Question: Christ has instructed us to love our enemies and pray for them, yet several Psalms seem to be asking God to assail his enemies and are imprecatory (calling down curses). How should we understand this?
Answer: “Happy the one who takes and dashes Your little ones against the rock!” What harsh language! Who would ever wish such a terrible thing on children? Well, the answer might be a surprise. This is a verse from the Bible.
Here is the passage in its context: “Remember, O LORD, against the sons of Edom The Day of Jerusalem, Who said, ‘Raze it, raze it, To its very foundation!’ O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed, Happy the one who repays you as you have served us! Happy the one who takes and dashes Your little ones against the rock!” (Psalm 137:7-9, NKJV).
And Psalm 137 isn’t the only place where we ﬁnd this kind of harsh language. In fact, Psalms 35, 55, 56, 58, 59, 69, 79, 83, 109, along with portions of Psalms 40, 137, and 139 all speak in this harsh manner. They are imprecatory, meaning that they are calling down God’s wrath. Therefore, they are known as “The Imprecatory Psalms.”
Some have misunderstood these psalms, arguing that they are unchristian because one cannot reconcile their prayers for punishment with the command of Christ to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44, NKJV). This concern has left many faithful believers scratching their heads, wondering how to understand and use these psalms rightly. However, remembering a few key truths can help clear away these misunderstandings.
First, these psalms are the Word of God. Though they are written by men suffering at the hands of God’s enemies, they are divinely inspired, just as the rest of Holy Scripture. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God (2 Timothy 3:16, NKJV). Since God is the author, we can trust that these psalms are good and useful for us as His people. And as there is a season for all things, we can also trust that there is a God-given season for praying these imprecatory psalms. Looking at the events that took place when these psalms were written, the psalmists’ harsh words often matched even harsher circumstances. God’s people were responding with prayer during times of intense persecution.
In connection with their proper use, then, we recognize that these imprecatory psalms are a severe preaching of the Law. David and the other psalmists are not vindictively asking God to punish their personal enemies, they are praying for God’s judgment on His own enemies. Paul offers his own imprecatory prayer at the end of 1 Corinthians when he says, “If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed. O Lord, come!” (1 Corinthians 16:22, NKJV). In the end, these psalms preach God’s wrath against those who hate God and His people. The goal of such preaching is always that God would ﬁll His enemies’ faces with shame that they may seek His name and ﬁnd His forgiveness (Psalm 83:16). So, depending on the circumstances, praying an imprecatory psalm may be exactly the right way for us to love our enemies.
Finally, it is also important to see that some of these imprecatory psalms are also Messianic psalms. In Psalm 69, for example, King David speaks with the voice of Christ, prophesying about His future suffering and detailing speciﬁcally how Jesus would be offered gall and wine vinegar: They also gave me gall for my food, And for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink (Psalm 69:21).
Can the language of these psalms be hard-edged? Certainly! They were hard-edged prayers for hard-edged times. We can be thankful that most of us haven’t seen such hard-edged times. Yet with the help of those imprecatory psalms, when hard-edged times come, we will know how to pray.
Rev. Piet Van Kampen
Christ The King Lutheran Church
Green Bay, WI