An imprecatory prayer in the Bible is a prayer for God's judgment on someone. David many times prayed for God to judge and even kill his enemies; he would pray for judgment to come upon them severely. How does this square with New Testament praying?
The following question about imprecatory praying was sent to me recently:
"In the Old Testament, they prayed those imprecatory prayers of judgment on their enemies. So why did both Stephen, when he was being stoned in Acts, as well as Jesus when he was being crucified--why did both Stephen and Jesus prayed for their enemies to be forgiven? Why did they not pray an imprecatory prayer instead?"
Imprecatory prayers are especially found among the Psalms of David. An example is seen in Psalms 35:
"Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me! . . . . Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life! Let them be turned back and disappointed who devise evil against me! Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them! . . . Let destruction come upon him when he does not know it! And let the net that he hid ensnare him; let him fall into it to his destruction!" - Ps. 35:1-8
My answer on this question will be somewhat simple and brief.
Obviously the O. T. imprecatory prayers of David were prayers that were bound up with the Messianic purposes of God being established with and through David; the enemies of David were often literally the enemies of God's redemption plan being carried out.
So when David prayed those prayers, he was praying under perfect divine inspiration against the enemies of God which would have hindered God's purposes in the earth.
But the N. T. gives us a different type of praying than the O. T., since we are in a new covenant and not a covenant that is a physical and political theocracy ruling the land of Israel. Our enemies now are not physical enemies normally, except those who try to take the lives of Christians. Even then, martyrs do not pray against their enemies, but rather for them to be saved and to know God's mercy.
We would say also that there are a few examples of imprecatory prayers and actions sprinkled in the
N. T, such as Paul praying blindness upon a man as a form of God's judgment in the book of Acts, as well as other examples in different ways.
Concerning the prayers of Stephen and Jesus at the time of their death, they prayed for their enemies to be forgiven--for their sinful acts to not be held against them. New Testament praying is about forgiving enemies, not judging or killing them; that is why they were led by the Holy Spirit to pray as they did; they were facing death for the sake of the gospel, so they were not praying for judgment on their enemies, but rather for grace. This is how Jesus taught us to pray in the gospels.
Is it ever right for a believer in the New Testament era today to pray an imprecatory prayer? The answer would be that sometimes it can be right, given the right situation. In situations where it is clear that God's glory and honor is completely at stake in circumstances that, if the wicked are not stopped and judged, God will totally be dishonored and defeat will come to kingdom purposes. Even then, we really have to be led by the Holy Spirit in such cases to pray against someone for them to be judged. But in some instances, it is the right thing and the God-honoring thing to do.
I know of instances where men who were church members had become real enemies of God's work, though they were professing Christians, and were opposing the gospel, and were attacking and criticizing God's shepherds and were tearing down the work of God; then godly people began to pray about the situation and those men died soon in such a sudden way that it was obvious to everyone that God had intervened and removed them. That was Spirit-led imprecatory praying.
I do also believe there is an important application of using imprecatory prayers against all our own personal spiritual enemies--demons, besetting sins, worry, fear, lust, anger, bad problems-- everything that comes against us which would hinder our progress in Christ, we ought to aggressively pray against these things to be dealt the death blow more and more. While God uses many things to sanctify and change us, we ought not to neglect this aspect of truth, that David always cried out to God for deliverance and God consistently delivered him from all his foes. This is the victory that overcomes the world, says the apostle John, even our faith.
So that is my brief and simple answer, which obviously does not address the question fully or adequately, but I hope that is somewhat helpful.
- Mack Tomlinson