These “imprecatory psalms” are prayer songs so designated because of their particularly vigorous attitude toward the enemy. The verb “imprecate” means “to pray evil against” or “to invoke curse upon” another, hence the name for these prayers. There is no indication that the editors of the Psalter or the ancient petitioners in the first or second temple would have distinguished these particular prayers from the other tep̱illôṯ, where frequent petition to God for the death and destruction of the foe rises. Their identification itself is a matter of judgment and moral sensitivity. For that reason this commentary includes them in the treatment of the groups to which they best belong, “Prayers for Deliverance From Accusation and Persecution” and “Prayers for Restoration From National Distress and Defeat.” Still, for the Christian reader at least, these poems deserve comment, for they jar the sensitivities of those whose Master taught them to love their enemies and pray for (not against) their persecutors (Mt 5:44).
The Christian reader must begin by accepting these prayers as they are, by and large the cries of God's people for vengeance for unspeakable atrocities against them as God's people and those places sacred to them and to him. The best reading will refrain from spiritualizing the enemy or the petitions or the blessings thereby diminishing the depth of the agony felt and the vehemence of the action sought.
The disciple of Jesus must also realize that any disquiet he or she feels in reading these prayers is due to the redeeming influence of the Lord and his apostles, not to any particular moral sensitivity naturally possessed by the “enlightened” reader. Contemporary readers would have no problem, were it not “given” them by the same Scripture that preserves both these poems and the teachings that call them into question. This sensitivity surely does not rise out of pure Enlightenment refinement or “modern maturity.” Secular humanism can never on its own support values sufficient to impugn these prayers. Thus one will do well to refrain from patronizing or moralizing approaches to these works.
Contemporary readers, particularly those in more affluent societies, can allow these prayers to help them enter the suffering life of the people of God, to transport them from their relative ease into the ghastly suffering and consternation of persons who have been uprooted, mocked, or abused. These prayers awaken the conscience to the human cry for redress, the cosmic demand for moral order and justice. They can lead one to feel as deeply as one ought the horrendous insult to Yahweh and his creation perpetrated by those who lie and cheat and kill and abuse and blaspheme. Made callous by exposure to continual evil, one may lose the sense of outrage these evils deserve, whether done to us or to others or to God. These prayers awaken that outrage, which is to be offered to God and which motivates to redemptive action.
Beyond these instructive appropriations the imprecatory prayers must point the followers of Jesus beyond themselves to a loftier vision of prayer, as noted above, for, not against, “the enemy,” a form of prayer taught by our Master (Mt 5:11, 43-48) and modeled by the earliest church (1 Pe 2:19-25). This vision does not set aside the call for justice and vindication, but places these matters in God's hands for the eschaton (Ro 2; Rev 2:19ff.; 18).
These prayers can also articulate our own disquiet when we are caught in the agony and emotional upheaval of life's incongruities and injustices. When, for whatever reasons, we find ourselves unable to appropriate the mind of the Master for “the enemy,” these prayers can provide a place of prayer from which to start, leading through the desire for vengeance to the prayer for blessing and redemption to which we are called. Further, having begun with their primary point, the forceful response to actual sin and evil against the people of God, one can walk through this door to the larger arena of our own desires for the destruction of evil in our own lives and our disdain for those enemies within.