The following is an adaptation of copyrighted material, used with permission, from my book, “God Breathed: Connecting Through Scripture to God, Others, the Natural World, and Yourself” (Crown and Covenant, 2019). For a much fuller engagement of the topic, please see chapter 10.
This post is dedicated with respect and sorrow to the memory of Ahmaud Arbery.
There isn’t profanity strong enough to cuss it all out when we experience life’s most cursed realities. God knows this. So, as Dr. Michael Lefebvre puts it, “…there are psalms that lead us in our speech to God in times of violent desecration.” - from Dr. Michael Lefebvre’s unpublished March, 2003 paper, “Psalm 137,”p.13. See also Dr. Lefebvre’s outstanding book, Singing the Songs of Jesus: Revisiting the Psalms (Fearn, Ross-shire 2010) especially chapter 6.
Some of God’s songs are “imprecatory” – they call God’s judgment down upon those who relentlessly and unrepentantly pursue evil. Ecclesiastes 3 tells us that “under the sun” there is a time for love and a time for hate. The imprecatory Psalms (see Psalms 94 and 109 as particularly instructive examples) provide the healthy, holy expression of righteous hatred and the desire for retributive justice.
But doesn’t Jesus say to turn the other cheek? Yes, indeed (Matthew 5:39). When someone slaps us in the face, we can overlook the offense (Proverbs 19:11). Jesus peaches against a retaliatory mindset born of self-righteousness and wounded pride. He tells us to have an open door in our hearts for all people, but he never tells us to become doormats for anyone. In the face of injustice, the imprecatory Psalms let our souls walk a biblical path between sinful activity and sinful passivity.
Sinners praying for God to judge fellow sinners might seem hypocritical, like standing in the midst of a mess we’ve made and asking God to judge all the other mess-makers. But it’s not hypocritical for God’s people to cry out against evil unless they continue unrepentant in it, refusing to face the earthly consequences for sins eternally forgiven in Christ. Full hypocrisy comes when we forsake the righteous Savior for the sake of self-worship and then curse God for how bad life is. The imprecatory Psalms cry out, with repentant fear and trembling, for justice for the oppressed (Psalm 141).
The Apostle Paul tells believers to sing the Psalms as evidence of the Holy Spirit’s influence in their lives (Ephesians 5:18-19 and Colossians 3:16). No exception is granted for the tough ones. He tells us also to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them … never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God…” (Romans 12:14,19). The imprecatory Psalms do exactly that. We get to sing it out, but we trust God to carry it out.
In Revelation 6, Christian martyrs are pictured as souls gathered under an altar. In verse 10, they cry out to the risen Christ for justice. “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will avenge our blood…?” Jesus does not respond, “Well that’s not very Christian of you! What are you, Old Testament believers?” Instead, these precious, courageous saints are told to wait a little longer, while God’s saving work in the world continues, until the full family of God is gathered. That’s when Jesus will return and apply justice fully. When the last sheep is brought into the fold, the Good Shepherd will deal with the wolves (2 Peter 3; Psalm 2, 110).
The Psalms in general encourage, engender, and express this “patience of the saints” (Revelation 13:10) and the imprecatory Psalms let us voice how hard it is to have and maintain. In our culture, we need these patience-inspiring, peace-seeking Psalms now, rather urgently.
At this moment in American history, some people are ready to go French Revolution on the whole place. Some see vigilante violence as a legitimate means to the end of their socially just cause, feeling that the powerful will only care when suffering touches their own kind. Consciences become increasingly comfortable with ideas they once opposed, and perhaps, all things being equal, they still do oppose. But that’s just it. As the February murder of Ahmaud Arbery showed the nation, all things are (still) not equal, not even close.
Souls righteously enraged at any dehumanizing injustice, let alone an entire system of power and privilege which perpetuates it, may find themselves thinking, “I never thought I’d do this, but there’s no other way. And they deserve it.” The imprecatory Psalms help to restrain our hearts and therefore our hands from “returning evil for evil,” from committing in our hearts or with our hands the very horrors we claim to hate.
The physically visceral nature of singing with your whole soul has been spiritual freedom for oppressed peoples throughout history, and in American history. We need think only of the haunting, heavy tradition of spirituals coming from Africans enslaved here in America. Songs born out of and bearing the pain of slavery were cathartic cries to the righteous God who hears the cry of the oppressed (Exodus 3; Malachi 3; Matthew 11; Psalm 102, 106). We who in our lives and ethnic histories know nothing of such hurt need to lean in closely, respectfully, to these pained words; we will find historically oppressed sisters and brothers in Christ already there. We need to seek understanding and to whatever extent possible, empathy. The imprecatory Psalms allow for this. And as Christians from every tongue and tribe representing all kinds of suffering lean into them together, we are most essentially leaning upon Jesus Christ, who lived, felt, sang, and fulfilled them.
These heavy Psalms allow all of us to lift in Jesus’s name our anger, outrage, bitter sadness and indescribable heartbreak in praise of the God whose character within us is what causes us to cry out for justice, and to just cry when it is so devastatingly lacking. These emotions are perfectly justified as we see and feel personally this world’s most cursed realities. God has given us the means of expressing these feelings in song. (Church leaders, PLEASE explain these Psalms before the congregation sings; they are jarring, and we belie their seriousness when we sing them casually, and especially when the tune is beset by churchy prettiness, or pettiness.) Singing these feelings through Spirit-supplied words helps to keep our emotions sanctified.
