Article of the Month

 

 

 

 May We Pray the
Imprecatory Psalms?

by James E. Adams


Is There a Need?

Do you use the Psalms as your own prayer book? Are the people to whom you minister learning to pray from the Psalms? Most Christians are in the habit of entering into the spirit of some of the Psalms as prayers of their own. Probably every human passion or emotion is expressed in the Psalms. So on any given day a Christian may pick up the Psalms and find a vivid expression of his feelings of the moment, whether discouragement, ecstasy, or simply “hanging in there.”

Seeing the Psalms as prayers of the Lord Jesus Christ will deepen your understanding of His heart, His sufferings, and His victory on your behalf. But how do these prayers of Christ become your own personal expressions to God? And how can you who are pastors help the sheep of your flocks to pray the imprecatory psalms?

You may say, “This is the last thing my church needs! If our hearts are lazy and cold to pray for those we love, how can we think of praying for enemies, as we find in the Psalms?” But I would challenge you, isn’t this the cause of our lack of prayer? We have not learned from the Lord Jesus how to pray!

Many Christians are like little children who don’t ever want to acknowledge being taught anything by another. You will often hear them say, “I know that!” Or, if you ask them where they learned something, they will answer, “I just know it!” as though knowledge began within themselves. Do we have the maturity to recognize that even as Christians we do not pray rightly simply by instinct? The very disciples who were constantly in our Lord’s physical presence for instruction felt their need for help in learning to pray. How much more do we need to confess that we are totally unable to pray on our own and humbly ask with those disciples of old, “Lord, teach us to pray”!

The Lord Christ responded by giving them a pattern of prayer in the Lord’s Prayer. And when we explore carefully, we find to our amazement that all the praises and petitions of the Psalms fit beautifully under the individual phrases of the Lord’s Prayer. In fact, the prayers of Christ in the Psalms can serve as an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, teaching us to pray as Jesus taught His disciples.

The petition, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” often, overlooked as merely introductory, is really pivotal. Here Christ teaches us to pray for the victory of His kingdom. Can we truly utter this prayer without perceiving that our request involves the complete overthrow of Satan’s kingdom and all his followers? Martin Luther, that great disciple of Christ in prayer, pointed out that when one prays, “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” then

he must put all the opposition to this in one pile and say: “Curses, maledictions and disgrace upon every other name and every other kingdom. May they be ruined and torn apart and may all their schemes and wisdom and plans run aground.”1

We must be candid enough to acknowledge that to pray for the extension of God’s kingdom is to solicit the destruction of all other kingdoms. This is the unique prayer life of the disciples of Christ. When we pray as Jesus taught us, we cry out to God for His blessings upon His church and for His curses upon the kingdom of the evil one. As Harry Mennega succinctly stated, “Advance and victory for the Church means retreat and defeat for the kingdom of darkness.”2

Mennega’s excellent unpublished master’s thesis gives practical instruction on the prayer life of the Christian:

It is the peculiarly balanced prayer life that the Christian must foster. He is obligated to pray for the conversion of sinners, of those who are now identified with the kingdom of darkness; this he must do in the interest of God’s glory. At the same time and in the same interest he must pray for the coming of God’s kingdom which involves necessarily praying for the destruction of the kingdom of evil and those who are identified with it. It is in this tension that the Christian must live. Since he does not know who are permanently identified with the kingdom of evil he cannot pray for the doom of known individuals in the way the psalmists did and rather must show love to all people, even his enemies. Yet this prayer for their conversion is accompanied by a prayer for the overthrow of Satan’s kingdom, a kingdom which cannot be conceived of apart from its concrete embodiment in actual persons in history.3

Christian Prayer Is Different From Natural Human Emotions

Part of the pastor’s work is to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry. Since prayer is a vital component of life and ministry, he must teach God’s people how to pray. And what is Christian prayer? It is not just expressing the needs of our heart.

For then we confuse wishes, hopes, sighs, laments, rejoicing—all of which the heart can do by itself—with prayer. Prayer is more than just an expression of emotion. It is finding the way to God and speaking with Him, whether the heart is full or empty. No man can do that by himself. For that he needs Jesus Christ.4

When we appropriate the prayers of Jesus Christ we are praying acceptably. Only through-His merits are we ever heard by God. Joining Christ, the Head of the church, in praying the Psalms, we make all of our prayers known to God in the name of Jesus. “In Jesus’ name” is not to be merely a ritual or a religious formula but the key that opens God’s ear for all sinners.

