June and July have been strange and heartbreaking months for Christians in America.
On June 17, Dylan Roof murdered nine people who had gathered for prayer at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The Supreme Court legalized so-called same-sex marriage nationwide on June 26. Finally, July 14 saw the release of disturbing undercover footage of a Planned Parenthood director discussing the sale of tissue and organs from aborted babies. A second video — no less unsettling — emerged last week, with more likely to come.
In the face of these developments, we shouldn’t fall into alarmism or fear-mongering. Jesus has promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against his church (Matthew 16:18). Nor should we exaggerate the plight of the American church, as though our sufferings were on a par with what believers elsewhere have experienced under Boko Haram or ISIS or Kim Jong-un. Things may seem bad in America, yes. But not as bad as they could be.
And yet, we can’t deny that the American church faces opposition, an opposition that could very well increase in the days to come. As we think of how to respond biblically, we would do well to take up one of the resources God has given us for our joyful resilience: the psalms of judgment.
Sing a Song of Judgment
Sometimes called “the imprecatory psalms,” these songs of judgment call on God to punish the enemies of his people. To give an example, David prays in Psalm 69 against “those who hate me without cause” (Psalm 69:4). He cries out to God,
Let their own table before them become a snare; and when they are at peace, let it become a trap. Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually. Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them. (Psalm 69:22–24)
Because we believe that the Bible is authoritative and without error, we likely wouldn’t criticize David for praying the way he did in this passage. But the situation becomes hairier when we try to apply David’s words to our own experience. Can we pray the way David did? Can we ask for God to pour out his indignation upon our opponents? Aren’t we supposed to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44)? If, say, a lesbian couple were to sue us for not baking a cake for their wedding reception, shouldn’t we turn the other cheek instead of asking for God to make their loins tremble continually?
Yes, we should love our enemies. And yes, we should turn the other cheek (even while we press for justice in the legal system, as in Acts 22:25–29). And we should also yield up our cloaks and walk the extra mile and return good for evil.
And that’s exactly why we need the psalms of judgment.
Love Your Enemies and Pray for Judgment
In Romans 12, Paul warns his readers against taking vengeance into their own hands. “Repay no one evil for evil,” he writes, “but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all” (Romans 12:17). Again, in verse 19 he writes, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves.” So far so good. But notice the motivation Paul gives for this kind of otherworldly love: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19).
We can do good to our enemies because we know that God will, at some point, return their evil on their own heads. Reminding ourselves, then, of God’s judgment does not undermine the call to love. Neither does actively praying for this judgment, especially if we make it a practice to reflect on the imprecatory psalms and to incorporate their language into our pleas to God for deliverance.
In what situations, though, are the psalms of judgment appropriate? This question raises a raft of issues, more than we have space to consider here. We can move toward an answer, though, by considering who are — and who are not — our enemies.
Who Are Our Enemies?
We should not pray the psalms of judgment indiscriminately. They are not intended for people who cut us off in traffic, or chew with their mouths open, or launch fireworks in the neighborhood at ungodly hours of the night (I have had to restrain myself on this last one).
Nor, I would argue, are the psalms of judgment intended for unbelievers in general. While it is true that the ungodly, without exception, live at enmity with God (Romans 5:10; 8:7–8), not all unbelievers are enemies of God’s people in the strict sense that we’re talking here. Let me explain.
At the risk of oversimplifying, we can divide humanity into four groups: (1) friends inside the church, (2) enemies inside the church, (3) friends outside the church, and (4) enemies outside the church. I find such distinctions to be helpful for deciding when it’s appropriate to pray the psalms of judgment.
Friends inside the church would be those who, like Mark in 2 Timothy 4:11, are genuine believers and who support the work of gospel ministry. I also would include in this group those believers who are ornery and who hinder fruitful ministry, but nevertheless preach the gospel faithfully (as in Philippians 1:15–18).
Enemies inside the church are those who claim to follow Jesus but who deny him by distorting core biblical teaching. Paul has these kinds of enemies in mind when he writes, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9). In our context, I would argue that people who claim to be Christians while advocating for homosexual practice (and other forms of sexual sin) should be considered enemies inside the church.
Friends outside the church are unbelievers who nevertheless find common cause with the church’s ministry in some key aspect. The tribune in Jerusalem was such a friend to Paul. Though we have no indication in the text that he was a believer, the tribune still protected Paul from the Jews’ plot to murder him and gave Paul safe passage to Felix the governor (Acts 23:16–30). I would consider modern-day organizations like Secular Pro-Life and Pro-Life Humanists as friends outside the church.
Finally, enemies outside the church are unbelievers who both reject God and show open hostility toward God’s people and toward their message. Herodias was an enemy in this sense, plotting John the Baptist’s death because he opposed her marriage to Herod (Mark 6:14–29). Planned Parenthood, in my judgment, has long positioned itself as an enemy outside the church.
Pray with the Scriptures
To be sure, this fourfold division of society needs more nuancing. Within the category of enemies outside the church, for example, there are degrees of antagonism. Herodias was more clearly an enemy of John’s than Herod was. Herod had imprisoned John and had given the order for John’s beheading, yet Mark tells us that Herod was conflicted over the Baptist and kept him safe as long as he could (Mark 6:20).
So the categories are limited. But they do demonstrate the need to draw an important distinction in our prayers: The psalms of judgment should only be applied in situations involving enemies both inside and outside the church. The goal of these prayers is that God would uphold the honor of his name by vindicating his servants and by extending his saving message to the ends of the earth.
Of course, we will need wisdom in praying the psalms of judgment. The complexities abound. But let’s not allow the complexities to keep us from fighting this good fight. Let’s move toward the psalms of judgment, asking God for help. David says of God, “He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze” (Psalm 18:34). The psalms of judgment are like so many bows of bronze: mighty weapons, but difficult to use. So let’s not leave them untried. Instead, let’s ask God for heavenly skill.
He will be pleased to give it.