Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!

It is little wonder when Boney M used Psalm 137 as the basis for their 1978 classic “By the Rivers of Babylon” they stopped before they reached the shocking last verse. While perhaps the most vivid example of cursing prayers (or what scholars call imprecatory psalms) in the bible, it is by no means unique. We spoke of Nehemiah’s prayer in Nehemiah 4 during church on Sunday, which is very similar to Jeremiah’s prayer in 18:23. The psalms however are absolutely rife with these curses (Ps 12, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 83, 109, 137 and 149 to give but a selection)
The Challenge of Imprecatory
While the ancient world was bloody and unsophisticated (supposedly) we are much more mature as humans today and baulk at this kind of prayer. Particularly as Christians we can write these prayers off part of the Old Testament that is completely irrelevant to us. They are part of an inferior ethic, and we can shy away when critics of Christianity bring them up today. However, I don’t believe this does justice to why God has put them in the bible. Yes, psalms are human words to God, but as part of scripture they are God inspired words from humans to God. We know God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, so there must be some use of these psalms today. Even New Testament author’s saw their value and quoted from them in their writings. We too need to consider the challenge of these prayers and how where they fit in our prayer life.
Initial Solution
One thing worth acknowledging at the beginning is that not all imprecatory psalms are created equal. Many are quite soft in what they wish upon their enemies, and a good deal of them are simply a cry for natural justice to happen. For instance, in Psalm 35:8 we read: “Let destruction come upon him when he does not know it! And let the net that he hid ensnare him; let him fall into it—to his destruction!”. At its core this is a prayer that what the enemy intended to hurt David befall himself instead. People today might call this Karma, but there is no leaving it up to Spiritual forces of the universe for David, he calls God to bring about justice. Even the dreadful words of Psalm 137 can be considered in this light. When Israel was sacked by the Babylonians, many innocent women and children were slain ruthlessly. The psalmist is saying simply that God will have a special place for those that give the Babylonians the same treatment they gave the Jews.
The heart behind the prayer
However, these prayers at times go beyond the simple principal of eye for an eye. They call for the full weight of God’s wrath to come upon those who oppose and speak against God’s people. What is going on then? Well I believe at the heart of these prayers lies two factors. Transparency and God’s sovereignty in justice. When we have been personally hurt, or see our family or people get hurt, it is natural to have strong feelings of revenge. We want those to hurt us to suffer, and at times, suffer even more than we suffered. When we feel this strength of emotions, we can either bury them inside and pretend to be more loving then we are or take them to God and acknowledge how we feel. The psalms show us that God can take the full range of our emotions and we can talk to him when we feel joy, when we feel hurt, when we wonder what he is doing, and when we want people to get taken to the cleaners. But beyond transparency, these prayers focus on God’s sovereignty in judgement. He is ultimately the one who will hold everyone to account. By taking our hurts to him, we are giving up our own opportunity for vengeance and placing it in his hands. We can ask God to smite, because we know God will indeed smite when necessary, and he will not allow his people to be downtrodden forever.
The curse of the cross
Many of you might be wondering, “but how does this fit in to the New Testament ethic of turning the other cheek?” As we discussed on Sunday, by handing our hurt to God, I believe we free ourselves up to move on and indeed turn the other cheek. Imprecatory prayers and forgiveness aren’t mutually exclusive, in fact they can go hand in hand. We see this ultimately at the cross. Every time someone prayers an imprecatory prayer they are asking God to curse someone that deserves it, to bring about a swift end to sin. We know God accepts this type of prayer, because He himself outlines blessings for when his people keep the covenant and curses for when they reject it. The Hebrews were given the law through Moses and told: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deut 30:19). Wherever there is sin therefore, in ourselves or in others it can be appropriate to call out for God to keep his word and bring a curse upon the perpetrator. But the good news of the New Testament is that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”” (Gal 3;13). Therefore, whenever we pray for a curse, or when we call out for justice against those who oppress God’s people, we must acknowledge that the same curse of judgement should fall upon us – But for Jesus Christ. He took on the curse that should be upon us, so that all who look to him in faith may receive the blessing of unbroken relationship with God.
Our deepest longing for our enemies
Often in Christian ethics we are debating between black and whites. Something is sinful or bad, the other thing is good and proper. I don’t think that is the case with imprecatory prayers. They in themselves can be good, they accord with the justice of our God. But our deepest longing often should be for the curse of our enemies to come upon Jesus. In other words, have our enemies transformed into brothers and sisters as they too trust in Christ and are forgiven. However, I don’t think it is sinful to not desire that in every circumstance. Ultimately, how best to pray in each situation is a work of the Holy Spirit. If you lived during World War 2, would you have prayed for Hitler’s salvation or his demise and judgement? I don’t think there is a wrong answer. What about how to pray if your spouse is attacked or you children murdered? I think both a prayer for retribution and a prayer for forgiveness and repentance can honour and glorify God in their own unique way. When dealing with enemies, we need to recognise that as humans made in the image of God, we desire justice. But we should also aspire to be more like God, who while we were His enemies died for us, and brought us to Himself.