Cultivate: Growing in Grace through the Psalms #4 (Imprecatory Psalms)

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As we read through the Psalms, we inevitably come across some that have requests of God, requesting him to do bad things to people. These may be requests for justice, or for vengeance, they may be requests for protection, and they may be prayed to God about individuals, or about national enemies.

Consider Psalm 140: 1-3, 8-11, as an example. The Psalmist says to God: Deliver me, O LORD, from evil men; preserve me from violent men, who plan evil things in their heart and stir up wars continually. They make their tongues sharp as a serpent’s and under their lips is the venom of asps….and the, starting in verse 8, Grant not, O LORD, the desires of the wicked; do not further their evil plot, or they will be exalted.

As for the head of those who surround me, let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them! Let burning coals fall upon them! Let them be cast into fire and not miry pits, no more to rise! Let not the slanderer be established in the land; let evil hunt down the violent man speedily!

Psalm 10: 2, 15 is another example: In arrogance, the wicked hotly pursue the poor; let them be caught in the scheme they have devised….Break the arms of the wicked and the evildoer; call his wickedness to account until you find none.

In Psalm 137 we have the Psalmist praying or singing, Oh daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them again the rock!

And finally, Psalm 69: 22-28 contains similar requests. There the Psalmist prays, Let their own table before them become a snare; and when they are at peace, let it become a trap. Let their eyes become darkened so they cannot see and make their loins tremble continually. Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them.

May their camp be desolation; let now one dwell in their tents. For they persecute him whom you have struck down and they recount the pain of those you have wounded.

Add to them punishment upon punishment; may they have no acquittal from you. Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous.

Psalms such as these may cause some of us some discomfort; and they often raise questions in our minds such as, ‘What is up with this type prayer? What are Psalms like these about?”. To many 21st century followers of Jesus Christ, prayers for God to do bad things to people seem out of step with the ‘Spirit of Christ’, whose fruit is love, and contrary to He who was a friend of tax collectors and sinners. So, what IS going on in these Psalms?

I. Psalms such as these are classed as Imprecatory Psalms – and there are a number of these Psalms in the book of Psalms. What is an Imprecatory Psalm?

A. Defined, ‘to imprecate’ means to “pray evil against”, or “invoke a curse against”, and so these Psalm are called Imprecatory Psalms because the psalmist is praying evil against or evoking a curse on someone – and enemy, individual or national. The Psalmist is actually calling on God to avenge him or avenge Israel by bringing judgement, wrath and punishment on enemy nations or adversarial people.

B. Justified: Some might ask here, ‘Is this ok? Why would someone like King David pray this way? And since we are in a different age – since we live since Jesus came, lived, died and rose, are these prayers relevant for us today – or did they have something to do with the OT era only? Shouldn’t we be praying that everyone come to know Christ?These are fair questions.

One of the reasons many 21st century Christians struggle with Psalms such as these traces back to a common view of God, which is held by many in our day. In our day, many only see the love side of God – seeing His primary attribute as being universal love. But, the scriptures show us that though God is love (per 1 John 4: 7, 8) God is also just, righteous, holy and true – and while he loves His covenant people with an everlasting love and that love is steadfast, God also has enemies, called ‘the wicked’ in Scripture – and these show up on the pages of history and in our world as enemies of His people – or to put this another way, the friends of God’s people are friends of God and those who are against his covenant people are enemies of God. We see this throughout the OT. Consider a few examples:

