An imprecatory psalm is one that includes an “imprecation,” usually against the ungodly. The Oxford Dictionary defines an imprecation as, “a spoken curse.” This means that the psalmist is actually trying to call down a curse on someone. While this may seem inconsistent with Biblical Christianity, there are three things we learn from imprecatory psalms.
Psalm 139:19-22 says, “God, if only you would kill the wicked— you bloodthirsty men, stay away from me— who invoke you deceitfully. Your enemies swear by you falsely. Lord, don’t I hate those who hate you, and detest those who rebel against you? I hate them with extreme hatred; I consider them my enemies.” In these verses, David, poetically, brings an imprecation down on the heads of those who are God’s enemies. He shows very clearly that people who hate God are under wrath and deserve justice. In a roundabout way, he declares that “God is just.” He also heavily alludes to God’s holiness. A holy God, who is also just, cannot allow sin (or sinners) in his presence. In saying these things, he confirms Paul’s statement in Romans 6:23 that, “the wages of sin is death.”
The authors of imprecatory psalms are justified in saying the things they do because their sentiments align with God’s nature and wishes. God does not want people to rebel against him. David, in the above-mentioned psalm, tells the Lord that he, too, does not want people to rebel against God. It is good and noble to want what God wants, even if it doesn’t seem “right” to us. Additionally, in light of God’s holiness and justice, psalmists who call out for God to execute justice demonstrate a desire for a good thing.
What do you do when you are frustrated by the evil in the world? The authors of imprecatory psalms pour out their hearts to God! They go to him in worship and tell him about their troubles. When David saw wicked people, who invoked God “deceitfully,” flourishing, he went straight to God and asked for justice. If more of us went to God with our problems (rather than social media, friends, etc.) we would protect ourselves from becoming slanderers and gossips and would build a deeper relationship with God. (By the way, if we are wrong in our thinking, he can straighten us out.)
While you have to travel to the New Testament to understand this, it is obvious that Jesus changes everything. Through Moses, David received the law. Through Jesus, we receive grace and truth. We live in a dispensation where we have access to the full counsel of God, where we learn that we all were once enemies of God- deserving the justice illuminated by the imprecatory psalms. In his grace, through the sacrifice of his son, God created a way to reconcile his enemies to himself. Instead of giving us justice, he shows us grace. Instead of killing us, as our sins deserve, he lets us live. Through faith in Jesus Christ, he delivers us from hell and grants us eternal life.
Jesus also instructed his followers to “love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them.” Now, instead of calling down curses upon the heads of our (and God’s) enemies, we get to show them grace and share the good news of God’s grace with them.