ETS-SBL Musings: Imprecatory Prayer

Posted By on November 21, 2012

Just got back from the week of conferences. A tough trip getting there (15 hours due to flight delays and three flight legs . . . I have a history of hard travel experiences). But easy coming back, thankfully.

One of the papers I attended was on the theology of imprecatory prayers (specifically, it was a distillation of the speaker’s dissertation on imprecation in the psalms). It was excellent. I say this not just because the speaker and I agreed that imprecation is theologically important and relevant for modern Christians, but also because he had such interesting examples.

In case my view on this is unfamiliar, I’ll sketch it for everyone (I just did a search through this blog’s posts and came up empty – I can’t believe I’ve never blogged on this before).

In a nutshell, imprecatory prayer derives from the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12:1-3), the passage where God himself tells Abraham that he will curse anyone who curses him and his descendants (God’s children). When the psalmist or anyone else prays for God to judge people (even killing them), the basis is that the person praying is, in effect, asking God to remember this covenantal promise. The one praying is asking God to settle scores and judge evil oppressors. In other words, rather than taking matters into his own hands, the one praying leaves it to God to remember his promise. Jesus would not have asked David or another psalmist to repent for such a prayer, since the basis was God’s own covenant promise to avenge those who sought the harm of His own children.

Since Christians are the inheritors of the Abrahamic covenant—which is explicitly stated in Galatians 3—it stands to reason we can ask God to judge our enemies as well. While we must avoid taking matters into our own hands, being willing to suffer, we can, at the same time, pray for God to judge our enemies and then let the matter rest in His hands. Who else would we ask? It is up to God as to how He will remove and judge those who oppress and curse his children. It may be something mild, or God may take the person’s life. Or God might say no. This is up to God and we cannot judge God’s decisions. We accept them either way.

Of course the way this is immediately abused is to presume (and, God forbid, pray) that God will remove anyone we don’t like, or who does things we don’t like, if we ask. That isn’t the point of even Old Testament imprecation. It’s about people who actively seek our harm (“curse” us) — taking such matters to God, telling Him how we feel, how we want justice, and then leaving it right there, in no way seeking that person’s demise on our own.

I don’t know of any coherent objections. Common ones include:

1. “God was different in the Old Testament.” This of course ignores how the divine (violent) warrior imagery of the Old Testament is applied to Jesus in the NT (Revelation and some places in Ephesians). He isn’t coming back blowing kisses – there will be a day of the Lord where evil is punished.

2. Another option was a sub-focus of the ETS paper I heard — that the command to love one’s enemies and/or forgive them nullifies imprecation. The first issue, the command to love one’s enemies (e.g., Matt 5:43-44), is actually drawn from the Old Testament (Lev 19:18), and the curses of the Abrahamic covenant are certainly in play there. That means that this idea is no argument for rendering imprecation null and void, but must in some way work alongside imprecation. Then you have the wars for conquest, kingship, various wars in the monarchy (some of which were defensive and endorsed by God Himself), etc. The appeal to the “love your enemies” then just doesn’t work as an objection.

The paper I heard dealt with how, in certain circumstances, forgiveness is either a misunderstood concept, or needs to be defined in certain ways. I’ve asked the presenter for a copy of the paper and for permission to post it here. Hopefully he will agree so I can share it with you. But in a nutshell, I’ll share two brief examples.

First, is it really our RIGHT to forgive enemies who are unrepentant? For example, let’s say that someone does personal harm to you, a child of God, an inheritor of the Abrahamic covenant, or your church. You (or your church) forgive him. But in the ensuing weeks, that person encounters severe hardship through a set of circumstances that can easily be viewed as providential judgment. Here’s the rub: You forgave, but God punished — were you more gracious than God? If God desired to punish evil, do you have any right to insist (or quote Matt 5:43) to God that He ought not punish His enemies (our enemies are His enemies in the context of the Abrahamic covenant)? Who are you to assume you are more righteous than your God? Good luck with that one.

Second, what about a passage like Rev 6:9-10

9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

In this passage, we see believer-martyrs cry out to God for justice — that their enemies be punished. The response is not a rebuke from God (“didn’t you people read Matt 5:43?”) but the return of Christ in the climactic day of the Lord event. This passage seems quite in line with my view of imprecation, and quite at odds with objections.

