In this entry I hope to demonstrate that there is no real tension between the imprecatory Psalms and the NT ethic to “love/pray for one’s enemies/persecutors,” and that imprecation can be a healthy element of the mature Christian’s prayer life. I will attempt this through an examination of several premises:
I. The NT ethic of love
II. The theology under girding imprecatory prayer
III. The NT use of imprecatory Psalms
IV.The dynamic application of the imprecatory Psalms in the NT
V. Imprecation and the Christian life
I. The NT ethic of “love”
The first rule of biblical hermeneutics (the art of interpretation) is to be aware of the presuppositions that one is bring with them in approaching the text they seek to interpret. It is illusory to think that one can approach the scriptures “neutrally;” that is to say without having some fore-drawn conclusions about the meaning of certain words or concepts found in the text. Certainly, this is no more true than with the word “love.” In Mt 5:43—48, Jesus, through this one of six antitheses (i.e. “you have heard that it was said...but I say to you...”), is undoing the misguided understanding of the Law that had developed during second Temple Judaism (c. 500 B.C—A.D. 70). While “hate your enemies” cannot be found anywhere in the Old Testament (OT hereafter), the Pharisees had found the concept implicitly taught as the contrast to “loving one’s neighbor.” This notion was thought to allow for, and perhaps even offer OT authorization for vindictive self-retaliation. Jesus says, not so for disciples of the Kingdom! (Jesus gives an extended refutation of this popular Pharisaic view of “love” in his parable of the “good Samarian.” See: Lk 10:25—37).
Today Christians run the chance of overreacting in the opposite direction of the Pharisees by trying to fill the word “love” with all the misguided content it has gathered from the spirit of our own age. The twenty first century Christian understanding of “love” has largely been based on the theology of the Beetles, Barney the dinosaur, and Pollyanna. This reduces the biblical understanding of love to mere sentimentalism; a Christian is to “FEEL” equal towards “EVERYONE.” If this were the case it would indeed preclude the Christian’s use of imprecation in his prayer life; however, this is not what Jesus was speaking about in Mt 5, neither is it consistent with the rest of the NT view of human relations.
First, it must be recognized that Jesus is not “proof-texting” when he quotes from Lev 19. Mt 5:43 is taken from Lev 19:18, and Jesus closes this section quoting Lev 19:2, therefore, because Jesus is assuming the theological framework of Lev 19, attention must be given to this passage of the Law in order to grasp the concept of love Jesus is intending in Mt 5. In Lev 19:1—18 Yahweh (I.e., the LORD) gives his people several injunctions dealing with inter-personal conduct, all of which have to do with the well being of others. Each command ends with the refrain “I am the LORD.” This repetition is to accentuate the fact that the believer’s behavior toward others is to be based upon the nature and character of Yahweh. Now returning to Mt 5 we find Jesus’ teaching bringing Lev 19 to its intended and ultimate purpose. In vv.43—48 Jesus illustrates the nature of this love in terms of God the Father’s providential love or common grace as it were, toward all people. One way the believer’s son-ship is reflective of our Father’s love is by emulating his general care for all people indiscriminately—“For he makes the sun rise and the rain fall on the evil/unjust the same as the good/just” (v.45). Therefore, the “love” mentioned in Mt 5 is consistent with the concept of the universal love of God for his creatures, it is intended to induce inter-relational behavior and conduct to others that is devoid of any self-retaliation/vindication by reflecting God’s general love for his creatures. Through the indiscriminate display of our loving actions towards those who hate us we are reflecting God’s omni-benevolence, thus bear the mark of his child.
Love thus defined is in no way contrary to prayers of imprecation. The best illustration of this is in the life of the Psalmist himself. Few would question the fact that many of the imprecatory Psalms were written by David in time when he was fleeing for his life from King Saul. While David was no doubt imprecating Saul during his hard pursuit for David’s life, David still maintained the love demanded by Lev 19, and consequently Mt 5 as well. While David himself had numerous opportunities to personally, and rightly I might add, to kill Saul himself during these many battles, he refused to “avenge himself but instead left room for God’s wrath” (Rom 12:19). David turned his thoughts of bitterness and anger to Yahweh through prayers of imprecation, thus allowing himself to “be angry and not sin” (Ps 4:4) by relying on the perfect justice of Yahweh. In the way that David generally “loved” Saul on account of him being “the LORD’s anointed,” the Christian, in light of her enemy being God’s image bearer, must exercise like benevolent behavior towards her enemies and persecutors and leave personal retaliation and retribution in the hands of him to whom it belongs—God (Deut 32:35; Ps 94:1; Rom 12:19; I Thess 4:6; Heb 10:30).
