Imprecatory Psalms — A Guide

I have been pretty angry lately. I started to write out a litany of why, but the list is too long. And I’m mad about the same things everyone else is, anyway. You don’t need the reminder. But I have been thinking about the Psalms a lot the last couple of months.

I’ve been reading Walter Brueggeman’s book Spirituality of the Psalms. Where he makes the case that we need the imprecatory psalms.

[These Psalms] lead us into dangerous acknowledgment of how life really is. They lead us into the presence of God where everything is not polite and civil.

I’ve never really been that into the imprecatory psalms. Calling on God’s divine wrath mostly offends my sensibilities. I’m much more of a “God is Love” kind of person. Most of the time. Last week I went to a couple of Black Lives Matter protests here in Tyler, TX. Thankfully, they stayed peaceful, and many, many people honked and showed their support. But there were also people who yelled at us from their cars, cursed us, and made impolite gestures with their hands. Some counter protesters even showed up, though I never saw them. The next day, as a part of morning prayer, the BCP called for Psalms 140 and 142. With the protest experience still ringing in my ears, imprecatory psalms suddenly made a lot of sense to me.

Brueggeman, building on the work of Claus Westermann, outlines the format of imprecatory psalms. Using that outline, I wrote an imprecatory psalm myself, and I found it quite a cathartic experience. It’s a form of spiritual writing (a written prayer), but it has a structure that is poetic and has an important turn towards the end. Even though my general thoughts on prayer tend to align with Kierkegaard (“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”), I found this to be a wonderful practice. Hopefully, this can become a helpful part of your practice as well.

Plea
The first move of an imprecatory psalm is the plea of the penitent person to the Divine, which is broken into five elements.

  1. Address to the Divine. This is going to be an intimate discussion with a God who knows, and is known by, you.
  2. Complaint. The idea is to talk freely with God about the issue, and make one’s complaint into God’s problem to deal with.
  3. Petition. The psalmist cries out for decisive action. “This element is perhaps the most intense because it is spoken as a bold imperative.” Now that the problem is God’s to handle, the psalmist expects God to act.
  4. Motivations. The psalmist might list reasons for God to act. The reasons could be the psalmist’s innocence or an enemy’s guilt or just because of who God is.
  5. Imprecation. “This is the voice of resentment an vengeance that will not be satisfied until God retaliates against those who have done the wrong.” This is the psalmists moment to be brutally honest about what they want God to do.

Praise
The second move is the praise. Brueggemann theorizes that there was some liturgical move in the Temple where a priest answered in the place of God, which allowed for the movement from plea to praise. Psalm 13 is one example, where some change happens between verses 4 and 5. To duplicate that effect in my own psalm, I added a line between the plea and the praise, which indicates God has spoken in some way. It is a modification to the historical format, but I like the effect.

  1. Assurance of being heard. The psalmist affirms that they have been heard by the Divine.
  2. Payment of vows. The psalmist tells God how they will respond, once God acts.
  3. Doxology and praise. God has heard the complaint, and the psalmist affirms that God is “generous, faithful, and saving.”

Using this outline, I created the following psalm. Feel free to use, or adapt, it to fit your needs. I also encourage you, dear reader, to write one of your own when you are dealing with anger at people or systems that seem beyond you.

Grace and Peace to you all.

A Psalm for the current moment.

O Ground of All Being from whom all people arise,
How can You let this all continue?
How long must we suffer this illness which ruins our lungs and kills our elders?
How long will You let Your people live without living wages and adequate healthcare?
How long must gender and sexual minorities suffer intolerance and abuse?
How long must our sisters and brothers of color have the knee of racism upon their neck?
How long must we suffer the whims of Empire?
We cannot take these things much longer, O Lord.
We need Your justice and Your mercy.
For You are Love, and You must love all of Your people.
So cleanse us of this disease and give us back our breath, O Healer.
Bring care for the poor, unemployed, and uninsured, O Provider.
Bring tolerance and inclusion to gender and sexual minorities, O Spirit.
Destroy those systems that enable and encourage Your white children to kill and oppress Your children of color, O Protector.
And smash this Empire, Almighty.
You tell us not to fear.
You are the One Who Sees All.
You know the ways in which we require help.
We will celebrate in Love and Unity Your victory over our current troubles.
And I will trust You, for You are the Redeemer, who will sanctify and reconcile All to You.

Amen.

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    • Bart Hennigan