Life, Hope & Truth

Imprecatory Psalms: What Can We Learn From Prayers for Revenge?

Several of the psalms are shocking in their brutal calls for punishment and curses on enemies. Why are these in the Bible?

Did the Bible just say that? It would be shocking anywhere, but in the Bible?

“Happy the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock” (Psalm 137:9).

How could a person of God even think that, let alone pray it to God? And then record it?

Why would God allow it to be in the Bible?

Imprecatory psalms

The psalms that pray for punishment or a curse on the enemies of God are often called imprecatory psalms, and they have troubled many Bible readers over the centuries.

Lists of such psalms vary, with some including 10 or 14 psalms. Combining several of the lists, here are 17 that some have categorized as imprecatory: Psalms 5, 7, 10, 17, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 70, 79, 83, 109, 129, 137, 139 and 140.

There are imprecatory prayers in other books of the Bible as well, such as in Jeremiah 11, 15, 18 and 20. And several of the imprecatory psalms are quoted in the New Testament, in John 2:17; 15:25; Romans 11:9-10; and 15:3. In addition, the New Testament includes examples of imprecation, such as Matthew 21:18-19; 23:13-36; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9; and 1 Timothy 1:20.

The New Bible Dictionary summarizes the purpose of the imprecatory psalms this way: “They testify to a burning zeal for the cause of righteousness which flamed in the hearts of some of the psalmists, and to their refusal to condone sin” (1982, p. 995).

Most of the imprecatory psalms are not as startling as the one quoted at the beginning of this article. They are a call for justice, for protection for God’s people and the work He was doing in the world, for the automatic consequences of sin to not be delayed. They can even look beyond this life to the time of judgment when unrepentant sinners—the enemies of God—will be punished in the lake of fire—the second death (Psalm 69:28). They express a passion for the will of God to prevail.

Let’s look deeper into the background of these emotional prayers and what we can learn from them.

The context

It seems the author of Psalm 137 had witnessed the brutal Babylonian siege and destruction of God’s beloved city Jerusalem. He saw the Babylonians starve and murder innocent women and children, then audaciously pillage and burn God’s holy temple. It was all too much for him to humanly bear.

“The psalmist prays that the Lord will bring on Babylon’s head the atrocities they had committed in Judah and elsewhere. Wars were very cruel in the [Old Testament], and the Babylonians were famed for their cruelties” (Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary, 1994, note on Psalm 137:9).

Each of the imprecatory psalms has a backstory of pain and suffering, brutality and injustice, evil and unrighteousness.

God understands

The Bible teaches that God intends prayer to be sincere, heartfelt communication with Him. It is not to be rote repetition or to use pious, sanctimonious language that is foreign to our everyday lives. (Read more about what the Bible says about prayer in our article “How to Talk to God.”)

God wants us to be open and honest with Him—to share our deepest feelings. So He included a number of psalms that begin with raw emotion and end with assurance of faith. For example, in Psalm 73, the psalmist admits his envy of the boastful (verse 3). Trying to understand how the wicked could prosper “was too painful for me—until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end” (verses 16-17).

Prayer can help adjust our frame of mind. We can pour out our hearts and prepare ourselves for receiving God’s answers through studying and meditating on His Bible.

God wants us to know that He, too, is deeply concerned about justice—about defending what is right against the enemies of God.God wants us to know that He, too, is deeply concerned about justice—about defending what is right against the enemies of God. God is a God of justice, and the imprecatory psalms may be read as pleas for justice. God many times reveals that He is angry at the wicked, whose sins hurt other potential children of God—and themselves! He wants us to hate evil (Amos 5:15).

Of course, God’s justice is perfect justice, and His anger is always righteous anger. He alone can punish perfectly and appropriately. He alone can give life, so He alone has the prerogative to take life. When He does, it is the right and merciful thing to do.

God wants us to grow toward perfection in seeking justice and showing righteous anger, but we often start with a desire for selfish justice and an unrighteous anger. He understands and hears us—and then steers us toward the godly approach.

Brutality not condoned

The apostle Paul lists hatred, contentions, outbursts of wrath and murders as works of the flesh that will keep someone out of the Kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21). He identifies brutality as a sign of the perilous last days (2 Timothy 3:1-3).

God does not condone human vengeance, but instead tells us:

  • “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:14).
  • “Repay no one evil for evil” (verse 17).
  • “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (verse 18).
  • “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, … for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (verse 19, quoted from Deuteronomy 32:35).
  • “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (verse 21).

Jesus taught similarly difficult human relations principles in His famous Sermon on the Mount:

  • “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).
  • “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (verse 9).
  • “But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (verse 39).
  • “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (verse 44).

How wrath is removed

So what makes it possible for our perfectly just God who hates sin to release His wrath?

Jesus Christ willingly suffered the greatest injustice in the universe in order to cover all other injustices—all human sins that would be repented of.

The curses of the imprecatory psalms are a result of the sins of this age. But a day is coming when there will “be no more curse” (Revelation 22:3).That kind of selfless love is beyond our human comprehension! Study more about what Jesus did for us in our articles “Why Jesus Had to Die” and “The Greatest Sacrifice Ever.”

Mercy triumphs

During His excruciating crucifixion, Jesus went so far as to say, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Beyond that, His sacrifice makes our repentance and forgiveness possible: “For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (Hebrews 8:12).

Of course, there are lessons God wants us to learn about showing justice and mercy. We are to prize both: “I will sing of mercy and justice; to You, O LORD, I will sing praises” (Psalm 101:1).

James wrote, “For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy.” In the end, though, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

The curses of the imprecatory psalms are a result of the sins of this age. But a day is coming when there will “be no more curse” (Revelation 22:3). The end of the story brings us to a day when love and mercy will triumph, to a new heaven and new earth with “no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying” (Revelation 21:4) in which only righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13).

Behind the imprecatory psalms are stories of sin and suffering, pain and persecution, inhumanity and unrighteousness. These stories can help us pray even more fervently for that wonderful promised day!

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