What is Impreccatory Prayer?

“Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate Thee?
And am not I grieved with those that rise up against Thee?
I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them mine enemies.”

— Psalm 139:21-22

In the Reformation section of The Lutheran Hymnal (1941), we find “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Thy Word,” a hymn which was originally sung at a service in Wittenberg as the Muslim Turks were threatening to overrun Vienna in 1541.  The first verse was written as an imprecatory prayer and contained these powerful words: “Lord, keep us in Thy Word and work; restrain the murderous Pope and Turk, who fain would tear from off Thy throne Christ Jesus, Thy beloved Son.”  Today we sing it this way:  “Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word; curb those who fain by craft and sword would wrest the Kingdom from Thy Son and set at naught all He hath done.”  The hymn still retains an imprecatory tone, although the language is more general.

An “imprecation” is defined as an invocation of judgment, calamity or curse against enemies.  An imprecatory prayer calls upon God Himself to act on behalf of His own over against those who oppose God.  When Martin Luther burned the papal bull (Exsurge Domine) before the Elster Gate on December 10, 1520, he added this imprecation against the Pope:  “As thou hast wasted with anxiety the Holy One of God, so may the eternal flames waste thee.”  Was Luther justified in praying this?  Are such imprecatory prayers— righteous cries for God’s justice—true and proper prayers?

Holy Scripture, the only source for Christian faith and life, provides us with a clear answer.  For, in praying as he does, Luther joins a long list of believers in Holy Writ who  expressed righteous cries for justice.  Our theme passage is contained in an imprecatory section of Psalm 139.  Therein David says, “Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate Thee?  And am not I grieved with those that rise up against Thee?  I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them mine enemies” (Psalm 139:21-22).  Here David recognizes God’s just judgment against the wicked and affirms God’s cause.  David hates all those who hate God; God’s enemies are David’s enemies!  Scripture tells us that this type of righteous hatred is an expression of the true fear of God:  “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil.  Pride and arrogancy and the evil way and the froward mouth do I hate” (Proverbs 8:13).

As we survey the numerous Psalms which contain imprecatory portions, we learn about imprecatory prayers.  Imprecatory prayers are grounded in the promise of God to His own as expressed by the Lord to Abram:  “…I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee” (Genesis 12:3a).  In other words, imprecatory prayers only ask that God do what He has already said He would do!  As such, imprecatory prayers always acknowledge the principle the Lord Himself lays down in these words:  “…’Vengeance is Mine; I will repay,’ saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19b).  Psalm 94 illustrates this in David’s prayer:  “O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth; O God, to whom vengeance belongeth, show Thyself.  Lift up Thyself, Thou Judge of the earth; render a reward to the proud” (Psalm 94:1-2).

When an imprecatory prayer speaks of a personal desire for God’s action against one’s enemies, it is not out of personal vengeance but for the sake of God’s own cause.  Psalm 118 shows this, as David says:  “The Lord taketh my part with them that help me; therefore shall I see my desire upon them that hate me. …All nations compassed me about; but in the name of the Lord will I destroy them.  They compassed me about; yea, they compassed me about; but in the name of the Lord I will destroy them.  They compassed me about like bees; they are quenched as the fire of thorns; for in the name of the Lord I will destroy them” (vv. 7, 10-12).  David’s enemies are God’s enemies (Psalm 3:7, 5:10), and David calls upon God to do His will:  “Arise, O Lord, in Thine anger.  Lift up Thyself because of the rage of mine enemies, and awake for me to the judgment that Thou hast commanded. …Oh let the wickedness of the wicked come to an end, but establish the just; for the righteous God trieth the hearts and reins.  My defense is of God, which saveth the upright in heart.  God judgeth the righteous, and God is angry with the wicked every day” (Psalm 7:6, 9-11).  The imprecatory prayers in the Psalms often mention the fact that the judgment called for is justly deserved:  “Give them according to their deeds and according to the wickedness of their endeavors; give them after the work of their hands; render to them their desert.  Because they regard not the works of the Lord, nor the operation of His hands, He shall destroy them and not build them up” (Psalm 28:4-5).

