The prayer of the Church, the mystical body of Christ, is first and foremost the prayer of Christ, her head, to the Father. Abbot Jeremy Driscoll of Mount Angel Abbey writes, “Christian interpretation of the Psalms must begin with the question, ‘What would this psalm have meant prayed in the earthly life of Jesus?’”1 It is fitting, then, to take the New Testament as our point of departure in approaching Psalm 109, a text so challenging for Christians to pray that it was excluded from the revised Liturgy of the Hours!2 In the first chapter of Acts, St. Peter addresses the Twelve about the betrayal of Judas Iscariot and the need to elect another to take his place. He quotes Psalm 109: “Let their habitation become desolate, and let there be none to dwell therein. And his bishopric let another take” (Acts 1:20; cf. Ps 109:8).
Peter interprets this psalm as a prophecy of Christ; the subject of the litany of curses in vv. 6-20 is Judas, the traitor. The fathers of the Church have largely followed his interpretation. St. Athanasius of Alexandria writes, “Psalms 2 and 108  … signal both the plotting and wickedness of the Jews and the betrayal by Judas Iscariot.”3 Likewise Augustine comments that “what is here written, ‘let his days be few, and let another take his office,’ is prophesied of Judas, the betrayer of Christ … So Judas does represent those Jews who were enemies of Christ.”4 In the person of Judas, then, is summed up the whole faithless people of Israel, who “repaid [Christ] evil for good, and hated for [his] love” (v. 6); indeed, all the wicked and impenitent down to our own day are implicated in him, for Judas, who hanged himself rather than seek forgiveness, is the very archetype of the unrepentant sinner.
It is Christ, therefore, speaking in this psalm, who in his lifetime was “attacked without cause” (v. 3) and “in return for [his] love … slandered” by the wicked (v. 4a), who now confesses to the Father: “But I prayed” [ego autem orabam] (v. 4b). “He said not indeed what he prayed,” comments Augustine, “but what can we better understand than [that he prayed] for them [sic] themselves? While they in the depth of their malignity were rendering evil for good, He in the height of His goodness was rendering good for evil.”5 Indeed, even unto his last breath on the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). Only those who persist in impenitence and hardness of heart to the very end, repaying evil for good and hatred for love (cf. v. 5), will be condemned by these words: “Let the accuser stand at his right hand. When he is judged, let him go forth condemned” (vv. 6-7).6
Even these ominous words cannot be understood as the expression of a divine desire for revenge, as if the Lord’s patience has finally worn out! Christ the Divine Judge “when he punishes does not return evil for evil, since he returns justice to the unjust; and what is just, is surely good. He therefore punishes not from delight in another’s misery, which is evil for evil; but from love of justice, which is good for evil.”7 The love of God is immutable, but the one who persists in wickedness will experience it as punishment. As the psalmist says, “He loved cursing; may it come upon him; he took no delight in blessing; may it be far from him” (v. 18). In the end, each one will receive in eternity what he has chosen by his actions in life. Fr. Pius Parsch puts the same point more succinctly: “Whoever puts off the God of mercy will come to know God the just judge.”8
It is one thing for Christ to pray these terrible words as a “solemn sentence of divine justice upon unwillingness to repent,”9 but how can an individual Christian be justified in doing the same? St. Thomas distinguishes three modes of praying these ‘imprecatory psalms’:
First, by way of prediction, not by way of wish, so that the sense is: May the wicked be, that is, The wicked shall be, turned into hell. Second, by way of wish, yet so that the desire of the wisher is not referred to the man’s punishment, but to the justice of the punisher, according to Ps. 57:11: The just shall rejoice when he shall see the revenge, since, according to Wis. 1:13, not even God hath pleasure in the destruction of the wicked when He punishes them, but He rejoices in His justice, according to Ps. 10:8: The Lord is just and hath loved justice. Third, so that this desire is referred to the removal of the sin, and not to the punishment itself, to the effect, namely, that the sin be destroyed, but that the man may live.10
Psalm 109 is prayed in the first sense by Christ and his body, the Church, “with tears in her eyes … just as Jesus once declaimed His eightfold ‘Woe to you…’ against the Pharisees.”11 But it may also be legitimately prayed in the second sense by an individual Christian, as a cry of the heart against the powers of darkness in moments of suffering and persecution.12 It is eminently fitting to pray for God’s justice to be done, which will take the form of punishment in the end on the “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil 3:18). In the third sense, “that the sin be destroyed [and] the man may live,” the imprecations may be leveled against the Devil and all the principalities and powers which oppose us (cf. Eph 6:12): “May this be the recompense from the Lord upon my accusers!” (v. 20).
Finally, it is worth noting that this psalm was traditionally prayed by the Church on Saturdays at None, the very last hour of the weekly cycle, as “a lighthouse to guide us safely into the harbor of eternity. There is a hell, she informs us. All week long, like an anxious mother, she has been admonishing, warning, complaining, weeping over us; and now she sounds the final and most ominous note.”13 The Christian who dares to pray these words in union with Christ the Head must do so not as the Pharisee prayed in the Temple, saying to himself, “Thank God that I am not like other men” (Lk 18:11). He must cast an eye to the state of his own soul and beat his breast, crying out, “Kyrie, eleison!”
- Jeremy Driscoll, OSB, “The Psalms in Christian Tradition,” Religious Life Review 50, no. 266 (2011), 9.
- “Three psalms (58, 83, and 109) have been omitted from the psalter cycle because of their curses … The reason for the omission is a certain psychological difficulty.” Cf. General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours,§131, translated by the Hierarchies of Australia, England and Wales, and Ireland, 1974, at http://www.liturgyoffice.org.uk/documents.
- Athanasius, Letter to Marcellinus, 26, in Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, trans. Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 123.
- Augustine, “Exposition on Psalm 109,” 1, trans. J.E. Tweed, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 8, ed. Philip Schaff (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888), revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight, at newadvent.org.
- Augustine, “Exposition,” 5, at newadvent.org.
- St. Augustine understands ‘accuser’ here as Satan: Diabolo subditus sit, qui Christo subditus esse noluit: “Let him be subject to the devil, who refused to be subject to Christ” (“Exposition,” 8).
- Augustine, “Exposition,” 7, at newadvent.org.
- The Hours of the Divine Office in English and Latin (Collegeville, MI: Order of St. Benedict, Inc., 1964), vol. 3, 637.
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 25, a. 6, ad. 3, in Summa Theologiae: Secunda Secundae, 1-91, vol. 17 of Latin/English Edition of the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP (Green Bay, WI: Aquinas Institute, 2018), 245.
- Divine Office, 637.
- The testimony of one bishop from Eastern Europe present at the Second Vatican Council is interesting here. In the discussion on whether to eliminate the imprecatory psalms from the Psalter, he is quoted anonymously as having said, “Our special circumstances require that the entire Psalter be used. Afflicted as we are by a very difficult external situation, we need expressions suitable for use contra diabolum.” Cf. Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy, 1948-1975 (Collegeville, MI: Liturgical Press, 1990), trans. Matthew J. O’Connell, 494, fn. 10.
- Divine Office, 636-637.