Can we pray the imprecatory psalms?

Not that I think sweeping statements are usually helpful, I do think Evangelical approaches to the Old Testament are often quite poor. I don’t mean scholarly ones so much as your ordinary, garden-variety itinerate speaker kind and the sort that often floats around in the pews. It often feels as though we simply don’t know what to do with the text and all the more so when it comes to its application to us today.

I think this is often the problem we face when we come to the imprecatory psalms. Consider, for example, what often happens with Psalm 139. We’re happy with the thought that God has perfect knowledge of me (vv1-6), the idea that God is always with me (vv7-12) and the idea that God knows me because he created me (vv13-18). We like those bits so happily read ourselves into them. But what about v19? ‘Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me!’ What do we do here? Skip that because it doesn’t fit? Ignore it because we don’t like it? Reading ourselves into the bits we like and ignoring the bits we don’t is a pretty sketchy approach to biblical interpretation.

Often, we explain away the imprecatory psalms with a wave of our hand and a blasé ‘Christ in all the scriptures’. And, of course, they do inevitably point to Christ. It is absolutely true that David regularly acts as a type of Christ and often the psalms do apply to us through the lens of what it tells us about Jesus. But even the most committed ‘Christ in all the scriptures’ advocate accepts that there is wider application than that. While the judgement of Christ is, no doubt, foreshadowed in the imprecatory psalms we can’t ignore the painfully obvious fact that David was praying them about a specific situation he was facing against real human enemies.

A point that bears stating is that the imprecatory psalms are always written from a position of victimisation and defencelessness. They are never triumphalist and always recognise God is the only source of divine judgement. They are not ever prayers for revenge but deliverance from evil being carried out by specific individuals. Nonetheless, I think we so (rightly) have Jesus’ call to love our enemies and bless those that persecute us ringing in our ears (cf. Rom 12:20; 1 Pet 3:9) that we often overlook the similarly biblical mandate to call out sin and evil for what they are and to, similarly rightly, seek God to do justice.

It also seems to me that there is an important distinction that seems relevant. There is a difference between cursing our enemies personally and asking God to curse his enemies. This seems to be the very careful approach of the archangel Michael. Jude 1:9 states, ‘when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgement, but said, “The Lord rebuke you”.’ Even against Satan, when he was making blasphemous pronouncements, Michael would not curse Satan but instead called on the Lord to do so. It is perhaps a subtle distinction but the first is to condemn people according to our own standards and make ourselves little gods; but calling on God to curse is to call on the divine judge to enact his justice against his enemies (who may, or may not, also be ours).

In fact, this is the only way to hold God’s justice and mercy in tension. It is to recognise that in his sovereignty God wants none to perish (cf. 2 Pet 3:9) yet simultaneously God considers it just to repay our enemies with affliction (cf. 2 Thess 1:6). How do we obey the biblical call for justice while also obeying the command to love our enemies and pray for them? It is to trust in God and to pray, as Jesus taught us, ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done’. It is right to pray for the ultimate good of our enemies – namely their salvation – whilst simultaneously asking the Lord to enact justice against their sin, even their sin directed against us. Indeed, in his sovereign goodness, the Lord may use his just judgement to bring about lasting repentance. It may be that in praying for the Lord’s justice to be done we may simultaneously be active in bring our enemies to true and lasting faith and repentance. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

William Ross argues thus: ‘While it is a terrible thing to desire God’s judgment to fall upon unrepentant creatures, it is worse still for evil to go unpunished’. This is necessarily true because our perfectly just God does, indeed, punish evil in unrepentant sinners. But, in his grace and mercy, he also uses his judgement to bring sinners to repentance and rebellious enemies to true faith in Christ.

What this means is there are times it is right to pray the imprecatory psalms. As Ecclesiastes 3:8 notes, ‘there is a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace’. Sometimes it is right for us to pray that the Lord would bring his justice against our enemies. We can simultaneously pray that, in his mercy, he would use such judgement to bring about true heart change. While we should mourn any unrepentant creature facing God’s righteous judgement, we should similarly decry a lack of justice. Thankfully, we have a good and sovereign God and ‘shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’