In Psalm 35 David says to God:  “Plead my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me; fight against them that fight against me” (v. 1).  David suffers unjust treatment (vv. 4, 7) as his enemies falsely accuse him ( vv. 11, 15, 20) and rejoice over his suffering (vv. 19, 24, 26).  David prays for God to deliver him from their evil designs and to punish them for their evil (vv. 1-8).  This illustrates that imprecatory prayers are prayers of the innocent victim pleading against the guilty, asking God to judge accordingly (Cf.  Psalm 7:3-6, 9:12b, 28:4-5, 31:6).  In many cases no one can help but God, so the needy cry to God for justice (Cf.  Psalm 10:12, 15; 17:9-13; 35:23-24; 69:1-4).  In this regard, we are reminded of what God said to Cain after he had killed Abel:  “…The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10b; cf. Hebrews 12:24).  And we sing in one of our hymns:  “Abel’s blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies…” (TLH 158, 3).  The oppression of the helpless cries out to God for public vengeance (Cf. Genesis 18:20; Exodus 3:7; 22:23; James 5:4); but the dead, in particular, have no personal recourse.  In the New Testament, however, we read of “the spirits of just men made perfect” who appeal “to God, the Judge of all” (Hebrews 12:23), with a cry for justice: “And they cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?’” (Revelation 6:10).  These souls are in heaven, having suffered martyrdom for the sake of Christ (Revelation 6:9).  Does God answer such proper prayers?  Of course!  Our Lord says: “And shall not God avenge His own elect which cry day and night unto Him, though He bear long with them?  I tell you that He will avenge them speedily” (Luke 18:7-8a).

The prayer of the martyrs in Revelation 6 reminds us of Psalm 79.  Therein Asaph pleads:  “How long, Lord?  Wilt Thou be angry forever?  Shall Thy jealousy burn like fire?  Pour out Thy wrath upon the heathen that have not known Thee and upon the kingdoms that have not called upon Thy name. …Wherefore should the heathen say, ‘Where is their God?  Let Him be known among the heathen in our sight by the revenging of the blood of Thy servants which is shed.  Let the sighing of the prisoner come before Thee; according to the greatness of Thy power preserve Thou those that are appointed to die and render unto our neighbors sevenfold into their bosom their reproach, wherewith they have reproached Thee, O Lord” (Psalm 79:5-6, 10-12).  Imprecatory prayers are cries to God for God to defend His Name and glory, to judge the enemies of His people, who also hate what He hates (Cf.  Psalm 5:11; 6:4; 7:11; 10:3; 28:5; 35:8; 58:11).  David says in Psalm 58:  “The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance; he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked, so that a man shall say: ‘Verily there is a reward for the righteous; verily He is a God that judgeth in the earth’” (vv. 10-11).  God promises to defend His own, and so we pray with the Psalmist:  “Let them all be confounded and turned back that hate Zion” (Psalm 129:5).

In the New Testament we have specific examples of imprecatory statements, notably the Apostle Paul’s against the high priest (Acts 23:3) and the archangel, Michael’s, against Satan (Jude 9).  We also have two general “curses” pronounced upon unbelievers and false teachers (I Corinthians 16:22; Galatians 1:8-9).

In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Included in God’s will are the previous petitions:  “Hallowed be Thy Name” and “Thy Kingdom come.”  Dr.  Luther rightly says that, when one prays these petitions, “he must put all the opposition to this in one pile and say: ‘Curses, maledictions and disgrace upon every other name and every other kingdom.  May they be ruined and torn apart, and may all their schemes and wisdom and plans run aground.’” (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, American Edition, Jaroslav Pelikan, Ed., St.  Louis: Concordia, 1956), Vol. 21, p. 101).  In this sense, certain petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are imprecatory in nature.

The proper understanding of imprecatory prayer requires spiritual discernment regarding several key principles.  First, we need a proper understanding of Law and Gospel.  Imprecatory prayers are pure Law in that they call upon God to execute His just wrath upon His enemies.  The Law of God shows us our sin and the wrath of God (Cf.  Romans 3:20, 6:23; Galatians 3:10).  The Law also acts as a curb to gross outward sin (Cf.  I Timothy 1:9; Romans 2:14-15).

Secondly, we need to distinguish between God’s primary (antecedent) and secondary (consequent) will, as Dr. J. T. Mueller explains in Christian Dogmatics (p.  253):

The distinction between voluntas antecedens (prima) and voluntas consequens (secunda) is Scriptural if it is understood in the sense of John 3,16-18: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved.  He that believeth on Him is not condemned; but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”  It is indeed the gracious will of God that all men should believe in Christ and be saved by faith in Him (voluntas antecedens).  However, if sinners reject the grace of God and maliciously refuse to believe in Christ, then it is God’s will that they should be damned, Mark 16, 15. 16.  Thus the voluntas antecedens applies to all men, while the voluntas consequens applies to all who perish through their unbelief.

