When was the last time you were mad at someone? I mean really mad? Mad enough to pray that God would do something terrible to them? As I read my news feeder this morning articles about the trial of an abortionist in Philadelphia occupied the bandwidth of my iPad. From exposure, to trial details, to commentary on the issues at hand the Gosnell murder trial was front and center. As I read the details of the trial a very sinister and unsanitized thought entered my head. “Maybe they will find him guilty and snip his spine at the base of his neck like he did to all those babies… or worse!” As soon as it was tracking through my frontal lobe though, I felt guilt. How awful that I would think some sort of thought like that towards this man. My Christian upbringing has taught me to reject thoughts like that as vengeful, angry, and wrong. I deserve wrath just as much as Gosnell does. I deserve death for my sin just as deeply as he does. Thinking like that has no place in the mind of a Christian. Or does it?
Psalm 137 has long been an intriguing and difficult passage for me to handle. What place does a song that ends with “dash their babies heads against the rocks” have in the Bible? It sounds so vengeful, so vitriol, so wrong. How did a song that elevates the death and vengeance of another people come to be in the Bible, be considered “Christian,” or even inspired Scripture? Maybe the problem isn’t with the Bible. Maybe the problem is with our view of justice and the place of praying prayers that ask for God to pummel our enemies into dust.
The Imprecatory Category
Within the Psalms themselves we find more than just one example of expressions like Psalm 137. Some have categorized these unique Psalms into a category of prayer labeled “imprecatory Psalms.” As C.S. Lewis states in, Reflections on the Psalms: “In some of the Psalms the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth.” These Psalms are ones in which an appeal to God is made to curse, destroy, or remove an enemy of the writer. They are pleas for vengeance, justice, and equity for the downtrodden.
The problem with this category of Psalm is that it doesn’t seem to fit with the other parts of Scripture. How can we pray things like Psalm 109 prays?
Let his years be few; let someone else take his position. May his children become fatherless, and his wife a widow. May his children wander as beggars and be driven from their ruined homes. May creditors seize his entire estate, and strangers take all he has earned. Let no one be kind to him; let no one pity his fatherless children. – Psalm 109:8-12, NLT.
If we’re humble to the Scriptures then, functionally we have to put this category of imprecatory prayers within our Christian lives. If we are going to submit ourselves to the Scripture in every part and believe what the Bible says, then we have to figure out how this kind of prayer fits our lives. The Psalms themselves were collected and used as a worship songbook for the nation of Israel. Psalm 137, as one of the songs of Ascents, was probably recited as the Jews went up to Jerusalem for the annual festivals. Jesus himself most likely recited this Psalm on his way to Jerusalem for one of the Passover Feasts he observed. But can you even imagine the words “Blessed be the one who dashes their babies heads against the rocks” coming out of Jesus’ mouth?
A Tolerant Unimprecatory World
It may sound trite to say that our world has stripped the Biblical notions of justice, vengeance and righteous anger from just about anywhere. To look at a person who has deeply sinned against us and pray to God “Let no one be kind to him” is categorically mean. Our tolerance of people who would even pray like this even further diminished. Didn’t Jesus himself say, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44)? Praying that they have a very difficult time of things in life however doesn’t seem to equate with loving your enemy.
Let’s face it, the only people our world allows us to be intolerant with are intolerant people. It doesn’t fit with the cultural Zeitgeist of our times. Even at its core praying that God strikes down people opposed to us doesn’t feel loving. It doesn’t feel Christian. Functionally many Christians have just removed these sorts of passages from their Bibles altogether. Worse yet is that we have ignored and forgotten this sort of thing is even in the Bible. The question is are we listening to culture more than we are listening to our Bibles on this issue? Is there room for prayers and songs such as these?
One of the reasons we struggle to pray things like this is because we struggle, culturally, with the concept of justice. More specifically, we have lost the categories of right and wrong. And yet, we all know it is there. The families of the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting categorically understand “right” and “wrong”. The recent Boston Marathon bombing and aftermath spoke to us, collectively, as a “wrong” event. Immediately after the capture of the suspected bomber the Boston police department tweeted “justice has won.” Yet without a category of right and wrong, good and evil, the concept of justice falls down everywhere. Justice in its essence means good for the righteous and evil for the wicked. If there is no real rights and no real wrongs in this world, and everything is left as a cultural preference in our society, then justice itself is a construct we can also do away with. Hitler, Stalin, Gosnell, bin Laden, and every rapist, murderer, pedophile, and terrorist should go free and be left alone to their own devices.
Our hearts, internally, don’t leave us with that option. In our hearts, regardless of how relative and tolerant we are, we desire justice. We want right to be right, and the wrong to be wrong. Especially if we are wronged. We want justice.
