Bruce Waltke on the Imprecatory Psalms

How do we make sense of the imprecatory Psalms in which the Psalmist cries out for God to avenge evil done against them in light of Jesus’ teaching? Recently watched Bruce Waltke’s teaching on the imprecatory Psalms and really enjoyed it, so I wanted to share. Waltke concludes that these prayers are doctrinally sound but practically inappropriate for the Church. I’ve summarized some of his main points below.

How have you made sense of these Psalms? Which points do you think are his strongest? Which do you think are his weakest?

  • the righteous leave judgment in God’s hands
  • imprecatory prayers are rooted in a clear distinction between good and evil and equivalents are not found in pagan literature
  • imprecatory prayers were theocratic - the king of Israel is asking the King of Kings to establish justice on the earth even as God had asked Israel’s king to establish justice in the kingdom
  • imprecatory prayers were covenantal - the Psalmist, as God’s servant, is asking God to defend His name and His chosen people
  • imprecatory prayers are conditional (Jeremiah 18) - the maledictions would be lifted if the enemy repented. These prayers always must be held in tension with divine mercy and grace.
  • imprecatory prayers are not appropriate for the Church age because judgment is now postponed until the final day of judgment (in Luke 4:16-18 Jesus stops in the middle of a verse when quoting Isaiah 61 - he does not read the part of the verse about God’s vengeance - this is the time of salvation; not of judgment)
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@SeanO

Well, I think this might end up being my first experience seriously disagreeing with someone and attempting to maintain the spirit of 1 Peter 3:15. So, if I fumble somewhat, I would ask for a certain degree of lenience.

The part of the video that I disagree with most, would be the view represented by this bullet point:

To say that part of the Bible is off limits, in any way, and for whatever reason, to Christians, I believe is a heresy.

A proof text I might use is:

2 Timothy 3:16-17 King James Version (KJV)
16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:

17 That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

All Scripture(including the imprecatory Psalms), can be said, read, taught, prayed, and proclaimed.

I included a YouTube video from John Piper which I think captures the sentiment.
John Piper - The Imprecatory Psalms

Overall, I found the sermon to be somewhat odd, in the sense that he does seem to affirm the Psalms, he even quotes the passage I quoted, and then right after that, denies their application! It just seems so contradictory. Then at the end, someone even asks a question about the Lord’s prayer (1:11:20-1:12:15), “Thy kingdom come…”, asking if it is an imprecatory prayer, and he says yes, and then becomes somewhat evasive over the judgment aspect of the second coming of Christ. Overall, he seems to be completely uncomfortable with any aspect of judgment which is present in Christianity, which I found to be doctrinally unsound.

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@joncarp Thank you for your response :slight_smile: I think you misunderstood Waltke’s point. Waltke is not a liberal scholar. In fact, his viewpoint is one of the most conservative that you will find anywhere.
Piper is critiquing liberal scholars who deny the truth of Scripture. Waltke would not fall into that category.

To address your specific concerns, I would say the following:

  1. Waltke is not denying the reality of judgment - he is saying that as followers of Jesus we live in a time when God is patiently seeking to save the lost. We pray for our enemies instead of cursing them. God will judge all deeds, both good and evil, on the Day of Judgment.

  2. Waltke’s point about the Lord’s prayer is that Jesus’ Kingdom is not an imprecatory kind of Kingdom. Jesus’ servants did not fight to save Him from the Jews (John 18:36). Jesus Himself says His Kingdom is not of this world. Therefore the prayer “Thy kingdom come” is not an imprecatory prayer.

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@SeanO

I think the main point that I am objecting to can be summed up with the straight forward question:

Can Christians pray the imprecatory Psalms? Yes or No?

If your answer to that question is “No”, for whatever reason, then I think my initial response applies. However, I would be interested to hear what position other members on Connect take on this issue.

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@joncarp Yes, I look forward to hearing other thoughts as well :slight_smile: I think this is a very difficult issue because Jesus told us to pray for our enemies and bless those who persecute us. That seems to conflict with some of the imprecatory Psalms where the Psalmists wishes his enemies’ infants would be dashed against stones.

How do you personally reconcile that tension?

Psalms 137:8-9 - Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.

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@SeanO, Well, I think the short answer to that is, if it’s in the Bible, then it’s kosher.

However, I personally don’t find any tension between what is written in the Psalms and what Jesus teaches.

After all, how could there be since Jesus affirmed the Psalms?

Jesus teaches about a future judgment. The Psalms are speaking about God’s judgment, which is righteous and just.

