Imprecatory is from the Latin imprecari, meaning to invoke or to pray for, and usually has the connotation of invoking or praying for evil or a curse on someone. When the Psalmist asks God to “shatter their teeth in their mouth” (Ps 58:6), or “as wax melts before the fire, let the wicked perish before God” (Ps 68:2), or “let the wicked fall into their own nets” (Ps 141:10) – or my personal favorite, let the wicked “be as a snail which melts away as it goes along” (Ps 58:8) – it is not strange that we might ask, “Should we pray like that?” After all, didn’t Jesus teach His listeners (e.g., Mt 5:44) to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?”
Interestingly, the imprecations of David and Jesus’s appeal for love deal with different contexts, and that is especially apparent in Psalm 7. Notice that Jesus was talking about the enemies of people (Mt 5:43) in a general sense. Further, He was intensifying the commands given in the Mosaic Law to illustrate how far short His listeners came to following it. David, on the other hand was operating under that Law as it had been given through Moses. David recognizes correctly that if a man does not repent (Ps 7:12, Hebrew yeshuv, to return or turn back, in this case), he would face God’s judgment. David is praying very specifically about the wicked (Ps 7:9), when he asks that their evil come to an end. Even more specifically, Cush, form the tribe of Benjamin, is the person in question. David rightly understood that “God is a righteous judge…and has indignation every day.”
In David’s lifetime Israel was in a contract with God. And while the Mosaic Covenant included the element of human enforcement, God also often was directly involved in the enforcement of particular aspects of the covenant. David was asking God to simply work in the way He normally worked. When he prayed for judgment on the wicked, he was not asking for anything odd or unusual.
In this case, apparently the wickedness of Cush had to do with an attempt to destroy David (Ps 7:1-2), and David appeals to God to resolve that specific issue. David had been anointed by God, and understood, as Hannah before him, that “Those who contend with the Lord will be shattered…and [God] will exalt the horn of His anointed” (1 Sam 2:10). This is why David wouldn’t raise a hand against Saul – because David recognized Saul had been anointed by God to be the king in Israel. When David prays for judgment on the wicked who are pursuing him, it is usually with the perspective that they are offending God by seeking to destroy His anointed king. Importantly, David is simply asking God to judge according to the standards already communicated.
But we have to admit, at first glance this appears awfully self-serving right? Anytime someone offends David, he can simply implore God to give his enemies the productivity of a snail, right? But there is more to it than that.
Psalm 7:3-5 illustrates an important aspect of Biblical leadership and provides the key to David’s imprecatory prayers: “O Lord my God if I have done this, if there is injustice in my hands, if I have rewarded evil to my friend or have plundered him who without cause was my adversary, let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it; and let him trample my life down to the ground and lay my glory in the dust.”
In context it seems David is being accused of crimes of character. He implies his innocence, but prays an imprecatory prayer upon himself if he is indeed guilty. One who desires to lead in a Biblical way should be more concerned with right and wrong than with one’s own wellbeing. David illustrates that selflessness here. He presents himself for judgment – to be examined by God. In this instance David illustrates another leadership principle in that he acknowledges he must abide by the same standards as everyone else in the community of Israel. God’s standards were not unique only to some.
It is noteworthy that even though in another context David is guilty of sin (adultery and murder) that carried the penalty of death, when he confessed his sin to God, God had mercy (e.g., Ps 32 and 51). God’s standards have always been high, and still His mercy has always been great.
In assessing David’s prayer, we can conclude that he asks for God’s justice regarding wickedness toward God (which was manifest in tangible ways toward the king God had anointed). Further, David is submitted to God’s standards of justice, and willing to accept the consequences if he fails to meet them. So David is not serving himself, instead he is pursuing the vindication of God’s righteousness, and asserting his own efforts to uphold God’s righteousness and justice.
Today, we are in a different context. We are not called to mete out God’s justice on those who fail to meet His standards. On the contrary, we are reminded that the apparent delaying of His justice is for good reason: “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9).
While David may be credited with modeling faithful prayer in his context (that of Mosaic Law), in our context (the church age) we have the example of Stephen (Acts 7:60), who, when falsely accused and being sent to his death, exclaimed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” God granted Stephen’s prayer in an incredible way, and we can see that in the life of Paul, who was a villain in Stephen’s murder (Acts 8:1), yet God forgave and called him to be an apostle.
Are imprecatory prayers completely off the table for today? Not necessarily (e.g., see Gal 1:8-9), but we certainly see modeled a different emphasis for prayer outside the context of the Mosaic Law. This is yet another reason to be diligent and careful when considering Biblical context.