along with the easy and

nice ones.5 His book however lacks any treatment of all the psalms or partial psalms that are

1 Archbishops Council, the Church of England Patterns for Worship (London: Church House
Publishing, 1995), p. 5.
2 General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, The Book of Common Prayer 1962 (Toronto:
Anglican Book Centre, 1962). The omitted verses are listed in the rubrics, The Order How the Psalter
is Appointed to be Read, p. xlix: The following passages in the Psalter as hitherto used are omitted:
Psalms 14: 4-7; 55: 16; 58 (all); 68: 21-23; 69: 23-29; 104: 35 (in part); 109: 5-19; 136: 27; 137: 7-9;
140: 9-10; 141: 7-8).
3 General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, The Book of Alternative Services (Toronto: Anglican
Book Centre, 1985). See the Daily Office lectionary, pp. 450-497.
4 Ibid. The verses which may be omitted are Psalms 21: 8-14; 63: 9-11; 68: 21-23; 69: 22-28; 108: 7-13;
109: 6-20; 110: 5-7; 137: 7-9; 139: 19-22; 143: 12; all of Psalms 53, 58, 59, 60, 70, 79, 83; and (oddly
perhaps for worshipers without children or siblings) Psalms 127 and 133. (The verse numbering in both
the BCP and BAS are slightly different from each other, and/or that in most Biblical versions.)
5 N.T. Wright, The Case for the Psalms. Why They Are Essential (New York: Harper One, 2013), p. 166.

[2]
omitted or bracketed by the BCP and BAS!6 He does note that the early Christians prayed these

troublesome psalms after the example of Jesus himself (as seen for example in his reciting Psalm

22 from the cross, Mark 15:34): They had to learn to understand their own often painful and

frightening situation according to the pattern Jesus had established.7 This insight will provide

the mandate for this essays proposals regarding the praying of the imprecatory psalms. Yet the

question remains, how may believers today, in our admittedly much gentler, mutually respectful

and sensitive culture, pray the Bibles psalms of cursing and condemnation?8 This is one of the

first questions parishioners will ask their ministers, when we try to encourage them to pray the

psalms regularly. They are part of the canonical scriptures. How should they be used?

II. What are the Imprecatory Psalms, and Why are They in Scripture?

Daniel Simango and Paul Krger give this helpful description of the psalms under consi-

deration: The characterising element of imprecatory psalms is a cry for divine vengeance, and

appeal to God to pour out his wrath on the psalmists enemies.9 They list ten psalms generally

considered to be imprecatory.10 In addition to these, John N. Day lists five more, along with

imprecatory verses in seventeen other psalms, for a total of ninety-eight verses in thirty-two

psalms.11 Though this only represents 3.8% of the Psalter, such prayers to God for vengeance

6 See the books Scripture Index, ibid., pp. 199 f.


7 Wright, op.cit., p. 112.
8 The Revised Common Lectionary also omits all of the psalms listed in footnotes 2 and 4, p. 2 above, except
Psalms 14, 70, 79. Parishioners are not even exposed to these in public worship. http://lectionary. library.
vanderbilt.edu/citationindex.php (accessed July 22, 2017). See D. M. Nehbrasss tables, Praying Curses:
The Therapeutic and Preaching Value of the Imprecatory Psalms (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2010), p. 122.
9 Daniel Simango and P. Paul Krger. An Overview of the Study of Imprecatory Psalms: Reformed and
Evangelical Approaches to the Interpretation of Imprecatory Psalms. Old Testament Essays XXIX.2
(2016), pp. 581-600. Page 582.
10 Ibid, p. 583. Their list largely coincides with those mentioned in footnotes 2 and 4, p. 2 above: Psalms 7,
35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 83, 109 and 137.
11 John N. Day, The Imprecatory Psalms and Ethics. Bibliotheca Sacra CLIX (April-June 2002), pp.
166-186. Footnote 5, p. 169.

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are a significant element of Biblical prayer that need an explanation and rationale for Christian

believing today.12 As Erich Zenger notes in his definitive study, A God of Vengeance? Under-

standing the Psalms of Divine Wrath: ...despite all their fascination and all the approval given to

the psalms in general and certain psalms in particular, the objections raised against individual

psalms (and, as a consequence, against the whole Psalter) have never been silenced.13

According to the witness of the wider Old Testament, the people of Israel were liberated

from slavery by a God of compassion and justice, and called as a nation to attest to the nations

not only the fact that their Redeemer was the only Creator and true God; but that the LORD14 was

calling and equipping Gods people to reflect the divine justice and compassion in their national

and personal lives. That called Israel to the highest expectations of personal morality and social

policy. It also exposed them, in their God-given chosen land in the intersection of the trade

routes and marches between the empires of the Ancient Near East, to marauding and conquest.

The dissonance between Gods revealed will and the oppressive realities of life in barbaric times

was surely overwhelming. Walter Brueggemann is especially articulate in this recognition of the

incongruity between the way of the world and the powerful will of Yahweh at the heart of

Israels troubled life.... There is not a psalm that does not reflect some dimension of this

fundamental conflict. 15 Israel thus expressed her faith in utterly realistic psalms of petition,

confession, and anxious supplication, along with and even within psalms of thanksgiving and

12 Based on the total of 2,526 verses in the Psalter according to Catholic Resources.Org
(http://catholic-resources.org/Bible/OT-Statistics-NAB.htm, Accessed July 22, 2017).
13 Erich Zenger, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath, trs. Linda M.
Maloney (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), p. 2.
14 I respect the argument that Jews stopped using the personal name of God for superstitious reasons
(fearing the Third Commandment). Yet they are the people who gave Christians our Old Testament. I
prefer to respect their spiritual discipline. It is unlikely that Jesus addressed God as YHWH. Since the
New Testament calls both God and Jesus the Lord, with suggestive ambiguity, I continue the practice.
15 Brueggemann, in Patrick Miller, ed., The Psalms and the Life of Faith (Minneapolis MN: Fortress
Press, 1995), p. 62.

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hope. These are the real prayers of real people, who would not give up on the conviction that the

LORD was who God had revealed Gods self to be. In such circumstances, the question of

injustice and even the cry for vindication and retribution would be natural. Commenting on

Psalm 58: 6-8, for instance, Frank Gaebelein noted: The imprecatory nature of the prayer may

seem strange to our ears, but the radical nature of evil requires a response from the God of

Justice.16 Walter Brueggemann explains that: When we know ourselves as well as the Psalter

know us, we recognize that we are creatures who wish for vengeance and retaliation.17 This

human reality is honestly exposed in the imprecatory prayers of a people called to both expect

the best of life in God, yet experience a fallen worlds worst.

The psalmists depth of feelings is effectively expressed in the hyperbole and drama that

characterises good poetry.18 This is not only because of the colourful exaggerations characteristic

of public discourse in the Ancient Near East.19 Any less extreme of a language would not do

justice to the omnipotence of God, the depravity of the evil, nor the humanity of the victimized.

