Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Imprecatory Prayer

I was asked, on another blog, about my view on imprecatory prayer. The catalyst for the inquiry was the shenanigans of Gordon Klingenschmitt.

I have written about Mr. Klingenschmitt before. Klingenschmitt is a former Navy chaplain who was discharged for misconduct. The misconduct involved raising funds for religious purposes (in his case, making videos for evangelical Christianity) off duty, in uniform, at the Pentagon. This is violation—and a breech of ethics.

At the time I wrote that Klingenschmitt could have garnered some respect if, like true civil disobedients, he announced that he both expected and accepted his punishment. But no, he whined like a pants-peeing three-year-old and played the Christian persecution card—which he has since turned into a cottage industry.

This embarrassment of a Christian has posted imprecatory prayers on his website, such as:


"Let us pray. Almighty God, today we pray imprecatory prayers from Psalm 109 against the enemies of religious liberty, including Barry Lynn and Mikey Weinstein, who issued press releases this week attacking me personally. God, do not remain silent, for wicked men surround us and tell lies about us. We bless them, but they curse us. Therefore find them guilty, not me. Let their days be few, and replace them with Godly people. Plunder their fields, and seize their assets. Cut off their descendants, and remember their sins, in Jesus' name. Amen."

Mikey Weinstein is the research director of Military Religious Freedom Foundation. (One who, along with his organization—which in general I have no problems with—is nevertheless prone to unseemly sensationalism.) He is suing Klingenschmitt for inciting violence via imprecatory prayer. Personally I think that is utterly bogus—but that's another matter. And it doesn't diminish the fact that Klingenschmitt is a jackass.

The question I was asked was: what do I think of imprecatory prayer?

I think it has no place in the life of a Christian.

In questions like this, I look for New Testament precedents. Did Jesus employ imprecatory prayer? No. Did the apostles? No. Did the first century church of Acts? No. The recipients of Paul's epistles? No.

Given that there is no example of a imprecatory prayer in the New Testament1 we can ask: was there an occasion pregnant for its use? A biblical teachable moment which provided a golden opportunity to give an example of an imprecatory prayer?

Of course there were many, beginning with Jesus. He had the opportunity to call the wrath of God down upon his murderers. There was Peter and John, persecuted in Acts 4. They did choose civil disobedience, but unlike the miserable Klingenschmitt they chose neither to whine about their punishment nor invoke prayerful visions of violence and reduced life spans upon their oppressors. Paul had almost continuous opportunity, but (just to take one example) instead of calling for God to smite Nero (arguably the greatest oppressor of Christians of all time) he instead writes that we should pray for those ruling over us, not against them. 2

Assuming for the moment that imprecatory prayer, even if acceptable, is "beneath" the dignity of our Lord during his earthly suffering, we can continue to look elsewhere. Perhaps the single best opportunity occurs in Acts 7, when, ironically, Paul (Saul) is the oppressor. The victim is, of course, the very first Christian martyr, Stephen. (Don’t correct me and say the first martyr was Jesus—you know what I mean.) After giving the most overlooked theologically significant sermon in the bible, where for the first time the idea that Christianity is not Judaism is made explicit, Stephen is stoned to death. Does he call for God's wrath on the Sanhedrin? He does not. Instead he imitates Christ in what can only be called the anti-imprecatory model prayer for the New Testament:
Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:60)
Klingenschmitt is praying just the opposite: Hold their sin against them God—punish them and cut off their descendants—for they know exactly what they are doing!

Yet he portrays himself as a modern Stephen—a persecuted Christian.


1 The only possible instance in the New Testament is an obscure passage in the most obscure of books: 9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Rev 6: 9-10). But this appears to be eschatological and generic, not specific to an identifiable living enemy. Besides, it’s in Revelation. Who knows what it really means? Not me, and I couldn’t venture a guess. Clearly it is a pretty wobbly nail to hang an "imprecatory prayer is instructed in the New Testament" coat on.

2 The closest example I can think of when it comes to Paul is his anger over the Judaizers when he writes: As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Gal 5:12.) But he is a) not praying and b) not asking God to castrate the agitators by divine, supernatural surgery.


  1. Hi, David,

    It's not quite imprecatory prayer, but what about James 5:1-6?

    Also, if it's not a valid ... um ... form of expression under the NC, then what happened to it?

    Also, how should we preach on it?


  2. Hi Paul,

    The James passage is a good one to bring up. I have looked at that not as a prayer but a prophesy--most likely of the events of AD 70.

    I'm not a good person to ask how to preach on this. I can only say if I ever taught it in Sunday School I would use the four points:

    1) There is no example in the NT

    2) There is no instruction to use it

    3) There were plenty of golden opportunities in the NT

    4) It, at the very least, does not seem to fit with Jesus' transformational teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.

    By comparison, I think it would be easier to make a case against imprecatory prayer than a case for cessation of gifts, like healing and prophecy.

    The reason I make that comparison is personal bias--I want the NT to teach against imprecatory prayer and for cessationism. I can make (I think) a satisfactory case for the former but not for the latter--I've tried and failed.

  3. David,
    To cover a possible objection to your NT thesis: Paul in I Cor 16:22 (NASB) says: "If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed [anathema]. Maranatha." This doesn't seem to be a prayer, however, and is possible an instruction for them to avoid those who demonstrate they don't love Christ. Also, the meaning of anathema is unclear because it can mean "under the ban," so it's not exactly a destruction idea but a "don't touch" idea. In other words, keep away from those people.

    The imprecatory Psalms are all related to God's covenantal people expressing trust that God will remember His promises to bring Christ. Once Christ has come, these types of prayers don't make sense. The enemies that would destroy the line of David have been defeated.

    All the Best,

  4. As an atheist, I would find being the subject of someone's imprecatory prayers to be amusing in a sad way rather than offensive.