There are 20 or so imprecatory Psalms in the biblical Psalter—Psalms that curse and call down judgments and calamities upon the enemies of God and his people. Contemporary Christians commonly ask if praying, singing, or chanting such curses is something we’re supposed to be doing and if the teachings of Christ and the New Covenant have changed this practice from that of the Old Covenant. I’d say that such struggle over the use of the imprecatory Psalms and other imprecatory Scripture is a particularly contemporary one brought about by an ethos of niceness that has subverted virtue in the Church.
Let them be put to shame and dishonor
who seek after my life!
Let them be turned back and disappointed
who devise evil against me!
Let them be like chaff before the wind,
with the Angel of Yahweh driving them away!
Let their way be dark and slippery,
with the Angel of Yahweh pursuing them!
O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Yahweh!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted.
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,
like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.
Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!
Psalm 69 and Psalm 109 have extensive imprecatory elements in them. Both of these are Psalms composed by King David. Read them in their entirety for the full effect.
Psalm 69 is the prayer of a man who’s being reproached by his enemies and the enemies of God because of his righteous conduct and the manner in which he’s honoring God. He prays that God would not be dishonored on his account. He laments that he has become estranged from his own family because of his zeal for God. He says in Verse 9:
For zeal for your house has consumed me,
and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.
In John 2, the twelve disciples see their master embodying and enacting this Psalm when Jesus cleanses the temple of those who are polluting it with their wicked commerce. Jesus is the one who is being reproached for his righteousness and honoring of God.
The man in Psalm 69 is further persecuted by God’s enemies. He says in Verse 21:
They gave me poison for food,
and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.
All four Gospel accounts mention Jesus being served sour wine to drink on the Cross as the enemies of God continue to persecute him. Jesus continues to embody and enact the conduct of the man in Psalm 69.
We’re tempted to consider that the curses in Psalm 69 are being silently invoked against the enemies of God persecuting Christ, i.e. the Judeans of that generation who gladly and boldly accepted his blood-guilt upon them and their children as Pilate washed his hands of the injustice of this matter but let the mob have their way.
The man in Psalm 69 says in Verses 22-28:
Let their own table before them become a snare;
and when they are at peace, let it become a trap.
Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see,
and make their loins tremble continually.
Pour out your indignation upon them,
and let your burning anger overtake them.
May their camp be a desolation;
let no one dwell in their tents.
For they persecute him whom you have struck down,
and they recount the pain of those you have wounded.
Add to them punishment upon punishment;
may they have no acquittal from you.
Let them be blotted out of the book of the living;
let them not be enrolled among the righteous.
This imprecation describes that wicked and perverse generation in the 40 years to come. It culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 by the vengeance of the Romans whom the Judeans provoked to wrath with their escalating rebellion. In fact, the Apostle Paul confirms this by citing this passage in Romans 11 to describe the spiritual condition of Israel in her blindness and disobedience as the enemy for the sake of the Gospel.
Psalm 109 is similar. It’s the prayer of a man who’s being persecuted for righteousness by particularly vile enemies who spew violence and oppression against the poor, the needy, and the brokenhearted. It’s quite meticulous and thorough in all the areas of the enemy’s life over which it speaks curses.
The man in Psalm 109 says in Verses 6-15:
Appoint a wicked man against him;
let an accuser stand at his right hand.
When he is tried, let him come forth guilty;
let his prayer be counted as sin!
May his days be few;
may another take his office!
May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow!
May his children wander about and beg,
seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit!
May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!
Let there be none to extend kindness to him,
nor any to pity his fatherless children!
May his posterity be cut off;
may his name be blotted out in the second generation!
May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before Yahweh,
and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out!
Let them be before Yahweh continually,
that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth!
Persecuted by a wicked accuser (i.e. a Satan). Guilt at court. Petitions reckoned as sin. A short life. Replaced at work. A family bereft of him and in poverty. The seizure of all his wealth and property by creditors. His family line brought to an end. And the memory of him wiped from the face of the earth. A very unpleasant picture.
Intriguingly, the Apostles cite this passage in Acts 1 regarding Judas and the need to give his office to another new Apostle.
Praying these sorts of prayers may cause unease. They should. These are not things to be prayed with great delight. It’s the wicked who find great delight in the calamity of others. God doesn’t even take delight in the destruction of the wicked. But he does delight in the establishment of righteousness. And so should we.
Our motivation here is not our personal vindication for its own sake but the vindication of the Name of God that is upon us and the righteousness of God that is in our midst. We pray against violence and injustice because they’re wicked, not personally inconvenient.
These imprecatory Psalms and their applications in the New Testament show that it’s not impossible to be specific about those against whom we pray them. But it’s wise, especially in our spiritual infancy at prayer with them, to be vague about persons but specific about the wickedness we oppose and what it deserves. This is our training and formation in the right and holy fear of God, which is the genesis of all true wisdom.
The question may arise as to how a Christian can pray for mercy and for vengeance. My response is that there’s no contradiction in it. Pray for both, because both are consistent with the character of God. We know this from God declaring his Name to Moses:
Yahweh passed before him and proclaimed, “Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
It’s a matter of the will of God as to what will come to pass. All of us were the enemies of God. He’s shown and continues showing abundant mercy on some for his own reasons. Remember that mercy is not owed but is to be loved. Vengeance is most certainly owed but is not to be the cause for dark delight.