This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
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9 For there is no truth in their mouth;
their inmost self is destruction;
their throat is an open grave;
they flatter with their tongue.
10 Make them bear their guilt, O God;
let them fall by their own counsels;
because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out,
for they have rebelled against you.
Four Old Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the text of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and making applications to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary.
Prayers against Evildoers
Psalm 5 is an individual lament and the first instance of a psalm that includes prayers for the personal downfall of the enemies. The situations for which this psalm is well suited include cases in which the worshiper fears that his own misfortunes will provide an occasion for the “enemies” to gloat. These enemies despise God and use bloodthirsty and deceitful means to harm and persecute the faithful.
After a description of the deceitful means and destructive schemes of these people in Psalm 5:9, we find a prayer that God would thwart the schemes and judge the schemers. These prayers are actually a mercy to potential “evildoers” (i.e., those who will persecute the faithful and seek their destruction) if they are Israelites. That such prayer occurs in a hymn sung in public worship warns them of what awaits any who harden themselves to pursue such evil.
The description of the oppressors in verse 9 continues what we see in Psalm 5:4–6. Paul uses this verse in Romans 3:10–18, together with extracts from Psalms 14:1–3; 140:3; 10:7; Isaiah 59:7–8 to argue that not only Gentiles but also Jews are under the power of sin. Except for Psalm 14:1–3, these texts focus on the unfaithful within God’s own people.1
Prayers like this one in Psalm 5:10 describe the judgment that must eventually fall on those members of God’s people who harden themselves to persecute the godly, for to harm the godly is to attack God. For them to “bear their guilt” is for their guilt offerings not to be received with favor (Lev. 5:19). If they “fall by their own counsels,” their deceitful schemes fail to destroy the godly but instead recoil on their own heads (e.g., 2 Sam. 15:31; 17:14, 23). They are to be “cast . . . out,” probably of the worshiping congregation, to show that they do not belong there (cf. Ps. 1:5). The request, then, is for God to vindicate his commitment to his people, if not here in this life for all to see, then at least in the hereafter. Prayers of this sort generally carry the unstated assumption that the evildoers will not repent and seek forgiveness; should they turn, these prayers are reversed as well.
Curses in Psalms
Many psalms call on God for help as the faithful are threatened with harm from enemies. In a number of places, the form of the requested help is God’s punishment of these enemies. Christians, with the teaching and example of Jesus (e.g., Matt. 5:38–48; Luke 23:34; 1 Pet. 2:19–23; cf. Acts 7:6), wonder what to make of such curses. How can it possibly be right for God’s people to pray in this way?2
Some have supposed that this is an area in which the ethics of the NT improve upon and supersede the OT.3 Others suggest that these apply only to the church’s warfare with its ultimate enemy, Satan.4 Others have reckoned these psalms to be filled with sinful hate, recorded for our admonishment.5 None of these is fully satisfying, both because the NT authors portray themselves as heirs of OT ethics (cf. Matt. 22:34–40) and because the NT has some curses of its own (e.g., 1 Cor. 16:22; Gal. 1:8–9; Rev. 6:9–10), even finding instruction in some of the curses in the Psalms (e.g., Acts 1:20; Rom. 11:9–10, using Psalms 69; 109).
Each of the psalm passages must be taken on its own. At the same time, it is helpful to gather some principles together in one place.
