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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.






21 September 2006

Praying Evil Upon Our Enemies


Q: I read Psalm 109 in full from the Amplified Bible and I’m trying to understand it. It sounds like the psalmist was asking for revenge. Why does this chapter wish bad on someone? This sounds very harsh. Is wishing something like this on a person and his family right? Maybe I just misunderstood the chapter. Can you help me?

David and SaulA: You didn’t misunderstand it. Psalm 109 belongs to a group collectively known as the Imprecatory Psalms or the Psalms of Imprecation. (Imprecation means the act of cursing or a curse or evil wish directed toward another.) The list includes Psalms 55, 59, 69, 79, 109, and 137.

Those who deny the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture have no problem attributing these to strictly human emotions dressed up in the clothing of pious words. Those of us who believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the speaking, writing, and collecting of Scripture are forced to come to grips with such passages which speak so violently about other people. After all, God commands us to love our enemies (e.g., Luke 6:27) while reserving vengeance for Himself (Romans 12:19, et al.).

At first glance, these Psalms appear to be nothing but hate-filled diatribes counter to the desires of a loving God. How do we reconcile them with our knowledge of a loving God? And if they were valid for the Israel under the Covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and affirmed at Sinai, are they still to be part of our vocabulary of faith in these New Testament times?

Ultimately, God curses all who defy Him, reject Him, and war against His people. Deuteronomy 27 records the Lord pronouncing a series of curses through Moses against Israelites who defile God’s holy Law. Elsewhere, by His prophets, the Lord rebuked and pronounced harsh judgment against many gentile nations whose idolatry leads Israel astray. Finally, we know that He condemns all who die in rebellion against Him to an eternity of punishment. Therefore, we know that God chooses to invoke His own curses where and when it pleases Him.

Of course, He commands believers, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44)” Yet He will not allow the wicked to continually defy His will that His name be hallowed, His kingdom come, and His will be done. The Christian, in love, prays for the conversion of his enemies, for our true foes are also the foes of Christ and His Church. At the same time, in accord with the prayer Jesus taught us, we pray that God’s good and gracious will be done and that the enemies of His people not be allowed to triumph.

Martin Luther wrote on this topic, “No one can pray the Lord’s Prayer correctly without cursing. For when he prays: ‘Hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done,’ he must put all the opposition to this on one pile and say: ‘Curses, maledictions, and disgrace upon every other name and every other kingdom! May they be ruined and torn apart, and may all their schemes and wisdom and plans run aground.’ (Luther’s Works 21:101)”

Psalm 137Therefore, we don’t stop praying that God would bless those who hate us, especially that He would bring them to repentance and true faith. If they do not come to faith, they remain enemies of God and His people. While the Lord may call us to suffer much — even martyrdom — at the hands of the wicked, we still pray that iniquity never triumphs over righteousness and that the powers of darkness never prevail over Christ’s Church.

Again, Martin Luther helps us appreciate both aspects of prayer involving those who hate us, wish us evil, and actively sin against us. He urges Christians to “pray that our enemies be converted and become our friends, and if not, that their doing and designing be bound to fail and have no success and that their persons perish rather than the Gospel and the kingdom of Christ.” Luther continued with an illustrative (although possibly apocryphal) story and a Christian application:

Thus the saintly martyr Anastasia, a wealthy, noble Roman matron, prayed against her husband, an idolatrous and terrible ravager of Christians, who had flung her into a horrible prison, in which she had to stay and die. There she lay and wrote to the saintly Chrysogonus diligently to pray for her husband that, if possible, he be converted and believe; but if not, that he be unable to carry out his plans and that he soon make an end of his ravaging.

Thus she prayed him to death, for he went to war and did not return home. So we, too, pray for our angry enemies, not that God protect and strengthen them in their ways, as we pray for Christians, or that He help them, but that they be converted, if they can be; or, if they refuse, that God oppose them, stop them and end the game to their harm and misfortune (What Luther Says, p. 1100).

While the Imprecatory Psalms may each have had a single author, they were also collective prayers of the Old Testament Church, the whole people of Israel. David’s imprecations may be understood in that the enemies of David were also the enemies of God and His people because they opposed and sought to destroy God’s anointed king.

Asaph (Psalm 79) cried out against the pagan Babylonians who destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, carrying its people off into captivity. The anonymous author of Psalm 137 sat with Israel among these same idol worshipers in Babylon and called for God to forever end their reign — even to the deaths of their children: “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (v. 9)” While God used Babylon to chastize His people for their own faithlessness, He finally used the Persians to overthrow and destroy wicked Babylon, paving the way for the captive nation to return to the Promised Land to rebuild city and temple.

