Praying CursesBy Daniel M. Nehrbass (Wipf & Stock, 2013).

This has been a topic that has settled itself on the back burner of my mind for a long time. What do we do with the imprecatory psalms? How may those be preached? How would one apply them?

Nehrbass, in what appears to be a reworked PhD dissertation from Fuller, does us all a service by tackling this issue head on. I should note that this far from being a dry, pedantic, academic recitation of facts; on the contrary, Nehrbass has made this work very readable. Kudos to him! However, vestiges of a dissertation are still visible: at least a full third of the book could have been removed without significant loss. And a more stringent editing would have helped, too, and would have precluded the embarrassing typo on the cover of the book (“Theraputic”).

Nehrbass begins with a history of interpretation of the imprecatory psalms: spiritualizing or allegorizing the text; assuming them to be merely historical (whether inspired or otherwise) and not for current praxis; seeing them as cathartic and/or poetic, thus not modeling behavior today; accounting them as prophetic (and or messianic) and what would inevitably happen to the enemy; recognizing their inadequacy in light of progressive revelation; rendering imprecations as quotations of the adversary, and not of the psalmist himself; and even considering them as magical spells! None of these explanations have been satisfactory, though the “dependence theory,” that the utterances in those psalms were really acts of dependence upon God, who was being asked to take (vengeful) action, appears to be the most acceptable of the list. After all, the psalmist was not taking action into his own hands, but leaving it all to God. But even this interpretive tack is not fully explanatory: Did David cease his warring operations after these imprecations? How serious is dependence if that is the only option for the one praying? (13–52). The discussion is thorough.

Yet one is left with the question: What is a Christian to do with all of these vicious prayers? If one is a victim of such severe depradation as is depicted in those psalms, can one pray these prayers?

Comparing the imprecatory psalms with the Sermon on the Mount, Nehrbass draws out a useful distinction of purpose between the former and the latter (and other genres of Scripture): while Jesus’ sermon instructs his people on how to live, the psalmist is instructing the people of God how to pray. This is helpful, though it does leave the question open: Is it appropriate for us, in this dispensation, to pray as the psalmist did, imprecations and all?

The author recognizes that the imprecatory psalms are consistent with covenant promises (God promising to curse his enemies), with prophecy, with the warnings of Scripture, with the New Testament (Jesus, too, uttered an imprecation or two against the Pharisees, a couple of cities, and even a fig tree), and even with a doctrine of a holy God who takes sin extremely seriously. Another important notion that Nehrbass brings to the fore is the idea that “it is vital to keep in mind that the words ‘I’ and ‘we’ speak for the community of Israel,” and that the psalms were part of the community’s worship. Thus the imprecations were not necessarily intended to be seen as an individual’s idiosyncratic response to evil, but rather as the cry of an oppressed nation. And humans, of course, can be instruments in the hands of God to punish evildoers.

Nehrbass’ final section of the book intends to give some practical guidelines for employing the imprecatory psalms: “concern yourself with God’s reputation” (righteous anger is appropriate); “let God take care of your problem” (transfer the responsibility of vengeance to God); “make your complaint clear” (as opposed to a generic prayer for world peace); “pray for the plans of the wicked to be foiled”; “take responsibility for your part” (from the psalmist’s frequent admission of his own guilt) (148–73). These are helpful.

In all, though precise answers are not provided for the major issue of the use of imprecatory psalms in the modern day, these guidelines do help further the discussion. To that end, the book is successful. Worth reading, especially if you intend to tackle the Psalms in a forthcoming sermon series.

Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 15.1 (2015): 91–92

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