Imprecatory Prayers (Or The Theonomist In Each Of Us)

Tish Harrison Warren, who writes for Christianity Today, who is a priest—a topic for another essay— in the Anglican Church in North America, has published an editorial in CT calling for Christians to pray imprecatory prayers against Vladimir Putin. She begins with the awful, cursed, and condemnable Russian invasion of Ukraine. She turns to her own experience and thence to her morning prayers, in which, she reports, she is praying Psalm 74:14–16 against Vladimir Putin, the President of the Russian Federation. As she correctly says, an imprecation is a curse. That part of Psalm 74 is certainly a curse and part of a sub-genre in the Psalter known (since 1881) as “imprecatory Psalms.” According to the entry in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (s.v. “Imprecatory Psalms”) it was W. Robertson Smith who coined the phrase to characterize a class of psalms that call for judgment to fall upon the enemies of God and his people. As a Reformed Christian, for whom this Psalm has a special place since the Huguenot martyrs used to sing it on the way to the flames, I think first of Psalm 68:

God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered; and those who hate him shall flee before him! AS smoke is driven away, so you shall drive them away; as wax melts before the fire, so the wicked shall perish before God (vv.1–2; ESV).

Specifically, David prays,

But God will strike the heads of his enemies, the hairy crown of him who walks in his guilty ways. The Lord said, “I will bring them back from Bashan, I will bring them back from the depths of the sea, that you may strike your feet in their blood, that the tongues of your dogs may have their portion from the foe (vv.21–23; ESV).

This is not the strongest language one finds in the imprecatory psalms (e.g., Psalms 58; 69:23–29; 109:5–19 etc). N. H. Ridderbos and P. C. Craigie (s.v., “Psalms” in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia) explain that the imprecations are expressions of the righteous indignation of believers against the unrighteousness of unbelievers and especially those who opposed God’s people and his anointed king. Those who wrote and prayed such words are not to be considered, in themselves, perfectly righteous. They are forgiven sinners who were in a national covenant with God in which obedience results in blessing and disobedience results in cursing. The curses that the Psalmists invoked upon their enemies were not the fruit of personal vindictiveness but a cry that God should vindicate his justice against the rebellious surrounding nations.

Warren is right that the imprecations, the curses, of the Psalms are aimed at God’s enemies. They are an expression of holy outrage at injustice. They do call out for vengeance but in her call to pray imprecatory psalms against Vladimir Putin, who is guilty of crimes against natural justice for which he should be held to account, she ignores a vital fact: Neither Ukraine nor the USA is national Israel. Neither of those nations is in national covenant with Yahweh. God has made no promises to the USA or to Ukraine, as such. Obviously he has believers and churches in both nations but neither nation is his covenant people. No nation is now in covenant with Yahweh. No nation is entitled to position itself or think of itself as the Israel of God. The visible church is the Israel of God.

In her justifiable outrage, Warren has fallen into the theonomic error because there is a little theonomist in all of us. Theonomy is the theory first advocated by the radical Anabaptist Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt (1486–1541), who argued that the Israelite judicial laws should still be enforced today. Contrary to the popular misconception, which one sees articulated regularly in the wild, theonomy is not the generic theocracy that existed in Christendom from the time of Theodosius (c. AD 381) until the establishment of Modernity in the 18th and 19th centuries.

On the other end of the spectrum, C. S. Lewis was wrong about the imprecatory Psalms. In Reflections on the Psalms (1958), ch. 3, he characterized the imprecatory Psalms as “contemptible.” He was right to say that we may not explain them away but he was quite wrong to say “we must not yield for one moment to the idea that, because it comes in the Bible, all this vindictive hatred must somehow be good and pious.” That is an approach to holy Scripture that no Christian is entitled to take. The imprecatory Psalms are the inspired, infallible Word of God. The Spirit who inspired the Psalmists was not sinning when he inspired them to write those words.

Lewis did not put the Psalms in their redemptive-historical context. He put them in our context and so re-contextualized them. Persons who wrote and spoke the Psalms but they were not speaking merely as peevish individuals, as Lewis seems to have assumed. Pace Lewis, they were not being uncharitable. Indeed, he used the wrong category altogether by which to understand them. He read them as expressions of nature—indeed, the worst aspects of nature. Scripture is not a natural product but the product of grace. The Psalmists were fulfilling a role in the economy of redemption. They were picturing the wrath of God against sin and unrighteousness. Lewis was right that God is in the Psalms but he missed the continuity of the covenant of grace. The same God who inspired the Psalmists to pray imprecations against the enemies of God’s anointed has not changed in his being or nature. He still hates sin. He still hates those attack his anointed.

