Kraus on the Imprecatory Psalms

by on September 9, 2013

Imprecation definition

It would be a superficial and emotional response to characterize the desire for revenge in the Psalms as something typical of the Old Testament, irreligious, unchristian, and repugnant.

I had to chuckle as I read this line in Kraus’s Theology of the Psalms this afternoon, because this is more or less exactly what C. S. Lewis does in his Reflections on the Psalms. But this is certainly one of the more troubling aspects of the book of Psalms. It is all very well and good to praise the Lord, to ask him for deliverance, to ask for healing, to thank him for what he has done. The Psalms have all of these things, and more. But what about when it gets (inter)personal?

Psalm 137 is the extreme example; in the face of taunts and mockery in the experience of exile, the psalmist calls out for repayment for Babylon in the form of dashing little Babylonian infants on the rocks. What do we do with this in light of Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek, or instructions to heap burning coals on our enemies’ heads (which sounds pretty cool) by giving them food and drink when they are hungry and thirsty (which sounds hard)?

Lewis takes one tack (it’s the old testament, after all, and Jesus does change things for us). Augustine takes another, spiritualizing the whole thing and not really commenting on the ethical ramifications of the psalm’s “original meaning”:

How shall they repay her? As she hath served us. Let her little ones be choked in turn: yea let her little ones in turn be dashed, and die. What are the little ones of Babylon? Evil desires at their birth. For there are, who have to fight with inveterate lusts. When lust is born, before evil habit giveth it strength against thee, when lust is little, by no means let it gain the strength of evil habit; when it is little, dash it. But thou fearest, lest though dashed it die not; “Dash it against the Rock; and that Rock is Christ.”

I’m not convinced. Sure, I think it’s a good idea to dash those conniving little lusts and temptations on the rock that is Christ (think John Owen: “be killing sin, or it will be killing you.”), I just don’t think that’s what is going on in this psalm (or elsewhere with other imprecatory psalms). But how do we deal with this kind of raw cry for retribution? (Aside from those moments of road rage when those of us with a lot of room for growth in grace might happily appropriate a line or two!)

Kraus is very helpful in explaining this troubling feature in the Psalms, and there are two points that deserve special attention (aside from the implicit recognition in these curses that all is not right with the world as it stands). The first thing, of course, is that vengeance, as loudly as it may be called for, is generally placed squarely in the Lord’s hands. But what we see is not just a wish that the Lord smite the guy who snubbed the psalmist:

[T]he cry for vengeance proceeds from the fact that Yahweh himself is being treated with contempt and his honor is defiled (Ps 79:12).

Kraus also reminds us that this reflex of calling out for the Lord to execute justice on behalf of his own honor and on behalf of his people runs through to the end of the New Testament, as well (see Rev 6:10).

So, while having nothing to do with curses and imprecations during the daily commute, what is shown to us in the words of men to God become the word of God to mankind (as one person has described the Psalter) is not something to ignore or treat as the relic of a primitive age, but has a living and abiding purpose, and belongs on the lips of the church as we remember such things as our brothers and sisters suffering at the hands of armies and terrorists in other parts of the world.

Lord, break the teeth of the wicked, and come quickly!

For Kraus’s discussion, see Hans-Joachim Kraus, Theology of the Psalms (transl. Keith Crim; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), 67.


It’s unusual to find someone who will stand up for the Psalms and explain them in a way that doesn’t twist the Bible all around. Thanks, Tony! I think Alexander will be interested to read this. He loves the Psalms.