Christians have watched in helpless horror at the release of videos of masked ISIS warriors shooting and beheading Coptic Christians on a lonely stretch of North Africa beach. We can help, by diligent prayer for brothers and sisters who fall victim to Muslim brutes.
But how should we pray?
Like this? “Break their teeth in their mouth, O God! Break out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord! Let them be like a snail which melts away as it goes, like a stillborn child of a woman, that they may not see the sun.”
Or this? “Let his days be few, and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children continually be vagabonds, and beg; let them seek their bread also from their desolate places.”
Or this? “Rise up, O Lord, confront them, bring them down; rescue them from the wicked by your sword.” Or, “Repay them for their deeds and for their evil work; repay them for what their hands have done and bring back upon them what they deserve.” Or, “Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me. Take up shield and buckler; arise and come to their aid.”
All, of course, are from the Psalter—Psalms 58, 109, 17, 28, and 35 respectively. Examples could be multiplied almost indefinitely. Scholars speak of “imprecatory Psalms” as a sub-class within the Psalter, but page through the Psalter for a moment and you’ll find that many Psalms include petitions asking the Lord to judge, curse, defeat, and defend.
Christians recoil at these Psalms, regarding them, as C. S. Lewis did, as “devilish,” “terrible or (dare we say?) contemptible,” “wicked,” “sinful,” “ferocious,” and “dangerous.” More plausibly, Bonhoeffer read imprecatory Psalms Christologically. Jesus bore the vengeance that the Psalms ask for: “The imprecatory psalm leads to the cross of Jesus and to the love of God which forgives enemies. . . . In this way the crucified Jesus teaches us to pray the imprecatory psalms correctly.” Others observe, rightly, that the Psalms are designed for self-imprecation: We ask the Spirit to carry on his war against the flesh within us, until everything that opposes God is destroyed.
But that’s not the only understanding of such prayers. Martyrs under the heavenly altar ask God to judge: “How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the land?” (Revelation 6:10). They cry out like the blood of Abel, and they receive assurances that the Lord will soon answer.
Imprecatory Psalms are too tightly enmeshed with central biblical truths to be dismissed as barbaric. Imprecations are appeals to the Judge of the earth to play the part of Judge. Paul says, “Bless and do not curse,” and “Love enemies,” but in the next breath he tells us to leave room for the vengeance of God. If we want God to avenge, can it be wrong for us to ask? As soon as Yahweh brings Abram to Canaan, He promises to “bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3; cf. 27:29; Numbers 24:9). Paul says that those who are clothed with Christ in baptism are “Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.” If the Lord promises to curse those who curse the children of Abraham, shouldn’t we ask him to keep his promises?
Imprecatory Psalms don’t give Christians an excuse to be mean-spirited, vicious, or vengeful. They’re not a warrant to be macho and talk trash. God may destroy ISIS enemies by transforming them into allies. Praying the Psalms, we leave the outcome to him and do what Jesus did: entrust ourselves to the Judge who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23).
Soon after John witnesses the martyrs under the altar, he sees incense smoke rising to heaven mixed with the “prayers of the saints,” that is, the prayers of the martyrs for vindication and vengeance. An angel fills the censer with fire and coals and throws it to the earth, causing thunder, lightning, and an earthquake (Revelation 8). We live in a world where ISIS warriors behead Christians and release the film. We need an earthquake, and we should pray for it: “How long, holy and true, will you refrain from judging and avenging their blood? How long before you do some judging to prove you are Judge?”
In the end, the message of the Psalms is Jesus’s post-Easter message: Fear not. Fear not: There is a God who judges. Fear not: God takes up the cause of the oppressed. Fear not: God raises the dead.