Last week, I made a case for the legitimacy of imprecatory prayers and Psalms. But that leaves a lot of questions unanswered – When are prayers of imprecation legitimate? Against whom is it legitimate to pray imprecations? And, most importantly, how do imprecations square with the NT’s command, “Bless and do not curse”?
In what circumstances does David pray imprecations? Psalm 109 is one of the most relentless imprecations in the Psalter, calling on Yahweh to convict him, cut off his life early, leave his children fatherless and his wife a widow, send creditors to devour his house, and leave him without friend or support (vv. 6-13). What have these enemies done to merit this kind of cursing? David complains that they have “opened the wicked and deceitful mouth against me; they have spoken against me with a lying tongue” (v. 2). In short, they have lied about and slandered David. They have cursed him, and, claiming the Abrahamic promise, David asks the Lord to curse them and bring calamity on them.
At other times, David asks the Lord to scatter his enemies who seek his life (Psalm 59:1-8, 11). And he prays that the Lord would break the teeth of unrighteous rulers (Psalm 58:1, 6-11). David certainly believed that a wise man ignores an insult, but when there is a persistent campaign of slander and lies, when there is a campaign to kill David, he appeals to God for help.
Against whom are imprecations prayed? David does not pray imprecations against all non-Israelites or unbelievers. He does not pray curses against the ignorant, nor against Gentiles who are peaceable toward him. He prays imprecations against enemies who persistently, relentlessly conspire against him. This is not, notice, limited to Gentiles (though cf. Psalm 56 [with title]). In fact, David was most intensely persecuted by Saul, and he prays that the Lord would frustrate Saul’s efforts to kill him (Psalm 7 [with title]; 52 [with title]; 59:11 [with title]). David prays imprecations against apostate Israelites who persecute the Lord’s anointed. Along similar lines, Paul curses Judaizing Christians who have turned against Christ (Galatians 1:8-9), Jesus pronounces woes against scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23), and the NT quotes Psalm 109 with respect to Judas (Acts 1:20).
BLESS AND CURSE NOT
Jesus instructs His disciples to rejoice in persecution (Matthew 5:10-12), to love our enemies (5:44), and to bless those who curse us (Luke 6:27-28). Paul instructs us not to take vengeance, and says that when we are persecuted we should “bless and curse not” (Romans 12:14), and James condemns the hypocrisy of a mouth that brings forth blessing and cursing (3:9).
This has several implications. First, we should make sure that we are a people characterized by blessing and not by cursing, and that includes those who hate and persecute and lie about us. While we may pray for God to judge, we should never become the First Church of the Curse. Second, we are able to do good to our enemies because we know that God will deal with them with perfect justice. Paul follows ups “bless and curse not” with a reminder that God takes vengeance. We don’t have to defend ourselves by cursing anyone ourselves, and we can even make ourselves vulnerable to abuse, because we believe God will answer our prayers to be our Defender.