Christians should pray the imprecatory psalms:
While divine justice will fully and finally be meted out in the next life, Christians can and should seek to see justice carried out in the here and now. Indeed, that is what I often seek. In my prayer walk this morning I held up a friend who has been going through a horrific miscarriage of justice, costing him his career.
For a year now he has been prevented from working and properly feeding his family, all because he spoke biblical truth that offended the powers that be. So I pray for him daily, that somehow God’s justice would be realised now, and not later. See his shocking story here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/03/30/the-big-brother-purge-of-conservative-christians-in-australia/
And I also pray for vindication. That term simply means “proof that someone or something is right, reasonable, or justified” as one website puts it. My friend needs vindication, and it is right and proper to pray for that. Even more, it is fully biblical to pray against enemies of ourselves and of God who are pushing wickedness and injustice.
When innocent people are being ripped off, harmed, harassed and treated unjustly, especially by evil rulers, then we certainly should pray that God would take action. Just yesterday I wrote about the terrible suffering in Victoria, largely brought upon us by our derelict and dysfunctional leaders: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/08/03/a-spiritual-take-on-the-victorian-disaster/
In that piece I mentioned the imprecatory psalms, and how they are something we should be praying today. I have written often before about these themes. See these pieces for example: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/05/28/praying-against-enemies/
After writing yesterday’s article I went out and did what I will soon no longer be able to do in lock-downed Victoria: I bought a few new books. But that will end in a day. This entire state is turning into one massive internment camp, and I for one sure am praying for some justice and vindication here.
One of the volumes I picked up yesterday was a new expository commentary on the Psalms by Richard Phillips: Psalms 42-72 (P&R, 2019). As I was reading what he had to say on one imprecatory psalm (58), I thought I needed to write a follow-up article to my previous piece.
I have written before about the imprecatory psalms, saying this for example: “We find many psalms containing harsh words about enemies, with calls for their destruction and so on. An imprecation is a call for divine judgement, or an invocation of curses, upon enemies or upon the wicked.” https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/02/02/the-imprecatory-psalms-part-one/
Psalm 58 certainly fits the bill, so let me quote from some of the comments made by Phillips. He starts by noting how many Christians today are all very squeamish about such psalms and want nothing to do with them. Indeed, “in 1980 the Church of England exempted its members from having to read Psalm 58 in worship”!
He continues: “Such a condemning attitude for this and other biblical rebukes is misguided, since David’s anger is a reflection of God’s own wrath and as such presents a vital warning to the wicked. Psalm 58 therefore ought to be required reading, not an optional extra.”
And yes, Christians can fully run with such psalms:
A balanced approach to the imprecatory psalms will realize that David’s prayers against the wicked are not, in fact, opposed to the ethics of Jesus. One way to see this is to note how vehemently Jesus spoke against corrupt rulers of his day, using language every bit as violent as David’s. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Jesus cried (Matt. 23:15), referring to them as “child[ren] of hell,” “blind guides,” and “whitewashed tombs.” Jesus concluded his diatribe with language right out of Psalm 58: “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matt. 23:15-23). Another way to make sense of Psalm 58 is to note that David was not acting in personal retaliation against the wicked but instead was praying for God’s just retribution….
The heart of Psalm 58 is David’s cry for God to act against his wicked enemies. It is undeniable that David uses violent terms in this imprecatory prayer. It is helpful, however, to note the two general categories in which he is asking God to act. The first category of David’s plea consists of requests for God to destroy the ability of the wicked to harm their victims. . . . David’s second category requests that God would remove the evil effects of the wicked and eradicate their corrupt legacy….
David is not acting in violence against the wicked but praying for God to oppose them. David is appealing to God’s retributive justice, not committing sins against his foes. . . . David’s imprecatory prayer is consistent with Jesus’ angry denunciations of wicked leaders. We should also note that his appeal is ultimately fulfilled in the triumph of Christ over evil. . . . We can be sure that Christ’s continuous intercessory prayers in heaven for his people include appeals to the Father to thwart the designs of those who oppose the gospel and seek to advance the cause of evil (see Rom. 8;34).
Sober reflection shows that we have no grounds for standing in judgment on David’s imprecatory prayers. To the contrary, David’s prayers against the wicked may effectively accuse Christians today. His example challenges us to explain why we are not similarly outraged against the corrupt and deadly actions of ungodly powers.
He looks at some of those great social evils, such as the wholesale slaughter of the unborn and the war on marriage and family, and then says this:
The problem today is not that Christians continue to tolerate imprecatory prayers such as Psalm 58 but that we do not pray similarly against the same kinds of evils that surround us. If Nero fiddled while Rome burned, Christians today are taking violin lessons while a once-Christian civilization goes up in flames….
All Christians should be praying with broken, burning hearts for God to intervene against corrupt leaders who, in David’s words, “devise wrongs” in their hearts and use their hands to “deal out violence on earth” (Ps. 58:2). Whereas Psalm 58 rebukes the “silent ones” of Israel – corrupt rulers who refused to speak out against injustice – the reading of the psalm today rebukes the self-absorbed and indifferent Christians whose voices are silent in prayer while injustice and evil reign all around them. Alongside the moral outrage of our time is the spiritual scandal of Christians who are too busy to labor in prayer for God to cast down the wicked and give strength to the gospel.
Yes absolutely. We need much more, not much less, use of the imprecatory psalms by believers in these dark days. We should be angry with what makes God angry. We should be greatly upset with injustice, corruption and abuse of power. We should plead with God to act, to vindicate, to deal with the unrepentant evildoers.
Far too many Christians are far too cavalier about the great evils taking place all around us. Their hearts do not break with what breaks the heart of God. They do not grieve about what God grieves over. They do not detest that which God detests. No wonder the imprecatory psalms seem so foreign – even “unchristian” – to them.
Let me conclude with quotes from two different notable Christians. I first offer some helpful words written by Dutch-American theologian Johannes Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949). Back in 1942 he wrote a very valuable article on these psalms for the Westminster Theological Journal called “The Ethical Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms”. In it he said this:
God’s kingdom cannot come without Satan’s kingdom being destroyed. God’s will cannot be done in earth without the destruction of evil. Evil cannot be destroyed without the destruction of men who are permanently identified with it. Instead of being influenced by the sickly sentimentalism of the present day, Christian people should realize that the glory of God demands the destruction of evil. Instead of being insistent upon the assumed, but really non-existent, rights of men, they should focus their attention upon the rights of God. Instead of being ashamed of the Imprecatory Psalms, and attempting to apologize for them and explain them away, Christian people should glory in them and not hesitate to use them in the public and private exercises of the worship of God.
Some 65 years later American Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, coming from a somewhat differing theological perspective, said this about these psalms in his brief book Praying the Psalms. (Paternoster, 2007):
The vengeance of God is understood as the other side of his compassion – the sovereign redress of a wrong. That is, in the Old Testament, two motifs belong together. God cannot act to liberate “his” people without at the same time judging and punishing the oppressors who have perverted a just ordering of life. Vengeance by God is not understood as an end in itself. It is discerned as necessary to the establishment and preservation of a just rule. It is a way God “right-wises” life. Thus Deuteronomy 32:35 speaks of vengeance. But this is linked in v. 36 with vindication and compassion for “his” servants….
Thus these harsh Psalms must be fully embraced as our own. Our rage and indignation must be fully owned and fully expressed. And then (only then) can our rage and indignation be yielded to the mercy of God. In taking this route through them, we take the route God “himself” has gone. We are not permitted a cheaper, easier, more “enlightened” way.