December 18, 2017

Questions about Imprecatory Prayers

Warren Vanhetloo

Dear Dr. Vanhetloo,

I am currently reading the Book of Psalms in my personal devotions and can’t help but be surprised by the vindictiveness of many of its parts. For example, in Ps. 104:35a: “Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more.” This is a far cry from “love your enemies,” which Jesus taught. Psalm 109 is a similar example. Obviously, David did not view himself as a “sinner” or “wicked” (which of course EVERYONE is) at the time he wrote this. I realize that 2 Timothy 3:16 reminds us that “all Scripture is profitable,” but I need some help in understanding that when I read many of the Psalms. I already have a hard enough time loving my enemies and not wishing vengeance on them. I guess we need to keep in mind that Jesus contradicted some of the Old Testament when He preached (e.g., in the Sermon on the Mount)? Any thoughts? Thanks.

Several replies:

1. Though David wrote many of the Psalms and they passed through his thought system, the real author of the Psalms is God. God never contradicts Himself. We “make” contradictions or Satan instills them in our minds. Until we start our first class in Heaven, we will have deficient understanding of God’s perfect revelation. Until then, we accept what we can by faith and await full comprehension later.

2. Jesus is God. Neither in Heaven eternally nor while on this earth has He contradicted His Father. Rather, we should realize that He gave us guidance for correct understanding of the Old Testament. What is recorded is for our admonition. Jesus could speak with certainty; we can only approximate the full truth He comprehended. The Holy Spirit can guide us into all truth. The fullness of that truth will not be radically different from the clear, simple comprehension of the “ordinary” men who heard Jesus speak.

3. As I look at Psalm 104:35, I think immediately of “Thy kingdom come.” This is not some evil desire for retribution, but a longing that all men and all the earth honor the Creator. It is a request that God through His directing of circumstances halt the intents of the ungodly and in His own good time establish His own kingdom on earth. Some of God’s ways are temporal (Ps. 104:29). Those who know the Lord have great cause to exalt Him (Ps. 104:31–35). The closing invitation is that all praise the Lord. That’s still an invitation to the ungodly to get right.

4. Retribution is a desire for personal revenge on another, for our pride, not for God’s honor. It often is expressed as getting even—“You stole a sheep from me, I’ll steal two from you, and we’ll be even”—with the retribution usually exceeding the offense, real or imagined. We should desire justice, not retribution. Innocence or guilt is to be determined by proper authority. If guilty, proper restoration (one sheep for one sheep) is determined by proper authority. Our hearts should long for justice, not retaliation.

5. In Psalm 109 David is clearly praying that God will uphold His standards of righteousness. He is not asking that he be God’s tool to destroy the ungodly, but that God will so direct circumstances that evildoers will be thwarted. (We desperately need that today too.) David himself realized his need as a sinner (vv. 21–31), fully dependent on the grace of God. We can still love our enemies—that is, desiring the best for them—at the same time as we pray that God will offset their evil inclinations.

6. Throughout His ministry Jesus contradicted many wrong teachings based on wrong interpretations of the Old Testament. The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed. Jesus did not bring a new message nor a contradictory message; He set forth the correct understanding of the Old Testament (at twelve years of age already!). His disciples were slow of learning, as we are yet today. The Holy Spirit can give us illumination, but not so that we can speak as authoritatively as Jesus did. We do our best, and He uses us for His glory.

The late Warren Vanhetloo, A.B., B.D., Th.M., Th.D., D.D., was Adjunct Instructor in and Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.

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