The word “imprecatory” means “to invoke evil upon” or “to curse.” In accordance with this definition, many passages from the Bible’s book of Psalms can be accurately described as being imprecatory prayers. Here are seven such examples from a pretty long list (all from the N.K.J.V.):
- (Psalm 5:10): Pronounce them guilty, O God! Let them fall by their own counsels; Cast them out in the multitude of their transgressions, For they have rebelled against you.
- (Psalm 10:2, 15): The wicked in his pride persecutes the poor; Let them be caught in the plots which they have devised…Break the arm of the wicked and the evil man; Seek out his wickedness until You find none.
- (Psalm 17:13): Arise, O Lord, Confront him, cast him down; Deliver my life from the wicked with Your sword.
- (Psalm 35:4-6): Let those be put to shame and brought to dishonor Who seek after my life; Let those be turned back and brought to confusion Who plot my hurt. Let them be like chaff before the wind, And let the angel of the Lord chase them. Let their way be dark and slippery. And let the angel of the Lord pursue them.
- (Psalm 69:22-25): Let their table become a snare before them, And their well-being a trap. Let their eyes be darkened, so that they do not see, And make their loins shake continually. Pour out Your indignation upon them, And let Your wrathful anger take hold of them. Let their dwelling place be desolate; Let no one live in their tents.
- (Psalm 109:8-13): Let his days be few, And let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, And his wife a widow. Let his children continuously be vagabonds, and beg; Let them seek their bread also from their desolate places. Let the creditor seize all that he has, And let strangers plunder his labor. Let there be none to extend mercy to him, Nor let there be any to favor his fatherless children. Let his posterity be cut off, And in the generation following let their name be blotted out.
- (Psalm 137:8-9): 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!
Those last two examples, in particular, use especially harsh language. Not only do they seek God’s vengeance upon the wicked, they seek it upon their children. Tell me, could you ever pray a prayer in which you asked God to make your enemy’s children homeless vagabonds who cannot find any favor and have to continually beg for food? Even worse, could you ever pray a prayer in which you sung the praises of the people who dashed those children’s heads against a rock? Even if you could envision yourself praying such prayers, could you truly pray them with a Christlike spirit rather than a vengeful one?
Many Christians would say that no Christian has any business praying any type of imprecatory prayer, and the proof text they would cite is Matthew 5:43-48. There, in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, He says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (N.K.J.V.)
At first blush, these words from our Savior do seem to rule out praying imprecatory prayers. For that matter, they seem to rule out even having imprecatory feelings. But before we completely dismiss praying such prayers and having such feelings, we need to consult some other quotes from Jesus, quotes that find more in common with those Psalms passages than that Sermon on the Mount one. Here are four of the type of quotes I’m talking about (all from the N.K.J.V.):
- (Matthew 23:13-15, 33): “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those are entering to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves…Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?”
- (Luke 10:13-15): “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades.”
- (Revelation 2:18, 20-23): “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write, ‘These things says the Son of God…I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. And I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality, and she did not repent. Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds. I will kill her children with death, and all the churches shall know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts. And I will give to each one of you according to your works.'”
- (Revelation 3:14-16): “And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write, ‘These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.'”
Jesus, by way of these quotes, didn’t seem to show much love to the scribes and Pharisees, the citizens of those three cities, that false prophetess in the church of Thyatira, and those members of the church of the Laodiceans, did He? You say, “But those quotes from Him aren’t really prayer requests and consequently can’t be called imprecatory prayers.” You’re right, they aren’t prayer requests. What you must realize, though, is that Jesus is God. Therefore, He doesn’t have to work through the process of taking His requests to God. He can just make the requests happen.
Continuing on with this theme of New Testament quotes that seem to have more in common with the imprecatory requests from the Psalms than Christ’s words from the Sermon on the Mount, consider these (all from the N.K.J.V.):
- (1 Corinthians 16:22): If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed. O Lord, come!
- (Galatians 1:8-9): But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.
- (Jude 1:11-15): Woe to them! For they have gone in the way of Cain, have run greedily in the error of Balaam for profit and perished in the rebellion of Korah. These are spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves. They are clouds with water, carried about by the winds, late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots; raging waves of the sea, foaming up their own shame; wandering stars for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever. Now Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men also, saying, “Behold the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints, to execute judgment on all, to convict all who are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have committed in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.
Coming at this topic another way, 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness. That word “all” definitely includes each and every imprecatory-type passage from either the Old Testament or the New Testament. Along the same lines, Jesus Himself said in that same Sermon on the Mount, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17, N.K.J.V.). Even though the Psalms are technically not part of the writings of the Law or the Prophets, the term “the Law and the Prophets” can be taken to refer to the entirety of the Old Testament, including the Psalms and the other “wisdom” books. This means that Jesus put His divine stamp of approval upon every “jot” and “tittle” of the Old Testament (Matthew 5:18).
If nothing else, the imprecatory passages from the Old Testament and the New Testament prove that love (even God’s love) doesn’t cancel out other godly characteristics. Justice, for example, still has a place in God’s plans. Vengeance does as well. As a matter of fact, the imprecatory prayers found in the Psalms can accurately be taken as requests for God to honor His words from Deuteronomy 32:35, where He says, “Vengeance is Mine.” Furthermore, they are merely Old Testament calls for God to do what He promises to do in Romans 12:19 and Hebrews 10:30, where He says, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.”
You see, there is a difference between loving someone (even an enemy) on a personal level and asking God to mete out just punishment on that person on a judicial level. The same mother who loves her serial-killer son with a godlike love can stand in full agreement with the calls for that son’s capture and execution. That’s the difference between the personal side of her and the judicial side. Likewise, the same Christian who shows love to an enemy by trying to help that enemy get in line with God’s will can rightly ask God to take vengeance upon that enemy for the enemy’s rejection of God and His will. Actually, if you think about it, any call for imprecatory judgment upon a wicked person inherently carries with it a love for other people. I say that because when a wicked person is brought down by judgment, that prevents that person from inflicting future harm on others.
So, to sum all this up, there are times in our Christian lives when we are perfectly in the right to pray imprecatory prayers. What differentiates these prayers from mere fleshly requests for revenge is our motivation. First, if we are praying from a motivation of sincere love for others, we can rightly pray imprecatory prayers. Second, if we are genuinely seeking God’s justice, we can rightly pray imprecatory prayers. Third, if we are joining God in a righteous indignation against the rank evil of wicked people, we can rightly pray imprecatory prayers. Fourth, if we are simply asking God to keep His word about repaying vengeance, we can rightly pray imprecatory prayers.
Look, I’m not saying that imprecatory prayers should be our default setting in regards to our times of prayer. But I am saying that the Bible does sanction such prayers when the situation calls for them. Certainly those situations won’t crop up every day in our lives, but we mustn’t kid ourselves by thinking that they never will. If they cropped up in David’s life, Paul’s life, Jude’s life, and Jesus’ life, they will crop up in ours, and when they do we shouldn’t be afraid to humbly, reverently, and (don’t forget) lovingly ask God to judiciously deal with them. The truth is, to do any less is to fail to employ the totality of scripture.