What is imprecatory prayer?
Question: "What is imprecatory prayer?"
Answer: First of all, let’s define imprecatory prayer. To imprecate means “to invoke evil upon or curse” one’s enemies. King David, the psalmist most associated with imprecatory verses such as Psalm 55:15, 69:28, and 109:8, often used phrases like, “may their path be dark and slippery, with the angel of the LORD pursuing them” (Psalm 35:6) and “O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!” (Psalm 58:6).
Psalms 7, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 109, and 139 were written by David to ask God to bring judgment upon his enemies. (The other two imprecatory psalms, 79 and 137, were written by Asaph and an unknown psalmist.) These prayers were written not so much to exact revenge upon one’s enemies, but rather to emphasize God’s abhorrence of evil, His sovereignty over all mankind, and His divine protection of His chosen people. Many of these prayers were prophetic and could be seen taking place later in the New Testament in actual historical events.
When David prayed for God to shatter the teeth of his enemies, likening them to young lions pursuing him to his death, he was making the point that God is holy, righteous, and just, and He will ultimately judge the wicked for the evil they do. Jesus quoted some of the imprecatory psalms during His earthly ministry. In John 15:25, Jesus quotes Psalm 35:19 and 69:4, and Paul did so as well in Romans 11:9-10, which is a quote of Psalm 69:22-23. Since Jesus and Paul quoted verses from these imprecatory psalms, it proves those psalms were inspired by God and removes all doubt that they were sinful or simply selfish prayers of revenge.
Using imprecatory prayers from the Psalms today should only be done against our spiritual enemies (Ephesians 6:12). Praying imprecations on human foes is unjustifiable, as it would require taking these prayers out of context. In the New Testament, Jesus exhorts us to pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44–48; Luke 6:27–38), but praying for their death or for bad things to happen to them isn’t what He meant. Instead, we are to pray for their salvation first and foremost, and then for God’s will to be done. There's no greater blessing than a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and that’s what Jesus means by praying for and blessing those who curse us.
Praying in that manner allows God to work in our own lives to soften our hearts toward our enemies so that we’ll have compassion on them for their eternal destiny, and to remove bitterness and anger from our hearts. Praying for God’s will to be done means we agree with God and are submitting ourselves to His divine sovereignty, despite not always understanding perfectly what He’s doing in a particular situation. And it means we have given up the idea that we know best and instead are now relying on and trusting in God to work His will. If a personal wrong has truly been done to us, we seek God in prayer about it, and then leave room for God’s judgment and trust Him to do what is best. That is the way to be at peace with God and all men (Romans 12:17-21).
Recommended Resources: Prayer, The Great Adventure by David Jeremiah and Logos Bible Software.
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Questions about Prayer
What is imprecatory prayer?