Should we as individual believer’s pray for people to repent, and show people mercy? Absolutely! However, I don’t believe these Psalms are speaking about an individual’s personal feelings of revenge or animosity, but they are referring to God’s righteous judgment.

Since it’s God’s will to have this judgment, then Christians can pray these Psalms in alignment with God’s will, and God can apply those prayers in His own timing for when He decides to judge the world in truth and righteousness.

This might be an imperfect example but I think it helps to illustrate my point. For example, you could help to reduce crime through merciful means, and then at the same time pray that criminals who are committing crimes would be caught and removed from society. So, I don’t necessarily see it as a contradiction to have mercy and pray for judgment.

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@joncarp Thanks for sharing your perspective :slight_smile: I think your conclusion that we can both show mercy and hope for God’s justice is sound, but I do see clear distinctions between the Old Covenant at Sinai and New Covenant in Christ that I believe alter our attitude in both prayer and action in significant ways. And I think those differences do impact how we read the Old Testament in light of what Jesus has done and who He is… Not that the Old Testament is any less true, but that, as it says in Hebrews 8:13, the Old Covenant has passed away in light of what Jesus has done.

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I would hope that this would come with some serious qualifications. There are a number of things in the Bible that I would not call kosher. Incest, prostitution, murder, betrayal, adultery, just to name a few. I am not sure this would be a good line of reasoning to determine what is and isn’t permissible in a New Testament context.

Unless I am missing something.

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@Joshua_Hansen Hey!

Well, I was actually referring to the Psalms specifically. However, the point I was trying to make was that although the Psalms may have some sayings that you may not dare to utter on your own, due to the fact that the Psalms are Scripture, that should in itself give you the full confidence necessary to pray them without any reservations.

This is an interesting perspective from Waltke. Personally, I am disinclined to see real incompatibility between trusting in God’s justice at the final judgement and praying the imprecatory psalms.

These psalms are poetry—songs, poetic prayers—vehicles for a deep and honest cry of the soul to God. And I think we need to be real about our hearts with God. It is often the artists who help us with this. I am inclined to think the mistake lies in failing to reframe these psalms in our context this side of the cross: our soul may be appalled and roar for divine justice, but we have also beheld the mystery of God’s answer on the cross.

I think this section of a conversation between Eugene Peterson (author of the Bible paraphrase, The Message) and Bono (lead singer of the band U2) is thought-provoking. I like how adding an artist to the discussion challenges and refreshes my engagement with this topic:

Like all of the Old Testament, we do not read the imprecatory psalms apart from our New Testament understanding. For us, standing this side of the cross, these songs have to be understood in light of Christ and New Testament teaching. They can never be understood to negate our calling to move beyond our grief (our response to violence done to us in a fallen world) to cruciform obedience, following Lord, who:

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. (1 Peter 2:23)

Being God, Jesus loved justice; yet he did not raise his hand against his enemies but entrusted himself (his vindication) to the Father who will judge rightly.

It seems to me that we still have the vent of the psalms to pour out the violence of our own hearts to God in prayer (to “cuss without cussing” as Peterson puts it) instead of pouring it back upon those who have done violence to us—and there in our agonized cry to hear Jesus’s own agonized cry, “Father, forgive them!” …critiquing our urge to avenge violence with violence, and challenging us to be conformed to our Lord, “[entrusting ourselves] to him who judges justly.”

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@Lizibeth Great response :slight_smile: For clarification, are you suggesting that we can find in the Psalms an honest cry in the face of great injustice, but that as Christ followers we are bound to pray for those who persecute us as we obey our Lord? If so, I think Waltke would agree. I don’t think, if I am correct, that Walte is saying we should not find meaning in these Psalms. I think he is saying that we should not, as Christians, pray chiefly for judgment upon our enemies in this life, but rather for God’s mercy and grace to save all people—even our enemies.

Your point about the human need to cuss without cussing reminded me of Volf’s argument that only someone who has never experienced real suffering because of injustice can say that judgment day is unnecessary.

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf pgs. 303-304

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@SeanO Excellent quotation from Volf, thank you! I am fully on board with his thesis here, and think it is expressing much of what I am concerned to affirm.

Full disclosure, I didn’t watch the hour and half lecture from Waltke, but only some selections—I was mostly engaging with your synopsis, as I trust you to have represented his thought accurately:) It seems that generally we are thinking on similar lines—I think I get stuck a bit here:

This sounds as if these psalms can’t be prayed or sung—that it is inappropriate to mourn, appeal, and feel indignation over evil. That we on this side of the cross cannot cry as the psalmist did—for God’s justice and for his judgment on evil. This might come as a surprise to the martyrs whom John shows us in Revelation 6:10-11:

They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters were killed just as they had been.

