The Expository Files

Imprecatory Prayer

Psalm 35

The title of this article may be a bit confusing to you. In the past it was confusing to me as well. We study a lot about prayer, and hopefully do it even more often, yet how often do we make an "imprecatory" one? In fact, what is an imprecatory prayer? This word isn't even in my standard dictionary, so I had to look it up in the unabridged one. There I found this simple entry for imprecatory: "uttering an imprecation." That didn't help much, so I looked up "imprecation" and it all became clear. It is the "invoking of evil, a curse." Now you might think that this is the very opposite of what we should pray for, yet under very special circumstances we find the righteous engaged in it. There are some cases where a curse is the appropriate thing. God cursed Israel (and many others) for their continued evil, and there are desperate times when we may actually be moved pray for this to happen.

Ps. 35 is the great imprecatory prayer of a righteous man in the Old Testament. David prayed for deliverance because he was surrounded by implacable enemies. David knew that he could not win this fight alone. He needed the help of God, so he asked for it.

1 Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me; Fight against those who fight against me.

2 Take hold of buckler and shield, And rise up for my help.

3 Draw also the spear and the battle-axe to meet those who pursue me; Say to my soul, "I am your salvation."

David calls on the Lord to take up the struggle for him. The first rule of a righteous imprecatory prayer is that it be offered in a situation where you can rightfully call on God to fight for you. The righteous imprecatory prayer can only be for a righteous cause.

Second, the righteous imprecatory prayer (not just an evil wishing of injury) is uttered by one in danger of grievous harm, even destruction.

4 Let those be ashamed and dishonored who seek my life; Let those be turned back and humiliated who devise evil against me.

7 For without cause they hid their net for me; Without cause they dug a pit for my soul.

11 Malicious witnesses rise up; They ask me of things that I do not know.

12 They repay me evil for good, To the bereavement of my soul.

15 But at my stumbling they rejoiced, and gathered themselves together; The smiters whom I did not know gathered together against me, They slandered me without ceasing.

16 Like godless jesters at a feast, They gnashed at me with their teeth.

20 For they do not speak peace, But they devise deceitful words against those who are quiet in the land.

This is not to be the appeal of one who is just annoyed or bothered. This is a person suffering greatly at the hands of evil men.

David was faced with cruel and unrelenting enemies he could not stop. Since David could not stop them, he prayed for God to do it.

5 Let them be like chaff before the wind, With the angel of the LORD driving them on.

6 Let their way be dark and slippery, With the angel of the LORD pursuing them.

8 Let destruction come upon him unawares; And let the net which he hid catch himself; Into that very destruction let him fall.

David knew the character of those who so vehemently opposes him. He knew the only way they would stop was to be made to stop by force. But such force is often beyond the strength of men. Even the most powerful have limits on what they can do. And often this type of prayer will be said by those who have no power at all.

So the situation in which to offer a righteous imprecatory prayer is 1) when it is a cause that God will support, 2) you are suffering a terrible harm and 3) other means of relief are not available. These are not simply prayers of vengeance, but prayers of dependence on God as the only hope of help. Keeping these things in mind, let us examine the character of the man who can offer such a prayer righteously.

While calling on the Lord to help, David, like all of us, had to exhibit patience. Patience in waiting on the Lord is an essential element of any prayer, but we can especially see the need when waiting on the Lord to avenge us.

17 Lord, how long wilt Thou look on? Rescue my soul from their ravages, My only life from the lions.

22 Thou hast seen it, O LORD, do not keep silent; O Lord, do not be far from me.

23 Stir up Thyself, and awake to my right, And to my cause, my God and my Lord.

While some would object that it is not patience at all to pray to God for the destruction of their enemies, that idea is simply wrong. If destruction is truly warranted and is the will of God, to pray for it is neither impatient nor wrong. Taking individual vengeance is both wrong and impatient. Rom. 12:19 "Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY," says the Lord." Not taking one's own vengeance, but waiting on God to use His tools (natural means, governments, other evil men's predilection for evil, etc.) to bring His vengeance is exactly what patience is.

Also, anyone who would plead for God to relieve him from the evil of his enemies must truly make sure that his enemy can not rightly ask for the same relief because of the pleader's action. The righteous imprecatory prayer is a tool for the innocent only.

14 I went about as though it were my friend or brother; I bowed down mourning, as one who sorrows for a mother.

15 But at my stumbling they rejoiced, and gathered themselves together; The smites whom I did not know gathered together against me, They slandered me without ceasing.

24 Judge me, O LORD my God, according to Thy righteousness; And do not let them rejoice over me.

This type of prayer is not for those who are involved in mutual recriminations. David pleads his innocence of any wrong doing that would bring on this kind of hatred. Of course David sinned as all men do, but in his relations with these evil men, who opposed him relentlessly, he was innocent.

Finally, the one who would offer the imprecatory prayer needs to do so not with a vengeful and hateful heart, but rejoicing in the Lord. This type of prayer is not simply from a desire to harm others, but to have the Lord help stop their evil. When this happens, the joy that we have in the Lord is greatly refreshed.

9 And my soul shall rejoice in the LORD; It shall exult in His salvation.

10 All my bones will say, "LORD, who is like Thee, Who delivers the afflicted from him who is too strong for him, And the afflicted and the needy from him who robs him?

18 I will give Thee thanks in the great congregation; I will praise Thee among a mighty throng.

28 And my tongue shall declare Thy righteousness And Thy praise all day long.

When any prayer is answered we have joy, but when the answer stops the attacks of the enemy our praise should be unceasing, or as David said, "praise all day long."

We hope that we never need to pray for the Lord to punish evildoers who are harming us, but sometimes that is the only way to find relief. Righteous imprecatory prayer is the last hope of the patient, innocent, faithful saint.

Use of this type of prayer may not be a pleasant thought, but the grave sin of evil men spoils many things. Imprecatory prayer is one of the helps God extends to us in times of such need.

By Jay Horsley
From Expository Files 8.12; December 2001