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Imprecatory Psalms, Part 2

Ryan Joy


May 26, 2024

— Watch the Full Sermon —

We received two questions about Psalms that ask for judgment on enemies: “Where exactly do imprecatory psalms belong in the heart of those who are to ‘love’…?” And: “I don’t understand the imprecatory psalms…?” In part one, we identified problems many see when harmonizing these Psalms with the New Testament. Then, we considered five Bible doctrines that help us understand these passages. In part two, we’ll draw six applications from these Psalms and try to integrate them into our lives.

1. Respond with Goodness

Don’t mistake these psalms for out-of-control rantings of someone about to go on a rampage. They are the opposite — carefully constructed poems with precise word choice and structure. They exist to help God’s community. In Psalm 109, David speaks of the love he has shown those who attack him (Ps. 109:3-5). But that Psalm — like many of these imprecations — finds its greatest fulfillment in Jesus (e.g., Ps. 109:8; cf. Acts 1:16-20). So, to properly apply these Psalms, we have to follow Jesus’ example, who “did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:23). Jesus didn’t lash out at people, he trusted the Father to justly judge and vindicate him.  David displays a similar refusal to avenge himself against Saul: “I have not sinned against you, though you hunt my life to take it. May the Lord judge between me and you, may the Lord avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you. As the proverb of the ancients says, ‘Out of the wicked comes wickedness.’ But my hand shall not be against you” (1 Sam. 24:11-13). We can’t overcome evil with more evil; we must “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). 

When you feel the pangs of “How Long, O Lord?” keep praying for God to act!

2. Plead for Justice

Jesus’ parable of the widow and unrighteous judge encourages us never to stop praying for justice (Luke 18:1-8). When you feel the pangs of “How Long, O Lord?” keep praying for God to act! Let these Psalms give you a window into the experience of millions today: the abused, oppressed, victims of violence and corruption (Matt. 5:6-7). God WILL judge, upholding good & defeating evil — it’s his nature. It’s good news (cf. Rev. 18:20)! Leslie Allen rightly says, “Such texts as these in Old and New Testaments are given to readers in the throes of disorientation, not to those basking in the seasons of orientation or reorientation. P. D. James in her mystery Original Sin has a character say to her Jewish colleague: ‘If I had a God, I’d like him to be intelligent, cheerful and amusing.’ He said, ‘I doubt whether you’d find him much of a comfort when they herded you into the gas chambers. You might prefer a God of vengeance.'” We ask for mercy for the needy, vulnerable, and all who repent (Ps. 146:7-9).

3. Pray “But If Not”

What’s the most loving prayer you could pray for an unrepentant murderer? Might it be something like: “Fill their faces with shame, that they may seek your name, O LORD” (Ps. 83:16). Not every Psalm emphasizes a desire for conversion, but we see it enough to know that is part of the intention in these prayers. Like God, we can desire everyone’s conversion and repentance while seeking justice. Nehrbass suggests using the phrase, “But if not” in prayers to seek the blessing of all enemies but not ask God to condone or support their wickedness: “May they come to you, BUT IF NOT defeat them in their evil.” It’s helpful to remember that God sources all order and abundance. A curse doesn’t INFLICT fresh evil upon a person. It asks God to remove his protection and provision, letting them feel his absence in their rebellion (cf. Rom. 1:18ff). So they fall into the pit they have dug — facing the consequences of their sin and perhaps turning to God (cf. Luke 15:16-18). 

4. Through Not To

Many of these Psalms (e.g., Ps. 7, 10, 69, 83, 109) follow a similar structure: 1) State the PROBLEM — the wicked oppress people, 2) Make a PLEA, a prayer for justice, and 3) Close in praise, reflecting on God’s goodness. These hymns don’t leave the worshiper where they begin. Brueggemann explains, “Having given full vent to his rage, this speaker is suddenly able, in an abrupt turn, to anticipate, giving praise and thanks to God.” Elsewhere, he adds, “My hunch is that there is a way beyond the psalms of vengeance, but it is a way through them and not around them.” Neither dishonesty nor denial of our feelings will help us — nor will they hide anything from the Lord. We bring God our problems and feelings about them so we can entrust them to him. 

5. His Name Above Your Pain

These Psalms teach us to foster a zeal for God’s glory. The psalmist always places their fears and problems in the context of God’s name. For example, “deal on my behalf for your name’s sake” (Ps. 109:21). We must pray for his will. That prayer will shape us the more we seek it. 

6. Sit with the Questions

In this two-part lesson, we’ve aimed to explain how these Psalms fit with Jesus’ teaching, but it’s a difficult issue, and you may still have questions. That’s okay! In our journey to spiritual maturity, we move from milk to meat (Heb. 5:12-14), and we shouldn’t expect everything to make perfect sense right away. Meditate on the Scriptures and ponder the questions that arise, seeking the Lord through them. Here are some questions to consider as you try to live out the truths these Psalms reveal. Questions about enemies: 1) Have you ever had a person you thought of as an enemy? 2) How do you usually obey Jesus’ command to pray for your enemies? Questions about justice: 1) How do you feel about the downfall of infamous figures like Bin Laden, Hitler, or even Judas?  2) Do you feel a sense of moral imbalance when evil people prosper and good people suffer? Questions about prayer: 1) Do you think your prayers impact the world around you? 2) If you prayed for God to thwart the plans of wicked people and institutions — and he answered your prayer — would that be a good thing? Questions about Christ: 1) Can you imagine Jesus reading one of the imprecatory psalms in the synagogue? How do you imagine he would view them and explain them? 2) If there’s a way to practice imprecation within Christ’s teaching, what might God’s people gain from it?

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