10 Things You Should Know about the Imprecatory Psalms
Most Christians love the Psalms, for in them we find heartfelt prayer, emotional vulnerability, and passionate praise of God. But we also find troubling statements such as these:
“Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you” (Psalm 5:10).
“Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life! Let them be turned back and disappointed who devise evil against me! Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them away! Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them! For without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life. Let destruction come upon him when he does not know it! And let the net that he hid ensnare him; let him fall into it- to his destruction!” (Psalm 35:4-8)
“Let those be put to shame and disappointed altogether who seek to snatch away my life; let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire my hurt! Let those be appalled because of their shame who say to me, ‘Aha, Aha!’” (Psalm 40:14-15)
“For their crime will they escape? In wrath cast down the peoples, O God!” (Psalm 56:7)
“Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call upon your name!” (Psalm 79:6)
Honestly, that’s only a fraction of the Psalms in which prayers for the judgment of God’s enemies are found. Here is a more complete list, in case you’re interested in reading all of them: Pss. 5:10; 6:10; 7:6; 9:19-20; 10:2,15; 17:13; 28:4; 31:17-18; 35:1,4-8,19,24-26; 40:14-15; 41:10; 54:5; 55:9,15; 56:7; 58:6-10; 59:5,11-14; 63:9-10; 68:1-2; 69:22-28; 70:2-3; 71:13; 79:6,10-12; 83:9-18 (cf. Judges 4:15-21; 5:25-27); 94:1-4; 97:7; 104:35; 109:6-19,29; 119:84; 129:5-7; 137:7-9; 139:19-22; 140:8-11; 141:10; 143:12.
Many believe these "prayers" (if it is even legitimate to call them "prayers") are beneath the dignity of the Christian and are not to be viewed as examples for us to follow. They are, rather, the expressions of man's sinful desire for vengeance on his enemies. These psalms, so some have said, are not God’s precepts but man’s “defective prayers”. They are “cold-blooded” expressions of “malignant cruelty” and must never be regarded as inspired of God.
We can’t dismiss the problem by insisting such prayers are found only in the Old Testament or that they reflect a sub-standard morality inappropriate to the New Testament Christian. Both testaments present the same perfect and exalted standard for life. God's moral law is immutable and is everywhere the same. We must be careful never to pit Scripture against Scripture, as if to suggest that the OT calls for a different, perhaps inferior, ethical response to one's enemies than does the NT.
Furthermore, one must address the fact that in the NT similar "imprecations" on the enemies of God are found (see especially Luke 10:10-16; Galatians 1:8; 5:12; 1 Corinthians 16:21-22; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10; 2 Timothy 4:14; Revelation 6:10; 19:1-2). Consider the prayer request: “Thy kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10). This is to invoke divine judgment on all other kingdoms and all those who oppose the reign of God. Even Jesus used imprecatory language in Matthew 23:13,15,16,23,24,27,29, and especially 23:33. See also his use of Psalm 41:8-10 in Matthew 26:23-24 as a pronouncement of God's judgment on Judas.
Consider Peter's citation of the imprecatory section in Psalms 69 and 109 in reference to Judas Iscariot: "For it is written in the book of Psalms, 'Let his homestead be made desolate, and let no man dwell in it'; and, 'His office let another man take'" (Acts 1:20). Peter is here citing an invocation of judgment and a curse against the one who betrayed God’s Messiah.
With these things in mind, let’s take note of ten things we should know about imprecations in the psalms.
(1) What we read in these OT Psalms are not emotionally uncontrolled outbursts by otherwise sane and compassionate people. Imprecations such as those listed above are found in high poetry and are the product of reasoned meditation (not to mention divine inspiration!). They are calculated petitions, not spontaneous explosions of a bad temper. Certainly there are examples in OT history and prose narrative of actions and attitudes that are sinful and not to be emulated. But the psalms are expressions of public worship to be modeled.
