Busting Teeth and Breaking Limbs; Thoughts on the Vengeance Prayers within the Psalter
“Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” – Psalm 137:9
Positioned throughout the Psalter are prayers described as “imprecatory prayers.” Imprecatory prayers are known for being very raw as the Psalmists cry out the Lord, wishing ill upon their enemies and asking God to execute judgement. These prayers are marked with a very blatant, vindictive tone. Some of these prayers include requests for God to bust out the teeth of enemies (Psalm 58:6), wishing that the wicked would experience broken limbs (Psalm 10:15), praying that their adversaries would be trapped in their own pride (Psalm 59:12), and ensnared by their own nets (Psalm 141:10). In the imprecatory prayer above, the Psalmist desires for the heads of his enemies’ children be dashed upon the rocks!
But how do we see these prayers through the lenses of morality? Are they acceptable prayers to God? Can they be prayed in the right spirit and with a clean heart? Is God glorified when violent vindictive prayers are uttered by His people? And if a man after God’s own heart like David prayed this way, can we do the same? To be sure, these are questions that have been asked throughout the history of Christendom.
But before we answer if we can pray imprecatory prayers, let’s consider why they are prayed in the first place. In imprecatory prayers the psalmists yearn for three primary things. First, they emphasize a strong desire to defend God’s name and character. The common thread is a sincere passion for God’s glory. No matter the circumstance or situation, they are always zealously prayed for the sole purpose of making God’s name known among the nations. Closely tied into this truth is a second common thread within imprecatory prayers; they are always a call for God to execute righteousness and judgment. Righteousness and judgment are both attributes of God, and God’s people should yearn for his attributes to always be manifested, even if it calls for their enemies to suffer. The Old Testament makes it very clear that anyone who opposes the people of God are opposed to God himself. And so imprecatory prayers express a desire to see the enemies of God’s people suffer as they have made the people of God suffer. Third and finally, they express a desire for God the defend his people. When praying these prayers, the writers never attempted to take matters into their own hands by trying to bring vengeance upon their adversaries. Rather, they knew and understood that vengeance was the Lord’s doing. Centuries later, the apostle Paul would express this truth as he wrote to the church at Rome and said, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:17-19).
So do believers today have permission to pray imprecatory prayers? The answer is yes, as long as our ultimate desire is for God’s glory and God’s will. Yet, if we pray these prayers with wrong motives and do so in the heat of the moment, we just might miss the point of imprecatory prayers altogether. Dr. John Tweeddale, professor of theology at Reformation Bible college writes, “As Christians, we long for God’s kingdom to come. We yearn for His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Praying the imprecatory psalms is not a call to arms but a call to faith. We lift our voices, not our swords, as we pray for God either to convert or curse the enemies of Christ and His kingdom.”
– Pastor Eric