Judas and JesusWe also note how Christ became the object of imprecation throughout much of His earthly ministry and especially in His passion. He received God’s curse upon sinners in order that it would not fall upon those who believe in Him, as Paul wrote in Galatians 3:13. Consider, for example, how closely Matthew 27:39 and Mark 15:29 parallel Psalm 109:25. For those who reject the Savior, the curse returns upon them, as Peter noted concerning Judas, “It is written in the Book of Psalms, ‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it.’ (Acts 1:20; cf. Psalm 109:8)”

The caution for the Christian in praying as these Psalms lead us is to do so in fearful humility. We do not do so out of hatred for those individuals who bring shame or pain upon us, for we realize that we are also sinners who escape eternal punishment only through God’s grace in Christ. Yet God also calls us to stand firm and to resist the devil and all evildoers — a resistance that includes fervent prayers to our Lord who “breaks and hinders every evil counsel and will which would not let us hallow the name of God nor let His kingdom come. (Small Catechism)” God grant each of us the wisdom, humility, and compassion to pray both for and against our enemies as His Word and Spirit guide us.

Luther quotes from Luther’s Works Volume 21, © 1956 and What Luther Says, © 1959, both by Concordia Publishing House.

Explanation of the Third Petition of the Our Father in the Small Catechism quoted from the public domain text at The Book of Concord online.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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8 Comments:

Blogger stevo said...

Your explanation of psalm 109 is not even Christian. Your carefully constructed orthodoxy has become more important than the gospel. Did god also comand Saul to kill children and infants (1Sam. 15:3)? Your justifications and explanations are very similar to those laid out by Islamic leaders when they are busy condemning unbelievers. People of faith wrote the Bible, but they were people. When are we going to give up this harmful, and undefensable notion of God dictating an infallible bible. It makes absolutely no sense.

23 September, 2006 17:13  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stevo,

Be careful, it's your explanation that is departing from Christianity. If the Bible isn't infallible, it isn't reliable. How can you distinguish orthodoxy from the gospel? True doctrine serves the gospel, it doesn't compete against it.

As far as Islamic leaders are concerned, they teach a different god altogether, therefore their message of hate and death has nothing in common with the Lord's message of law and gospel. It should be no surprise that King David prays against his enemies, because they were not just oposing David but the Lord as well.

Think of Jesus' strong condemnation of those who teach falaely and lead others astray -- a large millstone around the neck and a place at the bottom of the sea. It's not "gospel" but God's strongest judgment comes in defense of the gospel.

Dan Schoessow

24 September, 2006 17:26  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just one observation for your consideration: When a christian asks the LORD to punish and condemn, he thereby ceases to seek revenge himself and can release his own righteous anger into the keeping of the Lord of all Righteousness. Since the Lord is NOT controlled by our prayers, we leave the execution of Justice to the Lord and his mercy, and go in peace having no need to seek venegence ourselves.

Rev Grams

25 September, 2006 10:12  
Blogger stevo said...

Annonymous, your statement "if the bible isn't infallible, it isn't reliable" makes no sense to me. Because one chooses not to believe that the collection of books, stories, poems and letters that were collected, by people, have not been directly dictated by god in no way makes them unreliable. Does it mean that we have latitude to discuss how we see some things differently than a writer in 1000BC or 100AD? Yes. Is that so bad? To this day the bible inspires my faith and I read it daily.

In regards to Islam, it's not a different god that makes muslims different than us, it's doctrine. We are both monotheists. Alah is simply the Arabic word for the Hebrew El. It is impossible for either of us to think of a different "god" as we define it. The problem with Islam, and to my thinking, Christianity, is the kind of doctrine laid out in this post, and by many Imans.

Finally you did a good job of scouring the gospels to find Jesus condoning violence, but I believe he was speaking metaphorically about the millstone.

27 September, 2006 09:33  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Stevo,

By saying "If the Bible isn't infallible, it isn't reliable", I mean that if it isn't what it claims to be -- the Word of God, then it's lying to us. If it is just a "collection of books, stories, poems and letters that were collected, by people, not directly dictated by god", as you say, then I don't care what it says. It's no better or more reliable than any other man-made book. Then I can make up my own opinions about heaven, hell, salvation, and the meaning of life. But I want to hear it from the One Who knows, the One Who made heaven and earth, and the One Who holds the keys of heaven and hell. That's what makes the Bible reliable -- it's more than mans' writings.

