Psalms of Imprecation

Psalms of Imprecation


Psalms of Imprecation

Brad Barrett

The Book of Psalms is comprised of 150 psalms with diverse themes in its prayers, themes like praise, thanksgiving, lament, and penitence. One theme, however, might strike the Christian as unusual: that of justice, where the psalmist prays for God’s justice, even curses, to come down upon the enemy. The theme of these psalms is often called, “imprecation,” which means, “to utter curses.”

Here are a few examples:

Psalm 11:6 ESV Let him rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.

Psalm 17:13–14 ESV Arise, O Lord! Confront him, subdue him! Deliver my soul from the wicked by your sword, from men by your hand, O Lord, from men of the world whose portion is in this life. You fill their womb with treasure; they are satisfied with children, and they leave their abundance to their infants.

Psalm 58:6–9 ESV O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord! Let them vanish like water that runs away; when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted. Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime, like the stillborn child who never sees the sun. Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns, whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!

Psalm 139:19–22 ESV Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me! They speak against you 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? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.

See also Psalm 7:1-17, 52:5-7, 69:22-28, 109:6-20, 137:7-9.

What should believers under the New Covenant think about Psalms of imprecation? Should we pray like this? Here are some considerations based on the Scriptures.

1. We should not avoid reading these Psalms as if they are somehow evil or embarrassing, nor should we try to “sanitize” the psalms and explain them away. God has placed them in his Scriptures for a reason, so it is upon us to find that reason and then read the Psalms appropriately. We need to develop a robust theology on justice.

2. Most of these Psalms of imprecation reveal that the enemies were not your average sinner like an unsaved neighbor we might have. These enemies were very evil and unrepentant with deceit, violence, oppression, and malice in heart and deed. They were in violation of God’s laws, scorning the Lord. Psalm 55:3,9-11,15,20-21.

3. A cry for justice is a beautiful, even necessary thing, for the Lord is a God of justice. And his judgment will be righteous, equitable, and severe. All deserve wrath. Psalms 33:5, 37:28, 72:1-4, 98:7-9, Hebrews 10:31, Revelation 6:9-11, 20:11-15.

4. Both Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT) preach God’s judgment. Compare these OT/NT pairs of passages as examples: Psalm 2:9 and Revelation 19:15. Psalm 110:5 and Romans 2:5. Psalm 79:6 and 2 Thessalonians 1:8.

5. Christ is the ultimate judge, and nothing will escape his notice. In the end, all things will be sorted out by him; all wrongs will be made right, and all right will be rewarded. So we pray with the assurance that the Lord is attentive and just. 1 Corinthians 4:4-5, Revelation 19:11-21, 20:11-15.

6. We are not to seek personal vengeance, but leave that to the Lord and instead overcome evil with good. Romans 12:17-21.

7. We are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We are to correct opponents to the gospel with patience and gentleness with the hope that they might repent. Matthew 5:38-48, 2 Timothy 2:24-26.

8. Many in our culture want a soft God who is not “judgmental.” However, people groups all over the world and over the centuries who are suffering injustices (e.g., abuse, human trafficking, racism, war, violence) instinctively seek justice. It is normal, natural, and even healthy. So we should pray for justice to be accomplished and for evil to be thwarted in our world.

9. Judgment is not only a future, heavenly issue; it is also for our time. One of government’s roles from God is to bring justice on the earth. So we can pray for earthly justice, e.g., perpetrators be thwarted, caught, and prosecuted according to governmental laws. This is good and necessary, so we pray for our government to accomplish their God-ordained role. Romans 13:1-7.

10. The apostles in their writings understood that the wrath of God is being revealed now and will be fully revealed some day, and they offered strong words against those who are rebelling, including those who are teaching false doctrine and leading others astray. Romans 1:18, 2:4-5; 1 Corinthians 16:22; Galatians 1:8-9; 2 Peter 2:1-22; 1 Timothy 1:20; 2 Timothy 3:1-9, 4:14-15.

11. This future wrath is a comfort and hope to believers who are suffering at the hands of evil men. See 2 Peter 2-3 where Peter writes extensively on this topic, ensuring the believers that judgment is coming. So we pray for persecuted believers to find hope in future justice.

12. To pray for the Lord Jesus’ return is, in part, to pray for justice on the earth. 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10.

13. One of the purposes of the Psalms is to help us engage our emotions with God through prayer. The raw language of some of these Psalms of imprecation is startling: outrage, tears, confusion, vengeance. But such Psalms can be like a mirror to our own souls, expressing emotions we already have but are ignorant of or afraid to express to God. We may be shocked to be that honest with God, but he is not shocked. So we can imitate the psalmists in their prayers as we consider the fullness of the Scriptures such as those listed above.

In a blog on this topic, Trevin Wax says this:

“Instead of seeing the imprecatory psalms as a problematic or outdated mode of praying, Laurence believes these are “the prayer-pangs of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”. We pray against “violently unjust predators who prowl after and pounce upon the innocent” and “the unwarranted assaults of the wicked” that “terrorize the godly.”

“The New Testament does shape our mode of praying these psalms, of course, as we no longer live in ancient Israel. And we can see how Jesus becomes the fulfillment of these prayers—both in assuming his role as the perfectly innocent king who receives vindication and in becoming the One cursed for our transgressions, bearing the weight of the world’s sin.

• In and alongside Christ, we pray for God to enact justice, rather than take vengeance into our own hands.

• We pray God would thwart the schemes of the wicked, with hopes he might exercise mercy and judgment by rescuing the evildoer from sin through repentance or by stopping the schemes that lead to injustice.

• We pray against Satan and the spiritual forces that war against us, that seek to desecrate our earthly temples by leading us to unfaithfulness.

• We even direct these prayers to our own sins, asking God to be ruthless in purging our hearts of all evil and temptation.

“We pray the cursing prayers. They’re in the Psalter for a reason.”