Curse you!

When I was a kid, “cursing” meant using “bad” language — you know, the kinds of words that would bump a movie’s rating from G to PG. I never said such words at home, of course, but experimented with them freely at school, where I probably used them enough to sound ridiculous to everyone but myself. (That’s what happens when the kids who aren’t cool try too hard to be cool.)

I didn’t really have a concept of cursing as calling down condemnation on someone’s head, as the Sons of Thunder wanted to do when the Samaritans dissed their Master (Luke 9:54). The closest thing I knew was Snoopy cursing the Red Baron for making holes in his Sopwith Camel.

Comic strip cursing, though, just can’t compare to a robust biblical curse.

You can’t really blame James and John for wanting to call down fire from heaven. The Samaritans had just dishonored God’s Messiah, and there was good prophetic precedent for their fiery punishment. Of course, the brothers had no great love for the Samaritans to begin with, so were probably hoping to get the green light from Jesus. All they got, however, was a rebuke.

Seems the Messiah had other ideas.

. . .

Reading the Psalms, we can feel uplifted by the words of worship and praise. We can be strengthened and encouraged by the psalmist’s faith and trust in the midst of trouble. We can find freedom in the knowledge that we don’t have to hold back our complaints.

And we can tolerate the psalmist’s cursing — to a point. It’s usually fairly brief, almost as if the psalmist just needed to get the words out. We’ve seen such language in Psalm 55, where we can understand why the betrayed psalmist might feel that way. Another example is Psalm 104, which for the most part is a beautiful ode to the wonders of creation. Then, just before closing with a final word of praise, the psalmist blurts out, “Let sinners be wiped clean from the earth; let the wicked be no more” (vs. 35, CEB). As I suggested in an earlier post, we have to read this in context. For the psalmist, the magnificence of creation only makes the distortion of sin more horrible by contrast: Sin is ruining everything! Away with it! Away with everyone who would spoil God’s beautiful creation!

Still, it’s not as if the psalmist is asking for God to wag a divine finger and give the wicked a slap on the wrist. Let them all be wiped out, gone, erased from existence. I don’t think I would have used those kinds of words at home either.

. . .

These are words of imprecation, the curses that are a regular feature of lament psalms. Most of the time, the imprecations are only brief outbursts on the way to final words of praise for God’s faithfulness and mercy. But sometimes, the curses are ugly and disturbing. Witness, for example, Psalm 137. It’s a lament of the Jewish exiles in Babylon, and ends with these words:

Daughter Babylon, you destroyer,
    a blessing on the one who pays you back
    the very deed you did to us!
A blessing on the one who seizes your children
    and smashes them against the rock!
(vss. 8-9)

No final word of praise. No soothing words of faith to tie the psalm up with a nice, pretty bow. Just raw anger and vengeance. These are not words we would ever set to music and sing at church.

But what do we do with them?

We’ll tackle the so-called imprecatory psalms by looking at what may the most extreme example of the type: Psalm 109. In most respects, the psalm looks just like many other lament psalms: a plea to God for help that describes the trouble and ends on a note of praise and trust, with a curse somewhere in the middle. But here, the curse goes on and on, dominating the core of the psalm.

As we’ll see, it’s enough to make you blush.