I just got back from a conference I spoke at in Vancouver, my topics being genocide, doubt, and the imprecatory (cursing) psalms. I offer here some initial thoughts on the imprecatory psalms.
A friend of mine says, “I know what you mean by what you do.” Evangelicals say that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), but do they believe it? Based on what they do, I’m not so sure.
Our case in point: the selective way that evangelicals read the Psalms. (Admittedly other Christians also engage in this selective reading, but most other Christians don’t have the same emphasis upon inspiration that evangelicals do.)
Much beloved is Psalm 23, but how many Christians get disturbed at the spiteful wish of verse 5: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” This is not the wish to invite one’s enemies to the table but rather to exclude them from the table, and indeed to rub their faces in it. Now whether or not you think the psalmist’s wish is praiseworthy or not, the fact that most Christians never even stop to consider that it might be troublesome is telling.
The selective reading of the Psalms is probably nowhere more obvious than with Psalm 139. Christians love the beginning of this psalm for its pious reflection on the divine attributes of omniscience and omnipresence:
1 You have searched me, LORD,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, LORD, know it completely.
It is also a popular psalm for baby dedications (or baptisms, depending on your tradition):
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
But what about the punch that comes just a few verses later?
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, LORD,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
22 I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.
This psalm is a unified literary whole, and yet tend to we butcher it up piecemeal and leave these two maledictory verses as so much offal lying on the tile floor, to be served to the lower classes who still consume such unmentionables.
But that is simply not a perspective consistent with the confession that all scripture is God-breathed. Whether you like it or not, this offal is part of the meal. My question is: how is it best prepared?
Stay tuned for some culinary tips…