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Praying the Imprecatory Psalms by Stanley Gale (BreakPoint)

God's Hard Words

Sometimes people post Bible verses in their homes for encouragement, or to remind themselves of something. My guess is not too many people have this passage from Psalm 137 posted on their refrigerator door:

O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (Psalm 137:8-9)

A framed print of that passage likely wouldn’t be a big seller at your local Christian bookstore. Here are some others you probably won’t see on sale:

Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer; call his wickedness to account till you find none. (Psalm 10:15)

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. (Psalm 58:6-8)

The Psalms are wonderful places to which we can retreat to find comfort and refreshment and courage to press on. Yet the Psalms are filled with passages like these, imprecatory passages that pronounce malediction instead of benediction. In some cases, whole Psalms seem to be dominated by malediction, such as Psalm 35 or 58 or 83 or 109, so much so that they are designated “imprecatory psalms.” Yet these imprecations are not just isolated to certain Psalms; they are spread across the Psalter, many even employed as calls to worship and impetus for rejoicing.

Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more! Bless the Lord, O my soul! Praise the Lord! (Psalm 104:35)

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness. (Psalm 96:11-13)

When was the last time you, in your prayers, addressed God as the psalmist does: “O Lord, God of vengeance, O God of vengeance,” and then asked Him to “Rise up, O judge of the earth; repay to the proud what they deserve!” (Psalm 94:1-2)?

What’s going on? Are these tar pits we need to avoid as we make our way through the green pastures and still waters of the Psalms’ landscape? A while back I encouraged my congregation to begin praying the psalms because doing so would enrich their prayer life, give greater variety to their prayers, and increase their vocabulary concerning God and what they pray for. I put together a schedule of praying through the Psalms in 100 days. Some in the congregation expressed to me their discomfort when they would come upon these imprecatory sections. They didn’t know what to do with them. What do you do when you get to passages like these? We wonder what sentiments like that are even doing in the Bible.

Let me suggest four features of these imprecations that inform our prayer through the Psalter and enrich our prayer lives in communion with God.

1. These imprecations record the word of God.
What do we make of these harsh statements that are hard to read, let alone pray or find application in our lives? How do we reconcile Christ’s call to love our enemies with these prayers that desire their ruin? It’s easy—and some scholars have gone this way—to see these imprecations as pre-Christian or even anti-Christian. Some chalk it up to the Old Testament and say that’s a harshness of bygone days that has no part in the Christian mentality. Others might find the voice of Satan recorded in the pages of Holy Writ, akin to Job 1 or Matthew 4. Or perhaps it is the simply the misguided words of man, such as those of Job’s counselors.

None of that works, however. We can’t divide the Bible that way. For one thing, the New Testament affirms the Old Testament by citing the Psalms throughout, including these imprecatory Psalms, even to the point of quoting the sections we have such trouble with.

Certainly, the Old Testament expresses things in candid, concrete ways and deals with a warfare that is physical (as with the wars King David fought with fierce brutality). Psalm 137 places itself as a song and a prayer of the old covenant people of God in their Babylonian captivity, separated from their homeland, the temple demolished, having experienced unspeakable horror and cruelties as part of the warfare of the time. But we can’t just dismiss these expressions of a cry for justice as belonging to a time of the brutalities of ancient warfare.

The Psalms are Hebrew poetry. They employ vocabulary that is vivid and evocative. They are rich in metaphor. Perhaps something of the imprecatory language of the psalms can be chalked up to poetic license, and is not meant to be taken with literal cruelty. However, even expressed with poetic imagery, the sentiments that make us uneasy express the mind of God. The images drip with the truth of wrath and vengeance.

Nor, if the Bible is the Word of God, can we dismiss these statements because we find them offensive or confusing. Spurgeon, in commenting on Psalm 109, says this:

Truly this is one of the hard places of Scripture, a passage which the soul trembles to read, yet as it is a Psalm unto God, and given by inspiration, it is not ours to sit in judgment of it, but to bow our ear to what God the Lord would speak to us therein.

Not only that, but if the Bible is a redemptive document that holds a unified message of God’s salvation in His Messiah, then we can’t neglect these imprecations if we would understand the work of Jesus Christ in that redemption of sinners. Christ is both the subject of the Psalms and the singer of the Psalms.

Therefore, when we pray: We need to receive these imprecations of the Psalms as the revealed Word of our God that they are, inspired of the Holy Spirit, disclosing His will for application in our lives.