The difference in the New Covenant is that we know more clearly than the Psalmists knew exactly whom the nations hate, and against whom they are raging (see Ps 2). Jesus is the anointed of the Lord. He is the Christ. The nations still rage against him. Lewis was right to say that Scripture says “he desireth not the death of a sinner” (which language appears in Matthew Henry’s commentary and which seems to be an allusion to Ezekiel 33:11) but Jude 5–7 is also God’s Word:

Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day— just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire (ESV).

Jude was not finished with his imprecation:

Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion. These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.(vv.11–13; ESV),

He gives us a clue to the proper use of the imprecatory Psalms. He did not pronounce imprecations on the enemies of the Roman empire or even upon the Roman emperors, who persecuted the church and put to death his brothers and sisters in Christ. He pronounced imprecations upon “certain people” who “have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (v.4; ESV) and upon those who “relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones” (v, 8; ESV). These are people in the visible church, who are

hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever (Jude 12–13).

Lewis gave us a clue to another good use of the imprecatory Psalms. We ought to pray them against our own sin, the flesh, and the devil. These are the enemies of our soul. Vladimir Putin is an obvious murderer. I have seen coyotes with more compassion in their eyes than one sees in the eyes of Putin. He is an enemy of peace. He may be an enemy of God—the assertions about his Christian faith seem remarkably naive. Does anyone remember the KGB or have any idea what the FSB is or does?—that is not for us to say. We ought to pray for God to restrain him and all evil in the world. We ought to give thanks for God’s restraining hand. There have been moments in recent history where it almost seemed as if God might be lifting his restraining hand in the world and that prospect ought to terrify anyone with a lick of sense.

Christians live in a twofold kingdom. Insofar as they are citizens of earthly kingdoms, they have temporary earthly enemies. Natural justice may require us to go to war but when we are done, we are done. Christians, insofar as we are members of the Kingdom of God, have no earthly enemies. Vladimir Putin needs to be stopped. The atrocities and injustices he is perpetrating should be stopped. Of course he is blackmailing the entire world with nuclear weapons. If we allow him to get away with that blackmail we will live to regret it.

Nevertheless, the Israelite theocracy and holy war expired at Golgotha. In light of the progress of redemptive history and revelation, Christians, as citizens of the Kingdom of God, should be praying imprecations against the same class of people against whom Jude uttered curses and we should be praying them against our own sins, our own flesh, and our former master from whom we have been graciously redeemed. We should also be praying, as Warren noted, that God’s enemies would be converted.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. So why just Putin? Why not (from her point of view) pray the imprecatory psalms against all aggressors? There are plenty that have been going on for some time (Syria, Yemen, Congo, to name just a few.) What is so special about Putin that distinguishes him from the other aggressors and purveyors of atrocities in other places? Serious question.

  2. Thank you for the helpful article on imprecations. In praying such curses, there is an unavoidable feeling of self-righteousness and the conclusion that “God is on our side.” Perhaps we need to ask why God is afflicting us with Putin (or COVID, etc). Perhaps prayers of repentance would be better, asking God for mercy. While Putin’s actions are sinful, who are we to picture ourselves as a righteous nation deserving of divine protection?

  3. I have only seen/heard the name “Tish” once before: On that occasion it was short for “Morticia”; but I gather from W-W-W-… (We’re not allowed to say it, but it rhymes with “needier” and “Media”), that it can be short for other names as well!

    Joking aside, I would have thought that present culture in the West, that looks like it is now being made into law, is sufficiently depraved for God to be raising up Putin as judgement against us, eventual outcome as in Habakkuk.

    • “Tish” is usually short for “Letitia.” I used to know a lady by that name and Tish was her regular nick name.

    • Which table, Peter? First or Second (I think the Sabbath commandment belongs to both, particularly for Christians – How much do we consider our neighbour’s Sabbath?)?

    • George, W-W-W-… (also, appropriately, rhymes with “Seedier”) did list Letitia as one of the names. I’d come across THAT name once before also (a character called Letitia Blacklock), but the nickname used for her was not “Tish”, but “Letty”.

