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Imprecatory Psalms

DAY 342

CHALLENGE

“Some psalms contain violent and bloodthirsty language that calls down wrath upon (imprecates) one’s enemies.”

DEFENSE

The key to understanding these is recognizing their genre and the modes of language they employ.

The psalms were written in a world in which people experienced many violent acts that were bound to stir up powerful emotions. Expressing an emotion, however, is not the same thing as literally performing an act, much less does it mean God would approve of literally performing the act. The psalms thus use hyperbolic language to express emotions without implying divine approval of the literal acts described. The Pontifical Biblical Commission writes:

The literary genre of the lament makes use of exaggerated and exasperated expressions, both in its description of suffering, which is always extreme, . . . and in the request for remedies, which should be swift and definitive. This is motivated by the fact that such a prayer expresses the emotional state of mind of those who find themselves in a dramatic situation. . . .

The images employed should be regarded as metaphors: “break the teeth of the wicked” (Ps. 3:7; 58:7) means to put an end to the lies and greed of the overbearing; “smash their children against the rock” means to annihilate, without the possibility of their reproducing in the future the malignant forces which destroy life; and so on (The Inspiration and Truth of Scripture 129).

It also notes:

In the imprecatory prayer, no magical action is performed which would have a direct effect on one’s enemies; instead the person praying entrusts to God the task of administering that justice which no one on earth can. There is in this the renunciation of personal vengeance (ibid., 130).

It should also be remembered that the psalms were written at a state of Israel’s journey before the definitive revelation that came with Jesus Christ. The attitude of turning the other cheek and forgiving and praying for one’s enemies had not yet been revealed (Matt. 5:39, 43–44). This is a supernatural attitude that goes beyond a natural response (Matt. 5:45–48). Consequently, at the stage when the psalms were written, the natural human response was the one that found expression.

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