Should we pray curses upon our enemies?
As I listened to my friend speak in anguish of her helplessness to stop her husband’s infidelity, my anger began to boil. Her heartache was crushing, and I was searching to find words that might somehow comfort her. Have you ever had an anger so deep you could not filter your tongue? Have you ever cried for days not knowing how to wade through your grief? If you can answer yes to either one of these questions, I think you would be blessed and comforted to read the Imprecatory Psalms.
The Imprecatory Psalms are some of the hardest passages in scripture to interpret because they appear to invoke judgement, calamity or curses on our enemies or on those who we perceive to be the enemies of God. The word “imprecate” means to curse. It is important to remember that these Imprecatory Psalms were prayerful poetry written during some of the harshest times in Israel’s history, when nations and individuals were coming against God’s people. And, from America’s place of safety and security these Psalms can be very disturbing for us to read. One of the things we learn from these Imprecatory Psalms is that antisemitism is nothing new. For generations the demonic has hated the Jewish people. We also learn it is more than ok to bring our deep unfiltered sadness to God.
Do you think it is ever appropriate to pray curses on someone? To fully address this question I want us to look at some principles about interpreting God’s word. The majority of our time we will spend looking at these guidelines, but we will also look at parts of Psalm 35 and see how it might relate to our own prayers.
Firstly, when trying to interpret hard to understand passages in the Bible, it is important to see scripture as the best commentary on scripture. It is good to study what godly and brilliant theologians have written, but it is also important to analyze what other passages in the Bible say about this same issue. For example: What did Jesus teach us about praying for our enemies? This would be very helpful information when trying to interpret the Imprecatory Psalms. In the sermon on the plain in Luke 6:27-31 Jesus said,
27 “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. ESV
What kind of prayers did Jesus have in mind when he told us to pray for our enemies? Did he ask us to curse them? No. He wanted us to pray, prayers full of mercy.
What did Paul teach us about how to recognize our true enemies? In Ephesians 6:12 Paul wrote,
12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. ESV
Paul taught that our true adversaries are not flesh and blood, but the evil powers who are at work in the unseen world. The Imprecatory Psalms then can and should be used to pray against the spiritual forces trying to disrupt, and assault our lives and the lives of those we love.
Secondly, when trying to interpret hard to understand passages in the Bible, it is important to remember that the words and actions of Jesus take precedent. While all of the word of God is inspired, and useful for teaching some passages of scripture carry more weight than others. The teachings of Christ are the most important to listen too when trying to apply the Bible. The Imprecatory Psalms could be misapplied if we did not hold to the superiority of Jesus’ teaching.
In Luke 6:32-36 Jesus goes on to explain in more depth why we bless those who curse us.
32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. ESV
The call from Jesus is clear. Christ’s followers are to grow in mercy, so they eventually reflect the Father’s heart of mercy. We are set apart by God to live radically different lives than those around us. In the short time we have upon this earth we have been chosen to show the mercy of our Father in heaven. Only God, can bring about the ultimate transformation from an angry, vengeful heart to a heart of mercy, but it is important to remember that this is the direction the Holy Spirit is working toward.
Did Jesus model merciful prayers for his enemies? Yes, from the cross he prayed one of the most useful and powerful prayers we can pray in the scriptures.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:24 ESV
Often times when I am teaching on this passage, someone will say, “They know exactly what they are doing. To pray that prayer would be a lie.” But, do they really know the consequences of their behavior? Yes, I know they are sinning intentionally, but have they realized the price they and their loved ones are going to pay for their willfulness. I don’t believe any of us are truly aware of the full consequences our sins will unleash.
Lastly, when trying to interpret hard to understand passages in the Bible, it is ok to live with mystery. Whenever we cannot reconcile two passages of a scripture the error will belong with us, and not with the word of God. Maybe, we need a longer time of meditation before God will give us clarity or application, and maybe we will need to do more research on a section of scripture. God’s word is so deep, that even after two thousand years of Christian teaching, exposition and commentaries we have yet to plumb its depths.
We do know, God as the author of the Bible, desires to fill us with his Holy Spirit, so he can teach us his word. It is important to remember we study the Bible, so we can apply God’s word, not to get smarter or impress others with our biblical trivia. Life change should be the goal of every Bible study. It is ok to live with mystery for a while when it comes to trying to decipher the meaning of a passage.
In Ephesians 6:12, Paul asserts that our enemy is not flesh and blood, so one practical way to apply the Imprecatory Psalms then is to view them as prayers we can pray when we suspect we have entered a spiritual struggle. Psalm 35 was composed and saved, so we could know how to pray against evil schemes. Look at these artful words from Psalm 35:1-10, 22-28 and as you do, imagine yourself praying these verses against demonic oppression.
1 Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me;
fight against those who fight against me!
2 Take hold of shield and buckler
and rise for my help!
3 Draw the spear and javelin
against my pursuers!
Say to my soul,
“I am your salvation!”
4 Let them be put to shame and dishonor
who seek after my life!
Let them be turned back and disappointed
who devise evil against me!
5 Let them be like chaff before the wind,
with the angel of the Lord driving them away!
6 Let their way be dark and slippery,
with the angel of the Lord pursuing them!
7 For without cause they hid their net for me;
without cause they dug a pit for my life.
8 Let destruction come upon him when he does not know it!
And let the net that he hid ensnare him;
let him fall into it—to his destruction!
9 Then my soul will rejoice in the Lord,
exulting in his salvation.
10 All my bones shall say,
“O Lord, who is like you,
delivering the poor
from him who is too strong for him,
the poor and needy from him who robs him?”
22You have seen, O Lord; be not silent!
O Lord, be not far from me!
23 Awake and rouse yourself for my vindication,
for my cause, my God and my Lord!
24 Vindicate me, O Lord, my God,
according to your righteousness,
and let them not rejoice over me!
25 Let them not say in their hearts,
“Aha, our heart’s desire!”
Let them not say, “We have swallowed him up.”
26 Let them be put to shame and disappointed altogether
who rejoice at my calamity!
Let them be clothed with shame and dishonor
who magnify themselves against me!
27 Let those who delight in my righteousness
shout for joy and be glad
and say evermore,
“Great is the Lord,
who delights in the welfare of his servant!”
28 Then my tongue shall tell of your righteousness
and of your praise all the day long. ESV
How might praying these words change lives?
When we are angry, like I was sitting with my broken-hearted friend, it is imperative we obey Jesus’ command and forgive these people we see as instigating the hurt. But, stopping there will leave us discouraged. We must learn to recognize how the demonic is exploiting the suffering we are witnessing and experiencing. The Imprecatory Psalms give us bold words to pray against the evil forces that have been trying to take advantage of our spiritual and emotional wounds.
To pray these verses in Psalm 35 we may need to change some personal pronouns, especially if we are a woman. For example, compare the pronouns below in my “prayer a phrase version”, with those found in the ESV translation of Psalm 35:10,
All my bones shall say, “O Lord, who is like you, delivering the poor from him who is too strong for her, the poor and needy from him who robs her?”
When praying for a group like our families or churches we will need to make the pronouns plural. And, remember in spiritual warfare it is always wise to to cover ourselves first in prayer.
Go back and close out our study time by praying Psalm 35:1-10, 22-28 out loud.