What I am proposing, Robert Alter writes, is that the poetic medium made it possible to

articulate the emotional freight, the moral consequences, the altered perception of the world that

flowed from [Israels] monotheistic belief.20 Imprecatory language is part of Biblical prayer!

16 Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expository Bible Commentary Vol. 5: Psalms Song of Solomon (Grand
Rapids MI: Zondervan, 1991), p. 407.
17 Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit. Second
Edition. (Eugene OR: Cascade Books, 2007), p. 64.
18 Derek Kidner calls this phenomena a vividness of communication which is beyond the reach of
cautious literalism. Psalms 1-72 (Downers Grove IL: IVP Academic, 1973), p. 42.
19 Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. David, F.F. Bruce and Manfred Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible
(Downers Grove IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2010), pp. 113, 261, 283, 424.
20 Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry. Revised and Updated (New York: Basic Books, 2011), p. 142.

[5]
III. A Covenantal Theology of Blessing and Cursing

Both John N. Days and Daniel Simango and Paul Krgers helpful papers21 situate the

curses of the psalmists in the basic covenantal theology of the Bible: ...I will bless you, and

make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the

one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen.

12: 2-3, NRSV)22 When the psalmists pray to God to curse their enemies, they are praying in

accordance with the basic promise of their Abrahamic faith. Day for instance hears Genesis 12: 3

specifically echoed in Psalm 109: 27-29 (NRSV):

Let them know that this is your hand;


you, O LORD, have done it.
Let them curse, but you will bless.
Let my assailants be put to shame; may your servant be glad.
May my accusers be clothed with dishonor;
may they be wrapped in their own shame as in a mantle.

Speaking of Psalm 109, Patrick Henry Reardon cautions that We modern Christians are far too

disposed to establish our personal sentiments, our own spontaneous feelings, as the standard for

our prayer.23 Because of this we easily misinterpret the God-centered, rather than complainant-

centered, nature of Psalm 109s imprecations. Konrad Schafer says that The unbridled curse

amounts to a spiritual or psychological cure.24 The devout victim may find hope and comfort in

releasing their hurt and outrage to God. This is not simply in an abstract or general way. By

claiming the covenantal promise of Genesis 12, the believer is actually able to release his or her

specific complaint to an omnipotent Judge who has promised to set things right.25

21 Day, op.cit., pp. 168-171, 178-180; Simango and Krger, op.cit., pp. 588-592.
22 NRSV: the New Revised Standard Version (National Council of the Churches of Christ, USA, 1989).
23 Patrick Henry Readon, Christ in the Psalms (Chesteron IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2000), p. 215.
24 Konrad Schaefer, Psalms. Berit Olam. Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville MN: The
Liturgical Press, 2001), p. 272.
25 Cf. Simango and Krger, op.cit., pp. 588 f.

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Walter Brueggemann, as usual, has profound insight into the Biblical witness in this

regard. Where the lament is absent, the normal mode of the theodicy question is forfeited.26

What he means is that Israels covenanted relationship with God allowed believers to be fully

honest about their humanity. Without the believers right to lament, there would be a loss of

genuine covenant interaction, since the second party to the covenant (the petitioner) has become

voiceless or has a voice that is permitted to speak only praise and doxology.27 With reference to

the imprecations of Psalm 109, Brueggemann indicates that it provides an emotional and spiritual

catharsis: Notice that...after the long recital of rage through v.19, the intensity is spent. Then

the speaker must return to the reality of heart and fear and helplessness in vv. 22-25.28 The

bitterness and rage are yielded to Gods providence and care.29 Though the petitioners right

may not be vindicated and restored until Jesus returns as judge, the legitimacy of imprecation

within the covenantal intimacy of God with Gods people means that their laments may become

vehicles of healing and transformation, from rage to hopeful sorrow. As Brueggemann writes

specifically of Psalm 109, in The Message of the Psalms:

This is not a soft, romantic god who only tolerates and forgives, but one who takes seriously
his own rule and the well-being of his partners. The raw speech of rage can be submitted to
Yahweh because there is reason for confidence that Yahweh takes it seriously and will act. 30

In this way, Brueggemann points out in his masterful essay The Costly Loss of Lament, ...the

believer is able to take initiative with God and so develop over against God the ego-strength that

is necessary for responsible faith. 31

26 Brueggemann, in Miller, ed., The Psalms and the Life of Faith, op.cit., p. 107.
27 Ibid., p.102. The italics are Brueggemanns.
28 Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, op.cit., pp. 66 f.
29 Ibid., p.68.
30 Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis MN: Augsburg
Publishing, 1984), p. 85.
31 Brueggemann, The Costly Loss of Lament, in Patrick D. Miller, ed., The Psalms and the Life of
Faith, pp. 98-111, p. 108.

[7]
Another covenantal mandate for Israels use of imprecatory prayers is the Song of Moses,

at Deuteronomy 32: 34-43. Jacobson sees an allusion to this text in Psalm 7,32 while Day makes

the covenantal connection with Moses song in his discussion of Psalm 58.33 He suggests three

allusions: (1) the feeling of powerlessness in the face of oppression yet confidence in God

(Deut. 32: 36,39-41); (2) similar language (Ps. 58:4 = Deut. 32:39; Ps. 58:11 = Deut. 32:37); and

the centrality of the promise of divine vengeance (Ps. 58: 11) in the Deuteronomic song.34

It is critical to see that the psalmists never actually take vengeance into their own hands.

In praying the psalms, modern readers may benefit from the promises that the LORD will attend

to Gods covenant-partners suffering. The psalmists do not typically ask for the means or the

right to take matters into their own hands. Indeed, they speak from a position of abject power-

lessness. Rather, they invoke the One who is the source of all power and justice by placing their

petition squarely upon Gods shoulders.35 Erich Zenger notes of such relinquishment:

When those who pray call to their God as the righteous judge, they avert vengeance
from themselves. It is not some irrational, wildly abusive God to whom they cry.... [but]
to a God who, as the God of justice, considers, decides, and punishes, this last not out of
pleasure in punishment, but in order to restore and defend the damaged order of law.36
This releases the complainant both emotionally and morally, without compromising the justice or

the compassion of the God to whom we pray.37 Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord!

(Deut. 32:35). This divine word to the psalmists candidly angry yet trustingly offered acts of

obedience is very significantly affirmed in the New Testament (Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30).
32 Rolf Jacobsen, in Nancy deClaiss-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson and Beth LaNeel Tanner. The Book of
Psalms. New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans
Publishing, 2014), p. 116.
33 John N. Day, op.cit., pp. 171 f.
34 Ibid., pp. 171 f.
35 William P. Brown, Psalms (Nashville TN: Abingdon Press, 2010), p. 156.
36 Zenger, op.cit., p.71.
37 Marvin E. Tate: The imprecatory psalms ...lead toward a catharsis of faith and a renewal of the soul.
They also help us to realize that there is no place or condition of life where God is not.. Psalms 51-
100. Word Biblical Commentary Vol. XX (Dallas TX: Word Books, Publishers, 1990), p. 89.

