Editor's Note: The timing of this blog is not intentional. Middle-Eastern events did not play any part in my interest or writing of this article.
I have written multiple times on imprecatory prayers:
- Imprecatory Praying: The Mercy of Destruction | Pearls & Swine(opens in a new tab)
- Sheol: For What is Imprecatory Praying Really Asking? | Pearls & Swine(opens in a new tab)
- Experiencing Psalm 55 Under a Toxic Boss | Pearls & Swine(opens in a new tab)
- Hatred and a Man After God’s Own Heart | Pearls & Swine(opens in a new tab)
It is a hard topic for Christians to wrap their heads around. Interpretations of these prayers for destruction abound.
In this article I am looking at Nehemiah’s imprecatory prayer. The ESV Strong’s Bible translation says in its introduction to the book of Nehemiah:
In 445 B.C. the Persian King Artaxerxes sent Nehemiah, an Israelite who was a trusted official, to help rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. With Nehemiah went the third wave of returning Jewish exiles. There was intense opposition from the other peoples in the land and disunity within Jerusalem. Despite this opposition, Nehemiah led the rebuilding of the walls.ESV Strongs Bible
That “intense opposition” made many fear for their lives as they worked to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem. Nehemiah, as the leader of the Jews who sought to see the Covenant God had made with His people Israel re-established, gave instructions to the people to take protective measures. “Each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built.” (Nehemiah 4:18)
And so they built. With their weapons handy.
The Imprecatory Prayer of Nehemiah
What was particularly interesting to me is found in chapter 4 of the historical account.
Sanballat, of whom we know very little, was a Horonite (possibly from Samaria). He was apparently the leader of those who opposed the rebuilding of the wall. He and his ilk ridiculed the Jews and sought to stop them.
They shamed and humiliated Nehemiah and the Jews. The language in the text is strikingly similar to how those who are under abusive leadership describe their taunters. Toxic leaders in the home, workplace, and church torment their targets with words that belittle, debase, and humiliate. Often those words are coupled with religious language that creates a greater depth of shame and humiliation in the target (spiritual abuse).
Nehemiah responded in prayer . . . just as he had done before approaching King Artaxerxes to request returning to Jerusalem to build the wall (Nehemiah 1). In his prayer here in chapter 4, Nehemiah expressed his desire that the Jews’ tormentors be destroyed.
Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. 5 Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders.Nehemiah 4:4-5
When I normally speak of “imprecatory praying” I give qualifications. Before praying, “Destroy my enemies,” I will pray, “Lord change their heart . . . “
Then I go on with asking the Lord to stop the abusive individual in whatever way the Lord, in His wisdom, wills. I try not to be too specific.
But Nehemiah, in a display of raw emotion, simply asks the Lord to destroy this enemy of God’s people.
Fundamental to his prayer is the understanding that his enemies are enemies of God. Nehemiah was confident of God’s anger at Sanballat. There appears to be no doubt in his mind that Sanballat, and those following him, were evil and that God was opposed to them.
And his prayer is not self-centered. Nehemiah is not praying against someone who simply disagrees with him. He is praying that an enemy of God and one who seeks the destruction of God’s people be stopped.
Dead. In his tracks. No redemption.
That is hard stuff.
But it is the hard stuff from which imprecatory praying grows. Imprecatory prayers are made for those who see no out from the destruction at the hands of evil men. They are the prayers of deeply wounded and hurting people . . . because of the unjust, wicked, and damaging treatment of others.
In addition, I want to point out that Nehemiah is not unforgiving as some might think in praying this prayer.
In praying, Nehemiah turns over the judgment upon his (and God’s) enemy, Sanballat to God. This is fundamental to forgiveness. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean there is no judgment. But rather, as some theologians suggest, it is turning over that judgment to the Lord; releasing our own judgment into the hands of God.
Nehemiah prays for God to judge. Afterall, it is God’s place to judge.
It’s Just So Uncomfortable
There are a significant number of imprecatory prayers in Scripture. So often we gloss over them because they make us uncomfortable.
Because we have so often been taught that a good Christian would never ask the Lord to judge someone, we cannot reconcile the imprecatory prayers found throughout the Psalms and here in Nehemiah with that training.
But those who have suffered abuse may not have as much difficulty understanding why they are in Scripture. Imprecatory prayers are actually a balm to those for whom the Lord continually stands up. We have God’s own word that He despises those who oppress others. And these prayers are a means of turning over the judgment we feel is so needed to the Lord Who judges perfectly.
Why should we not join Nehemiah in asking the the Lord to do what He has promised He will do?
The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed,Psalm 9:9-10 (ESV)
a stronghold in times of trouble.
10 And those who know your name put their trust in you,
for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you.
Do not cover their guilt, Lord.