Are Imprecations Valid For Today?

Imprecations are prayers to God to pour out judgment, calamity, curses, wrath and/or destruction on His enemies. Wikipedia has a brief article on Imprecatory Psalms. and lists a few chapters in Psalms where we can find these odd prayers: Psalm 69 and Psalm 109 are major pieces, while Psalms 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 58, 69, 79, 83, 137, 139, and 143 are also certainly worthy of consideration.

Many conservative commentaries take a dim view of imprecations.

  • “Curses delivered against individuals by holy men are not the expressions of revenge, passion, or impatience; they are predictions and therefore not such as God condemns” – Unger Bible Dictionary
  • “These expressions are a mere record of what actually occurred in the mind of the psalmist, and are preserved to us as an illustration of human nature when partially sanctified. According to this view the Spirit of inspiration is no more responsible for these feelings on the part of the psalmist than He is for the acts of David, Abraham, Jacob or Peter” – Barnes Commentary
  • “Imprecatory Psalms express a spirit that was proper for a Jew living under the law, but not proper for a Christian living under grace … When this age passes and the day of vengeance of our God begins, language such as that of the imprecatory Psalms will once again be on the lips of God’s people. For instance, the Tribulation martyrs will say, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10)”.  – William MacDonald, Bible Believer’s Commentary
  • Some claim that these authors were speaking as God’s anointed representative. Therefore, they were permitted to pronounce these severe judgments, whereas mere mortals dare not make such utterances.
  • Others claim that the psalmists describe what sinners deserve, generally speaking, and does not express any personal desire for revenge.

The problem is that these views simply don’t match what the Bible says. Some of them can be easily demonstrated to be false. Take the “personal desire for revenge” theory. In the middle of a Psalm proudly displayed on the walls of many homes, we see this:

God, if only You would kill the wicked — you bloodthirsty men, stay away from me — who invoke You deceitfully. Your enemies swear by You falsely. LORD, don’t I hate those who hate You, and detest those who rebel against You? I hate them with extreme hatred; I consider them my enemies. (Ps 139:19-22)

If that’s not a “personal desire for revenge”, I don’t know what is. The odd thing here is that most people would really rather ignore this section of Psalms 139 and stick with the verses about how God made our inward parts and knit us in the womb (v13) and how we want Him to search our hearts and know our thoughts (v23-24). Selective reading, eh?

A Better View

I think the Bible offers a more comprehensive basis for evaluating these imprecations:

– Many who take MacDonald’s Dispensational-friendly position would rather point to “love your enemies” as a mandate more suitable to our dispensation. However, the folks offer no explanation regarding the moral basis of the imprecations. The question is fundamental: How is it possible that something can be moral in one dispensation but immoral in another? After all, we’re not talking about ceremonial customs like eating bacon or mixing linen and silk. Those aren’t moral issues. Wishing ill on someone is a moral issue. Since morality flows from the character of God, a change in morality can only happen if God’s character changes. And that’s not possible.

– We need to remind ourselves that these imprecations are requests for God to do that which He as already promised He will do. We see this explicitly in In Gen 12:1-3 (which predates the dispensation of Law) where God promises to curse His enemies. It’s worth noting that in Hebrew, the curse God aims at His enemies (H779 אָרַר ‘arar) is more intense than the curse His enemies aim at Abraham and his seed (H7043 קָלַל qalal). (It reminds me of Sean Connery’s line in “The Untouchables” : “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.” It’s quite like that, and indeed, that’s how we see God treating His enemies in Scripture.)

Unfortunately, the KJV uses only one word (“curse”) for these distinct Hebrew words. But some translations try to show this distinction in English:

  • “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse” (ESV)
  • “I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who treat you with contempt,” (HCSB)
  • “I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse” (NET)

Point being, God has promised that He will severely treat those who lightly mistreat His people. And these imprecations are requests for God to do that which He has already promised to do.

– The idea of loving one’s enemies is not new to Matt 5.
Similar instructions can be found before the Law (Job 31:29-30), in the Law, (Exod 23:4-5, Prov 24:17-18) and after the Law (Rom 12:17-20). It’s worth noting that when Paul tells the Romans to love their enemies, he quotes the OT. We should too.

– These imprecations are in the NT, not just the OT:
1 Cor 16:22; Gal 1:8-9; 2 Thess 1:5-12 (although somewhat veiled); 2 Tim 4:14; 2 Peter 2 (not explicitly stated, but certainly synonymous); Rev 6:9-11

In short, commands to love enemies appear in every dispensation, just as imprecatory prayers do. Both are valid for today.

We need to encourage one another that this is indeed how God works. He has in the past, He does so in the present and He will do so in the future.

It’s His Word.

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