Sometimes, psalmists can be so rude. It’s one thing to cry out to God for help, to look for justice, vindication, and deliverance when being wrongly persecuted or targeted for violence. But it’s another to wish shame or violence back on those we count as our enemies, the people who play the role of villain in our stories.
In the Psalms, this is known as imprecation, and some psalms are so full of it that they’re known as imprecatory psalms. That’s not, of course, everyday English; we would simply call them “curses.” But that’s not everyday language either, unless you happen to be Snoopy sitting atop his Sopwith Camel. (If that didn’t make sense, ask a Peanuts fan.)
The psalmist’s curses range from an unbridled and violent wish for vengeance to the simpler prayer that his enemies be turned back or disgraced. Psalm 70 gives an example of the latter:
Hurry, God, to deliver me;
hurry, LORD, to help me!
Let those who seek my life be ashamed and humiliated!
Let them fall back and be disgraced—
those people who delight in my downfall!
Let those who say, “Aha! Aha!”
stop because of their shameful behavior.
But let all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you,
and let those who love your saving help say again and again:
“God is great!”
But me? I’m poor and needy.
Hurry to me, God!
You are my helper and my deliverer.
Oh, LORD, don’t delay! (Ps 70:1-5, CEB)
That’s the whole of the psalm. As curses go, this is pretty tame stuff, especially compared to texts like Psalm 137: “A blessing on the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock!” (vs. 9). Here in Psalm 70, the curse seems less about vengeance than justice and vindication.
Still… Think of the psalm being used as part of public worship. Isn’t it easier to imagine a congregation praying for deliverance, pleading for help, than to imagine them cursing their enemies? What are we supposed to do with such prayers?
Let’s sharpen the question further. Today is the first Sunday of Lent, so let’s think of the psalm from the standpoint of the suffering of Jesus. At what point in the gospel narrative would we imagine Jesus praying “Let those who seek my life be ashamed and humiliated”? Jesus himself was subjected to shame and humiliation. But his was a mission of love, even for those whose jealousy and vindictiveness nailed him to the cross. If we follow that Jesus, can we pray for the humiliation of those who trouble us?
For the moment, let’s leave aside the question of whether we’re deluding ourselves regarding our own sinlessness in a given matter. We can be quick to point fingers, to label others guilty and ourselves innocent. When this is the case, it’s at best naive and at worst arrogant to curse the other. But let’s assume that the psalmist is cursing his enemies in good conscience, really believing that he’s done nothing to deserve the way he’s being pursued. What then?
As we’ve seen in our previous study of the Psalms, the psalmist sees life as a choice between the path of righteousness and the path of wickedness. From that point of view, a curse is little more than asking that those who behave wickedly get what they deserve, and sooner rather than later. The curse, again, is assumed to be justly deserved.
But those who follow Jesus cannot think and pray in quite the same way, for two reasons. First, we cannot adopt the psalmist’s posture of innocence; we are the cursed. We deserve the punishment the psalmist wishes upon his enemies, because we have lived as the enemies of God, even if we didn’t realize that this was so.
Second, we know now, in a way that the psalmist did not, to what lengths a holy and loving God would go to deliver us:
Jesus took the curse upon himself.
The curse we believe our enemies so richly deserve. The curse we deny that we deserve.
We can pray for justice. We can pray for deliverance. But we should not curse our enemies, whether it’s deserved or not. Jesus called us to love our enemies. This wasn’t an idealistic and hypocritical instance of, “Don’t do as I do, do as I say.” It was, “Do as I do,” period — radically, unforgettably.
This Lenten season, as we reflect on the suffering of Christ and anticipate the resurrection, let us examine the ways we are tempted to curse, to think vengefully toward those who have injured us in some way. Let us remember that the newness of resurrection life is not just something for tomorrow, after we die, but today. The one who took the curse upon himself has already given us his Spirit, has already made it possible for us to let go of cursing and embrace love.
You are my helper and my deliverer. Oh, LORD, don’t delay!