At any rate, the paper offered other interesting examples and observations. Hopefully I’ll be able to share those with you soon.

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14 Responses to “ETS-SBL Musings: Imprecatory Prayer”

  1. HaMetumtam says:

    Excellent topic..I brought this up recently regarding the western worlds gay agenda that’s bulldozing it’s way through governments on a massive scale. I asked a question have your prayers taken on a more imprecatory theme due to this powerful agenda, that we seem so helpless against ?

    I recived some comments such as we should forgive our enemies and so forth and it’s not our job to condemn ect. I may have buckled under the pressure my response was “its the agendas we should pray against not the people” but the agendas are being forced through by people so i guess i wimped out. How to contextualize forgiveness and imprecation would be most helpful.

  2. KP says:

    In my life I’ve noticed that quite often what appears to be providential judgment does not fall upon a person until AFTER I have forgiven them. It has always made sense to me and does not in the least indicate that I am, or ever could be, more gracious than God. To me it seems like God often holds his providential judgment until we’ve learned our lesson about forgiveness of others so that we can more understand his forgiveness of us. To me this seems like the act of a loving and protective father. That he then punishes that person to fulfill his covenant promise seems consistent with everything we know about God from scripture and sometimes leads the offender to actually repent. So I’ve learned to forgive others, as I have been forgiven, with the knowledge that God, unlike me, sees the big picture and will act accordingly as it suits his purposes for himself and that other person.

  3. haibane13 says:

    I’ve wondered if the command to love your enemies doesn’t mean they no longer are your enemies .

  4. kennethos says:

    My head’s beginning to hurt.
    In a good way. :)

  5. Jeff says:


    In answer to your question “First, is it really our RIGHT to forgive enemies who are unrepentant?” I would actually like to take a slightly different twist in answering it than how you answered it. In the Gospels (like Mark 11:25) we are clearly called to forgive people who have injured us, so I would say it IS right AND necessary to forgive. Yet even in our forgiveness, we can still impricate for we want people to turn to Christ and we want to see God defend His glory (which is imposed upon when His possession – us – is injured).

    How does this work out? In my own life, I have both forgiven people and asked God to curse people so that God would be glorified. Just yesterday I was praying for an alcoholic to be cursed to draw Him back into a proper relationship to God, yet I also had to forgive the alcoholic for how he had injured me and some of our friends. I do not find it inconsistent at all to both forgive AND to call curses upon someone as my desire for God’s glorification demands those who transgress against God (including when those people bring physical, mental, spiritual, etc. harm to His people) receive their recompense unless they seek God’s mercy and forgiveness.

    Does this make me more righteous than God? Absolutely not! First, I forgive for my own sanity and for my relationship with God, not for the sake of the other person. Second, God has the responsibility as judge to met out recompense and He would be unrighteous if He failed to fulfill His judicial responsibilities.

    I hope I coherently stated why it appears forgiveness and imprication are not contradictory. I see them as complimentary as the former deals with my proper relationship to God and the latter deals with the offender’s proper relationship with God.

    • MSH says:

      I feel largely the same way. I’d do my best to forgive, but tell God how I felt, leaving the rest to Him. I just think that some take opposition to imprecation so far that they don’t think about the implications of God still allowing it.

    • Jeff – that’s the first time I’ve read an approach to this that makes sense. Both/And.

    • Malkiyahu says:

      It IS right AND necessary to forgive, but not to forgive those whom God doesn’t forgive (the unrepentant). Forgiveness is NOT about your relationship with God; it is about the offender’s relationship with God. I completely agree that forgiveness is a majorly misunderstood concept, and not to be confused with letting go of bitterness, which I talk about in the “On Forgiveness” section of

  6. Patrick says:

    Anxious to read the entire polemic myself, this is intriguing.

  7. Blair says:

    I’d really be interested in reading the ETS paper. Could you pass along details so I can contact the author or see if s/he is willing to let you post the paper online?

  8. Bran says:

    Paul, I think, gave a perfect example of what such a prayer should be like.

    2 Timothy4: 14 “Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works:”

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