First, one must be clear that the people being cursed are not enemies over trivial matters; they are people who hate the faithful precisely for their faith. They mock God and use ruthless and deceitful means to suppress the godly (cf. Ps. 5:4–6, 9–10; Ps. 42:3; 94:2–7). Second, it is worth remembering that these curses are poetry and thus can employ extravagant and vigorous expressions. (Hence, the exact fulfillment is left to God.) Third, these curses are expressions of moral indignation, not personal vengeance. For someone who knows God, it is unbearably wrong that those who persecute the faithful should not only get away with it but even seem to prosper. Zion is the apple of God’s eye, and it is unthinkable that God himself could tolerate cruel men’s taking delight in destroying it. Thus these psalms are prayers for God to vindicate himself, displaying his righteousness for all the world to see in this life’s arena (cf. Ps. 10:17–18). Further, these are prayers for God to do what he said he will do: for example, Psalm 35:5 looks back to Psalm 1:4, and even Psalm 137:9 has Isaiah 13:16 as its backcloth. How could any reader of, say, The Lord of the Rings not rejoice when Sauron is defeated and his tower falls? Most of these prayers assume that the persecutors will not repent; in one place the prayer actually looks to the punishment as leading to their conversion (Ps. 83:17–18). This enables us to suppose that the wish for the enemies’ repentance is implicit in the other places. Kidner observes that Paul applies some of these curses in his argument (Rom. 11:9–10) in a context in which he expects his fellow Jews eventually to turn from resisting the messianic message to embracing it. Paul, he says,
clearly regards the clause “forever” as revocable if they will repent, as indeed he expects them to do. So we gain the additional insight into these maledictions, that for all their appearance of implacability they are to be taken as conditional, as indeed the prophets’ oracles were. Their full force was for the obdurate; upon repentance they would become “a curse that is causeless”, which, as Proverbs 26:2 assures us, “does not alight.”6
This implied revocability for the penitent can also serve any of the would-be oppressors who might happen to be present at the worship by inviting them to consider their ways.
Fourth, the OT ethical system forbids personal revenge (e.g., Lev. 19:17–18; Prov. 24:17; 25:21–22), a prohibition the NT inherits (cf. Rom. 12:19–21). Hence this is not a likely avenue for interpreting these passages, and certainly not a viable way of applying them. As Kidner puts it, these are instead “the plea that justice shall be done, and the right vindicated.”7
Finally, these psalms give Christians in all lands the opportunity to express their solidarity with their brethren across the globe, especially those who are persecuted. Persecution is on the rise in many parts of the world, and those who live in relative safety ought to pray on behalf of those in danger for their faith.
Thus, when the NT writers employ these curses or formulate their own (as above), they are following the OT pattern. After all, any prayer for the Lord to hasten his coming must mean disaster for the impenitent (2 Thess. 1:5–10). As Franz Delitzsch puts it,
As to the so-called imprecatory psalms, in the position occupied by the Christian and by the church towards the enemies of Christ, the desire for their removal is certainly outweighed by the desire for their conversion: but assuming, that they will not be converted and will not anticipate their punishment by penitence, the transition from a feeling of love to a feeling of wrath is warranted in the New Testament (e.g. Gal. v. 12), and assuming their absolute Satanic hardness of heart the Christian even may not shrink from praying for their final overthrow.8
It is therefore possible that the faithful today might use them if they do so in a service of worship, under wise leadership, for the good of the whole people of God.
- Seeing this shows the mistake of those who find that Paul “badly twists the original meaning of the Biblical sayings.” Heikki Räisänen, Paul and the Law (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 99. For a reading of Paul that respects the biblical contexts cf. C. John Collins, “Echoes of Aristotle in Romans 2:14–15: Or, Maybe Abimelech Was Not So Bad After All,” Journal of Markets and Morality 13/1 (Spring 2010): 138–140. pp. 48-49
- A helpful resource is Daniel Simango and P. Paul Krüger, “An Overview of the Study of Imprecatory Psalms: Reformed and Evangelical Approaches to the Interpretation of Imprecatory Psalms,” OTE 29/2 (2016): 581–600. Cf. Daniel Simango, “An Exegetical Study of Imprecatory Psalms in the Old Testament” (PhD diss., North-West University, 2011).
- Cf. Kidner, Psalms 1–72, 25–32. I find many steps along the way insightful, and I do not think they lead to Kidner’s conclusion.
- Cf. Longman, How to Read the Psalms, 138–140.
- Cf. C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 20–33. Since Lewis is finding an edifying purpose in the recording of these sentiments, he is not necessarily denying biblical inspiration: after all, the Bible also records the speeches of Job’s three friends and then condemns them (Job 42:7).
- Kidner, Psalms 1–72, 30.
- Ibid., 26.
- Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1886), 1:44.
This article is by C. John Collins and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Psalms–Song of Solomon (Volume 5).
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