The imprecatory psalms--some of the most difficult parts of the Bible, are the places in which the psalmist asks God to bring judgment on one's enemies, often in very harsh language. Talbot OT professor, Dr. Charlie Trimm, helps us understand how these psalms fit in with Jesus' command to love your enemies. Join Scott and Sean for an interesting discussion that will help you understand this complicated area of the Bible.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically. Conversations on faith and culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics here at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your cohost Sean McDowell, Professor of Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: We're today with our guest Professor Charlie Trimm, who teaches Old Testament at the undergraduate level at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University, who is an expert on some of the most difficult aspects of Old Testament theology. He's written a lot on the idea of divine violence, warfare in the ancient world. His encyclopedic book on this is Called Fighting for the King and the Gods, Warfare in the Ancient Near East. He has a book coming out on Old Testament theology, that will be out. But one of his special areas of expertise is a part of the Psalms and the poetic literature called the Imprecatory Psalms. And so I've titled our session, Does God Command that we Curse and Hate our Enemies? And so Charlie, with that as an introduction, welcome to our podcast. Thanks so much for being with us.
Charlie Trimm: Thanks for inviting me. I'm glad to be here today. The preparatory Psalms are a difficult part of the Old Testament. We often read the Psalms for comfort and encouragement, and then we get to the parts where the psalmist calls down curses on their enemies, and we're somewhat disturbed how that part could be there. And so in short, Imprecatory Psalms are just calling down curses on your enemies. Although when you look more closely, it's not quite as simple as that. For example, the word curse is never actually used in the Imprecatory Psalms and the curse formula itself is not used. And I think that might have a role in how we think about these Imprecatory Psalms as well.
Scott Rae: So, even, whether it's a prayer of cursing or not, it's a little bit different from the mandate to turn the other cheek?
Charlie Trimm: Yeah. This is part of the problem that Christians have with the Imprecatory Psalms is it sounds very un-Jesus-like. Jesus says, "Love your enemies." And then you look back in the Old Testament and you say, "Wait, what's going on here. This Psalm doesn't seem to be following what Jesus says." And so there's been a variety of interpretive traditions over the years. One of the more prominent ones is just to reject the Imprecatory Psalms, sometimes altogether, even in their Old Testament context, or say that it's okay for the Old Testament saints to do that, but not for the New Testament saints. So post-Jesus, we can't pray these Imprecatory Psalms anymore.
But I don't think either one of these interpretive traditions is the best way to read the Psalms. And I prefer to argue the Imprecatory Psalms remain a valid option even for us today. So just an example, Jesus says, "Love your enemies." Now this is not some kind of new teaching that comes from Jesus. This is embedded in the Old Testament. And so we have laws about helping your enemies donkey, for example. Proverbs talks about loving your enemy. And so this is not something brand new, but even within the Old Testament that contains the Imprecatory Psalms, we already have commands to love your enemies. And so somehow I think these two go together.
This is particularly clear when it comes to Babylon, because one of the most famous Imprecatory Psalms, Psalm 137 is against Babylon. However, in Jeremiah, there's a command to pray for the peace of Babylon, and pray on behalf of Babylon, and how these two go together is quite difficult. In one of the articles I wrote, I analyzed a variety of options. Is it like different time periods, for example? Is it different people praying it? But I think the best way to view it is to say these are two prayers that are to be prayed simultaneously, which seems really weird. How can you say you pray them both at the same time? But I think the heart of the prayer is that you want evil doing to cease. And then in a sense, you give God options. This evil doing can cease by judging the person or by converting them. And so the heart of it is the same, even if there are a variety of ways of that prayer being answered.
And so what we see in Jeremiah, when it says, "Pray for the peace", that's Shalom, that's not just a, "Let's not fight." But it's a whole-orbed piece, a right relationship. When it says pray on behalf of, that's a technical phrase for pray for someone after they have repented from their sins. And so this is a call for Babylon to repent from their sins against Israel. And so the evil doing can cease if they repent or the evil doing can cease after they are judged. So I think that's the heart of the Imprecatory Psalms, is we want the evil doing to cease.
Scott Rae: Okay, Charlie, let's go back just digging into the Old Testament for a bit. Give our listeners some examples of some of the language of these Imprecatory Psalms. Because it may be that our listeners are just not familiar with these at all. So you mentioned Psalm 137, that's a particularly graphic one. So what does that say? And then give us another example of one.
