Praying For Judgment? (A Look At The Imprecatory Psalms)

Have you ever been so angry with someone that you just wanted something bad to happen to them?

Perhaps you didn’t have the power, influence, or resources to make an injustice right, so you just reached out to God and asked him to exact justice on them for you. 

We’ve all been there. It might be someone whose actions are not only wrong or foolish but are actively harming the well being of your family. Perhaps you are the victim of a systemic injustice and have little to no recourse. Maybe you are witness to people with power who are actively oppressing a marginalized group. 

In each of these cases, you’ve done everything you know how to do, and you just want God to fix it. (That is, get rid of the people who are the problem.)

Believe it or not, there were plenty of people in the bible who found themselves in situations just like this. And they cried out to God against the well being of those responsible for injustice, violence, and oppression.

In fact, it happened so often that we have an entire biblical genre surrounding these kinds of prayers. They’re called imprecatory psalms

What are imprecatory psalms? 

The word imprecate means to invoke a curse against someone, and that’s what imprecatory psalms do. The psalmists composed them as cries for God to take violent actions of judgment against those who are oppressing or mistreating them. 

And they tend to be very direct and graphic. In some places, disturbingly so. 

Here are a few of the more, shall we say, flowery examples:

“The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance;
    he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.”
(Psalm 58:11)

“May his children be fatherless
    and his wife a widow!”
(Psalm 109:9)

“Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
    and dashes them against the rock!”
(Psalms 137:9)

Yikes! These psalm writers were not only graphic in their calling down of curses on their enemies, they were also highly creative and strangely poetic. But maybe you have been able to identify with their sentiments on an occasion or two. 

But are imprecatory psalms a type of prayer that we should lean into? Should we ever pray for anything other than someone’s good, their redemption, repentance, and restoration?

On the face of it, these psalms don’t seem like a very “Christian” response to any situation. So it stands to reason that we should steer clear of them, right? 

I hesitate to give a firm and simple yes or no. But here are  few things to bear in mind as it relates to imprecatory psalms.

1. Righteous anger is a legitimate reason to call on divine justice. 

While discussing imprecatory psalms, John Piper points out that there isn’t much biblical warrant for us to ever pray for the damnation of others. Though he concedes that there are times when it is appropriate to stop praying for their salvation when God makes it clear that they will likely never turn and repent. 

Nevertheless, praying for damnation and praying for justice are two very different things. God is eminently concerned with justice. Whenever he brings down judgment on the people of Israel, the reasoning is almost always connected to both idolatry and injustice. In fact, he cared even more about justice than adherence to sacrificial laws. 

“To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.”
(Proverbs 21:3)

But the question then becomes what our role in justice is. As people who are created in the image of God, it is my belief that we should be involved in dismantling systems of injustice and oppression. And where we don’t have the power to do so, we are empowered to ask God to either change the hearts of oppressors or neutralize their power. 

I was recently speaking with a friend whose family was enduring a prolonged hardship at the hands of someone else. And her prayer for this man is that God would “fix him, or remove him.” I think that kind of prayer is biblically warranted.

We should be involved in dismantling systems of injustice and oppression. And where we don't have the power to do so, we are empowered to ask God to either change the hearts of oppressors or neutralize their power. Click To Tweet

2. Hatred is always toxic, no matter whom it’s directed toward. 

Justice is one thing, hatred is another. In our fervent fight for justice or vindication, the sin of hatred may be crouching at the door waiting to pounce on us. 

Jesus instructs us not to be filled with hate, even against those who would seek to do us harm.

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:44-46)

This is the radical truth about Jesus: he came to save both the oppressed and the oppressor. He came to restore both the victim of the crime and the committer of the crime. He came to redeem both the wrongdoer and the person who was wronged.

In the moment of righteous anger, we need to keep this truth at the forefront of our minds–lest we forget that we ourselves are also deserving recipients of God’s judgment. 

And while God is completely committed to justice, he’s also full of compassion. His desire is that every heart would turn to him and find redemption. 

“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)

God wants those who are currently ruining your life to come to a saving knowledge of his son Jesus and to be saved. Maybe you should too. 

God wants those who are currently ruining your life to come to a saving knowledge of his son Jesus and to be saved. Maybe you should too. Click To Tweet

3. You shouldn’t stifle your genuine emotions in prayer. 

Important to note is that the imprecatory psalms aren’t battle cries. They aren’t action plans. At their heart, the psalms are prayers to God, whether corporate or individual prayers. And the course of your conversations with God, he invites you to be honest. 

David is a perfect example of someone who didn’t try to shield God from what he was feeling at any given moment. 

“Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
    O men of blood, depart from me!
They speak against you with malicious intent;
    your enemies take your name in vain.
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with complete hatred;
    I count them my enemies.”
(Psalm 139:19-22)

David doesn’t hide his emotions from God. He gives full vent to his anger in his prayer, admitting that he hates those who rise up against God. He even asks God to slay them. 

But it’s important to note that David isn’t just full of blind rage. He reveals his anger, but he also contemplates what that anger reveals about him in the following verses. 

“Search me, O God, and know my heart!
    Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting!”
(Psalm 139:23-24)

Certainly, David feels as though his anger is completely justified. But it’s in this moment of righteous anger that he asks God to search him for self-righteousness, malice, bitterness, or anything that’s grievous in his own heart. 

This is a model for what we can do in our prayer as we’re filled with indescribable anger at the sight of injustice, slander, or any kind of evil perpetrated against us or anyone we care about. 

There’s no sin in the emotion itself. So we shouldn’t hide it from God. In fact, doing so is the very thing that may lead us into toxic positivity that ignores important issues of justice and ethics. But if we can be honest about our deeply seated feelings of anger, we invite God to turn those feelings into productive action. 

There's no sin in emotion itself. So we shouldn't hide it from God. In fact, doing so is the very thing that may lead us into toxic positivity that ignores important issues of justice and ethics. Click To Tweet

Justice and grace are not opposing forces. 

This conversation about imprecatory psalms may feel uncomfortable, due in part to the fact that we often see justice and grace as opposite to one another. But they aren’t. They are different sides to the same coin. When justice prevails it is a grace to everyone around. 

And the most striking image we see of the congruence between justice and grace is at the Cross. As Jesus took the weight of our sin on his own body, he satisfied the eternal justice of God. And it was an act of immeasurable grace in which we find life. 

As you seek balance between justice and grace, it’ll be a messy process. But God will be with you every step of the way. In every moment of altruism, and through every flash of internal rage, he is there to guide you away from the grievous things of your heart and into the everlasting way. 

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