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22. Think Before Praying

Thoughts from my journey with JESUS.

Bible reading Psalm 139:1-24.

I have just completed reading through the Psalms devotionally in my daily quiet time with our Lord Jesus. I read just one Psalm first thing every morning. I started in February 2019 and finished mid-August. First, I prayerfully read the due Psalm in my NIV Bible. Next I read the relevant Africa Bible Commentary section about it. Lastly I read it in ‘Words of Wisdom’, a beautifully leather bound Living Bible translation that Dr Billy Graham gave to me after ministering together in Mission England 1989. (My role was much, much, much smaller than his was!).

Reading Psalm 117 was very quick, with just 2 verses. Psalm 119 with 176 verses took a lot longer. Over the weeks I enjoyed the rich devotional expressions of love for God and marvelled at His blessings on the world and on me. But I freely admit that quite a few verses in some of the Psalms are positively hard to understand when seeking to live as a sensitive and loving Christian.

These are often known as ‘imprecatory psalms’, from the verb “to imprecate”, which means ‘to pray evil against’ or ‘to invoke a curse upon’ someone else or something.[1]

Praying a curse

In the familiar Psalm 139 verses 19-22 fit into this category. The Psalm’s beginning verses are gentle and worshipful. They

include: “You have searched me, Lord … You know me … You discern what I do … You are familiar with all I do”, vs1-6.

The writing progresses through a description of God as comfortingly present everywhere, vs7-12. God has a purposeful plan for each person, even from before their conception and birth, vs13-16. The writer moves on to marvel at the greatness of God’s thinking which he acknowledges is vastly superior to his own, vs 17-18.

Yet through all this something is really troubling King David. Awkwardly and accusingly he unleashes his pen’s restraint :

If only You, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!

They speak of You with evil intent; Your adversaries misuse Your name.

Do I not hate those who hate You, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against You? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies”, vs19-22, (italics mine).

I ask myself, ‘Will it ever be right for me to request God to “slay the wicked!”, that is to kill violently people who I see as against me’? Can I ever rightly ask God for vengeance on my “hated” enemies? Honestly, I find those tough questions to answer. Yet there are plenty of similar examples in the Psalms. I have listed 34 I found, in the footnote below.[2]

When we are under pressure from evil people, or wicked ungodly regimes, we will understandably feel emotions rising within us. We must learn to keep those feelings under control and not be obsessed or taken over by them. Anger, hurt, pain, resentment, loss, outrage, annoyance are all deep human feelings. They can be right for us. They are part of how God has made us. They are natural for us to feel and they have a role to play in our Christian lives, but surely not a controlling role?

What should I feel towards, and what should I pray for, the drunken driver who killed my mother outright in a head on car smash back in London during 1971? How ought you to respond to the soldier who set your home on fire and made you a displaced person or refugee? What is it right for you to want to happen to national or state leaders responsible for harsh corruption which has robbed you and those around you of basic human rights and a reasonable standard of living?

Loving enemies while invoking God’s judgement

Our Lord Jesus told us to love our enemies and to pray for our persecutors. His perfection has very high standards:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. ... Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”, Matthew 5:43-48.

Again read Jesus, this time in Luke:

“But to you who are listening I say: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you”, Luke 6:27-28.

How does our Lord Jesus want us to react to what life has dealt out to us?

To get balance, or, I prefer to say, to hold the proper biblical tension, we must remember that our Lord Jesus also imprecated! In warning the crowds and His disciples about some of the religious leaders, people who said one thing but lived another, Jesus repeated seven times:

“Woe to you, … woe to you, … woe to you … teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! …”, Matthew 23:13,15,16,23,25,27,29. He also said:

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”, Matthew 23:33, (italics mine). Again:

“Jesus replied, ‘The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with Me will betray Me. The Son of Man will go just as it has been written about Him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born’”, Matthew 26:23-24, (italics mine). Compare Psalm 41:8-10.

There is no difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. He is one and the same God. The message we learn from all of the Bible is one message. “God's moral law is immutable (unchangeable) and is everywhere the same. We must be careful never to pit Scripture against Scripture, as if to suggest that the Old Testament calls for a different, perhaps inferior, ethical response to one's enemies than does the New Testament”.[3]

Every Sunday without thinking?

We should consider the prayer Jesus taught us to pray. It includes the phrases: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, Matthew 6:10. This is surely to invite or request divine judgement on all other kingdoms and everybody who opposes God’s reign. The coming of our Lord’s kingdom certainly includes the vanquishing of all the King’s enemies, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12. Do you realise you probably pray an imprecatory prayer almost every Sunday in church?

Self-searching under God the Holy Spirit’s guidance

Returning to Psalm 139 for a moment, King David knows that he needs spiritual protection lest he “hate” God’s enemies for his own personal reasons. So David concludes with the Holy Spirit-searching prayer that God reveal his true condition to himself, to purify his motives and protect his heart:

“Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting”, Psalm 139:23-24.

