Bless, don’t curse

What do we do with the cursing psalms, in which the psalmist not only complains about being persecuted by enemies but condemns and curses them? The language is sometimes extreme; the psalmist may call for the death and utter ruin of his enemies, for their erasure from existence and memory. In some psalms, this is only a brief moment in the movement from lament to praise. But in others, like Psalm 109, the psalmist lingers over the curse for an awkwardly long time.

I believe that the author of Psalm 109 is calling for his enemies to receive their just deserts (one “s,” please, not two!) for truly ungodly behavior. The psalmist sees the world through the lenses of Psalm 1, through the somewhat black-and-white distinction between the righteous and the wicked. This is combined with the kind of eye-for-an-eye retributive justice often found in the law of Moses. In cursing his enemy, then, he is praying that the wicked would receive quickly what they would have received sooner or later anyway: their destruction (e.g., Ps 1:6; 37:38). The curse, in other words, is deserved, and psalmist gives it wholeheartedly.

But does that give us license to curse our enemies?

No. Not if we claim to follow Jesus, who clearly taught otherwise.

. . .

Perhaps the best place to begin is with the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus tells his listeners that he has no intention of setting aside any part of the Law or the Prophets. Quite to the contrary, he sees his mission as fulfilling what they teach (Matt 5:17). He then repeatedly challenges what his hearers think they understand of the Law. First he summarizes what they’ve been taught — “You’ve heard it said…” — then follows with “But I say…” and gives an authoritative rebuttal.

One of these rebuttals is particularly important for our topic:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. … Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. (Matt 5:43-45a, 48, CEB)

Nowhere in the Old Testament, of course, are God’s people actually commanded to hate their enemies. It’s understandable, though, that people would think this way. After all, as the psalmist wrote:

Don’t I hate everyone who hates you?
    Don’t I despise those who attack you?
Yes, I hate them—through and through!
    They’ve become my enemies too
. (Ps 139:21-22)

Here, God’s enemies are the psalmist’s enemies. In some psalms, the logic also works the other way: the psalmist’s enemies are assumed to be God’s. But either way, it’s understood that the psalmist’s hatred of the wicked is a mark of faithfulness and piety.

And then along comes Jesus, claiming to fulfill the Law but telling people that they have to love their enemies, even pray (gasp!) for the people who are persecuting them. His words must have been shocking or even offensive to those who thought they were doing pretty well in the righteousness department. It’s like telling them, “Listen, don’t think you’re such a hotshot on the Ten Commandments just because you’ve never actually murdered someone or committed adultery. Have you ever called someone a nasty name? Lusted after someone with just a look? Then you’re guilty” (cf. Matt 5:21-30).

Right. I’ll bet that didn’t go down too easily either.

Again, it’s not that the psalmist’s enemies didn’t deserve the curse. They did. But Jesus is saying that we all deserve the curse.

And what Jesus’ followers had yet to understand was this: God’s plan was for Jesus to take the punishment that the curse rightfully demanded.

. . .

This is why, in light of the life and mission of Jesus, we cannot follow the psalmist’s example and curse our enemies. The apostle Paul makes this abundantly clear. On the one hand, he counsels believers to “Hate evil, and hold on to what is good” (Rom 12:9). But on the other hand, just a few verses later, he adds, “Bless people who harass you — bless and don’t curse them” (vs. 14).

This is particularly poignant counsel from the man who was once known as a murderous persecutor of the church, who thought his zeal was righteous. Just imagine, if you will, how Saul of Tarsus read Psalm 109 before Jesus met him on the road to Damascus. Is it any wonder that he later writes of being transformed and having our minds renewed (Rom 12:2)? Blessing instead of cursing our enemies is part of that transformation.

Please don’t hear me as saying, “We’re right to feel uncomfortable about cursing, and the psalmist was wrong.” Nor am I saying, “We can set aside the Old Testament in favor of the New.” We need the whole picture. The psalmist saw clearly the need to follow the way of righteousness. But this wasn’t simply about private, personal piety. It was about justice, about relationships and social structures also being in line with God’s will and purposes.

If we’re honest with ourselves, our discomfort with cursing and imprecation is often more about our squeamishness with seemingly inappropriate behavior than it is about following the example of Jesus. What we need to recapture is the psalmist’s thirst for justice and right relationship.

And sometimes, as I’ll suggest in the next post, that means doing things that don’t come naturally.