Praying the Psalms of Justice and Imprecation-Psalm 58

Praying the Psalms of Justice and Imprecation-Psalm 58

Not long ago I heard a report about my extended family. One family member had deeply hurt another family member years ago. An abuse situation. When I heard about this recently, I had three responses:

  1. I was saddened and grieved for the one who was hurt.
  2. When I considered the perpetrator, sadly I wasn’t surprised he had done this.
  3. I was very angry at the perpetrator. I wanted him to pay for his actions, and to pay badly.

When you see or experience extreme injustice, do you know HOW and WHAT to pray?
Here’s a prayer from the Bible, King David, where he is essentially cursing some people.
Psalm 58:3–8 CSB
The wicked go astray from the womb; liars wander about from birth. They have venom like the venom of a snake… God, knock the teeth out of their mouths; Lord, tear out the young lions’ fangs. May they vanish like water that flows by… Like a slug that moves along in slime, like a woman’s miscarried child, may they not see the sun.

Should we pray like that? We are Christ followers, and Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. So should we pray things like David did? There are numerous Psalms like this. What should we do with them?

We are Week 8 of our 10-week series called, Praying the Bible. The goal of this series is to teach us HOW to pray and WHAT to pray by looking at the Scriptures. HOW did Jesus pray? And Paul and David. WHAT did they pray?
This morning we are looking again at how to pray from the Psalms. The Psalms are like a prayer book.
Psalms are in the Bible for a reason. One, to teach us about God, his attributes, deeds. If you want to know God better, read the Psalms. Two, the Psalms give us the vocabulary and emotions to express ourselves to God in prayer.

Specifically this morning, we will look at Psalms of Justice. Or to be more precise, Psalms of Cursing.
And if we want to sound really impressive, we can call them Psalms of Imprecation. To “imprecate” is a $10 word that means, “to curse.” Some Psalms like Psalm 58 call to the God of heaven to bring judgment and curses upon certain people.
This morning I propose that we shouldn’t avoid reading such Psalms. We shouldn’t be embarrassed or shocked by them. We actually should value them.

And further, I want us to learn how to pray from Psalms like Psalm 58 with a New Testament, Christ-centered, gospel-focused perspective.

Read Psalm 58

I just read a few verses from Psalm 58. Now let’s read all of it. David writes:
Psalm 58 (CSB)
1 Do you really speak righteously, you mighty ones? Do you judge people fairly?
2 No, you practice injustice in your hearts; with your hands you weigh out violence in the land.
3 The wicked go astray from the womb; liars wander about from birth.
4 They have venom like the venom of a snake, like the deaf cobra that stops up its ears,
5 that does not listen to the sound of the charmers who skillfully weave spells.
6 God, knock the teeth out of their mouths; Lord, tear out the young lions’ fangs.
7 May they vanish like water that flows by; may they aim their blunted arrows.
8 Like a slug that moves along in slime, like a woman’s miscarried child, may they not see the sun.
9 Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns— whether green or burning— he will sweep them away.
10 The righteous one will rejoice when he sees the retribution; he will wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.
11 Then people will say, “Yes, there is a reward for the righteous! There is a God who judges on earth!”

Let’s examine this with some detail.

Vs. 1-2
David is praying for God’s justice on a specific group of people: The leaders of the people.
“You mighty ones. Do you judge people fairly?” No, they don’t!!
It’s important to realize that David is not praying about justice towards the average, everyday person. He is praying for God’s justice on leaders who are using their authority to mistreat the people. Injustices. Violence.
David is not praying about everyday hurts and sins, like, , “Lord, my wife was rude to me last night. I call down curses on her.” For us, this Psalm is not about justice for the guy driving in traffic who cuts you off. Or the neighbor whose trash is blowing into your yard.
David is seeing egregious sin in the world. Oppression and violence. And he is angry, and he wants justice.

Vs. 6-9
And he is praying some hard words.
“Knock their teeth out! These leaders are like lions devouring the people, so tear out their fangs.
“May they vanish from the earth. May they not see the sun.”
When we first read these hard words in vs. 6-9, I suspect there is a variety of reactions in this room.
Some of us love justice, and we think, “Yeah, those guys have it coming.” We might even think, “This is the best Psalm I’ve ever read!”
Others of us are extremely merciful and compassionate people, and we think, “That sounds so mean and vicious.” We might even be embarrassed by this Psalm. And we hope our non-Christian friends never read this.
But at the core, David is crying out for justice on these leaders who are like lions devouring the people. Who will protect the people? Who will bring them justice?