Charlie Trimm: Yeah. So the Imprecatory Psalms, there's many of them in the Psalter. The sins of the enemies are pretty varied. So there's lying, slander, violence, pride, greed, oppressing the weak, wicked rulers who condemn the innocent. And so it's a variety of different sins that seem to be pretty serious. The judgments, there's a variety of different ways to express the judgment. Here's one from Psalm 58, "Oh God, break the teeth in their mouth, tear out the fangs of the young lions. Let them vanish like water that runs away. When he aims his arrows, let them be blunted. Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime." And so on and so forth.
So there's some pretty strong language in many of these Imprecatory Psalms, but of course that fits with the Psalter, because it's a poetic genre and that's how you express yourself in that genre.
Sean McDowell: So I think you may have already kind of answered this to a degree, but I'm just wondering how do we begin to justify these? Because I don't think anyone would have a problem with saying, "Pray for your enemies, love those the way that Jesus does." But these kind of graphic descriptions of calling harm specifically to our enemies, that's difficult for a lot of Christians and nonbelievers to make sense of. So how do you begin to justify that?
Charlie Trimm: Yeah. So one point I want to make is the specific language the Imprecatory Psalms use in the Old Testament is not a necessary part of it. So you don't have to talk in the same way. You can request that God judge them, and just leave it very vague like that. I don't think you have to use the same kind of graphic imagery, but the heart, once again is, you want evil doing to stop. And we can certainly pray for their conversion, for repentance, but what happens if they don't repent? Do we want them just to continue? And so the idea is you want God to act, and I think is where it's important that they're not necessarily called curses. These really are prayers. You want God to act, and in your desperation, you're giving God a variety of ways of acting, but you're not telling Him, "You have to do it this way. And I'll be disappointed if you don't do it this way." It's a call to stop the evil doing in whichever way God chooses.
Scott Rae: So these are more calls for judgment rather than prayers of cursing and hatred?
Charlie Trimm: Yeah. Although even the call for judgment, I think might be too one-sided. It's a call for evil doing to stop. And that might be through judgment. Or it might be through their conversion. It could be either one.
Scott Rae: So, let's be really clear about this for our listeners. I read Psalm 137 and some of the other Imprecatory Psalms, I don't see a lot of place for repentance and for conversion. Where are you getting that from, from some of these psalms?
Charlie Trimm: Yeah. So partially that's from text like Jeremiah, Jeremiah 29 in particular, and other texts that talk about the conversion of the nations, Isaiah 19. So when you read the Bible as a whole, this is what God is doing in the world. But even in the Imprecatory Psalms, there are hints about the goal of the prayer being not simply judgment, but some kind of change in the person being prayed about. And so the recognition formula is often used. This is the phrase, "So that they may know Yahweh is God." And sometimes when that phrase is used, it's merely recognition. But sometimes when the phrase is used, it is indeed conversion. So there are some texts in the Imprecatory Psalms that refer to some kind of conversion as well, although it's not as clear as some other places.
Sean McDowell: What's the emotional payoff for the people who are singing the songs when they read one of the Imprecatory Psalms. And I ask because oftentimes when people are hurting, they read a Psalm of David and go, "Gosh, he feels alone. He feels abandoned. If David feels that, then this is a part of the spiritual life." When were people meant to read these and what did they gain from reading them? Or is it just an act of obedience that they were supposed to read and sing these?
Charlie Trimm: Yeah, one of the main goals of the Psalter is to be able to express what you're feeling. And so you want to engage with the text and then use that as a way to express what you're feeling inside. And so one way to read the Imprecatory Psalms is to read them during times of anguish and being disturbed at evil doing. And so many of the Imprecatory Psalms are when David or some other author is interacting with someone who has done an extreme evil act or the exile or something like that. And of course, you're going to be angry, and you want God to do something. And so the Imprecatory Psalms help with that. And so in contemporary times, when we face anger at injustice, the Imprecatory Psalms are a great way to be able to express the anger and bring it before God in a appropriate way.
Scott Rae: Okay. So Charlie, let's be honest about this. Have you ever prayed a prayer of imprecation?
Charlie Trimm: I've never prayed-
Scott Rae: And if so, what did it look like?
