More Reflections on the Psalms of Enmity and Vengeance

Simon Cheung
Assistant Professor (Biblical Studies)

 

As the name suggests, psalms of enmity and vengeance are prayer psalms that invoke curses on the enemies.[1] The curses all originated from the lips of the persecuted psalmist. Such psalms have always been difficult and, no doubt, the substance of the imprecation was not desirable. The most notable psalm of enmity should be none other than Psalm 137:8-9, “Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction. Happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us.  Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” This psalm advocates revenge, even against innocent children. The moral standard was shocking. Psalm 69:22-29 was not any better. Verses 22-25 made a clean sweep and cast curses on the pleasures, health, faith and the next generation of the enemies. This is embarrassing for a faith based on love and forgiveness. However, does this mean that the Scripture should not include such psalms?

 

Perhaps we are just paranoid about psalms of enmity? We have always placed our focus on the curses that most catch our attention, and overlook the fact that they do not represent the entirety of the psalm. Taking Psalm 137 as an example, the attention of the readers may be focused on the prayer for retribution on Babylon and ignores the curses self-imposed by the psalmist. Verses 5-6 contain two sets of oaths sworn on the psalmist himself, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget……! May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy!” (a direct translation). The psalmist would rather deliver up his passion for music than to sacrifice his loyalty to Jerusalem. The wellbeing of Jerusalem was so close to his heart that he pledged his love to it. It is therefore not difficult to understand the intense pain that he felt when his beloved was violated. The outcry for vengeance was not just to instigate a quarrel, nor was it an outburst that got out of control due to great rage. Instead, it was made to uphold the essence of his values, something that he would be prepared to sacrifice his life for.

 

Psalm 69 also expresses a strong plea of the psalmist, an appeal for authentic faith, behind the cursing language. Verses 22-25 mentioned above list out the psalmist’s desire for the demise of his enemies. Verses 26-30 explain why he so desired. These verses adopt a chiastic structure: the words “pain” and “distress” in v26 and v29 derive from the same Hebrew root “sorrow”. The bearer of “sorrow” from the enemies’ continuous attacks and wilful ridicules and mockeries was the psalmist himself. Verses 27-28 compose the central part of this passage, in which the psalmist prayed that these wicked people “cannot enter into your (God’s) righteousness” and “will not be listed in the book of life with the righteous” (a direct translation). The curses that the psalmist proclaimed on his foes were caused by his persistent quest for righteousness. The wicked should not be seated together with the righteous. Otherwise, a perfunctory existence and a leisurely life of the wicked could signify that God’s judgment was meaningless, or might even mean that God might be viewing such wicked people as righteous. It is only when their final destiny was like what the psalmist described that God’s justice could be displayed. Endless curses did not just represent retribution, but was an expression of faith in God. If the psalmist did not truly believe that God was faithful on His promises, why should he use such full-blown language to bring out the fact that our God who punishes the wicked and bless the righteous is a truly just God? It is worth noting that in the verses that follow the curses in verses 22-29, the psalmist excitedly proclaimed that he could wholeheartedly glorify God with thanksgiving (v30-31).[2]  It is only when the psalmist could unreservedly lay down all his negative emotions before the God whom he trusted that his commitment to trust God can be found, which in turn led him to worship God in heart and spirit. By contrast, if he felt the need to come before God under pretense, that would only take him further away from God. Then gradually, the praises that came out of his mouth would no longer be words from his heart.[3]  

 

Is it appropriate to read such psalms in a corporate worship? It is my view that we should. Reading psalms of enmity means that there is space for disappointment and anger in the worship. In an era filled with unrighteousness and violence, church congregations have to be able to worship truthfully while being in touch with reality. They cannot ignore the existence of suffering, yet in an environment that advocates retributory violence, the psalmists chose to hand back the sovereignty on retaliation to the Lord whom they prayed. Regardless of how he and his loved ones had been ravaged by evil and brutality, he would not want to be the executioner of punishment. Although his pains had not healed and problems were still unresolved, the psalmist would wait for God to restore things to order. The word “wait” in Hebrew ( יחל )incorporates the meaning of “hope”. A corporate recital of psalms of enmity is an action to bring about hope, especially during an insane age filled with power corruption, rampant violence and perversion. Powerless people in a society will all the more need to recite psalms of enmity so that their roars of rage can be heard, but at the same time ensure that they would not be consumed by the desire to take vengeance as they would wait for the return of their covenantal God. He will restore and make everything new.

 

Extended Reading:

 • Ellington, Scott A. Risking Truth: Reshaping the World through Prayers of Lament. Princeton Theological Monograph Series 98. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2008.

• Zenger, Erich. A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.

 


[1] Examples include Psalms 12, 58, 83, 109, 129 and so forth.

[2] Looking at the structure of the entire Psalm, v7-12 describes the enemies of the psalmist, v22-29 sets out the curses pronounced by the psalmist on them, and the final part where the psalmist proclaims praises to God (v.30-31) echoes with each other.

[3] Kimberly N. Snow and Mark R. McMinn, ‘Resolving Anger Toward God: Lament As an Avenue Toward Attachment’, Journal of Psychology and Theology 39 (2011): 130-42.

 

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