By: A.T. Walker
Imprecatory psalms are those that invoke judgment, calamity, or curses upon one’s enemies or the enemies of God. Theses are psalms like psalm 5, 7,10, 28, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 109, 137, and 139. What do we do with those passages that say “O God, break the teeth in their mouths” or “May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow”? How can we pray these prayers if Jesus told us we are to love our enemies and pray for them (Matthew 5:38-47, Luke 6:27-28, Romans 12:20, 1 Peter 3:9)? And what does God say about vengeance?
“Vengeance is Mine, and retribution, In due time their foot will slip; For the day of their calamity is near, And the impending things are hastening upon them.” Deuteronomy 32:35
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Romans 12:19
One of the basic principles of biblical hermeneutics, or biblical interpretation, is that scripture is always the best interpreter of scripture. So, if you are looking for biblical answers to biblical questions, it’s a good idea to start with the bible. 2 Timothy 3:16 says that:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
Yes, this includes the previously mentioned psalms. We must remember that the words written in these psalms are holy scripture, so we must do our best to be sure that we are handling them properly. But surely this is just “Old Testament talk”, right? I mean, Jesus wouldn’t talk like this…Would He?
What Would Jesus Do?
We may have a hard time with these verses, but Jesus didn’t skip over them. Yes, even Jesus quotes from them (John 2:17, John 15:25). In the Lord’s Prayer, when we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” (Matthew 6:10), we are praying not only for God’s Kingdom to arrive in its fullness, but for the total destruction of the kingdom of darkness (Colossians 1:13). In Matthew 23:13-36, Jesus brings a long list of imprecations against the scribes and pharisees. Finally, look at what Jesus is up to in Revelation 19:11-18:
“And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the winepress of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.” Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and he cried out with a loud voice, saying to all the birds which fly in midheaven, “Come, assemble for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings and the flesh of commanders and the flesh of mighty men and the flesh of horses and of those who sit on them and the flesh of all men, both free men and slaves, and small and great.”
What About The Rest Of The New Testament?
Paul doesn’t skip over the imprecatory psalms either. He quotes Psalm 69 in Romans 11:9-10 and again in Romans 15:3, this time saying that these are the words of Christ being prophetically spoken by David. In fact, there are several imprecations in the New Testament that did not come from the Psalms (Matthew 23:13-36, Matthew 26:23-24, 1 Corinthians 16:22, Galatians 1:8-9, Galatians 5:12, 2 Timothy 4:14, Revelation 6:10), so we can’t chalk this up as “Old Testament talk” or a change in strategy by the Holy Spirit.
Can We Pray These Psalms Like David?
There are definitely a few things to consider before diving into this type of prayer. David is not praying these prayers against a coworker who keeps stealing his lunch or the guy who cut him off in traffic. We should never rush into praying these types of prayers out of anger and hatred. Psalm 28:4-5 says, “Render to them what they deserve because they do not regard the works of the Lord.” These prayers are aimed at the wickedness of man against a holy God. Walter Kaiser says, “They (these hard sayings) are not statements of personal vendetta, but they are utterances of zeal for the kingdom of God and his glory. To be sure, the attacks which provoked these prayers were not from personal enemies; rather, they were rightfully seen as attacks against God and especially his representatives in the promised line of the Messiah.”
J.A. Motyer says, “The imprecatory psalms are prayers, calling upon God to remedy those injustices which neither we as individuals, nor the state, are competent to remedy. They do not seek personal vengeance; rather they leave vengeance to God, as God has demanded, “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.”
Ephesians 6:12 says:
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
David was facing much different circumstances than the Church is today. We (God’s people) are not waging war with nations over land and kingdoms, but rather we are spreading the gospel to every tribe, tongue, and nation. Our war has become a spiritual one and prayer is our weapon. Does this mean that Christians should not join the military or become a police officer since they may be put into a position where they will have to fight, or even kill, an enemy? Absolutely not! Those are honorable professions for men and women to have and the bible speaks well of those who defend the weak and innocent (you can read more about this topic here). But remember that David was not quick to draw the sword. We see, even in the imprecatory psalms, that love for his enemy had been pursued:
“They requite me evil for good…When they were sick, I wore sackcloth” Psalm 35:12-13
“In return for my love they accuse me, even as I make prayer for them. So they reward me evil for good, and hatred for my love” Psalm 109:4-5
So, How Do We Pray These Psalms?
When asked “How do you pray through a psalm when it calls for God’s judgment upon his enemies?” Donald Whitney says “Yes, those Imprecatory Psalms! Ultimately, I think we put all the Psalms, in one way or another, in the mouth of Jesus. I’m doubtful we should pray specific people’s names when we pray through the Imprecatory Psalms. I often put the enemies of my soul, that is, those enemies that come from that sin factory that beats in my chest, in those psalms. I sometimes put our national sins in there, as when asking God to destroy racism, abortion, etc., in this country. Essentially I think we can pray the Imprecatory Psalms in general against all unrighteousness, against all who remain lifelong, unrepentant enemies of God. In the end we’re saying that we stand with God and His righteousness and that we want all unrighteousness and all who stand as His eternal enemies to be destroyed.”
Ultimately, the imprecatory psalms are asking for God to destroy evil and wickedness. We are agreeing with God that sin is wicked and must be destroyed, even if that sin is our own. In Psalm 7:3-5, we see David ask the Lord to bring these imprecations down on himself if he has acted unjustly:
“O Lord my God, if I have done this,
If there is injustice in my hands,
If I have rewarded evil to my friend,
Or have plundered him who without cause was my adversary,
Let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it;
And let him trample my life down to the ground
And lay my glory in the dust.”
Are you willing to pray the same prayer? This is not a topic to be taken lightly, so we should be careful what we ask for in prayer. It is not wrong to wish for the Lord to return, even though it means the death of the wicked. It is not wrong to ask God for justice to be done. But I think some are far too comfortable calling for the death of their enemies rather than praying for them. The eternal punishment that awaits God’s enemies is not something we should wish on anyone. This alone should bring us to our knees in prayer for their souls.
“Let us tremble and trust God, lest we fail, and find ourselves on the other side of the curse.” John Piper