(2) We should remember that in Deuteronomy 27-28 the Levites pronounce imprecations against Israel if she proves unfaithful to the covenant. Israel, in accepting the law, brought herself under its sanctions. She in essence pronounced curses upon herself should she break the covenant, and God looked on their response with favor. In other words, God's people were commanded to pray for God's curses upon themselves if they forsook him! We must never think that God is any less severe on his own covenant people than he is on the unbelieving nations who are regularly given to idolatry.
(3) These prayers are not expressions of personal vengeance. In fact, most imprecations are in psalms written by David, perhaps the least vengeful man in the OT (consider his dealings with Saul, Nabal, Absalom, Shimei, etc.; see especially 2 Sam. 24:12). David never asks that he be allowed to “get even” with or “pay back” his enemies. His prayer is that God would act justly in dealing with transgressors. There is a vast difference between vindication and vindictiveness. David’s passion was for the triumph of divine justice, not the satisfaction of personal malice. The OT was as much opposed to seeking personal vengeance against one's personal enemies as is the NT (see Exod. 23:4-5; Lev. 19:17-18).
(4) We also must remember that imprecations are nothing more than human prayers based on divine promises. One is simply asking God to do what he has already said he will do (often repeatedly throughout the Psalms themselves). For example, in Matthew 7:23 Jesus declares that on the day of judgment he will say to hypocrites, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” Is it wrong for us to pray that Jesus do precisely that? Is it wrong for us to build a prayer on a promise? “Oh, Lord, cause those to depart from you who do evil,” appears to be a perfectly legitimate petition. (In this regard, compare Pss. 35:5 with 1:4; 58:6 with 3:7; 35:8 with 9:15; and 35:26 with 6:10.)
(5) Imprecations are expressions provoked by the horror of sin. David prayed this way because of his deep sensitivity to the ugliness of evil. Perhaps the chief reason why he wasn’t bothered by prayers of imprecation and we are is that he was bothered by sin and we aren’t! It is frightening to think that we can stand in the presence of evil and not be moved to pray as David did.
(6) The motivation behind such prayers is zeal for God’s righteousness, God’s honor, God’s reputation, and the triumph of God’s kingdom. Is our willingness to ignore blasphemy and overlook evil due to a deficiency in our love for God and his name? Could our reaction to the imprecatory psalms be traced to the fact that we love men and their favor more than we love God and his?
(7) Another factor to keep in mind is that David, being king, was God’s representative on earth. Thus, an attack on David was, in effect, an attack on God. David’s enemies were not his private opponents but adversaries of God. David’s ire is aroused because they “speak against you [God] with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain! Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?” (Psalm 139:20-21; cf. Psalm 5:10; emphasis mine).
(8) The prayers of imprecation are rarely, if ever, for the destruction of a specific individual but almost always of a class or group, namely, “the wicked” or “those who oppose Thee”.
(9) We must keep in mind that in most instances these prayers for divine judgment come only after extended efforts on the part of the psalmist to call the enemies of God to repentance. These are not cases of a momentary resistance to God but of unrepentant, recalcitrant, incessant, hardened and haughty defiance of him. In other words, the psalmist calls for divine judgment against them so long as they persist in their rebellion. We love our enemies by praying for their repentance. But if they callously and consistently refuse, our only recourse is to pray that God’s judgment be full and fair. It’s important to remember that there often comes a time in human sin when God withdraws his merciful hand and gives over the human heart to its chosen path. Paul described this in Romans 1. Jesus envisioned a pattern of sin so persistent and calloused that he declared it unforgivable (see Matthew 12:32; see also 1 Cor. 16:22).
(10) David knows that he needs spiritual protection lest he “hate” God’s enemies for personal reasons. That is why he concludes Psalm 139 with the prayer that God purify his motives and protect his heart:
“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (vv. 23-24)
Therefore, when David speaks of “hatred” for those who oppose God’s kingdom he is neither malicious nor bitter nor vindictive, nor moved by self-centered resentment. But he most certainly is jealous for God’s name and firmly at odds with those who blaspheme.