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IV. Imprecation and the New Testament

Stanley Jaki advises those who pray the psalms that ...unless the Christian knows that

the psalms are time and again imperfect prayers, the Christians recitation of the psalms can

become very imperfect indeed.38 This must not be understood either in the way of a virtually

Marcionite understanding of progressive revelation, nor in a kind of moral or theological

supersessionism, where Christians presume that the New Testament annuls or outgrows the fully

human realism of Old Testament prayer. Zenger points out that both testaments appeal for the

violent power of God and for an end to violence.39 This apparent contradiction is properly

resolved when the psalms are interpreted and prayed in light of the whole Biblical revelation,

which culminates in Pauls appeal that we share the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5). Jaki notes,

...if that mind is to be a Christians mind, the psalms must be understood in the light which

Christ is.40 The risen Jesus declared that he was the fulfillment of everything written about me

in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms (Luke 24: 44, NRSV). In Anglican worship we

conclude recitations of the psalms with the Gloria Patri: Glory to the Father, and the Son, and

the Holy Spirit.... This is not to veto or relativize what we have just prayed, but to affirm the

psalm as an act of prayer in Jesus name. The role of Jesus, the Christ of Israel (Psalms 2, 110,

etc.) and Son of David, in whose name many psalms were preserved, is central for Christian use.

The first thing to note is that Jesus actively cursed the enemies of his Father. The Lord

himself led the way with his acted and spoken oracles of judgement on unfruitful Israel (Mark

11:14; 12:9) and on unfaithful churches (Rev. 2f.).41 And will not God grant justice to his

38 Stanley L. Jaki. Praying the Psalms: A Commentary (Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company, 2001), p. 26.
39 Zenger, op.cit., p. 81.
40 Jaki, op.cit., p. 22.
41 Kidner, op.cit., p. 46. Cf. Days discussion, op.cit., pp. 180-185, especially on the use of anathema
(p. 184): Those who seek to underline the ground and sustenance of the Christians salvation truly

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chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he

will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on

earth? (Luke 18: 7-8).42 This vindication will include the just punishment of evil as much as the

deliverance of the righteous.43 Jesus freedom to imprecate is also exhibited in other N.T. figures.

J. Carl Laney lists Acts 13: 10-11 and 23: 3; I Corinthians 16: 22; Galatians 1: 8-9 and 5: 12; and

II Timothy 4: 14.44 In a famous and helpful essay, Dietrich Bonhoeffer meditates on the

imprecatory psalms in light of Jesus own use of Psalm 22 on the cross, and concludes that:

The New Testament speaks with great clarity concerning this and does not distinguish
itself at all in this respect from the Old Testament, but it speaks of the joy of the Church
on that day on which God will execute his final judgement (Galatians 1:8f.; I Corinthians
16:22; Revelation 18; 19; 20:11). In this way the crucified Jesus teaches us to pray the
imprecatory psalms correctly.45

The issue, then, is the question of how Jesus indeed fulfils even the imprecatory

psalms. Kidner notes Pauls use of Psalm 69: 22 f. (Rom. 11: 9f.):

Let their table become a snare and a trap,


a stumbling block and a retribution for them;
let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,
and keep their backs forever bent. 46
In quoting this text, however, Kidner is making the point that Paul ...clearly regards the clause

for ever as revocable if they [i.e., unbelieving Jews] repent, as indeed he expects them to.47 In

Christ, invoking Gods righteous curse on the reprobate is still legitimate; but now this curse

merit the harshest of denunciations, for the name of Christ is at stake (Gal. 5:12, II Peter 2:14; Jude 11-
13).
42 Quoted by Kidner, op.cit., p. 40, using the old RSV translation, vindicate.
43 To quote from just one chapter of Jesus eschatological parables: Matthew 25:11-12, Lord, open to
usI do not know you; 25:30: As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness,
where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth; 25:40: You that are accursed, depart from me
into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels
44 J. Carl Laney, A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms. Bibliotheca Sacra CXXXVIII (1981), pp.
35-35, p. 36.
45 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible (Minneapolis MN: Augsburg Fortress,
1970), p. 60.
46 Kidner, op.cit., p. 45 (the NRSV is quoted in this essays text.)
47 Ibid.

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must be applied in and through Jesus Christ, and the hope for salvation that Christ brings to all

sinners. In this regard Galatians 3: 13-14 is key (note the reference to the Abrahamic covenant):

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for usfor it is written,
Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of
Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit
through faith. (NRSV)

Two significant theologians have taken this Christocentric approach to the imprecatory

psalms: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Walter Brueggemann. First, Brueggemann begins his

observations with the observation that the Psalmists ...venomous words show that the reality of

vengeance is present. But that these words are addressed to God shows a recognition that it is

Gods business and not ours.48 Quoting the Song of Moses, he then notes that vengeance is the

dark side, perhaps the inevitably dark side, of the mercy of God.49 He quotes Psalm 136: 10, 17:

...to him who smote great kings, for his steadfast love endures for ever. He also quotes several

instances of the promises in Isaiah that God will come in vengeance, to redeem Gods people and

renew the whole creation. Significant for the present argument is Isaiah 61: 1-2. The Servant of

the LORD will ...proclaim the year of the Lords favour, and the day of vengeance of our

God....50 This vengeance is not from selfish anger, but zeal for his purposes of justice and

freedom. It is an act of Gods compassion for the creation.51 This leads him to reflect on the

relation between the anger and mercy of the LORD, as attested in such remarkable passages as the

story of Noah and the flood (Genesis 6: 5-7 and 8:21), and the movement from anger to mercy in

the emotionally charged prophesies of Hosea (Hosea 11: 8-9).52 We must not pretend that the

New Testament gives a higher view of God than the Old Testament.53 What it does instead is
48 Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, op.cit., p. 70.
49 Ibid., p.71.
50 Ibid., pp.72-74. See below however on Jesus omission of the words, day of vengeance
51 Ibid., pp.75-76. (The quotation marks around his for Gods are original to Brueggemann.)
52 Ibid., pp.76-78.
53 Ibid., p. 78.

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reveal The possibility of a vengeance-free ethic that is rooted in the staggering reality of God.

This is wrought in Gods own person, in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.54 Brueggemann helps

Christians to pray the imprecatory petitions of the psalms to and through Israels Christ

(according to Christian faith), who accepted Gods curse in his own person so that the world may

be redeemed.

In practical terms, then, Christ may help us to avoid the error of the Unforgiving Servant

in Matthew 18: 23-35. By praying through the cross, Christ is invoked to convict believers of our

own guilt, including the guilt of unbelievingly harbouring anger or judgement, and request and

receive the saving grace to forgive as we have been forgiven (Matthew 6: 12, 18: 35).