Charlie Trimm: I've never prayed one that I have written myself, but I have read some and in a sense prayed along with these prayers based on the experiences of others. And so another part of the Psalter that's really helpful is not just using the Psalter to express what we're already feeling, but we can use the Psalter to help us experience emotions that we don't feel, but perhaps we should feel. And so when say we're feeling distant from Gods, we can read the Psalter to remind us that God loves us and cares for us and so on. And there might be times when we need to feel more angry than we do. And so this is another benefit I think of the Imprecatory Psalms, is that there are times when we don't feel angry, but we should. And reading the biblical Imprecatory Psalms or reading contemporary Imprecatory Psalms can help us with that.
And for me, just personality wise, I'm not a very emotional person. And so I've learned the benefits of the Psalter to encourage and inspire emotion in me in all kinds of different ways. And I think the Imprecatory Psalms is really helpful, that there are some things I need to be angry about that I'm just not naturally. And so I think that can be a helpful use of these.
Sean McDowell: I have to wonder, I've never thought twice about telling somebody they should write their own prayer that's in the Psalms than other passages in the Bible, but when it comes to an Imprecatory Psalm, for some reason, I just hesitate and wonder, "Is that really a good idea for you to write this?" Do you resonate with that concern? Would you make any distinction or would you say, "Just go for it, because the natural call for justice is good and if it's not perfect, it still honors God."
Charlie Trimm: Yeah. I think I would go two different directions. One is the Imprecatory Psalms are helpful for expressing how we feel. So if you're angry about injustice, then by all means write the Imprecatory Psalm. I think that can be really good. The danger is being angry about something that perhaps you shouldn't be angry about or something that's too minor. And so when someone cuts you off in traffic, I'm not sure that necessarily deserves the Imprecatory Psalm. But even in that case, I think you can pray the Imprecatory Psalm, because God already knows how angry you are. There's no point in hiding it, but then you can pray the psalm, and then an hour later you can reflect on it and realize, "Oh, this is more reflective of a sin issue in me than in that driver." And so even for the quote unquote mistaken Imprecatory Psalms, I think they can be valuable for our own spiritual formation as we analyze them and think about them at a later time.
Scott Rae: All right. So let's say that I become aware through my church, that human trafficking is going on in my community and that young girls were being brought into this country from other parts of the world to serve as basically as sex slaves in prostitution houses. And I find out that's going on in my community. What would a prayer of imprecation look like in that situation? I'm asking you to sort of write a line or two of an Imprecatory prayer, given that's what you've just found out.
Charlie Trimm: You could do a variety of ways. In one of my papers, I have a Imprecatory Psalm written about ISIS from several years ago when ISIS was going into various places in Iraq and persecuting the Christians, and this particular prayer was really helpful for modeling what I was trying to argue. So I guess read it a few lines of that. "God, I have prayed that you would smite these evil doers as he once did 185,000 Assyrians. You sent the angel of Yahweh on a manhunt. Won't you do that now? Don't you love these Iraqi brothers and sisters just as much? Aren't they as precious in your sight? How long, Yahweh, will you forget your Arab church? You say you will right all wrongs someday. What about intervening now? Is there any way a human institution or government can be your just sword and strike on your behalf? Or must we simply weep with them and pray that they will die well and stay faithful to the end? Christ, have mercy. Father, I pray for each man of the Islamic state. You have commanded us your followers to live differently than the world. You tell us to love and pray for even men like these. So I pray that you will reveal the deception that you are bound by. You will work powerfully to disarm them, perhaps even through the witness of these they kill. Stop them with the power of your love."
And so I think is a good illustration of giving options. Clearly we want this injustice to stop and we're saying, "God, you need to do something. Or I'll leave it in your hands of how exactly you're going to achieve that goal."
Sean McDowell: I have never heard an Imprecatory Prayer like that in chapel, in church. That is literally the first time I've heard somebody say a Christian response to injustice in the world could involve writing a Psalm like this and saying it. So I'm curious, why don't we do this more? Is it ignorance? Is it fear? What's holding back because it's powerful to just sit back and hear you say that, because that's the cry of my heart when I think about ISIS as well. What are we afraid of? Is it that in the church, we want things maybe to be cheery and positive, we're afraid to go down that road? What do you think that barrier is?
Charlie Trimm: I think that's definitely a part of it. I think evangelical church in America tends to be too happy in all kinds of ways. We have the same problem with laments. We don't pray laments hardly at all. And if we don't pray laments, then certainly we're not going to pray Imprecatory Psalms. But combined with that is the interpretive tradition of viewing Imprecatory Psalms purely as Old Testament material. And so we just don't have the history of praying these Imprecatory Psalms.
