Saturday, September 09, 2006


Can We Really Pray Like David?

The Imprecatory Psalms (Psalms 28, 35, 52, 58, 59, 69, 109) have been a mystery for Christians, with outright prayers for God to punish enemies with horrible vengeance. What bothers us is not that we never think of praying for vengeance but rather that this seems contrary to Christian attitudes and principles. Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

Common explanations of these prayers do not quite satisfy:
1. Progressive Revelation: David didn’t hear the sermon on the mount, so he can’t be held responsible for its teachings. However, David should have been familiar with Exodus 23:4-5, Leviticus 19:17-18, and Job 31:28-30. Also, progressive revelation does not explain Paul’s imprecatory prayer in 2 Timothy 4. The real explanation must go deeper.

2. Honest Human Reaction: David was expressing the feelings he had, though it was wrong to desire such things. While Scripture often records the sinful thoughts and actions of people, it usually indicates something in the context to warn the reader not to copy the wrongs. Instead, these Psalms support the prayers by appeal to God’s righteousness.

3. God’s Dispensational Purpose: In the Old Testament, we are told, God dealt with man in accommodation to his ideas. Many wrong practices and ideas were allowed, in order to bring about the main purpose of preparing for the coming of Christ. Patriotism with hatred of enemies was essential to the survival of Israel during those times. But these prayers are very individual and not focused on national survival.

4. Poetic Exaggeration: David didn’t really mean literally that God should, for example, “blot out from his book” these enemies. He was overstating for emphasis. However, even if we soften the details by this explanation, it is the thought that counts, and the thought is still clear.

We can find a proper understanding of these imprecatory prayers by looking with our eyes open at Paul’s prayer regarding Alexander the coppersmith in 2 Timothy 4:14-16. Alexander did Paul much evil, and Paul asks God to reward him accordingly (imprecation). In the same context Paul’s fellow believers forsook him in his trial, and he asks God not to lay it to their account (intercession). Why the difference, since all caused trouble and suffering for Paul?

Paul did not pray a curse on those who did it through their frailty or fear. The imprecatory prayer is for the one who acted deliberately and in defiance of God’s Word. This seems to be the pattern in the Old Testament examples also.

Behind the imprecation is a concern for justice as an expression of God’s character, not merely payback for the one praying. The enemy is seen as an enemy of God’s holiness, not as a bother to the believer’s convenience. In nearly every imprecatory prayer there is a vital truth involved which, more than personal retaliation, is the reason for the request.

Christians do not ask that the failures or even the sins of other believers be laid to their charge. Their sins have already been paid for on the cross. God’s holiness has been satisfied. In contrast the one who has heard the Gospel and has withstood the words is rejecting the Substitute, and insists on bearing the reward of his own works.

Most of the time, even toward unbelievers, our prayers will echo that of the dying Stephen and of Jesus himself. They rightly prayed that the sins of their executioners not be laid to their charge. There was the possibility and likelihood that they would repent of their sins and turn to God for mercy.

The objects of the imprecatory prayers in the Bible (King Saul, Doeg the Edomite, Alexander the coppersmith, Judas) by their open rejection of God and his truth, left no grounds for a hope of repentance, leaving proper grounds for the rare prayer for God’s vengeance. David was not free to take his own revenge, and neither are we. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. I will repay.” These prayers are merely a request for God to do what he claims as his exclusive right.

Let’s keep reading with our eyes open.

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