We are hard put to understand an individual imprecatory psalm in this final book of public worship songs, but must trust the wisdom of those who acted within that ancient culture. It’s for sure that all of us have experienced the underlying core of this prayer — a betrayal by someone we trusted, and for whom we cared. At least in that sense, we understand using this as a common ritual, since it is such a common experience, and the solution modeled here is clearly seeking a pure heart.
It is this business of heart-led faith that remains so foreign to our Western sensibilities. It is so very central that there is no need to speak of it directly here. Yet without it, we would miss the meaning of the curse David prays on his enemies. It seems a little extreme. On the one hand, we cannot forget that hyperbole is rather the norm in dramatic poetry like this. On the other hand, if this symbolic enemy has truly closed off his mind to the moral leadership of his heart, then the curse simply lays bear the awful things this man has done to himself and to those who depend on him for life. Thus, the attitude of the psalm is, “Lord, let him have the fullness of the evil he has chosen!” David prays this for the very reason that it reveals the moral character of God most clearly.
The format presumes at least some political authority. The office of king is merely the chief elder of the nation. It is his duty to take some risks in parceling out the vast moral duties of shepherding to feudal servants. With all the care he could take, David still finds himself suffering the presence of fakes who seek unjust personal gain. Sadly, he doesn’t always find out until rather far down the line of trust. Thus, David begins by setting the scene of betrayal of a trusted subordinate, someone he elevated to high trust and some power. This person used their position to bring David down for personal gain. In particular, they have falsely accused David in a very public manner. We presume David would hardly balk at a justified accusation, as we know from the record of Scripture, but this was something that was done all completely wrong, and it was false in the first place.
David responds with a detailed curse. We note that it is a long string of common images and standard idioms from those times. It starts with asking God to make his life hard, and then to make it short. And to ensure that no one learns from his evil ways and takes up his selfish thinking, David prays that his family suffer as well. We forget how dangerous it is to the whole nation if people who close up their hearts and commit themselves to mere human comfort are allowed to prosper and multiply. It is a common presumption of the Ancient Near East that the bad morals of a head of household corrupt everything he rules over — people, property and all. David goes further in asking God to withhold mercy and not forget the moral evil that brought forth such a traitor.
Such a man is presumed to curse vainly at others, since it was so common. Without a heart-led moral awareness, all that’s left is the lusts of the fallen soul. David prays that God return all those vain curses back on the man who uttered them. Let them wrap themselves around his soul, and soak into his very being — like excessive water a man drinks that overflows his stomach and is absorbed through his bowels, like oil wastefully lavished on everything until it soaks through his clothes and skin into his bones.
By contrast to this, David looks to his Master to save him from such accursed people. Better to face the wrath of God on his genuine sin than the “help” from people like that. David pours out the depth of sorrow and pain from this awful betrayal. There is also that common note, “O Lord, how long shall I endure this sorrow?” Then David asks the God deliver Him in such a way as to let people see he stands in God’s favor. Let them be ashamed of all their unjustified cursing and plotting secretly against him; expose them as liars. But as for David, his focus is on reflecting back the glory of God before a watching world.