As Jesus comes near the end of His final journey to Jerusalem, Luke tells us that the Pharisees asked when His Kingdom would come (Luke 17:20).
Jesus answers, saying the Kingdom comes from within as God exchanges hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. Jesus then gives His disciples three important lessons. He shows them that His coming in judgment of Jerusalem and the old creation will be like lightning flashing across the sky, reminding them of the importance of staying focused on Jesus and His Kingdom. Jesus uses the account of the Pharisee and publican to teach them to remain humble so they would not grow proud as they serve in His Kingdom. Sandwiched in between is His reminder to pray always and not lose heart; He uses the story of the persistent widow to make His point.
Every faithful Christian agrees that we must be persistent in our prayers, doing the best we can to heed Paul’s command to pray without ceasing.
When Paul instructs the Ephesians to be fully armed for battle, he concludes, “And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints” (Eph. 6:17–18 NKJV).
The pressing question for today is whether Christians are using all of the tools that God has given us in our prayer armory.
Obviously we have the model prayer our Lord taught us to pray, and many great examples of prayers lifted up by various saints that have been recorded for us in the Scriptures: the great prayer of Daniel in chapter nine of his prophecy, or the prayer of the Apostle Paul for the saints at Ephesus in the first chapter of Ephesians.
Many Christians rightly see the Book of Psalms as not only the church’s hymnbook and a source of wisdom, but also as a means of praying God’s thoughts after Him.
It is here in the Psalms that we often come to some verses and even entire Psalms that seem very strange to our modern ears. They are commonly called the imprecatory Psalms because they include imprecations. The Webster’s 1828 Dictionary says that imprecatory means, “Containing a prayer for evil to befall a person.” Even our modern dictionaries say that to imprecate is “to invoke or call down (evil or curses), as upon a person.”
That does not seem very Christian to our more modern thinking, and most Christians are not sure what to do with them. Much of what has been written about these imprecations and imprecatory Psalms works hard to soften them, excuse them, or encourage the saints to ignore them altogether. I would contend that, with the battles we face today, they should be front and center in many of our prayers and used often in our worship services.
Christians choosing not to use these prayers would be tantamount to the Afghan people having said no thanks to our Stinger missiles, which they used to take down the Russian helicopters after Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union!
Why Pray for Judgment?
Why are imprecations included in the Bible’s hymnbook? Why did Jesus talk about the woes and curses that were coming upon the nation of Israel? Why did the Apostle Paul pronounce anathemas on those who dared to add human works to God’s gracious salvation by faith?
The simple answer is that God has enemies, and the Bible is clear that God’s enemies will be defeated. All of God’s enemies will be defeated with death being the last (see 1 Cor. 15:12–28 and Rev. 20:7–15).
God’s enemies are our enemies, and we join with God in wanting them to be defeated, hence these calls for God to be victorious, calls for God to bring down judgment on His enemies.
There are entire Psalms that focus on calls for God’s judgment, such as Psalms 7, 35, 55, 69, 79, 83, 109, and 137. There are other calls for God’s judgment in the midst of many other Psalms, and we must remember that when we cry for God’s victory, it is by implication a cry for the defeat of His enemies. There are also many instructions about our attitude when praying such prayers. Consider Psalm 76, where David sees the end of the wicked when he enters God’s temple. This psalm reminds us that we must be patient in our prayers, something Jesus was reminding His disciples as He gave those lessons about the coming of His Kingdom.
Certainly we should not focus on these types of prayers exclusively. The balance that we see in the Psalms themselves can serve as our guide. The Psalms also remind us that we must be careful to approach these calls for God to bring judgment with a Biblical attitude, as we shall see shortly in Psalm 139.
In praying for God’s judgment, we are seeking His justice and not our justice, and we are certainly not seeking personal vengeance or advantage. The Apostle Paul declares in Romans that God is both the just and the justifier of those who trust in Jesus for their salvation. Jesus took the punishment for the sins of His people so that the just judgment of God was carried out. A sinner’s punishment will either be borne by the sinner himself through an eternity of hell, or it was borne by Jesus on the cross. This means that from our perspective, God’s judgment can result in the destruction of the sinner or the salvation of the sinner if His wrath was propitiated by Jesus Christ at the cross.
To help us understand how we are to pray in this regard, we can look to the example of the church. The saints prayed often after Pentecost with many examples in the Book of Acts. In Acts 4, the saints boldly pray after the religious leaders had forbidden them to preach the name of Jesus. In verse 24 we are told, “[T]hey raised their voice to God with one accord and said: ‘Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them.’” They turn to the God of heaven and earth proclaiming, “[W]ho by the mouth of Your servant David have said: ‘Why did the nations rage, and the people plot vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the LORD and against His Christ’” (vv. 25–26 NKJV).
Psalm 2 goes on to explain that God has given His Son the nations and that Jesus will “break them with a rod of iron” and “dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Here we have a small band of new believers surrounded by the religious leaders of Israel in the midst of the powerful Roman Empire claiming the promises of God that He would defeat His enemies.
Just a few centuries later the saints still gathered to pray, but the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed and the empire of Rome had collapsed: the God of heaven and earth had used the Word of God, His rod of iron, to dash them to pieces!
These early saints were praying that God would come and judge His enemies, and we can see how God answered those prayers!
Oh, how we need such bold prayers today. Not for personal vengeance or gain, but so that the God of heaven and earth might be glorified as He answers such prayers and advances His Kingdom.
