The Christian Use of the Imprecatory Psalms

Last week an interesting article appeared on one of my favorite blogs, Reformation 21entitled “ISIS and the Imprecatory Psalms.” Excited to see how the Psalm portions that involve praying the covenantal curses against the enemies of God would be treated, I eagerly read it.  Author Carleton Wynne, using the fullness of the revelation given to us in the New Testament, makes many good points about the historical rootedness of these prayers, wrongful applications of them, the ultimate fulfillment they will have in the final judgment, and the Christian spirit in which they should now be prayed.  The article is well worth a read.

Providentially, I just completed a teaching course on preaching, where one assignment the students had was to develop a sermon from the imprecatory Psalms.  As we discussed this article, we felt that one thought that runs through the article was a bit unsatisfying.  Though he makes some concession to praying for justice in this life, Wynne seems uncomfortable with prayers for imminent justice when he asks and answers the following question at the end.

So may we pray the imprecatory Psalms today? No, in the sense that Christians today may not pray the imprecatory Psalms with outstretched finger, identifying enemies who do them harm and praying for their imminent physical and eternal destruction.”

We noted that he did not cite New Testament passages where cries and warnings of imminent justice for certain perpetrators of wickedness do certainly appear to be the case, such as: Jesus declaring the woes and destruction coming in a generation on the leaders of Jerusalem in Matthew 23-24; the early church praying against Herod’s persecution in Acts 4; the scene in Revelation 6 of the beheaded saints of the early church praying, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”  The answer to that last question is just a little longer (Revelation 6:11).

So I thought I would share with you excerpts from four of those students with a wide range of backgrounds so you could hear their treatment.

From Psalm 31 by local PCUSA student Jason Coley:

Yet is there even a place in our modern culture for the wrath of God? In this nation that is more concerned with comfort than compassion, more concerned with fairness and political correctness than true justice and righteousness, in this culture more obsessed with selfies than with caring for others? Less than one week ago, Japanese reporter and fellow Christian Kenji Goto was executed by the terrorist group Islamic State. Here is a part of what they said to the Japanese government, “You, like your foolish allies in the Satanic coalition, have yet to understand that we, by Allah’s grace, are an Islamic caliphate with authority and power, an entire army thirsty for your blood.” These words were spoken on video by Kenji’s captors right before they recorded his beheading and released the video for the entire world to see.

Yes, there is still a place for the wrath of God. It is right and indeed necessary to call upon the Lord to silence evil men. But you must not neglect, in calling for their silence, the prayers for their salvation. Your apologetic must not end with hell. You must pray fervently for the salvation of the reprobate. Because what better way is there to silence a wicked man than to turn His heart to the Lord. So, pray for your persecutors. Pray for those who persecute your Christian brothers and sisters. Pray that their evil words would be silenced and their evil deeds stopped either by salvation or by Sheol. Implore the Lord to intervene and trust that He will work out His plan of redemption and preserve His people. Call upon your God because He is able and He is willing to answer. So Christian, call upon the Lord to quiet the words of the wicked.”

From Psalm 28 by Singaporean Presbyterian Hau Tzeng Au Yeong:

Most of you know the parable of the importunate widow in Luke 18. It is the definitive lesson of how we ought to pray and not to lose heart. But do you remember what specifically is to be prayed for as we go unrelentingly before God’s throne? “Give me justice!” Or in Psalm 28:4, “Give to them according to their work and according to the evil of their deeds; give to them according to the work of their hands; render them their due reward.” “Give them justice!” And hear what Jesus says, “will not God avenge his own elect, who cry unto Him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, He will avenge them speedily” (Luke 18:7).

From Psalm 10 by Haitian Baptist Perry Tima:

The allegations here present as fearful a picture of human wickedness as any contained in the Bible. He sets before us pride, persecution, boasting, ridicule, denial of providence, hardness, scorn, evil-speaking, defying, denying of God, oppression and crushing of the poor, and expected impunity since the wicked man believes God won’t notice. The wicked man is under the illusion that God does not see.

