When the Bible “Curses” is it God’s Word?

In the “conversation” between Dr. Marcus Barth, son of the world-renowned Karl Barth of Basel and member of the theological faculty of the University of Chicago, and Dr. Fred H. Klooster, professor of systematic theology at Calvin Seminary. held Feb. 8, 1963 at the Plymouth Heights Church in Grand Rapids, Dr. Barth referred to the so-called imprecatory psalms to substantiate his view of Scripture. Briefly, his view of the Bible is that it is the record of the witness of inspired men to God in Christ. But “inspiration”—as he expressly declared in answer to a question, is not a distinct miraculous operation of the Holy Spirit in guiding the authors of Scripture; it is essentially the same as regeneration and sanctification. Just as the Spirit does not guide the saints so as to keep them from all sin in their usual conduct and speaking, so also the Spirit did not guide these human authors of Scripture to write infallibly. Thus the vindictive portions of such Psalms as 35, 69, 109, 137 and others were not produced by the Holy Spirit, but in them the psalmist is giving vent to sinful human emotions. Such passages are therefore illustrations of the fallible, human side of Scripture.

In suggesting a few thoughts on this subject it is not my intention to offer a solution to every theological and ethical question which these psalms raise for the Christian. We are looking at them specifically in the light of the use made of them by Dr. Barth. Biblical data exists which shows that one cannot dismiss their biblical authority and divinely inspired character as glibly as this eloquent advocate of the neo-orthodox view of the Bible tried to do.

I believe that this was a fortunately chosen example of Barth’s view of Scripture, much more so than the alleged “discrepancies” in history or text. Here we have to do with no mere question of “mistakes” in the Bible, but with a conception of what the Bible reveals about God. Is God revealing himself in these imprecatory psalms, or can we write them off as of significance only in that they illustrate that God in his grace saves even such men as pray such obviously wicked prayers? Can we ignore what God tells us in these passages about sin and its punishment just because we feel that it conflicts with an idea of God’s love which we have set up as a starting point for our thinking?

The imprecations in the Psalms, especially Psalm 109, have been a problem to believers all through history. Spurgeon in his well-known work on the Psalms (The Treasury of David) gives examples of the various reactions to this problem. We can summarize the matter with this question, How can we credit David with divine inspiration in expressing such a desire for vengeance upon his enemies when Jesus and Paul teach us to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us and bless those who curse us?


In this connection it is worth noting that one of the recurrent complaints of the psalmist is that he has been rewarded with evil for good (see Ps. 35:12–14; 109:5). Before we judge those prayers as mere invocations of wicked vengefulness we may well ask if we can say of our enemies: “They have rewarded me evil for good and hatred for my love.” Often in his dealings with Saul and other enemies David exemplified such magnanimity.

But even more significant is the fact that that in contrasting these imprecations with the precepts of the New Testament we ought not to overlook references in that testament to divine judgment and vengeance. In Romans 12:19 we read:

Avenge not yourselves, beloved, but give place unto the wrath of God; for it is written, Vengeance belongeth unto me; I will recompense, saith the Lord. (Cf. Deut. 32:5.)

In I Peter 2:23 we are reminded of the example of Jesus Christ:

who when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously.

Thus while we may not avenge ourselves, we may be sure that the New Testament also teaches that God is the avenger of the righteous, and although we may still have our difficulties with the extreme vindictiveness of some of these Old Testament imprecations, the texts quoted above and others that might be cited show clearly that the contrast is not as absolute nor as glaring as one might superficially suppose.

A most significant fact about several of the imprecatory psalms is their frequent quotation and reference in the New Testament. Psalm 69:9 (“the zeal of thy house hath eaten me up”) is quoted in John 2:17 as applicable to Christ’s cleansing of the temple. Psalm 69:21 (“they gave me also gall for my food: and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink”) is alluded to by all four of the Evangelists in their accounts of the Savior’s crucifixion. Psalms 69:25 and 109:8 are applied by the Apostle Peter to the sin and re· placement of Judas Iscariot as an apostle (Acts 1:15 ff.). As a matter of fact, next to Psalm 22, the 69th is the most frequently quoted of all the Messianic Psalms. Also Paul in Romans 11:9, 10 quotes from Psalm 69, using verses 22, 23, when he speaks of the hardening of the Jews. No doubt these quotations raise many interesting points for biblical exegetes, but the point I want to make is simply that we find the Evangelists and Apostles quoting these imprecations as Scripture. They regarded even the “worst” of these imprecations as the Word of God. To these psalms, therefore, we may apply these words from II Peter 1:21, “men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.”

If this is true we should be very cautious in judging the writers and placing a most unfavorable interpretation upon their imprecations. Apparently Dr. Marcus Barth understands these psalms as mere expressions of personal vindictiveness, and we would agree that if that is correct they are evidence of an unholy spirit. Should we not, however, follow Dr. Charles Hodge when he writes:

The enemies of the Psalmist were the enemies of God; the evils imprecated upon them were imprecated upon them as such, and not as enemies of the writer. These denunciations are not the expression of the desire of private revenge, but of the just and certain judgments of God (Commentary on Romans, p. 564).

The psalmist speaks as the servant of Jehovah and in his official capacity as theocratic king, and his concern is not his own happiness but the honor of God. The spirit that motivated him is well expressed in Psalm 139:21, 22:

Do I not hate them that hate thee? I hate them with a perfect hatred: they are become mine enemies. An enemy of God is one who despises and tramples under foot God’s holy Name. He does not pray, “But deal thou with me, O Jehovah the Lord, for thy name’s sake” (Ps. 109:21). The Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain!



