How to pray the “Cursing Psalms” against our enemies

field daySaturdays are my field days.  I field strip my computers (scan, defrag, update etc.), police the Cupboard Under The Stairs, do laundry, try to fill up a garbage bag or two (that’s satisfaction), police both the fridge (especially on a wake-up) and my conscience.  Well, that last one I do everyday.  Which it ain’t easy in these days of political electioneering and ecclesiastical goat rodeos on nearly every front.

This morning a couple friends with whom I have an instant message group going – often hilarious – mentioned the “maledictory psalms”, also known as the “cursing psalms” and “imprecatory psalms”. They call for judgment and disaster to fall upon the enemies of God and God’s people.

Since I’ve been using the Bux Protocol™ a lot these days, the reference to the maledictory psalms got me thinking about posting on this difficult topic: how to pray for enemies.

Christ the Lord commanded us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44).  And yet a couple dozen or so psalms – which all Christians can use for prayer – seem to wish some pretty dire things on our enemies.  And, yes, we have enemies.

Love for “enemy” can be expressed different ways.  Love for our enemies does not mean that we must hope that they prosper or succeed in their wicked ways.  Love, charity, means that we will their true good. We pray for their salvation.  We ask God to use the necessary corrections, chastisements, whatever, to punch through their pride and turn their minds and hearts, even if that means suffering unto loss of limb and life.

A standard list of the maledictory psalms will include – and alert that Psalms are numbered differently in various editions of Scripture and in newer and older books you might consult – 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40 52, 54, 56, 58, 69, 79, 83, 137, 139, and 143.  Many of these psalms were “edited” or even wholly excluded from the revised psalter used in the Liturgy of the Hours.   However, there are lot’s of maledictions, curses and imprecations throughout the Psalter: 5:10; 6:10; 7:9-16; 10:15; 17:13; 18:40-42; 18:47; 26:4-5; 28:4; 31:17, 18; 35:3-8; 40:14; 54:5; 55:9, 19; 56:7; 58:6-10; 59:ll-15; 68:2; 69 (most of the psalm); 70:2-3; 71:13; 79:6, 12; 83:9-17; 104:35; 109:6-20; 129:5; 137:7-9; 140:8-11; 141: 10; 143:12; 149:6-9.  Of special note are Ps 55, 108, and 136 which give libs a serious case of the collywobbles (except perhaps if they use it against defenders of doctrine and law).

So, what to make of these psalms? First, since they are the inspired word of Almighty God, we can safely say that they are not bad and they can be used for prayer.   St. Augustine believed that every word of the Psalms was Christ speaking to the Father, but in different voices, as the Head, the Body and both together, Christus Totus.  I’ll go with Augustine.

That said, it might make the Christian scratch her head when we pray “Blessed be he that shall take and dash thy little ones against the rock” (Ps 137:9).

How to use these psalms in prayer in a way that is pleasing to God and that does not imperil our own salvation by spurring us to soul killing hatred?  Isn’t this a serious consideration in these times of aforementioned political circuses and ecclesial misadventure?

One of the best explanations of the maledictory psalms – and therefore how to pray for our enemies – I’ve run across came in a comment made on this very blog under another entry I wrote about the maledictory psalms (thanks Henry Edwards!). Namely, …

In the Introduction (by Pius Parsch) to the Baronius edition of the 1962 Roman Breviary [UK HERE], we read that

As Christians we may never wish evil upon a sinner directly and personally, but [NB] these [curse] psalms have nothing to do with personal enmities. The theme of all our praying is God’s kingdom and sin, and the curse passages in the psalms are expressions of absolute protest against evil, sin and hell. Try changing the curses into an expression of divine justice and you pronounce them no longer with your own mouth, but with the mouth of Christ and the Church. The curse thus resembles the woes that our Lord addressed against the Pharisees. There is something quite stirring and grand about these curses. The all-just God steps before us as we pray and warns us of the punishments of hell.  [NB: warns us!]

In regard to Psalm 108 (109)—perhaps the most maledictory of all the so-called curse psalms and omitted entirely from the LOH psalter—he says that

Psalm 108 is a curse formula and very difficult to reconcile with the Christian idea of prayer. Let us suppose that the Church or Christ Himself is praying this psalm. Then the curses become no longer wishes, but rather the solemn sentence of divine justice upon unwillingness to repent. With tears in her eyes the Church prays these terrible words–just as Jesus once declaimed his eightfold “Woe is you . . .” against the Pharisees. At the opening of the psalm, the Church laments. In the following two sections, where curses and punishments are asked for, a picture of the everlasting hell is painted for us. The petition which comprises the fourth part of the psalm can be a prayer of the individual soul; I stand terrified before the picture I have seen: “Have mercy on me, a poor weak mortal!”.

