Praying the Imprecatory Psalms

ImageI have found it disturbing (to say the least) that some folks in the U.S. believe that the imprecatory psalms offer a prayer for our current president (from Psalm 109:8).  This is nothing if not disgusting abuse of the Scriptures to promote hate-mongering. However, I’m not so simple as to think the Church should not appropriate the imprecatory psalms into our prayer life, but to recognize that between the Church and the Psalms…is Christ–crucified, died, buried, raised on the third day, and coming again to judge the living and the dead.

So I thought I’d include a brief discussion of Bruce Waltke’s and Derek Kidner’s approach to these troubling psalms:

Bruce Waltke believes that while imprecatory psalms are “theologically sound…these petitions for retribution are inappropriate for the church because, among other reasons, judgment will occur in the eschaton (Rev. 20:11-15; cf. Isa. 61:1-2 with Matt. 13:30; 25:46; Luke 4:18-20; John 15:15; 2 Cor. 6:2; 2 Thess. 1:5-9); sin and sinner are now more distinctly differentiated (cf. Eph. 6:11-18), allowing the saint both to hate sin and to love the sinner; and the saint’s struggle is against spiritual powers of darkness, where he conquers by turning the other cheek and by praying for the forgiveness of enemies (Matt. 5:39-42, 43-48; 6:14; Luke 6:28, 35; Acts 7:60).” [“Psalms: Theology of” (pp.1100-1115), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), IV:1106-1107]

Derek Kidner (Psalms 1-72 [TOTC 15; Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1975]) writes, “To get fully in tune with the psalmists on this issue we should have to suspend our consciousness of having a gospel to impart (which affects our attitude to fellow-sinners) and our assurance of a final righting of wrongs (which affects our attitude to present anomalies).” He believes we cannot properly hear the answer given to injustice in such psalms “until we have felt the force of their questions” (40). Further, he perceives that there is a sense of rhetoric at play wherein “horror may be piled on horror more to express the speaker’s sense of outrage than to spell out the penalties he literally intends” (41-42). He likens such extreme language to hyperbole for the sake of deep emotional expression that could simply not be expressed otherwise than it is. Finally, he argues that such language is intended “to touch and kindle us rather than simply address us” (42). Where we might think to criticize the psalmist (from some “reasonable” perspective), we are drawn into the “desperation which produced” the cry of imprecation (42). His understanding of a Christian appropriation suggests that rather than judgment being removed (though dealt finally by the cross of Christ) is actually drawn nearer and taken from the hands of the wronged individual and placed into the nail-scarred hands of Christ as Lord (43-45). His reply to the Christian wanting a straightforward appropriation is a “No” because the cross stands between us and these psalms (46-47).

We can hear the cries of victims of injustice and abuse and offer the healing of Christ, but we cannot truly pray such judgment upon individuals least of all those in authority over us (1 Tim.2:1-3).  We can (and must) offer prayers of imprecation concerning the ultimate justice of God that all might be set to rights.  (See also my older post “Blessed be the One Who Grabs Babylon’s Babies and Smashes Them on a Rock”)

So what are your thoughts on praying these psalms?

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One thought on “Praying the Imprecatory Psalms

  1. I would have to disagree with you on this one Rick. If there is someone who is consciously impeding the spread of the Gospel or intentionally hindering someone from responding to the Gospel or intentionally involved in gross evil, such as someone who is fostering a child porn ring; in these and many other situations, I think it is our call to call upon God to take the wicked interference out of the way. When we are dealing with those individuals individually, then there is the command and the call for love and for grace and for mercy. But to ask God to remove them wicked from places of power and of influence, that is another issue altogether. Oh, and by the way, I am not by this post implying that President Obama is evil or falls into an of the above categories. But then again, to this date, I have never asked the Lord to take him out of the way.

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