ASK FATHER: Why isn’t everyone praying the Imprecatory Psalms? Wherein Fr. Z rants.

From a reader…


In your very, very fruitful apostolic endeavors, might you please have a moment to a) correctly list the Imprecatory Psalms, and b) expound on them a bit

Good God…why everyone isn’t praying them daily is a mystery to me

Why isn’t everyone praying them? They make us uncomfortable and rightly so.   While some of the imprecations in the “maledictory” psalms surely reflect basic human frustration, others can be rather extreme.

Ps 137:9:

Happy shall they be who take your little ones
    and dash them against the rock!

So, when someone smashes a Babylonian baby against a rock, that’s an occasion for rejoicing.  YAY!

In the land of the living there are tensions.  Some of those tensions come from our own memories of our sins and others from the memories of harms done to us or our loved ones.  We must learn to “‘purify” our memories, so that the Enemy of the soul cannot use them against us, so that we don’t turn ourselves into vain caricatures of Christians who wallow in our mire rather than aim at that which is on high.

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 – overtly wish some pretty dire things on our enemies.  And, yes, we have enemies.

Love for “enemy” can be expressed different ways.  Love for 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: which is their salvation.  We ask God to use the necessary corrections, chastisements, whatever, to punch through their pride and turn their minds and hearts to Him, even if that means suffering unto loss of limb and life.

I was once chastised by a somewhat weak-kneed bishop who rebuked me for openly praying for my enemies using the very prayers that the Church herself assigned “Pro Inimicis… For Enemies” in the traditional Missale Romanum.  His rebuke reflected a complete lack of understanding of the intent of my prayers and the content of the prayers.


Deus, pacis caritatisque amator et custos: da omnibus inimicis nostris pacem, caritatemque veram; et cunctorum eis remissionem tribue peccatorum, nosque ab eorum insidiis potenter eripe.

O God, lover of and guardian of peace and charity: to all our enemies grant peace and true charity; and give to them the remission of all their sins, and mightily snatch us away from their plots.

I found this prayer in Corpus orationum.  It does not seem to be all that ancient, at least 10th c. (Fulda).  So, it “only” goes back to a thousand years of constant use in the Church. That’s all.

In discussing 1 John 5:16 Augustine holds that one need not pray for those who commit sins that lead to death.   He also reflects on the Judas’s sin and Peter’s denial of Christ.  Moreover, he thinks one should not pray for sinners who sin against the Holy Spirit.

For Augustine the moral obligation we have to love our enemies implies praying for them.  We should pray for sinners and even sinful enemies, even enemies of the Church, in order that they convert and become friends.  Christ, after all, while on the Cross prayed for those who crucified Him.  Augustine thought that prayers of Christians led, for example, to the conversion of Saul.  Stephen prayed for his enemies while he was being killed.

Augustine points out, however, that prayer for enemies does not exclude the hope that enemies be punished by God, just as God punished the devil (qu. eu. 2.45.2)!

Punishment in this life is in view of conversion.   If it is what they need, truly, to get their attention and result in a conversion of heart, then suffering and punishment is the best thing for them.

Merely to let them drift along without any need to take stock of their situation would be not in their best interest, their true good.

So, are the “cursing” psalms “bad”?

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.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 (another good 3:16 selection!)

All scripture is inspired by God (God-breathed) and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that the person of God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

More on this below.

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).  Remember… there are different numberings of the psalms!

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.

That said, it might make the Christian scratch her head when we pray “Happy (Blessed) shall they be who take your little ones and dash them 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 hellTry 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!”.

With tears in her eyes the Church prays these terrible words…”.

Another time we pray with tears in our eyes is when we say, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”

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.

When we read the imprecatory psalms we must hold a mirror up to our own faces.

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. BeatifyStickler says:

    Very informative. Thank you. I will ponder this all weekend. Thank you, Father.

    I found your site shortly after my Dad died. It’s nice to have Fatherly wisdom taken up in another way.

  2. ProfKwasniewski says:

    A wonderful article, Father. You have explained it all so well.

    For those who are interested in seeing the hundreds of verses removed from the new Liturgy of the Hours, look here:

  3. RichR says:


    What do you think the future is for the Roman Breviary? I know the TLM restrictions get most of the press coverage, but what will Rome do with the TLB?

  4. ProfessorCover says:

    Regarding 137:9, could we not look back at Passover when the firstborn children of the Egyptians were slain in order to force Pharaoh to repent (albeit only temporarily it turns out) and free the children if Israel. Likewise the writer of this psalm was in Babylon longing to be greed to go back to Jerusalem, was he not?

  5. Personally, I love praying the imprecatory Psalms. The Breviary teaches us that we’re not praying them to wish evil; God is pronouncing judgment and Holy Mother Church is admonishing sinners and praying for their conversion.

    My favorite is Psalm 57.

    Psalm 57:11-12 it says “ The just shall rejoice when he shall see the revenge: he shall wash his hands in the blood of the sinner. And man shall say: If indeed there be fruit to the just: there is indeed a God that judgeth them on the earth. “

    It’s comforting to remember that.

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