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The Role of the Imprecatory Psalms in Christian Advocacy
God commands us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Rejoicing and weeping are on different ends of the emotional spectrum. So I assume Paul didn’t intend to limit such communal empathy to only joy and lament.
But are there limits to the ethical duty of Christian empathy? Could we imagine Paul also writing, “fear with those who fear”? Or how about, “rage with those who rage”?
Those sounds strange to your ears, don’t they? In this newsletter I’m interested in the latter example: empathic anger. Is that a biblically justified emotion? If it’s justified, is it merely morally neutral, or is it an ethical duty? The answer, I believe, lies in one of the most neglected portions of God’s Word known variously as the imprecatory psalms, cursing psalms, or psalms of wrath.
In his book Cursing with God Trevor Laurence has argued persuasively that imprecatory prayer is and ought to be a regular part of Christian discipleship, spiritual formation, and the liturgical life of the church. The cursing psalms—and their patterned echoes in various NT imprecations—are given by God to form Christians into Christlikeness in their prayerful protections against injustice in God’s kingdom.1 Christians image Christ, the new Adam, who is fulfilling the first Adam’s failed role as priest-king:
When the wicked, deceiving serpent encroaches into the garden, God’s royal priesthood is to exercise the prerogatives of their office by subduing the threat, exercising dominion, protecting the sanctuary, driving out the unholy intruder.2
As the imprecatory psalms make clear, this subduing, dominion, protecting, and driving out is accomplished through prayer and song.
One inevitable dynamic of a psalter-shaped liturgy is the fact that God’s people will sing and pray psalms they might not personally identify with in their current circumstance. For example, one of the readings in the Book of Common Prayer for June 9 comes from Psalm 44 which includes these lines:
22 For your sake we are killed all the day long, and are counted as sheep appointed to be slain. 23 Rise up, O Lord! Why are you sleeping? Awake, and cast us not away for ever.
How are we supposed to pray/sing that with genuine hearts if we are in season of joyful blessing? The simple answer is that we weep and lament with those who weep and lament. We join them in their distress and cry for rescue. Might this not also be the case for imprecatory psalms? Might Christians also join in praying alongside those who genuinely take the words of Psalm 44:6-8 as their own:
6 Through you we will overthrow our enemies, and in your Name will we tread down those who rise up against us. 7 For I will not trust in my bow; it is not my sword that shall help me; 8 But you save us from our enemies and put to shame those who hate us.
Laurence puts it this way:
“For the Christian who approaches the imprecatory psalms blissfully unburdened by any personal enemies, this Christically mediated connection opens the possibility that imprecatory prayer might be enacted against the enemies who threaten God's covenant family and his human offspring. For the Christian painfully cognizant of enemies devoted to her destruction, the prayer that commences as a profoundly personal cry may yet grow to encompass others in love—Christians and non-Christians alike—as the imprecating imagination is drawn through Christ to the sufferers with whom her own flesh is variously bound. Kingdom-protecting, world-cleansing imprecatory prayer, when performed in union with Christ, has the potential to energize love for the temple-kingdom God has inaugurated and promised to consummate in Christ.”3
All Christians are bound to one another in Christ by the Spirit. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Just as we ought to mourn with those who mourn because of their suffering, so to we ought to join sufferers in praying for the end of the source of their suffering. In an era of increasing awareness of injustice both outside and inside the church, we need our liturgical and communal life to include this kind of empathic anger. We might see profound healing for those wrestling in despairing anger caused by the church’s customary discomfort with those who express trauma-induced rage.
In light of these considerations of the imprecatory psalms, consider these words from Judith Herman:
“Retributive anger—what I would call blind rage or humiliated fury—is what people feel when they are alone and abandoned to their fates. The wish to retaliate is born of isolation and helplessness…When the community rallies to the victim’s support, vengeful feelings are transformed into shared righteous indignation, which can be a powerful source of energy for repair. It is only when victims are denied their fair measure of justice that their anger can fester as helpless rage.”4
Can those of us in the church not reeling from abuse and trauma come alongside survivors in “shared righteous indignation”? Can we see empathic angry hunger for justice as the duty of God’s sons and daughters? Laurence writes,
The imprecatory psalms are the liturgical, prayerful means by which the sons of God protect the sanctuary and subdue the earth, enacting their appointed role as characters in the story of the Scriptures. Adam was exiled from Eden for failing to drive out the serpent, and a Psalter without imprecation would be a recapitulation of his original abdication.5
Put differently, a Christian church without imprecation would be a recapitulation of Adam’s original abdication of the duty to protect God’s temple-kingdom. Godly Christians are imprecating Christians. Or let me put it even more boldly: truly Christlike Christians are cursing Christians. Christians jointly curse with God in Christ by seeking the end of unholy intruders in God’s kingdom—whether that’s in the enemys’ repentance, having their sins condemned in the curse of Christ’s cross, or in temporal cursing that thwarts their sinful agenda.
Quote from Richard Lovelace
“Social injustice and cultural evil are deeply rooted in the exaltation of bad leadership. This leadership clings to power and will not be dislodged unless the hand of God is moved by prayer to cast the mighty from their thrones and exalt the humble, the righteous leaders who are crowded into corners under the oppression of the strong…We have the right of declaring war in prayer against every leader on earth who violates the will of God by oppressing the poor, denying civil rights and deforming society.”6
How do you naturally respond when your Christian brother or sister is angry about an injustice they suffered? What do you do with your discomfort? Are you open to being shaped by these angry songs, what James Adams referred to as the “war psalms of the prince of peace”?
I don’t have space to explain here, but one of the main objections to Laurence’s thesis is Jesus’ command to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Eg, if we are to love our enemies, how can that be compatible with praying down judgment on them? For the answer, see pp. 286-305 of Cursing with God.
Cursing with God, p. 316-317
Truth and Repair, p. 47.
Trevor Laurence, “To Serve and Subdue: The Imprecatory Psalms in Biblical Theological Perspective.”
Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal, p. 394.