And then we're concerned about the danger of someone listening to a psalm and then trying to fulfill it themselves. And so there's been a few examples of this, of a pastor praying Imprecatory Psalm, someone listening to it and then sending death threats against someone.
Sean McDowell: Oh, wow.
Charlie Trimm: So we're really concerned about this and then you get legal cases and so on. The response to that, I think, is an important part of the Imprecatory Psalms in the Old Testament is a statement of powerlessness. That you don't pray these from position of power. And this is the contrast between Old Testament and ancient Near East. You have similar type prayers in ancient Near East, but it's almost always the King who thinks that he's the one who's going to answer that prayer himself. The Imprecatory Psalms it's vastly different. There's quite often an expression of, "I am totally helpless. I can't do anything. God's can you do something?"
And so I think that needs to be an important part of teaching about Imprecatory Psalms, is, "This is not a request for you to do something, congregation. We want you to pray. That's the key part, and we're going to put it into God's hands and remove it from our hands as we pray this."
Scott Rae: So Charlie, I can see where it's one thing to pray these prayers privately, but what about praying them publicly in the church proper? I mean, I take it that the Imprecatory Psalms were meant not only as private reflections, but also meant to be read and sung publicly in the gathering of the assembly. What would we need to explain to a church before doing something like that? Because I think to do that simply without warning would throw a lot of people off guard and wonder what has gotten into our pastor? So, let's say we're in church on the Sanctity of Life Sunday, which is the third Sunday of January, where we should lament all the lives of the unborn that have been needlessly taken. What would you say to prepare a church to hear an Imprecatory Psalm say on Sanctity of Life Sunday?
Charlie Trimm: That would need a fair amount of prep time.
Sean McDowell: You wouldn't just jump into it?
Charlie Trimm: No. By all means, no. That'd be catastrophic. I think you would probably need at least a mini series on the Psalms as a whole. How do the Psalms work? And so that way you can engage with people in the areas that they're comfortable with, how the Psalms bring comfort and so on. And then talk about laments, which gets a little more uncomfortable, and then end it with the Imprecatory Psalms. So probably at least a four week sermon series and along the way having some opportunities to, in a sense, practice these prayers as you go, have some model prayers. And then once you have that kind of backgrounds, then I think people would be more open to the prayers. And in particular, we need to talk about how the prayers can inspire us to feel a certain way.
So we don't necessarily need to wait until we feel anger before we pray these Imprecatory Psalms, but we pray them to inspire, perhaps anger. And this is where I think it's particularly interesting with the racism issue that's come up, where perhaps for the white church in America, racism feels more like the person cutting you off in traffic. It doesn't feel worthy of Imprecatory Psalm. But I think as we listen to concerns from the black church and the black community, they can help us realize, "No, this is far greater than just someone cutting you off in traffic. This is a big issue." And so, as we listened to Imprecatory Psalms from people who are feeling these things, that can inspire us to address it as well.
Issa McCauley, a professor at Wheaton, had an article in New York Times recently about Imprecatory Psalms. He says this, "But more than an expression of rage, this Psalm", talking about Psalm 137, "is a written record in time. It's a call to remember this Psalm and the other Psalms of rage require us to remember the trauma that led to their composition." And so it's good for us to think about how perhaps we should feel more anger as we listen to the Psalms coming from other context. And something like the issue of abortion would be something parallel.
Sean McDowell: You know, it's interesting to think about this, that you have to prep a church for four weeks at least to do this, and all somebody has to do is take a 30 second iPhone camera, take it elsewhere, and all hell breaks loose on the other side without that context. Are there any ways you would say this could be done that could minimize that or is that just the life, the culture that we live in? Does that concern you? How does that social media world shape the way you would think about Imprecatory Psalms done well and right in a church?
Charlie Trimm: Yeah, it certainly is a concern. There's a variety of ways of addressing it. Most churches don't have something like an evening service anymore, but something besides the Sunday morning service might be a better place to address a topic like this, where there are fewer visitors, fewer people who are likely to be vindictive and so on. So perhaps that would be a way forwards. You could also try to, as you pray the prayer, qualify it immediately beforehands with some summaries of things that you've taught. But yeah, to some extent, there's no way around that, you're just going to have to risk a possible backlash.
Scott Rae: Charlie, when you gave us that model prayer that you had prayed or you wrote with regard to ISIS, I think that's a really helpful model. But you've studied this for a long time. You're familiar with the language, but the average person in a local church is not. So what guidelines could we give to our listeners that they should follow to make sure that we don't step out of bounds and into praying something that we ought not?
