Imprecatory Prayers In the Bible

Imprecatory

imprecation {imprəˈkāSH(ə)n} noun

imprecatory {imˈprekəˌtôrē} adjective:

“to invoke evil upon, or curse”

Imprecatory prayers are found mainly in The Psalms and appear to contain curses or prayers for the punishment of the writer’s (or God’s) enemies.

Psalms 7, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 109, 137 and 139 all contain prayers for God’s judgment on the psalmist’s enemies.

We also see an example of what appears to be an imprecatory prayer in Nehemiah 4:4-5:

Hear, O our God, how we are despised! Return their reproach on their own heads and give them up for plunder in a land of captivity. 5 Do not forgive their iniquity and let not their sin be blotted out before You, for they have demoralized the builders.

Imprecatory prayers and Christian ethics

Various difficulties arise as attempts are made to harmonize the imprecatory prayers with Jesus’ teaching that we are to love our enemies.

The best, the clearest, the most succinct explanation I have heard came from John Piper (see link below). He relates it to the Gestapo (or ISIS, or Boko Haram) moving through a neighborhood murdering, raping, and pillaging. In that moment imprecatory prayers for God’s judgment are appropriate.

At the same time we are to have these words of Jesus engrafted into our souls:

“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”  –Matthew 5:44-46

Like most theological discourse we are to hold these biblical mandates in a holy and prayerful tension.

Additional scholarly thoughts (from the Jackson article link below)

Sin has not disappeared, and there are still enemies of the redemptive plan of God. God feels the same today toward rebellion as he did in David’s time. The Bible is not in conflict with itself over truths written in plain prose in both Testaments—namely, the righteous will be rewarded, [1] and the wicked shall be punished (cf. Psalm 1; Matthew 25:46).

“[T]he ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that…is hateful to God” (C.S. Lewis. Reflections on the Psalms, 1958: 33)

Alexander McClaren challenges the modern reader, “Perhaps, it would do modern tenderheartedness no harm to have a little more iron infused into its gentleness, and to lay to heart that the King of Peace must first be King of Righteousness” (1892, 375).

If a person chooses to remain an “enemy of the cross” (see Philippians 3:18) and continues to afflict us, Paul warns that justice will be served by God: “at the revelation of our Lord Jesus from heaven with the angels of his power in flaming fire, rendering vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus”  —2 Thessalonians 1:7-9

F. Kirkpatrick admonishes: “[People] have need to beware lest in pity for the sinner they condone the sin, or relax the struggle against evil” (1906, xciii).

Resources

Do Christians have permission to pray imprecatory prayers? by John Piper

Do the Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics Clash?, by Jason Jackson

Walter Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Old Testament, Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 1988.

[1] It should be duly noted that all humanity is sinful by nature and choice and that the Christian’s righteousness is a gift (Romans 5:17) and comes to us by grace alone through faith alone in Christ’s righteousness alone.

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Imprecatory Prayers In the Bible

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