Recently, a dear friend and fellow church member of mine, Russell Meek, wrote a post for For the Church on 4 Reasons to Preach Imprecatory Psalms that is incredibly helpful; I recommend it highly. In this post, I would like to piggy-back off of Russs’ piece in order to elaborate on how the gospel explicitly informs our reading of these psalms. I’m going to argue that rather than undermining the imprecatory psalms, the gospel actually "beefs them up" quite a bit.
The Gospel Is Where Justice Is Supremely Demonstrated
The ache for justice in the imprecatory psalms may seem problematic for evangelicals at first glance. After all, these psalms are pleas for God to administer justice to his enemies. “Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them” (Psalm 69:23). Back in the day, the distinction between those who prayed and those who paid was pretty easy to make; God’s people were these people over here, and the enemies — who needed to have their teeth kicked in — were those people who were trying to kill God’s people over there. However, on this side of history — that is, the side that looks back on the cross — things get a little bit more complicated, because every current enemy is a potential child of God. Been collecting Christian heads lately? Then you are in luck; you have just become a prime candidate for grace!
Certainly, we should view the enemies of the Church in such a light, because “we regard no one according to the flesh” (2 Corinthians 5:16). However, this doesn’t remove the Christian’s longing for justice to be administered. We still (rightfully) get outraged over the loss of Christian heads in the Middle East. We still (rightfully) get outraged over the millions of infant image bearers who are hacked up into tiny pieces before they see daylight. We still (rightfully) get outraged over the dehumanizing and deplorable act trafficking people for the gratification of unbridled lust. And some of us still (rightfully) get outraged over the life-sucking industry of pornography that fuels many of these travesties. In all of this outrage, we show our deep disapproval of sin.
And at the cross, God commends our outrage over injustice. At the cross, God says, “I hate that! I despise sin so much, it pleases me to crush it.” The very worst thing we could ever say about sin would never come close to what God has said about sin on the cross. No intense hatred we have for sin could ever come close to God’s level of intense hatred for sin, which he demonstrated on the cross. When God the Father poured out his wrath on Jesus, it wasn’t because Jesus gave him a dirty look; Jesus was the object of the Father’s wrath because he was “made to be sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). That’s how much God hates sin; so much so that a sin-covered Jesus would be pulverized for it.
Union With Christ As Answer to Prayer
Not only does the crucifixion of Jesus show us that God agrees that injustice is outrageous, it also shows us that God delights to answer imprecatory prayers. How? Think for a moment about what imprecatory prayers are asking God to do. Would “slay the wicked” be a fair summation? (Even that sounds nicer than “Let burning coals fall upon them! Let them be cast into fire, into miry pits to rise no more!” Psalm 140:10). Now, what happens when a person is united to Christ and crucified? God slays the wicked!
I can imagine Roman Christians praying these imprecatory psalms against the notorious enemy of the church, Saul. If they were in fact praying these prayers, it would certainly be appropriate for the Apostle Paul to assure them that their prayers had been answered. “I have been crucified with Christ! God has slain the wicked!”
The Invitation to Come and Be Slain
Here’s the reality: God will vindicate his holiness by pouring out wrath on the injustice that disregards it; and when he does, his church will rejoice (Revelation 19:1-5). Whether he pours his wrath out on the wicked alone, or on the wicked in Christ, God will show himself to be just and the justifier.
All of this means that Christians don’t have to choose between praying for their enemies to be saved, and praying for their enemies to be destroyed; in the gospel, those two prayers are one and the same. “Hear this, all you wicked of the earth,” we proclaim, “you will certainly be slain by the righteous judge of the universe. Come and be slain in Christ, so that you might rise again with him!”