There are a few axioms to live by in American politics, even in this degraded age: All politics is local. If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog. Politics stops at the water’s edge. And, uh, don’t pray for the death of the sitting president of the United States.

At least, that last one seemed like common sense. Yet Senator David Perdue appeared to break the rule Friday morning. In his remarks at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference, Betsy Woodruff reported, the freshman Georgia Republican encouraged attendees to pray for President Obama. According to Perdue’s office, he said:

I think we’re called to pray for our country, for our leaders, and yes, even our president. In his role as president I think we should pray for Barack Obama. But I think we need to be very specific about how we pray. We should pray like Psalms 109:8 says. It says, “Let his days be few, and let another have his office.”

As many people quickly pointed out, the quotation is not exactly a benign plea for a new president in its original context. Here’s a chunk of the psalm:

8. Let his days be few; and let another take his office.
9. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.
10. Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.
11. Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labour.
12. Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children.
13. Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.

That’s pretty ugly stuff. As frightening as the imprecation is in its original Old Testament version—its really masterful, bitter language—it takes on an even more chilling aspect in Christian theology. In the New Testatment book of Acts, Peter quotes the psalm as foretelling the ruin of Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus.

Perdue didn’t make this up. In fact, this verse—sometimes labeled “the Obama Prayer”—has been circulating for years among conservatives. Gawker’s John Cook noted the prevalence of the reference on internet message boards and in CafePress t-shirts and bumperstickers back in November 2009. Other cases have popped up over the years, from the Manatee County, Florida, sheriff’s office to the Kansas House, where the speaker forwarded an email involving the psalm.

Malice toward a sitting president isn’t limited to one party. It’s not hard to find news reports about liberals wishing or praying for death for George W. Bush. The obvious difference is that none of those involved was a sitting (or even retired) Democratic senator. Going further back, Supreme Court Justice William Brennan and Secretary of State Al Haig were both targets of the prayer.

What was Perdue thinking? Maybe he didn’t know better—though that’s a good argument against quoting Scripture you don’t fully understand, which in turn is a reminder of the importance of humility in understanding God’s word. (“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”) Maybe he just meant it to be “tongue in cheek,” which is how many of the people who have quoted Psalm 109 in the past have explained away the use, although really, there are better jokes to be made. Maybe he saw Hillary Clinton’s success with internet memes on Thursday and just wanted to get in on the action. Not a great call, either way.

In a statement, Perdue’s office clarified, “He in no way wishes harm to our president and everyone in the room understood that,” and accused the media of “pushing a narrative to create controversy.” 

One of the more peculiar things about Perdue’s unwise remark is that it spotlights the persistence of the “Obama prayer” joke. Obama’s days in office are constitutionally numbered, and the end of his term is known. Moreover, it doesn’t seem as though the prayers did much good for Obama’s opponents in the first term; he was handily reelected in 2012. Perhaps intervening in elections by striking politicians dead isn’t how God works.