What do you think about the “other” side? Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35). The Psalmist writes:“Do I not hate. . . I hate them with a perfect hatred” (Psalm 139:21-22).
Though this Psalm is not considered one of the Psalms of malediction, or curse, or imprecation, it expresses a strong sentiment regarding hatred, which reflects some of the responses in a society that has just watched a contentious election. How should the believer now pray in response to what he or she might consider an “evil” outcome in the election, or against the “evil” people who sought to stymie the good outcome of the election? Shall the believer pray, “let an accuser [Hb. Satan] stand at his right hand. . . let his prayer be accounted as sin. . . Let his children be fatherless. . . Let curses come upon him” (Psalm 109:6, 7, 8, 9, 17)?
C.S. Lewis writes: “In some of the Psalms the spirit of hatred which strikes us I the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth. In others the same spirit ceases to be frightful only by becoming (to a modern mind) almost comic in its naivety” (Lewis, “Reflections on the Psalms” in Selected Works. London; Harper Collins, 2002, 319). Day, in “The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics” calls these Psalms an “eminently troublesome portion of the Scriptures” (Bibliotheca Sacra vol. 159 no. 634 [Apr 02],167). These and other concerns have been expressed for years. For example, as far back as 1862 Edwards A. Park writes this common theme: “The Imprecatory Psalms, in a special manner, are thought to be ill suited for modern times” (Bibliotheca Sacra vol. 19 no. 73 [Jan 1862], 166).
Yet, there are times when a different spirit has prevailed. W.A. Jarrel wrote in 1919: “the civilized world cries out for justice upon the Hun, while our boys have emphasized the cry with their life’s blood. God pity the person whose soul is not imprecatory, as well as otherwise.” (“The Hun And The Imprecatory Psalms” Bibliotheca Sacra vol. 76 no. 302 [April 1919], 231).
This cry for Justice is seemingly etched upon the heart of every person, so that the poet Milton prayed, “Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints.” (Ibid.). William Matheson has written: “universally amongst mankind a principle is recognized which we call justice” (“Justice in the Social Order” Westminster Theological Journal, vol. 08, no. 2. [May 1946], 128).
Justice and the Imprecatory Psalter
It is “justice” that allows the reader to come to a reasonable understanding of the so called Imprecatory Psalms. These Psalms come in several varieties, but principally, as either personal, or national pleas for justice against a foe, who cannot otherwise be brought to justice, than an appeal to divine retribution. As John Day argues, these Psalms are not cries for personal revenge. One should observe four things at the outset (“The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics”, 169):
- First, the vengeance appealed for is not personally enacted; rather God is called on to execute vengeance.
- Second, these appeals are based on God’s covenant promises, most notable of which are these: “The one who curses you, I will curse” (Gen. 12:3), and “I will render vengeance on My adversaries, and I will repay those who hate Me” (Deut. 32:41). And since God has given these promises, His people are not wrong in petitioning Him to fulfill those promises.
- Third, both testaments record examples of God’s people justly calling down curses or crying for vengeance, without any intimation that God disapproved of such sentiments.
- Fourth, Scripture further records an instance in which God’s people in heaven, where there is no sin, cry out for divine vengeance and are comforted by the assurance of its near enactment (Rev. 6:9–11). Since these martyred saints are presumably perfected, their entreaty should not be considered wrong.
Richard Belcher reminds the reader that these Psalms were not prayed from position of power, but rather from positions of desperate injustice and weakness. “Those who have not lost that much have trouble with these psalms” he argues, “but those who have been victimized and plundered understand the expressions of these psalms”. What they cry out is, “a desire to see justice established again”. Further he notes, many objectors have “a shallow view of evil and wickedness” (The Messiah and the Psalms. Glasgow; Mentor Press, 2006 ,78).
