Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Interpreting the Curses in the Psalms

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Interpreting the Curses in the Psalms

Article excerpt

Imprecations or curses in the Psalms are not confined to the familiar imprecatory psalms of 35, 58, 69, 83,109 and 137. The last two psalms are especially known for their harsh language, which calls for the destruction of the children of the psalmists' enemies. The phenomenon of psalmic imprecations is further complicated by the use of some of these psalms as Scriptural witnesses in the NT. Previous studies have not given adequate attention to the Biblical basis of these imprecations and the similarity of their language to the other parts of the OT, especially the prophetic writings. Through examining the prophetic role of the psalmists, the imprecatory parallels in prophetic speeches, and the prior Scriptural bases of the psalmic imprecations, this study will suggest that it is best to consider the imprecations as prophetic judgment proclamations, and that in light of this consideration a proper understanding of the psalmic curses themselves and their contemporary implications for Christians may be attained.


In this study, the term "imprecatory psalm" does not suggest a genre but refers to a psalm that contains one or more verses of imprecation. The imprecations are basically the psalmists' call or wish for divine punishments on the enemies. They are generally expressed in the form of a jussive statement (as in 55:15, "Let death come upon them!"), sometimes in the form of an imperative (as in 59:11, "Make them totter by your power, and bring them down!"), or a mix of the two, as in Psalm 109, which begins with an imperative and then continues with jussives: "Appoint a wicked man over him! . . Let his days be few; let another take his office. Let his children be orphans, and his wife a widow" (vv. 6-9).

Chalmers Martin suggests that there are only 18 psalms that "contain any element of imprecation" in the Psalms. But his calculation is too conservative. On the other hand, R. M. Benson lists 39 psalms in the category of what he labels as "comminatory" psalms, but some of these psalms do not contain imprecations in the jussive or imperative mode.2 When we survey all the statements or the so-called "wishes" against the enemies or evildoers in the

Psalms, based on their use of the jussive or the imperative form and not on the degree of harshness in language, there are 28 psalms that contain one or more verses of imprecation.3 The elements of punishment called for in the imprecations may include shame, physical infliction, death, misfortune for family members, and unspecified retributive punishment (see Table 1 at the end of this article, "Imprecations and Their Dominant Elements" for further details on all these 28 psalms).

Before discussing the approaches that are directly relevant to our purposes, a word of clarification is needed on two closely related issues that have gained attention in the current studies of psalmic imprecations. One concerns the interpretation that considers the imprecations in Psalm 109 as the words of psalmist's enemies, so their harshness, and not as the words of the psalmist. The strongest evidence supporting this view is the shift of pronouns between v. 5 ("they") and w. 6-19 ("he"), a shift regarded as confirmed by v. 20, where the psalmist asks God to return on his "accusers" the evils spoken in w. 6-19 by them.4 Those who reject this interpretation argue that the text lacks any indicator (a word such as "saying") in v. 6 to support such a change of speaker, and that in view of the harshness of the imprecations, the psalmist would have clearly indicated the shift if those were not his words.5 Even if the imprecations in w. 6-19 are from the enemies, the problem of harshness is not lessened, because in v. 20 the psalmist turns around and wishes the same things on his enemies: "May this be the Lord's payment to my accusers." Moreover, the quotation approach explains only Psalm 109 and not the imprecation phenomenon of the Psalms as a whole. …

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