Closer Look at Psalm 83

As an example of how to pray a specific psalm of imprecation let us consider Psalm 83. This psalm begins with a vigorous cry for help: “O God, do not keep silent; be not quiet, O God, be not still.” Then in verses 2-8 the adversary is recognized as those who “plot together” against God and His people, and the schemes of the wicked are disclosed. In the third section of the psalm we find prayers of vengeance (imprecations) against the enemies of the Lord (vv. 9-15). Finally, in verses 16-18 we are given the sacred purpose of all the prayers of justice: “Cover their faces with shame so that men will seek your name, O Lord. May they ever be ashamed and dismayed; may they perish in disgrace.”

How can this become your prayer for today? Well, let me ask, are the forces of evil now fewer in number, power, or boldness than then? On the contrary, the ten enemies named there that set themselves up against God have been multiplied many times over in our day. The whole world has announced its rebellion against God. Even the latest “scientific” technology is being used to mold and promote a godless society.

But we may well wonder, in what manner can God be attacked—with atom bombs? Absurd! God is truly the exalted One. He sits in the heavens untouched by the puny attacks of men. But the psalmist had noticed the clever way men make their attack upon God: “See how your enemies are astir, how your foes rear their heads. With cunning they conspire against your people; they plot against those you cherish” (vv. 2-3). What form does their assault take? They pounce upon God’s people! And that attack is real, just as real as if they were using atom bombs.

Christians today undergo not only physical persecution but daily attempts of the enemy to destroy the church of Jesus Christ from within: temptation to sin, discouragement, and jealousy. We are bombarded on every front. Have you observed that many television commercials are part of an organized onslaught to breakdown the fortress of the faithful and turn God’s people from His way to paths of rebellion against Him? We are constantly prodded to go after what we “deserve.” These clever and persuasive tools instruct us how to “double our pleasure,” and even tell us that “weekends were made for Michelob.” Evildoers have not changed so much.

"Come,” they say, “let us destroy them as a nation, that the name of Israel be remembered no more.” With one mind they plot together; they form an alliance against you (vv. 4-5).

The enemies of God are bent on destroying the people of God. This psalm is a prayer for help not just in its original context hundreds of years ago, but for today as well. Its petition is needed as never before by today’s people of God in their righteous cause.

How does Christ pray? As we read the psalm we find him asking God: Do to them what you did to others in the past!

Do to them as you did to Midian, as you did to Sisera and Jabin at the river Kishon, who perished at Endor and became like refuse on the ground (vv. 9-10).

The story of Sisera in the book of Judges provides a painfully vivid example of God’s judgment on the wicked. Sisera, as you remember, was a commander in the army of Canaan. “Because he had nine hundred iron chariots and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the Lord for help” (Judg. 4:3). God’s response to that cry for help is given in the following verses:

The Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera abandoned his chariot and fled on foot.. . All the troops of Sisera fell by the sword; not a man was left (vv. 15-16).

The account goes on to describe with deliberate detail how Sisera then escaped to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, where he was warmly welcomed:

“Come, my lord, come right in. Don’t be afraid.” So he entered her tent, and she put a covering over him. “I’m thirsty,” he said. “Please give me some water.” She opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him up. “Stand in the doorway of the tent,” he told her. “if someone comes by and asks you, ‘Is anyone here?’ say ‘No.’” But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died (Judg. 4:18-21).

Are we to pray that God will do this to our personal enemies:  “O God, pound a tent peg into their head!”? Listen carefully to the words of Deborah and Barak’s song celebrating the victory:

He asked for water, and she gave him milk in a bowl fit for nobles she brought him curdled milk Her hand reached for the tent peg, her right hand for the workman’s hammer. She struck Sisera, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple. At her feet he sank, he fell; there he lay. At her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell—dead (Judg. 5:25-27).

So, do we say: “Do it again, Lord! Do that to my own enemy!”? Never! Never may God’s people pray so out of a spirit of personal vengeance against their enemies. Do we need to be reminded again of our Commander’s orders to love even our enemies?

