ASK FATHER: How to pray the “Cursing Psalms” against our enemies?

From a reader…


Can you once again address the maledictory Psalms and how to use them? I think you last did so over 3 years ago. Thank you!

Wow.  Another third rail question today.

This is what I wrote three years ago in post #87060.

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 [US HERE – 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…


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. I know what all of you are thinking right now: “What would General Patton do?”

    [Good one! And there’s this.]

  2. JustaSinner says:

    Seems too much like playing with hand grenades; I’ll leave this one to the experts.

  3. rtjl says:

    For what it’s worth, here is my approach.

    I have enemies. You have enemies. Enemies are a fact of life. An enemy is somebody who opposes me or someone I have reason to believe I need to oppose. Jesus had enemies. We may need to oppose them, but we may not hate them, or wish them to harm directly, even if we do have to sometimes take actions that may cause them harm, as soldiers do in war, for instance.

    Having said that, it is the case that I can get angry at my enemies, sometimes really, really angry even to the point of feeling hateful towards them. What do I do about that? This is where the cursing psalms come in. I can use those psalms to express my true and honest feelings to God, not hiding from him and pretending those feelings don’t exist. And by doing so I can surrender and release those feelings into his hands, confident that He knows what to do with them and how to weave them into his providential plan for me, and for my enemy, for my benefit and for his benefit. And I can do so safely using the words He Himself has provided to enable me to do so. I am not good at being both merciful and just. I’m probably OK at being one or the other at any given time – but both at the same time, that’s Gods’ specialty. He knows how to do that. Having handed my inappropriate feelings over to God, I can leave them there, confident that he will do the right thing when I, very probably, wouldn’t. Then I can get on with doing whatever it is I need to do in the situation free from being mastered by those feelings.

    And too, the cursing psalms can be interpreted in a more spiritual manner as well. How do you kill an enemy? Maybe by making him a friend, if that’s possible. Or maybe by assisting them with turning from whatever evil they may be guilty of? Or helping them blunt their own anger and hatred.

    Or perhaps it can be helpful to remember that the evil man we wish most wish to see killed and eternally destroyed is the evil man who lives in our own person. We want that man to die so that the son of God that we are by baptism can truly live.

    I don’t know how helpful that will be to anybody else, but that’s how I pray them.

  4. TonyO says:

    Speaking of loving our enemies, I have seen this question come up before, but have never seen a solid answer: How should we handle Satan? Should we love him?

    I will offer what I think works, but I would love to be corrected if I am wrong.

    Satan, like every other creature, was made to reflect something true and good in God, but he chose by his free will to depart from that image and to defy his role as a subservient creature, thus deforming his being by sin. He further deforms it by hating us and trying to cause us to sin, thus bringing us to damnation.

    We can never love Satan’s actions and we must repudiate his hatred of the good. But he is not absolutely evil, his existence and his intellect are goods. So he is not a fit object of simple hatred. But he is, I think, a fitting object of the imprecations in the psalms. After all, he IS an enemy of God, and more, he is such an enemy that he can never be turned away from sin by our prayers and sacrifices: he is an irreformable enemy, whom we already know is damned to Hell. So, it is fitting to use the language of casting to Hell etc on him and against him. While we may be repulsed by his (self-selected) fate of damnation, we should not pity him in that fate except within the context of also being satisfied with the justice of his outcome, and the fitting way God will use him in His ultimate plan of glory. So we can well and truly use the cursing psalms about him.

  5. Uxixu says:

    I’m reminded that Pope Gregory II wrote to the Iconoclast Emperor Leo who threatened to come to Rome and take him captive and destroy the statue of St. Peter in the Vatican that “he has no defence but to pray that Christ will send a demon to torture the emperor’s body that his soul be saved.” (Per, 1 Corinthians 5:5)

  6. Leonius says:

    You pray them the same way you pray all of the other psalms.

    Gods justice will be done.

  7. Semper Gumby says:

    David L Alexander and Fr. Z: Excellent.

    Uxixu: Thanks. There is “walking together” and then there is the Pope out there Poping.

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