2. These imprecations reflect the character of God.
One of the benefits of praying through the Psalms is that it gives us a full-bodied, balanced, large picture of our God with all of His attributes. He is a God who is not only our loving Father; He is a terrifying Judge. He is merciful and He is just. He is near and personal in relationship. He is holy and transcendent. And this God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament. What do we learn about God from these imprecatory Psalms as part of God’s self-revelation?

The psalmist in Psalm 137:7 asks God to “remember.” On what basis does he do so? On what basis can he call for and actually expect God to repay his enemies? How can the psalmist possibly say that the one who exacts vengeance of his oppressors is “blessed?”

The name used of God in verse 7, by which the psalmist implores Him to remember, is Yahweh, the covenant name of God. To use that name for God is to highlight that covenant relationship, where God promised to be their God and to be with them and care for them. Just as when we address someone saying, “Doctor, what’s wrong with me?” or “Officer, arrest that man,” or “Boss, what do you want me to do now?” we approach them on the basis of their relationship to us. Here the psalmist calls out the name of God by which He entered into relationship with them. He is their God; they are His people. It is to say, “Yahweh, you who are with us and for us, take note; take action.”

But “Yahweh” speaks of more than relationship. Doesn’t the covenant say that those who are with God will be blessed and those who are against Him will be cursed? Doesn’t this theme that distinguishes those who know God and those who do not carry right through the Bible? Notice the sober thought of 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 that carries this covenantal concept from the Old Testament through the New Testament, reaching to the age to come:

. . . since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10)

Consistently throughout the pages of Scripture, malediction is pronounced against those who reject God and His covenant, while benediction is pronounced for those who are covenant-keepers. When the Bible says we are blessed because Christ became a curse for us, aren’t we using covenantal language? When parents in baptism hear the covenant promises, acknowledge their children to be sinners and in need of Jesus, they are affirming that the salvation blessings of the covenant are bound up in Christ, and so they teach their children about Jesus as the refuge from the wrath to come as they themselves have by God’s grace taken refuge in that provision of God through faith.

Therefore, when we pray: we come before a God who is loving and merciful, but also holy and just, who will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, and whom we approach only through our mediator, Jesus Christ. These imprecations remind us of the character of our God as judge and of the awful fate that awaits those who reject Him. The imprecations of the Psalms give us but a taste of this judgment and are tame compared to how terrifying it is to fall into the hands of the living God.

3. These imprecations react out of zeal for God.
When we read these imprecations, they seem so vindictive, and we have such trouble reconciling them with the call to love our enemies, or Christ’s example of forgiveness, even from the cross, to those who crucified Him. Are these imprecations directing us to pray for someone’s harm?

A pastor made news recently by urging his congregation to pray the imprecations of Psalm 109 against those he identified as the enemies of God. That would mean asking God:

May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow! May his children wander about and beg, seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit! May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil! Let there be none to extend kindness to him, nor any to pity his fatherless children! (Psalm 109:9-12)

Are we to heed that call and use the imprecations as our prayer list against the flesh-and-blood adversaries of Christ and His Church?

One of the basic principles of justice given us by God for the way we treat others is this: “vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord.” That’s an Old Testament quote from Deuteronomy 32 and cited in Psalm 94. It is applied by Paul in Romans where he sorts out our responsibility and God’s:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. . . . Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. (Romans 12:14-20)

Here Paul tells us we are to bless and not curse, but notice at the same time we affirm that God is the one to curse, and He will execute His righteous vengeance.

Jesus said for us to love our enemies, to be ready to forgive. He is our supreme example of such love and forgiveness. But we also read in Scripture that He will put all His enemies under His feet, casting those whom He never knew into the pit of outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. This dual emphasis enables us to hear the voice of Jesus as the Suffering Servant in Psalm 69:9:

For zeal for your house has consumed me and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.

But the same Psalm also contains the imprecatory cry of those who reject the Messiah of God as Suffering Servant:

Pour out Your indignation upon them, and let Your burning anger overtake them. May their camp be a desolation; let no one dwell in their tents. For they persecute him whom you have struck down, and they recount the pain of those you have wounded. Add to them punishment upon punishment; may they have no acquittal from You. Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous. (Psalm 69:24-28)

The imprecations of the psalms are not dealing with personal matters of ill-will and revenge. Rather, they refer to matters of the honor of God. It’s not about us; it’s about God. David interrupts his discourse on the knowledge of God with these words in much-loved Psalm 139:

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. (Verses 19-22)

That prayer is fueled not by zeal for personal revenge, but zeal for the glory and honor of God against those who are in rebellion against Him.

