The (Omitted) Imprecatory Psalms

Should They be Wiped Out
of the Book of the Living?
Restoring the Omitted Portions
of the Imprecatory Psalms

(By the Revd. Chris Dow)


In Psalm 69.29, David prays this curse against his adversaries: “Let them be wiped out of the book of the living”. Sixty years ago, this verse and others like it were wiped out of our Prayer Book Psalter. They can now be restored in the Common Prayer Canada app.

The Book of Psalms, as we all know, contains beautiful songs of praise, thanksgiving, repentance and petition. What is disconcerting to many people is that they also contain passages of imprecation or cursing, calling down misfortune upon the enemies of the psalmist, rejoicing at their downfall in sometimes quite chilling terms. The most severe verses from the imprecatory Psalms were omitted from the 1962 Canadian Prayer Book, such as Ps. 58 in its entirety, Ps. 69.22-28, Ps. 109.6-20, and Ps. 137.7-9. The Roman Catholic Church performed a similar excision of their Psalter for the 1971 Liturgy of the Hours, going even further in deleting all of Ps. 137, not just the last few lines.

The editorial decision to expurgate these verses reflects a theology of Psalmody from the 1950s that was uncomfortable with the violent imagery and vindictive sentiments expressed therein, which is understandable given the trauma of two World Wars. This aversion to imprecation was famously expressed by C.S. Lewis in his chapter on “The Cursings” in his 1958 book Reflections on the Psalms:

we must not […] yield for one moment to the idea that, because it comes in the Bible, all this vindictive hatred must somehow be good and pious […] The hatred is there – festering, gloating, undisguised – and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves.

Nevertheless, even Lewis did not advocate for deleting the “bad parts” of the Psalter, admitting that we must “make some use of them”. Though well-intentioned, the decision of the liturgical revisers to take scissors to the Psalter is now widely considered to be misguided. We must recall St. Paul’s teaching that “… whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15.4). Subsequent Anglican Psalters, including those of the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and the 1985 Book of Alternative Services, present the full text of the Book of Psalms.

The Common Prayer Canada app now gives users the option to re-insert these missing portions and pray through the complete and unabridged Psalter while using the 1962 Canadian Book of Common Prayer. The restored verses are supplied from the 1964 Revised Psalter of the Church of England, which is similar in tone and character to the 1962 Canadian Psalter. Grateful thanks are due to Professor Jesse Billett of Trinity College, Toronto, for his expert assistance in this endeavour.

The combined 1962+1964 Psalter can be viewed in the app’s Psalter tab by changing the “Psalter Version”. It can also be selected for the Daily Offices in the Advanced Settings for Morning and Evening Prayer. (The 1962 Psalter as printed in the Prayer Book is still the default setting.)

Here is the complete list of restored verses: Ps. 55.15; Ps. 58 (all); Ps. 68.21-23; Ps. 69.22-28; Ps. 104.35a; Ps. 109.6-20; Ps. 137.7-9; Ps. 140.9-10; Ps. 141.6-7. (Note that these verse numbers reflect the numbering found in standard Bibles. The numbering in the BCP Psalter is sometimes different, since it frequently splits a long verse into two shorter verses.) In each of these Psalms, when the 1964 option is selected, subsequent verses are re-numbered accordingly.

Praying the Imprecatory Psalms

The imprecatory Psalms are admittedly shocking and can seem repellent, particularly to those praying them for the first time. On what basis can we ask God to judge and punish our enemies in the ways so vividly described in these Psalms?

It is important to notice that the imprecations are not arbitrary and impulsive calls for unrestrained vengeance, but specific requests for the wicked to receive in themselves what they have inflicted upon others. This symmetrical exchange is especially clear in Psalm 109: His delight was in cursing; let curses come upon him (Ps. 109.16).

Thus these Psalms are not barbaric screams of blind rage. They are carefully crafted prayers that draw deeply from the imagery and themes of a central narrative trajectory in the Bible: namely, the protoevangelium of Gen. 3.15, God’s promise that seed of the woman – Christ and his saints – would crush the head of the serpent. To pray the imprecatory Psalms is to trust and engage in the outworking of this promise: the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet (Rom. 16.20).

Here are five ways and reasons to pray the imprecatory Psalms:

  1. First, pray them against yourself! As the Prayer Book reminds us, we need to “acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness” (p. 77) and continually mortify our “corrupt affections” (p. 180). In the words of the forgotten fourth verse of the great Christmas hymn, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing: “Rise the woman’s conquering seed / bruise in us the serpent’s head”. Praying the imprecatory Psalms is a sobering spiritual exercise of self-reflection and repentance.
  2. Second, pray them on behalf of those who are abused, exploited and persecuted by the wicked.
  3. Third, pray them for the sake of the wicked, that their ways would be thwarted before matters get worse – not least for the wicked themselves! Ps. 58 is an urgent call for God to intervene and stop the ungodly before their evil and violent plots can be fully realized: Before they bear fruit let them be cut off like a briar (Ps. 58.9). Strange though it may seem at first, to pray the imprecatory Psalms is to obey our Lord’s command to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt. 5.44).
  4. Fourth, pray them because doing so puts your enemy in the hands of God, thus lifting the burden of resentment off your shoulders, relieving you of the desire to take revenge (Rom. 12.19).
  5. Fifth, pray them because it is your God-given privilege and responsibility to participate in Christ’s victory over evil. Such honour have all his saints (Ps. 149.9).

To learn more about the imprecatory Psalms, check out the following links:

 

The (Omitted) Imprecatory Psalms