    • I tried calling that woman I knew “Lettie” once and it didn’t go over so well. She said it sounded too much like an old lady’s name. What I was thinking, but didn’t dare say, was that Letitia itself also sounds like an old lady’s name.

    • George, at the risk of conceitedly parading my vast Reformed erudition to all on here, I volunteer the information that the Letty to whom I refer is a principal character in Agatha Christie’s “A Murder Is Announced”, and one after whom your friend might not have wished to be named. And, yes, she IS an old lady (just about).

    • It was not unheard of at one time for Letitias to be called ‘Titty’ (videlicet the character in Arthur Ransome’s wonderful children’s books). For some unaccountable reason, this has fallen out of fashion.

  4. Does no country defend itself, or another, for just reason? Christians — as Christians — are not to imprecate as individuals, but a Ukrainian Christian soldier need not imprecate hell upon a person attacking the capital, as he loads a round to defend his neighborhood (I think).

    The reason I think this is Luke 3:10-14.

  5. I realise that Warren is a “priest” in the Anglican Church in North America, as opposed to the “actual” Anglican Church in England. However, isn’t Erastianism part of the Anglican heritage? Once upon a time, bishops blessed battleships and armies going off to war. (Perhaps they still do.) So I suppose it’s all in a day’s work to pray for God to smite the enemies of Nato.
    I wonder how Warren and Christianity Today square their theology with Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17?

  6. Very interesting topic which I have participated in the past. I believe this kind of prayer doesn’t begin at the start but takes much time of praise, thankfulness, intercession beforehand and then it’s whether the Holy Spirit leads into this type of prayer. Without the Holy Spirit leading into imprecatory prayer it’s presumption. Additionally, when I need explanation, I listen to leaders at true churches and still defer to my Pastor through God. I’ll ask God for answers from my Pastor and wait. Many times God answers through my Pastor’s sermon.

  7. First of all sorry for my english. First I hear that teocracy has died on the calvary. Is it a law ceremonial? I can’t see. I don’t believe that our brothers reformed in times of reform believe that, nobody confession says something like that, and in especial Westminster confession. Third, always is easy to talk about someone that is far, what about Biden. What interest he has in war (or elites)? Why the president of Ukraine isn’t revealed like a wicked when it is so? Why we can believe something that says mass media? Of course, I don’t like Puttin, but I am worried when we say something like the world or we can to be endorsed for mass media, greats manipulators and creators of the unique thought, then something with us is so wrong. How many things are behind scenes? Perhaps we are thinking so simple.

  8. Careful, Mike, when suggesting we surmise why certain calamities are happening. We’ll likely come up with our own human opinions, which is what typically motivates the theo’s to pick only certain figures for particular reasons to pray divine curses upon. It’s all a function of interpreting providence.

  9. I can’t remember if 23.2 WCF on Just war was excised by the American revisions (if yes please ignore my question) but doesn’t the fact that we teach and confess that war can be entered into justly infer that we may pray to the ends of such a war?

    • Fionguala,

      23.2 as received (e.g., by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church):

      2. It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto: in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth; so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the new testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion.

      A just war is not a “holy war,” which was, under Moses and David, a war of extermination of the enemies of God’s people. In the post-canonical period there are no holy wars of extermination, and thus we are not praying, as we did (under the types and shadows):

      O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
      blessed shall he be who repays you
      with what you have done to us!
      Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
      and dashes them against the rock! Ps 137:8–9; ESV)

      Yes, if it is a just war, we may pray for a successful outcome but we are not praying for a foretaste of final judgment to be executed in history.

  10. Apologies to you Mr. Clark, I see now you made a point about just war and I see you consider, just war is good and necessary and I believe you would have no problem praying for it to do its course in this matter but that does not preclude all the things you suggest we pray about Mr. Putin here.

    Have you written anywhere what you think constitutes a good reason to enter into a just war? Would you consider the Ukrainian defense one?

    • I’ve not written much on just war theory.

      I think Ukraine has a right to defend itself against Russian aggression. I would defend it on the basis of natural justice.

  11. My apologies for clogging up your comment section Mr. Clark!
    Could we not cut the gordian knot here between Tish’s wishes and your teaching and pray to the Lord that he bring justice down on Mr. Putin for his actions? Hence avoiding her use of an improperly interpreted Psalm but keeping her desire for justice to happen.

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