Smite them Oh Mighty Smiter – Are we to use Imprecatory Psalms

Psalm 139:19–22

[19] Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
O men of blood, depart from me!
[20] They speak against you with malicious intent;
your enemies take your name in vain.
[21] Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
[22] I hate them with complete hatred;
I count them my enemies. (ESV)

This past Sunday we took a look at David’s beautiful song of praise for the way God demonstrates His omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence toward us in very personal ways.  David’s cry came from a moment in life where he was genuinely afraid because his enemies were pressing in threatening to take his life.  The son is a reminder that the very act of waking up in the morning is proof that God is still present, still knows him intimately, and is still fulfilling His purpose in David.  Yet, the end of the Psalm takes a bizarre turn.  After celebrating the great glory and care God took in creating David and sustaining him, he then cries out to God to “slay the wicked,” and expresses his hate for those who hate God.  This seems like a far cry from Jesus’ words to love enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  Time did not allow for me to unpack this idea in the sermon, so I shared that I would write some thoughts on this.

This Scriptural song is one of several that take the same tone, crying out to God to bring wrath down on enemies and end the work of violent people in the world.  These are called Imprecatory Psalms, from the word imprecate which means to call down curses and evil on another person.  In a few cases, the entire Psalm is a prayer for deliverance while asking God to destroy the wicked and enemies of the Kingdom (see Psalm 5, 10, 17, 35, 58, 59, 69, 70, 79, 83, 109, 129, 137, and 140).  In other places like Psalm 139 the Psalmist includes this cry as a part of the song.  But the sheer number of these cries of prayer found in the Psalms must lead us to consider the meaning and seek to figure out how to apply them in our prayers.  Is it alright for us to pray, “Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see and make their loins tremble continually.  Pour out your indignation upon them and let your burning anger overtake them (Psalm 69:23-24)?”

When I read these I can’t help but think of a moment in the movie Bruce Almighty where the main character, Bruce Nolan played by Jim Carey yells out to God in anger, “Smite me, Oh, mighty smiter!”  Of course in this case, the character is indicting God while throwing out the language of an Imprecatory Psalm on himself.  Side note, probably not a good idea to pray this on yourself, just saying.  And while the movie does not give an accurate Biblical theology, it does wrestle with the challenge of living in a broken and hard world while wondering if God will actually act to do something about it.

So, my basic answer is that these Psalms are in Scripture, and part of the model for how we should pray, worship, sing praises to our God, and therefore we are to include prayers like this in our prayer life.  In fact, these Psalms are some of the most commonly quoted by the New Testament authors and by Jesus Himself.  So as Jesus does tell us to “love our enemies, pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:43-44),” He is not standing in opposition and contradiction to these Psalms. Rather, He is giving us their deeper application and meaning.  So here are a few thoughts on how we can understand, apply, and actually pray these Psalms.

We have to begin by realizing that they are not designed to call fire down from heaven when someone cuts you off in traffic or annoys the snot out of you in the office.  God did not put them there to be a magical Darth Vader death pinch to use on people with whom you disagree or are in the way of your dreams.  There is a specific context for these Psalms collectively, they are rooted in and governed by the Kingdom of God and His purpose through His people.  King David wrote many of these Psalms, and they are tied to His specific role in God’s mission.  As a teen, the prophet Samuel anointed David to be the King of Israel, God’s King for His people.  Some of the situations referenced took place before David actually took the throne, and others after he became king.  Yet, David’s understanding of his mission and identity is tied to God’s Kingdom expressed through His royal rule through David for Israel.  David is not calling for God’s wrath for the random person who frustrates him or stands in the way of his own wishes.  He is crying out to God to deliver David in keeping of His promises and act in wrath against enemies who at the root are standing in opposition to the Kingdom of God.  This means that the main focus of these prayers is asking God to act against those who oppose the mission of the Gospel, who persecute the church, or who in power are spreading violence to masses of people.