Here it is explicitly those who have followed the way of the Lamb and laid down their lives who make an imprecatory appeal. I certainly agree that

This is important to state.

But I do question if “finding meaning” in the psalms (as you suggested Waltke would affirm) is a strong enough affirmation. I really do think there is room to pray for evil to be judged, to be raw about our thoughts and experience, and to come full circle as we give that up to God and follow Christ in costly forgiveness. I think this may be a process that keeps us from denial: from ignoring or suppressing the reality of the broken reactions going off in us, rushing on to say or pray the right thing. (Granted we may have to say and pray things many time before our feelings catch up!)

I hope this clarifies my thought—and I hope it doesn’t take me too far from Waltke’s perspective, though we may differ (in degree but not theological substance, I think) on proper engagement with these psalms. He is a truly outstanding scholar who I certainly respect: thanks, @SeanO for bringing us into discussion around his thought on this challenging topic!

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@Lizibeth Great response :slight_smile: Personally, I’m still in process on my view of how Christians should use the imprecatory Psalms. I agree we should vent our anger to God rather than act on it and that, as the saints sang in Revelation, it is not wrong to anticipate the judgment of those who commit injustice on the earth.

Waltke, however, drew a distinction between the saints’ song in Revelation, which called for God’s final judgment to come upon the earth, and the imprecatory Psalms, which are situated in the context of Israel as God’s Kingdom on earth. King David wielded the sword, but Jesus told his followers that His Kingdom is not of this world. I think there is something in that difference that should alter how we practically use imprecatory Psalms.

For instance, when I read about my brothers and sisters in Christ who suffer terribly and yet pray for and love their enemies, I sense the calling of Christ who prayed for those who abandoned and misused Him. How does this overwhelming love for all people that results from being forgiven through the cross come together with the imprecatory Psalms? I find it very difficult to hold those two attitudes together simultaneously.

I recognize that in our humanity we will get angry and that not all anger is unrighteous. God is also angry at injustice. And the Psalms can help us express that anger. But I also wonder if Christ is calling us to a deeper kind of love that takes no delight in the punishment of the wicked, but rather in their repentance. A love that upholds justice and also desires that the wicked would reach out their hands to receive mercy.

Richard Wurmbrand

I have seen Christians in Communist prisons with fifty pounds of chains on their feet, tortured with red-hot iron pokers, in whose throats spoonfuls of salt had been forced, being kept afterward without water, starving, whipped, suffering from cold - and praying with fervor for the Communists. This is humanly inexplicable! It is the love of Christ, which was poured out in our hearts. Richard Wurmbrand

Corrie Ten Boom

“It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, a former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there – the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, [my sister] Betsie’s pain-blanched face.

“He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. ‘How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein.’ He said. ‘To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!’ His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.

“Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I prayed, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.

“As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.”

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I am right there with you, @SeanO! I believe that together we are trying to affirm both the validity of expressing ourselves to God with deep honesty and our unequivocal call to the Christ-ethic of loving and forgiving our enemies. Understanding how these difficult psalms serve us in that crucial Christian formation is important—and challenging: as I think we have demonstrated!

No need to wonder. He is absolutely calling us to this kind of love! God himself (notice this is an Old Testament reference) is characterized by this love:

Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?” says the Lord God, “ and not that he should turn from his ways and live? (Ezekiel 18:23)

It is this love of God—the God of the Old and New Testament—which Jesus demonstrates and to which he exhorts his followers. However we are to engage the imprecatory psalms, I am confident it cannot be in a way which undermines this fundamental ethic.

Again, I am with you. But I think what I am trying to explore is whether the imprecatory psalms might be read not so much an attitude to take as a catalyst for an honest expression to God of our pain and anger—which is not in conflict with a Spirit-empowered choice of the will to forgive the grievous wrong. Could this be a a possibility?

To be fair, I think I am envisioning a certain filter in how we are reading the imprecatory psalms. But I find that is our regular practice with all of the psalms. There is always interpretation and reframing going on as we read the psalms from this side of the cross—because not only are we not in a theocratic context, we are also not in the context of temple worship, etc. It is just that we feel the hermeneutical tension when we read these particular psalms because they strike us as more immediately problematic than songs of praise, thanksgiving, etc. But I think we are constantly bridging distance between ourselves and the original singers of the psalter.

