What are imprecatory psalms?There are seven main types of psalms: lament, thanksgiving, enthronement, pilgrimage, royal, wisdom, and imprecatory. Imprecatory means "that which calls down a curse or invokes judgment," so the imprecatory psalms are prayers that call for God's judgment on one's enemies. For instance, Psalm 69:27–28 states, "Add to them punishment upon punishment; may they have no acquittal from you. Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous." With these lines, David was calling upon God to bring justice to his enemies, so this psalm is categorized as an imprecatory psalm. Psalm 69 is an example of an imprecatory psalm, but there are many others, such as Psalms 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 57, 58, 59, 79, 83, 94, 109, 137, 139, and 143.
It is important to note that the psalms are not the only place in the Bible where imprecations are used. Jesus quoted from Psalm 69 in John 15:25. Peter quoted from it in Acts 1:20, and Paul used it in Romans 11:9–10. However, imprecatory language is also used in prophetic literature like Hosea, Micah, and Jeremiah, as well as in the New Testament epistles like 1 Corinthians 16:22 and Galatians 1:9. Revelation 6:10 describes martyrs under the altar in heaven crying out, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?"
This type of prayer calling for God's judgment is a biblical standard, but how do we reconcile these imprecatory psalms and prayers with Jesus' command to "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44)?
There are a few points to keep in mind. First, is that God's own people were not immune from receiving curses as part of God's judgment. In Deuteronomy 27, the Levites were commanded to call down curses on the Israelites if they do not follow God's law. Deuteronomy 28:45 explains, "All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you." So God's people are not immune to His judgment and imprecatory prayers should not be uttered without a sense of humility and repentance on the part of the person saying them. In Psalm 69, we see David model this humility when he states, "O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you… You know my reproach, and my shame and my dishonor" (Psalm 69:5, 19). Only with this recognition of our own need for mercy and forgiveness can we ask for God's justice.
Second, these imprecatory psalms or prayers are not spontaneous explosions of personal anger, but rather are reasoned meditations provoked by zeal for God's honor and a sense of the utter horror of sin. In Psalm 69:9 David says, "For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me." David was not calling for judgment because he had been personally offended, but rather because he saw how God had been wronged and God's honor had been impugned.
Third, with imprecatory prayers there is a trusting of God's timing and His decisions—an acknowledgement that God's judgment and God's mercy can both bring Him glory and that it is up to Him to choose which attribute to bring to bear on the current situation. In Psalm 69 David said, "At an acceptable time, O God,… answer me in your saving faithfulness" (Psalm 69:13). David displayed an understanding of what Peter explained in 2 Peter 3:9 that "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." David was willing to wait on the Lord's timing, knowing that his enemies might yet repent and be changed. However, when people consistently refuse to repent, Romans 1:26–27 states, "For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions… receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error." Luke 18:7–8 promises, "And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily." We can and should pray for "the wicked" to repent. However, when they persist in their wicked ways, our only recourse is to call upon God's promise that His judgment would be full and fair.
The imprecatory psalms can be used as examples of how to pray for God's justice in our world. Praying in humility with an awareness of our own sin, for the purpose of God's glory rather than our own revenge, and trusting His decision to exercise judgment or mercy at the appropriate time is praying in a way that aligns with biblical teaching as seen in the imprecatory psalms.
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