Perhaps the perfect example of this is the context from which Psalm 137, one of the most aggressive of the imprecatory Psalms is written. It is written while in exile in Babylon “by the waters of Babylon” (137:1). The Babylonians had swept over Judah in a practical apocalypse. The people lost all that was most cherished in regards to their identity: “the city of Jerusalem, the temple, and sons and daughters (Ezek 24:25). Their whole way of life has fallen apart, and they are being taunted by their captors” (Belcher, 78).
One might liken the situation to the September 11 attacks of Al Qaida on the Twin Towers. But add to it, a successful assault on DC wiping the entire city off the map, and followed by a systematic raid capturing and slaughtering all the children in a genocide intended to wipe out the strength of the next generation of Americans.
How might one react? When the nation is no longer functional, to whom can one appeal for justice? Would prayer for the destruction of Al Qaida be appropriate?
Psalm 109 expresses the plea of David for true justice. It is interesting to contemplate that although he is King, and could “engineer” personal justice, he did not do so. Instead he turns to God and asks for God to act, “on my behalf for your name’s sake” (Psalm 109: 21). God’s reputation is at stake because as is noted in psalm 89, “Righteousness and justice are the foundations of your throne” (89:14). When the Davidic king needs justice and cannot find it through human law, he turns to the font of justice, God himself.
I love the footnote in Day’s article which explains such a situation to a young child:
F. G. Hibbard notes an enlightening illustration in this regard, which occurred in his family: “I happened to be reading one of the imprecatory psalms, and as I paused to remark, my little boy, a lad of ten years, asked with some earnestness: ‘Father, do you think it right for a good man to pray for the destruction of his enemies like that?’ and at the same time referred me to Christ as praying for his enemies. I paused a moment to know how to shape the reply so as to fully meet and satisfy his enquiry, and then said, ‘My son, if an assassin should enter the house by night, and murder your mother, and then escape, and the sheriff and citizens were all out in pursuit, trying to catch him, would you not pray to God that they might succeed and arrest him, and that he might be brought to justice?’ ‘Oh, yes!’ said he, ‘but I never saw it so before. I did not know that that was the meaning of these Psalms.’ ‘Yes,’ said I, ‘my son, the men against whom David prays were bloody men, men of falsehood and crime, enemies to the peace of society, seeking his own life, and unless they were arrested and their wicked devices defeated, many innocent persons must suffer.’ The explanation perfectly satisfied his mind” (The Psalms Chronologically Arranged, with Historical Introductions; and a General Introduction to the Whole Book, 5th ed. [New York: Carlton & Porter, 1856], 120).
Jesus and Justice
Jesus is the King of Israel (and the world). His destiny is that: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David,  and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:32-33 ESV). The Davidic King was required to hold a “scepter of uprightness” and to love “righteousness” and hate “wickedness” (Psalm 45:6). Jesus the ultimate fulfillment of this Psalm (cf. Hebrews 1:8-9), is seen to do just that.
When Jesus saw injustice he spoke out, demanding of the unjust that they remember “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt 23:23). He defends the powerless, “who devour widow’s houses” stating, “they will receive the greater condemnation” (Luke 20:47).
Final recompense will come to all, under the reign of the King of glory, when “”the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne” (Matthew 25:31). From his throne he will give to each, his just reward (cf. Vv. 32-46 and esp. Rev. 22:12).
The Christian and Justice
The Christian is to love the things his Lord loves. “Religion that is pure and undefiled” is defined as the exercise of justice in James 1:27, “to deliver orphans and widows” the powerless of that day, “from their affliction”.
Every believer who prays the Lord’s prayer, “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven” (Matthew 6:10) is praying for the day when “the Lord jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God” (1 Thes. 1:8-9) and to do justice by repaying “with affliction those who afflict” the saints (6).
Yet, at the same time the believer is commanded to engage in prayers “for all people”, that is for their benefit (1 Tim 3:1). Or in Jesus words, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Our goal is to seek the salvation of all people (Matt. 28:19-20), not the condemnation of all. However, there is a time, when we are not to pray for the benefit of certain people: “There is a sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for them person” (1 John 5:16).