Great Enemies of the Young Church
Luke tells us of two great enemies of the church. One was Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee who “held the coats” of those who stoned Stephen and then launched a vicious persecution of God’s young church. Luke tells us that, “As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison” (Acts 8:3 NKJV).
The other enemy is King Herod Agrippa, the son of that Herod who had mocked Jesus and grew bold in his persecution of the church. Acts 12 begins by telling us that Herod Agrippa “stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also.”
Two vicious enemies of the church, and as such, it was proper for these praying saints to call for God to judge them as they had appealed to Psalm 2 in earlier prayers. This can be seen in Revelation after the fifth seal was opened and John says that he “saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’” (Rev. 6:9–10 NKJV).
The saints gathered after James had been killed and Peter was arrested to await the same fate. The saints prayed for Peter, and they would have also prayed for the destruction of their enemies. Not a prayer for personal vengeance, but a prayer that God’s enemies might be defeated so that God’s Kingdom could advance. Perhaps someone read from Psalm 55 where it says, “Let death take my enemies by surprise; let them go down alive to the grave” (NIV). These saints would have been bold enough to claim such a promise from God’s Word, asking Him to bring judgment on His enemies like Saul of Tarsus and King Herod.
God was pleased to answer their prayers: not just with the release of Peter, but also in dealing with their enemies, who were, of course, God’s enemies.
We can certainly see this prayer answered in the case of King Herod Agrippa, for later in Acts 12 we read: “So on a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat on his throne and gave an oration to them. And the people kept shouting, ‘The voice of a god and not of a man!’ Then immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give glory to God. And he was eaten by worms and died” (vv. 21–23 NKJV).
We see God’s enemy defeated and His Kingdom advanced because Luke quickly adds in verse 24, “But the word of God grew and multiplied.” The God of heaven and earth answers the prayers of His righteous people and His Kingdom advances.
Then we come to Saul of Tarsus, where we see this prayer for the death of their enemy answered in a much different way: Saul was struck blind on the road to Damascus and dramatically converted. I am sure the saints were just as surprised by the way God dramatically answered this prayer as they were to hear Peter knocking at the door during the prayer meeting being held to pray for his release from prison.
The blind Saul was then led to Damascus, and there God tested the faith of one of his saints. We see a little of God’s humor as he asks Ananias to visit Saul of Tarsus after he was converted and brought to Damascus. Ananias has one of those “Are you sure, Lord?” moments when he responds, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.” The Lord assures Ananias it is going to be all right, telling him, “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:13–16 NKJV).
Saul of Tarsus Defeated
So, Ananias obeys and goes to baptize Saul, whom God had given a new heart of flesh, whom God appointed to be His Apostle to the Gentiles, and whom the Holy Spirit would use to write much of the New Testament!
- Saul of Tarsus had been defeated.
- Paul the Apostle was born again to serve the risen and reigning Savior.
God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and His plans are not our plans. Saul had his plan for the trip to Damascus. But listen to how God explained His new plans to Saul, this great enemy of the church, after he was stricken on the road to Damascus:
And He said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you. I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:15–18 NKJV).
The great enemy of the church has become the Apostle to the Gentiles in answer to the prayers of God’s saints, who asked that God bring down judgment on His enemies!
This is why we must not ignore these imprecatory Psalms. We must be bold and use them to advance the Kingdom of God, both in our private prayers and in our public worship.
Beware of “Wicked Ways”
We are not to use God’s judgment for personal vengeance or just to make ourselves feel better. We must always remember that sober warning in Proverbs 24:17–18, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; lest the LORD see it, and it displease Him, and He turn away His wrath from him” (NKJV).
Having the proper attitude is not easy, and we must learn to trust the Holy Spirit who uses the Word of God to be “a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12 NKJV). There is a call for God’s judgment in Psalm 139 that is often overlooked, but the context provides a real lesson regarding our thoughts and motives.
Psalm 139 is a favorite for many Christians. We all love to read and quote those verses in Psalm 139 that talk about how we are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are comforted by God’s care and attention to His people when we read, “How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand; When I awake, I am still with You” (Ps. 139:17–18 NKJV).
However, the next verse brings a sudden shift with a strong call for God’s judgment:
“Oh, that You would slay the wicked, O God! Depart from me, therefore, you bloodthirsty men. For they speak against You wickedly; Your enemies take Your name in vain. Do I not hate them, O LORD, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies” (Ps. 139:19–22 NKJV; emphasis added).
And then we have what appears to be another dramatic shift where the psalmist goes on to say: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23–24 NKJV).
We cannot ignore the enemies of God. We must confront them and the sin that flows from them, but we must remember that the battle belongs to the Lord. We must ask the Spirit to test our hearts continually to make sure that our motives are godly and that we are praying with a proper attitude and perspective: God’s perspective.
We must wage this warfare with His weapons and remember that Jesus has come to bring light to the world: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:16–17 NKJV). The old earth and old heavens already stood condemned under the curse of sin: God sent His Son to save that which was lost, and we should never be surprised to see the extent of His mercy.
As we call down God’s judgments on those who hate God, we must remember two things:
First and foremost, we must always remember that there but for the grace of God go we ourselves.
Second, we must also say with the great hymn writer Isaac Watts that “we long to see God’s churches FULL.”
As Christians we must be ready and willing to call boldly for God’s justice. And we must at the same time expect the repentance of sinners because Jesus came to save those who were lost.