When I first started studying the Book of Psalms, I always held the impression that the imprecatory Psalms were among the harshest hymns in this book. They contrasted the many hymns of praise, worship, and love.
That is why spent years studying and collecting data on different people’s interpretations of these Psalms.
Now that I feel I’ve gathered enough knowledge on the matter, I am confident enough to address the question, “What are imprecatory psalms?” for those of you who may be wondering the same.
According to theological societies, imprecatory psalms are psalms invoking misfortune and punishment upon specific parties. The psalmists imprecate specific subjects upon the defiance of God’s decrees or causing pain to them.
In this post, I’ll look at the total number of imprecatory psalms in the Bible, why they are referred to as imprecatory, their interpretation, and many more lessons.
So, keep reading to get a full understanding of this article.
How many imprecatory psalms are there?
Most scholars suggest that the major imprecatory psalms amount to fourteen in total. These include verses 5, 10, 17, 35, 58, 59, 69, 70, 79, 83, 109, 129, 137, and 140.
However, others believe that only six psalms, the 137th, 109th, 79th, 69th, 59th, and 55th psalms, are the ones regarded as imprecatory due to their common use.
However, the same scholars give specific scriptures, untied to the six psalms mentioned above, which can also be considered imprecatory.
Some examples include Psalm 17:13-14, 35:4-6, and 68:1, among others. Lots of researchers have contrasting opinions on the exact number of imprecatory psalms, but a majority of them conform to fourteen.
Why are they called imprecatory psalms?
According to studies, the psalms mentioned above are referred to as imprecatory, as their authors call down some sort of calamity, destruction, judgment, or anger on certain people.
The negative consequences are often called upon the authors’ enemies or wicked individuals who act against the Lord.
More so, some imprecatory psalms are considered Messianic as they foretell about the coming of the Messiah to reign the earth and punish the wicked.
Psalm 97 is a perfect example of a messianic imprecatory psalm; it focuses on a messianic era when God eliminates all the evils from the earth.
How to interpret the imprecatory Psalms
Imprecatory psalms can be interpreted in three different approaches: considering them as psalmists’ sentiments before the Lord, viewing them as prophetic predictions, and appealing to the Abrahamic covenant as the basis of the curses.
Interpreting the psalms as the psalmists’ sentiments before God considers the curses and cruel dialects serious. The approach also makes it possible not to associate God’s involvement in inspiring the harsh dialects and curses.
Primarily, the approach rationalizes considering the imprecations as words spoken out of a frail human nature. On the other hand, interpreting the imprecatory psalms as prophetic predictions considers the curses as divine utterances rather than individual sentiments.
Interpreting the imprecatory psalms as prophecies is supported by Acts 2:30, which considers David (a psalmist) a prophet: “But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne.”
What are the characteristics of imprecatory psalms?
Vengefulness is one of the most outstanding characteristics of imprecatory psalms. Often, the psalmist calls upon severe divine punishment on their enemies out of vengeance.
For instance, Psalm 17:13 calls upon the Lord to confront and bring down the psalmist’s enemies with a sword to rescue the psalmist from evil: “Rise up, Lord, confront them, bring them down; with your sword rescue me from the wicked.”
A majority of the imprecatory psalms are judgmental. That is, they directly declare or seek punishment for evils done.
For instance, Psalms 5:10 urges God to declare evildoers guilty and banish them for their sins and rebellion against the Lord: “Declare them guilty, O God! Let their intrigues be their downfall. Banish them for their many sins, for they have rebelled against you.”
An almost similar instance is apparent in Psalm 137:9, with the psalmist praying for harsh punishment of Babylon’s infants for exiling the Israelites.
How should Christians view the imprecatory Psalms?
Christians should view the imprecatory psalms as prayers of repentance for the wicked rather than prophetic utterances for their destruction.
Of course, the imprecatory psalms encompass a lot of curses to the wicked ones; however, some commentaries believe that cursing should come last when the wicked refuses to repent.
It is worth noting that there’s always a repentance prayer coming before the curse in most of the imprecatory psalms. More so, the curses in imprecatory psalms are primarily directed to God’s enemies and not the psalmist’s.
Christians should also view the imprecatory Psalms in the same way. Some studies stipulate that most imprecatory psalms were composed by David, arguably the least vengeful person in the Old Testament, considering his dealings with Saul, Absalom, Shimei, and Nabal, among others.
Therefore, his prayers would barely be vengeful but more of God justly dealing with his transgressors.
What can Christians learn from the imprecatory psalms?
From the imprecatory psalms, it’s apparent to believers that justice can be sought, especially for the mightily oppressed. The same message is conveyed in Luke 18:7-8, with the scripture guaranteeing justice for God’s chosen ones.
Equally, Christians can learn not to be vindictive even for their oppressors. They should note that most imprecatory psalms were directed to God’s offenders and not the psalmists’.
Therefore, Christians should learn to pray for God’s justice, sovereignty, and protection instead of praying for their own vengeance.
Ephesians 6:12 clarifies that Christians should focus on spiritual battles rather than physical ones: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
Therefore, Christians should learn only to employ imprecatory psalms when dealing with spiritual matters, and they should also do so with compassion, as stated in 1 Timothy 2:1.
How to pray the imprecatory Psalms
The harshness and evil nature of the curses encompassed in imprecatory psalms complicates their adoption in prayers for most believers.
Therefore, it may be convenient for believers if a more lenient and tolerant mode of making imprecatory psalms’ prayers is devised. Some suggest that the Psalms should first be prayed against Satan, then against one’s sinful nature, before praying against enemies.
However, the praying of imprecatory prayers against enemies should be more directed against God’s enemies rather than your own.
As a devout Christian, I have always been passionate about the Christian faith. This inspired me to pursue a degree in Religious studies and a Masters in Theology in college. I have also been privileged to teach 4 Christian courses in a college and university. Since I am dedicated to spreading the word of God, I am actively involved in the Church. Additionally, I share his word online and cover diverse topics on the Christian faith through my platform. You can read more about me on the about us page.