When is it Appropriate to Pray Imprecatory Psalms?

Some will say never.  But last evening as I was tossing and turning thinking about persecuted believers, facing hardships all around the world, especially in the Middle East.  All this was precipitated by the recent killing of a Coptic priest and persecutions against Christians, in Egypt.

The perpetrators are enemies of the Christian faith.  Then I began to think about those imprecatory psalms on the one hand, and something Dietrich Bonhoeffer said about them on the other.  And since meaningful theology is never done is the abstract or in a vacuum, we have a sense of where Bonhoeffer is coming from.

“May we then pray even the imprecatory psalms?  We may not do this as sinners who associate evil desires with these prayers for revenge; but as those in whom Christ dwells–the one who has taken all God’s judgment upon himself, the one who thus, as the one who is himself struck by the judgment of God, could forgive his enemies, the one who himself suffered the divine vengeance that his enemies might go free–as members of the body of this Jesus Christ, we too may pray even these psalms, through Jesus Christ and out of the heart of Jesus Christ.”  (Reflections on the Bible, p. 64)

Bonhoeffer says yes.  But we must do so as those in whom Christ dwells, desiring ultimately the very salvation of enemies of the Christian faith, who leave no doubt that they are such.

But someone may ask, Isn’t praying imprecatory psalms over our enemies taking vengeance, which rightfully belongs to God, into our own hands? (Psalm 94; Rom 12:19ff).  This is where I find Bonhoeffer helpful.  Consider Revelation 6:9 and 10,

“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?‘” (emphasis added)

While we may object that the imprecatory psalms are Old Testament, I do not believe we can say the same for Revelation 6:9-10 and the import of this cry for God’s justice to be carried out against his enemies, our enemies.

But neither is this a call for holy wars.  Again, I find Bonhoeffer helpful here.

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2 Responses to When is it Appropriate to Pray Imprecatory Psalms?

  1. Simon says:

    I think Calvinism provides a very precarious basis to pray these Psalms. Because it puts the Calvinist believer in a constant state of anticipating revenge visiting on their enemies. It’s like “be nice now, but when Christ comes back you’re gonna get it!” And there seems to be some delight (at worst) or sense of vindication (at best) taken in the notion of the condemnation of others.

    Christ’s followers desire the salvation and union of all men. I think Calvinism tends to divide. They don’t really believe in the salvation of all men. This is a broader Western phenomenon as well, with seeds of this in the Latin Church. You see in the East, Christianity has largely been non-retaliatory against those who persecute, whether they be Muslim or Communist. And truly persecuted they have been over many centuries. They are a quiet but strong witness for the co-suffering love of God for his enemies. They are still there and continue to be lights shining in the dark.

    • TC says:

      Simon, what you say here goes against those missionary Calvinists who have left their mark on history of missions. We cannot speak about missions without mentioning the likes of Carey, Adoniram, Liele, Whitefield, and so on–all Calvinists. Perhaps you’re confusing hyper-Calvinisim with their brand of Calvinism.

      Furthermore, to ask God to judge enemies of his and his people is hardly retaliatory, while at the same time seeking their salvation. This is my burden in this post. Can’t you see that?

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