Dr. Barth made reference also to Psalm 137,

O daughter of Babylon that art to be destroyed, happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us, Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the rock (vss. 8, 9).

Strictly speaking, this is not an imprecation, that is, a prayer for the destruction of one’s enemies, but an expression of satisfaction and happiness in anticipation of such destruction. Surely this psalm presents a picture so gruesome and a state of mind so intense as to make appreciation on our part very difficult. Of course we are inclined to react as Dr. Barth did, and to feel that here not the divine voice is speaking through man, but that the diabolic character of his total depravity is manifesting itself.

Before accepting this evaluation, however, we would do well to notice that Psalm 137 is only an extreme instance of a prevailing sentiment in the psalms (and, for that matter, in the prophets, too). In Psalm 137 the Jewish exiles long for deliverance from captivity, and anticipate the joy they will experience when Babylon falls. It is interesting to compare Psalms 137 and 136. In the latter the inspired writer gives thanks to God for his goodness to Israel, goodness which was climaxed in the deliverance from Egypt:

Give thanks unto Jehovah; for he is good; (Who) overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea; To him that smote great kings; And slew famous kings… (vss. 1, 15, 17, 18).

How much difference is there between thanking God for the death of Egypt’s children and rejoicing over tile prospect of the death of Babylon’s little ones? The basic question is, What right have we to say that Psalm 137 is the expression of a sinful human heart, while Psalm 136 is Spirit-inspired poetry? Where can we draw the line? Is the difference one of degree, or of kind; and who will determine the difference?

In the light of the New Testament Psalm 137 suggests certain interesting comparisons. Limits of space permit me only to suggest that one can read this psalm in the context of Revelation 18, which describes the fall of Babylon, “the great city.” Zion there sings praises to God for his “salvation, and glory, and power” (Rev. 19:1). With the fall of Babylon God has avenged the blood of his servants (Rev. 19:2). And thus the prayer of the saints under the altar is answered:

And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of them that had been slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: and they cried with a great voice, saying, How long, O Master, the holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? (Rev. 6,9, 10).

This surely raises the question: Can you stop at Psalm 137:8, 9 when you refuse to acknowledge these verses as God’s inspired Word—in the sense that Christians have traditionally adopted—or must you not of necessity reject a great deal of the New Testament too?

Another significant expression in Psalm 137 is:

Remember, O Jehovah, against the children of Edom The day of Jerusalem; Who said, Rase it, rase it, Even to the foundation thereof (vs. 7).

Here we have Edam, that is Esau, versus Jerusalem, that is Jacob. No doubt you, too, think of the words, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (Mal. 1:2,3; Rom. 9:13). God is love, and his mercy endureth forever. But he also rejects the evildoer and hates sin. And he orders: “Ye that love Jehovah, hate evil.” The history of Israel is not only a revelation of God’s love for his people but also of his judgment upon sinners. Both aspects of God’s dealings with men are clearly revealed, and we may not sit in judgment upon God in accepting one aspect while making our own reservation about the other. The citation of some of the imprecatory psalms in connection with the record of Jesus’ suffering and death reminds us that the same God who spoke in the Old Testament reveals himself supremely in the Cross of Christ. There. too. is love and wrath. God manifested his love in that Christ died for us, but we may not close our ears to the awful cry of those who crucified the Lord of glory—“His is blood be on us and our children.” When we stand before the Cross we are challenged to kiss the Son lest he be angry and we perish in the way, for his wrath will soon be kindled (Ps. 2).


Universalism appeals to us all! Surely it is attractive to think that God who is love cannot and will not condemn sinners. It is seeming kindness to say to men, all men. “God is for you; in Christ God has elected and rejected everyone and so we can say to all without exception: There is no condemnation for you are in Christ Jesus.” But let us rid ourselves of such rose-colored glasses and read again the words of the Savior on the way to Golgotha:

Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children…For if they do these things in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry? (Luke 23,28, 31).

Let us then say with Spurgeon in his introduction to Psalm 109:

Truly this is one of the hard places of Scripture, a passage which the soul trembles to read; yet as it is a Psalm unto God, and given by inspiration, it is not ours to sit in judgment upon it, but to bow our ear to what God the Lord would speak to us therein (Treasury of David, vol. V, p. 157).

Whatever else it may teach us, in such a psalm of vengeance and stem punishment of the wicked we should hear a call to repentance! That is the lost chord in the Barthian system in as far as I have knowledge of it. God is for man, but only when man is reconciled to God by repentance and faith in Christ. It was Paul who said, “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (II Cor. 5:11. A.V.). Only when we realize that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, and understand that he is indeed a consuming fire (Heb. 10:31, 12:29) will we feel the urgency of beseeching men to be reconciled to God. There is no peace, says God, to the wicked! The danger of hardening one’s heart is very great. God warns against it because he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that he repent and live.

It has often been remarked that the question of the authority of Scripture is largely a formal one. And there does appear to be a shifting of emphasis from what we view the Bible to be to the problem of how to understand it. No doubt there is a large element of truth in all this. However, if the dialogue between M. Barth and Klooster proved nothing else it again pointed up the fact that what you understand the Bible to be will determine to a large extent your approach to and interpretation of it.

A mere formal acceptance of a dogma of biblical infallibility and assent to verbal inspiration will not guarantee a correct understanding of Scripture. But a truly humble, believing acceptance of the Bible as God’s Word will have everything to do with how we are trying to understand it. Therefore, whatever may be our interpretation of the meaning of the imprecatory psalms, let us not follow Marcus Barth in classifying them as words of mistaken men. Scripture is one and cannot be broken—to give up even these seemingly small parts of it as only human words would be like opening a hole in the dike to let in a flood of rationalism leading to a denial of our historic Christian faith!