Imprecatory Prayers

By David Chilton
March 01, 1997
"Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered!." (Ps. 68:1)

There is a class of so-called "imprecatory" (cursing) prayers in the Bible, and this fact occasionally disturbs people: it doesn't seem to agree with what we are told elsewhere in the Bible about loving our enemies (Mt. 5:44). Should there be such prayers, especially in the New Testament? What should be their place in worship? To some extent, at least, it seems clear that imprecations are appropriate in worship: they are used in the Bible. Much of the Book of Psalms is concerned with them. There is not really a separate category of "Imprecatory Psalms" as such (although Psalms 10, 83 and 94 are almost completely imprecatory). Practically every Psalm has imprecatory passages, and every Psalm is implicitly imprecatory (try saying that three times fast!). To call for God's blessing on the righteous is, by implication, asking him not to bless the wicked. Martin Luther observed, "I cannot pray without cursing" every blessing implies a curse.

Getting specific, the Bible contains explicit curses against the wicked. Moses cursed Pharaoh (Ex. 9:16). Samuel cursed Saul (1 Sam. 13:13-14; 15:28). Elijah and Micaiah cursed Ahab (1 Kin. 21:17-24; 22:19-23). Amos cursed Israel (Amos 9:9-10). Jesus cursed the Pharisees (Mt. 23). Paul cursed Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 4:14). Even the perfectly pure, righteous saints in heaven cursed their persecutors, asking for God's vengeance against them (Rev. 6:9-11). There is no Biblical reason why it should not continue keeping in mind at least five perspectives:

  1. Christological Perspective. First, the whole Psalter is Jesus Christ praying to His Father: even the passages where He confesses "His" sins beautifully show how completely He "became sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor. 5:21). Second, the law's curses were fulfilled upon Christ, as God's awful covenant vengeance was unleashed on Him. The imprecatory prayers of Scripture were applied to Jesus, so that they would not be applied to His people. That should be made clear in our presentation of such prayers to a congregation. The best book I've read on the subject is James Adams' War Psalms of the Prince of Peace: Lessons from the Imprecatory Psalms. Another fine book on the Psalms in general is Calvin Beisner's Psalms of Promise: Exploring the Majesty and Faithfulness of God; this has a 20-page section called "Curses on Covenant-Breakers."
  2. Soteriological Perspective. In prayer, we are not simply praying for the defeat of God's enemies, but for their salvation as well. Even terrifying enemies of the Faith (such as Saul) have been gloriously converted. The point is the glory of God and the good of the church, and we should always desire their conversion. Of course, we should not be blind to the fact that some enemies simply will not be converted, and must be removed in some other way.
  3. Ecclesiological Perspective. We should not pray imprecatory prayers against people we simply dislike, or even against those who hate and persecute us; we are to "bless, and curse not" (Rom. 12:14; cf. Mt. 5:43-48). Curses should be pronounced officially, under the authority of the church, and against those who seek to destroy the church. Officially, we may find it necessary to pronounce divine judgment against the wicked; personally, we must show love and compassion to all men, even our enemies. We pray for our enemies to be removed, not primarily to avoid hardship and suffering, but so that the church can accomplish her task.
  4. Eschatological Perspective. All accounts will not be settled in this life. We must trust in the ultimate judgment of God on the Last Day. God did not immediately manifest his wrath against all the persecutors of the apostles, and neither will He do so in our day. We look for final vindication at the end of history.
  5. Sociological Perspective. Our primary purpose in church is to worship God. As much as possible, therefore, we should seek to edify the worshipers. Some are tempted to affect a prophetic, hell-or-high-water attitude, acting as if anyone who disagrees is a vicious enemy of God. Particularly in a day when Christianity is equated with unctuous, syrupy sentimentalism, a vigorously Biblical faith can prove too much of a culture shock for weak believers. God's people must be treated with respect and sensitivity; they must be carefully led (not driven) into a God-centered world view. If we have a choice, let God take care of blasting the wolves; pastors must care for the sheep.

A fair, honest presentation of imprecatory Psalms will attempt to display the justice and holiness of God in such a way that His love and mercy will shine through as well. That can be done only by showing them as they are related to Jesus Christ, in whom "mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other" (Ps. 85:10).

Topics: Dominion, Apologetics, Biblical Law, Christian Reconstruction, Church, The, Creeds, Culture

David Chilton

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