Should Christians pray the vindictive psalms?

Prayer is hard. It doesn’t seem like it should be. It’s just talking to God. But if you’re anything like me, for some reason when it comes to prayer you freeze up and find yourself at a loss for words. You don’t know what to say, and you just feel awkward sitting there by yourself trying to think of things to ask for. But there is good news, you’re told. God has given us a prayer book. He put it in the Bible. When you don’t know what to say you can just go to the book of Psalms and read it out loud. So you open the psalms and try to read a prayer to God. But there are 150 Psalms. Where should you start? You decide to just skip around, and the psalm you happen read doesn’t seem like something you should be praying. It’s either a prayer you feel like you’re not allowed to pray, or a prayer you completely do not relate to.

There are several different kinds of psalms, and some of them are really weird. Here are a few of the psalm categories that most of us don’t know what to do with.

The “Sucks to be me” psalms:

These are often called “Psalms of lament.” But even if you’re having a bad day (or even a bad year), most of us feel like we have it pretty good compared to the guy who wrote these.

Psalm 22:14-15 (NLT) – “My life is poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax, melting within me. My strength has dried up like sunbaked clay. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. You have laid me in the dust and left me for dead.”

The “God, I deserve your help because I’m perfect” psalms:

These are called “Psalms of Innocence.” The writer seems to be saying that he desperately needs God’s help, and since he’s a super awesome holy person, God should gladly oblige. But as Christians we are told that we don’t deserve anything. Everything is a gift. So these psalms feel really weird to pray.

Psalm 17:1-5 (NLT) – “O Lord, hear my plea for justice… Declare me innocent, for you see those who do right. You have tested my thoughts and examined my heart in the night. You have scrutinized me and found nothing wrong… My steps have stayed on your path; I have not wavered from following you.”

The “Kill everyone who doesn’t like me” psalms:

These are called “Imprecatory Psalms” and they are by far the weirdest. Sometimes they are downright disturbing. They seem to be asking for nothing but vengeance.

Psalm 58:6-8 ESV – “O God, break the teeth in their mouths… Let them vanish like water that runs away; when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted. Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime, like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.”

What do Christians do with these psalms?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has some very helpful answers to these questions in his book “Life Together.” Who was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? He was a German Christian leader during WWII. He was a pastor, a theologian, a lover of art and culture, and he was also a part of a plot to try to assassinate Hitler. You can learn more about him here. Anyway, here is how Bonhoeffer answers our dilemma.

“A psalm that we cannot utter as a prayer, that makes us falter and horrifies us, is a hint to us that here Someone else is praying, not we; that the One who is here protesting His innocence, who is invoking God’s judgment, who has come to such infinite depths of suffering, is none other than Jesus Christ Himself.”

So how do we pray the awkward psalms?

1. The psalms of suffering.

“And how shall we pray those psalms of unspeakable misery and suffering, the meaning of which we have hardly begun to sense even remotely? We can and we should pray the psalms of suffering… because all this suffering was real and actual in Jesus Christ, because the Man Jesus Christ suffered sickness, pain, shame, and death, because in his suffering and death all flesh suffered and died. What happened to us on the Cross of Christ, the death of our old man… is what gives us the right to pray these prayers.”

2. The psalms of innocence.

“Can we, with the Psalmist, call ourselves innocent, devout, and righteous? We dare not do so in so far as we are ourselves. We cannot declare our virtue as the prayer of our own perverse heart. But we can and we should do so as a prayer out of the heart of Jesus Christ that was sinless and clean, out of the innocence of Christ in which he has given us a share by faith. In so far as ‘Christ’s blood and righteousness’ has become ‘our beauty, our glorious dress,’ we can and we should pray the psalms of innocence as Christ’s prayer for us and gift to us.”

3. The imprecatory psalms.

“Can we, then, pray the imprecatory Psalms? In so far as we are sinners and express evil thoughts in a prayer of vengeance, we dare not do so. But in so far as Christ is in us, the Christ who took all the vengeance of God upon himself, who met God’s vengeance in our stead, who thus-stricken by the wrath of God—and in no other way, could forgive his enemies, who himself suffered the wrath that his enemies might go free—we, too, as members of Jesus Christ, can pray these psalms, through Jesus Christ, from the heart of Jesus Christ.”

So here’s my challenge. This week pick one of the Psalms from the list above and pray the whole thing. If it is a psalm of suffering, pray as if Jesus were praying it on the cross, and pray with someone else in mind who is currently suffering. If it is a psalm of innocence, pray with thanksgiving and confidence knowing that Jesus’ blood has made you righteous. And if it is an imprecatory psalm, remember that you were Jesus’ enemy and deserve every curse mentioned in that psalm, but instead of wrath, He gave you mercy.

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