Reflections on the Psalms - The Cursings

The imprecatory Psalms are hard–or at least they should be. If you aren’t at least a little bit bothered by, e.g., Psalm 58:6[1], 109:8-12[2], or 137:9[3], IMO, there’s something wrong with you. Sadly, I think Lewis misses the mark in this chapter, I think largely due to a deficient view of scripture. He says that even in Psalms that are bad, we can find some good; I respond that even in a chapter that’s largely bad, we can find some good.

The good

Lewis makes many good points in this chapter; I believe the strongest is that the sentiments expressed (which Lewis finds so reprehensible) are in response to, and reflect in a sense a proper reaction to, genuine evil. He observes that the ancient Pagan literature with which he was familiar doesn’t have anything like this, because there was no real hatred of evil at all. The hatred of evil, he believes (and I agree) is a good thing, and it’s something that’s often missing, or at least muted, today.

Lewis also notes that, in a sense, the emotion expressed there (which he takes to be wicked) is a natural result of that person being wronged. As a result, when I wrong someone, I bear at least partial responsibility for that person’s natural (though sinful) response.

The bad

Lewis finds conflict between the curses of the Psalms and the words of Christ, and on that basis concludes that the curses are wrong. This isn’t a tenable position for one who believes, as I do, that all of scripture–the words of David no less than the words of Jesus–is the θεόπνευστος (inspired, or “breathed out by God” in the ESV) word of God, as Paul says it is in 2 Tim. 3:16, and of which Jesus himself said, "have you not read what was said to you by God "[4]. And as a result of his failure to consider all of scripture as a whole, he fails to consider that those curses can themselves carry meaning that we can apply today.

Lewis had resources available to him in his day–Matthew Henry’s commentary on the Bible, for example, was published in 1710. Consulting with such would have shown Lewis that there could be ways of interpreting these that would be profitable. For example, regarding 58:6, Henry writes:

In these verses we have,

I. David’s prayers against his enemies, and all the enemies of God’s church and people; for it is as such that he looks upon them, so that he was actuated by a public spirit in praying against them, and not by any private revenge. 1. He prays that they might be disabled to do any further mischief (v. 6): Break their teeth, O God! Not so much that they might not feed themselves as that they might not be able to make a prey of others, Ps. 3:7. He does not say, “Break their necks” (no; let them live to repent, slay them not, lest my people forget), but, “Break their teeth, for they are lions, they are young lions, that live by rapine.”

On the latter verses of Psalm 137, he writes:

II. Babylon is the principal, and it will come to her turn too to drink of the cup of tremblings, the very dregs of it (v. 8, 9): O daughter of Babylon! proud and secure as thou art, we know well, by the scriptures of truth, thou art to be destroyed, or (as Dr. Hammond reads it) who art the destroyer. The destroyers shall be destroyed, Rev. 13:10. And perhaps it is with reference to this that the man of sin, the head of the New-Testament Babylon, is called a son of perdition, 2 Th. 2:3. The destruction of Babylon being foreseen as a sure destruction (thou art to be destroyed ), it is spoken of, 1. As a just destruction. She shall be paid in her own coin: “Thou shalt be served as thou hast served us, as barbarously used by the destroyers as we have been by thee,” See Rev. 18:6. Let not those expect to find mercy who, when they had power, did not show mercy. 2. As an utter destruction. The very little ones of Babylon, when it is taken by storm, and all in it are put to the sword, shall be dashed to pieces by the enraged and merciless conqueror. None escape if these little ones perish. Those are the seed of another generation; so that, if they be cut off, the ruin will be not only total, as Jerusalem’s was, but final. It is sunk like a millstone into the sea, never to rise. 3. As a destruction which should reflect honour upon the instruments of it. Happy shall those be that do it; for they are fulfilling God’s counsels; and therefore he calls Cyrus, who did it, his servant, his shepherd, his anointed (Isa. 44:28; 45:1), and the soldiers that were employed in it his sanctified ones, Isa. 13:3. They are making way for the enlargement of God’s Israel, and happy are those who are in any way serviceable to that. The fall of the New-Testament Babylon will be the triumph of all the saints, Rev. 19:1.

Matthew Henry, of course, isn’t an ultimate authority, and certainly there are other commentators who could have been consulted–I’m quoting him merely as an example. Rather than wholesale rejection of the curses, Lewis would done better, IMO, to see how they can be harmonized with the rest of scripture. God speaks with one voice.

  1. O God, break the teeth in their mouths ↩︎

  2. 8 May his days be few;
    may another take his office!
    9 May his children be fatherless
    and his wife a widow!
    10 May his children wander about and beg
    seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit!
    11 May the creditor seize all that he has;
    may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!
    12 Let there be none to extend kindness to him,
    nor any to pity his fatherless children! ↩︎

  3. Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
    and dashes them against the rock! ↩︎

  4. Matthew 22:31, ESV, emphasis added ↩︎