Thus, the biblical concept of loving an enemy cannot be reduced to a universally warm, fuzzy feeling equally applied to all; enemies included. Such an idea of love is inconsistent with the character of God’s love and our own human experience, reducing “love” to something less than it is. The above understanding of love deduced from Lev 19 and Mt 5 in no way precludes a heartfelt desire for the well being of others, but instead presupposes it and demonstrates it though actions. The faithful and mature practice of imprecatory prayer must also recognize the theology that underscores its employment. To this I will now turn.
II. The theology behind imprecatory prayer
While the theological implications underlying imprecatory prayer are too vast to explore here, the Holman Bible Dictionary (“Imprecation, Imprecatory Psalms,” 2003, p. 812) offers four that are helpful in understanding their use. They are:
1. As noted above, the principle that vengeance belongs to God alone. This excludes personal retaliation and appeals to God to punish the wicked (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19; etc).
2. The principle that God’s righteousness and holiness demands the judgment of the wicked (Pss 5:6; 11:5—6).
3. The principle that God’s covenantal love for his people necessitates intervention on their part (Pss 5:7; 59:10, 16—17)
4. And lastly, the principle that believers trust God with ALL their thoughts and desires.
I would add to these principles the insightful and hard hitting words of Eugene H. Peterson, “The first thing that we realize from the Psalms is that in prayer anything goes. Virtually everything human is appropriate as material for prayer: reflections and observations, fear and anger, guilt and sin, questions and doubts, needs and desires, praise and gratitude, suffering and death. Nothing human is excluded. The Psalms are an extended refutation that prayer is being ‘nice’ before God.” (“Prayer,” pp. 616—617 in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, Kevin Vanhoozer ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005. 617, emphasis mine).
III. The NT use of the Imprecatory Psalms
One simple way to remove the “embarrassment” of the imprecatory Psalms would be to posit a hard discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New and their respective ethics. This has been the answer for many well meaning Christians through the ages; however, the above observations between Mt 5 and Lev 19 coupled with the NT’s prolific use, both allusive and direct, of the imprecatory Psalms would seem to eliminate this as a faithful option. The following list can be produced through the use of any cross-reference system worth its salt. I found that only one (Ps 17) of the ten Psalms of imprecation that was not directly used in the NT canon. The other nine find ample support.
1. Ps 5:9—Rom 3:13
2. Ps 11:4—Rev 4:2
3. Ps 35:9—Lk 1:47 (a verse in the Song of Mary)
4. Ps 55:15 (also 69:22b)—I Thess 5:3
5. Ps 69
v. 4—Jn 15:25 (Jn 15:20 implies that Jesus is applying this indirectly to his disciples and assuming the imprecation in the original context of the quoted verse’s fulfillment).
v. 9—Jn 2:17 = Rom 15:3
v. 21—Mt 27:34; Mk 15:23; Lk 23:36; Jn 19:28—30
v. 25—Mt 23:38; Lk 13:35; Acts 1:20
vv. 22—23—Rom 11:8—9
v. 28—Rev 3:5; 13:8; cf. Lk 10:20
6. Ps 109
v. 5—Jn 7:7; 10:32
v. 25—Mt 27:39; cf. Mk 15:29
7. Ps 137:8—9—Rev 18:6
8. Ps 139:20—Jude 15
9. Ps 140
v. 3 (also 5:9)—Rom 3:13; James 3:8
v. 10—Mt 3:10
So far it has been shown that 1. that imprecatory (Pss) prayer is in no way contrary with the NT concept of love for enemies (as defined by Mt 5, etc), 2. such prayer, when it first recognizes the theological underpinnings of imprecation, is likewise consistent with Christian life, and 3. as shown above, running to the NT in an attempt to distance oneself from imprecatory Psalms is an exercise in futility—imprecation is littered like seed throughout the NT. I would now like to briefly look at the nature of some NT applications of these Psalms and also look at a few imprecations that are original to the NT.
