Learning to Pray from the Imprecatory Psalms

Ach Gott Vom Himmel



We can learn a lot from the imprecatory psalms. These are the psalms that speak godly judgment on the ungodliness of the world. And they are good for us to pray, because they teach us both to decry the evils in the world as well as to humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand (1 Pet 5:6). Take for example, Psalm 12, one paraphrased by Luther in his great hymn, “O Lord, Look Down From Heaven, Behold (TLH 260).” This Psalm teaches us to look to God for our salvation from this present evil age (Gal 1:4) even as we decry the world’s injustice.


Luther paraphrases:

O Lord, look down from Heaven, behold
And let Thy pity waken:
How few are we within Thy fold,
Thy saints by men forsaken!
True faith seems quenched on every hand,
Men suffer not Thy Word to stand;
Dark times have us o’ertaken.

With fraud which they themselves invent
Thy truth they have confounded;
Their hearts are not with one consent
On Thy pure doctrine grounded.
While they parade with outward show,
They lead the people to and fro,
In error’s maze astounded.

May God root out all heresy
And of false teachers rid us
Who proudly say: Now, where is he
That shall our speech forbid us?
By right or might we shall prevail;
What we determine cannot fail;
We own no lord and master.”

It is important that even while we acknowledge the corruption of our own natural desires that we also recognize the corruption of this world for what it is. The corruption of the world is that they seek their righteousness in their own desires and actions. Some of them do this with a pious façade and with a somewhat Christian vocabulary. Others mock anything with the name Christian while they sooth their consciences with their own gospel of social progress. Whatever team they claim to be on, they are all attempting the same futile quest – to justify themselves. We must recognize this foolish effort by the world and speak against it. In fact, it is when we decry the godlessness of the world’s crimes that we are taught by the Psalmist not to put any trust in our own virtues, which without God’s mercy would rise as a stench to his nostrils just as filthily as the enemies of the truth (Is 1:11ff; 29:13). Therefore the imprecatory psalms teach us to endure the discipline from our Father through the contempt of those who hate both his law and his gospel as we seek his salvation with repentant hearts and confident trust in him.

Our words and curses can do nothing to stop the murder of the unborn, the perversion of the marriage bed, or the denial of the gospel of Christ. But we cry to God in Psalm 94 to rise up in vengeance against those who “murder the fatherless.” These are the words of the Spirit, which as the Psalmist sings (Ps 12:6), “are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.” This is the Word that fights for us and takes up the cause of the helpless. So Luther writes:

“Therefore” saith God, “I must arise,
The poor My help are needing;
To Me ascend My people’s cries,
And I have heard their pleading.
For them My saving Word shall fight
And fearlessly and sharply smite,
The poor with might defending.”

As silver tried by fire is pure
From all adulteration,
So through God’s Word shall men endure
Each trial and temptation.
Its light beams brighter through the cross,
And, purified from human dross,
It shines through every nation.

These same words of the Spirit by which we cry out to God are the words that cleanse us from sin and deceit (Ps 32:2). The devil would love to make us cry out curses with our own words and our own thoughts out of our own pride. James and John asked Jesus concerning the Samaritans who did not receive him, “Lord, should we tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them (Luke 9:54)?” But the imprecatory psalms don’t have us call the fire down. They have us rather call God down. God is the one who brings vengeance (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19). And he does this in his own time and wisdom as he reveals his own patience toward us and all sinners (2 Pet 3:9). Therefore Jesus rebuked his overzealous disciples. What begins with anger against injustice can, if the devil and the flesh are given opportunity, turn into prideful curses that reflect the will of the beast (Rev. 13:13) rather than the will of God. But St. Paul says, “walk by the Spirit and you will not give any opportunity to the flesh (Gal 4:16).” We walk by the Spirit by learning from him how to pray to God (Gal 4:6; Rom 8:26). And he teaches us through his Word, including the imprecatory psalms.

And while the Holy Spirit gives us the words to pray he keeps us in the fear and discipline of the Lord, just as the Psalmist sings (Ps 5:7), “But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you.” So even as we cry out to God against the “bloodthirsty and deceitful man (Ps. 5:6),” we learn to acknowledge our own sin and unworthiness before him, taking refuge not in our own saving grace and virtue, but in his salvation and his righteousness revealed in our Lord Jesus (Jer 23:6; 33:16; Phil 3:9).

Even as we live among the wickedness of the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh, we can take comfort in the promise of our Lord to keep us from that same error and finally to deliver us from this vale of tears. Therefore we pray:

Thy truth defend, O God, and stay
This evil generation;
And from the error of their way
Keep Thine own congregation.
The wicked everywhere abound
And would Thy little flock confound;
But Thou art our salvation. Amen.

About Pastor Andrew Preus

Pastor Andrew Preus is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran/St. Paul Lutheran, Guttenberg/McGregor, IA. He is the eighth of eleven sons, with one sister. He received his seminary training at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, St. Catharines, ON (MDiv) from 2009 to 2013, and Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN (STM) from 2013 to 2014. His main theological interests include Justification and Church and Ministry. He is married to Leah Preus (nee Fehr), and they have five children: Jacob, Solveig, Kristiana, Robert, and Marian.


