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Imprectatory Psalms, Part 1

Ryan Joy


May 26, 2024

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In our Ask series, we respond to questions submitted by the congregation. We recently received two questions about Psalms that call on God to bring vengeance and justice to enemies. A brother asked: “They were written in the Spirit, so there MUST be a place for them: But where exactly do imprecatory psalms belong in the heart of those who are to ‘love [their] enemies and pray for those who persecute [them]’?” Then a sister added: “I don’t understand the imprecatory psalms. Why would God want us to talk about other people that way? I thought we were supposed to love people!” CS Lewis concluded that these Psalms are wrong, saying, “The hatred is there – festering, gloating, undisguised – and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it.” So, should we redact these verses from our Bibles and avoid singing, praying, or learning from any of the many Psalms that contain imprecations? Next week’s article will engage with some of these texts and apply them to our lives, but first, let’s lay down five foundational doctrines we must remember in reading these Psalms.

1. The Doctrine of Inspiration.

Though we’re under a new covenant, God has the same character and values. “All Scripture is…profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16), so any interpretation that doubts the divine purpose, integrity, and teaching value of a portion of Scripture has lost its way. The Old and New Testaments teach love for enemies (e.g., Lev. 19:18; Jonah; Prov. 25:21-22; Luke 6:27-28). Both contain imprecation (e.g. Ps. 69; 109; Mt. 11:21-24; 26:24; Acts 13:9-11; 23:3; Gal. 1:8-9; 5:12; 1 Co. 16:22; Rev. 6:10). Both see no contradiction between a God whose essential nature is love who will bring judgment and wrath against unrighteousness (cf. Exod. 34:6-7; Ps. 63:3,9-10; Rom. 8:35; 9:22-23; 11:22). Different passages and genres have different functions, so we should expect God to use emotional prayer poetry different than he uses doctrinal discourses. But any interpretation that doubts the divine purpose and teaching value of a portion of Scripture has lost its way. The Bible’s integrity sometimes becomes more apparent when we realize how different parts complement and balance each other. 

2. The Doctrine of Prayer.

Some things are not ours to do — instead, they’re ours to pray for. In prayer, we hand over to God the issues we either can not or should not handle. In the imprecatory Psalms, the psalmist entrusts his anger and need for vindication to God, as we must (Rom. 12:20). One misunderstanding about prayer is that it’s an option we can employ in times of need. But prayer isn’t just the saint’s privilege of asking God for what we want; it’s our responsibility to pray for God’s name to be reverenced, his reign to increase, and his will to be done on earth as in heaven (Matt. 6:9-10). We align our desires with his will, calling on him to bring his blessing on all that’s good and to thwart all that opposes his character. It may seem unnecessary, like busy work, just a way God involves us to make us feel helpful. We might think, “Won’t he do his will whether we ask him to or not?” But like a stormy sky opens and pours rain, prayers of the faithful accomplish much, unleashing God’s power and grace (James 5:13-18). Another misconception about prayer is that God wants us to hide our true feelings and thoughts behind formal liturgies, King James aphorisms, and other churchy language we deem prayer-worthy. The Psalms show us how to approach our holy God reverently. But they also highlight God’s willingness to hear us in all our naked emotions as we come before him. From heartbroken laments to rage-filled imprecations, from doubting depression to exuberant excitement, he invites the whole of us to his throne. Coming before him, our troubles turn to trust, and our victories turn to praise. 

3. The Doctrine of Justice

The problem of evil in the world troubles us as we “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6). It’s painful to see liars succeed and oppressors stay in power. No one is innocent, and Christ died for my sins as much as anyone, but there IS a difference between the righteous and the wicked. We might shield ourselves from regularly thinking about the atrocities and perversions that exist in this world. However, there are still Babylons and Jezebels in this world that Satan loves to use to tear a trail of ungodliness, destruction, and pain through humanity. When the scales get weighted so far out of tilt that justice seems out of reach, we can get discouraged and lose hope. That’s where these prayers can help us find our voice and our faith in the Great Judge, the Great Warrior who tears down the wicked and frustrates the plans of evil powers. After telling his parable about the persistent widow, Jesus asked, “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?” (Luke 18:7). 

4. The Doctrine of Judgment

God’s wrath is already revealed in the world (Rom. 1:18ff). We must leave room for him to avenge his people (Rom. 12:20), even if that means waiting until Christ returns (2 Thes. 1:5-10). When the Lord passed before Moses on Sinai, he proclaimed his character, saying, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exod. 34:6-7). It’s no contradiction for God to both “forgive iniquity” and not “clear the guilty.” God patiently wants everyone to repent (2 Pet. 3:9) and will forgive all who do (Acts 3:19). But he won’t let unrepentant evil persist without consequence.

5. The Doctrine of Faithfulness

We won’t grasp these Psalms without understanding covenant loyalty between God and his people. The psalmists’ main concern is God’s name (Ps. 109:2,27)! God’s enemies are his enemies (Ps. 83:2; 92:9). He wants God’s will and reign. And God shows faithfulness to the promises he makes to his people. But God demonstrates his faithfulness most of all in Christ, who fulfills all of Scripture. He’s the righteous King who became a curse to redeem us (Gal. 3:13). He is the conqueror who will defeat every enemy and bring the long-awaited, promised justice (Isa. 9:7). 

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