IV. The dynamic application of imprecation in the NT
A. Avoiding self-imprecation
Perhaps the most peculiar of uses of imprecation in the NT is Jesus’ warning his disciples against self-imprecation. This can be seen in the most beloved verse of unbelievers today (and some misguided believers as well)—“judge not.” In Mt 7:1—2 Jesus warns us of the reciprocal nature of indicting others with presumptuous, unjust judgment. Contrary to many peoples wrongheaded application of this text, it has nothing to do with a believer “condemning someone to Hell by pointing out sin in their life,” which is how it is generally understood. When left in its interpretive context, it is speaking directly to inter-relational conduct (this is clear by the fact that it prefaces the Golden Rule in vv.12—14. Today’s cavalier application of this text rips it from its context in order censure anyone (namely Christians) from making moral judgments concerning other people’s actions or ideological positions. Ps 109:17 offers the principle of imprecating; it reads, “He loved to curse; let curses come upon him! He did not delight in blessing; may it be far from him” (ESV). Jesus, in Mt 7:1—2, is then warning us of the perfect justice behind the Ps 109. If one exercises uncompromising severity in his relationships with others, perfect justice demands the same measure to be returned to him. When an unbeliever is wrongly treated by a believer the believer can rightly expect to have it “measured back” to him at the first opportunity and with force restrained only by the civil law (in the best cases)! When a Christian seeks to vindicate himself (rather than employing a prayer of imprecation) he can also expect the Father‘s chastisement as well as the unbeliever’s wrath.
B. The prophetic nature of the imprecatory Psalms
1. Pointing to Christ
A careful examination of the list of NT passages above will reveal that many were prophetically fulfilled in the life and person of Christ. From before his birth (Ps 35:9—Lk 1:47), to his ministry (Ps 69:9—Jn 2:17; Jn 15:25), to the cross (Ps 69:21—Mt 27:34), and still future (Ps 69:22b & 55:15—I Thess 5:3).
2. Used in the Prophetic ministry of Jesus
Following the most scathing, denunciatory utterance ever made by any prophet of Yahweh, Jesus’ seven “woes” found in Mt 23:1—36, is his lamenting over Jerusalem (vv.37—39). In this section Jesus applies Ps 69:25 to the religious leaders (and Jerusalem) of his days in v.38 as its fulfillment.
3. Imprecation, old and new on the lips of Paul
a. Rom 11:8—9: Here Paul quotes directly from Ps 69:22—23 and sees it fulfilled, that is the answer to David’s prayer, in the hardening of the vast majority of the nation of Israel and their rejection of the Messiah. It should be noted here that Paul understands this imprecation as an ultimate blessing. The hardening and sin of the Jews, says Paul, is the means of the Gentile inclusion through the Gospel. This will ultimately, in the sovereign plan of God, provoke Israel to jealousy causing their being grafted back into the tree. Thus, because of this imprecation Paul can conclude that “all Israel will be saved” (vv.11—12, 26a)!
b. I Cor 16:22; Gal 1:8—9: Paul’s three anathemas.
c. II Tim 4:14—18: This is a clear example of imprecation in the NT, and is worth quoting in full (comp. with Ps 109:20):
“Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord will render to him according to his works: of whom do thou also beware; for he greatly withstood our words. At my first defence no one took my part, but all forsook me: may it not be laid to their account. But the Lord stood by me, and strengthened me; that through me the message might be fully proclaimed, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. The Lord will deliver me from every evil work, and will save me unto his heavenly kingdom: to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” (ASV)
3. Imprecation and eschatology
“O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones” (Ps 137:8—9 ASV).
“Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen... For her sins have reached unto heaven, and God hath remembered her iniquities. Reward her even as she rewarded you, and double unto her double according to her works: in the cup which she hath filled fill to her double” (Rev 18:2, 5—6 ASV).
This parallel shows that there is one of David’s prayers of imprecation that has yet to be fulfilled; this will happen when Christ comes a second time in judgment. All true Christians long for this moment. It is then when all the saints from all the ages will ultimately be vindicated and the wickedness of Satan, his kingdom, and all who serve him will be destroyed. Christ is the victor!!
Hence, all dutiful Christians who earnestly pray the so-called Lord’s Prayer (better, the disciple’s prayer) are indeed, perhaps unwittingly, praying the ultimate prayer of imprecation! “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” This seemingly gentle petition has horrific consequences for the enemies of Christ and his Kingdom. Therefore, if the Christian finds the imprecatory Psalms to harsh for their sensibilities, they might want to reconsider praying for Christ’s Kingdom to come fully and finally.
V. Imprecation and the Christian life
“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil...Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with malice” (Eph 4:26—27, 31 ESV).
Living in America makes it easy to question the piety of imprecation today; however, 9/11, rampant school shootings, increased gang violence, etc. are making it difficult to avoid the proper use of imprecation in our everyday lives. Even in our personal relationship both good and bad the reality of maintaining the above verses is impossible. We deceive ourselves when we think we can hide our bitterness and anger from the one who searches the heart and we short ourselves in avoiding the means of imprecatory prayer to release these things that poison our heart. Turning to God’s perfect justice for relief when we are being treated unjustly is perfectly consistent with Christian ethics. There is hardly a better way to express our unvarnished trust in the Person of God!
I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4