|From the Church on the Hill
by D. Eric Williams
Pastor, Cottonwood Community Church
The key to understanding the use of imprecatory Psalms in the new covenant age is found in the third point of the outline examined in the first article of this series. As you may recall, the imprecatory prayers begin with an acknowledgement of God and who he is. This is true with any prayer as exemplified by the pattern for prayer provided by Jesus (Matthew 6:9). Next comes the focused nature of the imprecatory prayer. In other words, it concerns just those who are proven enemies of Yahweh and his purpose.
The third part of the prayer is the nature of the request; it must be appropriate to the situation. David prayed that Ahithophel’s counsel to Absalom would be turned to foolishness. He did not ask for the death of Ahithophel. He did not request he be stricken with a dread disease. Instead, his request was measured and appropriate to the circumstance.
“Now wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “When is it ever appropriate to pray that an enemy’s little ones would be ‘dashed against the rocks’?” To our modern mind that is despicable. However, to the ancient Near Eastern Judean, it was simply a case of an eye for an eye. Furthermore, lest we think the principle of the punishment fitting the crime is somehow outdated, we must understand that the principle of an ‘eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth’ is about justice. Indeed, the rule was given to prevent excessive punishment. For example, involuntary manslaughter is not a capital crime, a thief does not have his hand cut off and “honor killing” of the victim is never an option for dealing with rape. Instead, godly justice delivers punishment in symmetry with the offence.
Thus, the principle of an eye for an eye demanded the Psalmist call for just punishment upon Babylon. It was not necessary for the punishment to unfold exactly as described. The important thing was punishment in proportion with the crime. If Herodotus can be trusted, the actual events in at least one situation correspond with the prayer of the Psalmist. According to the ancient historian, the defenders of Babylon herded all the women and children together and strangled them – their own wives and offspring – in order to preserve food for the fighting men. Therefore, while their children were not dashed against the rocks, they did die as casualties of war in answer to prayer.
Moreover, when the apostle Paul pronounced a curse upon the troublers of Galatia, he remained within the parameters of godly justice. Those who were peddling a false gospel were endangering the souls of the Galatian Christians. The Apostle responded in kind.
Praying the imprecatory Psalms requires an understanding of God’s law. It requires a love of godly justice and the wisdom to evaluate a situation in light of the principle of equity in crime and punishment. It also requires the humility to admit our inability to do any of that perfectly.
Next week we conclude the series with an example of an imprecatory prayer appropriate to the 21st century.