When David speaks of “hatred” for those who oppose God’s kingdom, vs21-22, I believe he is neither personally malicious

nor bitter nor vindictive. He is not moved by self-centred resentment. Rather he most certainly is jealous for God’s name and firmly at odds with those who blaspheme God.[4] Such jealousy is a good quality for a Christian to have but brings a hard balance to hold. We must learn to keep the tension between:

1. our selfish thoughts of personal, family, tribal or national lack of forgiveness, perhaps with revenge,

2. while trusting our great God to give ultimate justice in His time – which will always be fair and true justice given at the right time.

This applies whether we see people as ‘our enemies’ or as (when choosing to sound more spiritual) ‘enemies of God’. Every estranged person needs to be brought to a reasonable and fair treatment for those who have broken the acknowledged laws of their community or country. This will honour God. It is right to pray and work for justice on earth. God Himself will work with you, as long as you do it His way.

Holding in tension two almost contradictory things

I recently read an article online which challenged me. I share all of it with you. The author writes: “I want to explore how Scripture supports praying the imprecatory psalms in a personalised way, provided we exhibit a specific attitude. To pray for God to execute His righteous judgment upon evildoers is permissible and, in certain ways, even useful for believers. My aim here is also, in part, to provide Christians with a biblical account of the impulse we may feel to wish God’s destruction upon persecutors of our brothers and sisters in Christ”.

Part of a whole truth

“First, we should guard against overemphasising the place of these (imprecatory) psalms in the Christian life. The church is not undertaking the conquest of Canaan (as the Israelites were). Our mission rather is to care for souls as we take the gospel to all nations, Matthew 28:18-20. We aim to expand and feed the flock, not to eradicate anything that isn’t a sheep! That is the difference between the (Christian) gospel and (Moslem) Sharia law. Praying the imprecatory psalms can be useful when done with this caution in mind”.

Jesus thought differently

“Second, the Christian reader must begin by accepting these Psalm-prayers as they are, by and large the cries of God's people for vengeance after unspeakable atrocities against them as God's people, and also against those places sacred to them and to Him. The best reading will refrain from spiritualising the enemy or the petitions or the blessings, thereby diminishing the depth of the agony felt and the vehemence of the action sought. Beyond these instructive appropriations the imprecatory prayers must point the followers of Jesus beyond themselves to a loftier vision of prayer, as noted above from Luke 6:27-28, praying for, not praying against, ‘the enemy’. It is a form of prayer taught by our Master, Matthew 5:11-12, 43-48; and modelled by the earliest church, 1 Peter 2:19-25. This vision does not set aside the call for justice and vindication, but places those matters in God's hands for the eschaton, (the final event in the divine plan; in other words, the end of the world), Romans 2:1-16; Revelation 2:19-29, Revelation 18:1-24”.

Let God be sovereign

“Third, we must recognise God’s sovereignty in acting out His own justice on evil. To be sure, until that judgement, Jesus commands us to love our enemies, to pray for them, even to bless them, Luke 6:27-28; Romans 12:20; 1 Peter 3:9. (But He also spoke about bearing the sword and causing division in places like) Matthew 10:34-35 and Luke 12:51-53. Paul also instructed Christians: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse”, Romans 12:14, and almost immediately continued, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay’, says the Lord”, Romans 12:19”, (italics mine).

“In that sense, when making specific imprecation, we must always balance “Father, save the lost!” with “Father, pour out your wrath upon evil!” The contingency that holds together these two ideas properly submits to God’s sovereignty—His justice and (His) mercy—without assuming that only one of the two options will bring Him glory”.[5]

I know that was a long quotation. I included it because I feel it explains well the Christian tension we must be ready to hold in this matter. It is not wrong to pray, “Father God, save the person who has done so much wrong to us”. But neither is it wrong to pray “Father God, judge evil in your holy righteous anger”. Both prayers are right, dare I say, as long as we pray both prayers together at the same time, for the same person or the same people, with our hearts ‘self-and-Holy-Spirit’ examined?

It is never a good idea to pray with an uncontrolled bad temper! It is much better to pray with a sanctified and God-centred motivation that accepts God as the ‘more than able Person’ Who knows what is best for you and Who will do it.

Be holy in every attitude

This next Scripture was written to “All in Rome who are loved by God and called to be His holy people …”, Romans 1:7a.

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law”, Romans 13:8-10.

If you don’t think you can live like that because of tremendously hurtful things that have happened to you or those whom you love deeply, remember how Paul suggested you would be able to. His greeting continues: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ”, Romans 1:7b. Receive from our Lord His ability to do what you cannot. Accept and use His grace and His peace.

Some helps in our spiritual warfare

Christians can train for spiritual warfare as any regular army trains to fight, both in defence and in attack.

1. Pray well

In your spiritual warfare you can wrestle or struggle in prayer against “… the powers of this dark world and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”, Ephesians 6:12. This focusses on where the real action is.

2. Patiently wait

You can also be patient and sensitive in waiting for God’s perfect timing to arrive. Wait like the saints in heaven who: “called out with a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’”, Revelation 6:10. Verse 11 emphasises they were told to ‘wait a little longer’.

