Imprecatory Prayers (a meditation)

Imprecatory is not a word that gets much use these days, but if you ever do a theological study on the various psalms, it is a word you will come across. The Book of Psalms carries a wide range of human emotion in response to world events, personal happenings, and the work of God in each.

When you read through the Psalms, on occasion you will encounter verses like these:

Rise up, O God, and scatter your enemies. Let those who hate God run for their lives. Blow them away like smoke. Melt them like wax in a fire. Let the wicked perish in the presence of God. ~Psalm 68:1-2

These verses form a prayer asking God to bring bad things upon evil people. This is what the word imprecatory means. Sometimes people wonder, based on prayers such as these found in various psalms, is it okay to pray imprecatory prayers today against one’s enemies. A few biblical principles will help us answer that question.

First, the Psalms are God’s inspired word through the Holy Spirit given for our benefit. This is what we read about in places such as 2 Timothy 3:16-17 where we are told that all scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for our growth in Jesus.

Second, God’s nature is the same in both the Old Testament and the New. Some people believe that the “God of the Old Testament” is different than the “God of the New Testament” in that in the Old Testament he is vengeful and in the New he is loving. If you read through both the Old and the New, you will find that God is consistently righteous and loving, wrathful and gracious. God’s nature doesn’t change. Old Testament and New paint God as being perfectly righteous yet also perfectly loving. He pours out his wrath upon sin and at the same time bestows favor upon those who trust in him.

The same Jesus who taught us to love our enemies and our neighbors, and gave his own life for ours on the cross, also pronounced great woes upon bad religious leaders (Matthew 23), cleared out the temple by turning over tables and using a whip (John 2:13-16), and is described by John in Revelation 6:15-17 as having wrath against the wicked. God is loving and righteous.

Third, Jesus told us that in loving our enemies we are to pray for our enemies. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard the law says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say to you love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!” (Matthew 5:43-44)

In other words, Jesus expected his people to forego their demands for personal vengeance, and instead lift up their enemies in prayer to God. This is one of the many things Jesus tells us to do that is contrary to human nature.

And fourth, a scene from heaven depicts martyred Christians as crying out to God for justice and vengeance. We see this in Revelation 6:9-11. These saints who are crying out in an imprecatory way are not rebuked for their statements, but rather told to wait a little while longer. This accords with what Paul teaches at the end of Romans 12 about not taking out our own vengeance, but rather doing good to our enemies and leave judgment to God.

Altogether, I believe we find the following to be the normal expectation of the Christian when it comes to imprecatory prayers: Our main job is to love all those around us, our enemies included. Even when they do evil to us, we are to do good to them, including praying for them. At times, however, especially as we work through the pain of being hurt, we may pray an imprecatory prayer to God against his enemies and ours. These prayers, though, are not personal pronunciations of judgment but rather acts of trust in the God who both saves and judges.

Even should the occasion arise that we cry out to God against our enemies, our greater hope should still ultimately be their repentance and salvation. Praying for our enemies should be normal. Praying against our enemies in times of pain or distress is not wrong so long as in the prayer we are trusting God to act in his will and way, and not using these prayers as a personal cover for our own wrath.

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

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