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?
A: 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)”
Therefore, 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.
We 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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