Learning to Pray from the Imprecatory Psalms — 14 Comments

  1. Pastor Preus,

    Thank you for the Word, a much needed, clear understanding for the flock for whom Christ died and rose again. The Lord’s abundant blessings on you and your family and congregation. May I have your permission to copy your post and pass it on?

  2. In addition to many other imprecatory prayers in the Old and New Testament, Jesus used prayers of imprecation as in Matthew. 11:20-24; 23:13-39; Mark 11:14; Luke 10:10-16 .

    Martin Luther referred to imprecatory prayers when he noted, “We should pray that our enemies be converted and become our friends and, if not, that their doing and designing be bound to fail and have no success and that their persons perish rather than the Gospel and the kingdom of Christ” (Luther’s Works, 21, CPH, 1956, p. 1000).

    In his 1528 book, “On War Against the Turk” Luther gave an example: “But as the pope is Antichrist, so the Turk is the very devil. The prayer of Christendom is against both. Both shall go down to hell, even though it may take the Last Day to send them there; and I hope it will not be long.”

    In his Large Catechism, Part III. 68-70, Luther’s explanation of the Third Petition, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” including the imprecatory nature of the Lord’s Prayer:

    “Such prayer, then, is to be our protection and defense now, is to repel and put down all that the devil, Pope, bishops, tyrants, and heretics can do against our Gospel. Let them all rage and attempt their utmost, and deliberate and resolve how they may suppress and exterminate us, that their will and counsel may prevail: over and against this one or two Christians with this petition alone shall be our wall against which they shall run and dash themselves to pieces. This consolation and confidence we have, that the will and purpose of the devil and of all our enemies shall and must fail and come to naught, however proud, secure, and powerful they know themselves to be.”

    Thus, per the Lutheran Confessions, every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, Christians are praying an imprecatory prayer that demonic tyrants dash themselves to pieces according to God’s will.

    For more, see the Rev. Dr. Reed Lessing’s article, “Broken Teeth, Bloody Baths, and Baby Bashing: Is There Any Place in the Church for Imprecatory Psalms?” (Concordia Journal, 32:4, October 2006, 368-370).

  3. Would that the Rev. Will Weedon, as part of the LCMS “Let Us Pray” service, provide contemporary imprecatory prayers for congregational use.

  4. @Robert_C_Baker#4

    Is there a problem with those prayers or are you saying that the imprecatory prayers should be included?

  5. Yes! I must be a very mean guy. How many times have I yearned for imprecatory prayers in church when we pray for the president of the US, and at other times. Feminized, we are.

  6. @mbw #6: “Feminized, we are.”

    Here’s a larger excerpt from Luther’s exposition:

    “We should pray that our enemies be converted and become our friends, and if not, that their doing and designing be bound to fail and have no success and that their persons perish rather than the Gospel and the kingdom of Christ. Thus the saintly martyr Anastasia, a wealthy, noble Roman matron, prayed against her husband, an idolatrous and terrible ravager of Christians, who had flung her into a horrible prison, in which she had to stay and die. There she lay and wrote to the saintly Chrysogonus diligently to pray for her husband that, if possible, he be converted and believe; but if not, that he be unable to carry out his plans and that he soon make an end of his ravaging. Thus she prayed him to death, for he went to war and did not return home. So we, too, pray for our angry enemies, not that God protect and strengthen them in their ways, as we pray for Christians, or that He help them, but that they be converted, if they can be; or, if they refuse, that God oppose them, stop them and end the game to their harm and misfortune.” (E. Plass, What Luther Says, St. Louis: Concordia, 1959, #3517, p. 1100)

  7. Psalm 55 is another. David cries out in the heartache of formerly Godly fellowship and close companionship being broken.

    9 Destroy, O Lord, divide their tongues; for I see violence and strife in the city.

    Or, in the NIV2011 wording which I also like:
    9 Lord, confuse the wicked, confound their words, for I see violence and strife in the city.

    12 For it is not an enemy who taunts me — then I could bear it;
    it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me — then I could hide from him.
    13 But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend.
    14 We used to take sweet counsel together; within God’s house we walked in the throng.

    20 My companion stretched out his hand against his friends; he violated his covenant.
    21 His speech was smooth as butter, yet war was in his heart;
    his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords.
    22 Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you;
    he will never permit the righteous to be moved.

  8. “…the faithful have vanished from among the children of man. Everyone utters lies to his neighbor…”

    I am not sure how I can pray that. There are over 2 billion Christians in the world. I know a few of them. Are none faithful? And I know my neighbors, too. I think they’re honest people.

    Imprecatory prayers are perhaps best motivated by empathy for those that are being hurt, deceived and abused, because we passionately want the injustice to stop and God’s blessings to be enjoyed. Praying out of personal feelings of resentment, combativeness and moral superiority is not holy.

    It seems appropriate that before we ask God to change the world, we ask him to change us and mercifully give us the wisdom to respond to the world in a way that pleases as honors him.

  9. @mbw #11

    Rather than the royal we, you say you were referring to your church with “we”, which earlier you described as “Feminized,” to which I had replied with Luther’s quote about a woman, and you responded you were “talking about men,” which would include your “very mean guy,” who “yearn[s] for imprecatory prayers in church when we pray for the president of the US, and at other times.”

    What is your point, mbw, in the context of the topic, “Learning to Pray from the Imprecatory Psalms”?

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