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.

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