Tag Archives: imprecatory psalms

Beheaded Children?–When the Imprecatory Psalms Are Suddenly Relevant

My children and I just looked at internet photographs of an Iraqi child’s beheaded body. Why would we expose ourselves to such horror? Because it is really happening. Because to carry on as if it were not happening would be to perpetuate the crime. Because even the ground cries out for us to acknowledge and respond to the shedding of innocent blood.

“Do I ask God to forgive them or do I ask Him to damn them?”

But having stared such atrocity in the face, what do we do with our newfound awareness? My son comes back into the kitchen teary–eyed, asking me what he can do about it. Send money to a charity? Write a letter to a politician? Our profound sense of horror is slowly replaced by a deep sense of helplessness. When faced with the reality of such unspeakable evil in our world, evil that at this moment is overpowering people no different than we, how do we even begin to pray?

“Lord, have mercy” runs through my mind again and again as I scroll through the footage of severed heads and gunned-down bodies. But what about the gunmen in the pictures, gloating over their fallen victims? My son asks the question that I am already thinking:

“Do I ask God to forgive them or do I ask Him to damn them?”

How can I think of mercy for those butchers while the aftermath of their carnage stares me in the face? They aren’t sorry. They plaster the evidence of their brutality all over the internet, boasting in their conquests, delighting in the devastation they have caused.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
Psalm 137:1-3

All of a sudden the imprecatory psalms start making a lot more sense to me. No wonder they cry out for God to remember the atrocity these victims have endured. No wonder they recount to Him just how horrific it was. And no wonder they demand His judgment on the perpetrators.

How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
Psalm 137:4-6

How can we sing happy praise songs while our brothers and sisters are being slaughtered or running for their lives to different lands? If we forget their anguish, we may as well forget our own souls. There is a rightness to remembering, to allowing unresolved atrocity to interrupt the peaceful humdrum of our otherwise undisturbed lives. It is an expression of our true humanity, a reflection of God’s image within us that says, “This is not O.K.”

Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”
Psalm 137:7

But we can’t just leave it at that. Awareness without action makes our souls sick. So we take our angst to the street, pounding on God’s door until He does something about it. “Remember what they did! Look at how bad it was! Take action, O God. You are the Judge of the world. Come down and make this right.”

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us–he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
Psalm 137:8-9

But what exactly do we want Him to do? Decapitate their children, too? Repay them blow-for-blow for all the crimes they have committed? That doesn’t seem very Christian of us. Nor does shrugging off genocide as if it isn’t really a big deal. There must be some way to turn the other cheek while holding on to justice.

God will intervene in a way that compromises neither His justice nor His mercy.

The solution to that is beyond me. Thankfully, it is not up to me to arbitrate divine action. This is one of those moments when I am relieved not to be God, because I can’t be impartial. I can vent my unreserved outrage and my vindictive anger to Him, trusting His ability to act as both righteous Judge and merciful Savior. He can find a way to extend mercy while upholding justice. I think of the way He dealt with Saul, one of the original Christian killers.

So I repeat my prayer, “Lord, have mercy. Bring them down to their knees in repentance.”

But lurking underneath that hopeful request is the dark reminder that not all sinners repent. We cheer when the penitent Peters get re-instated, but we also breathe a deep sigh of relief when the hard-hearted Judases finally get what they deserve.

“One way or another, Lord, bring them down.”

My youngest daughter breaks into my reverie with a solution that resonates with my heart, if not my head.

“What if all the Christians in the world just made their own army and marched into Iraq to beat off those bad guys?”

I chuckle, wishing the world were that simple.

But has God not intervened in similar ways in the past? It may be that He will use our political lobbying and social awareness raising to change the outcome of this crisis. It may be that He will bring deliverance to His people through international military action, as He did in response to the Holocaust.

And though I don’t know what the Judge will do, I know what we can do. We can join in the lament for our Iraqi kin. We can beg Him to change the hearts of their oppressors. And we can swamp Him with petitions through fasting and prayer, asking Him to send in an army to protect His people.

Who knows? It could be the kind that comes marching through the treetops.

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“Bless Them” or “Bring Them Down”?

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.
Matthew 5:44-45

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.
Psalm 83:13-15

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?
Psalm 94:4-10

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.
Psalm 83:16-18

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.
Matthew 7:12

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.
Psalm 86:5

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.