>Purposeful Imprecation, Psalm 109

>Psalm 109 seems to be the most imprecatory of the so-called “imprecatory” (calling curses upon someone) psalms. In this psalm, author David calls down God’s curses on his enemies in vivid language with memorable images.

Editors Ryken and Ryken of the ESV Literary Study Bible point out that in Psalm 109 (and Psalm 69) “the element of imprecation is enclosed in the familiar contours of the lament psalm, and we need to keep that framework in view if we wish to avoid distorting the poems” (p. 873).

They make a valid point. One can’t simply load Psalm 109 and take aim at one’s enemies. King David was God’s chosen representative and those who attacked him were actually attacking God. Psalm 69 makes it even clearer that the psalmist suffers at the hands of others because of his righteousness.

We can’t use the imprecatory psalms as ammunition against our enemies if we have not been honest and loving toward them. The psalm begins with a cry for help that makes this plain:

Be not silent, O God of my praise!
For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me,
speaking against me with lying tongues.
They encircle me with words of hate,
and attack me without cause.
In return for my love they accuse me,
but I give myself to prayer.
So they reward me evil for good,
and hatred for my love
(1-5, ESV).

The psalmist has done nothing to generate this malice and has shown these enemies only love. He does not respond with similar hate-filled actions against them, but instead devotes himself to prayer.

The psalmist dramatically asks God to work events of judgment in the life of the evil doer. These explicitly harsh imprecations make us cringe: “When he is tried, let him come forth guilty; let his prayer be counted as sin! May his days be few; may another take his office! May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow! May his children wander about and beg, seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit! May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil! Let there be none to extend kindness to him, nor any to pity his fatherless children! May his posterity be cut off; may his name be blotted out in the second generation!” (7-13, ESV).

David’s long litany against the heartless evildoer continues with the most striking images of the psalm (16-20, ESV):

For he did not remember to show kindness,
but pursued the poor and needy
and the brokenhearted, to put them to death.
He loved to curse; let curses come upon him!
He did not delight in blessing; may it be far from him!
He clothed himself with cursing as his coat;
may it soak into his body like water,
like oil into his bones!
May it be like a garment that he wraps around him,
like a belt that he puts on every day!
May this be the reward of my accusers from the LORD,
of those who speak evil against my life!

In the above verses, David considers cursing as not merely an action, but also an attribute. Creatively comparing the act of cursing to the fact of cursedness, David shows how the action leads to the state as it permeates and covers the self.

In the midst of his imprecatory litany, David confesses that he depends solely upon a faithful and loving God for deliverance (verse 21, ESV): “But you, O GOD my Lord, deal on my behalf for your name’s sake; because your steadfast love is good, deliver me!”

Notice that David does not ask God to restore his (David’s) name, but to work vengeance and judgment for the sake of God’s name.

The next section of the psalm describes the psalmist’s dreadful state. Anyone who has experienced a severe trial can identify with this vivid depiction of hopelessness and helplessness:

For I am poor and needy,
and my heart is stricken within me.
I am gone like a shadow at evening;
I am shaken off like a locust.
My knees are weak through fasting;
my body has become gaunt, with no fat.
I am an object of scorn to my accusers;
when they see me, they wag their heads
(22-25, ESV).

As the psalmist cries again to the Lord, he shows us the purpose for imprecation (26-27, ESV):

Help me, O LORD my God!
Save me according to your steadfast love!
Let them know that this is your hand;
you, O LORD, have done it!

The purpose of imprecation is always God’s glory. God saves the righteous and curses the wicked in order to demonstrate his almighty hand. His judgments make his power plain.

As the wicked continue to curse God and his people, God will put them to shame. But he will bless the righteous (28-29, ESV):

Let them curse, but you will bless!
They arise and are put to shame, but your servant will be glad!
May my accusers be clothed with dishonor;
may they be wrapped in their own shame as in a cloak!

The psalm concludes by again showing a purpose for imprecation.

With my mouth I will give great thanks to the LORD;
I will praise him in the midst of the throng.
For he stands at the right hand of the needy one,
to save him from those who condemn his soul to death
(30-31, ESV).

The righteous person who has been delivered from an enemy must thank God, not only privately, but also in corporate worship. God stands beside us in our need, ready to rescue us from death.

All scripture, including the so-called “imprecatory” psalms are profitable (2 Timothy 3:16). But we must always remember that calling down curses upon our enemies is appropriate only in the context of righteous suffering that acknowledges God’s sole role in administering justice. The purpose of imprecation is always and only God’s glory.

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