Imprecatory, or cursing, psalms sometimes distress Christians. Why would we call upon God to curse, when the New Testament seems to say the opposite? After all, Romans 12:14 says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
What is often forgotten about the imprecatory psalms is that they are not a case of personal vengeance. Our tendency is to see the assaults of the wicked as intensely personal, and therefore cursing is likewise personal. However, the wicked man does not fight against other men, but against God. Imprecatory psalms therefore call upon God to defend His own honor and glory against the wicked. Vengeance belongs to the Lord, after all, and should be left to Him alone. A Christian may in fact pray imprecatory psalms as an expression of a deep trust in the Lord, even in the face of great evil. The Lord will vindicate His holy name.
Psalm 5 opens with an intense prayer. “Listen to my words, Lord. Pay attention to my sighing. Listen carefully to the voice of my cry for help, my king and my God, for to you do I pray.” The word translated as “cry for help” suggests a series of shouts, like someone in distress. Further, the form of the world translated “pray” may also suggest that it is continuous. The psalmist is in a deep distress and calls upon God. Such a cry for help is not a case of doubting, but intense trust, for who would call upon God thinking that He would not answer? Even if He seems distant, God hears the prayers of His people.
“Lord, [in the morning] you hear my voice. [In the] morning I set in order to you and watch.” “Set in order” is the language of sacrifice, just like in Leviticus 1:8, 12, where the word describes laying out meat in order for a burnt offering. Prayer is the spiritual sacrifice of the New Testament, the daily sacrifice of the priesthood which all believers hold. Not only are we to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), but we should also turn to God as our first act of each day. “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5).
“For you are not a God of delighting in wrongdoing. Evil does not sojourn with you. The senseless will not take their stand in the presence of your eyes. You hate all the doers of wrongdoing. You destroy the speakers of falsehood. A man of bloods and fraud you abhor, O Lord.” The psalmist testifies to the holiness of God here as a way of contrast with the next section. An evil man cannot stand before God. Note that there is also no distinction between the sin and the sinner. Sin is not an alien act, but an expression of one’s inward nature. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speak” (Matthew 12:34). For the righteous man, sin is something which is in fact foreign, and he sins out of weakness rather than deliberate intention. But we cannot distinguish between sin and sinner out of a desire to make excuses for sin. The all-holy Lord cannot abide the presence of sin, as this psalm so clearly testifies.
“And I, in the greatness of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down to your holy temple in the fear of you. Lord, lead me in your righteousness on account of my enemies. Make straight your path before my face.” The righteous man does not enter the house on account of his own righteousness, but on account of the steadfast love of the Lord. It is the Lord who leads him. It is the Lord who straightens his way before him. God alone leads a man out of the ways of wickedness. The psalmist is able to pray to the Lord confidently because of what the Lord has done for him. It is true that he here alludes to his own righteousness, because without holiness, no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). Yet this should not be understood as self-righteousness in the negative sense, attempting to stand before God on the basis of one’s perceived righteousness. The psalmist clearly testifies that he stands before God only because of God’s love and mercy. He is truly and actually holy in a real way, but only because of God.
“For there is not firmness in his mouth. [In his] inward parts destruction. An open grave their throat. With their tongue they smooth out [or flatter].” Paul uses part of this verse to declare that all have sinned in Romans 3:13. It is a clear description of the deeds of wicked men. “Firmness” has to do with what is in the mouth, that is, the words one speaks. The wicked man is a liar (John 8:44). He seeks destruction from deep within his heart (Psalm 36:1). Their throat is an “open grave” because it is insatiable. Their greed and evil desire know no limits (Proverbs 27:20; 30:15-16). Finally, they flatter by smoothing out with honeyed words. “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many” (Matthew 7:13).
“Make them bear their guilt, God. Let them fall from their own counsels. In the greatness of their crimes, scatter them, for they are rebellious toward you.” This is the most direct expression of cursing within the psalm. Note that it is God who will bring the judgment upon the wicked, not the righteous man. Note further that they rebel against God by their crimes. There is also a poetic parallel here, for as the Lord abounds in steadfast love above, so the wicked man abounds in his sins.
“And all who take refuge in you rejoice. They rejoice loudly for a long time. You shut them off, and the lovers of your name rejoice loudly in you. For you bless the righteous, Lord. Like a large shield [with] favor you surround him.” The righteous man has nothing to fear, because the Lord will judge the world in perfect righteousness. Even if he has to suffer the assaults of the wicked now, God will bring them to an end, causing him to rejoice. To “rejoice loudly” or “sing for joy” is an expression of the volume of this cry. An overwhelming joy causes us to shout at the top of our lungs, much like a cry of victory at the end of a battle. The Lord also “shuts off” the righteous by sealing them off from outside danger, like a large shield surrounding them. Even if some things continue to assault us by God’s will for our discipline, He will not suffer the righteous to fall. There is safety in the Lord even in the midst of great danger.