Imprecations: Praying For God’s Judgment

Imprecations: Praying For God’s Judgment

by Bob Burridge ©2018

The Bible records instances when people prayed for the judgment of God’s wrath to come down upon specific people and nations, often for their deaths and the deaths of their children. These prayers were offered at various times throughout redemptive history in the Biblical record (Psalm 10:15, 35:3-8, 58:6-10, 83:9-18, 137:8-9 and so on).

From the context of these accounts in Scripture it appears that many of these prayers were proper and pleased God. There were also some abuses of these prayers of imprecation where cursings were called for improperly upon God’s people by deceived men. In most cases it’s easily discernible from the context whether or not a particular instance of imprecation was an abuse of prayer or appropriate.

It’s always proper to ask how the examples in Scripture inform us about how we should live and honor God today. There are some individuals and churches which have at times used the “Prayers of Imprecation” to call for God’s harsh judgment upon specific individuals, government agencies, and ideological movements. We ought to submissively honor the guidelines given in Scripture that caution us as we pray concerning those who we see as enemies of God’s truth and detractors of his glory.

Consideration of Historical and Theological Context in the Bible
Any concept drawn from examples in the Bible must be carefully taken in their proper historical-theological context. In the progress of the history of God’s work of redemption, various phases or administrations of his Covenant are evident. (see the Westminster Confession of Faith VIII:VI)

Progress of our knowledge throughout the history of redemption is evident in many topics detailed in the Bible. What we know today was revealed in stages as God proceeded to accomplish his plan. As inspired books were added to the Canon of Scripture some new information was given to us. Along the timeline of history we learned in stages about God’s nature and being, our understanding of our Creator’s moral principles, our knowledge of the covenant relationship between God and his people, the meaning of various ceremonial laws God gave to his people at various times which foreshadowed the work of the Messiah, and a multitude of other such matters. In different ages the approach to God by those redeemed, and the confidence they had in the expressed will of God, were therefore affected by many of these progressively revealed elements.

The progress of revelation is evident in Scripture. There is clearly a time factor in the unfolding of the work of redemption. Therefore we need to determine the theological context in which the imprecations of the Bible were pronounced. If we are to give a responsible interpretation of them and if we are to determine their place, if any, today, then attention must be given to the placement of these imprecations in the history of redemption.

Consideration of Historic Confessional Standards
Questions 190-191 in the Westminster Larger Catechism concern the First Petition of the Lord’s Prayer “Thy Kingdom come”. The answer says we pray “… that he would prevent and remove atheism, ignorance, idolatry, profaneness, and whatsoever is dishonorable to him … we pray, that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed … and that he would be pleased so to exercise the kingdom of his power in all the world, as may best conduce to these ends.”

Questions 101-102 in the Westminster Shorter Catechism concerning the first and second petitions of the Lord’s Prayer says, “… we pray, that Satan’s kingdom may be destroyed …”

There is no reference in those standards to the offering of prayers of imprecation against specific individuals or particular groups in our era.

Those who support calling down God’s specific judgments on individuals or groups often cite examples from the Bible. The problem is that these examples took place in an era when special revelation was an on-going principle. These were proper exercises applied in certain cases where God had revealed his will to the individuals who prayed. We ought to recognize that no such special knowledge is available to us today to know in questionable situations how God is to judge in specific cases.

Prayers as described in these catechism answers are regularly made in our churches that the evil doings of any movements or governments should be stopped. We do however take due caution if tempted to name individuals in our government as if they were deserving of specific temporal judgments when we do not know the mind of God. There is danger of repeating the errors of the Roman church if we elevate our human (or even ecclesiastical) judgment to a level of such confidence when all we are doing is applying general principles to situations not addressed directly in Scripture, then applying these derived rules to specific cases.

Selected Comments from Respected Sources
In the article “The Ethical Problem of the Imprecatory Psalms” published in the Westminster Theological Journal (IV, 1941), Dr. Johannes G. Vos presented a very thorough study of this issue. He began with a definition of Imprecatory Psalms and then raised questions. First he cited the moral question, then he asked if it’s right for a Christian to use the Imprecatory Psalms in worship, finally he asked about the manner in which these Psalms may be used. Dr. Vos proceeded to deal with unsatisfactory solutions. The next section of the paper deals with a proposed solution.

Vos set aside the moral objections offered by some who say we should never call for God’s judgment. This is what we would expect particularly from those who have difficulty with the Divine origin of the Bible.

Far from finding support for services of malediction with respect to specific cases, Vos instead offered wise caution in his conclusions. His comments confirm the consistent testimony that other conservative and reformed scholars have expressed for at least a century.

Pointing out that it is a prerogative of God only to direct the specific destruction of the wicked, Vos says, “… these Psalms were given by divine inspiration and were therefore not simply the personal desires or petitions of men, but prayers offered under the direct influence of the Holy Spirit of God.” (Page 134)
“… then it was right for him (God) to inspire the Psalmists to pray for that same work of destruction …” (Page 134)
“… only by special divine revelation could it be known with absolute certainty that a particular person was a reprobate. … It is also possible that a Christian may in certain exceptional cases be able to judge with a high degree of probability whether a particular person has or has not committed that unpardonable sin. But man can never attain infallible knowledge except by divine revelation.” (Pages 136-137)
“… no Christian could apply these Psalms to any particular person …” (Page 137)
“Christians can, indeed, pray for severe temporal judgments upon the enemies of God, but in doing so must leave to God the application of such petitions to particular persons …” (Page 138)

Vos understood that Christians should appreciate these Imprecatory Psalms personally and in worship, but not applying them beyond the original context. They may pray generally for God’s judgment upon evil as many do.