Bonhoeffers witness is more explicit than Brueggemanns. When Christians pray the

psalms faithfully, it is in fact Christ who is praying in his body, by his Holy Spirit in us:55

Thus the imprecatory psalm leads to the cross of Jesus and to the love of God which forgives
enemies. I cannot forgive the enemies of God out of my own resources. Only the crucified
Christ can do that, and I through him.56
By bearing the wrath of God on humanitys behalf, Jesus not only accomplishes our atonement

and salvation. He empowers believers both to take sin seriously worthy of imprecation and

love the perpetrators of evil in spite of their sin.57 This is not by a cheap grace. It is by the

miracle of grace that can only be accomplished through honest yet humble prayer. In his specific

advice on how to pray Psalm 58, for instance, Stanley Jaki says of those who too easily counsel

Christian moderation to victims with reason to condemn the perpetrators of great injustices,

In doing so they too often hide their own infuriating selfishness. 58 Again, any such prayers of

54 Ibid., p. 80.
55 Bonhoeffer, op.cit., pp. 21, 37-39.
56 Ibid., pp. 58f.
57 Ibid., p. 58.
58 Jaki, op.cit., p. 118.

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imprecation as Psalm 58s must be prayed through the one who prayed for forgiveness for his

tormentors on the cross (Luke 23: 34).

Even though Jesus used imprecations in his ministry, as Kidner carefully notes, our

Lord, at the beginning of his ministry, made a pointed omission from an Old Testament passage,

by closing the book before the phrase the day of vengeance of our God (Isa. 61:1f.; Luke 4:18-

20.59 Kidner misses the fact, however, that Jesus immediately goes on to speak of God bringing

blessings on the very Gentile enemies against whom Israel would pray (Luke 4: 24 ff.). In taking

the curses of evil upon himself, the Messiah answers the prayers of Israels imprecatory psalms

in a paradoxical yet salvific way. That is no doubt why, instead of including the vengeance

reference of Isaiah 61: 2b, Luke (4:18) records Jesus adding the phrase from Isaiah 58:6b, to let

the oppressed go free (NRSV). The oppression is real, and may be expressed in real prayer. Such

prayers, like Psalm 58, however, are answered by God in the vindication of Christs cross and

resurrection. He indeed fulfills everything written about me in...the psalms (Luke 24: 44).

V. A Case in Point: Psalm 58, Exegetical Notes and Choices

Psalm 58 appears in the middle of both a series of psalms of David (51-65), as well as

in the near-middle of eleven psalms classified by Irene Nowell as laments (51-61).60 Signifi-

cantly, God is most frequently addressed by the generic term God (lhm) in this series. The

divine name the LORD appears only seven times between Psalms 56 and 61.61 In other words,

this prayer of imprecation is in the heart of a series of laments, with the one appearance of Gods

name marking a climax in the series, as much as it serves as the zenith of Psalm 58 itself.

59 Kidner, op.cit., p. 42.


60 Irene Nowell, Pleading, Cursing, Praising. Conversations with God through the Psalms. (Collegeville
MN: The Liturgical Press, 2013), Suggested Psalm Classification by Genre, p. 87.
61 Four of them are in Psalm 59 alone. Psalms 56:10; 57:9; 58:6, and Psalm 59: 3,5,8 and 11.

[13]
Against J.P. Fokkelmans linking of verse 6 with verse 7 as the third of five strophes in

Psalm 58,62 I am assuming Brian Doyles structural analysis, which treats verses 1 and 11 with

their four inclusio references to gods/God, decree/say, judge and righteousness as

opening and concluding single bicolon strophes.63 I interpret verses 2-5 and 7-10 as a diptych

of two four-bicola strophes framed by the third and central single bicolon strophe of verse 6,

which features the poems only other reference to God (as at the beginning and the end), along

with its unique appeal to the divine name O LORD.64 The five verbs of the second strophe,

verses 2-5 (devise, deal out, go stray, err and not hear) can be added to decree and

judge of verse 1 to give seven verbs. The fourth strophe (verses 7-10) can then be seen to

include a parallel, significantly sabbatical seven-fold curse: break, tear out, vanish, be

trodden down, dissolves, untimely birth and sweep...away.65

The change in person from the second to the third person in verse 3 and verse 10 is

significant, but I do not interpret them as defining the strophe divisions. There is scholarly debate

concerning the ablative in verse 9. The NRSV follows the Masoretic Text with your thorns.66

Beth Tanner changes this to their thorns in order to match the rest of the strophe (verses 6-8),

but then admits, The verse is very corrupt and possibly should be left untranslated.67 That is a

rather extreme solution, given that most ancient manuscripts and versions follow the MT. Kidner

62 J.P. Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Poetry: An Introductory Guide (Louisville KY: Westminster John
Knox Press, 2001), p. 215. (I have changed the verse numbering, here as elsewhere from the Hebrew.)
63 As Day points out, the inclusio of verses 1 and 11 unifies the psalm. Op.cit., p. 170.
64 Brian Doyle, Psalm 58: Curse as Voiced Disorientation. Bijdragen LVII.2 (1996), pp. 122-148, pp.
124-128. This also differs from the NRSVs placing of v. 6 with 7-9, 1 with 2, and 10 with 11.
65 K. Schafer identifies the seven curses: op.cit. p. 143. Tanner also mentions seven curses, op.cit.,
p.492.
66 Only one MT manuscript has the third person their thorns. Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1-59: A
Commentary, trs. Hilton C. Oswald (Minneapolis MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988), p. 533.
67 Beth LaNeel Tanner, op.cit., p. 494 n. 14.

[14]
also calls verse 9 a thoroughly tangled text, on which no two versions reach the same answer.68

For the present purpose I will assume the canonical integrity of the second person, as I always

personally pray it, from both the NRSV as well as the New International Version.69

A final exegetical choice is concerns the term for deity translated you gods at 58: 1

(NRSV). The Hebrew is not lhm, but lm. Indeed, every psalm from Psalm 51 to the end of

Book II in the Psalter opens with an invocation of the divine using the general term lhm for

God, with the telling exception of Psalm 52, where the phrase O mighty one addresses an

enemy of Gods people against whom God is invoked (Ps. 52:5). Herman Gunkel calls this

exceptional.70 Christopher Begg wants to emend lm to lhm proper, making it a reference to

the LORD, pointing out other texts where Biblical figures forthrightly challenge God.71 However

verses 3-5 are clearly complaining about wicked, mortal authorities. God is then invoked to curse

these young lions at verse 6. Probably they should be pronounced lm, and taken to refer to

rulers (NEB), either from a word for rams, which is sometimes used for leaders... or from one of

the words for gods or mighty ones used in the same way.72 Given the canonical context of

poems opening with a call on God, and the precedent of Psalm 52:1, I will assume the textual

integrity of the NRSVs ironic question, Do you indeed do what is right, you gods? (58:1)

68 Kidner, op.cit., p. 228.


69 New International Version, 2011 Edition. Biblica, Inc. (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 1973 etc.,
2011).
70 Herman Gunkel, An Introduction to the Psalms, completed by Joachim Begrich, trs. James D.
Nogalski (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1988), p. 86.
71 Christopher Begg, PS 58,2a: A Forschungsbericht and a Proposal. Ephemerides Theologicae
Lovaniensis LXIV (1988), pp. 397-404, p. 402.
72 Kidner, op.cit., p. 226, referencing Exodus 15:15, Ezekiel 17:13 (for rams); Job 41:25, Ezekiel
32:31.