I have an Omega watch that my father gave me for my 21st birthday, now almost 50 years ago. I lost it once, in Nairobi, when a young boy grabbed it from my wrist and ran off. He was stopped nearby by people who saw what had happened. They made him return it to me! The watch uses no batteries, nor do I have to wind it up once a day. It is an ergonomic watch which winds itself up as I move my wrist while wearing it. Now, because of its age, it does not quite do what it was designed to do. It’s a bit like me! Occasionally it stops if I take it off overnight when I’m asleep. I am learning to be patient with the watch and to treat it how it needs to be treated ‘in its older age’. (I hope people will do the same to me! ). All Christians must patiently and spiritually await God’s timing for perfect justice. He is not wearing out because God does not age with the passing of time like we humans do. We believe God will always do what He knows is the right thing to do. Here is another opportunity for you to trust Him.

3. Think about our Lord Jesus’ cross

Next, keep your mind and heart on our Lord Jesus. It was our Lord Jesus Who bore the punishing vengeance that the imprecatory psalms ask for. He died paying sin’s penalty and for the sinner’s atonement. Jesus suffered in His human life for the sin of all sinners: “The imprecatory psalm leads to the cross of Jesus, and to the love of God which forgives enemies. In this way the crucified Jesus teaches us to pray the imprecatory psalms correctly”, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.[6]

4. Discern carefully

Paul prayed imprecatory prayers. Here are two examples:

“If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be accursed. Come Lord!”, 1 Corinthians 16:22, (italics mine).

“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse. If anyone is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse”, Galatians 1:8-9, (italics mine).

What can we learn from these? “Accursed/curse” anathema means ‘devoted to destruction’.[7] We must not receive any so-called Christian workers who teach a different way of salvation to the true gospel. Even a slight difference could bring an entirely different final destination. Be very careful about this. Sincere people can be sincerely wrong. Eternal hell awaits false teachers and their deceived followers.

5. Keep in God’s covenant

In praying imprecatory prayers we actually ask God to keep His eternal covenant promise, originally given to Abraham:

“I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you”, Genesis 12:3.

Christians today are the inheritors of this promise from God to bless and curse Abraham’s descendants:

“If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise”, Galatians 3:29.

Christians no longer trust in ‘doing lots of good things’ for our salvation. The grace of God has saved us from that curse of sin. The perfection of Christ is ours by God’s gift, see Galatians 3:11-14, and then quietly shout ‘Hallelujah’!

6. Follow our Lord Jesus’ example

Peter wrote about Jesus:

“When they hurled their insults at Him, He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted Himself to Him Who judges justly. He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by His wounds you have been healed”, 1 Peter 2:23-24, (italics mine).

Truly Christian disciples are those who follow through life in all of the footsteps of Jesus. Make sure you are one every day.

Discussion guide

1. Why does praying ‘imprecatory prayers’ (see the first page of this chapter) seem difficult – even wrong – for Christians? Is this good or bad? Why?

2. Can you share any circumstances when you have prayed, or at least have wanted to pray, for God’s judgement to come upon somebody or some group?

3. What do you understand by Jesus’ phrase “woe to you …” in Matthew 23:13 and following verses? The words are exactly the same in all English translations I looked at except for:

“How terrible it will be for you” Good News Translation

“You … are in for trouble!” Contemporary English Version

“It will be bad for you” Easy to Read Version

“How horrible it will be for you” God’s Word translation

“I’ve had it with you! You’re hopeless” The Message

“What sorrow awaits you” New Living Translation

Remember these are our Lord Jesus’ words. Why do you think He saying this?

4. What are some good helps in keeping a good Christian tension between

a. “our selfish thoughts of personal, family, tribal or national lack of forgiveness, perhaps with revenge,

b. while trusting our great God to give ultimate justice in His time – which will always be fair and true justice given at the right time”?

Share as many as you are able to, using Scripture and personal experience as appropriate.

5. Is it ‘more Christian’ or ‘less Christian’ to pray either or both of these prayers?:

a. “Father, save the lost!”

b. “Father, pour out your wrath upon evil!”

Give reasons for your answer.

6. Explain carefully how our Lord Jesus took the punishment the imprecatory prayers asked for. In what ways does understanding this help in keeping the tension of these and other prayers?

1 Peter 2:23-24.

[1] . [2] Other Psalms which call down curses or misfortune include: Psalm 5:10; 6:10; 7:6; 9:19- 20; 10: compare vs2&15; 17:13; 28:4; 31:17-18; 35:1,4-8,19,24-26; 40:14-15; 41:10; 54:5; 55:9&15; 56:7; 58:6-10; 59:5,11-15; 63:9-10; 68:1-2; 69:22-28; 70:2-3; 71:13; 79:6,10-12; 83:9-18; 94:1-7; 97:7; 104:35; 109:6-20,29; 119:84; 129:5-8; 137:7-9; 139:19-22; 140:8- 11; 141:10; 143:12. [3] [4] [5] Slightly adapted for clarity to readers whose first language is not English. Words in (brackets) are my additions. [6] Quoted by Daniel Nehrbass in Praying Curses: The Therapeutic and Preaching Value of the Imprecatory Psalms, page 42, [7] John MacArthur Study Bible ESV (Crossway: Wheaton, ILL) 2010, page 1712.

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