Thomas, Robert L. of Talbot Theological Seminary addressed the issue in his paper, “The Imprecatory Prayers of the Apocalypse” (published in Bibliotheca Sacra, April-June 1969, Volume 126, #502. pages 123-131). Professor Thomas has taken the same basic position as Vos in his caution about our free use of imprecatory statements taken from the ministry of the Apostles. He also said, “Since the Psalms were written from the divine viewpoint and since this divine viewpoint must always be correct, the morality of the Imprecatory Psalms is no longer a problem. One may conclude that imprecation is faced with no moral problem, as long as it is absolutely certain that it rests upon God’s omniscience and righteousness, and not upon human impulse.” Quoting John J. Owen he said, “God through him (the psalmist) could doom in direct terms the guilty, or he could inspire him to pray for speedy judgments to fall upon them.”

The proper prayers of imprecation that we observe in Scripture are permissible in that they are in every case instigated by the direct revelation or work of God. In cases where special revelation does not take place man is always uncertain.

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America commissioned a study committee to report on “Christian Responsibility in the Nuclear Age“. The report included a section on “Theocratic Warfare” (pages 521-523 the minutes of the 15th General Assemble 1987).

It concluded that it’s important that we see such warfare in the context of the special implementation of God’s justice upon His enemies. Warfare is not a permission for the torture and total destruction of human life in heathen countries today. It was directed in specific instances against specific individuals in specific ways, all revealed specially by the Lord. In that ancient era such special revelation and influence of the Holy Spirit was expected. In our age of a completed Canon of Scripture we do not expect to receive such direction concerning the enemies of God.

An analogy exists between the concerns of biblical theocratic warfare, and the calling down of wrath upon individuals or in situations such as some we face today. We should not operate from the perspective of Divine knowledge except what is given us in by direct revelation from God. There are lessons to be learned from the imprecatory Psalms for the church today, but we must look on them in their proper historical-theological context lest we borrow specifics from historical situations that were not intended to apply to every case today.

Aside from validation from the Scriptures, how can we determine whether or not a brother has rightly discerned the mind of God, or instead has indulged in human speculation concerning such difficult matters? Let the Bible be our only guide in the verification of eternal truth.

On page 2108 of the report it commented, “it is crucial to recognize the distinctiveness of ancient Israel and her unique function in the history of redemption.”

Specific Issues Often Cited
It might help to see this principle applied to a couple specific cases where some churches have employed prayers of imprecation.

Most believers agree that abortion is a direct violation of God’s moral law. This ending of a human life has been permitted by some of our courts and legislators. It’s proper for us to ask God’s judgment to be directed upon those who unrepentantly advocate or take part in such an abuse. This must be done in a general sense keeping in mind that it’s always possible for God to regenerate those who allow this tragedy (as Vos cautions on pages 136-138). We can also pray for a work of God’s grace to bring them to repentantly come to oppose this disrespect for life.

Some churches have held malediction services to call down God’s judgment upon specific elected officials for wanting to tax church owned properties. This issue has been debated in various denominations. However, we do not have God’s direct commandment concerning the taxation of church property, nor can we know how God intends to deal with the decisions of civil governments for their views about limits upon taxation in areas where they have civil oversight.

Short of special revelation we cannot (as did the Psalmists, Prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles) know the secret mind of God. Vos points out that biblically we must temper our use of these prayers and Imprecatory Psalms in situations other than those in which they were inspired. We do not know, and do not have the moral right as does God alone, to call death down upon anyone, to pronounce mutilation of their children, or any other extremes that could be construed from a non-qualified use of the Psalms.

Concluding Thoughts
As situations occur, as they certainly do in our present age, where clear violations of God’s moral law are promoted by civil governments or other groups, we are obligated by our commission from our Covenant God to oppose such, and to pray that God’s wrath should be speedily executed as he sees fit. The power of such a prayer lies in the power of our Covenant God who has promised to enlarge His Kingdom through the ministry of His people.

When we use such prayers …
1) We should offer an abundance of prayer that God will preserve our liberty to serve him in this society as he has ordained, and that the abuses of evil individuals and corrupt civil powers will be restrained and ended.

2) We ought to be informed by careful Scriptural exegesis to ensure that we stand on the firm ground of God’s eternal truth. We should pray that we will give due attention to learn how to apply the law of God so that we rightly recognize evil as God defines it, not as we think God might or should define it.

3) Though we can pray for restraint upon specific evil doers, we ought to avoid naming individuals in calling down specific judgments that only God could know, and that we can only know by his special revelation.

4) We should keep our biblically constructed prayers against evil within the community of God’s people or privately and directed to God, rather than to promote them as a public display through the media.

When we become convinced that God’s restraint and judgment is needed, then let our prayers, at least in this hour of uncertainty, be made in a most general manner so that we do not presume upon the secret council of God.

(Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)

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