[15]
John Kselman and Michael Barr propose that the poet of Ps. lxvii has used lm in a

deliberately ambiguous way.73 They suggest lm may hint at muteness, in comparison to the

deaf adder that stops its ear (58:4) and in contrast to their own speaking lies (58:3), and the

vindicated finally saying Surely there is a reward for the righteous... (58:11). The connection

between the muteness of the gods when they should have been pronouncing just sentences and

their silence in Sheol is the relationship between crime and punishment.74 If this is so, then the

opening reference to mute gods is a fit contrast to the poets openly spoken imprecations!

VI. Psalm 58 as a Christian Prayer

Psalm 58, like many of the laments, ...give us the words we would never dare say

ourselves.75 However it goes beyond this. It prompts the question whether an impassioned

curse of tyrants is better or worse than a shrug of the shoulders or a diplomatic silence.76 Jesus

promised his followers not only that we will continue his own works of the Kingdom, but that

we ...in fact, will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. One of

the post powerful ways we are to do this, is by prayer. If in my name you may ask me for

anything, I will do it. (John 14: 12-14, NRSV) In terms of the earlier discussion of the place of

cursings in the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants,77 Sister Irene Nowell may say that in prayer,

We motivate God to help us by pointing out that God has covenant obligations to us (never

mind that we may have forgotten ours).78 Zenger insists the lifting up of the unjust realities to

73 John S. Kselman and Michael Barr, A Note on LEM in Psalm LVIII.2. Vetes Testamentum LIV.4
(October, 2004), pp. 400-402, p. 401.
74 Ibid., p. 401.
75 Nowell, op.cit., p. 20.
76 Kidner, op.cit., p. 227.
77 See above, pages 6 and 8.
78 Nowell, op.cit., p. 2. (Emphasis hers.)

[16]
God as in Psalm 58 are an essential element of the Prayers of the People in public liturgies and

in personal intercession.79 Nowell concludes, I am convinced that refusing to pray the psalms of

lament is a refusal to pray in the voice of the poor, to give voice to the voiceless sufferers.80

Zenger says that the language of the cursing psalms cannot be as offensive to Christians

as the violent and unjust realities that they expose.81 Their confronting us with systematic evil is

in fact an essential part of their function as divine revelation.82 He describes their efficacy in

this regard as a form of realized theodicy.83 Indeed, in praying the imprecations of Psalm 58

against the powers that do nothing in the face of injustices against the needy, intercessors will

be confronted with our own complicity in the evil we bring before God.84 For this reason, Zenger

suggests, ...a liturgical version of the psalms of enmity must not rob them of their power to

irritate.85 As the wealthiest Christians the world have ever seen, who again and again benefit

from the injustices of a global economy warped by oppression and exploitation, we need to allow

the bluntness of Psalm 58 to inform our prayers of confession as much as those of intercession.

John and Kathleen Scott Goldingay write in this regard that Psalm 58 and others enable

us to take up our role as intercessors for the victims of oppression. It is a role that is crucial when

we are in no position to do anything about the oppression.86 They give as examples the prayers

of Christians in the face of the Darfuri massacres perpetrated by President Omar al-Bashir of

79 Zenger, op.cit., p. 89.


80 Nowell, op.cit., p. 35.
81 Zenger, op.cit., p. 85.
82 Ibid., p. 87.
83 Ibid., p. 79.
84 Ibid., p. 76 (speaking of the psalms of lament in general Psalm 58 is my example).
85 Ibid., p. 92.
86John Goldingay and Kathleen Scott Goldingay, The Sting of the Psalms, Part 2. Theology CXVIII.1
(2015), pp. 3-9, p. 8.

[17]
Sudan.87 John Frame writes about the real feelings and prayers of the Ugandan Christians who

were being murderously persecuted by the notorious Idi Amin in the late 1970s. Given the

extremism of his actions and his hard-heartedness, it would have been cruel to counsel Ugandans

to pray for Amins salvation, rather than his judgement by God.88 Nowell recalls a group of

women studying the massacres in Borneo, who reacted to a picture of a woman fleeing with a

baby in her arms by praying in the tone of Psalm 137: May someone do to your babies what

you are doing to ours. They said, We hate that psalm! But how else could we cry out in this

womans name?89 Even if Western Christians (pray God!) never have to experience such

atrocities ourselves, Psalm 58 is there in Scripture to give voice to those who need to pray in

such terms. And in prayers for our sisters and brothers in such circumstances, and in solidarity

with them, surely we should not object to the language that the Holy Spirit has given for them.

Brent Strawn convincingly compares the language of the imprecatory psalms to the

sanctified and commercially successful curses of Gangsta Rap. That language is accepted,

even though it is often affected and even hypocritical, because it has its origins in the oppression

and anger of African Americans. Surely such honesty about our and our fellow Christians

feelings of shock, anger and frustration should be acceptable in meaningfully reciting Psalm 58.

He quotes Charles Surgeons comment on those who took offense to the conclusion of Psalm

137: Let those find fault with it who have never seen their temple burned, their city ruined, their

wives ravished, and their children slain....90

87 Ibid., pp. 4-5.


88 John M. Frame, Imprecations: Holy Fire. IIIM Magazine Online IV.17 (April 27-May 2, 2002). http:
//www.thirdmill.org/files/english/html/TH.h.Frame.Imprecation.prayer.2.html (accessed July 11, 2017).
89 Nowell, op.cit., p. 34.
90 Brent Strawn, Sanctified and Commercially Successful Curses: on Gangsta Rap and the Canonization
of the Imprecatory Psalms. Theology Today LXIX.4 (2013), pp. 403-417, p. 413.

[18]
Psalm 58s power comes from the fact that it is initially addressed not to God (as one

might expect from its context in the canon), but (in its contextual Ancient Near Eastern

understanding of national leaders) to the supposedly semi-divine or blasphemously pretentious

gods who neglected or contradicted their God-given vocation to rule with justice and

compassion. The bestial imagery not only suits the cultural animal-like understanding of rulers in

those times. It is appropriate for prayer even today, against the inhuman powers that be (a

phrase I chose for my hymn version of the psalm, cf. Appendix Two) that oppress humanity.

