Impenitence and Imprecation

Today’s reading is Psalm 35.

We call them imprecatory psalms. They give us no end of consternation. To imprecate someone is to invoke a curse on them. Thus, imprecatory psalms are psalms that call for people to be cursed by God. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to pray for them, to bless them. Rather than wanting them to be judged and condemned, we should want them to repent and be justified. Yet, David calls down the curses of God on his enemies. What is that about?

While there are quite a few statements that are imprecatory in the Psalms, there are only a handful of psalms that get so deep into this that the psalm is called imprecatory. Psalm 35 is pretty universally accepted as being one of those psalms.

David asks God to take a spear and javelin (some translations say battle-axe) against his pursuers. He wants them to be driven away like chaff. He wants their way to become dark and slippery. He wants destruction to come on them. He wants them to fall into their own pits. Let’s be honest. That’s pretty intense.

While some take Psalm 35 as the first of the imprecatory psalms. Others attribute that honor to Psalm 7. Obviously, these psalms didn’t come labeled with our modern labels. Whether Psalm 7 is the first imprecatory psalm or not, there is a statement in that psalm we need to remember with all of the imprecatory psalms and statements we read.

If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts.

Psalm 7:12-13

It is interesting to note that Psalm 7 goes on to say of the wicked, “He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends.” This sounds a great deal like the imprecations of Psalm 35:7-8.

There are many things we can say about imprecations in the psalms, but at the top of the list needs to be this. Very early in the Psalms, the template for curses and imprecations is established. These curses are for those who refuse to repent. Underlying every imprecation is the understanding that just as we were forgiven when we repented, if others repent, they will be forgiven. Undergirding every imprecation is the understanding that the one praying the imprecation would rather see repentance in others, just as God allowed it in us.

However, if someone continues impenitently in rebellion against God and in their attacks on God’s people, then cursing is what will come. While our first line of prayer for people is for their salvation and well-being, as David’s was in Psalm 35:13-14, we recognize it is right to pray for God to bring justice for God’s people and bring judgment on the impenitent enemies of God’s people (see Paul in 2 Timothy 4:14; 1 Corinthians 16:22; Galatians 1:8-9; Revelation 6:10).

And, of course, it is always proper to notice that these imprecations are not saints meting out their personal revenge on others. In each case, these writers are leaving room for the judgment of God. They are bringing these prayers to God for Him to answer in the way He sees as best.

Tomorrow’s reading is Psalm 35.


Click here to take about 15 minutes to listen to the Text Talk conversation between Andrew Roberts and Edwin Crozier sparked by this post!

A Word for Our Kids

Hey kids, I know we struggle with what David prayed for his enemies. And while I think there are legitimate explanations and applications for us today (see what I share with your parents above for more on that), I think it is also important to notice how David acted.

According to Psalm 35:13-14, when these enemies were sick, he mourned, fasted, and prayed. He lamented for them the way he would for his own mother. David was concerned about these people. He was concerned about their welfare, their deliverance from troubles. David doesn’t pray these things because he hates these people. He hasn’t been waiting expectantly for the moment when he could call God’s judgment down upon them. He loved them. He blessed them. He sought their well-being and salvation.

Further, do you even notice that when their evil deeds finally make it right for him to pray this prayer, he doesn’t even ask God to let him beat these malicious witnesses. He doesn’t ask for the opportunity to kill them. Rather, he asks two things. The first seems pretty obvious to us, but the second may be a little surprising.

First, he asks God to fight against them. Second, he asks God to let them fight against themselves. He doesn’t pray, “They’ve dug pits for me, let them fall into the pits I’ve dug for them.” Rather, he prays, “Let them fall into their own pits.” That is, “Let their own evil come back to bite them.” Underlying that is, of course, the notion that if they cease their evil, there will be nothing to come back on their own heads. If they remove their nets and fill in their pits, there will be no judgment on them.

What if, instead of trying to figure out when we can pray these kinds of imprecations on people today, we started with asking when we can mourn, fast, and pray for others when they are in hardship. Maybe if we get the answer to question down, the one about imprecations will become more clear. Just a thought.

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