Praying the Imprecatory Psalms

Chris —  September 6, 2008

“Imprecatory Psalms” refers to those Psalms that cry out for the judgment of evil people.  These Psalms raise a number of questions in how we apply them to our own lives.  Can it be Christian to ask God to pray that God will destroy or curse evil people?

We must proceed with caution when answering that question!

Having said that, these Psalms must be incorporated in our theology of forgiveness.  Indeed, resting in the fact that God will take care of justice, that vengeance belongs to the Lord (Romans 12:19), is a foundational way that the Bible helps Christian deal with bitterness, a thought I develop in Unpacking Forgiveness. 

The most helpful material I have read on the subject of imprecatory Psalms is easily John N. Day’s book, Crying for Justice.

Today I scanned another helpful article by Stanley D. Gale (HT: Tullian Tchividjian).  Gale writes:

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?

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