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Session #10: Imprecatory Psalms

Posted by James Reimer on with 1 Comments

APJ Question:
Pastor Jason,  C3 is starting a series on the Psalms, which prompts reflection on "imprecatory psalms". Those that call for judgment against the opponents of God and His people in startling ways. Psalm 137:9, for example, says “Blessed is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks”. Those types of supplications are troubling to many people. What would you say to the person who is struggling with the nature of such psalms?

APJ Response:
Well, historically it has been something believers have struggled with. I believe even John Calvin didn't want to use them at first. Or used them infrequently. Today, some mainline denominations, that read from the Psalter as part of their worship services, just skip over these psalms entirely or even change the wording in some cases.

But they are there for a reason. God knows what He is doing. He put them there, in scripture. So, the question is, “How then do we approach them, and how do we use them”?

I think that context is important. As best we can, we need to understand what was going at the time the psalm was written. Psalm 137, which you cited, was written “by the waters of Babylon”, in exile. That exile was beyond horrific, beyond something we know in our history, well beyond the Trail of Tears, for example.

So, the psalm was written from a position of deep hurt, of victimization. It is something about which the Western Church knows very little. It is very hard to think of a time when we might pray as they did. Yet when we think of the Church in Egypt, who watched 20+ of their brothers beheaded by ISIS on the shores of the Gulf, we can understand a cry for justice. And that’s what these psalms are, a cry for justice.

In addition, it is also important to know the “center” of the passage. The center of these psalms is never the people or even the judgment. The center is always God. Psalm137, is not a rallying cry to the people. It is a prayer to God that recognizes His sovereignty. It is a cry to God for justice.

So, you have the context and the center. You also have the focus of the Church. In the time of the Church today, I think we can study these psalms and even pray for judgment. Yet our first prayer should be for the salvation of our enemies, not for their destruction.

I think of the Apostle Paul. While he was still Saul and persecuting believers, the early Church may have prayed something imprecatory about him. Yet, Saul became Paul, a great leader of the Church.

Then, you can take a further step back and look at the seriousness of the sin being committed against God’s people. It was through those people that God was going to bless the nations. So, an attempt to destroy God’s people was an attempt to destroy God, as it were, and His plan.

In that sense, it is a different theological position for God’s people today. It is what I mentioned last Sunday (Pastor Jason's sermon from last Sunday). We are at a different distance from the psalms because we see these prayers from this side of the Cross.

Finally, I think there is a difference between praying “come quickly Lord Jesus” and the prayers of these psalms. Praying for Jesus’ return is asking for God to put an end to all of this, all suffering and pain, so that His kingdom would be ushered in, and final judgment would take place.

When we pray the imprecatory psalms, it comes from an expectation that this world will continue. So, for example, for our brothers and sisters being persecuted in China, I don't think it is wrong to pray that their enemies would falter. But we always do that with a hope for their salvation and for their redemption.

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James N Reimer January 15, 2021 12:14pm

Thanks for the changes in format and visibility!