In light of the recent execution of 21 Christians and capture of hundreds more in Syria, perhaps it’s time to ask, “Should we be praying the imprecatory psalms against ISIS?” Written in the theocratic context of Israel, when God himself had a throne on earth, these psalms (e.g., Ps. 58; 69; 109) invoke God’s judgment upon Israel’s enemies in terrifying terms (see Ps. 58:8). While we profess that all Scripture is profitable (2 Tim. 3:16), we must carefully consider the ways in which that is true of these psalms.
After all, we were once enemies of God (Col. 1:21-22), but are now redeemed and called to love our neighbors (Luke 10:27) and pray for our persecutors (Matt. 5:44; Rom. 12:14). May we identify an enemy for divine destruction as the imprecatory psalms do? Can we do so in specific terms or only general ones? Are we not to expect persecution in this age and turn the other cheek (Mark 13:13; Luke 21:17; Matt. 5:39) as we wait for Christ’s return (2 Cor. 1:5; Col. 1:24)? These are complex questions.
I want to explore how Scripture supports praying the imprecatory psalms in a personalized way, provided we exhibit a specific attitude. To pray for God to execute his righteous judgment upon evildoers is permissible and in certain ways even useful for believers. My aim here is also, in part, to provide Christians with a biblical account of the impulse we may feel to wish God’s destruction upon persecutors of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The Psalter and Hermeneutics
Three brief points on the use of the imprecatory psalms in prayer are in order. First, we should guard against overemphasizing the place of these psalms in the Christian life. The church is not undertaking the conquest of Canaan. Our mission rather is to care for souls as we take the gospel to all nations (Matt. 28:19-20). We aim to expand and feed the flock, not to eradicate anything that isn’t a sheep. That is the difference between the gospel and Sharia. Praying the imprecatory psalms can be useful when done with this caution in mind.
Secondly, we must recognize that the majority of the Psalter is non-violent. The instances where a psalmist speaks positively of violence are rare indeed. Wherever we do find imprecation in Scripture, it is not triumphalistic or gloating. Instead, it issues from a position of weakness and victimization (Ps. 35:7; 69:1-3; 109:22-25). Imprecation recognizes God as the sole source of deliverance and righteous judgment (Ps. 59:5; 40:13; 109:27). The only one laughing at the wicked is God himself (Ps. 2:4; 37:13; 59:8). Praying the imprecatory psalms, then, can be useful when it acknowledges our impotence and participation in the persecuted body of Christ.
Thirdly, when we pray the imprecatory psalms, we do not expect that God will send “the hornet” to exterminate ISIS as he did the Canaanites (Josh. 24:12; Exod. 23:28). On the other hand, we are not necessarily asking God to execute the final judgment that will only come at Christ’s return, either. While that judgment is foreshadowed in these psalms—and in the conquest more generally—God can and does intervene in creation as he upholds it. In that sense, he may arrange for the downfall of specific evildoers according to his will even before Christ’s return. God hears and answers the prayers of his people in a variety of ways. On those grounds, the imprecatory psalms may be directed at specific evildoers as an expression of our desire for God’s Kingdom on earth today (Luke 18:6-8).
God’s Sovereignty and Our Finitude
Now, two points on applying the imprecatory psalms.
First, we must recognize God’s sovereignty in acting out his own justice on evil. To be sure, until that judgment, Jesus commands us to love our enemies, to pray for them, even to bless them (Luke 6:27-28; Rom. 12:20; 1 Pet. 3:9). Jesus spoke more about love than bearing the sword (Matt. 10:34-35; Luke 12:51-53). In similar fashion, Paul instructed Christians to “bless and do not curse” our persecutors (Rom. 12:14).
But this instruction does not prohibit calling evil what it is, and desiring that God deal with it promptly and specifically. We see this most clearly in Revelation 6:9-10 where the heavenly martyrs call out for justice and vengeance. Theirs is an intensely personal concern: they ask God to avenge “our blood upon those who dwell on earth.” It is important to note that while the heavenly martyrs are issuing a personalized imprecation, it is nevertheless divinely mediated. Their imprecation is qualified by the sovereignty and agency of God himself to answer their prayer.
Second, we must distinguish between cursing our personal enemies ourselves (Col. 3:8) and calling upon God to curse his enemies. This distinction is evident in Romans 12:14. While Paul instructs us not to curse others, he does not prohibit asking God to pour out his justice. The distinction is subtle but important. In the former we condemn men on our own terms and make ourselves gods; in the latter we beseech the King and recognize his holiness and our finitude.
In that sense, when making specific imprecation, we must always balance “Father, save the lost!” with “Father, pour out your wrath upon evil!” The contingency that holds together these two ideas properly submits to God’s sovereignty—his justice and mercy—without assuming that only one of the two options will bring him glory. Paul does not shy away from personal imprecation as he puts this principle to use in 1 Corinthians 16:22: “If anyone has no love for the Lord, then let him be accursed!” (cf. Gal. 1:8-9). As Christians redeemed by Christ, we can simultaneously recognize the forgiveness of our own sin and the fact that sin itself grounds our appeal for God’s judgment.
No Light Matter
None of this counsel implies that praying imprecatory psalms is a light matter. Far from it. As others have pointed out, some consider it a spiritual “nuclear option.”
Nevertheless, “there is a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace” (Eccl. 3:8). Lord willing, his justice will be meted out, and ISIS and similar perversions of the truth will be snuffed out swiftly and completely. But we may have only seen the beginning of this evil. While it is a terrible thing to desire God’s judgment to fall upon unrepentant creatures, it is worse still for evil to go unpunished. For that reason, I pray that Christians will exercise wisdom in their intercession for the persecuted church. As we do so, let us always recognize our own pardon from sin as creatures loved by God, and magnify the sovereignty and justice of the King of heaven and earth.