Understanding Vindictiveness in the Psalms and Real Life

I’ve been reading (slowly) Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis. It is going slowly in part because, having read through chapter 4, I was compelled to go back and reread chapter 3. The title of chapter 3 is “The Cursings.” As is typical with Lewis, he begins this book by first addressing the more troubling aspects of his overall topic before getting on to the more palatable aspects. This chapter is sandwiched between the chapters on “Judgment in the Psalms” and “Death in the Psalms,” both of which were interesting and challenging.

But there was something about chapter 3 that seemed particularly interesting to me. There is something in this chapter that shines a light on the topic of mercy that I and some fellow bloggers have written about recently, and that light reveals a very different side of the equation.

First, what exactly does Lewis mean by the cursings? Some specific examples that he refers to include:

 6 Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy;
   let an accuser stand at his right hand.
7 When he is tried, let him be found guilty,
   and may his prayers condemn him.
8 May his days be few;
   may another take his place of leadership.
9 May his children be fatherless
   and his wife a widow.
10 May his children be wandering beggars;
   may they be driven from their ruined homes.
11 May a creditor seize all he has;
   may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.
12 May no one extend kindness to him
   or take pity on his fatherless children.
13 May his descendants be cut off,
   their names blotted out from the next generation.
14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the LORD;
   may the sin of his mother never be blotted out.
15 May their sins always remain before the LORD,
   that he may blot out their name from the earth.
Psalm 109:6-15 (NIV).

8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
   happy is the one who repays you
   according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
   and dashes them against the rocks.
Psalm 137:8-9 (NIV).

This sort of cursing, even of one’s enemies, seems quite harsh to Lewis, as it does to me. And yet there is something in me that imagines that God will treat the truly wicked in such a way. Those who abuse women and small children, those who commit murder and seem to have no remorse, and those who greedily swindle the elderly and the downtrodden out of their last penny, deserve such punishment, and so this type of cursing seems natural.

But when we read the words of Christ telling us to ” love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43 (NIV)), it is difficult to reconcile this with the prayers of cursing that are found in the Psalms. I have often, in my own thinking, reconciled these seemingly conflicting notions with the understanding that the Psalmist trusted God to know when to answer the prayer of cursing because God knows the hearts of the enemy that is being cursed. I think Lewis has pondered out a better way to reconcile the cursings and the command to love, and shown the value of an attitude that might lead one to pray such a prayer in relation to the truly wicked.

Lewis tells a story of overhearing some soldiers during World War II who believed that their government had fabricated the evils of Hitler and the Nazi regime in order to “pep up” the troops; and yet those soldiers were not the least bit bothered by this. “That our rulers should falsely attribute the worst of crimes to some of their fellow-men in order to induce others of their fellow-men to shed their blood seemed to them a matter of course.” Reflections, pg. 29. Lewis argued that these uncaring soldiers were in a worse condition than the vindictive Psalmist because they had seemingly lost any moral compass of right and wrong. Although a vindictive reaction might be a sin, it at least indicated an awareness that a wrong had been committed.

Lewis goes on to write:

Thus the absence of anger, especially that sort of anger which we call indignation, can, in my opinion, be a most alarming symptom. And the presence of indignation may be a good one. Even when that indignation passes into bitter personal vindictiveness, it may still be a good symptom, though bad in itself. It is a sin; but it at least shows that those who commit it have not sunk below the level at which the temptation to that sin exists — just as the sins (often quite appalling) of the great patriot or the great reformer point to something in him above mere self. If the Jews cursed more bitterly than the Pagans this was, I think, at least in part because they took right and wrong more seriously. For if we look at their railings we find they are usually angry not simply because these things have been done to them but because these things are manifestly wrong, are hateful to God as well as to the victim. Reflections, pg. 30.

Of course, as Lewis also points out, the danger exists of letting one’s indignation over wrongs that are hateful to God turn into self-righteousness, spiritual pride, and persecuting zeal. As with many good intentions and aspirations, taken to an extreme hating sin can become the sin of hating the sinner, and forgetting one’s own sinful nature.

I still believe that the better course of action, when faced with someone who has committed an evil act, is to pray for their repentance and salvation. It is far better, in God’s kingdom, that the lost be found than that they be abandoned. But I am grateful to Lewis for shedding light on a different side of the indignation and vindictiveness I have seen expressed towards various “evil” people who have been in the news. That’s what I love about C.S. Lewis; I always find something in his writings that challenge my thinking and help me to better understand God and my fellow human beings.

I am a Jesus Freak, and I don't care who knows it. I am a wife, mother, sister, aunt, daughter, and friend. My blood family is only part of the larger family of Christ that I belong to. I love to write, especially about my dear Savior.


14 Responses

  1. Thanks for posting this Linda, I may well need to read Reflections! The final verses of 137 have been a big source of questions for me. Surprised by Joy is one of my favourites – when I was in that painful gap between believing in God but not quite ‘getting’ Jesus, I read SBJ and seeing that CSL went through a similar experience was helpful – I’d be interested to know how an established Christian viewed it.

