About 10 years ago, Jaron and The Long Road to Love, came out with a song called “Pray for you!” After a girlfriend broke his heart, his pastor told him to pray for his enemies and this is what he came up with,
“I pray your brakes go out runnin’ down a hill
I pray and flower pot falls from a window sill
And knocks you in the head like I’d like to
I pray your birthday comes and nobody calls
I pray you’re flyin’ high when your engine stalls
I pray all your dreams never come true
Just know wherever you are honey, I pray for you”
Admittedly it’s a pretty bad song lyrically and musically, but also pretty amusing. On some level we can all probably relate to this feeling. We’ve all had moments like this in our lives where we really just want to pray that something terrible happens to those we dislike. On the other hand we all know the golden rule, “treat others the way you want to be treated” but we also know how hard it is to sit by and watch evil and oppression rule. We all know how difficult it is to watch “the bad guy” win. We read news of another prominent male leader in our country abusing his power and abusing women. We read of another young black man shot and killed. We read about ISIS beheading Christians. We look at a world full of sexism, racism, abuse, and hate and we want justice. We want the oppressor to be punished and the victims to be freed and made whole. But it doesn’t always seem to work out that way. What do we pray for in those moments? Do we pray for evil to fall upon our enemies? How can there be justice without retribution or payment for the crime? What do we ask God for?
We find the Psalmist wrestling with these same questions time and time again. They are called “Imprecatory Psalms”. These are psalms that call for justice and many times invoke judgement upon their enemies, which can seem wrong – so the question becomes –
Should we pray Imprecatory prayers?
Does this go against Jesus’ instruction to “pray for you enemies” or was he suggesting we say similar prayers to the song mentioned above?
Here’s how my Seminary professor and dear friend, John Mark Hicks, talks about imprecatory psalms, specifically Psalm 58
“We must take the reality of a victimized world seriously, especially when structures of power oppress the poor (the likely scenario here). Pauls notes: “The forcefulness and prominence of this complaint, if it is to be taken seriously, must raise the recognition of an equally forceful experience of oppression and anguish lying behind it.” The lamenter seeks justice from God. He/She does not take vengeance in his/her own hands. It is God’s job to meet out vengeance, not ours (cf. Psa 94). The lament will turn to joy when this vengeance is manifested (cf. Psa 52:6-7). This is submitted to God because the God of the covenant takes injustice seriously, and the lamenter trusts that God will act.
The lament evokes a vision of God’s justice which takes the side of the oppressed over against those who abuse their power. It challenges us to enter into their experience and cry to the Lord with them. It challenges us to seek God’s kingdom and divine righteousness. “The words which we have sung,” Augustine preaches, “must be rather hearkened to by us, than proclaimed. For to all men as it were in an assemblage of mankind, the Truth crieth, ‘If truly indeed justice ye speak, judge right things, ye sons of men.’” Consequently, Zengar appropriately comments, “The psalm fights for the indispensable union of religion and ethics. The truth about God that people believe or proclaim can be tested by whether it preserves its adherents from the ways of violence and impels them to a life in solidarity with the victims of violence.”“
This psalm functions to express our righteous indignation against structural injustice within society. It laments the wickedness that pervades human social institutions, especially judicial ones. It offers a form by which oppressed people may pray for God’s justice in their land.”
In other words, imprecatory prayers are a justified response to the injustice we find around us – but more importantly they are us, handing over the judgement to a God who loves perfectly and judges perfectly.
Consequently, they also call us to examine our own relationship with the oppressed. These types of Psalms “call us to reassess our own relationship with the oppressed and victimized. Are we certain that we do not participate in the structural realities that oppress the poor and victimize the marginalized? As we proclaim this Psalm we must confront our own life.” (John Mark Hicks)
Imprecatory Psalms call for God to act but they also force us to wrestle with our own response – they are a way of lamenting the oppression we see around us but also a call to action, to stand in the place of the oppressed, and to pray for the revelation of God’s justice in our world.
Will you join me in prayer?