Psalm 109, verse 11 – Let there be no man to pity him, nor to have compassion upon his fatherless children.

The psalms contain many passages of great humility, gentleness, and beauty.  And yet anyone who is at all familiar with the psalms knows that they also contain passages that strike us as harsh and vindictive.  Psalm 109, which I have just quoted, is an extended curse of the enemies of the psalmist and of God.  Verse 11 is especially likely to make us uncomfortable.  The psalmist here prays that the ungodly man might die and leave his children as orphans, then goes on to pray that those same, now orphaned, children might be poor and miserable and that ‘there be no man…to have compassion upon’ their misery.  We might well say to ourselves that while we perhaps can understand wishing ill for the ungodly, it is quite another thing to pray for unremitting misery upon the children of such a person. 

And Psalm 109 is hardly unique.  In fact there is a group of so-called cursing psalms or passages of psalms which raise this problem.  Another famous example is Psalm 137.  This psalm begins as an extraordinarily beautiful lament in the voice of the Israelite exiles in Babylon as they remember Jerusalem:

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered thee, O Sion.

But at the end the psalm suddenly shifts tone and turns into a curse upon those who, if you will, kicked Israel when she was down:

Remember the children of Edom, O Lord, in the day of Jerusalem; * how they said, Down with it, down with it, even to the ground.

O daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery; * yea, happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children, * and throweth them against the stones.

The desire to dash babies against the rocks shocks us, for obvious reasons.  The prayer that God would remember the trespasses of those who have trespassed against us obviously runs contrary to the spirit of the Lord’s Prayer.

As a final example, we might note that even good old Psalm 23, with its loving good shepherd and tranquil green pastures, contains a decidedly spiteful passage:

Thou shalt prepare a table before me in the presence of them that trouble me….

That means that God will spread a full banquet table for the psalmist in the sight of all his enemies, the idea being that the good guy will eat wonderful things and show off how much God favors him while his enemies have to look on in resentful – and possibly hungry – helpless­ness.  This is not quite as shocking as braining babies, but it still is at first sight a jarring intrusion into a beautiful and otherwise positive hymn of confidence in God’s mercy and care.

Well, what are we to make of these cursing psalms?  One answer is, I think, simply dishonest:  that is, to pretend that the cursing psalms do not exist.  If you follow the psalm readings suggested in the American Prayer Book lectionary, you never will read Psalm 109, the final verses of Psalm 137, and other similar passages.  Worse still, the Canadian Prayer Book of 1962 actually distorts Scripture and drops the offending verses entirely, including 14 verses of Psalm 109.  The Anglican Church of Canada evidently believed that it knows better than God what should be in the Bible and what not.  Not only is this dishonest, it also is foolish.  It is foolish because people will read these verses eventually and will be far more troubled by them than they would be if the Church explained them in a straightforward manner.

A second way to deal with the cursing psalms is to take them literally and say that they represent a primitive stage in Israel’s religious development.  No doubt while Israel was a primitive people, God could not deal with her in a subtle way.  He had to hit her over the head, as it were, by rewarding good behavior in material ways, and punishing bad behavior likewise.  In the earliest periods of the Old Testament there was no strong consciousness of personal immortality, so divine rewards and punishments needed to come in this life and in this world through prosperity and poverty for oneself and his posterity.  Harsh treatment for idolatry and for opponents of Israel’s national existence fits with this stage of development.  Despite this history, the argument continues, we have now progressed further and know that such cursing is inappropriate under the New Testament.  We might call this approach historical contexualization and historical supersession.  A later stage of religious development has superseded aspects of the earlier stage.  What was appropriate and necessary in the context of an earlier day is no longer appropriate or justifiable.

But while this way of explaining the cursing psalms by supersession does eliminate much of the problem that they pose for Christians, it does so at the price of eliminating most of their relevance.  If we read the cursing psalms as belonging to a past, primitive state of religious development, we risk entirely dismissing them, or large parts of them, as something from a bygone past, of no real and living signifi­cance for us.  And surely such dismissal is not correct.

A third possibility is suggested by C.S. Lewis in his little book on the psalms.[1]  If ‘we believe (as I do) that all Holy Scripture is in some sense—though not all parts of it in the same sense—the word of God’ (Lewis, p. 19), then we need some more positive way to understand the cursing psalms.  Sometimes Scripture presents us prime examples of how we should not behave.  The cursing psalms on the literal level in regard to our human opponents do just that.  When we read about dashing babies against the stones, we are shocked.  We should be, and that in turn may help us to reflect upon how often we ourselves are hateful and vengeful towards our enemies.  As our Lord teaches, we are what is in our hearts.  If we are angry and wrathful and hateful, then how much better are we really than the cursing psalmist? 

I myself think there is some truth to both the idea that the cursing psalms represent an earlier, partly superseded religious attitude towards enemies and also that they present us an example of how not to behave.  I think the best approach to the cursing psalms, however, is that suggested by Saint Augustine, which C.S. Lewis also notes.  That is, we should interpret the cursing in a spiritual sense.  The enemy who is cursed is Satan and his demons, sin, and evil.  The voice that curses is Christ the King and, by extension, is the Church and the individual Christian in his personal battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil.         

Perhaps the best example of such interpretation of the cursing psalms is Saint Augustine’s commentary on Psalm 137.  Let me repeat the curse, to refresh your memory:

Remember the children of Edom, O Lord, in the day of Jerusalem; * how they said, Down with it, down with it, even to the ground.

O daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery; * yea, happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children, * and throweth them against the stones.

In these verses, Edom represents ‘all the carnal’, says Augustine (Augustine, p. 631).  ‘Remember the children of Edom, O Lord,’ means ‘Deliver us from carnal men.’  The ‘day of Jerusalem’ when the evil said, ‘Down with it, down with it, even to the ground,’ is the time when the wicked sought to destroy the Church, for Jeru­salem is a symbol of the Church.  Saint Augustine writes:

For what great persecutions the Church has suffered!  How did the children of Edom, that is, carnal men, servants of the devil and his angels, who worshipped stocks and stones, and followed the lusts of the flesh, how did they say, ‘Extirpate the Christians, destroy the Christians, let not one remain, overthrow them even to the founda­tions!’  (Augustine, p. 632)

‘O daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery’:  the daughter of Babylon is the same as Babylon or Edom; another symbol for evil.  The daughter of Babylon is wasted with misery because of her very hatred for the Church.  Babylon seeks to twist the Christian and to turn him towards ‘avarice, robbery, daily lying, the worship of idols and devils, the unlawful remedies of enchantments and amulets.’

Just as Babylon seeks to destroy the infant souls of Christians, so too we should be blessed if we could reward her as she has served us.  That is, Christians will be blessed if they destroy the children of the daughter of Babylon.  And who are these children of Babylon?  Not real human infants.  No.  Augustine asks,

What are the little ones of Babylon?  Evil desires at their birth….Dash [them] against the Rock; and that Rock is Christ… Howsoever the world shine happily on you, presume not, do not negotiate with your lusts.  Is it a grown-up enemy?  let it be slain upon the Rock.  Is it a little enemy?  let it be dashed against the Rock.  Slay the grown-up ones on the Rock, and dash the little ones against the Rock.  Let the Rock conquer.  Be built upon the Rock, if you desire not to be swept away….

The Rock is Christ, and that which Christians seek to destroy is sin and evil.  Such is Augustine’s interpretation of Psalm 137.

Now there are also dangers in such symbolic or allegorical interpretation.  A fanciful reader, unhinged from a firm anchor in the historical meaning of the text, can turn Scripture into a nose of wax that means anything he pleases.  To avoid this excessively symbolic danger, we need to seek the original, literal sense as an anchor.  As Saint Thomas Aquinas writes, ‘The spiritual sense brings nothing needful to faith which is not elsewhere clearly conveyed by the literal sense.’  (Summa theologiae, I.i.10)   Thomas also quotes Saint Augustine to similar effect:  ‘He also notes that nothing is occultly delivered in one text which is not plainly exposed in another.  Mystical interpretations should always be supported by plain meanings.’  (VII Quodlibets, vi.14)

In the case of Psalm 137, Saint Augustine’s spiritual or symbolic or allegorical interpretation is true to Scripture.  Saint Paul interprets the rock as a symbol for Christ in I Corinthians 10:4 and the same interpretation is suggested by the parable of the house built upon sand and upon rock (Saint Matthew 7:24-7).  So the starting point of Augustine’s interpretation has clear warrant elsewhere in the New Testament.  Likewise, Jerusalem is a symbol for the Church and Babylon a symbol for evil in Revelation and elsewhere.  Augustine’s allegorical interpreta­tion of Psalm 137, then, makes use of symbolic interpretations clearly authorized by other passages in Scripture. 

While Augustine’s interpretation is true to Scripture, it also removes what we find shocking about the cursing psalms.  According to Augustine the cursing psalms curse and reject Satan, sin, and evil, which is precisely what we do at our baptism.  It is true that Augustine at times interprets the enemy of the psalms as a literal human enemy, such as the persecutors of the Church.  But as much as anything he treats the curse as a matter of the individual Christian’s inner warfare against sin.  We are not talking about killing innocent babies in Psalm 137.  As Augustine writes in the sermon that sung at Tenebrae on Wednesday night in Holy Week,

And mostly, when thou thinkest thyself to be hating an enemy, thou hatest thy brother, and knowest it not.  Only the devil and his angels are shown to us in Scripture as doomed to eternal fire, and their amendment alone is hopeless.  (Augustine, p. 210)

So in Psalm 137, we properly are talking about destroying not other people but evil, especially evil within ourselves.  The reader using this approach need not overlook the cursing psalms or dismiss them as a relic of a superseded primitive period of spiritual development, but rather may positively appropriate them and use them in his own prayer life.

The striking, even shocking, initial impact of the cursing psalms itself has a value:  it reminds us that in the battle between God and Satan there are in the long run no non-combatants, no neutral parties.  We must dash the evil of Babylon against the Rock of Christ or we will ourselves be destroyed by that evil.  The cursing psalms teach us the seriousness of the struggle between God and evil that is waged above all in the center of every human heart.  We are engaged in no child’s play.  We are about a serious business, a deadly serious business.  The psalms in their ancient wisdom know this better than the Anglican Church of Canada or anyone else who would dismiss their inconvenient passages.

[1] Reflections on the Psalms.  New York & London:  Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich, 1958. 

2 thoughts on “The Psalms.  4.  The Cursing Psalms

  1. Interesting! A thought I had never considered. But I also wonder – and please correct me if I’m wrong – if the cursing psalms don’t also reflect the imperfect human, the broken human that we all are? God inspired the writing of the psalm but one of us wrote it, lol. Give us a garden and we’ll find a way to get tossed out of it! That’s humorous, but I wonder if it may also be correct?


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