Why the Church Needs to Pray the Imprecatory Psalms
For those unfamiliar with the term "imprecatory," that word describes sections where the wicked are cursed in the psalms ("imprecation" meaning a curse against someone). Here are a few examples.
Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me. For there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue. 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. -Ps. 5:8-10
How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealousy burn like fire? Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call upon your name! -Ps. 79:5-6
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, 'Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!' O 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 against the rock! -Psalm 137:7-9
Are Christians to pray such prayers? Citing Jesus' words to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" found in Matthew 5:44, many do not think so.
In War Psalms of the Prince of Prince, a book about the imprecatory psalms, author James Adams warns about what he calls “evangelical plastic surgeons.” According to Adams, these surgeons are ministers and churches that are afraid to pray for judgment against the enemies of God, and especially to use such prayers like these that are expressed in the psalms. Adams cites several references of evangelical authors who have what should be considered less than orthodox views regarding such prayers.
For instance, Halley’s Bible Handbook, a standard reference book, states that “prayers (in the psalms) are not God’s pronouncements of His wrath on the wicked; but are the prayers of a man for vengeance on his enemies, just the opposite of Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemies…in Old Testament times God…for expedience’ sake, accommodated Himself to Men’s ideas. In New Testament times God began to deal with men according to His own ideas.”
This way of thinking is widespread. The Pulpit Commentary says, “So with this (Psalm 35) and other imprecatory psalms, they give us, not God’s precept, but man’s defective prayer.” Even such an esteemed author as C.S. Lewis, in his work Reflections on the Psalms, refers to the imprecatory psalms as “devilish” and “diabolical.”
Are we really to think of these psalms in this way? No, for Jesus' words cited above from Matthew regarding loving and praying for our enemies do not serve as a "trump card" over all the prayers of imprecation in the Bible. Rather, it is a call not to act and pray with personal vengeance, but rather remember that vengeance belongs to the Lord (Rom. 12:20-21). As Adams reminds us, the imprecatory prayers of the psalms are precursors to the prayer “Thy kingdom come” from the Lord’s Prayer. We are to pray and expect God to protect and deliver the church from her enemies.
Sadly, an aversion exists in the church today to pray Biblically and realistically in light of what the Bible teaches. So let me offer another quote, this time a good one, from John Piper. Piper reminds us in Let the Nations be Glad! that “Life is war,” and prayer is designed to “extend the kingdom of God into fruitless enemy territory.” The church must remember when she assembles that she is at war with this world.
The early church knew this. When threatened by Herod, in Acts 4 the church assembled and prayed, quoting a psalm calling for God to act in their defense and to grant them boldness in heralding the gospel (Acts 4:23-31). Similarly, the martyred saints in heaven under the altar cried out with a loud voice, giving psalmodic echoes as they did, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:9-11). To sort of quote an old hymn, "If it was good enough for the early church, it's good enough for my church."
In all seriousness, as we see such things as the Islamic threats to the church continue, the Chinese church suffering threats and persecution, and increased hostility toward the church in the West, we need to learn to pray prayers strong enough to meet the challenges and humble enough to cast our full dependency on God. The Lord has given us such prayers right in the heart of our Bibles, the very prayer language of the Holy Spirit. Will the church pray them?