Over the weekend, we saw several significant terrorist actions adding to an already tense world that’s on edge because of public beheadings and lone terror operatives in France, Australia, and now Denmark. In addition to the recent terror attack in Denmark, ISIS releases one of the most insidious videos to date. The high quality video, produced with edgy graphics and high quality picture shows the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Lybia1. These videos are so graphic that most main-stream media outlets simply refuse to run them (understandably). This situation is bad, how bad? Probably worse than anyone is being told. This is leading the western world to view Muslims in a certain way, even if it goes unspoken. You hear the remarks at the grocery store, in line while shopping, at school, at work- most acknowledge the insanity that drives Muslim terrorists. And though no one would deny that not all Muslims are violent, there is an increasing swell to the stereotype that Muslims are odd for believing in a religion that does in fact sanction Islamic global domination (Surah 8:39). With Islamic terrorism out of control and with Christian persecution at an all time high, the question here is, what do we do with the imprecatory prayers in Scripture? Is there a New Testament precedent for such prayers, if not, what relevance do scores of Psalms have for the contemporary church?
One mistake that people make with this question is to think that God coming in physical retribution is something limited to the Old Testament. However, such prayers and theological perspectives actually do have a place in the New Testament and in the lives of New Covenant believers. Here are two prominent places where imprecation is both implied and explicit:
23 When they had been released, they went to their own companions and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, “O Lord, it is You who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them, 25 who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Your servant, said, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, And the peoples devise futile things? 26 ‘The kings of the earth took their stand, And the rulers were gathered together Against the Lord and against His Christ.’ 27 “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur. 29 “And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence,
2 Thessalonians 1:6–9 6 For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, 8 dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,
The theological issues that these NT passages represent are many and variegated. There are massive hermeneutical issues here dealing with the finer points of continuity and discontinuity (Dispensationalism on one end and Theonomy on the other end- I affirm neither and yet agree with both in some degree). There are some very important points of continuity with OT times and some very important distinctions as well. By way of continuity, first, we still have enemies, adversaries and those who are a threat to all mankind (cf. Rom. 13.1-4). Paul told the Philippians to be assured that the “opponents” who persecuted them were being marked out for destruction by virtue of their opposition to the gospel and to the church (Phil. 1.28).
Second, we still believe in the punishment of evildoers (cf. 1 Pet. 4.15). Paul identified that there were things which should be viewed as ethical to all mankind, or at least should be:
Romans 12:17 17 Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.
In God’s common grace, a culture as debased as the Greco-Roman world still understood a universal ethic which everyone including the church can agree with, indeed must agree with. A raving lunatic running through the market place (e.g. Agora), say in Athens, indiscriminately stabbing people at will; we should want the same justice that everyone else wants at that point, even if it entails death (cf. Rom. 13.4). In other words, we should still have a place for common sense justice. This is not at odds with the Biblical world and life view. Suffering for you own foolishness justly is not contrary to the gospel, the punishment of evildoers is not contrary to the gospel, and God’s servants of justice do not contradict the gospel when they administer His wrath (cf. 1 Pet. 2.12-17).
Third, we still desire vindication today:
Revelation 6:9–11 9 When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; 10 and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also.
This is a prayer by those who had been slain because of the Word of God. This is sanctified supplication before the throne of God. These saints know what such a prayer will mean for the persecutors, namely eternal perdition; and yet, they still pray it! Why? Because they longed for vindication for the church even more. There is no shame in wanting vindication for God’s persecuted church, for longing for the end of our enemies— whatever the cost should they perish or not! The reason is that what we seek is not man’s perdition, but the church’s vindication. We are not seeking their destruction but our deliverance; their destruction is a by-product of a vindicated church (cf. Mt. 18.6-7). By praying for God to deliver God’s people from God’s enemies we are praying imprecation. At this point, we are eye to eye with David:
Psalm 3:7 7 Arise, O Lord; save me, O my God! For You have smitten all my enemies on the cheek; You have shattered the teeth of the wicked.
David would be the direct instrument through which many of His enemies were punished with God’s justice. The church no longer fulfills that role. We can form no Christian militia in Christ’s name. We can pray that God would crush His enemies (after all that is what Ps. 2 cited in Acts 4 is all about), we can assure ourselves that persecution is a clear sign of their destruction, we can pray that God would deliver His people even if it means bringing God’s enemies to a swift end. In fact, the Messianic age was an indication that the eschatological destruction of God’s enemies is at hand (cf. Lk. 1.71-74). This is what we are praying for God to do at any point when we pray for His return and the church’s deliverance (1 Thess. 4.13-18; Rev. 22.20). As Dale Ralph Davis has pointed out, “if God’s servants are to ever be vindicated those who crush them must be liquidated and judged.”
Can we love those that persecute the church today? We must! Does that exclude the ability to pray for God’s terrible retribution? It cannot! These two things are not at odds. We know that God is being patient, waiting for His people to be saved (cf. 2 Pet. 3.9). We also know that we can quote the Psalms in our prayers, many of them explicitly ask God to bring His retributive purposes to pass. Perhaps John Piper is on to something when he wrote, “There is a kind of hate for the sinner (viewed as morally corrupt and hostile to God) that may coexist with pity and even a desire for his salvation” So, when we see Coptic Christians having their heads severed in HD, a holy hatred for such evil doers causes us to cry, “Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered” (Ps. 68.1). But because we love our enemies, we can also pray for those who persecute us and pray that God would turn their hearts and save them like He did Paul (Acts 8.58; 9.4-5). In doing this we will be like God (Mt. 5.43-45).
Soli Deo Gloria
Emilio Ramos is the preaching pastor of Heritage Grace Community Church. Pastor Emilio is committed to the expository and exegetical teaching of the Word of God. Emilio is also the author of Convert, From Adam to Christ and the founder of redgracemedia.com- a media ministry devoted to the glory of God’s redemptive grace through Jesus Christ. He and his wife Trisha live in Dallas, TX.