Without assistance how can we ever righteously pray this prayer? I answer this question unequivocally: We never can! We cannot pray this prayer on our own. . . not because we are too good, but rather because we are too prone to evil! Yet we must learn to pray it. How?

First, We Must Learn to Pray in Christ

If we cannot offer any prayer apart from Jesus Christ, how much less this prayer of God’s wrath and vengeance! As we abide in Christ we learn what it is to pray, “not my will but thine be done.” We request not our own personal advancement or victory over our private enemies but rather the advancement of His kingdom—that His enemies be destroyed. When the enemies of God attack us, we deliberately lay down the sword of personal revenge. If we attempt to avenge ourselves we are still seeking our own way, taking things into our own hands.

To pray the imprecations of the Psalms is to surrender all rights for vengeance to God. It means being prepared to suffer and to endure without personal revenge or hatred as Christ did. It involves being gentle and loving even when I am reviled and persecuted. It encompasses acknowledging in all my ways that God’s cause is more important than I am.

 In fact, to understand fully the imprecations in the Psalms it is essential to remember that “the welfare of man is not the chief end of man” (not even the welfare of redeemed man). Do not forget “that we sinful creatures have no inherent rights which our holy Maker must respect” (not even rights to pursue our own defense).

God may, without violating any obligation, take any man’s life at any time and in any way; and that it is one with this for God to inspire the Psalmjst to pray that he should do so in a particular instance, the prayer itself being altogether proper since it is divinely inspired.5

We must learn to pray Christ’s imprecations just as He taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” Only in Christ can we truly make these prayers for Christian victory.

Second, God’s Word Is the Foundation

The psalmist is pleading, As you have faithfully destroyed the wicked in the past, do so now. This is the essence of his request:

“May all who have set themselves against you be destroyed.” We have observed that such a prayer may not be made because of personal hatred or revenge. Never!

But there was an earlier scriptural principle and precedent that guided even the psalmist’s attitude. Hundreds of years before the Psalms were written God had said through His prophet Moses:

If you do not carefully follow all the words of this law, which are written in this book, and do not revere this glorious and awesome name—the Lord your God—the Lord will send fearful plagues on you and your descendants, harsh and prolonged disasters, and severe and lingering illnesses. He will bring upon you all the diseases of Egypt that you dreaded, and they will cling to you. The Lord will also bring on you every kind of sickness and disaster not recorded in this Book of the Law until you are destroyed. You who were as numerous as the stars in the sky will be left but few in number, because you did not obey the Lord your God. Just as it pleased the Lord to make you prosper and increase in number, so it will please him to ruin and destroy you. You will be uprooted from the land you are entering to possess (Deut. 28:58-63).

The covenant God made with His people included curses for disobedience as well as blessings for obedience. Deuteronomy 27 records the formal giving and receiving of the covenant terms in an awesome account:

    The Levites shall recite to all the people of Israel in a loud voice:

       “Cursed is the man who carves an image or casts an idol—a  thing detestable to the Lord, the work of the craftsman’s hands— and sets it up in secret.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!

       “Cursed is the man who dishonors his father or his mother.”
    Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

       “Cursed is the man who moves his neighbor’s boundary stone.”
    Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

       “Cursed is the man who leads the blind astray on the road.”
    Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

       “Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow.”
    Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

       “Cursed is the man who sleeps with his father’s wife, for he dishonors his father’s bed.”
    Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

       “Cursed is the man who has sexual relations with any animal.”
    Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

       “Cursed is the man who sleeps with his sister, the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

       “Cursed is the man who sleeps with his mother-in-law.”
    Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

       “Cursed is the man who kills his neighbor secretly.”
    Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

       “Cursed is the man who accepts a bribe to kill an innocent person.”
    Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

       “Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.”
    Then all the people shall say, “Amen!” (vv. 14-26).

Do you see how important it is to grasp the significance of the Old Testament foundations we have been given? If God pronounced a curse even upon His own covenant people, how much more will He destroy the ungodly who rebel against Him? Men set up their own kingdoms, but God has set up His King upon His holy hill, and of those who dare to defy Him, we are told, He “will dash them to pieces like pottery” (Ps. 2:9).

Do you pray that this curse may come upon the enemies of God today? Do you ask God to destroy His enemies today as He has in the past? Do you who are pastors instruct your people in this kind of prayer? Surely you must if you pray in line with God’s Word and His promises for the future. Isn’t this the very essence of New Testament prophecies?