Vs. 10-11
The last two verses describe the glory of good, sound justice in this world.
“The righteous will rejoice when he sees God’s retribution in the world.
“The people will be glad and say, “Yes, there is a God who judges on earth!”

Injustices rightly infuriate us. And if you have ever been severely abused and mistreated, and the perpetrator has not paid for it, you understand this anger towards injustice. And justice, even earthly justice, is such a beautiful thing. When our legal systems is working well, the people are glad.

So now we might ask, “So how should I pray?? The gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of grace and mercy, so what do I do? Should I pray for justice, or should I pray for mercy?”
The answer is….Yes!! The answer is both! We are to love both justice AND mercy. I want to prove that to you.
And I want to show us how we can learn to pray for justice in this world, while at the same time bringing the gospel of mercy and grace to bear on our prayers.

Let us love justice

Let’s begin foundationally. We must learn to love justice. And we should love justice because God is a God of justice.
Look again at vs. 11 in our text today.
Then people will be glad and say, “… There is a God who judges on earth!”
God will judge this earth, and that will be a beautiful thing. Even a cause for rejoicing!

Psalm 99 tells us,
Psalm 99:4–5 CSB The mighty King loves justice. You have established fairness; you have administered justice and righteousness in Jacob. 5 Exalt the Lord our God; bow in worship at his footstool. He is holy.
Our God is just and holy. He loves what is good and right and true. He hates what is false and dark and evil. We should exalt and worship the Lord for it!!
So if God is the God of justice and holiness, shouldn’t we love what he loves and hate what he hates? This is David’s heart in Psalm 58. He is outraged that leaders in authority are ruthless and violent, harming the people they are assigned to care for and protect. What is the alternative? Do we expect David to merely shrug his shoulders at their evil behavior?
We have been created in the image of God, so it is right and pure to long for justice. That’s why when injustices happen, we should get angry.
• When a murderer isn’t found.
• When a wealthy man uses his riches to maneuver around the justice system while the poor man can’t afford to do that.
• When people are mistreated for the color of their skin or their ethnicity.
If I can be blunt, if such things don’t bother us, something is wrong with us. We should love justice because God loves justice.

In case you’re thinking right now, “Well, that’s just the Old Testament. The New Testament is different. It’s nicer.”
Here is one of dozens of examples: This week I was reading in Galatians, and Paul has some very, very strong words for spiritual leaders and teachers who preach a gospel of works and not the true gospel of the grace of Christ.
Galatians 1:8 CSB But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, a curse be on him!
Shockingly, Paul calls down curses from heaven to anyone who preaches a false gospel. Why? Because Paul knows that the stakes are at the highest. For a false gospel leads people away from salvation through Jesus. The more we see what is at stake with a false gospel, the more we will be incensed by anyone who leads someone away from Jesus.

So how should we pray in such situations? We begin by learning to love justice because our holy God loves justice, fairness, and righteousness.

Let us also love mercy!

Not only is God a God of justice, he is a God of mercy. So we should learn to love mercy.
The gospel is a story of mercy. Let’s read a passage about the gospel, that is, the good news of Jesus Christ.
But the good news begins with bad news.
Ephesians 2:1–3 CSB And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also.
All of us!! Dead in sins. We ALL….not just the really, really evil people out there….we ALL are spiritually dead. We have no life before God and in God. God Almighty, holy and just, is life and light. We are dead and in darkness.
And if it could be worse, it is: vs. 3 says we are ALL by nature children of wrath. Not children of God. Children under wrath.

If we think we are morally superior to all those really evil, vile sinners out there, we surely don’t know or have forgotten the basic gospel message, the same message we preached at Vacation Bible School to the children. The good news starts with bad news: We ALL are sinners, lost. In darkness. Lifeless. Children of wrath.
God’s justice that we want to see in the world first applies to us.