Concerning Islam, we do indeed have different Gods. Christians are Trinitarian, not monotheistic. The Muslims fall in the same category as Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses and others who claim to believe in the Old Testament God but deny the deity of Christ. That philosophy was strongly rejected by Christ who said in John 14:9 "Whoever has seen Me has seen My Father in heaven."

It ironic that as much as Muslims and Jews hate each other, they essentially have the same religion -- a misunderstanding of the Old Testament God as a tyrant who demands that we save ourselves through keeping the law. The Koran says nothing about God's love and grace. But Christ is the perfect revelation of God's love and grace, that He was willing to keep the law as we couldn't and suffer and die for our sins so we don't have to.

Finally, I agree that Christ was speaking metaphorically about the millstone. It wasn't my intention to say that He was "condoning violence" any more than He was condoning self-mutilation when He said to pluck out the eye or cut off the hand that leads to sin. He uses these graphic images to convey priorities -- eternal life is more important than physical life. And that gets back to my original point about the precatory psalms -- David prays against them so that they not succeed in bringing down the Kingdom and opposing God's work. God's judgment is not only just, but often merciful, in that it is directed against those who would deceive many others into unbelief and eternal hell.

I hope this makes sense. Thanks for an interesting and respectful discussion.

Dan Schoessow

28 September, 2006 14:10  
Blogger stevo said...

What is so frightening or wrong about having your own opinions about heaven, hell or salvation? You are obviously an intellegent person, yet you don't allow yourself to question or disagree with the authors of the bible? Unless you believe god himself authored it. My guess is you don't believe that. I personally believe the bible is the Word (capital "w") of God in that it conveys God's most important message of grace, but there is no way the words of the bible are the literal words (small "w") of god. To say that the bible says so is kind of a circular arguement that you wouldn't accept in any other field or debate.

Even though we are trinitarian we are monotheistic. Three yet one. That's not to mention that the concept of the trinity is itself a highly evolved doctrine.

I grew up in a very conservative lutheran parish, but I continue to move toward seeing god's kingdom as universal in scope.

I like your last paragraph the best, but conceptualizing god as a judge is something I can't do anymore. A judge can never forgive. A judge can only condemn, or acquit. That metaphor for god doesn't work for me.

I enjoyed the exchange.

30 September, 2006 22:06  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi again Stevo,

What I was saying is that my opinion or someone else's opinion about how we get to heaven isn't reliable. Only God can tell us how to get there. I absolutely do believe the Bible is God's Word, (all of it), and is the only guide we can count on. Man's own feelings and intellect often err when it comes to the way of salvation. Therefore the Bible is the only reliable guide we have. I don't question or doubt the authors of the Bible, because I take on faith that God is trustworthy and will not communicate to us with an inconsistent or inacurrate voice.

My baby son died 2 years ago, and it is God's promise of forgiveness and salvation in Baptism that gives me comfort. All the other opinions of man mean nothing, because only God holds our souls in His hands. I need to know that I'm going to see my son again, and only God can assure me of that. It's not because my son was sinless or because of my own efforts to be a good person, but because Christ has done everything for us and gives us His holiness as a gift. All who are baptized into Christ have put on Christ. That's the robe of righteousness that makes us worthy to sit at His heavenly banquet table.

The image of God as a Judge doesn't need to be scary. He is a righteous and fair judge, and a righteous judge DOES forgive, especially when someone else (Christ) volunteers to pay the penalty for us.

You say that you believe God's kingdom is more universal in scope. That takes us back to the original issue of God's judgment mentioned in the Psalms. I still believe in God's judgment, and the seriousness of sin, and the terrible consequences that sin brings to our world and our lives and our souls. The wages of sin is death, and that is a just sentence. But that doesn't take away from God's mercy, in that He was willing to take that sentence upon Himself and pay the penalty for us. But it's not given to us by force; those who reject it will stand naked before Him on the Judgment Day.

You were taught well in your youth, I hope you won't abandon that wonderful Gospel message of Christ taking our guilt upon Himself and giving us His righteousness. In the end, this is the only hope we have for eternal life.

It's been an interesting discourse. Thanks.

In Christ's love,
Dan Schoessow

03 October, 2006 17:03  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We are not praying against the people. We war against the spirit that is controlling our enemies. I don't want to see anyone go to hell. Neither dose Christ but unfortunately if their not going to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior. I will asked God to remove them before they do anymore harm to the worldk

07 October, 2014 09:58  

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