Many Christians think that the imprecatory psalms provide models for how to curse one’s enemies. The hermeneutical assumption seems to be that the imprecatory psalmist’s declarations of hatred for his enemies and his desire that they be destroyed are sanctified and wholly correct statements and wishes.
However, ask a person who takes that view when one should begin cursing their enemies and you will soon see them taking the form that I call the imprecatory pretzel. For a particularly painful, labored example of this, consider the conversation that was birthed on Twitter from two tweets I posted a few days ago:
The Christian reader who tries to baptize this worldview as a description of reality is fated to the hinterland of cognitive dissonance. The only consistent reading is to judge this worldview mistaken and properly critiqued through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
— Tentative Apologist (@RandalRauser) October 19, 2019
These tweets elicited some pushback, the most vigorous of which came from this fellow named “Michael Remus”:
To everyone bending over backward to make "niceness" into essential Gospel orthodoxy & orthopraxy, let ye be henceforth warnèd!: this is where you'll end up.
Men who dismiss imprecatory psalms have no eyes in their heads & no heart in their hollow chests.https://t.co/sBPr3I3m25
— Michael Remus (@AuroraHilaron) October 22, 2019
I responded to Mr. Remus and our ensuing exchange provides a template of the absurd knots into which one can twist themselves when they are committed to the position that the imprecatory psalms should be read as normative models for hating and cursing one’s enemies. I have recounted our conversation below.
Randal: Congrats, you’re great at the stentorian declarations! Understanding and engaging with the views of others? Not so much.
Michael: What didn’t I understand? I’m happy to learn!
Randal: Well, all you did was tweet what appeared to be some sort of quasi-Lewisean insult. So I’d invite you to explain what, exactly, the substance of your critique is. And a tip: the issue isn’t “niceness”.
[Editor’s Note: I have not included some of Michael’s tweets which strangely talked about disconnected issues like John MacArthur and Beth Moore.]
Michael: As for the Psalms, your analysis of what they’re saying is anemic. Christians can hate evil people and love them/pray for their salvation simultaneously, without cognitive dissonance. Why? Because God is sovereign in salvation. “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?”
Randal: What is “anemic” about my analysis of the Psalms?
How do you know when to love your enemies and when to hate them, pray for their destruction, pray that their children would be killed, laugh at their coming destruction, and long to bathe your feet in their blood?
Michael: Well, that’s a good heart-examining question! Obviously you can be too imbalanced one way or another, but I think my point was also that it’s not either/or (see tweet #3). Basically, is the great multitude justified in happily praising God for destroying the great prostitute? 1/2 Insisting on measuring out salt vs sugar in a cookie recipe to the precise nanogram isn’t an argument against whether or not salt should be in the recipe in the first place. I think I’ve made the case that it should be in there; not sure there’s a scientific formula tho 2/2 But I’m still not sure you’ve pointed to where I’ve so obviously misunderstood you (as you said in your original tweet). What did I get wrong about your position?
Randal: You talked around my question over the span of three tweets. Perhaps you could try answering it?
Michael: When they meet the criteria as laid out in the imprecatory psalms themselves. Ps69 is a good start. If you want more modern criteria, see my tweet about sexual perversion mongers, or see Romans 1. (a bit ironic since you haven’t pointed out my misunderstanding yet, but ok)
Randal: How does Psalm 69 tell you when to switch from loving and blessing other people to hating and cursing them?
Michael: Like I said, you don’t switch. That was the point of my thread a few tweets ago. What Ps69 might tell you is the level of fury you should be rightly feeling. There are atheists who are mild and kinda sad (not much fury), then there are firebreathers. What did I misunderstand?
Randal: You don’t switch? So you simultaneously love/bless and hate/curse the same person?
Michael: That was what I said earlier, which I’ve argued to be the biblical position (ex: Paul can curse and pray for Judaizers). Obviously the target and aim of these two things are slightly different (it’s not a contradiction / “X but also not X”). Sir, what did I misunderstand?
Randal: Which is it? Do you simultaneously love/bless and hate/curse other people? Or do you intermittently switch from loving/blessing them to hating/cursing them? And if the latter, then we’re back to my question: how do you know when to hate? And how does Psalm 69 guide you?
Michael: The former. My previous tweet was insulating that position from charges of contradiction. Ex: Love bears all things. John says refusing to invite false teachers into your home is truth & love. Something can be curse-ish and loving at the same time. *What did I misunderstand?*
Randal: You simultaneously love and hate, bless and curse all people? That sounds nonsensical, not to mention psychologically impossible since it involves simultaneous contradictory mental states.
Michael: Well, glad to see you disagree with my position! But you still haven’t answered what exactly I’ve misunderstood, which was your original criticism of my first tweet. I’ve tried to answer all your questions, but you haven’t answered any of mine. Who is “engaging” the other more?
Randal: The psalms are a record of honest human experience. At times the psalmist describes God as absent. At other times he describes God as hating his enemies. Those are honest expressions of life’s circumstances. To assume that God should thereby be thought of as absent or hating one’s enemies is a hermeneutical assumption that you’ve brought to the text. To be sure, you’re free to read descriptive texts as normative and authoritative theological assertions, but again, that’s what you brought to the text. And it leads you here, to the absurdity of espousing a position where you simultaneously love and hate, bless and curse all people. And that is surely among the clearest examples of a reductio ad absurdum that one could hope to find.
Michael: I recognize that is your position, but you claimed I misunderstood it. Where did I do so? I never said “all people”. I fear you might be misunderstanding me! How is your view that the Psalms’ theology here is mere human experience not also, by your own standards, an assumption?
Randal: So now we’re back at it: how do you decide for which people you hold the incompossible dispositions of loving/hating, blessing/cursing and which you do not? We both have interpretations. Mine does not involve the postulation of incompossible mental states to the same individual.
To follow up on my question, how do I know when I should add the mental disposition of hating and cursing you to the disposition to love and bless you?
Micahel: Sir, I’ve answered these questions repeatedly. You’ve shown yourself unwilling to understand my actual point. You’ve also charged me with misunderstanding your position and not once substantiated it. very cool
Randal: When I initially asked you when you begin to hate/curse, you replied that it is an ongoing state concurrent with love/blessing. You then specified that it is a subset of the population that you simultaneously love/hate and bless/curse. So I asked again: when do you start?
The fact that you have repeatedly refused to explain when you begin to hate/curse people (somehow concurrent with still loving and blessing them) is an illustration of the untenability of your position. As I said, it is a clear reductio ad absurdum.
First, Michael kept asking how he had misunderstood my view. The problem is that he never described it or interacted with it to begin with. He initially referred to my tweet and suggested that I have no eyes in my head and no heart in my, er, “hollow chest”. He also said my view is “anemic”. But he didn’t explain how.
My view is that the imprecatory psalms are not model curses to be emulated but rather honest curses that we may identify with while in the midst of our own pain. But our end goal is to become like Jesus, he who said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-5)
By contrast, Michael has taken the extraordinary view that the imprecatory psalms teach us to adopt a stance of simultaneously blessing and cursing, loving and hating, a subset of the population. (Needless to say, the imprecatory psalms never make any such claim.) But Michael refused to explain how such a posture is even psychologically possible. Nor did he explain how one identifies the subset of the population toward which one adopts this stance.
And that is what I call the imprecatory pretzel.