It is in this spirit that the exaggerated, even downright bloody language of Psalm 58

should be appreciated and even prayed. Most people are comfortable with using hyperbole in

say, describing a victory or loss of a sports team: The Leafs were slaughtered! This expresses

passion for the sport, loyalty to the team, and the emotional and cultural impact of the event.91

How much more, then, may such poetic idioms serve for praying against evil to the God of love?

The metaphoric language about the destructive rhetoric (venom) and heartless indifference

(i.e., deafness) of self-serving rulers in 58: 3-5 may certainly be prayed in this poetic tone.

At the heart of Psalm 58, the poet turns to God: ...break the teeth in their mouths; tear

out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD! (58:6, NRSV). Tanner notes that this central bicolon

draws attention to itself with a chiasm (God-LORD) that reminds us of the same structure in v.1,

so that v.6 becomes a poetic response to v.1.92 In praying the psalm, this is when the worshipper

may turn from rehearsing the evil effects of the powers that be to call upon God for deliver-

ance, vindication for the victims (but not personal vengeance)93 and justice.

91 Schafer makes a similar point about the psalms generally. Op.cit., p. xlii.
92 Tanner, op.cit., p. 495.
93 Mays, op.cit., p. 212.

[19]
In the following seven-fold curses (vv. 7-9) I see no need to recall their original meaning,

nor resort to artificial allegory. I think and feel the imagery of decay and death that they portray.

May evil, and the powers that cause it (be they people or systems, like an economy that too

many think is unchangeable as if it is more established or mighty than God!), come to the end

that they deserve even to the point of experiencing themselves what they have done to others.

The next emotional turn in Psalm 58 takes place at verse 9. Tanner comments on the

sudden move from imprecation to rejoicing, This gap that occurs in many of the prayers for

help has caused scholars to provide a reason for the dramatic turn in the psalm, but here the

poem offers no reason.94 Perhaps it does:

Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns


whether they be green or drythe wicked will be swept away. (NIV)95

As I mentioned in class, I receive this as an anticipatory oracular reply to the psalmists prayer by

God. Nowell notes that Laments almost always end in confidence and thanksgiving. Perhaps

this assurance results from Gods answer to the sufferer expressed in the words of a priest or

prophet. She gives Psalm 81: 6-7 as an example in the text itself of this divine response.96 So

Zenger can identify the fictional speaker in Psalm 58 as the LORD, pronouncing the sentence.97

Such a divine assurance brings forth the most powerful of images from the poet: the

righteous will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked (58:10b, NRSV). Distasteful as this

image is to worshippers today, it comes from standard Ancient Near-Eastern military rhetoric.98

Mays helpfully compares it to the same kind of language in the Song of Moses, which has

94 Tanner, op.cit., p. 496.


95 The NRSV introduces unnecessary confusion here by beginning the colon in the second person (your
pots) but concluding the in the third (may he sweep them away!).
96 Nowell, op.cit.. p. 23 (emphasis again is hers).
97 Zenger, op.cit., p. 37.
98 Tanner, op.cit., p. 496.

[20]
already been consulted in regard to the covenantal context of Psalm 58s imprecations.99 Kidner

explains, What might appear as ghoulishness in 10b takes on a different aspect against the

rebuke of Isaiah 63: 1-6, where God is appalled that none will march with him into judgement.

These are warriors, not camp-followers.100 Hans-Joachim Kraus brands the vindicated warriors

blood-bathed feet as a powerful witness to the totality of the demand for righteousness.101

VII. Conclusion: Praying with All Our Heart.

In Revelation 6: 10, the martyrs under the altar cry out: Sovereign Lord, holy and true,

how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?

(NRSV) Surely such an august and holy group should set a precedent for our prayer-life! In the

concluding chapters of the same book, the victorious Christ appears on a war-horse, indeed the

avenger and vindicator of his witnesses (19: 2; cf. 16:6, 18:29). He rides a great war-horse; but

the only weapon with him and indeed his whole army is the sword of the Word of God that issues

from his mouth (Rev. 19: 15).102 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood. (Rev. 19:13 NRSV) Is

this the blood of the enemies of God? Certainly the seer wanted his readers to see this image as

an answer to such prayers and promises as Psalm 58: 10. But four times in the text already, Jesus

has been described as the Lamb whose blood has redeemed the world (Rev. 1:5; 5:9; 7:14 and

12:11). The blood-stained mighty warrior is an emotionally and morally subverting image. The

Lord avenges his own by taking the vengeance upon himself on the cross. Their final vindication

99 Mays, op.cit., p. 212.


100 Kidner, op.cit., p. 228.
101 Hans-Joachim Kraus, op.cit., p. 536.
102 The Book of Revelation, in spite of its violent imagery, is on fact a very pacifist book! Cf.
commentaries of M. Eugene Boring, Revelation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching
(Louisville KY: John Knox Press, 2011); Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, Revised Edition.
New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1998);
and George R. Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1974).

[21]
is Jesus victory of peace as well as grace. As I have prayed Psalm 58 in Jesus name, I have

found myself claimed again and anew for the peaceful reign of Christ. The transfer of

vengeance to God that is indicated in the psalms implies renouncing ones own revenge.103

Otherwise, those who take the sword may perish by the sword (Matthew 26: 52, NRSV)! The

concluding arresting blood-thirsty imagery of Psalm 58 brings me to the blood of Christ!

Rather than imagining my bathing my feet in others blood, I recall the command to wash others

feet with the cleansing water that Jesus alone may provide, for me, and then for those I serve

even those who may feel to me like they are my curse-worthy enemies (John 13: 7-8,15-17).

Daniel Nehrbass concludes his analeptic study, Praying Curses: The Therapeutic and

Preaching Value of the Imprecatory Psalms, with an Appendix of the text of Matthew Chapter 5:

...because the imprecatory psalms must be understood and lived with this sermon in
mind. Without this sermon, the study of the imprecatory psalms would be incomplete and
out of balance.... It has been my argument that the psalms model an acceptable way to
pray, but Jesus teaches us how to act.104
I have tried to indicate how the praying of Psalm 58, in all its bluntness, may serve these ends.

In the Middle Ages many Christians prayed with an abbreviated version of the Psalter

prepared by the Venerable Bede. His digest of Psalm 58 is one hemistich: Verily there is a God

that judgeth the earth.105 Psalm 58 may enable us to more faithfully and effectively pray to this

God with honesty and passion, as an essential part of our Christian vocation to seek justice and

compassion for all, till that day when (in the words of my hymn, Appendix Two), The world

will know [Gods] healing light, Loves reign, for endless days.

103 Zenger, op.cit., p. 92.


104 Daniel Michael Nehrbass, Praying Curses: The Therapeutic and Preaching Value of the Imprecatory
Psalms (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013), p. 207.
105 Benedicta Ward, Bede and the Psalter (Oxford: SLG Press, Convent of the Incarnation, 2002), p. 34.

