C. S. Lewis got a lot of things right. He also got a few things wrong. And when Lewis was wrong, he was really wrong.

One of the places he was off was in how he viewed the imprecatory or “cursing” psalms, defined by Trevor Laurence as containing “a speech act that calls for, demands, requests, or expresses a wish for divine judgment and vengeance to befall an enemy, whether an individual or corporate entity.”

If you love the Psalter, and if you try the ancient Christian practice of praying through all 150 psalms every month (I have a Psalms in 30 Days prayer journey just for you!), you won’t get far before you run into prayers for God to enact justice, petitions for God to exact vengeance on the enemies of his people. Some of the psalms are primarily imprecatory in their nature, but a large number incorporate imprecatory elements—even the beloved Psalm 139 (“You have searched me and known me”), which, by the end, expresses hatred for God’s enemies. And then there’s the infamous ending to Psalm 137, which asks the Lord to dash the heads of enemy infants against the rocks.

Lewis thought these psalms “devilish,” naive, “diabolical,” given to “pettiness” and “vulgarity.” He believed their “vindictive hatred” to be contemptible—full of “festering, gloating, undisguised” passions that can in no way be “condoned or approved.” Lewis still managed to secure a pedagogical place for these ancient songs, but he ruled out of bounds for the Christian any imprecatory sentiments against human enemies.

No New Testament Shame

Christians with a high view of Scripture, who believe these psalms make up God’s inspired and inerrant Word to us, may still wonder what, if any, place these cursing psalms can have in corporate worship or personal devotion. Are they obsolete in some way? Superseded by New Testament grace? Should we still pray these psalms? If so, how?

Over the years, I’ve considered different ways of reframing or reinterpreting the imprecatory psalms, feeling the pinch of these petitions myself. But the biggest problem I run into is that I don’t see a smidge of embarrassment on behalf of Jesus or the apostles regarding these songs from Israel’s prayer book. What’s more, Jesus quotes from imprecatory psalms. It seems strange to claim that because of the coming of Christ, we should no longer sing or pray the very songs Christ had no trouble singing or praying. What’s more, the Bible ends with a book that includes petitions for God to destroy the wicked.

If I find my sentiments and sensibilities seem out of step with those of Jesus and the apostles, then I’m the one who must do the work of getting back into the world of imagination in which praying songs like this would make sense. And that’s where Trevor Laurence’s book Cursing with God is so helpful. It’s not an exaggeration to say this should become the evangelical’s go-to resource for understanding the imprecatory psalms and how to pray them. Laurence doesn’t just defend their use; he insists upon it:

“The psalms of wrath are not merely a permissible but indeed a necessary element in the church’s communion with God, prayers that carry an irreplaceable capacity to shape the body of Christ for healing, virtue, and witness in a world gone wrong.” (4)

What’s happening in these psalms? The petitioners are begging God to interrupt the assaults of the wicked, to vindicate the suffering righteous, and to keep his promise to enact judgment on all that would threaten the sacredness of God’s temple-kingdom.

World of the Psalms

To understand the what of the psalms, we must take our place in the same story. God created a good world as a cosmic temple for his presence. Humans were commissioned to exercise royal dominion and subdue the earth as a holy house for God. We were intended to be kings and priests who serve and guard this good world. Human beings failed at this task by disobeying God’s commandment, and yet God promised that one of Eve’s offspring would crush the head of the serpent.

The rest of the Old Testament tells the story of Israel as God’s son, a royal priesthood tasked with following God’s commands and purging evil from their midst, in anticipation of the day when “all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD” (Num. 14:21). King David, as a representative of the people, was to prepare the people of God for the construction of the temple. Those who pray alongside David share the same concerns: for the glory of God’s name, the justice of God’s righteous rule, and the preservation of purity on behalf of the innocent.

Fast forward to the time of the church, and we now pray the psalms alongside Jesus, the Son of David, who alone is perfectly righteous. In him, his prayers become our prayers, and our prayers remain in line with the covenant promises of God.

“The church’s divinely granted office, a sharing in the royal priesthood of the Son of God to which she is united, invests her with the authority to protect God’s temple-kingdom in prayer.” (261)

Within the world of the psalms, imprecatory prayer is a means by which we, today, sing songs against the Evil One. Laurence describes it as a way of guarding the people of God and leaning forward to the day when the entire earth will be filled with his presence (and purged of evil). The cursing songs are a peaceful, petitionary participation in God’s promise to strike the seed of the serpent and restore the peace of the garden.

Praying While Waiting

Instead of seeing the imprecatory psalms as a problematic or outdated mode of praying, Laurence believes these are “the prayer-pangs of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (256). We pray against “violently unjust predators who prowl after and pounce upon the innocent” and “the unwarranted assaults of the wicked” that “terrorize the godly.”

The New Testament does shape our mode of praying these psalms, of course, as we no longer live in ancient Israel. And we can see how Jesus becomes the fulfillment of these prayers—both in assuming his role as the perfectly innocent king who receives vindication and in becoming the One cursed for our transgressions, bearing the weight of the world’s sin.

  • In and alongside Christ, we pray for God to enact justice, rather than take vengeance into our own hands.
  • We pray God would thwart the schemes of the wicked, with hopes he might exercise mercy and judgment by rescuing the evildoer from sin through repentance or by stopping the schemes that lead to injustice.
  • We pray against Satan and the spiritual forces that war against us, that seek to desecrate our earthly temples by leading us to unfaithfulness.
  • We even direct these prayers to our own sins, asking God to be ruthless in purging our hearts of all evil and temptation.

We pray the cursing prayers. They’re in the Psalter for a reason.

Praying for the Kingdom

Laurence claims we find an implicit commendation for imprecatory psalms in the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer. Every time we say, “Your kingdom come,” we’re pleading for the manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth. We want to see believers reflect the character of the kingdom, sinners converted to join the kingdom, and violent enemies interrupted from opposing the kingdom, as we await the day of Christ’s return.

C. S. Lewis was wrong on the imprecatory psalms, and yet every time he uttered the Lord’s Prayer, he was incorporating all the hopes and petitions of these wrathful songs, begging God to enact justice, keep his covenant, and bring about the fullness of Christ’s reign as King. And so, with the martyrs who even now cry out for vindication, we too say, “Come, Lord Jesus. Make new the world.”

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