Angry prayers, vengeful psalms, and curses.

Hey, there’s biblical precedent for it. But should we pray such prayers?

Imprecate /'ɪm.prə.keɪt/ v.] Call down evil upon.
[Imprecation /ɪm.prə'keɪ.ʃən/ n., imprecatory /ɪm'prək.ə.tɔ.ri/ adj.]

Yep, there’s a whole category of prayer which is all about calling down the wrath of God, or curses, or condemnation, upon people. The old-timey word for it is imprecatory (although not everyone seems to pronounce it properly), which is a nicer way of saying cursing.

The psalms include a bunch of imprecatory prayers. Sometimes King David would get mighty angry with his enemies, and want God to do all sorts of savage things to ’em. And every once in a while, some giggling Christian will joke about how their favorite prayer for a certain politician comes from good ol’ Psalm 109.

Psalm 109.6-13 KWL
6 Place a wicked person over him, with Satan standing at his right.
7 May those judging him return an evil verdict, and his prayers be offensive.
8 May his days be few, and another ruler supervise him.
9 May his children become fatherless, and his woman a widow.
10 May his children wander, wander, begging, digging through people’s trash.
11 May debt seize everything he owns, and strangers steal his labor.
12 May he never find love; his fatherless children never be given grace.
13 May his generation be the last one, and his family name be wiped out.

And so on. You get the idea. David wanted this guy thoroughly crapped upon, because he and his friends had done likewise to David. David wanted karmic justice—for the evildoer to get what David felt was coming to him.

Christians are of three minds about prayers like this:

  • All for it. Evildoers need and deserve our condemnation.
  • Wholly inappropriate for Christians: We’re ordered to forgive. Mk 11.25 Forgive friends, forgive enemies, forgive everyone, or God won’t bother to forgive our own sins. Mk 11.26 What’re we, of all people, doing calling down curses upon others?
  • Only appropriate towards the devil and devilish things, bad behaviors, evil ideas, false thinking, corrupt institutions… but we draw the line at fellow human beings. Never ask God to destroy women and men, no matter how bad they get. ’Cause God made them in his image, Jm 3.9 and wants to save everyone, 2Pe 3.9 not destroy ’em. Everybody’s redeemable.

In my experience, the crowd who’s fondest of condemning prayers would be the dark Christians. Of course. Their justification is that the prophets prayed such prayers; the apostles got a little outraged from time to time; even Jesus had his “woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” bits in the gospels. Mt 23.13-29 (They don’t realize “woe unto you” means “how sad for you,” not “damnation upon you.” Don’t really care, either.)

In life, humans get angry. Christians get angry. Even Jesus got angry. Mk 3.5 Anger is a natural emotional reaction when we wanna see things happen a certain way, but they don’t. It’s even appropriate when injustice takes place. So, in itself, it’s not necessarily evil. But we certainly use it as an excuse for every kind of evil. And a lifestyle of anger means we’re not following the Holy Spirit, who gives us peace; we’re acting out of our own flesh.

So when we get angry, what are we to do? How’re we gonna be angry, yet not sin, and get rid of our anger before sundown, Ep 4.26 instead of letting it turn into bitterness? Well, that’s why such things as imprecatory prayers exist. King David got angry. Lots of Christians get angry. We need a healthy outlet for anger, and sometimes that outlet is prayer. Tell God you’re pissed off. Tell God what you’d really like him to do to all those people who’re frustrating you.

Angry Christians, angry prayers.

We find angry prayers throughout the bible. (Including the New Testament, lest you get the idea it’s solely an Old Testament thing.) Paul damned anyone who preaches another gospel than his, Ge 1.8-9 and damned anyone who didn’t love the Lord. 1Co 16.22 Jesus himself damned a fig tree, Mt 21.19 and warned several cities at this rate they were going to hell. Lk 10.13-15

From this, angry Christians figure they have a valid precedent for praying likewise. But here’s the thing: When Jesus condemned those cities, he didn’t do it maliciously. He doesn’t wanna destroy anyone! God wants everyone to be saved. 1Ti 2.3-4 Jesus is loving, patient, and kind, and that’s the attitude we have to read into everything he does. Even when he condemns.

We aren’t so loving, patient, and kind. We’re angry, spiteful, and cruel. We bring those attitudes into our prayers, and they’re the wrong ones. God doesn’t care to answer fruitless prayers. If our imprecatory prayers are bourne out of anything but the Spirit’s fruit, we really have no business praying them.

Wait, so how do we kindly curse anything?

Really easy: When a loved one is sick, we have all kinds of compassion for the person, right? But none for the ailment. None for the virus. None for the bacteria making ’em react that way. We want it out of them and gone. So we can easily condemn the illness: “I rebuke this illness, and demand it out of you in Jesus’s name.” We never have to lose our heads in doing so.

Now if we can’t do that—if we always lose control of our emotions when we’re rebuking evil—then we’d better hold back on such prayers for a while. Maybe a long time. Ask the Spirit for the self-control we’re clearly missing.

Dark Christians neither understand this, nor care to. Like a gun nut who also has no self-control, they just keep indiscriminately firing away—unaware God swapped their ammo for blanks long ago, because he can’t yet trust them to pray right.

God doesn’t have to agree, y’know.

Now yeah, there’s the crowd who ban angry prayers of all sorts. Not just because Christians should forgive instead of call down curses upon our enemies, but because they’re convinced these curses stick. That when we call down evil, we actually have the power to make evil materialize out of thin air, because one of the ways God made us in his image, was to make us able to create ex nihilo/“out of nothing” like him.

