|The murder of Absalom, J. Paul Getty Museum|
Are there some psalms that bother you because they seem to advocate violence? Some of these psalms ask God for strength to defeat foes, while others ask God to directly inflict injury on enemies. Psalms 55, 59, 69, 79, 109, 137 give examples of a whole genre of Hebrew poetry, called imprecatory psalms. Imprecatory psalms often utilize very colorful language when praying injury and judgment for enemies. How do Christians deal with these kinds of Psalms, since they seem so contrary to the love taught by Jesus?
Some have suggested that the Old Testament authors often reflected a pre-Christian ideal. In some sense, this is true, because they did not have a full revelation of Jesus Christ, who He was, and what His teachings would be. But taken in its fullest sense, this presents a difficulty because we also say that God’s word is inspired. If what we find only expresses human struggle and not divine qualities, then Psalms is no more than a book of poetry. But if we understand the Bible as fully divine with no human characteristics, then we would never see human personality peeking through (which, of course, we do). It’s important to have a balanced view of what we mean when we say that God is the author of the Bible, and that David also wrote this psalm. The Bible is both fully human and fully divine, and does reflect qualities of both. We hear divine truth coming through human pain, anger, and struggle.
Have you ever been so angry that you wanted to “pray against” somebody? What feelings were inside you at the time? Were you afraid to pray against them? Did you feel justified? Did you actually do it, or did you just think about it? Let’s look at Psalm 3, one of the psalms where David prays against his enemies.
1 LORD, how many are my foes!3 But you, LORD, are a shield around me,
How many rise up against me!
2 Many are saying of me,
“God will not deliver him.” Selah
How many rise up against me!
2 Many are saying of me,
“God will not deliver him.” Selah
my glory, the One who lifts my head high.
4 I call out to the LORD,
and he answers me from his holy mountain.
5 I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.
6 I will not fear though tens of thousands
assail me on every side.
7 Arise, LORD!
Deliver me, my God!
Strike all my enemies on the jaw;
break the teeth of the wicked.
8 From the LORD comes deliverance.
May your blessing be on your people. Selah
The Bible student has to remember here that David is not praying this prayer out of vindictiveness or hatred. In fact, the foes he is talking about are his son Absalom and his followers. Absalom led many in revolt against David, upsetting his kingdom and threatening his throne (2 Samuel 15-18). When Absalom’s forces are finally defeated and Absalom is killed, David’s grief overflows with tears. “The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son (2 Samuel 18:33)!”
David prays for justice to come to Absalom and his followers. In imprecatory psalms, the original speakers, in the original contexts, had some right to pray for God’s justice in dealing with the ungodly. This is no more than praying for what God plans to do anyway. In his article, “Do the Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics Clash?” Jason Jackson observes:
If these prayers of malediction were intrinsically sinful, one would have a difficult time explaining the Lord’s “curse” upon Capernaum (Matthew 11:23-24), Paul’s prayer of anathema upon false teachers (Galatians 1:8-9), the apostle’s denunciation of Alexander the coppersmith (2 Timothy 4:14), and the prayer of those martyrs who, under the altar of God, asked for vengeance from the Lord (Revelation 6:10).
If hatred is not the motivation for imprecations, what is the motivation? How can David pray about his son, “Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked (Psalm 3:7)?” (Almost) more importantly, how can Christians read these words and receive instruction or inspiration from them?
We can understand this in a couple of different ways. First, we see that these are not prayers that express hate. They are, instead, prayers that recognize that God is not mocked; God’s enemies will not endure. These prayers simply ask for God’s justice. In Hard Sayings of the Old Testament, Walter Kaiser writes:
They [these hard sayings] are not statements of personal vendetta, but they are utterances of zeal for the kingdom of God and his glory. To be sure, the attacks which provoked these prayers were not from personal enemies; rather, they were rightfully seen as attacks against God and especially his representatives in the promised line of the Messiah.
We have to see Psalm 3 as a king and father’s response to a satanic attack against not only himself, but against the line that would eventually sire the Messiah. Throughout the Psalms we see David’s insight into the Messiah who would eventually come through him. Jesus would be born out of Solomon’s line (legally-speaking) on Joseph’s side (Matthew 1:6-7), and out of David’s son Nathan’s line (Luke 3:31) on Mary’s side. If Absalom had succeeded in his rebellion, David’s line would have continued, but Satan would have thwarted the intended birth of Jesus. So when David prays against his enemies, he prays not only against Absalom and his followers. He prays against Satan and his demonic hoards.
In verses 1-2, the psalmist considers his enemies, saying, “LORD, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, ‘God will not deliver him.’ Selah.” The selah at the end of those verses becomes very important when we start thinking about praying against our enemies. Selah means “Pause and reflect.” First, as any good general knows, it’s important to assess the size of the enemy army. But second, the word reminds the psalmist and the singer/prayer to pause and rest. “Before getting too angry, pause and reflect. Find a place of peace before you pray the rest of this prayer. Selah.”
Verse 3 says, “But you, LORD, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high.” God is our defender. Ephesians 6:11 says, “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” Most of the armor listed in the next passage is defensive, including the helmet of salvation, breastplate of righteousness, belt of truth, shoes of the readiness of the gospel of peace, and shield of faith. Only one piece is offensive, the sword of the Spirit. This passage in Psalm 3 seems reminiscent of the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation, which protect both the head (thinking) and the whole physical person.
Verse 4 says, “I call out to the LORD, and he answers me from his holy mountain.” This verse is about prayer. Ephesians 6:18 echoes this with these words: “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” Praying in the spirit means expressing your heart to God, trusting Him to meet your needs, and resting in His care. It means being so in tune with God’s will that what you pray is already in God’s will. The more you get in touch with God’s spirit and discern what God’s will really is, the more you’ll find your prayers being answered—not because you’ve become better at convincing God to do what you want, but because you’ve become better at discerning God’s will and praying it.
If you find yourself in a season of exhausting spiritual warfare in your life, then verse 5 is significant to you: “I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.” It is important to get adequate rest, especially during times of struggle. The irony is that during the times of greatest struggle, often stress robs the body of sleep. The psalmist reminds the reader that even during these times, his confidence is in God. Because he places his total trust in the Lord, he knows he can rest secure. Both rest and wakefulness are a gift from God. Verse 5 reminds us to take care of ourselves. Get proper rest. Practice good self-care. Then, when you’re in a position of spiritual battle, you’ll be prepared for whatever comes.
In verse 6, David says, “I will not fear though tens of thousands assail me on every side.” How can this be? Because he knows that he has a purpose to fulfill. Just as he was confident in the face of Goliath, so he is confident in the face of all his enemies.
Verse 7 begins the imprecations against David’s enemies: “Arise, LORD! Deliver me, my God! Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked.” Keep in mind that David (1) is praying for God’s justice and not out of hatred towards his own son; (2) is likely using figurative speech and doesn’t actually want Absalom’s teeth broken, nor a hair on his head injured (In 2 Samuel 18:5, David says, “Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake.”); and (3) is referring to his spiritual and demonic enemies, that deserve God’s swiftest wrath.
Verse 8 says, “From the LORD comes deliverance. May your blessing be on your people. Selah.” In spiritual warfare, we are reminded that our deliverance comes not from our own cleverness, not from our own strength, but from the Lord. David ends his psalm with a blessing on God’s people, and a second call to pause and consider, to meditate on the things he has just said. Don’t enter into spiritual warfare lightly, but carefully consider all these things when confronted with an enemy.
 Jackson, Jason. “Do the Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics Clash?”
 Kaiser, Walter. 1988. Hard Sayings of the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.