From childhood I have sung and prayed the Psalms, reveling in the words that they provide me for worship, for intercession, and for the soul-baring expression of my deepest struggles to God. Their ability to capture the essence of my messiest emotions and turn it into relationship-building prayer causes me to return to them everyday, using their words to shape my prayers. But sometimes as my soul sails along one of their pristine highways of praise it suddenly collides with a dark, imprecatory wall.
But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
How do I pray along with psalms that ask for bad things to happen to my enemies? I thought I was supposed to ask God to bless them, not bring them down. How can praying for my enemies to be ashamed and dismayed possibly fit with God’s command for me to love them?
Make them like tumbleweed, O my God, like chaff before the wind. As fire consumes the forest or a flame sets the mountains ablaze, so pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your storm.
But as I look a bit deeper, I discover that not all of these imprecatory psalms are vengeful. While some clearly do call for pretty nasty retaliation (Wishing our enemies’ children to be dashed against rocks is quite out of bounds for those of us who are seeking to follow Jesus’ teachings and example), others are asking for something quite different.
They pour out arrogant words; all the evildoers are full of boasting. They crush your people, O LORD; they oppress your inheritance. …They say, “The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob pays no heed.”
Take heed, you senseless ones among the people; you fools, when will you become wise?…Does he who disciplines nations not punish? Does he who teaches man lack knowledge?
In these, the psalmist is asking for horrible things to happen to his enemies so that they will repent and change. The problem is that these people think and act as if there is no God, as if He will not judge them in the end for what they have done. But the psalmist knows better. By faith, he knows that, left on this trajectory, they will eventually run into the wrath of a just God and be eternally judged for their actions.
Cover their faces with shame so that men will seek your name, O LORD. May they ever be ashamed and dismayed; may they perish in disgrace. Let them know that you, whose name is the LORD– that you alone are the Most High over all the earth.
So in a moment of loving compassion, he asks God to intervene in his enemies’ destiny. Scare them. Shame them. Break them. Humble them. Do whatever it takes to teach their minds that You really do notice and will call them to account. Do whatever it takes to turn their hearts back to You before it is too late.
Blessed is the man you discipline, O LORD, the man you teach from your law; you grant him relief from days of trouble, till a pit is dug for the wicked.
Let a righteous man strike me–it is a kindness; let him rebuke me–it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it.
Psalm 94:12, Psalm 141:5
The psalmist knows from personal experience that it often takes a pretty heavy blow from God to set him straight. He has learned to embrace God’s discipline in his own life, to see it as a blessing instead of a curse, because it saves him from greater harm and it prepares the way for his greater good. He is asking nothing for his enemies that he would not also want for himself.
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
And that is where love fits back into the picture. In asking God to discipline our enemies, I think it is possible to fulfill the law of love on the deepest level, asking God to do for them what we would want Him to do for us. Clearly we need to keep close tabs on our own hearts, evaluating whether this is a prayer born out of love or out of revenge. But it is a prayer that we can wholeheartedly join in, especially as we progress through the multiple stages of forgiveness.
You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call to you.
It scares me to think of the consequences that my “enemies” may face if they remain unrepentant. When I seriously consider the day they will stand before our righteous Judge, I cringe and beg Him for mercy. I suppose this is an encouraging sign of the work of His Spirit in me, expressing itself in another layer of forgiveness towards those whose wrongs against me remain unconfessed. If our final reconciliation is predicated on their repentance, then I eagerly pray that God will do what it takes to bring that about. Even more, I long for the day when my enemies will turn and run into our Father’s forgiving embrace.
Bring them down, Lord, so that You can bless them.