a) Genesis 3: 14-15 – seed of the serpent is seen as an enemy of woman, to be defeated by her seed;
b) Genesis 12: 1-3 B – God will bless those who bless Abraham and will curse those who curse Abraham – meaning he, and His descendants. Thus, those who ‘curse Abram’ are considered enemies;
c) Exodus 8: 22-23 – God sees a difference between His (God’s) people and Egyptians. Thus, the Israelites land is spared the judgement of the plagues;
d) In Genesis 15: 13-16, it is recorded how God told Abraham that his descendants would be strangers in a land not theirs (meaning, Egypt) for 400 years and how God would judge the nation where they served, after which they would be brought back to Abraham’s land – the land of Canaan – because at the time of the promise to Abraham the ‘sin of the Amorites is not yet full’. Some four hundred years later, Israel was delivered from Egypt, and eventually arrived back at Canaan. Joshua was then commanded to go into Canaan and take over the lond, as it had been promised to Abraham. The book of Joshua gives account of this conquest and what we would call today, a genocide – a genocide carried out on the command of God because Canaanite civilization by this time had become so utterly wicked, that God wanted everyone destroyed. In other words, when Joshua entered Canaan with the armies of Israel, the sin of the Amorites WAS full. Looking honestly at this story, it is clear that due to sin, the Canaanites ad become God’s enemy – for sin is repulsive to Him. Thus, they became Israel’s enemy too.

During the OT period, it is clear that God showed favor to His covenant people, Israel, while viewing other nations as enemies. Many other scriptures show this. Does this attitude carry over to the NT period? Consider the following:

a) 2 Thess. 1: 5-10 suggests that in the NT era, the same is true as in the OT period;
b) 2 Peter 2: 1-16 has strong words about false teachers – and the whole of the 2nd chapter shows that these are at enmity with God. The are enemies of the truth, enemies of the church and therefore enemies of God.
c) Jude’s letter paints a similar picture. Jude verse 5-13 suggests that apostates are both depraved, and doomed, by God. Does this not suggest that these people are enemies of God?

In both the OT and NT, clearly some are God’s friends, while others are God’s enemies. Thus, the scriptures class people as righteous vs. wicked, as elect of God vs. non-elect, as those hardened vs. those chosen (see Romans 11: 7b). No wonder the scriptures say, ‘God loves the righteous, but the way of the wicked he will bring to ruin’.

Once we understand that there are both friends and enemies of God, and that enemies of God are enemies of His people and vice versa, then we have the foundation and basis behind Imprecatory Prayers – for these prayers are actually asking God to exact vengeance and judgement on the enemies of God’s King or upon the enemies of God’s people.

C. Several Psalms are identified as Imprecatory Psalms: Psalm 5, 7, 10, 17, 35, 40, 58, 59, 69, 70, 79, 83, 109, 129, 137, 140 are all Imprecatory Psalms to a greater or lesser extent.

II. Imprecatory Psalms Examined: Read through the three Imprecatory Psalms below and mark the verse or verses showing this is an imprecatory psalm:

A. Psalm 5: Read this short Psalm and mark out the part of the psalm that shows this is an Imprecatory Psalm (see vs. 5, 6, 9-10)
B. Psalm 55: What part or parts of this Psalm show it is an Imprecatory Psalm? (see 9, 15, 23)

C. Psalm 109: Find the parts of this Psalm that show it is an Imprecatory Psalm (see vs. 6-20)
III. Imprecatory Prayers Practiced: Should Jesus’s followers pray Imprecatory Psalms? I answer, yes, with a few conditions, which I list below:

1st, it is important to keep in mind that though these prayers may be prayed by Jesus’s followers, it is God who is judge and savior, while WE are saved by God’s grace alone, meaning apart from that grace we would not be a part of God’s people at all – and that attitude should keep us humble toward those who oppose us;

2nd, as we pray this type Psalm, there should be a gospel filter that we pray these Psalms through – because we live in a different era than the OT saints lived in; and the gospel filter should be a sincere desire to see people actually find the mercy and forgiveness of God, and be saved if at all possible, through the gospel;

3rd, the focus of Imprecatory Prayers was always against enemies of God, seeking Him for revenge, for justice, for retribution by and for His king or for His people. They were never prayed for personal vengeance, toward someone the Psalmist simply didn’t like; and the infraction which illicited the prayer, was generally really serious. This suggests when and where a church might pray Imprecatory Psalms – during times of legal, economic or physical persecution – not so much because people are coming against us as individuals but because they are standing up against Christ and against His cause;

4th, praying to the Father like this is a very serious thing to do – because God is alive, and powerful, and he does visit vengeance on the enemies of His people. It is important to keep in mind then, that this type praying was done in extreme situations. And at least for me, to consider praying like this is sobering and serious.

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