Don’t Keep the Imprecatory Psalms at Arm’s Length

In my last post, I wrote about why I think C.S. Lewis and Tim Keller get the imprecatory psalms wrong. Due to the difficult nature of the texts, both men make theological moves in interpreting them which, I think, they would be unhappy to make elsewhere. Contra both, I think we can confidently say, with fairly few qualifications, that the imprecatory psalms should be part of a normal, healthy Christian prayer life. Yet, even if we’ve put Lewis and Keller’s views aside, there are further missteps to avoid.

Those unconvinced by Lewis’ and Keller’s approaches usually, in my experience, respond by asserting that the imprecatory psalms are good and valid because they are the prayers of the King. So David, as the anointed Messiah charged with bringing God’s rule in Israel, was perfectly within his rights to pray for God to “break the teeth of the wicked” (Ps. 3:7). And, since we know David foreshadows Christ, the true Messiah, these are also things which it is appropriate for Jesus to pray, and which teach us about his person and work.

This is certainly the first step we have to make in understanding these psalms. David is not out for petty revenge against his personal enemies. Rather, since he is the Messiah, those set against him (a la Psalm 2:2) are, by definition, God’s enemies. This is where it’s helpful to remember that, despite the huge number of curses against his enemies in the Psalms, in practice David was overwhelmingly merciful to his adversaries, and wept bitterly at the demise of both Saul (2 Sam. 1) and Absalom (2 Sam. 18). We could compare this to loving someone who has broken the law: although we still love them, and weep at their downfall, we know it is just and good that they suffer the penalty of their crime.

And yet we must go further. Saying “the imprecations are the prayers of the King” only answers the question of whether it was alright for David and Christ to pray them, not the question of whether we can pray them.

In my experience, when our only explanation for these psalms is that “they are the prayers of the king”, we often respond to them by simply thanking Jesus for what they teach us about him, rather than actually praying them ourselves.

So, for example, we might come to Psalm 54:15, in which David calls down a curse on a friend who has betrayed him: “Let death steal over them; let them go down to Sheol alive; for evil is in their dwelling place and in their heart.” I think that, if most evangelicals preached this (and one of the great tragedies of evangelicals and the Psalms is that we preach them more than we pray them), this verse would be (rightly) explained as a depiction of the fate of those who betray the Messiah. At the close of the sermon, my guess is the prayer would (in short) go something like this: “Lord Jesus, thank you that one day you will punish all evil, and cast it into the pit. We pray for those who are currently your enemies that they would repent before that day. Amen.

Now, that is a fine thing to pray in response to Psalm 54. But notice a few things.

Firstly, it doesn’t actually ask for what Psalm 54:15 asks for–quite the reverse in fact; it thanks Jesus that he will bring judgement, but asks him not to do so yet. Again, this is a good thing to pray for those of us who know that “the Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 2:9). Yet I know that my own prayers fairly are regularly inflected with 2 Peter 2, but not so much with Psalm 54. Why can’t I just let Psalm 54 be Psalm 54, and allow it to ask for what it is asking for: death to come on God’s enemies? Now, of course we must take Scripture as a whole, and mustn’t let one truth go dangerously unqualified by another. Yet we established in our last post that the New Testament doesn’t teach us a “better way” than the Old when it comes to mercy and forgiveness toward the wicked. And so we should not dilute what the imprecatory psalms are asking for with New Testament alternatives.

The second thing to notice is that responding to Psalm 54 in this way keeps it at arm’s length. We listen to David and Jesus pray it, and are glad that they have. We certainly pray in response to it… but we don’t pray it. But this flies in the face of the prima facie purpose of the psalms: they are for praying! All of Scripture inspires our prayer and should be responded to in prayer, because all of Scripture is God’s Word to us, and yet the Psalms, uniquely, are also our words to God. And, if nothing else (to bang this drum again), the New Testament commands us to pray and sing the psalms (without qualification) in two separate places (Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:19)!

So it is necessary for us to realise, as a first step in understanding imprecations, that the Psalms are “the prayers of the King”. But we must go beyond that, otherwise they remain at arm’s length–fuels for prayer, rather than actual prayers. They remain a Christological resource, not an ecclesiological or liturgical one. If we do not own these prayers, they become simply a chance to watch Jesus in action, rather than to participate in his sufferings and victory.

I’ve taken aim slightly at the missteps my own evangelical tribe makes in this post, but one of the best recent articulations of how we pray all of the psalms in Christ has come from the evangelical scholar Christopher Ash:

“We must take the Psalms away from anyone who thinks they can sing them as an individualistic ‘me and God’ thing, as if they are valid outside of Christ. We cannot do this with integrity. There is too much that simply does not fit. It kidnaps the Psalms and places them in the service of a vague and comforting ‘spirituality’ and must be resisted.

But, after we have insisted on that painful prohibition, the good news is that in Christ we may indeed take back the Psalms.”[1]

That’s a glorious image: handing the Psalms over to Christ, and then taking them back. If we stop at calling them “the prayers of the King”, all we’ve done is hand them over to Christ. But the Church can always say “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine”, and so Christ hands the Psalms back to us, so that we can truly pray them in him.

So we can pray Psalm 54:15 when we consider God’s enemies and those we betray the Messiah–in both a temporal sense, and an eternal sense. And yet we can also pray 2 Peter 2:9! If David held the tension between praying for judgement and showing immense mercy, then we can too.

To pray the imprecatory psalms in Christ is, in one sense, simply to pray “come Lord Jesus!” Although that prayer longs for the blessing of the righteous, it also longs for the judgement of the wicked. Indeed, I think you find attitudes of imprecation alive and well in the New Testament, present in those who knew that they asked for such things in Christ. When the Apostle Paul, for example, speaks of those who have turned against the Church, you find the same energy as Psalm 54. The Second Book of Homilies (published in 1571, largely written by John Jewel for preaching in the Church of England) makes this very point, in a sermon entitled “Of Them Which Take Offence At Certain Places of Holy Scripture”. As you can guess, it deals with difficult passages in the Bible, including the imprecatory Psalms. I will conclude with part ofits paragraph on the topic, which I think evidences all that we’ve said above, and indicates that we stand in good company when we approach the Psalms as both the prayers of the King and the prayers of his New Covenant people:

We read in diverse Psalms how David did wish to the adversaries of GOD sometimes shame, rebuke, and confusion, sometime the decay of their offspring and issue, sometime that they might perish and come suddenly to destruction, as he did wish to the captains of the Philistines “Cast forth (sayth he) thy lightning, and tear them, shoot out thine arrows and consume them” (Psalm 144:6), with such other manner of imprecations.

And yet we ought not to be offended at such prayers of David, being a Prophet as he was, singularly beloved of GOD, and rapt in spirit, with an ardent zeal to GOD’S glory. He spoke not of a private hatred and in a stomach against their persons, but wished spiritually the destruction of such corrupt errors and vices, which reigned in all devilish persons, set against GOD. He was of the same mind as St. Paul was when he did deliver Hymenaeus and Alexander, with the notorious fornicator, to Satan, to their temporal confusion, that their spirit might be saved against the day of the Lord (1 Tim. 1:2).[2]


  1. Christopher Ash, Teaching Psalms, Volume One: From Text to Message, eds. David Jackman and Adrian Reynolds (London: Proclamation Trust Media, 2017), 59. Ash’s introduction to the Psalms is truly fantastic–I really hope it trickles down into UK evangelical preaching!

  2. I have modernised the text for ease. You can read the original here: http://www.anglicanlibrary.org/homilies/bk2hom10.htm

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