Our church is reading through the psalms this summer, two each day. We started this about a week and a half ago, so over the past 10 days I’ve read Psalms 1-20. All but the first two were written by David. He was a prolific songwriter. About half of the 150 psalms are attributed to him.
We know much of David’s life from 1 and 2 Samuel, and it’s good to keep this background in mind when reading his psalms. For example, Psalm 3 was written “when he fled from his son Absalom,” who led an insurrection again his father’s regime. Psalm 18 was written “when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.”
David was the innocent victim of much injustice and so his psalms repeatedly mention his “foes” and “enemies.” He calls these men “the wicked” (Psalm 3:1, 7). He was hunted like an animal for no good reason. For an extended period of time, he lived like a fugitive, on the run for crimes he did not commit.
This is why the psalms are filled with prayers to God for his own physical salvation and the destruction of his enemies. He wanted justice, and he wanted it now!
These so-called “imprecatory psalms” include prayers that can be difficult to understand, especially in light of Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
How did David pray for his foes?
“Arise, O Lord! Deliver me, O my God! For you have struck all my enemies on the jaw; you have broken the teeth of the wicked” (Psalm 3:7).
“Arise, O Lord, in your anger; rise up against the rage of my enemies. Awake, my God; decree justice” (Psalm 7:6)
“Break the arm of the wicked and evil man; call him to account for his wickedness that would not be found out” (Psalm 10:15).
“Rise up, O Lord, confront them, bring them down; rescue me from the wicked by your sword” (Psalm 17:13).
These prayers are a recurring theme throughout the psalter. Even in Psalm 139, a wonderful hymn of praise to God for his omniscience, David prays “If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!” (Psalm 139:21).
I have no personal experience with this type of situation. I’m a middle-class white male who lives in the suburbs of Fort Wayne, Indiana. I’ve never been treated the way David was treated. I’ve lived 58 years of comfort.
However, throughout the history of the church, and certainly in our own day, there are many believers who can relate to these prayers. I’m thinking of the persecuted Christians around the world who face the very real prospect of physical pain and even death on a daily basis.
And so when I read these prayers, should I be praying for the death of the non-Christians who are killing my brethren? I do pray for justice to prevail – if not in this life, then certainly in the next. And I pray for the suffering to end and for salvation to come to both the perpetrators and the victims of these horrific crimes.
One more thought: I think these prayers can help us more fortunate Christians to better understand the plight of the persecuted church. The Asbury Bible Commentary expresses this well: “Contemporary readers, particularly those in more affluent societies, can allow these prayers to help them enter the suffering life of the people of God, to transport them from their relative ease into the ghastly suffering and consternation of persons who have been uprooted, mocked, or abused.”
This is one way we can benefit from the prayers of David against his enemies. May the imprecatory psalms help us to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15) and to cry out to God for the deliverance of His people.