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Why Does the Bible Have Mean-Spirited Psalms (Like Psalm 109)?

This week's question comes from a reader who's familiar with my work. She writes, "I've heard you speak about Psalm 109 before, but I had never read it. It's horrible. Why does the Bible have such mean-spirited writings?"

For those readers unfamiliar with this psalm, it is written about someone who has been falsely accused and is angry. These are some of the curses he calls upon his foe: "Appoint a wicked man against him; let an accuser stand on his right. When he is tried, let him be found guilty; let his prayer be counted as sin. May his days be few; may another seize his position. May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow. May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit. May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil. May there be no one to do him a kindness, nor anyone to pity his orphaned children. May his posterity be cut off; may his name be blotted out in the second generation" (Psalm 109.6-13).

It wouldn't do to have the writer of this psalm angry at you!

On the other hand, Psalm 109 is only one of several psalms called "psalms of imprecation" or "imprecatory psalms." Imprecate means to pray or invoke a curse on another, and that's clearly what happens in this psalm.

But why are there imprecatory psalms in our Bible?

There are probably many reasons, but perhaps one of the best is that the psalms reflect life, and part of life is being angry. It isn't sinful to be angry nor is it unchristian, contrary to popular opinion. In fact, Paul wrote, "Be angry, but do not sin" (Ephesians 4.26), thus we understand that being angry isn't wrong of itself. Further, psychologists would remind us there is no such thing as a "bad" emotion, just bad behaviors. And so, Psalm 109 reflects the anger one writer felt in his life.

Still, isn't it wrong to wish evil on another? Didn't Jesus say, "Bless your enemies" (Luke 6.27-28) and Paul write, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them" (Romans 12.14) ? Yes, this is true, but all the ideals in the world do not keep us from becoming angry, nor should they. Something has to be done with the anger we feel.

Enter Psalm 109 and the other imprecatory psalms. The book of Psalms was originally a collection of hymns for the Israelite nation and their worship centers. The psalms were used in all manner of worship, much as our hymns are used today -- there were hymns of praise, hymns for the harvest, hymns for when the king was enthroned, and so on. However, some of the hymns seem to have been written not for congregational use, but for personal use. This has led scholars to study the tasks of the priest in the sanctuary and temple periods.

The priest performed a number of duties in his work. Of course, most of us equate the ancient priests with the rites of sacrifice, but in reality they did much more. In fact, the priests functioned, to some extent, as the local doctor, scientist, scholar, mediator and pastoral counselor. It is in the last two roles, that of mediator and pastoral counselor, where scholars believe the psalms of imprecation were used. When there was a dispute between parishioners, when one party felt slighted by another, it is thought the priest would call the two together for counseling. During that session the two would face each other and express their anger and frustrations in a controlled and save environment. As their feelings were expressed and released the priest would guide them into understanding of the other's perspectives and resolution could be mediated. Thus, the 109th psalm served as a catharsis for their pent-up anger.

But what does Psalm 109 say to us today? Well, besides that it's okay to be angry, it can also serve to remind us that those less-than-nice thoughts and wishes that bubble up from our sub-conscience for time to time ought to be lifted up in prayer and left on God's altar for God to deal with. And once our anger has been vented before the One who listens patiently, we can go and either try to mediate resolution with our enemies, or at least we can pray for them.

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