As you read this, unspeakable evil is being perpetrated against Ukrainian people by Russian invaders. It is hard for me to imagine such horror being committed, especially against civilians. The Russians are using all sorts of military options to crush Ukraine: tanks, missiles, heavy artillery, rockets, warplanes and warships. Here’s my question: what weapons do we have to fight this evil?
Paul answers that question in 2 Corinthians 10. There, we read (vv. 3-4): “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.” Let me be honest, Paul’s words here sound less than helpful. I want a legion of angels at our disposal. I want access to plagues of locusts and flies and boils and hail. I want fire to rain down from heaven, and I want the earth to open up and swallow the Russian forces. And yet, Paul says the weapons we are to use are powerful. In fact, they have “divine power to demolish strongholds.” See, our weapons consist of prayer and faith and an unwavering trust in God’s sovereignty, goodness and justice. And where do we go to arm ourselves with these weapons? We go to the book of Psalms. We go to the psalms of lament, and we go to the psalms of imprecation. These are our weapons.
Now, you can be forgiven if you aren’t terribly familiar with either the Psalms of lament or imprecation. They are not what we usually focus on in a worship service (worship services are designed to be more upbeat and praise-oriented; and trust me, these psalms are neither). For that reason, we seldom pray these psalms on a Sunday morning. We feel that our worship services should be rated G or maybe when the need arises, PG. But psalms of lament are definitely PG-13, and the psalms of imprecation move beyond that. They are a lot more heated, a lot more violent and a whole lot more disturbing than the more familiar psalms. In short, they are words of a holy rage.
Tish Warren defines the imprecatory psalms. She writes: “An imprecation is a curse. The imprecatory psalms are those that call down destruction, calamity, and God’s judgment on enemies.” But defining the term is not the problem. The problem is that these words are found in the same Bible as the words of Jesus. See, Jesus calls us to love our enemies, to forgive those who sin against us and to overcome evil with good. The imprecatory psalms seem to move us in the opposite direction. And this leads Warren to add this personal comment, a comment with which I fully agree. She writes: “Honestly, I don’t usually know what to do with them.” Most of the time, I also don’t know what to do with these psalms. They don’t fit on Sunday mornings. They aren’t quite the stuff of which great devotions are made. They aren’t material for hymns or songs of praise. They occupy this strange no-man’s land position, marked with a label that says, “for emergency use only.”
Esther found herself in an awkward position. She was a Jew who was married to a pagan king who had just ordered the murder of all Jews. She knew she also didn’t belong. And so, she cried out to God for guidance and direction—something that would make sense of all that was happening. Mordecai, her cousin, put it all in perspective. He said (Esther 4:14), “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” We ask, “What are we to do with these violent psalms?” And now, we see. They were given to us “for such a time as this.”
Now, that does not lessen the shock of these words. They are overwhelming and, in some cases, unimaginable. Consider the following six examples:
- “[May] whoever digs a hole and scoops it out fall into the pit they have made. [May] the trouble they cause recoil on them; [may] their violence come down on their own heads.” (Ps. 7:15-16)
- “Break the teeth in their mouths, O God; Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions! Let them vanish like water that flows away; when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short. May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along, like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.” (Ps 58:6-8)
- “May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever.” (Ps 69:23)
- “Make them like tumbleweed, my God, like chaff before the wind. As fire consumes the forest or a flame sets the mountains ablaze, so pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your storm. Cover their faces with shame, Lord, so that they will seek your name. May they ever be ashamed and dismayed; may they perish in disgrace.” (Ps. 83:13-17)
- “May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes. May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor. May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children. May his descendants be cut off, their names blotted out from the next generation. May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord; may the sin of his mother never be blotted out.” (Ps 109:9-14)
- “Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” (Ps. 137:8-9)
You can see why we don’t normally pray these psalms on Sunday mornings, but you can also see their great worth to the church for such a time as this. These words are given to us so that we can convey our anger at injustice, our indignation at evil, and our exasperation at the wickedness of man. At the end of Hosea, the prophet instructs the people saying, “Take these words with you,” and then he provides words of repentance for them to pray. Here, the psalmist says, “Take these words with you,” and then he provides us with words to use to combat evil in the world. And it is to our benefit that he does. See, I can’t trust myself in these situations to pray properly, to pray in a way that honors God, submits to his will and seeks to advance his kingdom. If left to my own devices, I will pray out of anger and selfishness and fear. But now, I have the right words to say. I can pray God’s Word back to him and know that he will hear me. I can pray these psalms and cry out for God to act. I can pray these words and know that God will hear them because he is a God of justice, of righteousness and of truth. He is a God who avenges evil. He is a God who cannot ignore the cries of the afflicted. He is a God of wrath who repays all wickedness. And that is why we pray (Psalm 94:1-3): “The Lord is a God who avenges. O God who avenges, shine forth. Rise up, Judge of the earth; pay back to the proud what they deserve. How long, Lord, will the wicked, how long will the wicked be jubilant?”
Our God is a God who avenges the wrongs done to his creation. Again, let me quote Tish Warren: “We don’t forgo vengeance because we think that human evil is not worthy of vengeance but because we believe God is the avenger. We do not hope for peace only because we are indignant over unjust violence but also because we believe God is indignant and his judgment (not ours) can be trusted.” That’s why we have these words. We have them for such a time as this.
C.S. Lewis adds another dimension to this conversation. In his little book, Reflections on the Psalms, he underscores the reality of evil. He writes: “If the Jews cursed more bitterly than the Pagans, this was, I think, at least in part because they took right and wrong more seriously. For if we look at their railings, we find they are usually angry, not simply because these things have been done to them, but because these things are manifestly wrong, are hateful to God as well as to the victim.” The imprecatory psalms declare in no uncertain terms that evil exists and it is hateful to God and that our calling is to stand with God and to proclaim evil as the horror it is. If evil is real, we need these psalms.
And that is why we pray:
O righteous and holy God who detests wickedness and avenges evil,
Break the teeth of those who perpetrate evil on the innocent.
May the trouble they cause recoil on them,
and may the violence they enact come down upon their own heads.
May these Russian invaders have their eyes darkened so they cannot see
And may their back be bent forever.
Consume the Russian army with the fire of your holy vengeance.
May those who seek to terrify the innocent, be terrified.
May those who seek to kill others, die in disgrace.
May those who seek to plunder, be plundered.
May the children of these invaders become fatherless and their wives become widows.
And may no one extend kindness to them.
Daughter Russia, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done.