I’ve wondered for a long time how to understand imprecatory Psalms. There are so many of them, and they seem so antithetical to Jesus’ command to love enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Are they products of a bygone era we should just ignore?
Reading C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms helped me with this, and so did reading the notes from the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (I have it through the Tecarta Bible app). I started reading through the Psalms again a few weeks ago, and I’m surprised how much grace and beauty I see in these Psalms (I know, call me crazy).
In the ancient Near East, people believed that gods won battles, not necessarily people. If your nation/army won, it was because your god was stronger than the other nation’s god (or gods). Your god was superior. Additionally, ancient Israel was in a covenant with God in which God promised blessings if Israel obeyed Him. (This is a general statement. God never said nothing bad would ever happen to them if they obeyed, but He did say bad things would definitely happen if they didn’t obey. We are in the New Covenant, not the Old, so drawing direct parallels between the modern church and ancient Israel is often fallacious).
Many of the imprecatory Psalms take place in some sort of military context. David (or the psalmist) is being pursued by enemies, and he is praising God for deliverance or asking God for deliverance. For one, the psalmist often defends his own righteousness to God and points out his enemies’ wickedness. He is advocating to God that he has obeyed, and he hopes for God’s favor upon him. He is also pointing out to God that his enemies have not obeyed, and he hopes for God’s judgment upon them. He also believes that his God is stronger than his enemies’ idols, and he asks God to demonstrate that.
The psalmist bemoans that the wicked seem to prosper, and that the wicked oppress him and others when they don’t deserve it. He can’t stand seeing this, and he knows God can’t either. So he prays for justice. He prays that the righteous would be vindicated and that the wicked would be judged.
The psalmist demonstrates that anger against injustice is a valid and godly emotion. He also demonstrates that wanting justice to be done against the wicked is a valid and—dare I say—godly emotion.
This is good news. I want a God who will judge the truly wicked, those who take advantage of and oppress the vulnerable. There is very little more infuriating to me than when I see people with power oppress the vulnerable. And if you read the Bible, you’ll see there may be nothing that angers God more. To those who have been abused, taken advantage of, oppressed: God will never let your oppressor go unpunished. He will vindicate you. As a loving God, He cannot do otherwise.
But how do we reconcile this with “love your enemies”? I think the desire to see justice done to those who have wronged us and the desire to see them repent can go hand in hand. There are two options for the oppressor: either he will bear the judgment for his sin or Jesus will (meaning Jesus took the punishment for his sin on the cross—if the person repents). Either way, God’s justice on the person is satisfied. However, from our perspective, it would be preferable for the person to repent. There is nothing more vindicating to the oppressed than the oppressor falling on his knees, confessing how he has wronged you, and asking forgiveness. True love doesn’t just want someone to suffer for his sins; true love wants others to experience the joy of the Father—while knowing that God took care of justice when Jesus bore the punishment for us. God’s justice and mercy are not at odds. He can be merciful to sinners because His justice has been fulfilled on the cross.
This frees us to love our enemies and not seek revenge. We don’t need to seek revenge because vengeance belongs to God. While we don’t need to be asking God to smash our enemies’ teeth (nowadays, our “enemies” aren’t seeking our lives, so our prayers don’t need to sound like they are), it is okay to express the desire that justice be done on oppressive persons. We also need to remember our brothers and sisters in Christ who do have enemies that brutally oppress them and/or seek their lives, and we can pray imprecatory Psalms on their behalf.
For those of us who may not necessarily experience extreme oppression or abuse, we can still have the desire to see justice done whenever we are significantly wronged. For example, right now during the Covid-19 crisis, there are inconsiderate people who don’t care about the elderly or immunocompromised, and they continue to party and venture into public spaces. They may not be actively oppressing others, but they are committing sin by their arrogance and absence of compassion. If you are elderly or immunocompromised, it is right for you to be angry at them. They are essentially saying your life doesn’t matter, and that is egregious. Experiencing the desire for justice to be done to them is okay. Just remember that God takes care of the justice, not us.
Whenever it is that someone oppresses us for his or her gain, the resulting desire for justice is valid. We just need to rethink our definition: justice on that person isn’t necessarily that they lose all their possessions or they lose all their power (or anything like that). Justice isn’t childish retribution. But when we realize that God is the perfect judge, we are freed to cry justice, justice, justice!
W.R. Harris is the founder and owner of Persevering Hope. He is an author who has written six books to date. You can check out his author website here: http://wrhwriting.com/