Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Maledictory Psalms

I have tried putting together a list of the so-called maledictory psalms since I have not been able to find such a list online myself. These psalms are called "maledictory" since they contain prayer that God would exact some kind of punishment against the psalmist's ememies, God's enemies, or "the wicked". They are also called the imprecatory psalms; C.S. Lewis called them the "cursings" (he wrote a chapter on these psalms in his book, Reflections on the Psalms). In some cases, the actions the psalmist prays that God would take against others are described in violent and graphic language. For example, in Psalm 58 , the psalmist prays that God would "let [the wicked] be like the snail which dissolves into slime, like the untimely birth that never sees the sun" (v. 8). In some cases, though it is clear that the psalmist is wishing ill upon others, the punishment the psalmist prays that God would inflict them is more moderate: "Break thou the arm of the wicked and evildoer" (10:15). In other cases, the language is so incredibly benign that one could easily miss the language as representing a prayer against another. A common example of such mild cursing appears three times in the psalter: "Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life!" (35:4, cf. 40:14, 70:2). Such prayer may even be considered that for one's own protection. Since such passages' inclusion in the maledictory psalms may be questioned, I have created two lists here: one of what I identify as true maledictory passages, whose language is more concrete, though sometimes moderate, and a list of passages whose language is so mild or indirect with regard to its wishing of ill upon others, I label them as "quasi-maledictory".

It is also worth noting that almost always does the offending language appear within small portions of the verses within the psalms listed. There are only two instances I found - Psalms 83 and 109 - where the majority of the verses in the psalms consist of prayer against one's enemies. Almost half of the verses in Psalms 35 and 58 contain such language. Other than those four examples, one may safely say that only fractions of the psalms in question contain prayer against others. For this reason, I have listed the verses containing the offending language in parantheses after each psalm listed.

Sometimes these maledictory verses' juxtaposition to passages containing poetic and uplifting praise of God can be baffling. One such example is with verses 19 through 22 of Psalm 139, in comparison to the rest of the Psalm. (Check it out for yourself to see what I mean!) However, I would say that such bafflement may say more about how far removed we are from the psalmist's culture, time period, mindset, and familiarity with certain literary genres than about the psalmist's discretion in inserting such language among that of a different tone and purpose.

At this point, one may be asking, "What about the psalms of praise? About God's great majesty? [i.e., "Psalms of Praise", "Psalms of Thanksgiving", "Psalms of Supplication", "Pilgrim Psalms", "Psalms of Enthronment", "Royal Psalms", etc.] What's with this fixation on the psalmists' cursing others?" My reply: because lists of the specific psalms within those categories are easily found with little effort using your favorite search engine. The specific maledictory psalms are not.

Following the lists, I offer some commentary on the maledictory psalms, and so doing offer thoughts on their potential use for spiritual warfare, but mostly in light of the fact that one may easily observe that they contain language which runs counter to both Jewish and Christian teaching regarding the attitudes that we should have toward others.

I cannot say these lists are exhaustive. There is a chance I missed a couple along the way, especially with the more benign "quasi-" list.

Maledictory Psalm Passages

10 (v. 15)

17 (v. 13-14)

28 (v. 4)

58

59 (v. 12-13)

68 (v. 1-2, 30)

69 (v. 22-28)

79 (v. 6, 12)

80 (v. 16)

83 (v. 9-18)

109 (v. 6-20, 27-29)

139 (v. 19-22)

104 (v. 35)

140 (v. 9-11)

Quasi-Maledictory Psalm Passages

7 (v. 6)

25 (v. 3)

35 (v. 3-6, 8, 26)

40 (v. 14-15)

71 (v. 13)

86 (v. 17)

129 (v. 5-8)

135 (v. 18)

143 (v. 12)

149 (v. 6-9)


I was initially interested in finding a list of the maledictory psalms because I thought they could be helpful prayers for spiritual warfare. When feeling spiritually attacked, I could pray these psalms with the intention that God would rebuke my spiritual enemies as the psalmist prayed that God would punish his physical enemies. This connection between the psalms and prayer for spiritual protection can be even more readily sensed when one prays the psalms of protection (e.g., 61, 91, 121, 140). If the the psalms of protection may be considered defensive prayers for spiritual warfare, then the maledictory psalms may be considered offensive prayers, and not in the sense that they offend people's sensibilities.

The psalms serve as an irreplaceable resource for prayer, and one may truly augment his or her prayer life by praying them. This value by which the psalms benefit one's prayer life is realized as one learns to make the words of the psalms his or her own prayer, and offer these words from the heart. As I have come across the maledictory psalms and attempted to offer their words from the heart, I found I was able to do this as I considered that the enemies I am praying against may be my spiritual enemies, i.e., demons. This analogy may even be supported by imagery from the psalms themselves in comparing the fate of the wicked to that we know demons suffer; "the wicked shall depart to Sheol" (9:17 [though Sheol and hell are not exactly the same place]), and "on the wicked [the Lord] will rain coals of fire and brimstone" (11:6). And, with the help of God's protective angels "you will tread on the lion and the adder" (91:13), just as according to Christian theology Christ is considered the seed of the woman mentioned in Genesis 3:15 who would crush the serpent's head, as the serpent in Genesis represents Satan.

