I recently saw that Peter Leithart referred to John Day’s Crying for Justice: What the Psalms Teach Us about Mercy and Vengeance in an Age of Terrorism as the definitive treatment on the imprecatory psalms, and also wrote that the book was “balanced, meticulous, and convincing.”
Here are a few notes I took on some of the book’s major principles:
“In circumstances of sustained injustice, hardened enmity, and gross oppression, it has always been appropriate for a believer to utter imprecations against enemies or to appeal for the onslaught of divine vengeance. In certain instances today, appeals to God for his curse or vengeance are fitting” (pp. 15-16). “It is legitimate at times for God’s present people to utter prayers of imprecation or pleas for divine vengeance—like those in the psalms—against the recalcitrant enemies of God and his people. Such expression is consistent with the ethics of the Old Testament and finds corresponding echo in the New” (p. 109).
Three Groups of Imprecatory Psalms
1. Imprecation against societal enemy (58; 94)
2. Imprecation against nation or community (68; 74; 79; 83; 129; 137)
3. Imprecation against personal enemy (5; 6; 7; 9; 10; 17; 28; 31; 35; 40; 52; 54; 55; 56; 59; 69; 70; 71; 104; 109; 139; 140; 141; 143)
Three Major Solutions
1. Imprecatory psalms express evil emotions that should be suppressed or confessed as sin (C. S. Lewis, Walter Brueggemann).
2. They are utterances consonant with old covenant morality but inconsistent with new covenant ethics (Roy Zuck, J. Carl Laney, Meredith Kline).
3. Such words may be appropriately spoken only by Christ in relation to his work on the cross and only by his followers through him (James Adams, Dietrich Bonhoeffer).
Why These Solutions Are Unsatisfactory
1. The first position fails to adequately account for the imprecatory psalms being inspired by God and the profusion of imprecations in the psalms, which were incorporated in the canon. It also does not sufficiently address the piety of the psalmists and their ethical rationale, the legitimacy of their utterance in light of their OT theological foundations, and the presence of similar imprecations in the NT.
2. The second position overly restricts the definition of love and minimizes the fundamental ethical continuity between the testaments in the outworking of progressive revelation. It does not sufficiently account for the enduring validity of the Abrahamic promise or the presence of personalized imprecations in the NT.
3. The third position overstates David’s position and function as a type of Christ, understates the reality of the historical situations that evoke the utterances, and evades the problem that David did not write all of the imprecatory psalms, let alone the other imprecations in Scripture.
In sum, these three perspectives all share the same fatal flaw: “each explanation ends up distancing the imprecatory psalms from legitimate prayers of God’s people today. This distance is fundamentally foreign to the use of the psalms as they were passed down through history. Indeed, the Psalter in its entirety was incorporated into the Christian canon with the tacit affirmation that it remained a book of worship for God’s people” (p. 35).
Foundations for Imprecation
The foundations for imprecation come most notably from:
1. The promise of divine vengeance in the Song of Moses (Deut. 32:1-43).
2. The principle of divine justice in the lex talionis (e.g., Deut. 19:16-21)
3. The promise of divine cursing in the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12:2-3).
How Can It Be Right for Christians to Cry Out for Divine Vengeance and Violence, as in the Imprecatory Psalms?
1. The vengeance appealed for is not personally enacted. Rather, God is called upon to be the Avenger.
2. This appeal is based upon the covenant promises of God, most notable of which are “He who curses you, I will curse” (Gen. 12:30, and “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay” (Deut. 32:35). If God has so promised, then it would not seem wrong for his people to petition him (even passionately) to fulfill these promises.
3. Both testaments record examples of God’s people on earth calling down curses or crying for vengeance. Yet there is no literary or theological intimation of divine disapproval over such sentiments being expressed. Indeed, the implication is that, in its appropriate place, such utterances are commendable (cf. the imprecatory psalms and the Pauline and Petrine curses of Gal. 1:8-9 and Acts 8:20).
4. Scripture further records an instance in which God’s people in heaven, where there is no sin, cry out for divine vengeance and are comforted by the assurance of its impending enactment (Rev. 6:9-11). Since these martyred saints are perfected, their entreaty would presumably be “right.”
The NT data speaks in two directions:
1. The ethic of enemy-love and blessing is indeed intensified, and the implications of that ethic are more extensively explored and applied.
2. The presence of justified imprecation also insists that, in some fashion, the utterance of imprecation remains allowable within this elevated ethic of enemy-love and blessing, as it did in the imprecatory psalms.
In the Scriptures of both testaments two reactions toward enmity are given:
1. The characteristic virtue of love shown by God and his people
2. The other ethical response is for extreme instances, used when God’s people face sustained injustice, hardened enmity, and gross oppression.