Should a Christian Pray for God’s Vengeance?
One of the first challenges to the modern reader when foraying into the Psalms are the prayers for God’s vengeance upon the writers enemies. I am talking about the “knock out their teeth, drive them into the dust and strike them dead” kinds of prayers. Surely Psalm 58 represents such material well.
These wicked people are born sinners; even from birth they have lied and gone their own way. They spit poison like deadly snakes; they are like cobras that refuse to listen, ignoring the tunes of the snake charmers, no matter how skillfully they play. Break off their fangs, O God! Smash the jaws of these lions, O LORD! May they disappear like water into thirsty ground. Make their weapons useless in their hands. May they be like snails that dissolve into slime, like a stillborn child who will never see the sun. God will sweep them away, both young and old, faster than a pot heats on an open flame. The godly will rejoice when they see injustice avenged. They will wash their feet in the blood of the wicked. Then at last everyone will say, “There truly is a reward for those who live for God; surely there is a God who judges justly here on earth.”
To say this least, this is…harsh. When we read such material, we must find the courage to face the obvious question, “What are we supposed to do with this stuff?” I think there are essentially two options: 1) Determine it to be Pre-Christian Material (which it is) and render the really disturbing stuff in the Old Testament (there is more) null and void due to the advent of Christ and the New Testament. The problem is that if we begin to do theology this way, there is not a place to stop. Before long, in our efforts to “adjust” those few Biblical passages we cannot “reconcile,” we give away the whole of the Authority of Scripture. Or 2) Determine the whole of the Bible contains God’s Word and work through the difficult parts. I choose door number two!
I really like the Psalms, they are honest. In many ways, the Psalms are an affront to our attempts to appear better than we are. The authors think things you are not supposed to think, say things you are not supposed to say and express feelings you are not supposed to express. When I read Psalm 58, I must confess to the times I have felt that way about my enemies and thought, said and felt similar things. I am not proud of this reality, but it remains a matter of fact. So the question before us at such an inglorious moment is, “What now?” What do I do when I feel like I shouldn’t feel, think what I shouldn’t think and say what I shouldn’t say? Theologian Walter Bruggemann offers that we have three options: 1) We can act out those feelings. Indeed we see this in acts of violence all over the world today. 2) We can deny those feelings knowing that repressed things come out in unexpected and often unhealthy ways. Or 3) We can give those feelings over to God. Bruggemann suggests that in prayers for vengeance, the author says their piece to God and then leaves it with God. Paul reminds us in Romans that vengeance is God’s to administer, not ours. Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. –Romans 12:19
It might be good and well to leave our discussion there but I don’t think we can in a Christian context. Somewhere we must factor in what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount about loving our enemies and praying for our persecutors. But how do we get from here (prayers against enemies) to there (prayers for enemies)? For me, the answer is simple, one step at a time. Christian prayers for our enemies may start out much like Psalm 56 but if we consistently pray for our enemies, Christ will simply not allow them to stay there. Through consistent prayer, we slowly (even glacially) begin to see others through Jesus’s eyes and what was despicable turns to pitiful and what was evil turns to lost. Through prayer, the Christian disposition begins to shift from “punish them” to “save them.” In this incremental swing, we move from our will toward our enemies (that their lying tongues turn green and begin to swell) to God’s will for our enemies (that their lives by transformed through life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ). We move from prayers of damnation to prayers for salvation.
So should a Christian pray for vengeance upon our enemies? I would suggest that it is a terrible place to end but it may be the only place many of us can start.
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop is the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois.