Excursus 5: Imprecatory Psalms
Before we explore the nature and the use of imprecatory psalms for the church today we need to heed the words of Psalms scholar Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford when she says, “The imprecatory psalms are heartfelt, raw, angry, and difficult.” But just because this is a difficult subject does not mean we can ignore it. The word “imprecatory” or “imprecation” means “an invocation [or supplication] of judgment, calamity, or curse uttered against one’s enemies, or the enemies of God.” In other words, calling upon the wrath of God to take vengeance on the enemy (or enemies) on behalf of the psalmist, who has been a victim of said enemy (or enemies). The answer to violence in these psalms is a reciprocation of violence to the one(s) initially promoting and acting out violence. It is this harsh and violent nature of the imprecatory psalms that have made most Christians uncomfortable with them. Jesus calls us to “turn the other cheek” and to love our enemies and seek peace with all. So, what are we to do with these violent, and potentially dangerous words that have ended up in our Bible?
When we think of these psalms we need to keep in mind two things: (1) God’s righteousness; and (2) the victim. Jacobson says, “God’s characteristic quality of righteousness binds God to the reality of delivering the innocent and thus of punishing the wicked.” The reason for this righteousness is to “set right” that which is “not right,” or not good. The victim(s) that sings these imprecatory psalms “are shouting out their suffering because of the overwhelming injustices and abject indifferences of their foe, their enemies.” This is oppression and violence that cannot be easily remedied with generosity or “turning the other cheek.” The victim needs the permission to cry out in rage.
But we do not leave the situation in rage. These psalms are meant to “empty out” the rage in one’s heart in order to be given the energy to move past anger and vengeance and onto working to correct these injustices. We need to think deeply and meditate on the reflection of theologian J. Clinton McCann on such a violent psalms as Psalm 137:
“In the face of monstrous evil, the worst possible response is to feel nothing. What must be felt is grief, rage, and outrage. In their absence, evil becomes an acceptable commonplace. To forget is to submit to evil, to wither and die; to remember is to resist, be faithful, and live again…. The psalmist in Psalm 137 submits the anger to God. This submission of anger to God obviates the need for actual revenge on the enemy. For survivors of victimization, to express grief and rage and outrage is to live – to remember is to bear the pain of reliving an unutterable horror – a cross. But to remember is also to resist the forces of evil in hope of living again – resurrection.”
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