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imprecatory prayers

Imprecatory Prayers?

“And thus I clothe my naked villany
With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”[1]

Lately Twitter has buzzed with talk of imprecations—that is, the usefulness of modern believers praying imprecatory prayers over the deeds and lives of our enemies. Some of it is thought provoking; most of it is cringeworthy.

Let’s be honest: imprecatory Psalms present us with a problem. On the one hand we believe that “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience”. If God saw fit to include imprecatory prayers, it’s incumbent on us to study them, right? But on the other hand, we know that Christ specifically commands us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44), to pray for them even when they persecute or mistreat us, to do good to them, to bless them (Luke 6:27–29) even as they revile us. We know that Jesus’ dying breaths contained prayers for those who put Him on the Cross (Luke 23:34), and that the first martyr Stephen followed His example (Acts 7:60). And not only that, we are to add action to our prayers—we are to actively seek to do them good (Romans 12:20).

In view of all of this, how are we to understand the imprecatory Psalms? Do they have applications for us today? Well, a quick sweep of Church history shows that this conversation has deep roots. For example, consider Chrysostom’s treatment of one such Psalm:

He is dwelling on the lamentation of the captives: —‘Happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.’ “Though these words,” he says, “are pregnant with rage and vengeance, yet they are the expression of the fury of the captives. Since the prophets often do not speak of their own mind, but represent the passions of others. For if you ask the prophet’s own sentiment, you will hear it when he says, ‘If I have rewarded evil unto him that was at peace with me.’ But with other men he depicts their rage and anguish. Such however is not the teaching of the New Covenant. Rather we are bidden there to feed our enemies and give them drink.”[2] If this explanation does not go far enough, at least it is faithful in preserving the literal sense of the passage.[3]

Useful for Our Time?

One of the most useful resources I’ve read concerning the imprecatory Psalms comes from the pen of William Gurnall. In his outstanding volume, A Christian in Complete Armour, he provides sound commentary and helpful guidelines.

Describing imprecations as a branch of “petitionary prayer”, he defines them as,

“A kind of prayer… wherein the Christian imprecates the vengeance of God upon the enemies of God and His people: on such a solemn errand are the saints’ prayers sometimes sent to heaven, and speed as effectually as when they go to obtain blessings for themselves and the church of God. And no wonder, for they are perfumed with Christ’s merits, and thereby are as acceptable to God as any other put up in his name.”[4]

Next, Gurnall provides guidelines for those who are quick to weaponize them against personal enemies.

Now, the path wherein the Christian is here to tread being very narrow, he is to be the more cautious that he steps not awry. He is in this like one that drives a chariot on the brow of a steep hill, who, if he hath not a quick eye and steady hand, may soon be lost. The highest strains of the saint’s duty run nearest the most dangerous precipices, as the most mysterious truths are soonest perverted into the most damnable errors.

Before I continue—a quick word on the principle component of the Twitter debate: masculinity. Those in favor of a modern and personal use of imprecatory prayers usually denounce critics as “effeminate” or even as outright feminist. They suggest that a more robust vision of manhood would curtail what they suppose to be a weak and trembling Christianity. I strongly disagree, and while that is neither here nor there, it is interesting to see William Gurnall answer the same objection in his day. Note him here:

Our Saviour hath taught us a more excellent way, Matt. 5:44: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.’ I know this is counted a poor, sheepish spirit by many. ‘What! go and pray for them? No, send them the glove rather, and be revenged on them in a duel, by shedding their blood.’ This is the drink-offering which these sons of pride delight to pour out to their revenge, or else curse them to the pit of hell with their oaths. O tremble at such a spirit as this! The ready way to fetch a curse from heaven on thyself is to imprecate one sinfully upon another, Psa. 109:17, 18: ‘As he loved cursing, so let it come unto him; as he clothed himself with cursing like as with his garments, so let it come into his bowels like water, and like oil into his bones.’


Next time I’d like to look further into Gurnall’s writings on guardrails in the use of imprecatory prayers.

[1] Frederic Henry Chase, Chrysostom: A Study in the History of Biblical Interpretation (Cambridge; London: Deighton Bell and Co.; George Bell and Sons, 1887), 49.

[2] Origen, however, interpreted this as a strict prophecy. It’s still not an adoption of the imprecation for use against his own personal enemies, but an interesting, if alternate, view nonetheless.

[3] Frederic Henry Chase, Chrysostom: A Study in the History of Biblical Interpretation (Cambridge; London: Deighton Bell and Co.; George Bell and Sons, 1887), 54–55.

[4] William Gurnall and John Campbell, The Christian in Complete Armour (London: Thomas Tegg, 1845), 728.

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