Calling down curses: a New Testament perspective

INTRODUCTION. This post considers the topic of imprecation of enemies, asking the question whether imprecation is a spiritual tool of the New Testament disciple of Jesus.

Back in March-April of 2022, I had written a six-part series of posts considering the topic of the so-called “imprecatory psalms.” In the Bible, “imprecation” is when a believer calls on God to curse or destroy his enemies. So, in the “imprecatory psalms,” the psalmist (often David) is in distress and his life is being threatened by enemies, and in response, the psalmist cries out to the Lord to give him relief by cursing or punishing or judging the psalmist’s enemies. The question that we sought to answer in our six-part study was, “After the first advent of the Lord Jesus, is the believer still allowed to imprecate (call down curses on) his enemies, or has that forever changed with the coming of Jesus?” At the end of the sixth post (#514, April 7, 2022), I wrote this conclusion:

“And so we conclude our study of the imprecatory psalms. We have seen that these psalms which called down curses on the enemies of the righteous are no longer useful to the disciple of Jesus. Jesus Himself commands His people to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, which renders an imprecatory psalm obsolete. But also, since we are to be wise ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), we realize that imprecating others is a poor strategy for sowing the gospel.”

If you would care to read through all six posts, they are Posts #500, 503, 502, 505, 509, and 514 back in March and April of this year. The key word “imprecatory” should get you to them.

IMPRECATION REVISITED

This week, my wife began a study of the book of Habakkuk with a group of ladies and, because of the content of the first chapter of this book, the subject of imprecation of enemies was discussed with vigor in their Bible study. Afterward, my wife and I talked about imprecation and I decided to revisit this topic and see if my views had changed. The rest of this post is a record of today’s musings about imprecation. (NOTE: Because of time constraints, I have not reviewed these thoughts and placed them in order.)

Observation: I do not believe there are any New Testament examples of imprecation.

THEORY: Imprecation of enemies was apparently allowed in the Old Testament, but the teaching of the New Testament has replaced imprecation with prayer for enemies, forgiveness of enemies, and endurance of the persecution and suffering by the saints.

When persecution and affliction for the name of Jesus come upon the disciple, the disciple simply adds perseverance and endurance to his other daily spiritual duties and disciplines and continues to press toward the prize.

For those being persecuted for righteousness’ sake (Matthew 5:10-12), it is okay to flee (Matthew 10:23), but it is not okay to fight. You are allowed to run, but you are not allowed to retaliate.

When Stephen is being stoned to death in Acts 7, he offers no imprecation of those who are killing him. Instead, he asks the Lord not to hold the sin of his murder against his murderers (Acts 7:60).

The church in Thessalonica was experiencing persecution when Paul wrote his two letters to them, but there is no hint of any imprecation against their persecutors in the letters. In 1 Thess. 2:14-16, the Thessalonians “endured the same sufferings” as other churches, and in 3:3-8, Paul reminds them that “no one would be disturbed by these afflictions (because) we have been destined for this (3). For we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction (4).” Paul told them they would suffer affliction and commended them for standing firm (8), but it is evident that he never told them how to defend themselves or retaliate. Why? Because the disciple of Jesus is called to stand firm, but not to retaliate.

In 2 Thess. 1:4-10, when the church is experiencing withering persecution, Paul reminds them that the Lord Jesus Himself will repay their persecutors on the last day when He returns in blazing fire. Again we see that the New Testament believer is to endure affliction now and entrust judgment entirely to the righteous Judge, the Lord Jesus.

In the New Testament, the disciples of Jesus accept persecution for Jesus’ sake as part of the cost of being His follower (1 Thess. 3:3-8). They may flee (Matt. 10:23; Acts 13:50-51; 14:5-7; 17:10, 14), but they do not organize themselves into an armed force. In fact, they even do very little to defend themselves. Disciples of Jesus do this because they are relying entirely upon the Lord to defend them. He is the one who will deliver them from their distresses and afflictions and so they wait for Him. Ultimately, Jesus’ disciples persevere in tribulation (Rom. 12:11) because they are waiting for Him to rescue them on the last day when He descends from heaven with a shout. The point is that Jesus is my Defender and I will trust Him to lead me through any circumstances and any affliction such that “with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20).

Philippians 3:10 – “that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and THE FELLOWSHIP OF HIS SUFFERINGS.” Paul desired to know “the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings.” But how can this stated desire be fulfilled if, every time the Lord brings affliction and persecution into Paul’s life, he immediately prays for God to bring judgment on his persecutors and to bring relief from his affliction? Obviously, Paul did not do this. Rather, the apostle “rejoiced in his sufferings” so that he was “filling up what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24). Here there is no suggestion of any imprecation of persecutors, but instead there is an acceptance of the fact that suffering for the name of Christ is part of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

The book of Revelation has several passages that give light to this question of imprecation of enemies. In Revelation 6:9-11 we see the souls of the martyrs underneath the altar crying out to the Lord, “How long, O Lord, holy and true?” These have been “slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne,” and they want to know when God is going to avenge their deaths. They were told to rest for a little while longer until the rest of the martyrs would join them. Again, no imprecation against their murderers is suggested, and more martyrs will join them, for the Lord has ordained that the full number of martyrs will be killed.

In Revelation 11:7, we are given a scene where “the beast that comes up out of the abyss will make war with the saints and overcome them and kill them.” Once again, we see that suffering persecution is an expected part of being a follower of Christ, even to the end of the age. The picture here is not one of brave saints fighting against the beast and being outmatched, but of defenseless sheep being slaughtered by the beast because of their bold witness for Christ (see Romans 8:35, where “we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered”). This exact scene is also presented in Rev. 13:7, where “it was given to the beast to make war with the saints and to overcome them.” In this destruction by the beast, the Scripture gives no hint of imprecation.

Although the context of 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 is not persecution, Paul’s attitude toward suffering and affliction in this passage is instructive. Paul is given “a thorn in the flesh” and three times asks the Lord to remove the thorn. The Lord replies that His grace will provide him (and thus, will supply any believer) with all he needs to endure the trial. “My grace is sufficient for you.” “Most gladly, therefore,” Paul will boast about his weaknesses (12:9). Indeed, he is “well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties” (12:10) for Christ’s sake. Note that Paul does not complain or whimper about his affliction, which might be the equivalent of imprecation in persecution, but is well content and boasts of his weaknesses. In the same way, then, in persecution we remain well content in the Lord and we most gladly endure, rejoicing that we are considered worthy to suffer shame for His name (Acts 5:41).

CONCLUSION

There is certainly more that could be said, but I think the summary is this: In the New Testament, it seems that, at every possible opportunity to meet affliction and persecution with imprecation of the persecutors, the people refuse to do so and, instead, resolve to persevere and to endure through the affliction and, in many cases, pray for the very ones who are persecuting them.

Thus, the sanctioned New Testament response to persecution and affliction appears to preclude any retaliation, revenge, or imprecation of enemies. We would thus conclude that the disciple of Jesus is allowed to lament the suffering and to groan underneath it, and to long for the day when God will judge the wicked and set all injustice right but is not to imprecate his enemies. Rather, he is to trust the Lord with the administration of all justice and is to endure the suffering in the strength that Christ supplies.

SDG                 rmb                 8/27/2022                   #563