[22]
Sermon: Praying When Angry and Frustrated
(Psalm 58 and Imprecatory Prayers)
The Church of the Good Shepherd Saint John NB Sunday July 30, 2017
Rev. Chris McMullen, Rector and Priest (Acadia ID # 100133729)

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts this morning
be found acceptable in your sight, O LORD, Our Rock, and our Redeemer. Amen.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea
and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down,
and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age.
The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into
the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13: 47-50 NRSV)
Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods?
Do you judge people fairly?
No, in your hearts you devise wrongs;
your hands deal out violence on earth....
O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!
...Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime;
like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.
Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!
The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done;
they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
People will say, Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
surely there is a God who judges on earth. (Psalm 58:1-2,6,8,9-11 NRSV)

In our Holy Gospel Lesson this morning, our Lord compares the Kingdom of Heaven

or reign of God in our human story, to a hidden treasure of great value; a pearl of great price;

and a fishing net which catches all manner and kinds of creatures some of them good, some of

them useless to the fishers; some of them no doubt outright dangerous! The presence and power

and purposes of our loving God are worth selling all we have. But! But! The Kingdom of God is

to be known in a compromised net or world, where good and evil, justice and injustice, people

of peace and people of violence and exploitation, live and work, and die, together.

As Leonard would say on The Big Bang Theory: So whats with that?
[23]
Jesus knows the challenging life he is calling us to, when he calls us to follow him in

loving others, witnessing to the truth, and living for the compassion and justice of his Fathers

reign. Thats why he sent his Holy Spirit upon us. As Jesus promised in his great, final pep-talk

to his followers in the upper room, shortly before his arrest:

...the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (John 14: 26-27)

We are blessed with the Holy Spirit. Peace and power for patience and persistence in living as

loving companions of Jesus and righteous children of the Father, in an often uncaring and cruel,

ungodly human society.

Our Saviour also gives us another supernatural resource for dealing with the trials and

tragedies of life in a fallen human family. This brings us to todays psalm. (Actually, my chosen

psalm. Psalm 58 is not assigned by our Lectionary, for Sunday worship. Do you wonder why?!)

Psalm 58 is a rant that becomes a prayer. And prayer is a gift of God. May the astounding claim

of Jesus, given to his disciples shortly before he will die a horrible death, take our breath away:

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do
and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.
I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. (John 14: 12-
14)

You will do greater works [than I have done] because I am going to the Father... If in my

name you ask me for anything, I will do it! Sisters and brothers, remember the power of prayer

in Jesus name!

[24]
Now, In Jesus name, you must be asking? Let them be like the snail that dissolves

into slime; like the untimely birth that never sees the sun. (Ps. 58:8) How can we pray that

in Jesus name? Thats what I want us to think about this morning.

Such cursing petitions are called imprecatory prayers. Dictionary.com defines imprecate

as to invoke or call down evil or curses. Of 2,526 verses in the Book of Psalms, about 98 of them

are prayers of cursing or damnation against the psalmists enemies. (Including the main thrust of ten

whole psalms out of 150.) You may remember Psalm 137: 8-9, for instance (NRSV):

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!


Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

Should we pray such thoughts and feelings? Psalms 58, 137, and others like Psalms 7 and 109

are in the prayer-book of the Holy Scriptures that the Holy Spirit has inspired for us. St. Paul

himself quotes the imprecations of Psalm 69: 22-23 when he writes about his compatriots who

rejected Jesus, Romans 11: 9-10: Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling

block and a retribution for them... How can we pray such thoughts in Jesus name?!

Let me say two things. First, lets be real about Jesus! Our creeds quote Acts 10:42 (and

Gospel texts like John 5: 22,30): He will come again to judge the living and the dead. To

quote just from Jesus three parables in Matthew 25 (as he confronted his contemporaries during

Holy Week in the temple, with his Fathers coming judgement against their unbelief):

Lord, open to usI do not know you (vv.11-12);


As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness,
where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (v.30);
You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire (v.40).

Jesus is the Lord of Love. But, as the great Martin Luther put it, sometimes love has to burn

hot in the face of un-love and injustice. Sometimes to defend the innocent, one must punish the

[25]
guilty. Jesus came the first time in humility. But he did not mince his words. He promises to

come again as judge. When we pray Thy kingdom come, the will be done on earth as it is in

heaven, what, after all, are we asking for, if we are not asking for the evil of earth to be

thoroughly purged before earth inherits eternity?

Lets be real about Jesus. The love of Christ is gentle and patient but it is not weak!

Second, lets be real about ourselves. We all know (sometimes to the embarrassment of

our comfortable, middle-class piety) that the psalmists like David and Asaph prayed with candid

and blunt honesty about their thoughts and feelings. They came before God as they were. No

pretensions or airs of devoutness. The truth is, not too far below the surface, we may at times

harbour such feelings of truly righteous indignation ourselves. What can we do with them? Act

upon them? Certainly not with violence or spite! Yet how can we act with love, respect and

compassion, if that is how we feel? Psalm 58 teaches us to take them to the Lord in prayer.

Yes thanks be to God and to two thousand years of Christian influence we live in much

less barbaric, violent times than the people who gave us the Old Testament. At least, we who are

privileged to live in the upper West Side of Saint John. But what about our sisters and brothers in

other societies including the families of the Coptic Christians martyred by ISIS in Egypt last

year? (They are pictured on todays Sermon Title slide.) Surely they can bring their anger as well

as their grief before the Lord. Surely they can pray for the defeat, and even the just punishment,

of such unrepentant murderers who even claim to kill in Gods name!

We are commanded not to judge others; to leave all judgement to God. Twice the New

Testament quotes Deuteronomy 32:35: Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord!

(Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30) That text comes from Moses great sermon to the Israelites, just

[26]
before they enter the Promised Land. Moses spends fourteen verses assuring the people that:

Indeed the Lord will vindicate his people... by bringing judgement on Gods enemies (Deut.

32: 36). Moses promise of divine cursing is itself based on Gods covenant with Abraham:

I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse;
and in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12: 3)

The imprecations of Psalm 58 and other Biblical prayers are based on Gods covenantal promise

to make his people, in Abraham and in Abrahams salvation-fulfilling descendent Jesus, a people

of blessing for all people. Real blessing must include the real eradication of evil. So that we do

not judge others, we give judgement over to the Lord. We surrender our outrage or our hurt to

God. Thats what the psalmist does in Psalm 58. Prof. Erich Zenger calls such psalms realized

theodicy. Dr. Daniel Nehrbass even calls them therapeutic! That is why David may end his

angry prayer by saying (Psalm 58:11):

The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done...


People will say, Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
surely there is a God who judges on earth.

He is feeling much better! His faith, confidence, and peace of spirit have been restored, in

praying according to Gods covenant with his people.

