Should Christians ever pray imprecatory prayers—i.e., the prayers of judgment you find here and there in the psalms? I mean, some of these get pretty gory: “O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD! Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime, like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.” (Ps 58:6,8)
Yikes, right? Some people believe these psalms are less-than Christian, and we shouldn’t ever talk this way about anyone. I don’t agree, particularly because these songs are part of Israel’s hymnbook without apology or censure. It’s hard to imagine the Holy Spirit inspiring songs for Israel’s worship that model sinful attitudes.
I believe there are at least two instances where we should pray like this. First, when we are responding to the very worst, most appalling expressions of evil against innocent people—rape, child abuse, slavery, abortion, genocide. When you come across a particularly harsh psalm and you think “I could never get that angry. I’m not suffering like that,” ask yourself: “Who is? Who could pray this prayer in our world today? Whose psalm is this?” In this way, these psalms help us get our eyes off ourselves and see the world. Weep with those who weep. Feel. Hurt. Groan. Sometimes the only proper response to what is happening in the world is outrage. God’s heart is moved by it. Why not yours? When your heart begins to feel what God feels, it may change how you pray.
Second, when we are reflecting on the character of God and promises of His word, particularly His promises to punish evil and bring just judgment. Here again, we are getting our eyes off of ourselves and even off other people, and we are putting them on God Himself. How does this evil affect Him? What has He promised to do with it? Many texts in the Bible tell us God will bring just judgment on His enemies. These prayers are simply requests asking God to do what He said He would do. If sex trafficking and other evils enrage us, imagine what they do to the holy, loving heart of God?
“Imprecatory psalms are not cries for personal vengeance, but cries for God to judge wickedness that His kingdom of grace might abound.” (Winston Smith)