Break the Teeth of the Wicked (Part 2)

May 21, 2013

The most likely explanation for why the Psalms have never made a person uncomfortable is that the person has never read all of them.  Woven throughout the beautiful prayers of praise and thanksgiving, of lament and confession, are appeals to God to do violence to his enemies.  I gave some examples of these prayers yesterday.

The Psalms include ferocious prayers, more commonly called prayers of imprecation.  Should Christians pray these prayers?  If so, how are we to pray them?  Those are the questions I want to answer.

“DON’T PRAY THEM”

Some Christians say that we ought not to pray the imprecatory prayers of the Psalms.
C. S. Lewis, for example, scorned such prayers, asserting that they were fueled by a “spirit of hatred” and that “we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved” of them.  Tell us what you really think, Jack.  Others aren’t so blunt in their opposition but point out, rightly so, that Jesus teaches us a new way of relating to our enemies: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28).  In short, prayers of imprecation, though perhaps appropriate under the old covenant, are categorically inappropriate under the new covenant.  Followers of Jesus have no business praying these prayers.

“PRAY THEM”

Despite the excellent arguments to the contrary, some Christians teach that the psalms of imprecation are appropriate for Christians to pray.  Their arguments tend to follow four lines.  First, these prayers aren’t just any prayers but are part of God’s inspired word, all of which is profitable to the Christian “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).  Surely, then, these prayers are meant to teach us something other than how not to pray.  Second, these inspired prayers are just prayers.  The psalmists aren’t taking matters into their own hands but are crying to the Lord for vengeance—a practice clearly commended in the New Testament.  Third, these prayers are consonant with the justice of God, which is just as much a concern of the New Testament as of the Old Testament.  We must not think, therefore, that we can overrule justice in the one without undermining justice in the other.  Fourth, imprecatory prayers give voice to the anguish a believer experiences when assaulted by evil.  There is a kind of evil in the world that will turn your stomach and arouse your hatred.  What better place to find words to express your heart to God than in these prayers his Spirit inspired for just such a circumstance?

MY TAKE

I’m sympathetic to both of these views.  Of all the Scriptures to pray, I want to be able to pray the Psalms, which Christians have used in prayer for over 2000 years.  And these are Bible prayers, for crying out loud.

On the other hand, it doesn’t seem right to pray the imprecatory psalms exactly as they stand.  Jesus has come, and we ought not to pray as if he hasn’t.  Our Lord is the last word that fulfills all previous words.  His cross and empty tomb are the inescapable facts of the cosmos.  The new covenant in his blood swallows up and sets aside the old covenant.  What all of this means is that the gospel is the key to interpreting the imprecatory prayers, the Psalms as a whole, the entire Bible, and the universe itself.

So here is my take: Don’t skip over the imprecatory prayers, and don’t pray them exactly as they stand.  Too much theological overlap exists between these prayers and the teaching of the New Testament to rule them entirely out of bounds.  Yet looking at these prayers through the lens of the gospel modifies how we will pray them.

Pray the imprecatory prayers of the psalms, but pray them in light of the gospel.  Tomorrow I will try to show exactly what I mean by that. 

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