This morning in my normal cycle of prayer, Psalm 54 came up, and I prayed these words,
Hear my prayer, O God;
give ear to the words of my mouth.
For the arrogant have risen up against me,
and the ruthless have sought my life,
those who have no regard for God.
Behold, God is my helper;
it is the Lord who sustains my life.
Render evil to those who spy on me;
in your faithfulness, destroy them.
It used to be that I couldn’t really relate to psalms like these. This isn’t nearly as “imprecatory” as other psalms, but there it is: a prayer for God to “render evil to” and “destroy” these arrogant people who have “risen up against me.”
In the past it’s always felt strange to me to pray these kinds of psalms, because:
- I don’t really have any personal enemies who act like this, and
- Is it OK to pray that God “renders evil to” and “destroys” people?
But I realized this morning that I’ve grown into being able to connect with and pray these psalms. In two ways:
1. I’m more connected to my heart for justice
In the past few years, as I’ve heard stories in the news of systemic injustice and intentional exploitation of the poor, I’ve realized that they really upset me. Nothing makes me more angry, it seems, than people callously hoarding wealth at the expense of others in need, or creating policies that consolidate power among a few in perpetuity (two things that are very much really happening right now).
I used to try and ignore these feelings, because they were uncomfortable, and of course I’m all tangled up in the problem in many ways. I’m wearing mostly inexpensive clothes that were likely sewn together by something close to slave labor in Indonesia or Thailand.
But as I’ve learned to simply pay attention to my anger at these injustices, I’ve found I connect more with the imprecatory psalms. I have someone to think about when I think about “the arrogant” who have “risen up against me,” because these arrogant people who have “no regard for God” have truly risen up against me, and everyone else who isn’t part of their elite club!
The system of wealth through exploitation that they’ve intentionally created has truly “sought my life” The people who created and maintain this system of oppression and injustice have no regard for God, and it really, really bothers me. So I pray that God brings justice.
Which brings me to my second point:
2. I realize what imprecatory psalms are for
I wasn’t sure if it was OK to pray that God “renders evil to” and “destroys” people, because of course Jesus reveals what God is actually like, and how we are to treat our enemies: pray for them, bless them, love them.
So how can I learn to love an enemy I’m praying God will smite? I actually think that praying the imprecatory psalms helps us love our enemies, because we can turn our feelings of hatred and anger over to God.
Praying for God to do what we genuinely wish he would do to the arrogant who have risen up against us is a way of exorcising our vengeance so we don’t end up exercising our vengeance.
Praying the imprecatory psalms is a way of refusing to take matters into our own hands. It’s a way of “filing a complaint” with God. We fill out our complaint: who we are angry with and why, and we put in a few suggestions for God as well… if you could “destroy” them, that’d be great. Oh and publicly shame them! And kill their whole family so no one remembers them ever!
But then we put our complaint on God’s desk and leave it there. The point is that we don’t act on these impulses. We leave them safely with God, trusting that he will sort out what is truly good and just for us and everyone else involved. I leave the outcomes to God.
The imprecatory psalms don’t fuel our desires for revenge, instead they turn those desires over to God so we are more free to pray for and bless and love our enemies, and act in truly prophetic ways (not just angry ways – the best prophets don’t act in anger), trusting God to bring justice in his time and in his way.