But the “good news” of the gospel is that our God is also a very, very, very merciful God.
Read carefully Paul’s next words:
Ephesians 2:4–6 CSB But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! He also raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus,
This holy and just God is also merciful and gracious. So he sent his Son to die in your place. To fulfill the righteous, holy demands of justice towards you, the Son took the wrath of his God and Father upon himself so that you could live. What you and need I to do is simply humble ourselves before him and believe that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The only Way to heaven.

Justice and mercy meet in the gospel

So in this gospel story reflected in this brief passage in Ephesians, we see that God’s justice and mercy have met. And not only did justice and mercy meet, they started dating, get engaged, and get married….all in three days. The three days from Jesus’ death to his resurrection. It’s by far the most beautiful wedding the world has ever seen. And this marriage is eternal.
One example:
1 Peter 3:18 CSB For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit,
Justice and mercy have met in the gospel.

So how should we pray?

Now let’s bring it all together. HOW can we learn to pray from these Psalms of Imprecation? And WHAT should we pray, especially as we keep the gospel of Christ in our minds.
Let me offer several ways we should pray.

  1. First, PRAY that we would love righteousness and hate wickedness.

Speaking of Jesus, Hebrews 1:9 says,
Hebrews 1:9 NIV You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.
The Lord Jesus loved what was right and good and holy, and he hated what is darkness and evil and destructive. And he had more joy than anyone. JOY!
Let us pray that we would be like Jesus, and love good and hate wrong. And, lest we be hypocrites, we want to love good and hate wrong in our own lives first. Not just the evil “out there” somewhere, but in our own hearts. This is to imitate God.

  1. PRAY FOR JUSTICE to be done in this world.

So if you love justice and righteousness, you will be angry and perhaps even outraged by leaders and evil people doing great harm to our society and to the church. Let Psalm 58 help you express that passion to God in prayer.
• Pray that criminals, murderers, human traffickers, and sexual abusers would be caught and prosecuted.
• Pray that our legal system would be fairer and more righteous.
• Pray that the Lord would raise up more godly, wise Christians to be police officers, attorneys, judges, and elected officials.
• Pray that members of the media who are promoting immoral and evil behavior would repent, turn to Christ, and stop their evil ways.
• Pray that persecutors of the church in various places around the world would stop their evil plots against Christians, and that like the Apostle Paul, the scales from their eyes would fall and they would see the light of Christ, repent, and believe.
• Pray like the Apostle Paul, that people spreading a false gospel would be stopped, for their doctrine is leading people away from eternal life and towards eternal destruction. The stakes could not be higher.

And in case you think that in heaven there is no yearning for justice, let’s read one remarkable scene. In Revelation 6, Christians who have been killed for their faith are crying out for justice.
Revelation 6:10 CSB They cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, the one who is holy and true, how long until you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?”
Even in this heavenly scene, God’s people have a yearning for justice. Absolutely remarkable.
Justice on this earth will never be done perfectly, yet we should ask the Lord for more justice.
And if you want perfect justice, which you should, pray the last words in the Bible:
Revelation 22:20 CSB Come, Lord Jesus!
When he comes as Judge of the whole earth, he will set things completely right.

  1. Pray for justice without seeking VENGEANCE.

This is not about vengeance. This is not about us personally being judge and jury over someone’s sins against you.
We don’t seek as the law of Moses said, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” (Exodus 21:22-24). You hurt me, now I’ll hurt you.

Instead, here is our calling in the gospel:
Romans 12:19 CSB Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for God’s wrath, because it is written, Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.
Understandably, when someone sins against us, we want justice, even vengeance. We are angry and hurt. This is understandable and normal.
So how do we get justice? We trust that the Lord will do his job, and that he will do it very, very well. This is a life of faith, for we cannot see how and when the Lord will do it, so we must trust his word and his nature.
This was the conclusion of David’s cursing prayer in Psalm 58:
Then people will be glad and say, “There is a God who judges on earth!”
Our Holy God is the Judge of all the earth, and we are not. And so we trust him to judge perfectly.