I love the testimonies you brought to the fore: the common saints who were empowered by the Spirit to forgive radically, beyond their own ability. This is the divine empowerment each of us need in our own weakness, may God grant this for the sake of Christ’s witness through his church! But what do we do about those among us who—when torn asunder by wickedness perpetrated against them—do not experience this grace? While we the wounded among us to Christlike forgiveness, for many this is a painstaking process of surrender and cross-bearing—not an instantaneous work. I think this road of discipleship may best be begun with honesty and a space for the agonized to cry out to God. I continue to wonder if the imprecatory psalms stand in solidarity with this human reality…not licensing a vengeful spirit, but validating the cry of the wronged…who must ultimately entrust themselves 9and their vindication) to him who judges justly. And who must walk out the long obedience of forgiveness as the Spirit empowers and heals, one day at a time. I bring this up not to be difficult, but just to witness to the reality that while we certainly know the power of God to transform our hearts, not all of us have experienced the fullness of this in one fell swoop—and it is important to keep that in view as a valid reality of sanctification.

In all this, I don’t claim to know exactly how to use the imprecatory psalms! And I think we agree that it is a hermeneutical issue worth wrestling with as we seek to faithfully follow our Lord. I just want to make sure we aren’t prematurely jettisoning something important and valuable—and given by God—for our experience in this broken world.

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@Lizibeth Certainly we must not jettison them and I do not think Waltke was suggesting that we jettison them at all. As I said before, I think Waltke’s position is actually extremely conservative if you listen to the entire video. I don’t think he would deny that we can find honest expressions of agony and anger in the face of injustice in the imprecatory Psalms. But I do think he would say that we should not pray them against our enemies.

And that, I think, is really the point. No one is suggesting we jettison these Psalms or that they have no value. But should we as Christians, after suffering injustice, pray that God bash our enemies’ children against rocks in our anger (Psalms 137:9)? I think not.

I freely admit to praying that God would judge ISIS and put an end to their reign of terror even in this life, by force if necessary, alongside my prayers for the salvation of members of ISIS as individuals. However, I would not pray that God bash their children’s heads in no matter how angry I became - what have their children done? I understand that the Psalmist lived in a context where the Babylonians had indeed just slaughtered the Israelites, including children, and that the Psalmist was praying covenant curses upon the Babylonians because, as a Jew, that was an expression of God’s judgment with which they were familiar. However, I do not have either that cultural context or any desire to see such a thing happen.

Now, if I personally experienced terrible events at the hands of evil men and felt angry enough that I wanted them and all of theirs done in, I might read these Psalms and cry out to God in my anguish and sorrow and anger. And I may see in these Psalms that the righteous indignation at injustice is part of life and that one day God will judge. And these Psalms very well may be critical to processing the terrible sorrow and boiling anger that I experience in the wake of such a tragedy.

But I think there is a large difference between relating to these Psalms and actually praying them that is exacerbated by the cultural distance between them and us.

I agree with your main point - that these Psalms are profitable and we should not jettison them :slight_smile: But I think there is a nuance in Waltke’s position that is being overlooked.

Ahhh I think I see a bit better what you are getting at, @SeanO. I would agree on this point. I don’t think of these psalms as something we “pray against our enemies.” I have been relating to them as things we say to God—not curses we pronounce, as it were.

Yes, I certainly understand that—I don’t mean to suggest that you or Waltke (who I understand to be conservative and whose scholarship I value) would propose that. I should have been more specific: I meant jettison them from our resources for prayer, put them off-limits in some sense.

And I believe you certainly think correctly! But would also add that I do think that particular judgement need not be in view (which is probably why I am more open to “praying” these, that is, letting them help us give vent to our hearts before God). Again, we are always contextualizing. I pray according to the psalm; we rarely mean to pray all the specifics of the psalms—a great deal of them would seem irrelevant to us if this was required for their use. (For instance, when I pray Psalm 65, I don’t think of myself as pronouncing blessing on those chosen to live in Jerusalem near the temple courts.) This is why the genre of the psalter (poetry, song, etc.) is such a gift to us and has enabled their enduring relevance and use across the millennia. They are are intended for reuse and adaptation.

I came across this article which (though I might not agree on every point) offers a perspective on the way in which Christians might appropriately pray these psalms.


I appreciate that this accessible article has useful insights and speaks practically—but also that it admits that praying these psalms is a complex thing and is not a light matter. I think that much for sure we can all agree with by now!

I think to be hermeneutically responsible saying much more on this topic I would want to do a more in-depth study for myself. However, I’m afraid that’s not in the cards just now with my current schedule:/ But I look forward to listening and learning as this thread goes on…

I am grateful you brought this topic forward, @SeanO—thank you! This conversation is grist in the mill of my ongoing process of coming to grips with how to faithfully engage these psalms. I am sure it will be equally fruitful for others who are wrestling with this topic!

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