However, though this analogy between the psalmist's enemies and one's own spiritual enemies may have value when praying the psalms, it still does not completely explain the place of the maledictory psalm passages within scripture, especially in light of the fact that they reflect attitudes that run counter to those we are taught - from both the Old and New Testaments - we are to have toward others.

As a means to easily dismiss the maledictory passages' offending language, many may be tempted to ignore the them as remnants of bygone ages. But for a Christian to brush off the maledictory psalms as some outdated form of expression that was perhaps justified under some part of the code of morality oulined by the Old Testament would be ignorant. C.S. Lewis explains in his commentary on the maledictory psalms, or the "cursings" as he calls them:

"Within Judaism itself the corrective to this natural reaction [of the psalmists toward their enemies] already existed. 'Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart..thou shalt not avenge or bear any grudge against the chlidren of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,' says Leviticus (19: 17, 18). In Exodus, we read, ' If thou seest the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden...thou shalt surely help with him,' and, 'if thou meet thine enemy's ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him" (23: 4, 5). 'Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth' (Proverbs 24:17). And I shall never forget my surprise when I discovered that St. Paul's 'If thine enemy hunger, give him some bread', etc., is a direct quoteation from the same book (Proverbs 25:21). But this is one of the rewards of reading the Old Testament regularly. You keep on discovering more and more what a tissue of quotations from it the New Testament is; how constantly Our Lord repeated, reinforced, continued, refined, and sublimated, the Judaic ethics, how very seldom he introduced a novelty." (Reflections on the Psalms, pp. 26-27)

So, the maledictory psalms cannot be dismissed as the leftover expressions of others who shared a generally dissimilar morality. Since both the Old and New Testaments present this ethos to which the attitudes reflected by the maledictory psalms run counter, the passages' need for explanation becomes more apparent. Though some may point out that this dissonance presents some sort of Scriptural self-contradiction which diminishes the Bible's credibility at a whole, the assumption that the words of the maledictory passages are meant to present some morally legitimate attitude we may have toward our enemies would be itself be foreign to Scripture. Such an assertion would have to be imposed upon the text from the outside. Rather, the question about the maledictory psalms' place would revolve around the matter of divine inspiration: to what purpose did the Holy Spirit inspire the maledictory psalms?

To say that the psalms - including the maledictory passages - are divinely inspired does not necessarily mean that God intended these passages to be a presentation of his own voice. Under the Holy Spirit's impetus, the psalmists were impelled to write the psalms, though words themselves and the attitudes they reflect proceed from the person of the psalmist. In some cases, the voice and words of the psalmist are identified as praising God, imploring him for deliverance and protection, and thanking him for his marvelous works. In these cases, we may surely borrow the words of the psalmist, make them our own, and praise and thank God with them. The purpose God had in inspiring such psalms appears in such cases to be to provide us with words we may use to pray to him and thus learn to direct our hears to him, speak with him, and come into closer relationship with him. With these psalms of praise and thanksgiving, we also identify that though these psalms are divinely inspired, the being whose voice is presented is that of a person directing his prayer to God, and not that of God directing prayer to himself. One may make the case that God inspires even the prayer that we direct to him. But he whom God inspires is a person, and it is the voice of the person of the psalmist - not God's - which is speaking within such psalms.

The voice within the psalm as proceeding from a distint person becomes even more apparent in what may be called the psalms of sorrow or oppression (cf. 6, 13, 22, 41-44, 55, 56, 69, 79, 80, 102, 109, 120, 143). We recognize the person of the psalmist in these psalms as one who is suffering what is at times soul-crushing oppression, on account of either sorrow for his own sins, his perception that God himself is putting the psalmist through such straits, or that oppression imposed by other people. In Psalms 69 and 109, the psalmist reacts to his oppression by wishing ill upon his oppressors, thus producing two of the maledictory passages I listed above. One may even identify a similarity between the oppression the psalmist is suffering and the ill fate he prays be visited upon his enemies. In Psalm 109, the psalmist laments to God that "wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me, speaking against me with lying tongues" (v. 2) and then further prays, "Appoint a wicked man against him; let an accuser bring him to trial" (v. 6). Though such attitudes are not morally justified by the teachings of the Old and New Testaments, we see that the voice behind the maledictory passages in such cases stems from one oppressed: one whose ill will toward others is a reaction against the oppression he is suffering. Without playing the victim card for the psalmist in an attempt to justify the presence of the maledictory passages, one may nonetheless point out that the voice behind these psalms proceeds from a distinct person who is offering his prayer to God, and, though God moved him to write his prayer down to produce what would eventually be a part of the Book of Psalms we have today, that neither God nor the psalmist meant to reflect God's voice as that speaking behind the maledictory passages.

The question would remain then why God would move someone to write such words which, though they do not reflect God's own voice, do reflect such malicious and vengeful attitudes. I am not God, and can only speculate why. I think the maledictory passages serve an illustrative function of presenting pictures of the persons of the psalmists and their historical conditions, which pictures themselves may serve theological purposes. The raw anger and malice behind the maledictory passages illustrate the same human condition to which God "stoops down" from the heavens (Psalm 113:6), "for his steadfast love endures forever" (Psalm 136). The reactionary hatred toward the psalmists' enemies who oppress him, though morally unjustified, helps accentuate the picture of the oppression that the nation of Israel has historically suffered, even in the psalmists' time. This historical picture makes it more understandable that a Jewish understanding of the Messiah involved one who be Israel's savior from certain political conditions.

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