Second, they are in Scripture to give us a hearty theological understanding of God.  These Psalms are a clear reminder that the God of grace and mercy is also a God of wrath and judgment.  God pours His mercy on the repentant, yet He is also pours His wrath on the wicked for their unrighteousness and injustice.  In this way, God authentically hates the evil, injustice, wickedness, and violence that has wrecked His creation and threatens His people becoming a dark cloud over them.  Biblically, his hatred expressed in wrath and love revealed in mercy are not contradictory.  Hate and love here are not emotions, they are postures flowing from God’s holiness who both stands with conviction to destroy evil and at the same time determined to rescue sinners who repent and believe.  It is difficult for us in our American context to feel the weight of this, and we often cringe when we think about the God of wrath.  But if we were to live under an evil tyrant ruling a wicked regime who uses genocide and mass persecution to silence any opposition while also murdering Christians for their faith we would find these prayers deeply beneficial and hopeful.  But the Imprecatory Psalms do not stand alone in the Psalter.  They stand side by side with other Psalms (or often expressed in the same Psalm) with cries for God to rescue the wicked, lead them to repentance, and grant them salvation.  Our prayers ought to echo both sentiments.   On one hand we can cry with David that we hate those who hate and oppose God’s Kingdom, while also seeking to love the very people who are the sources of that oppression.

Let me give this as an example.  How should believers living in North Korea pray these Psalms.  They should cry out to God to act in judgement against the wicked rulers, seeking God’s deliverance from and the pouring out of wrath on wicked and violent rulers in defense of His glory and people. They should pray for the end of the violence and of the violent people, and for the mass killings of Christians and all others to end.  Yet, they should also beg God to save their ruler and usher in righteousness through the king’s rule.  In fact, I would say that we too should join in this type of prayer as we pray for the persecuted church.

Third, these prayers flow from great understanding of God’s role and the role of His people.  God is the smiter, the judge, the only one who can in righteousness judge in this way.  Yet, God’s people when they face these enemies are to be humble, loving their enemy, and seeking their well being.  We are not given the position of being the source of this justice, and it is never our job to take up the sword in defense of God’s Kingdom. David again is a great example.  One of the major sources of persecution and danger for David was King Saul, the king who reigned before him.  Out of jealousy and rage Saul spent well over a decade hunting David and seeking at every turn to take David’s life.  Some of these Psalms are cries of fear directed at Saul and his follower (quite possibly the context for Psalm 139).  Yet on two occasions David was in a situation where he had the ability to take Saul’s life.  It would have been easy for David to rationalize that the moment was God’s opportunity for that justice and taken on himself the role of God’s vindicator. In both cases David chose grace, choosing to spare Saul and then showing Saul that he had the opportunity to kill him.  Eventually God did rain down justice on Saul, but David was not the one who caused it.  David prayed these prayers in faith that God would do what was right while also acknowledging that his role was to honor God and live in faithful obedience to God’s call to love.

Finally, we need to be clear that these Psalms actually puts every human being in the crosshairs.  you and I actually deserve everything that is prayed in these Psalms.  We are born enemies of God and prove that by our own sinful rebellion in the world.  Apart from the Lord Jesus Christ deserve the full expression of His wrath. Bruce Nolan probably did not realize that his cry for the “mighty smiter” to smite him was actually a prayer for God to give him what he actually deserved.  In the movie God did not then strike him with a lightning bolt, rather God met the character in the moment.  For us, we need to know that the cross of Jesus Christ is where the whole storyline of God’s glorious character is most deeply revealed.  The full wrath of God is on display, but rather than giving us what we deserve God pours all the wrath expressed in these Psalms on Jesus.  He becomes the object of every line of the Imprecatory Psalms, absorbing God’s justice on our behalf.  And instead of justice God gives those who trust Him the grace and mercy we so desperately need.  The cross is where justice and mercy kiss, and the offer for the vilest offender, the most wicked tyrant, the evil perpetrator of violence is that in Jesus Christ they can find mercy and receive grace.

So, yes, we should pray, and sing, and praise with these Psalms.  When wickedness rules, violence is present, unrighteousness seems unchecked, and persecution of God’s people is a reality we should ask God to “slay the wicked.”  And yes, we can declare that we hate those who hate God with passion.  Yet our part in the story is not to call down that fire but to keep living faithfully as God’s people by having our character changed by the cross, enduring suffering and persecution,  and proclaiming the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ to every creature.

Thanks for reading. I’ll close this post by sharing a video from Ligonier Ministries showing a panel discussion from their 2016 National Conference with W. Robert Godfrey, Albert Mohler, and William VanDoodewaard answering the question, “How should Christians respond to the imprecatory Psalms?”  Hope it is helpful.

One Response to “Smite them Oh Mighty Smiter – Are we to use Imprecatory Psalms”

  1. Mike S says:

    I intentionally steered away from the “impreccatory” part of 139 while praying last Sunday. Clearly should not have. Thank you for the teaching Mike.