Lets be real about ourselves. We need to vent our feelings of anger, not just when they

are wrong and we need to confess them; but even when they are justifiable, and we need to

express them. This we may do in prayers of supplication, such as Psalm 58.

O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,


All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!

There is another way in which we may, and should, pray the psalms and other prayers of

imprecation. When we pray, we are to pray in the first person plural, always in conscious

communion with other sisters and brothers in Christ. Our Father, who art in heaven.... give us

[27]
this day our daily bread.... deliver us from evil. As in worship we pray for others, especially

those in special need, so in our praying of the psalms, we should pray for others. The psalms of

imprecation may inspire and guide us to pray in solidarity with those who need to pray such

psalms in all honesty, in the face of the terrible and murderous injustice they themselves face.

In my research, I discovered several real examples. Mission workers John and Kathleen

Scott Goldingay spoke about the need to pray against President Omar al-Bashir and the powers

and people committing the Darfuri massacres in Syria. John Frame wrote about the real feelings

and prayers of the Ugandan Christians he knew, who were being murderously persecuted by the

notorious Idi Amin in the late 1970s. Sister Irene Nowell recalled a group of women studying

the massacres in Borneo in 2001, who reacted to a picture of a woman fleeing with a baby in her

arms by praying in the tone of Psalm 137... May someone do to your babies what you are

doing to ours. They said, We hate that psalm! But how else could we cry out in this womans

name? Sister Nowell also speaks about praying Psalm 58 against Alzheimers, or offering other

psalms of imprecation against cancer and similar diseases, and the powers of the economy and

the warped environment which cause them.

You see, Psalm 58 is addressed to just such corrupt governors or powers that be:

Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods? Do you judge people fairly?
No, in your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands deal out violence on earth....

Here the psalmist uses the term gods with irony, even sarcasm. Of course he or she believes

there is only one God. But in King Davids day, and even today, there are political, economic and

military rulers, or ruling systems, that live by the lying pretense that they are above the justice

and compassion of the one true God or at least of what our secular society has borrowed from

our faith and de-theologized with the language of human rights and international justice.

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In the vision of Revelation 6: 10, the martyrs are portrayed crying out: Sovereign Lord,

holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants

of the earth? (NRSV) Surely such a saintly group should set a precedent for our prayer-life!

Indeed, Psalm 58 seems to include Gods answer to its prayers of imprecation (v.6):

Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,


whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!

Who is speaking there? I believe this is one of those moments in the psalms where God speaks

back to the person praying. God is assuring the petitioners not only that their prayers are being

heard. They will, though in Gods own good timing, be answered. That is why Psalm 58 may end

on an upbeat, admittedly bloodthirsty note (Psalm 58:10-11):

The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done;


they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
People will say, Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
surely there is a God who judges on earth.

Bathing our feet in the blood of the wicked! The scholars I read point out that this is the

typical hyperbolic language of military victory in the Ancient Near East. There is a healthy place

for exaggeration and poetic license in the expression of our emotions, fears and hopes. We will

even use such language when we describe a lopsided win in sports: the Habs slaughtered the

Leafs! (Apologies to all you Toronto fans.) No one takes offense (except Leafs fans), because

the terminology is a language of passionate fandom. How much more, then, should the oppressed

and exploited and those who are called to pray in solidarity with them pray in a melodramatic

language of strong feelings? One of the papers I read for my course on the Psalms was Brent

Strawns Sanctified and Commercially Successful Curses: Gangsta Rap and the Canonization of

the Imprecatory Psalms. The extreme lyrics of Gangsta Rap are popular and acceptable since

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they do express the real heritage of humiliation and pain that African Americans continue to

endure today. Our faith in Christ may move us to pray for the suffering in strong words as well.

So how do I pray that the victims of evil may bathe their feet in the blood of the

wicked? We should pray all of our prayers, of course, in Jesus name. That is why we end the

recitation of the psalms in worship, Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy

Spirit... Another, older, once-popular way of saying we are to pray in Jesus name, is to say we

are to pray, covered in the blood of Jesus! The tenth verse of Psalm 58 reminds me, every time

I pray it in the seven-week cycle of praying the psalms that I follow from the Book of Alternative

Services, that I should pray through the blood of Jesus Christ, my Saviour.

Again of course I am speaking in the dramatic imagery of the Bible. In Revelation 19,

after several chapters of armies preparing for the final great apocalyptic battle of Armageddon,

Jesus returns in glory. However, there is no final battle. The demons and their allies are all

arrested and thrown into the lake of fire. It is almost anticlimactic. The whole army of Jesus

saints are dressed in white, for a party; not in armour for a war. The only weapon in the whole

heavenly host is the sword of Gods word, coming out of Jesus mouth (Rev. 19: 15). This sword

of the Gods word is a meaningful contrast to the deaf indifference and pretentious lies of the

powers that be that are lamented in Psalm 58. Jesus shall vindicate the victims of violence, not

with more violence, but with the truth of the Gospel! And the only blood that is depicted in the

heavenly host, is the blood on the robe of Jesus (Revelation 19: 13), the Lamb of God who was

slain for the sins of the world (Rev. 1:5; 5:9; 7:14; 12:11). The author of the Book of Revelation

is deliberately subverting the meaning of the vindictive blood imagery of his day.

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In his bloody death and victory, Jesus sets us free from the bloodiness of our sins and our

sinful world. We may not want to dwell on the bloody-mindedness of our human condition. But

when we are hurt and frustrated, we need to face up to it, and offer our propensity for violence

and injustice to God, praying for healing and justice, for others, and for ourselves. Psalm 58, and

the other imprecatory psalms of the Bible, can help us to do this with thoroughness, and grace.

People will say, Surely there is a reward for the righteous;


Surely there is a God who judges on earth. (Psalm 58:11)
Thanks be to God!

Appendix Two: Psalm 58 Paraphrased as a Hymn

(Tune: Resignation CP # 583 underlined vowels go for two notes)

(Sung as the Offertory by the Church of the Good Shepherd after my sermon
during a Celtic Eucharistic liturgy, adapted from the Rev. Ray Simpson, founder,
the Community of Aidan and Hilda, Lindisfarne, England, on Sunday July 30, 2017)

You powers that be, you lying gods,


Theres no good in your hearts.
The poor, the sick, the refugees
Are victims from your darts.
Your souls are poisoned from your sins,
Your ears closed to their cry;
Bereft of hope, your victims pray
To God, the Judge on high:

O God, bring down the arrogant


Whose schemes blaspheme your love.
Punish the cruel and violent
With justice from above.
Make them feel the pain that they have caused;
Make them suffer for their crimes,
Like slugs that whither from the heat
Make them vanish from our times.

As thorns and thistles burn in flame


So will the evil die;
When God will vindicate his Name
And we will surely cry:

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There is a God who judges right;
And goodness surely pays!
The world will know your healing light,
Loves reign, for endless days.

-- Revd Chris McMullen, 2017

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