Charlie Trimm: Yeah, several guidelines can be followed. I think Imprecatory Psalms properly should be for serious sin, and probably serious and ongoing sin, and so because the heart of it is we want injustice to stop. And so we don't usually pray Imprecatory Psalms about someone who's already in jail, for example, because they can no longer continue committing those evil deeds. And so we need to think about what exactly is it that we are angry about? Is it worth being angry about?
A community, I think, is really important. Others in your church, others, if you can, outside of your tradition. People from a different background might be really helpful to talk to about some of these things. So those would probably be the two most important ones, although to some extent, I think that if you're just praying private imprecatory prayers, you don't need to be as concerned about getting it exactly right. You're seeking to present your feelings to God. And so that I think has fewer guidelines because you don't have people necessarily following in your footsteps like you would with a public imprecatory prayer.
Scott Rae: Okay. Those are really helpful. And I suspect this is something that we just get better at over time and with practice and experience. One of the things that has struck me about this, Charlie, as you know my wife works for Open Doors, which is the administrator of the persecuted church around the world. I know a little bit about how they pray for the persecuted church. I think most of what they pray for is for the persecuted believers. How would you pray a prayer of imprecation upon those who are persecuting believers say in China or India or some other part of the world?
Charlie Trimm: Yeah, that's a good question. Part of this is how politically dangerous is it to pray these prayers? There's been some work done on something like Psalm 137 in a Babylonian context. How would a Babylonian military commander respond if he read Psalm 137 or heard it being prayed? And so some scholars have argued, "Well, maybe it's just because they spoke Hebrew and the Babylonians didn't understand it? Or maybe there was some kind of secret code or something like that." But that is an important question. And so perhaps some of these imprecatory prayers in your context should be prayed at a distance. Perhaps we pray them for someone else because they are not free to pray that way themselves.
But I would say the heart of the prayer would be similar to what I've been advocating, you pray that injustice stops. And so we pray for our brothers and sisters to be able to worship God freely. And perhaps that means a change in government, perhaps that means God working in that government in some miraculous way that it allows the church to worship as they desire to. And so we want this injustice to stop, and in our prayer we can request God to do something, but we leave it open as far as what that something is.
Another helpful Old Testament background is thinking about Jonah. Jonah, he very much wants judgment for the people of Nineveh, but God says, "No. They're going to be saved. They repent and so on." But later on, there's the book of Nahum, which I like to describe as the book Jonah wished he could have written, because that one is the destruction of the Assyrians. And so the question is, as we pray these imprecatory prayers, if we get Jonah as an answer, would we be disappointed? And so if the answer is yes, if there's no judgment, and we're like, "God, you didn't answer my prayer." Then we have an issue with our own motives because it's no longer an issue of injustice ceasing, it's become just judgment. And so knowing that God could answer either way and then thinking about, "How will I respond if I get Jonah or Nahum? Will I respond positively in both cases?" That can be an important check, another guideline, like, "How will I respond if God answers in any one of these ways?"
Scott Rae: That's a really insightful point on that contrast. Charlie, one final question. How can these imprecatory prayers be an encouragement to the church today?
Charlie Trimm: I think it can be an encouragement in a variety of ways. The encouragement that we need to be concerned about injustice, and sometimes we don't see the injustice and so we can be encouraged to face that. But in the bigger picture, the whole point of a prayer is to encourage the correct perspective. It's not just us who has to go out and fix this injustice. We are turning it over to God. And so I think this can be a massive dose of encouragement for the persecuted church and for those going through injustice, because it reminds us of perspective. We put this in God's hands, and it's not up to us. God's the one who is in control and we can trust him to answer as He will.
Scott Rae: Charlie. This has been so insightful. I suspect for many of our listeners, this be the first time you've heard a concept like this. I've never considered praying a prayer like this before. I suspect Sean hasn't either.
Sean McDowell: Yeah.
Scott Rae: And I suspect many of our listeners have not. So I really appreciate you introducing us to a concept that's not just an Old Testament thing, but it's something for today, within the right guidelines, and I think reflective, make sure we reflect on our heart and what we're feeling. But I think this has just been really insightful, Charlie. So thank you so much for being with us. This has just been great stuff. So, really appreciate you coming on with us.
Sean McDowell: Thanks for inviting me. It's been a fun conversation.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically. Conversations on faith and culture. To learn more about us and today's guest Dr. Charlie Trimm, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app, and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.