What appeared to trouble David is what may also bring discouragement to you today. David asked God in verse 1, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of troubles?” In light of these horrific facts, along with God’s perceived silence, let’s be honest.  We all can get discouraged.  Yet don’t be discouraged by the world’s hostility!

Remember that the One who watches over Israel neither slumber nor sleeps! You must also remember that our “Lord is compassionate and gracious; slow to anger and abounding in love.” (Ps. 103:8; Ex. 34:6-7). Now let me be very clear since preaching on God’s wrath is somewhat foreign to our twenty-first century America. God gives sinners time to acknowledge their sins and repent of them before He punishes them. You and I ought to pray fervently that sinners would repent.

However, when time has passed and God decides to punish, He acts quickly. For instance, God waited to punish Sodom and Gomorrah until they had sinned greatly. The Bible says in Psalm 2:12, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment.” Yes, God is slow to anger in that He gives people a long time to repent, yet He is quick to condemn sin and quick to punish it when the time comes. This is not easy to preach but it is the Gospel so it must be preached.

From Psalm 40 by a Reformed Presbyterian from India Venkatesh Gopalakrishnan:

David prays against them not out of personal vendetta, but out of the profound knowledge that they are ultimately not opposing him, but God. These enemies were trying to overthrow not David’s kingdom but God’s kingdom, since it was God who appointed David.

You can be sure that David sees these people as not just his enemies, but as God’s enemies by noticing the way he contrasts them with God’s people in verse 16. Those who seek the prosperity of David are those who seek God, are those who rejoice and are glad in God, and those who love God’s salvation and great is the Lord.

It was simply impossible to profess faith in the God of Israel and oppose David, the Lord’s anointed one. So, David is praying against God’s enemies, not his own.

And brothers and sisters, you too can pray these prayers keeping Jesus in mind. You must never be ashamed of these prayers, but pray them confidently against all those forces of evil that are arrayed against Jesus, the final anointed one of God. Jesus himself, like David, prayed these prayers when he said to the Pharisees, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him” (Mat 21:43-44).

Jesus also this kind of prayer against Judas when he said, “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Mat 26:24). So, brothers, let us not be ashamed of these words in the Psalms. Let us not try to pretend that we can be more merciful and gracious than our Lord was. But when we pray, let us never pray these against individuals, since we do not know who is an elect of God and who is not. But let us pray these prayers against principalities and powers and against spiritual forces of evil against heavenly places.

So, let us pray against the evil of Islam that is keeping millions of people in darkness in the Middle East. Let us pray it against Planned Parenthood which is slaughtering millions of babies in this country. And as we were reminded yesterday, let us pray it against all of those liberal forms of Christianity which while professing a form of godliness deny its very power.

So, beloved, since you are in the Lord’s army, you are in battle against all these forces of evil that are trying to harm our Lord and you and his people. When you are pursued and attacked by them, confidently cry out for help against these enemies. These prayers are your battle cries.

In closing, I will note that three of the students who are not quoted here are from a communist nation. Their treatments certainly contained calls for us in the Western church to pray for imminent justice to arrive on behalf of the persecuted church in their homeland, that the teeth of the dragon would be smashed.  May we be strengthened to do so.

4 Comments

  1. Steve Rockhill February 23, 2015 at 12:28 pm #

    Thanks Barry for filling in the gap of Wynne’s article with this response. As we see more and more of this kind of evil being perpetrated in the world (especially against Christians) I believe the imprecatory psalms will be a great source of strength and comfort for God’s people as they have in the past. I am also greatly encouraged that students from such a diverse background are grasping the treasure of God found in the Psalms. May they take that with them in their ministries as the Lord calls them.

    • Barry York February 23, 2015 at 6:38 pm #

      Thanks, Steve, and Amen!

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