    • Char, I haven’t read Surprised by Joy yet, though I do own it because it was part of a box set Christmas present many years ago. The question of whether I have read it has come up several times over the past year as I have posted about other Lewis books I’ve read. I guess it may be time to check it out. Peace, Linda

  2. whoa . . .you ladies have more brain power than I do. 🙂 I have thought about those psalms. And found some vindication in them at times when I was going through tough stuff. I love what you discovered from Mr. Lewis about this. He’s so good. Deep and a little challenging for me, but good. Right down your alley, Linda! But, also, have to go for mercy, personally. Thanks so much for leading us on in knowing more and more of God!

    • Deb, This topic is challenging for me, too, but it’s more of a heart challenge than an intellectual challenge. I do love learning from Lewis, though. For an intellectual, he definitely had a heart for God. Just like you do! Even though your blogging may not be as intellectual, you always make me think in ways I hadn’t before. I’m blessed to have you along on my journey of knowing God better, too! Peace, Linda

  3. “Hateful to God as well as the victim.”

    For awhile, I prayed that I would love what God loves, and hate what God hates. I, too, was conflicted about what I was reading in David’s cries for vengence and Jesus’s commands to love.

    “God will treat the truly wicked in such a way…” where abused women and children are concerned. For victims of domestic violence, the cursing psalms become a message of hope and justice from a loving God who will protect His children. God is a God of justice, whether you’re David or the lady down the street.

    I’ve been a “vindictive Psalmist,” but I have also prayed for repentance and salvation for the lost, even while on the other side of a locked door. That story is not finished yet, and God is still working. When it’s ready to be told, He will get all the glory, and I can’t wait!

    Thanks for shedding another light on the mercy challenge. Always more to pray about, more to learn… : )

    • Linda, I knew you would appreciate this one. I thought of you and our comment conversations about mercy and vengeance when I read the chapter in Reflections on the Psalms. I think having had that conversation was one of the reasons I was compelled to go back and reread this chapter. That, and the fact that I can never learn all there is to learn from Lewis on a single reading.

      I think was scares me most about vindictive prayers is that they remind me of the vindictiveness towards an individual that once almost consumed me. It did consume my every waking thought for a period of time in a way that is hard to comprehend now. If not for God showing me the wisdom of forgiveness and mercy, I think it might have killed me, or worse.

      I am so blessed to be traveling this journey of learning to be what God wants us to be, and having you be part of my journey. He will get all the glory for what we are meant to be, indeed! Peace, Linda

      • In AA we ask, “why are you letting someone live in your head rent free?” : )

        I’ve gone the route of obsessive thinking, too. And you know you’ve seen a miracle when through God’s mercy and grace, those thoughts are lifted like no amount of trying could ever achieve.

        God’s will? Of course He doesn’t want us to think that way. No wonder He’s willing to do that for His children… : )

      • Linda, I love that AA saying. It reminds me of something a long-time friend of mine who is a counselor always says, which goes something like this: If you react to what other people do to you in a negative way then you are giving up your control of how you act and think to them. You have to decide who you are and who you want to be, and respond accordingly regardless of how another treats you. I’ve found, though, that without God’s grace and mercy I am unable to maintain control no matter how hard I try. The miracle of His power is quite awesome, indeed. 🙂 Peace, Linda

  4. Imprecatory psalms…these have often been difficult for me, especially in responsive readings. I have not read that particular book by C.S. Lewis. I am inclined to agree with your concluding thoughts. I have written a little on this subject. There is a portion of Psalm 139 that touches on this subject. I wrote a post in February of 2010 that express my thoughts. Let me know if you would like the link.


    • Theresa, I often find that Lewis’ insight on a subject is very valuable for my understanding of it, and this was no exception. I would love to read your post on Psalm 139 and would appreciate the link. Peace, Linda

      • Theresa, I have Surprised by Joy, but I haven’t read it yet but have heard it is very good. I did recently read A Grief Observed that he wrote after his wife Joy died. I also love Mere Christianity, and he has written some terrific essays. The Space Trilogy was also very good, though book 3 was hard to get through. Needless to say, I think anything by Lewis is worth reading. Thanks for the link. I will check it out. Peace, Linda

  5. Thank you, Linda

    What a wonderful post!! Thanks for sharing what you’re learning. Can’t recall reading this C.S. Lewis at all …

    “I still believe that the better course of action, when faced with someone who has committed an evil act, is to pray for their repentance and salvation. It is far better, in God’s kingdom, that the lost be found than that they be abandoned.”
    Here we go with the ‘Mercy’ theme again 🙂 . I like that very much.

    It is better to ask God to change the oppressors than to kill them in their sin … It may seem painful at times but it’s always better to leave the terms of repayment to God.


    • Ann, This is not one of Lewis’ better known works, but I am enjoying it so far. I own almost everything he has ever written and find I grow a lot in my understanding of things related to the Christian faith by reading his thoughts. I also appreciate that he never claims to have the difinitive answer; what he writes are simply his opinion and thoughts, though well reasoned and always based on scripture.

      Yes, I seem to be stuck on the mercy theme lately. I just think it is so important and so lacking in our society today, even among Christians. Peace, Linda

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