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  • Writer's pictureDon Walker

Imprecatory Prayers

Within the Scriptures we find certain prayers which people find disturbing, namely the so-called “imprecatory” (cursing) prayers. Many find these prayers to be in conflict with Christ’s admonition to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44). Is there a “disconnect” between these two things? How do these prayers align themselves with the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27)?

The Bible contains explicit curses against the wicked. Moses cursed Pharaoh (Ex. 9:16), Samuel cursed Saul (I Sam. 13:13-14; 15:28), Elijah and Micaiah cursed Ahab (I Kings 21:17-24; 22:19-23), Amos cursed Israel (Amos 9:9-10), Jesus cursed the Pharisees (Matt. 23), Paul cursed Hymenaeus and Alexander (I Tim. 1:20; II Tim. 4:14). In Revelation, we find the saints who had been martyred, crying out for God’s vengeance on their persecutors. In the Book of Psalms we find Psalm 10, 83 and 94, which are almost completely imprecatory. In fact, almost every Psalm has imprecatory passages. To call for God’s blessing on the righteous is, by implication, asking Him not to bless the wicked. Martin Luther stated, “I cannot pray without cursing” every blessing implies a curse.

How do we, as Bible-believing Christians, view these curses uttered by the psalmists, the prophets, and the saints? Unfortunately, Halley’s Bible Handbook, in addressing this issue of the imprecatory psalms, expresses an erroneous perspective by stating: “In Old Testament times God, in measure, for expedience’ sake, accommodated Himself to men’s ideas. In the New Testament times God began to deal with men according to His own ideas” (p. 191).

This is a blatant rejection of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and a resurgence of the ancient heresy of Marcionism. This places the God of the Old Testament in opposition with the God of the New. It is also an example of idolatry, since our sinful condition disposes us to be more fond of our own ideas than God’s Word. To quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “We are more fond of our own thoughts than the thoughts of the Bible.” We cannot push these scriptures aside, as if they are not part of Holy Writ. Remember the words of the Apostle Paul, “All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Tim.3:16-17).

The rejection of any part of God’s Word is a rejection of the giver of that Word, God Himself. The proper response should be in the vein of Charles Spurgeon’s comment on Psalm 109. Spurgeon said, “Truly this is one of the hard places of Scripture, a passage which the soul trembles to read, yet it is as a Psalm unto God, and given by inspiration, it is not ours to sit in judgment upon it, but to bow our ear to what God the Lord would speak to us therein.”

We cannot “spiritualize” away the fact that these curses are directed toward people. Some have proposed that these curses should be understood as being directed against demon spirits. This ignores the specific language of the text, the historical circumstances, and the nature of the direction of these prayers. How can a spiritual entity be “slain” or experience the variety of things spoken of in these prayers? Should we then spiritualize loving our enemies as being directed toward demons? We recognize that our warfare is not ultimately “against flesh and blood” (Ephes. 6:12), but it is an inescapable reality that demonic forces work through “flesh and blood.” It is people who oppose the advance of Christ’s kingdom, influenced by spiritual forces undoubtedly, but still human beings. Human beings who, unless they repent, will face the wrath of God.

God’s Word properly understood is not contradictory, rather it presents both sides of truth. God is a God of love, but at the same time He is a God of justice. Jesus is certainly the loving Savior who forgives sin, but He is also the one coming in judgment on those who disobey His gospel (II Thess. 1:6-10). In Matthew 23,

Jesus pronounces the “woes” of judgment upon those who He declares to be “hypocrites.” Is this an inconsistency with Christ’s message of love? On the contrary, this is His loving warning to the wicked to repent, for all those who fail to come to repentance will be overtaken by God’s curses.

Allow me to present four perspectives we need to bear in mind, as we examine the place of imprecatory prayers:

(1) The Christological Perspective. The Book of Psalms is the prayer “record” of the Son praying to the Father. This is even true for the passages where He confesses His “sins,” because they eloquently show how completely He “became sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (II Cor. 5:21). Dietrich Bonnhoeffer, in his book, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, makes this observation:

“According to the witness of the Bible, David is, as the anointed king of the chosen people of God, a prototype of Jesus Christ. What happens to him happens to him for the sake of the one who is in him and who is said to proceed from him, namely Jesus Christ. And he is not unaware of this, but “being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants upon his throne, he foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ” (Acts 2:30f.). David was a witness to Christ in his office, in his life, and in his words. The New Testament says even more. In the Psalms of David the promised Christ himself already speaks (Hebrews 2:12; 10:5) or, as may also be indicated, the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 3:7). These same words which David spoke, therefore, the future Messiah spoke through him. The prayers of David were prayed also by Christ. Or better, Christ himself prayed them through his forerunner David.”

J. H. Webster makes this profound statement in his work, The Psalms in Worship, regarding the imprecatory psalms:

“David, for example, was a type and spokesman of Christ, and the imprecatory Psalms are expressions of the infinite justice of the God-man, of his indignation against wrong-doing, of His compassion for the wronged. They reveal the feelings of His heart and the sentiments of his mind regarding sin.”

The question is “Who is praying for God to destroy His enemies?” If you were to ask God to destroy your personal enemies, that would be sinful and in conflict with the teaching of Jesus (Matt. 5:43-48) and the admonition of Scripture to “bless and curse not” (Rom. 12:14). But if Jesus, the Prince of Peace, asks God to destroy His enemies, that is a totally different matter.

It must also be remembered that the law’s curses were fulfilled upon Christ, the wrath of God being poured out on Him. The imprecatory prayers of Scripture were applied to Jesus, so they would not be applied to His people.

(2) The Soteriological Perspective. In prayer, we are not simply praying for the defeat of God’s enemies, but for their salvation as well. Even terrifying enemies of Christ and His Church have been gloriously converted, such as Saul of Tarsus. The issue is the glory of God and the good of the Church, and we should always desire their conversion. We recognize, of course, that some enemies will simply not be converted, and must be removed in some other way.

(3) The Ecclesiological Perspective. Imprecatory prayers are not a personal matter by which we proclaim judgment on those we dislike, or even persecute us. Personally, we must show love and compassion to all men. When James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans, Jesus rebuked them, saying, “You know not what kind of spirit you are of” (Luke 9:54-55). In order for us to pray these prayers we must realize that they are not expressions of personal vengeance.

Curses should be pronounced officially, under the authority of the church, and against those who seek to destroy the church. The Church is given the task of governing the earth and waging spiritual warfare against the enemies of Christ, who hinder her from accomplishing her task. We pray for Christ’s enemies to be removed, not primarily to avoid hardship and suffering, but so Christ’s kingdom might be advanced.

(4) The Eschatological Perspective. All accounts are not settled in this life. There awaits a final judgment at the end of history. We must trust in the final vindication of the righteous and the condemnation of the wicked. God did not immediately manifest His wrath against the persecutors of the apostles, and neither will He in our day.

The attitude and disposition of our Lord Jesus Christ, in declaring judgment on the city of Jerusalem, was one of grief and sorrow (Matt. 23:37-39). God takes no delight in the destruction of the wicked (Ezek. 33:11). Proverbs 24:17 says, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.” Let us approach the imprecatory prayers with a heart grieved over those lost and perishing.

Nevertheless, as Cornelius Van Til stated: “It is at all times the task of the people of God to destroy evil. Once we see this we do not, for instance, meanly apologize for the imprecatory psalms but glory in them.”

Let us glory in God’s truth revealed to us in the imprecatory psalms.

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