Does any passage in the entire Old Testament tell more powerfully of God’s paying back “trouble” to those who trouble the people of God than these covenant curses? And once again we find the New Testament echoing the same spirit when it says in 2 Thessalonians:

God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you (1:6-10).

We must pray these psalms based on God’s prophetic Word of “everlasting destruction.” The issue at hand is not, Does this psalm express my desires of this moment? but rather, Is my desire truly, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done”?

Third, Conversion Is the Goal of Our Prayer

In verse 16 of the psalm we are given one of the reasons that we should desire that the enemy be brought down. As we pray with the psalmist, “Cover their faces with shame,” do we again wonder, “Why?” It is not out of personal hatred or the spirit of a vendetta. Neither is it so that we can gloat over their destruction. Of course not! Our prayer must be, with the psalmist, “so that men will seek your name, O Lord.” Why are we taught to pray for God’s judgment on the enemy? So that they will be converted! Nothing could be clearer from this prayer.

“Wait a minute!” says the modern scholar. “I can’t accept that!” Mitchell Dahood, recognized Ugaritic scholar of the Anchor Bible, for instance, argues that to pray for the conversion of the enemy in this way “is hardly amenable to coherent exegesis within the immediate context and does not accord with the pervading spirit of this Psalm.”6 Then this particular scholar proposes to solve the dilemma he created by changing the text of Scripture! But we are handling God’s own Word, given with purpose. God is revealing to us a primary reason to utter these powerful prayers in Jesus Christ: we pray so that by means of God’s judgment they will be converted.

Isn’t the same principle repeatedly at work in Scripture? How often do we see God’s judgment leading men to repentance! Look at the example of Saul of Tarsus, the great persecutor of the early church, who in his rebellion against Christ was brought to blindness on the road to Damascus. He was granted repentance, faith, and much understanding. Later as the inspired apostle, Paul adds to the clear New Testament witness on this issue:

Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance? (Rom. 2:2-4).

God consistently leads men to Himself through judgment. There are certain conclusions we can draw from this truth that will help us pray with understanding.

1. No affliction or judgment is too great if it causes us to seek the Lord!
Verse 13 pleads, “Make them like tumbleweed,” that is, rootless and homeless, blown about by the wind. This would be but the kindness of God if it causes men to seek the Lord. Ask King Nebuchadnezzar if his becoming temporarily like an ox did not result in great blessing. Hear him finally seeking and praising God after seven years of judgment:

At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?” (Dan. 4:34-35).

David Dickson, a Puritan commentator on the Psalms, had it right when he wrote,

If any of the enemies of God’s people belong to God’s election, the Church’s prayer against them giveth way to their conversion, and seeketh no more than that the judgment should follow them, only until they acknowledge their sin, turn, and seek God.7

Verses 14-15 picture a raging forest fire that completely routs the enemy from its land. How can this result in conversions? The land of Afghanistan gives us a sobering present-day example of this judgment. Afghanistan has been closed to the gospel with very few Christians in the entire country for many years. As a people they have rejected God’s good news, and consequently they have experienced harsh judgment in many forms. But the dreaded invasion of the Soviet troops caused many Afghans to flee to refugee camps outside the borders of their country. In the turmoil and constant change of these camps many Afghans have come to seek the Lord. Some of these are now returning to their homeland as new creatures in Christ, taking the good news of Jesus Christ to their own people. They were covered with shame so that they would seek the Lord.

No judgment is too great if it drives people to seek the true God in Jesus Christ. We must learn to pray with this understanding for evil men today. Yes, we ardently desire that they will be led by God’s judgment to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and be saved—even the worst of enemies!

