William Gurnall on the Imprecatory Psalms

A few weeks ago, I had the enjoyably awkward experience of being asked to read Psalm 58 out loud in public.  If you’re not familiar with Psalm 58, I’m not really surprised.  It’s certainly not one that lends itself to daily application in the life of a Christian.  It contains such prayers as:

  • “O God, break their teeth in their mouths” – verse 6.
  • “[Let them be] like the stillborn child who never sees the sun” – verse 8b.
  • Or my personal favorite, “Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime” – verse 8a.

Whoa there!  Psalm 58 is one of the imprecatory psalms.  The denotation “imprecatory” comes from the word “imprecation,” which the 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language (one of my favorite books in my library) defines as “the act of invoking evil on any one; a prayer that a curse or calamity may fall on any one.”

There are actually quite a few imprecatory psalms.  Psalm 109 is another blatant example, as well as Psalms 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 58, 69, 79, 83, 137, 139, 143, and others.

During the course of any conscientious reading of the psalms, each Christian is bound to wonder exactly what place these psalms hold in the Christian life.  Believing, as we do, in the infallibility and timelessness of Scripture, we know that we can’t simply throw them out. And yet they seem so angry, so blatant, so hateful.  Perhaps they just applied during the Old Testament, back in the days when God’s people were commanded to wage holy war on physical enemies.  Perhaps they are merely artifacts of a long-gone time in redemptive history, merely to be read as a curiosity.

Or perhaps there is a way in which Christians can and should still make use of these psalms in our prayers and meditations.  But how?  To answer that question is the subject of many books, articles, sermons, and blog posts.  I’m sure that we will return to this question again and again in our meditations and discussions here on URC Psalmody.

But for today, I would like to present one helpful resource on the question of imprecatory psalms.  William Gurnall was an English pastor who lived from 1616-1679.  He is best known for his book The Christian in Complete Armor, a 1100+ page examination of spiritual warfare, using Ephesians 6 as an outline.  It’s an excellent resource.  Of interest to our topic today are his comments on Ephesians 6:18, “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.”  In this section, Gurnall discusses various types of prayer, including imprecatory, “wherein the Christian imprecates the vengeance of God upon the enemies of God and His people.”

Gurnall’s comments (found on pages 444-448 of volume II of the Hendrickson edition) are invaluable.  In them, he offers 4 warnings and guidelines to the Christian who is praying an imprecatory prayer.  These 4 guidelines, I believe, are excellent words of advice for us as we read, pray, and sing any imprecatory psalm.

1. “Take heed thou dost not make thy private particular enemies the object of thy imprecation.”  In other words, do not pray an imprecatory psalm about any specific enemy you may have (or think you have).  Christ calls us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44).  If we are tempted to pray such a psalm about a specific person, we are acting out of hate.

2. “When thou prayest against the enemies of God and His church, direct thy prayers rather against their plots than person.”  So instead of praying such a psalm about a particular person, pray such a psalm about evil plans and designs.  Gurnall calls our attention to the example of the Apostles in Acts 4:29 – they pray against the threats and plans of the Council rather than against the Council members themselves.

3. “When praying against the persons of those that are open enemies to God and His church, it is safest to pray indefinitely and in general.”  Gurnall points out that we do not know the eternal fate of particular people.  Even the vilest persecutor of the church may repent and turn to Christ – look at Saul/Paul!  So rather than praying against specific persons by name, pray these psalms against the the enemies of God in general.  Pray these psalms about movements that are actively attacking the church, but not against the individual members of the groups – pray rather for their conversion.

4. “In praying against the enemies of God and His church, the glory of God should be principally aimed at, and vengeance on them in order to that.”  Examine your heart.  Are you praying this psalm because you want to glorify God, to have His name glorified, to have blasphemous words and actions removed?  Or are you merely seeking comeuppance, vengeance, and your own peace?

If all of these warnings are taken to heart, then as Christians we may read and pray and sing the imprecatory psalms.  If they are read in such a way, Gurnall points out that these psalms can bring (1) comfort to the persecuted church and (2) a warning to the wicked of the eternal consequence of their actions.

The imprecatory psalms are a part of our Christian Scripture.  As such, they should not be skipped, rushed over, or ignored.  But, in order to read them properly, in a distinctly Christian way, guidelines and advice such as Gurnall’s are invaluable.

LINKS:

The complete text of Gurnall’s book is accessible online, HERE.

The specific section on imprecatory prayer is found in THIS SECTION, near the bottom (look for “Third Kind of Petitionary Prayer – The Imprecatory”).

-JDO

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