The Epistle to the Hebrews contains many examples of this Scriptural distinction (cf.  Hebrews 2:1-3, 3:1-4:12, 10:26-31, 12:22-29).  Martin Luther rightly observes this distinction when he instructs us first to pray for the conversion of our enemies and then, if that fails to happen, to pray for their restraint and God’s judgment:

We should pray that our enemies be converted and become our friends, and if not, that their doing and designing be bound to fail and have no success and that their persons perish rather than the Gospel and the kingdom of Christ.  Thus the saintly martyr Anastasia, a wealthy, noble Roman matron, prayed against her husband, an idolatrous and terrible ravager of Christians, who had flung her into a horrible prison, in which she had to stay and die.  There she lay and wrote to the saintly Chrysogonus diligently to pray for her husband that, if possible, he be converted and believe; but if not, that he be unable to carry out his plans and that he soon make an end of his ravaging.  Thus she prayed him to death, for he went to war and did not return home.  So we, too, pray for our angry enemies, not that God protect and strengthen them in their ways, as we pray for Christians, or that He help them, but that they be converted, if they can be; or, if they refuse, that God oppose them, stop them and end the game to their harm and misfortune  (E. Plass, What Luther Says. St.  Louis: Concordia, 1959, #3517, p. 1100).

With these proper distinctions, we can and should understand imprecatory prayers in the Scriptural manner, namely, as cries for God’s justice.

In this manner, we are enabled to understand what moved and motivated Martin Luther in his imprecations.  He had a holy zeal for purity of doctrine for the sake of the salvation of souls.  Speaking about Christ’s zeal for God’s temple, Luther once remarked:

This was the experience of Christ, the prophets, and all the apostles.  And our hearts, too, should be fairly consumed by a strong and holy zeal, a sorrow, jealousy, and indignation over the lamentable idolatries with which the pope has so woefully deceived and seduced the world.  Should it not gnaw at us, consume us, and move us to keep the pure doctrine of God’s Word from being falsified further?  (Ibid., Vol.  III, #5097, p. 1567).

Luther’s denunciation of the Pope had everything to do with doctrine, as Luther said of the Pope:

Through your throat and pen the evil Satan is lying as he has never lied before.  You force and wrest Scripture to suit your fancy.  O Christ, my Lord, look down, let the Day of Thy judgment break and destroy the devil’s nest at Rome!  Here sits the man of whom St. Paul has said that he will exalt himself above Thee (II Thess. 2:3-4), will sit in Thy church, and will set himself up as God — the man of sin and the son of perdition!  What else is the papal power than the teaching and increasing of sin and evil, leading souls to damnation under Thy name and guise?” (Ibid., Vol.  II, #3416, p. 1072).

We are to keep in mind that Luther did all he could to get the Pope to listen to the truth, only to be unjustly persecuted, excommunicated and have a death sentence put on his head.  The Pope showed himself to be God’s enemy in all this, and Luther prayed against him accordingly.

As long as we keep in mind the Scriptural distinctions necessary to understand imprecatory prayer correctly, we should not have any problem using such prayers in the proper manner, ever mindful of love for our neighbor, even for our enemies (Matthew 5:44).  Therefore, knowing the antecedent will of God, we should first of all pray for the conversion of all men.  St. Paul writes to Timothy: “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men … For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who will have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” (I Timothy 2:1, 3-6).  Then, we are to pray that the wicked be restrained from harming God’s cause and His Church:  “Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the Word of the Lord may have free course and be glorified, even as it is with you, and that we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men; for all men have not faith” (II Thessalonians 3:1-2).  And finally, such prayers include asking God to do whatever is necessary for His cause, including the most severe and final judgment, if need be, upon persistent evildoers who spurn both God’s Law and His grace in the Gospel and are set upon His dishonor and the destruction of His true Church!  “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.  For the needy shall not alway be forgotten; the expectation of the poor shall not perish for ever.  Arise, O Lord; let not man prevail; let the heathen be judged in Thy sight” (Psalm 9:17-19).  In that latter sense, Luther prayed for the execration of the Pope (“Deus impleat vos odio papae!” — “May God fill you with hatred for the Pope!”), not according to his person, but according to his office as the very Antichrist, which will not be converted from its wickedness but will persist until the Lord’s second visible advent (II Thessalonians 2:8).

E.  J.  W.