Pray for Enemies—and against Them? Lessons from the Psalms

Christians pray for their enemies—but should they also pray against them? Consider two verses. Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44). But David says—of an enemy—“Let there be none who extend to him loyal love, nor any who pities his orphans. Let his descendants be cut off. Let their name be blotted out in the next generation” (Ps 109:12–13).

Are Jesus and David contradicting one another?1  Should we pray “imprecations” (prayers for God to bring retributive justice to wicked enemies) like these?2 

In this excerpt, adapted from May/June 2021 Bible Study Magazine, Adam J. Howell considers these sticky questions—and how we can rightly apply the imprecations from the Psalter to pray for enemies in our own lives.

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The first thing we must remember is that the imprecatory prayers of the Psalms are inspired Scripture and therefore profitable in the Christian life. We cannot disregard these portions of God’s Word or pass them off as irrelevant to Christianity because of their perceived ancient barbarism. They are indeed “profitable . . . that every person of God may be equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16–17).   

Certain psalms are sometimes called “imprecatory psalms,” but this isn’t quite right. There are no psalms in the Psalter that are entirely filled with imprecations. Rather, the imprecations are found in psalms that convey a cry for reprieve from deep distress, sometimes distress inflicted even from close friends (Ps 55:12–14).    

When we understand these psalms in their original contexts, we find that these prayers are not comprehensive vindictive attacks from the psalmists; they are not the equivalent of nasty comments on social media.

Instead, they are expressions of deep trust in the Lord to execute justice in ways that are fitting to the retribution principle, a concept that was entirely fitting to the biblical world—and ought to be in ours. Without retribution or punishment, there is no justice. In many of these imprecations, the psalmist asks the Lord to do to his enemies what they have done to him (for example, Ps 137:8–9), and, importantly, he entrusts that outcome to the Lord’s will, not his personal vindication. He is not promising to take revenge; he is leaving vengeance in the just hands of God. 

How can Christians rightly pray for enemies?

Desire no harm

First, our primary desire cannot be the harm of another image-bearer. Instead, like the psalmists, our cry to God is an expression of our hope and trust in him to ease our suffering. God is not our cosmic genie to wipe out our enemies, and we should not be surprised when he answers any vindictive imprecations with a resounding, “No.” The psalmists were writing in desperate situations. Do our experiences really rise above “frustrating nuisance” to the level of “legitimate injustice,” as theirs did?

That being said, some of us will experience severe injustice at some point, perhaps too difficult to imagine. It is at these times that the imprecations in the Psalms may mean the most to God’s beleaguered people. Cries for justice are good, not evil. When we cry out to God in those moments, of course, we must leave vengeance in God’s hands rather than thinking our prayer can coerce God to do harm to another image-bearer (Deut 32:35a; Rom 12:19). So examining our motivation for praying these psalms is a good first step in deciding whether you should ever pray these harsh words. Are you really leaving vengeance in God’s hands? Or do you vindictively desire harm against your enemies?

Acknowledge sin

Secondly, praying imprecations can be a reminder to us of the heinousness of sin, including our own. When we conclude that praying for God to curse our enemies is the best course of action, we should also remember that our sin is equally as heinous as the one(s) we are praying against. Jonathan Edwards discusses “hatred” as a religious affection stirred by God’s Spirit; not all hatred is sin.3However, this hatred is not a hatred for another person, but a hatred of sin. If we hate sin committed against us enough to pray curses on someone else, then we also should hate our own sin enough to pray the same for ourselves as God sanctifies us through discipline (Heb 12:5–11). This point simply serves as a reminder that imprecatory prayers should also include a significant measure of humility.

The new covenant in Christ turns our hearts toward our enemies in love and service. When we pray imprecations and leave judgment in God’s hands, it frees our hearts to serve our enemies. When Jesus said, “love your enemies,” I don’t think it was limited to an emotion in our hearts (though that is certainly included!). I think he intended love to be displayed in noticeable action for the benefit of our enemies. When we are spiritually crippled by revenge and hate, we cannot serve our enemies from a pure heart. However, when our prayer for harm against our enemies is actually a way of leaving our personal vengeance in the hands of the Lord, our souls are freed from the hatred that might cripple us. The trick is to examine our hearts and humbly confirm that we are leaving vengeance to the Lord. We should couple our prayer of imprecation with a prayer for God to reveal any vengeance in the recesses of our hearts.

Similarly, when we say it is acceptable for Christians to pray imprecations today, we must also realize that our prayer of imprecation to remove evil may not be God’s chosen method for removing that evil. Rather than judging our enemies to remove the evil, he may save them instead. That’s what he did for us in our rebellion. 

When Jonah brought a message of judgment to Nineveh, he genuinely proclaimed judgment on the Assyrians (Jonah 3:4), and he wanted to see them destroyed. And yet it was God’s will that Nineveh would repent (Jonah 3:5–10). Jonah was not happy with that repentance (Jonah 4:1); his pity party after the success of his ministry is legendary. The question for us is: “Can we pray imprecations against an enemy and still be overjoyed if God draws them to Christ in order to remove their evil?”

Yes, we may be allowed to pray imprecations, but what will be exposed in our hearts when God acts in mercy instead of judgment? Will we be able to praise God for answering our imprecatory words in those moments?

Balance vengeance with humility and caution

The Psalms give us a voice to cry out to God with appropriate language for dire situations. And yet we must balance that vengeance with humility and caution, so that God may deal with our enemies however he chooses. When discussing biblical imprecations in this way, we must also be mindful that some people have suffered from unfathomable evil committed against them. 

In those moments, a prayer of imprecation, handing over these expressions of anger and vengeance to the One who sits on the throne and always judges righteously (Ps 9:4), is probably the correct action. He may answer our prayer affirmatively. He may also remove the evil by saving our enemies. Or he may reserve justice until the final judgment. 

In any of those outcomes, the imprecatory psalms remind us to leave vengeance to the Lord, and they free our hearts to love and serve our enemies.

Scripture quotations are from the Lexham English Bible

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This article about how to pray for enemies originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Bible Study Magazine.

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  1. Adam J. Howell, Bible Study Magazine, “Praying for Enemies . . . and Praying against Them? Applying the Imprecations from the Psalter” (Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA), 36–38.
  2. Adam J. Howell, Bible Study Magazine, “Praying for Enemies . . . and Praying against Them? Applying the Imprecations from the Psalter” (Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA), 36–38.
  3. Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2001), 32.
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Faithlife Staff

Faithlife (makers of Logos Bible Software) is the largest developer of Bible study software and creator of the world's first integrated ministry platform—a full suite of ministry, communication, and management tools for churches.

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Written by Faithlife Staff