Q: If Jesus told us to ‘love your enemies’ (Matthew 5:44), how do we explain certain passages in Psalms where evil is wished upon the wicked?”
A: Theologians often use the expression “imprecatory” to describe these Psalm verses. We think, for example, of Psalm 10:15, where we read: “Break the arm of the wicked and evil man; call him to account for his wickedness that would not be found out.” Not only are expressions of this kind used in the Old Testament; the Apostle Paul in Galatians uses the same. In the fifth chapter of his letter he discusses the importance of fighting for the freedom we have in Christ. Then, in reference to the “Judaizing false prophets” who were jeopardizing this freedom by compelling Gentile converts to be circumcised, Paul startlingly exclaims” “As for those agitators, I wish they would go all the way and emasculate themselves” (5:12). [Attention could also be drawn to 2 Timothy 4:14.]
Several considerations have been suggested to try to reconcile the apparent contradiction with Jesus’ command to love our enemies (see also Luke 10:25-37) and also to leave revenge in God’s hands (Romans 12:19). For one thing, there are evil wishes and curses recorded by verbal inspiration in Scripture, even though God certainly did not put these kinds of thoughts in the minds of those who first said them. Although God inspired the evangelist to record Peter’s denial, it was Satan who inspired Peter to deny Jesus. So, is it possible that some imprecatory statements that puzzle us may fall under this category?
But more likely and more importantly, we can assume that the believers’ desire for removing the enemies of Christ is outweighed by the desire for the enemies’ conversion (Ps. 96:2,3; Prov. 24:17). Yet, when the enemies of Christ give evidence of being hardened, Christians are not out of place in praying for their overthrow. Luther reminded us that when we pray the Third Petition, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven,” this includes God breaking and hindering “every evil counsel and will, which would not let us hallow His name nor let His kingdom come…”
Finally, we also need to consider what Peter Fjellstedt, a Swedish theologian of the previous century, said: “We read and hear of many passages in the Psalms of David, that to us would seem to be wicked desires, and prayers concerning punishment, and curses against enemies. But they must be understood as direct predictions of what will happen to those that are the enemies of the kingdom of God and resist his Word.” In this sense, we can view them as flowing from the prophetic spirit for the purpose of giving glory to God and his justice.