These prayers of imprecation look to our God as the one to exact vengeance, to defend His people. They seek His glory as a just God. R. L. Dabney challenges our unbiblical hesitancy:

Righteous retribution is one of the glories of divine character. If it is right that God should desire to exercise it, then it cannot be wrong for his people to desire him to exercise it.

Dabney goes on to say that while we as creatures are not allowed to take revenge or to take pleasure in revenge, we can take solace in God doing what He says He will do to the honor of His name.

One of the prayers of the persecuted saints in the book of Revelation is this:

They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before You will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10)

God answers with a variety of horrific previews of the certainty of that avenging and what that looks like for those outside of the city of God. The psalmist records this same sort of prayer anticipating a day when God will execute justice: “O LORD, how long shall the wicked exult?” (Psalm 94:3)

So that pastor is right in one sense and wrong in another. He is right in saying that we as Christ’s church are to call out to our God for justice. It’s part of who He is. It is the character of His covenant and consistent with eschatological expectation. But he’s wrong in saying that we should call down coals of judgment on our flesh-and-blood enemies rather than coals of conviction. Our enemy is not flesh and blood but spiritual. Our prayer is for the demise of Satan and his demonic minions, but also for the release of those held in bondage to do his will.

Therefore, when we pray: We cannot have in mind someone who has wronged us upon whom we want to see harm fall. We are to love our enemies, desire their salvation, knowing that we are sinners also in need of the grace of God. Yet we are also zealous to see the vindication of God’s justice to the glory of His name.

4. These imprecations refer to the salvation of God.
How do we understand salvation? As the New Testament puts it, how can a holy God be both just and the justifier of the ungodly? The answer is the cross—Jesus Christ and Him crucified. If we tone down the imprecations that course throughout the pages of Scripture—Old Testament and New; if we tame or mute the justice of God; if we try to sanitize or minimize the curses of the covenant, then we dim the splendor of the love of God and diminish the severity and horror of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross and what He endured under the judgment of God. We weaken what it means for Jesus Christ to be the propitiation for our sins.

If we skirt the imprecations of the psalms and other places in Scripture, then we forget the implications of the curse of the law that hung over us and was taken for us by Jesus Christ as our substitute. We will also ignore the teaching of the Bible about the judgment to come for all those who have not believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, as starkly and soberly expressed in John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

Right now the Bible speaks of the coexistence of two kingdoms: the kingdom of this world ruled by the prince of darkness, and the kingdom of light and life ruled by the Prince of Peace. When we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done,” we pray for the destruction, the annihilation of Satan’s kingdom. Why?—because it is opposed to our God and His Christ.

One author writes: “The church that is conscious of the life and death struggle between the two kingdoms will not exclude hatred for Satan’s kingdom from its love for God’s kingdom. The church is compelled to show love unto all men and to pray for their conversion. At the same time, with her eye fixed on the promise of the coming day of the Lord in which all God’s enemies will be crushed eternally, the church prays for the hastening of the Day of Judgment.”

When we pray, “Come, come quickly, Lord Jesus,” we invite and welcome His return. That prayer is recorded at the end of the book of Revelation after Christ has shown His church the horror and finality of the judgment to come. In that prayer is embedded every imprecatory prayer of the Bible that seeks His judgment, the vindication of His justice, the eradication of the kingdom of this age, and consummation of His kingdom in righteousness, joy, and peace.

Therefore, when we pray: We pray for God’s mercy and grace, for the building up of His kingdom in the reconciling of His enemies through the cross, and the consummation of the kingdom of God in the destruction of all evil and wickedness.

The imprecations of the Psalms disturb us. They should. They must. But for the right reasons. Not because we are offended, but because God is. They must be part of our prayer life. When God directs you in prayer through the imprecations of the psalms or other portions of the Bible, they should spur you on:

to pray for the salvation of those you love without God and without hope in this world.

to pray for your witness to Jesus Christ as God’s only refuge from the wrath to come.

to rejoice in your salvation and give God thanks for His undeserved, unexpected, unmerited mercy to you.

to express awe and wonder to God for the transaction of the cross, where God’s love and justice collide.

to cry out for the Day of the Lord, “Come, come quickly, Lord Jesus.”

Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before His throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood and made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of Him. Even so. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:4-8)

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