And no he didn’t. Everything humans create is made of something which already exists. Not even our ideas are created from nothing: Most are obviously based on something, and if its influence isn’t obvious to you, it is to the person who last had that idea. We can’t create anything out of thin air, much less evil. We need the power to fuel our curses, and unless you’re colluding with devils, the power has to come from the Holy Spirit. But if the Spirit has no intention of empowering our angry demands, and he usually doesn’t, nothing’s gonna come of them. We have him under no obligation whatsoever.

Remember Saul of Tarsus? Violent persecutor, enemy of Christ? Ac 8.3, 9.1 Betcha plenty of Christians, at the time, damned Paul to the stinkiest parts of hell for what he was doing to Jesus’s church. Did God agree with any of those vengeful prayers? Absolutely not. Rather than destroy Saul, he flipped him. Jesus appeared to him, commissioned him as his apostle to the gentiles, and made him spend the rest of his life willingly undoing his evil. Ac 26.14-18 Infinitely better.

We can curse a person up, down, and sideways, and add “In the name of Christ Jesus” as much as we wish. But if Jesus doesn’t approve, nothing’s gonna happen. Our imprecatory prayers will come to nothing… for they don’t actually conform to God’s will. His will be done, Lk 11.2 remember?

For there’s no fruit of the Spirit in angry prayer. There’s no love nor compassion; no kindness, forgiveness, grace, nor mercy. Take another look at Psalm 109: Regardless of the horrible things David’s enemy might’ve done to him, what business did David have in wishing horrible things upon his enemy’s kids? What kind of twisted prayer demands God make the innocent suffer? Obviously it doesn’t reflect God’s mind at all.

Okay, so what’s it even doing in the bible? Well, it’s not to teach us it’s okay to wish evil upon the innocent. It’s to teach us it’s okay to vent like this to God. It’s okay to tell God we really feel like being harsh, unforgiving, unyielding, loveless, savage… because none of this comes as any surprise to God. He knows our hearts. (He’s heard way worse.) And it’s far better we vent these sentiments to God, then ever act on them.

Learning from the angry psalms.

Seriously, some of the angry psalms are messed up. Some poet actually sat down, wrote these lines, set it to music, and for the past 25 centuries Christians and Jews have recited these prayers. Sometimes several times a year.

Psalm 137.7-9 KWL
7 LORD, remember Edom’s sons on the day Jerusalem fell.
They said, “Strip it bare, down to the ground!”
8 Babylon’s daughter: You’re destined for ruin,
and bless the one who pays you back for how you dealt with us!
9 Bless the one who grabs and shatters your children against the rock!

When we’re not frighteningly taking them out of context, Christians tend to treat these passages like we’d treat an embarrassing racist grandmother: We pretend she didn’t just say horribly offensive things. We blame it on her being old, out of touch, out of date. We don’t stand up to her. Not even sure we should, ’cause aren’t we supposed to respect our elders?

Same deal with the imprecatory psalms. We tend to skip ’em and pretend they’re not there. Or we admit they’re there… but just in this one case, we’re gonna borrow the Dispensationalist idea which figures they don’t count anymore; that they’re from a past era but God works all different nowadays. Even though we should know better than to nullify parts of the bible, solely because they make us uncomfortable.

Instead we need to take serious looks at these prayers. Understand where the author was coming from: Her homeland was just conquered by a horde of filthy, violent pagans. Her homeland was burnt to the ground. Possibly her kids and husband killed in front of her; possibly she was raped; now she was getting dragged to Babylon to become a slave. And the Edomites, their cousins who were supposed to be allies, supposed to be fellow worshipers of the LORD: They rejoiced at Jerusalem’s destruction.

Along the way her captors, for sport, ordered her to sing a few Jerusalem worship songs for their entertainment. Ps 137.3 So how would you feel? More than likely, you’d want to compose a really sarcastic song in response—take advantage of their unfamiliarity with Hebrew—just to get back at them a little.

Well, here’s that song. “God, do horrible things to the Edomites. Do horrible things to the Babylonians.” The smashing-kids-on-rocks bit? Betcha the Babylonians had done it to her. And she wanted life for life, Dt 19.21 which was only fair.

Should she have forgiven the Babylonians? Well duh; of course she should have—the rage would eat her up inside if she didn’t. But here, we get to see how she, and the other survivors of Jerusalem, really felt. These were the emotions boiling in her, which she didn’t bother to hide from God. It’d be stupid to try.

That’s the point of these psalms. Total honesty with God. He wants this kind of integrity: What’s in our minds, oughta be in our prayers. He knows us inside and out, whether we admit this stuff or not. But if we can’t be honest with God, of all people, our relationship with him is just gonna suck.

If we’re this kind of angry—if we want our enemies burning in hell forever and ever—let’s just be honest and say so. Let God minister to this anger. Let him help us get beyond it.

Anger vented.

One thing you’re gonna notice in most of the angry psalms: By the end of it, the psalmist finishes by praising God. The anger’s gone. It was dealt with, and done with.

True of us too. Once we confess our anger to God, and put it in his hands, he tends to dissolve it. We give that emotion to God, and he casts it away. We vent, and he purges us.

But if we don’t do this—if we stamp it down, and pray only holy-sounding things which don’t truly reflect our state of mind—it damages us in two different ways. I already mentioned how our relationship with God’s gonna suck, ’cause we’ve embraced hypocrisy instead of authenticity. But there’s also the fact that when we hold onto our anger, it grows, and corrodes us. Turns into other evil things, like revenge, bitterness, joylessness, hatred, prejudice, argumentativeness, and violence.

We’ve all encountered angry Christians. They’re awful, aren’t they? They do such damage to everyone around them, and drive people away from Jesus. Let’s never unthinkingly become one ourselves. Give these emotions to God, and tell him, “God, I’m furious; help me.” Trust him with it. He can take it, and will. Submit to him, and let him free you.

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