Observe: Psalm 109 begins with the psalmist’s cry for God not to be silent, as an enemy (or enemies) verbally attacks and slanders him. Vv.1-5 at this point sound much like other psalms. The last part of the psalm, vv. 21-31, also sounds much like other psalms, a prayer for deliverance, and a plea that God will indeed punish the enemy.
The middle of the psalm, from vv. 6-20, is, however, a long and detailed curse on the enemy. God is being asked to find the enemy guilty, shorten his life, lose his leadership, have no grandchildren, his children be poor, be shunned by others, and the sins of his ancestors “remain before the Lord.” Verse 17 says, “He loved to curse, may it come back on him,” and may his own curses wrap themselves around him.
Interpret: Psalm 109 contains the most detailed curse by one person upon another in the Bible. Another shorter and similar curse is found in Ps 35:4-8. Some Bible translations of Psalm 109:6 add the words “They say…” at the start of the verse, thereby putting the curse in the mouth of the enemy rather than the psalmist. Most translations leave it as is; the curse is pronounced by the author.
The ancient world, and many cultures now, believe that a curse on one’s enemy is effective once pronounced. In the Bible, a call on God to curse an enemy can only be made effective by God. The psalmist, therefore, is calling on God to bring these curses on his enemy. We may ask God, but God decides.
In the matter of Balaam being asked to curse Israel, God decided to bless instead. Deut. 23:6 reads, “the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loves you.” Balaam himself said, “How can I curse those whom God has not cursed?” (Num.23:8)
Proverbs 26:2 reads, “Like a fluttering sparrow or a darting swallow, an undeserved curse does not come to rest.” Or “arrive.” Curses don’t always “land” on the one being cursed.
In Ps. 109, in the last part, the psalmist is reduced to pleading with God to effect the curse he has pronounced. He knows full well that God is the LORD. To call on any other power (like Baal) to effect his curse would make him an idolator, cutting himself off from God. So, the psalmist, despite thirsting for revenge, places himself under God’s sovereignty.
Paul’s admonition at Romans 12:19 says much the same. “Do not take revenge…but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge’ I will repay’ says the Lord.” Paul is quoting from Deut. 32:35.
Application: Kathleen Norris, in The Cloister Walk, p. 92, calls this a “breathtaking catalog of curses…a devastatingly accurate portrait of the psychology of hatred…Calling for God’s judgement can feel dangerously good.” Norris says much the same about the cry for revenge against Babylon at the end of Psalm 137.
The Psalms are remorselessly honest about the full gamut of human emotions. But the Psalms lead us to bring our anger, no matter how great, to God, not to other powers. Nor are we to try dealing with evil relying on our own selves, including cursing our enemies. Leave your desire for vengeance with God.
Christians who are under attack need to call on God. This does not mean that we are not to defend ourselves or to flee from attack. Evil must be faced, but by those equipped to do it. Again, leave it to God. Don’t take what God reserves for himself into your own hands. It could backfire on you.
The last word goes to Jesus, from Luke 6:27-28. “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
Prayer: Thou, O Lord, art just and powerful: O defend our cause against the face of the enemy. O God, thou art a strong tower of defence to all that flee to thee: O save us from the violence of the enemy. O Lord of hosts, fight for us, that we may glorify thee. O suffer us not to sink under the weight of our sins, or the violence of the enemy. O Lord, arise, help us, and deliver us for thy Name’s sake. (BCP, 636)
Hymn: Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side (tune: Finlandia), Book of Common Praise #562
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In 2023, each week's blog is a follow-up reflection written by the preceding Sunday’s preacher to dig deeper into the sermon topic and explore engaging discussion questions.