While there is a great deal more to be said about the maledictory psalms, that seems a good place to pause so that I can do my job and admonish you.

We members of the Church Militant have enemies.  There are the relentless, ineluctable foes which are the world, the flesh and the Devil.  There are also the agents of the Devil among us, outside the Church and, verily, inside.

We must strive not to hate enemies, to love enemies with the love that is charity, the love that desires what is truly good for them.  If they are doing great harm to our persons, families, nation and Church, yes, we can pray for their conversion or for their ruin lest they continue to do harm and lest they go to Hell.  For example, HERE. And while we pray for and against our enemies (and bear wrongs patiently), we must see to it that we don’t go to Hell, either.

As we soldier on through this vale of tears, we must constantly field strip our consciences while asking God for all the graces we need to do His will and to conform ourselves to His will and ways.

And now, from St. Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy 3:11-17:

Persecutions, afflictions: such as came upon me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra: what persecutions I endured, and out of them all the Lord delivered me.  And all that will live godly in Christ Jesus, shall suffer persecution.  But evil men and seducers shall grow worse and worse: erring, and driving into error.  But continue thou in those things which thou hast learned, and which have been committed to thee: knowing of whom thou hast learned them;  And because from thy infancy thou hast known the holy scriptures, which can instruct thee to salvation, by the faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.

Finally, since I am trying to fulfill my mission to keep as many of you out of Hell as I can…

GO TO CONFESSION!

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22 Responses to How to pray the “Cursing Psalms” against our enemies

  1. MotherTeresa says:

    On somewhat less humble and contrite note:

    “May all good fellows that here agree
    Drink Audit Ale in heaven with me,
    And may all my enemies go to hell!
    Noel! Noel! Noel! Noel!
    May all my enemies go to hell!”

    Belloc, of course.

  2. Chris Rawlings says:

    This is really helpful.

  3. cwillia1 says:

    There is often a spiritual interpretation that works well. The eastern church reads psalm 137(136) By the waters of Babylon three times in the weeks before Lent. Babylon is a dusty ruin and there are no babies there to smash against the rock. We look for the meaning of the psalms in the context where the church uses them. Babylon is the world understood in a negative sense where we are captive. We remember Jerusalem from which we were exiled. We are encouraged to begin the journey back home in Lent making no compromises with our captors or worldly enticements and pleasures. The rock is Christ. Those who smash the babes of daughter Babylon are crushing distracting thoughts and temptations in their infancy against the rock of Christ. Etc., etc., etc.

    Then there is psalm 109(108). The bulk of this psalm is accusations and curses directed at the psalmist and this becomes obvious when you pay attention to the singulars and plurals. The psalm ends with a call for poetic justice against the accusers. It can be prayed as a call for vindication against those who persecute God’s people with consummate hatred. And we can think of these persecutors as demonic powers who are out to destroy us out of hatred for God.

    When we pray the psalms we cannot treat them as historical documents and dig exclusively into the circumstances in which they were composed. If we do this we lose sight of Christ who is manifested in every psalm and whose presence in the psalms is essential to pray them as Christians. Nor can we mindlessly assume the sentiments expressed in each verse.

  4. Henry Edwards says:

    In addition to deleting Psalms 57/58, 82/83, and 108/109 in their entirety, the framers of the Liturgy of the Hours deleted scattered “hard” verses from about two dozen additional psalms. So whereas all 150 psalms were prayed weekly for some 15 centuries in the older Divine Office, only about 125 are prayed monthly in their entirety in the newer office. In a post entitled Where Have All the *!*?ing Psalms Gone?, David Clayton suggest that these deletions from the psalter short-change the faithful by depriving them of important dimensions of prayer. He asks whether “this has affected the psychology of members of the Church and therefore how it has affected the Church as a whole?”

    For instance consider Psalm 82/83 which is prayed at Matins (aka Office of Readings) every Friday in the older office. The psalmist was writing at a time when Israel was beset by enemies on all sides:

    82:12 O my God, make them roll like a wheel; * like stubble before the wind.
    82:13 As a fire raging in a forest: * as a flame setting the mountains ablaze,
    82:14 So will You pursue them with Your storm: * and rout them in Your wrath.
    82:15 Redden their faces with disgrace; * and they shall seek Your name, O Lord.
    82:16 Let them flush with shame and be put to rout forever: * let them be confounded, and perish.
    82:17 And let them know that Your name is Lord: * You alone the Most High over all the Earth.

    Could not these verses—and their assurance of God’s providence, that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against her”—also provide much-needed consolation to the Catholic praying today, when the Church is again (as always?) sorely beset by enemies on all sides?