Perhaps it is here that the Psalms come to our aide, as they teach us how to pray rightly.
The Christian and Imprecation
Jesus (Matt 24:13) and Paul (Galatians 1:8,9) both utter imprecations against the recalcitrant enemies of the gospel. Though scholars debate the meaning of the passage, one likely interpretation of 2 Cor. 12:7’s “thorn in the flesh. . . a messenger from satan” is that espoused by John MacArthur: “Paul’s use of the word “messenger” (Greek, angelos, or angel) from Satan suggests the “thorn in the flesh” (lit., “a stake for the flesh”) was a demonized person, not a physical illness.” (MacArthur Study Bible note). If that is the case, Paul’s prayer that God would “remove” it, would be a plea to the Lord for justice against an enemy.
How and when it is appropriate for a Christian to pray a curse against an enemy is deeply challenging. If the believer is not to allow his or her flesh to intervene for sinful self vengeance, the observations made by Belcher, concerning the Imprecatory Psalms come to the rescue. He can be summarized as saying:
1) There is no dichotomy between the OT and NT. “The Old Testament and the New Testament agree on the subject of personal revenge”, it is to be left to the Lord (cf. Rom 12:19 quoting Deut. 32:35). 2) The circumstances are clearly total loss and helplessness at the hands of complete injustice. 3) The justice called for is to be carried out by God: “the matter is left in God’s hands with no intention for anyone other than God to bring about the desired outcome”. 4) The call is for the establishment of God’s righteous cause, not the cause of the person uttering the curse. 5) The Psalms relate these curses to the covenant promises of God, especially the Abrahamic promise: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse”. 6) Jesus far from disavowing the covenant promises, is instead the fulfillment of them. In his first coming he came to bring the blessings, in his second coming he will bring the curses (77-81).
Thus “We pray for our enemies, but is is also legitimate that we pray for the destruction of those who violently oppose the kingdom of Christ” (Belcher, 83). As Day states, “These prayers are a divinely appointed source of power for beleivers in their powerlessness. . . in the face of sustained injustice. . . They are the Christian’s hope” (186).
Cautions for the Christian
Sin, however, it must be remembered, is insidious. Paul reminds us that it does its business by “producing death in me through what is good” (Romans 7:13). Even the holy “law” (7:6), can be twisted into sinful uses. For this reason Paul writes a warning with a key if, “the law is good, if one uses it lawfully” (1 Timothy 1:8). How much more easily could the emotions of anger and bitterness rise to turn an appeal for justice into something else?
Despite the flaws in much of his argumentation regarding these Imprecatory Psalms, Lewis does address a key application. These Psalms reflect a kind of sentiment, which outside of the bounds of biblical justice (that is when corrupted by human sin), reflect “resentment, expressing itself with perfect freedom” and undisguised “hatred”, or the sin nature, “in its ‘wild’ or natural state” (Lewis, 320). While we have already said we must be ourselves on guard against such a corruption, there is the matter of causing our brother or sister to stumble that ought to be addressed (cf. Rom 14:20-21).
Lewis urges the believer to remember that when he or she hurts another person, or acts unjustly toward them, the heart of man turns toward these raw expressions and “in addition to the original injury I have done him a far worse one. I have introduced into his inner life, at best a new temptation, at worst a new besetting sin. If that sin utterly corrupts him, I have in a sense debauched or seduced him. I was the tempter.” (321).
Wisdom would suggest that the believer be very hesitant in ever praying a specific imprecation against an enemy, for as Paul reminds us concerning the foremost opponents of the early Church: “As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers” (Romans 11:28).
At the same time when Al Qaida attacks, or when a rapist or murderer is on the run: “the civilized world cries out for justice . . . God pity the person whose soul is not imprecatory, as well as otherwise.” (“The Hun And The Imprecatory Psalms” Bibliotheca Sacra vol. 76 no. 302 [April 1919], 231).