Paul tells us in Ephesians 4, quoting Psalm 4, to “be angry” – it’s an imperative – but not sinfully so. The imprecatory Psalms were given to us by the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16), the same Spirit whose fruit in the life of the believer is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness. We might ask, how do we get there (joyful peace) from here (righteous indignation)? We won’t get there completely, constantly, until Christ returns. But in the meantime, the imprecatory Psalms lead us from strength to strength, from strong sorrow and anger which reveals a righteous hatred for sin, to stronger confidence in the word and will of the righteous Savior. And it is precisely to the risen Christ that David and the other Psalm writers take us (Matthew 5:17-18; 2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Jesus is both David’s descendant and David’s Lord, the God-appointed king who would ultimately sit at God’s right hand and who would fulfill all of David’s Spirit-given songs – even the harshest ones. Unlike Jesus, David fought in physical, brutal wars. Yet these fights, too, find their fulfillment and ultimate significance in the war Jesus did wage in this world, his shock and awe defeat of the Evil One whose work stands behind all war (Genesis 3; James 4).The Psalms fueled Christ’s fight, and Christ’s fight fulfilled the warful Psalms. The weapons of our warfare are spiritual (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). These Psalms of judgment were composed to combat the devil’s work, which deserves nothing but holy hate. It is absolutely right, and righteous, to call down God’s judgment upon those who delight in continually carrying out that demonic work (Matthew 6:1-13).
In Ephesians 6, Paul tells Christians to suit up with “the whole armor of God,” the spiritual weapons which God’s people use to take the fight to their true enemy. Paul gets his military metaphor from Isaiah, who seems to be his favorite Old Testament prophet. In Isaiah 59, it’s the Messiah who wears the armor and does the fighting. The Savior whom Isaiah foretells would fight on behalf of God’s people, using spiritual weapons which demolish soul-enslaving philosophical strongholds set up against him (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). And so Paul tells believers to “put on Christ,” to strap up in the strength of the Messiah. The imprecatory Psalms are on the cutting edge of that holy offensive.
Among the armaments Paul lists is the “sword of the Spirit,” the word of God. We can sing the imprecatory Psalms against genocide, racism, sex trafficking, other forms of child abuse, misogyny, sexual harassment, modern slavery and modern lynchings. Psalm 129 comes to mind, its imaging immediately evocative of Israel’s torturous time as slaves in Egypt. Praise God, we know (very personally) that much of Christ’s conquering his enemies comes in the form of converting them (Psalm 45; Revelation 1:16); so we spread the gospel to both victims and perpetrators of systemic sin (Psalm 51, 130), knowing that Christ will never cast out any who come to him in faith for forgiveness and freedom from slavery to sin (John 6; Psalm 32). Remember, Paul was once a vicious enemy of the church, but he was conscripted by the gospel to the service of Christ the risen King (Acts 9).
As a good soldier for Christ, Paul placed the gospel like a timed explosive into the relationship between a converted slaveholder and a fugitive slave (Philemon). It was the charge that would explode whole systems of slavery in ages to come (Psalm 102:20). Clearly, that work is not finished (Psalm 8; Hebrews 2:1-9). Completion is on its way (Psalm 99), but for the present, imperfection remains. There is much pain to bear, a terrible foe to fight, and much injustice to redress (Psalm 112).
As we hear of or are eyewitness to pernicious acts such as the murder of Mr. Arbery, singing the imprecatory Psalms lets us acknowledge that the bite of a mortally wounded serpent still stings like hell. And beyond acknowledgment of pain, these songs actually work against the evil they lament. These songs are prayers, and in the righteousness of Christ, they accomplish much (James 5).
These imprecatory Psalms carry us to Christ the conquering king, whose conquest is felt now in the conversion and conscription of the Enemy’s soldier slaves and the consequent, gospel-driven subversion of the evil societal systems they’d supported. As the Spirit’s sword cuts the enslaver’s chains from people and communities, we begin to learn redemption and reconciliation, love and peace – shalom - as a way of life (Psalm 96, 98,133; Revelation 21).
The Psalms call all people, all races, to reconciliation with the one true God and therefore to reconciliation with one another (Psalm 87;John 4). They celebrate the peace that Jesus came to bring to the world, and to all peoples. “Praise the Lord, all you nations! …For great is his steadfast love toward us” (Psalm 117). Because Christ accomplished his redemptive work in the world (Psalm 22), because he is even now in the process of applying it, making all things new (Psalm 40), we know that when the Psalms sing of true, righteous peace in the world (Psalm 150), they are not just poetry. They are prophecy (Psalm 1).
Christ will one day return to press the fearsome, freeing consequences of his redemptive victory fully into this fallen world. Ours is to live and work hard to make his righteous kingdom more manifest our day (Psalm 111, 112). Ours is to make the valley of tears a spring (Psalm 84) by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8, Psalm 23).