    To remedy this deficiency, Clayton suggests that a layman praying the Liturgy of the Hours is free to note when there are parts of a psalm missing and consult another text of the psalms to fill it out, and can regularly insert the three psalms that are missing in their entirety. For instance, one could insert Psalms 57/58 and 82/83 as an additional psalm in a daytime hour on the occasional Wednesday and Friday, and use Psalm 108/109 (in three parts) as the psalmody for a Saturday daytime hour.

  5. Geoffrey says:

    I would like to see all 150 psalms restored to the Liturgy of the Hours in their entirety. There is nothing wrong with these texts that proper catechesis cannot help with.

  6. Andrew says:

    cwillia1:

    Those who smash the babes of daughter Babylon are crushing distracting thoughts and temptations in their infancy against the rock of Christ.

    The Western Fathers likewise: e.g. St. Jerome in ep. 22:

    Since it is not possible to avoid the inborn inner heat invading our sense, he is praised, he is said to be blessed, who, as soon as impure thoughts appear, kills the imagination and smashes it against a rock: “and the rock if Christ”.

    [“Beatus qui tenebit, et allidet parvulos tuos ad Petram.” Quia enim impossibile est in sensum hominis non irruere innatum medullarum calorem, ille laudatur, ille praedicatur beatus, qui ut coeperit cogitare sordida, statim interficit cogitatus, et allidit ad petram: “petra autem Christus est” (1. Cor. 104).]

  7. RichR says:

    I’ve tried to pray the 1962 Roman Breviary, but MAN is it difficult to do the whole thing. One could easily make the argument that a person praying the LOTH gets exposed to more psalms if he prays the whole LOTH as opposed to someone who prays a few offices out of the 1962 Breviary. While this may be true, I personally gravitate to the EF Breviary because the Collects and Imprecatory Psalms don’t avoid hard topics. I often get the impression that in the LOTH I get a pat on the back from Jesus my friend, whereas in the 1962 BR I go into spiritual battle with Jesus my Commander-In-Chief…and win.

  8. Jack Orlando says:

    I can see it both ways with the “editing”. On one hand, sometimes all that one reasonably can hope for his that one’s enemies be taken away. On the other hand, those who eagerly pray for the chance to bathe their feet in the blood of their enemies and to bash the heads of their enemies’s children against rocks simply are not New Testimental — and no typological, moral, or anagogic interpretation can save these texts for wishing to so bathe and so bash.

    There are two unique evils that beset our times: “presentism” and loss of context. The 2nd Vatican Council came with a generation that had seen two very, very bloody wars — in the latter some 30,000 people on average died every day!– and the three particularly gruesome tyrannies of Adolf the Awful, Benito the Bad, and Uncle Joe. The fathers of the Council had good reasons to temper the Psalms of cursing. Those reasons might still be good.

    I thank Henry Edwards!

  9. Gregorius says:

    A few months ago NLM linked to a fantastic essay written by a Dominican on the theology behind the imprecatory psalms. It is, in my opinion, the most thorough and comprehensive explanation and defense of the imprecatory psalms I have ever read.
    http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2016/06/rediscovering-imprecatory-psalms.html

    On a different note, in my school days one of the books that stuck out most to me in the liturgy section of the library was called the Benedictine book of Maledictions. It was a history book about actual imprecatory liturgies medieval monasteries would conduct in self-defense as they were forbidden from taking up arms.

  10. Gregorius says:

    Also, this post reminds me, I need to pray Saturday None.

  11. Supertradmum says:

    Part of the problem is the over-feminization of our Church….I am criticized for writing about the Church Militant in my books, as if we were not at war with evil. We are in a battle. And, there are fewer and fewer men who understand this and want to take up their roles as soldiers of Christ, which is what we are called to be in Confirmation. Even some priests refuse to see evil, pretending evil is not there, or merely something which needs “healing”.

    People choose evil, evil is done through other people, as well as directly by demons…are we now so squeamish that we cannot call evil for what it is, instead of psychoanalyzing evil out of existence? These psalms remind us that entire civilizations chose evil, such as the Nazis, the Aztecs, other pagan groups,which wanted power without God’s Law. This is still true, as we see daily in the world news.

    Tolerance of evil is the great failure of Western society today….and will lead to the greatest persecution the Church will ever witness.

  12. Kathleen10 says:

    More examples of how we have been robbed. This becomes more clear all the time. What consolations these psalms and prayers would be in these dark days. What came first, the emasculated psalms or the plethora of feminized men we suffer now.

  13. SanSan says:

    Thank you Father Z. Working hard at avoiding hell.

  14. TWF says:

    But is the 1962 Roman Office really that traditional? Didn’t St Pius X make fairly drastic changes to the Office? If one wants to pray a truly timeless ancient office, I think the monastic arrangement of St Benedict would be the way to go…still prayed by many monks and oblates.

