Sheol: For What is Imprecatory Praying Really Asking?

tombstones.jpgI have written about the Imprecatory Psalms before. But, over the past several months the lives of women who are being (or have been) abused by men have instructed me and molded my understanding of these prayers.

As noted in my former writing, Christians are very uncomfortable with praying for the destruction of wicked people. We are a people of love and redemption. We were loved, not destroyed, by our gracious God despite our wickedness…and this should frame our thinking and practice towards others.

So, it is difficult to harmonize redemptive love with praying for the destruction of others.

I have believed the Imprecatory Psalms were prayers calling for the “damnation” of particularly wicked people. I normally understood these prayers to be calling for God’s eternal judgment. I knew the Psalmists could not judge the wicked, nonetheless I believed they were calling upon God’s justice for their eternal destruction.

However, there is more to the terminology used that help us understand these Psalms and apply them in our broken world. It has helped me realize these Psalms do indeed apply to my life, not just the writers of 3000 years ago.

The term, “Sheol,” which is used periodically in the Old Testament (and by David in Psalm 55), is broader than simply speaking of Hell – a place of eternal torment for those who reject Jesus Christ. Though it can refer to that place of eternal judgment and torment, it can also be referring to death in the general sense. It can simply mean to go to the grave.[1]

As an example, the Patriarch, Jacob tells his sons they cannot take his youngest child, Benjamin, to Egypt. He says, “If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.” [Genesis 42:38]

Jacob, a believer, is certainly not suggesting he would go to Hell if his son was harmed. So, we can understand the Imprecatory prayers in the Psalms (like 55), as referring to death, not eternal torment. Though David may wish them to be tormented, it is in God’s hands whether they go to Hell or simply the grave.

A Prayer for Both

Praying for those, who are so destructive to other people, to be stopped completely – sent to the grave – is a prayer for the victim and predator. It is for the victim’s freedom. And, it is to stop the destruction wrought by the oppressor.

It is well within God’s capable hands to save the abusive individual eternally through His Son’s work on the cross. Praying for their lives to be ended is seeking God’s restraining hand in the stopping their evil, not for their torment.

Praying for the end of abusive people is asking both for the safety of their victims and for God to stop the abuser’s sin.

It may be that, like the thief on the cross, the abuser will turn from his sin when facing his own mortality and accountability before God. The thief recognized his sin and that Jesus was God while hanging beside him on a cross. Jesus promised him, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” It is not beyond God’s sovereign power and love to turn the heart of an abuser to Him prior to sending him to an early demise.

Ending the Abuse

Praying for the abuser’s destruction will also bring an end to the suffering of his target. Whether he turns to Christ or not, his end will bring hope and healing to his victim(s). The stories of those who struggle to break free from an abusive leader’s control, though no longer being under that toxic leader, are heartrending. I pray for their destruction because they need accountability and their victims need to be free once and for all.

As I watch the agony of employees, whose former or present bosses continue to traumatize them by their emotional, spiritual, and physical abuse, I am encouraged to seek the Lord’s just destruction of these individuals.

May He save them from their sins and provide healing for their survivors.

[1] Sheol: שְׁאוֹל še’ôl; or שְׁאֹל shol; Hades or the world of the dead (as if a subterranean retreat), including its accessories and inmates: — grave, hell, pit. From Strong’s Concordance.


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