It's Easy to Misread David's intentions

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topic has been covered by href="">Ed
Brayton, href="">twice,
and by href="">PZ
Myers.  This is a little update.

A minister made headlines a couple of weeks ago when he called for
"imprecatory prayer" against leaders of the the group, href="">Americans United
for Separation of Church and State.  The minister
Wiley Drake, got some airtime on the subject, because he has his own
radio show.  

Imprecatory prayer, by the way, is a prayer in which the person praying
expresses malevolent wishes toward others.  

The href=",0,58618.story?coll=la-home-center">LA
Times has
an update on the subject.  In it, the author (K.
Connie Kang) explains that
such prayer is "atypical."  Mr. Drake did say some nasty
things, which I would hope would be atypical in any belief system:

Under the heading, "HOW TO PRAY," he
listed all 31 verses of Psalm 109, in which King David appeals to
divine justice. Drake provided his congregation the King James Version
of the psalm, including Verse 9, which says: Let his children be
fatherless, and his wife a widow.

The full King James text of href="" rel="tag">Psalm
is available openly at Bartleby.
 It opens as follows:

  1. Hold not thy peace, O God of my praise;
  2. for the mouth of the wicked and the mouth of the
    deceitful are opened against me: they have spoken against me with a
    lying tongue.
  3. They compassed me about also with words of
    hatred; and fought against me without a cause.
  4. For my love they are my adversaries: but I give
    myself unto prayer.
  5. And they have rewarded me evil for good, and
    hatred for my love.
  6. Set thou a wicked man over him: and let Satan
    stand at his right hand.
  7. When he shall be judged, let him be condemned:
    and let his prayer become sin...

It goes on in spiteful fashion.  Kang provides some context,
by interviewing various experts.  

Experts in Scripture say it's easy to
misread David's intentions and the purpose of imprecatory prayer in

There needs to be a distinction between one's personal enemies and the
enemies of God, said Sister Thomas Bernard MacConnell, founder of the
Spirituality Center on the campus of Mount St. Mary's College and a
veteran teacher of spiritual direction.

"It is very possible that my enemies are not God's enemies," she said.
Referring to Drake's targets, she added, "Who is to say that those
people are God's enemies?"

The Rev. Kurt Fredrickson, who directs doctoral programs for 700
working pastors from around the world at Fuller Theological Seminary,
says imprecatory prayers are atypical.

"They are more of a window into the sinfulness of human beings," said
Fredrickson, an assistant professor of pastoral ministry at the
Pasadena school. "Normally when we think about praying, we're thinking
about prayers of adoration, prayers of confession, prayers for someone
we're concerned about who is sick or going through a hard time, or
those sort of prayers for ourselves -- not the sort of vindictive,
revengeful statements. These prayers are contrary to the way of Jesus."

They go on to say there are some good things about the Psalms.
 For one, imprecatory prayer asks a higher power to take
action.   Perhaps this is better than becoming a vigilante.

Others point out that there is no equivalent in other popular
religions, Islam and Judaism:

Imam Ali Siddiqui, of the Islamic Society
of Corona/Norco in Corona, said there was no tradition of imprecatory
prayer in Islam. But there is a prayer in which the believer asks Allah
to "liberate me from people who are trying to hurt me," Siddiqui said.

He told a story about the Prophet Muhammad that embodies the opposite
of imprecatory prayer: A woman used to throw trash at the prophet. Once
she did not come to abuse him, so Muhammad inquired about her. Upon
learning that she was ill, he went to see her and prayed for her


Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein, of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, said the kind
of prayer called for by Drake is not "normative" in Jewish tradition.

Stein makes the point, that there is a difference between asking God to
bring the wicked to justice, and casting specific curses on specific

Drake, of course, crossed another line.  His was not a private
prayer.  Rather, he called upon others to join him in his

Kang cites a pastor who claim that this sort of thing is not normal in
Christianity.  Perhaps not.  It might not have been
particularly newsworthy otherwise.  

Personally I find it hard to be concerned about what someone chooses to
pray about.  Just like the non-incident in which Jimmy Carter
said he had lusted in his heart, a person's private thoughts are not a
matter for others to judge.  The problem comes when asking
others to share these thoughts, as Drake is alleged to have done.


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Random thoughts of my own include, while the psalms come from sacred Hebrew poetry, it has always been my understanding that they are mostly historical and esthetic in interpretation, not a model for living. Nor was David, with his adultery, murder, and love of concubines normally held up as a role model, I believe. Many psalms were not written by David but attributed to him because the writer felt it unseemly to claim credit.

Drake's use of 109 is highly out of context because the psalmist expresses his wish for God's judgment on people who betrayed David and were hunting him down to try to kill him (specifically Saul and his men). Most of us have never been hunted by a former mentor intent on murder; certainly the AU hasn't betrayed Drake because it never supported him to begin with, and it surely isn't trying to kill him. As the psalme continues, it becomes clear the "imprecations", as some call them, originate from the sense of powerlessness David feels. Psalms like this aren't my cup of tea, but I'm told 109 is an excellent psychological study, which I can see. I'm told other things about its didactic merit in the sense David clings to faith against all obstacles, which I fail to see. (Truthfully, I've always wondered if the guy wasn't a drama queen, but oh well.)

Another interesting note, "Satan" in psalms 109 was no doubt what the Hebrew religion termed "the adversary" or "challenger." This satan was more akin to what us modern types would call a "devil's advocate" than to The Devil of Christian belief. It's because of this original meaning of "satan" that I find a fascination with verse 6b, "let Satan stand at his right hand." Wishing upon someone a right-hand man who constantly challenges her might not be seen as a bad thing by some. Being surrounded by whole bunches of people like that is what we call a "department".

It's ironic too that later in Psalm 109 it says, "As he loved cursing, so let it come unto him: as he delighted not in blessing, so let it be far from him." If there were any power to the words or any God to listen, Drake et al. would have to be cautious lest their curses come back to bite them.

By tourettist (not verified) on 25 Aug 2007 #permalink

The normal term for "imprecatory prayer" is cursing. As in "goddamn you to hell's fire" or "May the bluebird of happiness nest in your sock drawer." Cursing is a subset of spellcasting.

A couple of months ago I finished reading The Great Transformation, by Karen Armstrong. In it she outlines four religious traditions which came about in the so-called Axial Age, one of them being Judaism.
One of the things which is pointed out is that there was a shaping and reshaping of Judaism, and at various points the favored or chosen collection of tribes actually changed dramatically. The various books of the Bible come from different eras of that development, rather than being one continuous line of thought. At various points there was even allowance for worship of more than one deity.
In particular, it is clearly nonsense in trying to find some strict or literal interpretation of "the Bible" since it is far from a homogeneous work or set of ideas.