  15. Filipino Catholic says:

    This reminds me of an old custom I’m not entirely sure is true — when certain Benedictine monasteries were threatened or encroached upon and no secular assistance could be found, the monks (who were forbidden from taking up arms to defend themselves) would resort to liturgical cursing, rather like what Elias and Eliseus did on more than one occasion in III and IV Kings.

  16. aquinas138 says:

    TWF, you have a point. And even if 1911 counts as “traditional,” the 1960 rubrics actually make it impossible to pray all 150 psalms during Lent! Under St. Pius X’s rubrics, when Lauds II is used, the first psalm is always Psalm 50; the displaced psalm is said as a fourth psalm at Prime. The 1960 rubrics suppress the fourth psalm at Prime, so there are a few psalms not said during Lent.

  17. Amateur Scholastic says:

    The entire traditional breviary can be found at http://divinumofficium.com/. It selects today’s readings for you; has English and Latin; and lets you choose which version you want (1570, 1910, 1962 and a few others).

    Magnificent resource.

  18. slainewe says:

    Well, another act of madness in the Church I never knew about: the sanitizing of the Psalms in the New Office. All I noticed is that, when I switched to the 1950 breviary, it was like going from milk to meat.

    I have no problem with the imprecatory psalms. Perhaps it is simplistic but I read them in the sense of, “Wait until what you did to me happens to you!” Like Mom telling an ungrateful daughter, “Wait until you have children!” Mom does not want the daughter to have ungrateful children, she is just warning her that, if she does, she will suffer their ingratitude as an act of justice because she has broken her own mother’s heart.

    I see no contradiction in warning a person as to what they deserve in justice, and still praying they will repent so as not to receive it. And yet still rejoicing when they do receive it, because God’s Justice is a beautiful thing.

    Could we even argue that NOT invoking such a warning of Divine Justice when it fits the bill is a sin AGAINST Charity? For example, if holding a sign outside an abortuary reading, “Wait until what you do to this child happens to your wanted child,” forces a woman to face her present guilt; then is it not a sin against Charity to NOT hold such signs?

  19. Henry Edwards says:

    Fr. Louis Bouyer was a leader of the liturgical reform movement before, during, and after Vatican II, a member of the post-conciliar Consilium on the liturgy, principal author of Eucharistic Prayer II, and apparently a close confidant of Pope Paul VI. On page 224 of the published English translation of his Memoires, Bouyer says

    ”On several occasions, whether in the scuttling of the liturgy of the dead or even that incredible enterprise to expurgate the Psalms for use in the Divine Office, Bugnini ran into an opposition that was not only massive but also, one might say, close to unanimous. In such cases, he didn’t hesitate to say: ‘But the Pope wills it!’ After that, of course, there was no question of discussing the matter any further.”

    On page 225, he (Bouyer) recounts that Pope Paul VI afterwards asked him privately why they had done it—referring (according to footnote 106) to expurgation of the Psalms , when it appeared (see footnote 102) that the Council fathers had supported “the integral Psalter” (defended by Cardinal Wyszinski “to a storm of applause”). Bouyer says he answered “Why, simply because Bugnini had assured us that you absolutely wished it.” His (the pope’s) reaction was instantaneous: “Can this be? He told me himself that you were unanimous on this!”

    Thus it appears that the Psalms got expurgated—despite little support from either the Council fathers, the Consilium members, or the Pope—because of a individual desire to delete the concepts of evil, sin, and punishment which are so explicit in the imprecatory psalms.

  20. lairdangusmcangus says:

    Thank you, Father Z. I have really been struggling recently with hatred against the enemies of the Church, the enemies of Christ. I needed to hear this.

  21. ocleirbj says:

    This is a very useful discussion. Thanks, Fr Z and everyone.

    I have always seen the “difficult” passages of the Psalms as showing that the Bible contains, and God understands, the full range of human emotion and experience. When you are in a desperate situation where all you feel is rage against your enemy, it doesn’t always help to be told, Don’t think that way, good Christians shouldn’t feel/think/talk like that! But sometimes we do, and for me, these passages are there to tell us that God understands our rage, our helplessness, our pain. Then of course, we have to move on from this, and learn how to offer love to those enemies whom we would really rather see boiling in oil, et al. But it can be a revelation to some people, to find such anger so openly expressed in Scripture, to realize that God knows and fully understands how they feel, and why they are so ferociously angry, even while, at the same time, He is encouraging them to take a different road. God Himself feels righteous anger; in Christ, He has suffered the unrighteous anger of the world. He knows all about it; He can identify with us, so that we can identify with Him, and learn to love the dreadful, hateful, sinful, poor, lost world as much as He does. This is what those difficult passages say to me.

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