Imprecatory psalms are always difficult, and I think they have to stay that way. If they ever get easy, you’re probably doing it wrong.
As I’m reading an imprecatory psalm, I can’t help but letting my mind drift to people who are hurting me. These people are hurting me right now in this life, and I enjoy the secret fantasy of my own righteousness. In the fantasy, God hurts them because they hurt me, and their wickedness is revealed even as my own righteousness is made evident.
One way to get around the problem of the imprecatory psalm is to spiritualize it. St. Benedict, for example, says that when the psalm says, “Blessed is he who seizes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks,” that we should interpret “little ones” here as ‘stray thoughts’ that can be ‘dashed against the rock’ of Christ. That’s fine, but I’ve never been able to simply spiritualize the problem away.
Bonhoeffer suggests that we handle the problem by allowing ourselves to hear that the one praying in the psalm is really Jesus. He is the only one who judges rightly and is the only one who can safely pray an imprecatory psalm. As far as one’s personal prayer life is concerned, this is definitely a better path forward than fantasizing about God punishing those who hurt you, but it is a little unclear theologically. “It’s all good because Jesus — in his infinite wisdom — knows which babies’ heads need to be bashed in” is not much spiritual comfort, and it has that special Protestant tendency toward wresting the Trinity apart and setting the Father and the Son at odds with each other.
I can hardly bother with the higher criticism approach of relegating it to “the Psalms display all aspects of the human experience and give expression to the full range of human emotions etc…” It’s also fine, and there is some truth in it, but it doesn’t really let me grow. It just says, “Sometimes you’ll have feelings of wanting to ask God to bash babies’ heads in, and that’s OK.”
I like to start a path forward by reminding myself of what we mean when we use the analogy “the wrath of God.” When we use this anthropomorphic phrase, it’s vital to remember that this can’t imply any change or fluctuation in the divine mood. God is pure love. What we are actually talking about when we use the analogy is what happens when humans encounter the divine love and mercy and reject it. The rejection of that love redoubles on itself and is encountered as “wrath.” The divine fire can be encountered as revelation or as terror, but in each case, there is no change in the divine nature. God’s love is poured out continuously on creation. Though some experience that love negatively, the end result of the love is the reconciliation of the creature with the created. If your reading of an imprecatory Psalm leads you to imagine some sort of image of “wrath” that is not a part of reconciling love, then it’s not a good reading.
There is a Protestant tendency to associate the “wrath” of God with the Father and the mercy of God with the Son. In bad readings of imprecatory Psalms, there is a tendency to follow Marcion’s heresy and simply reject the talk of wrath as an outmoded concept. Marcion was right to reject the idea of conflict within the divine life. There isn’t an angry Father that is assuaged by a merciful Son. At the same time, rejecting the “wrath” out of hand is wrong. If you try to imagine the “wrath of God” as an objective reality, it is an impossible and offensive concept. The “wrath of God” as a subjective reality that people create for themselves is a very real concept.
As uncomfortable as these Psalms are, there is, perhaps, no better plow I know for furrowing out the ground of the soul that has grown fallow through sin. I may not be able to pray in good conscience that my enemies’ babies get their heads bashed on rocks, but reading these Psalms always makes my mind wander. When it does, and I reflect on its meanderings, I always find that I locate what I think are my “enemies.” Interestingly, they very seldom reflect the traditional enemies of God like sin, death, and the devil. It is, rather, always someone who has slighted me or someone who has wronged me. When I remember that the end of God’s “wrath” is always the reconciliation of the creature, in times of need, it is conceivable to pray the “wrath” of God on an oppressor because I am really praying for an encounter with the love of God and for their ultimate reconciliation. There is a deep mystery here, and in real life, it can easily slip off the rails. So, in practical life, it works like this. I can pray, “O God, help me,” with St. Anthony of the Desert, and accept that part of my being help can include seemingly negative consequences for others. I also need to work to see these negative consequences as the love of God burning away impurities toward an ultimate reconciliation. Ultimately, I hold imprecatory Psalms in a kind of tension. While praying them in any sort of objective sense is not an option, praying them in other ways is. They keep me from ever diving too deep into the gnostic end of the pool and thinking that my spiritual life is just something that happens inside me without consequences in the real world. They are also the best tool I know for discerning where my sense of the “enemy” has gone adrift from the true enemies of God. Though I’m often exhausted with praying them, I’m convinced that despite all my discomfort, I’m the better for having them in the book then not having them at all.