  1. In all this, pray in HUMILITY.

We pray for justice in this world, yet we must pray with a heart of humility. We don’t look down in self-righteous pride on all those “bad sinners” out there, for we remember Ephesians 2, that we were once lost ourselves, dead in our sins, and worthy of wrath. But God showed great mercy to us through Jesus. If not for his grace and mercy, we would be dead, subject to his wrath in eternal hell.
So we cast out all attitudes of self-righteousness and pride. We say, “Lord, I need you as much as anyone. Help me to walk in justice and righteousness in the same way I want it in others.”

  1. Pray also with a heart of MERCY.

To be honest, when I considered including this point, I found myself hesitating. Can I really say, “Seek a heart of mercy?” I hesitated because I know some of the injustices done to so many of you.
And some of those injustices are gut-wrenching and horrific to me. And in anger I find myself wanting to exact justice for you. To crush the perpetrator who did so much harm to you. I so relate to David’s prayer in Psalm 58.
So on one level, to urge us towards a heart of mercy sounds almost impossible because I want payback for you.
But I have to remember the gospel story. The story of what Jesus, the Holy Son of God endured is pain and injustice beyond our wildest imagination. More than you and I could ever know.
The Holy, Eternal Son of God was and is worthy of all praise, glory, and obedience. But instead of receiving that, his torturers stunningly said, “He is worthy of death.” (Matthew 26:66).
And they mistreated him brutally. Stripped him naked. Beat him mercilessly. And crucified him horrifically.
But what did Jesus say in his dying breath hanging on the cross?
Luke 23:34 CSB “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.”
Let those words sink in. In most unjust moment in the history of the world—without exaggeration—instead of seeking justice…instead of calling down 12 legions of angels from heaven to crush all those wicked men….Jesus took the injustice upon his own shoulders and pleaded for mercy towards all who hated him. And he did it because he loved us. And he loved us at our worst moments. While we were sinners.
The mercy of Jesus on the Cross ought to shock us profoundly, especially the more deeply we have been hurt. No one understands the injustices in your life more than Jesus. His heart of mercy towards these perpetrators is stunning!
And lest you think, “Well, sure, Jesus can do this, but I can’t. And no mere mortal can,” look at what the disciple Stephen prayed in his last seconds on earth as he was being killed for his faith.
Acts 7:60 ESV And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Do Stephen’s words sound familiar? They are essentially the same as Lord Jesus’s last words. Stephen’s prayer seems to me almost beyond human comprehension, even “other-worldly.” Somehow Stephen, by the grace of God and the power of the Spirit, entrust himself to the Lord Almighty. He was able to remember the extraordinary mercy shown to him through the cross, and then plead that same mercy for others.
It’s like praying, “Lord, this person has hurt me badly, and they deserve justice, even death. Yet I remember your mind-blowing mercy to me when Jesus took my punishment for sin. So Lord, would you show that same mercy to this person?”

So even while we pray for justice, we seek to have a heart of mercy.

  1. Pray without LOSING HEART over the many injustices in the world.

For some of us, myself included, the evil in this world overwhelms us and discourages us. We might be like Abraham’s nephew, Lot, in Genesis 19. Lot was surrounded by enormous evil in the city of Sodom. And it was agony to his soul.
2 Peter 2:7–8 ESV …he [the Lord] rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard)…
Like Lot, we can be greatly distressed over the evil around us.
Yet we must never despair, for in the end, the Lord reigns. He will win. All sin will be dealt with with beautiful, glorious justice. This thought helps me keep my sanity and not lose heart.
Look again at Psalm 58:10-11:
The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance… Then people will say, “Yes, there is a reward for the righteous! There is a God who judges on earth!”
We can rest in our souls. Rejoice that justice is coming!! The justice of God in the coming kingdom will be a glorious day!

Conclusion

Let me conclude with this:
We need a robust theology of both justice and mercy. And we find this as we grow in knowing God better and better.
One of the best ways to know God better is to read the Psalms. Read all of them, including the Psalms of Imprecation. We discover there who God really is.
And we discover the passion of the psalmists to know God.
I love David’s words here:
Psalm 27:4 NIV One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.
Let us seek to know the God of justice AND of mercy. Let us read the Psalms of Imprecation to know him better. Let the Psalms stir in us a yearning for justice in this world.
And let us read the gospel story of Jesus, where justice and mercy have met, when Jesus, in his great mercy, became cursed for us.