QUESTION: In light of Jesus’ command to bless those who curse you and pray for those who persecute you,” how should I understand, or with what attitude should I regard, passages such as Psalm 109, which are so full of bitterness and condemnation towards enemies?

ANSWER: One of the mistakes we “moderns” make is that we want to impose our manners and mores upon Bible characters who lived in ancient times. Manners were different then. In our society proper behavior calls for restraining anger at all times, but in Bible times it was important to vent righteous anger in acceptable ways. Some of us from Jewish backgrounds remember our grandparents from the Old Country who understood this heritage of expressing anger. They had their own imprecatory psalms—a way of expressing anger poetically and even humorously, to show that the speaker was not quite that angry. A typical imprecation was, “He should be like an electric light. He should hang all day and burn all night.” Today Jewish people, like other distinct cultures, have fit into what society dictates as proper behavior, and such imprecations are no longer in good usage.

The imprecatory psalms of the Old Testament were not only poetry, but songs. Putting the imprecations into poetic form lessened the intensity and showed that although angry, the writer was still in control of himself. At the time David wrote the Psalms, the Holy Spirit had not yet come to indwell believers as he did on the day of Pentecost. Though David was a man after God’s own heart, he was all too human, with human frailties and failings. He was often led and motivated—but not indwelled—by the Holy Spirit. When he allowed his human frailties to rule his behavior, it invariably caused him serious trouble—as in the case of his adultery with Bathsheba which ultimately cost the life of their first child, and in the case of his numbering of the Israelites, which brought a plague upon the nation.

On the other hand, David’s imprecations against his enemies may not have been an expression of his human failings as much as a commitment of his anger to God—thus placing vengeance and restitution in God’s hands and trusting him to make it right. One might say that David was acting in the spirit of Ephesians 4:26 (“Be ye angry, and sin not…”) even before it was written.

As New Testament believers, we are enabled to obey our Messiah’s commandments. As the perfect Son of God and perfect God-man, Jesus fulfilled God’s perfect ways and taught those divine standards to his disciples. When we commit our lives to him and God’s love controls our hearts through the indwelling of his Holy Spirit, we are empowered to strive toward his perfection. Without the empowering of the Holy Spirit, it is totally impossible to love one’s enemies.

Rather than follow David’s human example, we ought to follow the divine example of Jesus, David’s “greater Son.” We may not always succeed, but as we allow the power of the Holy Spirit to work in us, we will realize more and more that we do have the potential to do the humanly “impossible.”