A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Ryan Speck
The Imprecatory Psalms. What in the world are we, as Christians, to do with those psalms that call down violent, dastardly curses upon enemies? Should we simply discount them as not truly inspired—the despicable rantings of mere men? Should we relegate them to an OT age, unfit for enlightened Christians today? Perhaps Christ can say such things, but not us, mere mortals? Are we not embarrassed by them, or confused by them?
In this short, accessible, and valuable work, Sean McGowan leads us to a right understanding of the imprecatory psalms. He reminds us that we must consider the entire Psalter as inspired and profitable for our edification (Chapter 1). He defines what imprecatory psalms are and summarizes the arguments against their use today (Chapter 2). He exegetes Psalm 137 and draws important principles from this imprecatory psalm, establishing a proper understanding of how imprecations were righteously used in the Scriptures (Chapter 3). He demonstrates that imprecations were also used in the NT and must be compatible with loving our enemies (Chapter 4). He teaches principles for the proper use of imprecations today (Chapter 5), concluding with twenty pages citing imprecations throughout the Word of God (OT and NT).
Throughout this book, McGowan emphasizes a critical principle: righteous imprecations do not express personal vengeance or the desire for it. Rather, proper imprecations focus upon the glory due to God’s justice and simply ask for God to accomplish what He promises. In fact, imprecations are designed to undercut personal vengeance and comfort the afflicted: “for many Christians, a burden is lifted when they look to the Father and cry out for His justice to be done, instead of seeking to do it themselves” (p. 60).
Thus, when the Babylonians committed great atrocities against Israel, in Psalm 137, following the lex talionis rule of Scripture, God’s people simply express their desire that God would accomplish His promised, equitable justice against the Babylonians. Citing R.L. Dabney, McGowen reminds us that, if God promises to execute justice, it is proper and right for God’s people to desire Him to accomplish it (p. 34). It is within this context that God’s people would rightly say, “Happy is the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rocks” (Ps. 137:9). As appalling as that statement seems—as visceral as our response might be to it—we must learn to understand why God included this in His inspired Word. McGowen helps us to understand.
Further, McGowen demonstrates that loving your neighbor is compatible with calling down imprecations. For, loving your neighbor was a principle in the OT too—set alongside imprecations (e.g., Lev. 19:18; cf. Ex. 23:4-5). Thus, imprecations were compatible with loving your neighbor in the OT, and so we must consider imprecations compatible with loving your neighbor in the NT also. Thus, McGowen argues in a compelling manner that we should use imprecations today, carefully demonstrating how to do so rightly while rejecting carnal imprecations.
While McGowen clearly shows that imprecations and love of our enemies must be reconcilable (given their co-existence in Scripture), his argument how they are seems somewhat lacking. The only real reason he provides is a citation from John N. Day, namely, if your “enemy’s cup of iniquity has become full to overflowing, this love [of your enemies] is overtaken by the demands of justice and divine vengeance” (p. 39). He supports this case by appealing to Luke 19:41-44—Jesus lamenting the judgment that will come upon Jerusalem. McGowen states that Jesus “utters an imprecation against them!” (p. 39). Yet, while Jesus prophesies their future destruction, does He truly “call on the Lord to bring judgment upon an enemy”—as McGowen defines imprecation (p. 10)? Some of the passages McGowen cites at the end of the book, likewise, seem more like prophecies than imprecations. Yet, when Christ does speak imprecations against enemies (e.g., the “woes” of Mt. 23), they still receive general benevolence from God. Both imprecations and benevolence co-exist at the same time. How, then, do imprecations “overtake” love of our enemies? Would Jesus hesitate to help one of these Pharisees (if his donkey fell in a ditch, for example), even after uttering these imprecations? McGowen proves clearly that enemy love and imprecations are compatible, but his explanation of how they are compatible seems lacking.
Further, when McGowen allows for the limited application of imprecations upon specific individuals, he does so especially by appealing to Acts 13:10-11 (pp. 41, 56). However, the Apostle Paul is not so much asking God to curse Elymas as declaring God’s judgment against him. This is more of a declaration than an imprecation. In addition, this judgment is temporary. Elymas would only be blind for a time. Typically, I consider imprecations to imply the ultimate, final wrath of God. Therefore, I have difficulty seeing Paul’s statement as an imprecation because he neither calls down judgment (but declares it) nor implies eternal condemnation (leaving room for repentance). In my mind, therefore, it remains an open question whether we have the right to call down an imprecation upon a specific individual. Rather, my understanding is that we may request imprecations upon a specific category of men, not upon specific individuals. That is, we may ask God to curse men who are ultimately condemned by Him as non-elect (those whom God has promised to curse). If God chooses to redeem those who fiercely opposed Him and harmed His people (e.g., Saul of Tarsus), we have not asked God to curse our fellow believers but only those who ultimately refuse to repent.
While McGowen may not iron out every wrinkle in understanding and applying the imprecatory psalms (to my satisfaction, at least), nonetheless, he makes a very compelling case that we, as Christians, should carefully and wisely use imprecations today. As McGowen puts it: “Modern evangelicalism is ripe with the quality of niceness. . . . Fashionable Christianity leaves no room for Matthew 23—where Christ calls the Pharisees ‘whitewashed tombs’ who are corrupted on the inside and filled with ‘dead men’s bones. . . . One of the things that made Christians so impactful in the past was the fact that they were willing to call out sin, and they were willing to call upon the justice of God to bring forth that justice on horrific sin. We are losing that at an alarming rate today” (p. 60). Should we pray “nice” prayers for malicious human traffickers, wealthy abortionists, and violent persecutors? Is there not room to cry out for God’s promised justice in the midst of soul-wrenching pain directly caused by men?
Despite a few reservations, I heartily recommend this book for any believer struggling with the mere presence of imprecations in the Scriptures. Likewise, it is an excellent book to use as a guide in studying this issue in churches. We cannot cut out portions of Scripture because we do not like them or understand them. The works of God are great—including His works of justice—studied by all who have pleasure in them (Ps. 111:2). This excellent book helps us to understand, appreciate, and use biblical imprecations.
Ryan Speck is Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Columbia, MO, and is Review Editor for Theology here at Books At a Glance.
Buy the books
PSALMS THAT CURSE: A BRIEF PRIMER, by Sean McGowan