2. All will experience either conversion or final judgment.
“But what if they don’t ever seek the Lord?” you may ask. We must desire with the same intensity that if they continue in rebellion they will incur God’s final judgment.8

Luther’s exposition of John 17:9 gives us careful instruction and a true illustration of this prayer for our enemies:

We should pray that our enemies be converted and become our friends, and if not, that their doing and designing be bound to fail and have no success and that their persons perish rather than the Gospel and the kingdom of Christ. Thus the saintly martyr Anastasia, a wealthy, noble Roman matron, prayed against her husband, an idolatrous and terrible ravager of Christians, who had flung her into a horrible prison, in which she had to stay and die. There she lay and wrote to the saintly Chrysogonus diligently to pray for her husband that, if possible, he be converted and believe; but if not, that’he be unable to carry out his plans and that he soon make an end of his ravaging. Thus she prayed him to death, for he went to war and did not return home. So we, too, pray for our angry enemies, not that God protect and strengthen them in their ways, as we pray for Christians, or that He help them, but that they be converted, if they can be; or, if they refuse, that God oppose them, stop them and end the game to their harm and misfortune.9

3. Here is hope for revival!
Could it be that God may bring revival to many lands through judgment? God’s judgment has caused the most godless of people to seek the Lord. Wasn’t this Habakkuk’s prayer? After knowing of God’s judgment he cried out: “Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy” (Hab. 3:2; see Ps. 11:6; Prov. 25:22; Rom. 12:20).

4. The end purpose of all our prayer is that God may be glorified.
God’s glory stands sublime and towers over all of creation. That Jehovah has made everything for “his own purpose” is a fundamental truth of both Testaments. Proverbs 16:4 dearly states that even the wicked were created for the day of evil. God’s glory is truly the greatest good.

Needed Today: A Revolution in Prayer

The revolution that Copernicus spearheaded in the realm of cosmology challenged a worldwide misconception of his time. His research proved the radical notion that the true center of the solar system was not the earth but the sun. In his classic work, Revolution of the Celestial Orbs, Copernicus showed that the prevailing conception of the cosmos needed drastic change.

In a similar way today we need to challenge Christendom which has itself as the prime focus of existence. Can we not recognize the error of having our prayers revolve around our feelings, wants, and comforts? Have our prayers become so man-centered that we actually cringe to utter prayers that have God’s glory as their final end? This is indeed the fearful condition of the church today. We need a Copernican revolution in our prayers! What a difference we would see if the church began to perceive that God’s absolute glory is truly the center. May the centrality of God, and God alone, be the goal of our learning!

Let this be the prayer of our hearts: “O Christ, come in power and show forth the glory of God. Bring judgment to the wicked that they may seek you . . . and if not, O God, destroy all who won’t bow to you. Let them know that only you, whose name is the Lord, are the Most High over all the earth.”

Lord, teach us to pray: “If anyone does not love the Lord, a curse be on him. Come, O Lord!” (1 Cor. 16:22).

Questions for Thought and Discussion

  1. Read and study the Psalms with the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer in mind and note how they correspond.
  2. Show how a balanced presentation of God’s love and God’s wrath will lead men to know that He alone is the Most High over all the earth. (See Ps. 83:18b.)
  3. What grand end is in view in the prayers of vengeance?
  4. How should the Christian not use these psalms?
  5. How do the prayers of imprecation enable the Christian to endure and triumph over persecution?
  6. Note the correlation between Old Testament promises of judgment and those in the New, especially as recorded in Hebrews 2:1-3; 3:1-4:12; 10:26-31; 12:22-28.
  7. Why do we need to pray all the prayers the Bible teaches? (Can our conscience be a sufficient or autonomous guide to prayer?)
  8. Should we always pray for peace, plenty, and prosperity?
  9. Discuss and be aware of the revolutionary difference between man-centered and God-centered prayer.


Notes

  1. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia,  1956), 21:101.
  2. Harry Mennega, “The Ethical Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms” (master’s thesis, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1959), p. 93.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible (Minneapolis, Augsburg, 1970), p. 10.
  5. Meredith C. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), p. 161.
  6. Mitchell Dahood, The Anchor Bible, vol. 17, Psalms II (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968), p. 277.
  7. David Dickson, Commentary on the Psalms (Minneapolis: Klock and Klock, 1980), 2:67.
  8. See John Stott, Christian Counter-Culture (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1978), p. 117.
  9. Martin Luther What Luther Says (St. Louis: Concordia, 1959), p. 1100. 

 Author

 James E. Adams is a pastor and the author of Decisional Regeneration and Liberacion El Evangelio de Dios. He earned the D.Min. degree from Westminster Theological Seminary, California. He served as a missionary in Latin America and has taught courses in theology both there and in the United States.

This article is from War Psalms of the Prince of Peace: Lessons from the Imprecatory Psalms, published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Phillipsburg, New Jersey. It appears as chapter 5 in that excellent book.



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