Old Testament Curses
31st January 2015
A friend recently reminded my of the verses towards the end of Psalm 139 that say:
These lines are embedded in a very beautiful Psalm about how God knows us completely, is always with us and protects us. They make this beautiful, heartfelt hymn of praise into an imprecatory prayer, a prayer that God will judge and punish our enemies. It's such uncomfortable reading that some churches leave these lines out when they read the Psalm, thus dishonouring the God who inspired them.
There are several other imprecatory passages in the Old Testament, including:
When we read such things today, we wonder why they're in the Bible. Every word of the Bible is breathed by God (2 Timothy 3v16) but these words seem so different from the words of Jesus and of Paul in the New Testament:
So why are these words, cursing or enemies, in the Old Testament? I'm aware of a number of attempts to answer that question:
Firstly, some say that these are merely records of prayers offered to God, and are neither inspired by God nor endorsed by him. But so much of the book of Psalms is clearly divinely inspired (even to our imperfect eyes) and parts of them are described as prophecy by the New Testament. It would be just too convenient and easy for us to claim divine inspiration for the parts of the Old Testament that we like and human error for the parts that make us uncomfortable.
Secondly, some say that these prayers are evidence of progressive revelation. They say that David and other writers prayed according to the revelation that they had, which is less than the revelation we have. So what they prayed seemed good to them, even though it doesn't seem good to us.
This idea does have some merit. We who live after Jesus visited Planet Earth, and after the New Testament was written, and after the church has studied it for 2000 years, do have more revelation available to us that the Old Testament writers had. And I'm sure that what they wrote seemed good to them.
But these words are not merely human; they're God-breathed. God doesn't need revelation - He knows everything! God doesn't change his mind about what's right and wrong. So these words are holy and right, and always will be. The Old Testament writers had less revelation than we do, but the revelation they had was true.
Thirdly, some say that, although the church doesn't fight against flesh and blood, it was right for Israel to fight against its human enemies, because all countries sometimes need to fight against invaders. That's true, but there's a significant difference between defending ourselves from our enemies and praying for their eternal destruction (as in some of the psalms we just read).
I don't think any of these explanations work. So do the verses we just read prove that the Bible is not perfect? Surely not! Do they prove that parts of the Old Testament were not inspired by the Holy Spirit. No! What, then, is the explanation for the presence of these words in the Old Testament?
I think we need to come at this question from a different angle. We need to start by accepting that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible word of God. Therefore these words are 100% inspired by God. The prayers are perfectly moral, reasonable, godly prayers. Praying that God punishes our enemies and His is a perfectly right thing to do. But praying for God's mercy on them is even better.
It's not that David and the other ancient writers were wrong and we're right. It's not that they were immoral or ungodly and we're wonderful. It's that God showed them a right way to pray, and inspired them to pray that way. And now He's taught us an even better way to pray. And not only the church but most of society has been so changed by the gracious words of Jesus Christ that we want to see mercy in our courtrooms as well as our private lives.
Jesus said that "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough" (Matthew 13v33). That work has progressed further than many of us realise, so that much of society has taken the Biblical principle of mercy so thoroughly to heart that we don't even realise that our ancestors learnt it from the Bible.
Justice is whatever the Bible says it is. The Bible says that "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" Exodus 21v24) is justice. So it is justice. For the punishment to fit the crime - to be proportional to the crime - is justice. The harm I do should be equal to the harm I suffer. But "mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2v13).
When we recoil at Old Testament writers asking God to curse evildoers, we're recoiling at God-inspired prayers for justice but we don't realise that's what we're doing, because mercy has been engrained in us by 2000 years of exposure to the kingdom of heaven.