For this very reason God’s justice comes to us as a welcome relief. God’s justice tells us that he will do the right thing, for the right people, in the right way, at the right time. Justice for God speaks of all his perfections coming to bear on his creation in beautiful exactness. The Scriptures so clearly affirm that God is just, and will always be just. As Abraham attempted to negotiate with God for the safety of the city of Sodom on behalf of the righteous inhabitants there he called forth God’s justice and stated, “Surely you wouldn’t do such a thing, destroying the righteous along with the wicked. Why, you would be treating the righteous and the wicked exactly the same! Surely you wouldn’t do that! Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” (Genesis 18:25, NLT). The tension for us is that we often wonder where God’s justice is. We want justice now. We want blood today. We want punishment and vengeance to fall upon the guilty against us at this very moment. Wrong must be punished; right must be honored.
Entrusting The Means To God
One of the reasons that I appreciate the imprecatory Psalms so much is that they give me a legitimate means by which to express frustration with God about the injustice of this world. They give me a category and an outlet to help me deal with both persons and circumstances of injustice, immorality. They put me in my place and give God the rightful place he has as Lord over all.
When we look at the Imprecatory Psalms we see that the Psalmist isn’t just praying ill will on others, and then going out and carrying that ill will out himself. The Psalmist is expressing himself to God in need. He is saying, “God things are so bad here right now because of this, will you enact vengeance upon them because of their wickedness.” There is an air of release in praying these things. In appealing to God to act in this way the Psalmist is giving themselves and the outcome over to God. They are entrusting themselves to a faithful Creator. This doesn’t mean God, at that moment will do as the person has prayed. It means that the responsibility of setting things straight is put into the hands of the rightful authority.
For many the idea of praying about vengeance and justice is a foreign notion, because we don’t want to be mean about it to others. However, God gives us that means as a matter of faith. When I pray about the difficult situations or people in my sphere of life, or the world at large, I am asking God to take control. I am relinquishing my right to stand as judge, jury and executioner and giving that mantle to God.
Vengeance Is Mine, Says the Lord
Often times I think I don’t allow myself to pray in these ways because I doubt God will deal with it. I doubt that he will actually act justly, and so I hope that someone else will do it. As soon as I had my thought about Kermit Gosnell I despaired. In my mind I played out the thoughts that the judge would go lenient on him, that he’d get off on a technicality, and that he’d walk free, even lauded, in our society. My despair was brought on by the fact that I had forgotten about the justice of God. I was hoping that someone, somewhere would give this “monster” his due.
Only God can do that rightly. Only God can bring vengeance down upon us because of our sins. With the imprecatory category I can now pray “let his years be few” and stop worrying about whether God will do it full justice. He is fully just. His action will be right and adequate. The end of the Scripture story is very clear, God will bring full, precise, wise justice upon all those who oppose God and his ways. The angels sing “Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!” (Revelation 16:5–6, ESV). God will give to everyone what they deserve. Justice will be served.
However, for some this justice has already been served. This makes our prayer for justice a tension filled one. For in praying these sorts of things it might so happen in a different manner. The vengeance that God might pour out against wickedness might have already been secured. On the cross Jesus bore the full weight of God’s justice and wrath for those who believe. In Jesus violent murder, an unjust and evil act in itself, the righteous justice of God was performed. Jesus as our substitute stood in our place and took our penalty, God’s wrath, for our sins. As I pray for vengeance upon my enemies and wicked people God’s answer might result in the person hearing and receiving the gospel news and believing fully in Jesus. In that case justice has been served. Christ has stood in their place, he has taken their penalty, he has absorbed the full weight of the wrath of God and the vengeance of God has been applied. The offending sinner has been given a clean slate. The question is am I okay with God’s mercy and justice in this situation? Will I entrust myself to him to do what he deems best with each and every individual?
Maybe the real problem with our prayers for justice is that we are afraid of God being just, and answering with mercy towards the sinner. It is in the case that we need to repent of our arrogance and self-righteousness. Were we not the ones that were rebellious and wicked and offensive to God as well? Did we not deserve death for our sins? Did not Christ take our punishment himself? Maybe we don’t understand God’s justice.
Maybe our faith and prayers are too weak. We don’t pray boldly enough for both the justice and mercy of God. Maybe we are missing a means of gospel transformation in our own lives by not taking up the Psalms and praying those words to God. This includes the feelgood “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23) type Psalms as well as the “may they perish at the rebuke of your face” (Psalm 80) imprecatory prayers.
We ought to pray the entire Psalter, both highs and lows and in so doing let the actions of justice, grace, vengeance, mercy and hope be given over to God, who is faithful and true. Let’s pray boldly and let’s entrust ourselves to God who pours out his perfect justice at the cross, and will do so again at the Final Judgement. It will make us more compassionate, more bold, and better equipped to deal with hard statements in the Scriptures.
Jeremy Writebol(@jwritebol) has been training leaders in the church for over thirteen years. He is the author of everPresent: How the Gospel Relocates Us in the Present (GCD Books, 2014) and writes at jwritebol.net. He lives and works in Plymouth, MI as the Campus Pastor of Woodside Bible Church.