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Imprecatory Psalms

IMPRECATORY PSALMS. In some of the psalms, the authors appeal in prayer to God requesting that God pour out His wrath upon their enemies. Notable examples of such psalms are 55, 59, 69, 79, 109, and 137. Even Jeremiah prayed for God’s vengeance to be meted out to those who persecuted him (Jer 11).

Prayers of this nature have raised a moral difficulty. This is esp. true when these petitions are seen as prayers of revenge and therefore regarded as contrary to the teaching of Jesus (Matt 5:43-48).

Paul, in writing to the Romans (3:10-18), used the language of imprecatory prayers to indict those who in their sinfulness defiantly oppose God. When viewed from the perspective of a holy God, the question does arise—as it did with Zephaniah and Habakkuk—concerning God’s tolerance of sin.

In the case of Jeremiah, the circumstances and the context are partially given. Jeremiah’s enemies were seeking the life of a man who had been commissioned to proclaim God’s message to a generation awaiting judgment. If Jeremiah, however, made this request merely on the basis of a self-pitying motive, it must be recognized that possibly his prayer was not acceptable to God.

Basically significant in consideration of these imprecatory passages is the fact that these expressions represent prayers or appeals to God. Those who express them do not execute them but make their appeal to God to implement their request. Ultimately the appeal is subject to divine discretion. Jeremiah declared that God exercises loving kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth (9:23, 24).

When Abraham prayed for the salvation of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities were not saved, but the righteous people were rescued. Abraham made his appeal on the basis that ultimately the judge of all the earth would do right (Gen 18:25). When James and John appealed to Jesus to destroy the Samaritans (Luke 9:54, 55), their prayer was not answered. Whatever the human motivation was in reference to these requests, they were given consideration only in terms of God’s righteous judgment. This same principle undoubtedly prevailed concerning the imprecatory psalms, of which relatively little is known about the particular circumstances in which they were written. See Book of Psalms.


J. Vos, “The Ethical Problems of the Imprecatory Psalms,” Westminster Theological Journal, IV, 123-138; H. E. Guillebaud, Some Moral Difficulties (1949), 126-135.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

im’-pre-ka-to-ri, im-pre-ka’-ter-i.

See PSALMS, VI, 7.