A Meditation on Psalm 20: 8-13

Kevin J Youngblood
Your hand will find out all your enemies;
your right hand will find out those who hate you.
9 You will make them as a blazing oven
when you appear.
The Lord will swallow them up in his wrath,
and fire will consume them.
10 You will destroy their descendants from the earth,
and their offspring from among the children of man.
11 Though they plan evil against you,
though they devise mischief, they will not succeed.
12 For you will put them to flight;
you will aim at their faces with your bows.
13 Be exalted, O Lord, in your strength!
We will sing and praise your power.
(Psalm 20:8-13)

The above excerpt from Psalm 20 is either bracketed off or omitted altogether in most prayer books and liturgies, clearly suggesting that these portions of Scripture not be read in public worship, if at all. While such omissions are understandable and the intentions clearly good, it is still dishonest, and I would even go so far as to say that it is spiritually unhealthy. Could it be that our theology of prayer has become so anemic as to not see the proper place of such petitions in Christian prayer?

First of all, Christian avoidance of such texts seems to assume that prayer is static rather than dynamic. What we ask for at the beginning of our prayers should not be exactly what we are asking for at the end of our prayers, assuming that our prayer lives are consistent and sincere. Though the transformation that I have in mind can hardly be expected to occur during the course of a single prayer (though it may!), it is certainly what we should be aiming for over the course of our prayer lives. We do not primarily pray to change God’s mind (though at times that does happen e.g. Isaiah 38:5), we pray rather to let God, through the Spirit, change our minds. Prayer begins, therefore, with whatever needs, wants, and concerns are most pressing on our hearts regardless of how immature or misguided they may be. In the very act of praying we are opening ourselves up to divine inspection and realignment with the perfectly holy and loving divine will. Could it be that praying such petitions is the first step on the journey to loving our enemies and genuinely forgiving those who have wronged us? It is false piety to pretend that we do not have such vindictive and hateful feelings as those the psalmist expresses, and it is sheer wishful thinking that by not bringing them before God in prayer we are somehow mitigating them.

Second, the impulse to erupt in imprecation is a sign of spiritual health, not a sign of spiritual malady. It means that we recognize and take seriously the presence of real evil in the world. We have a diminishing tolerance for the violence and injustice that is tearing our world apart at the seams. By ignoring and censoring the uglier and angrier portions of the Psalter, the church has not become more compassionate, more of a force for justice and equity in the world. Perhaps it is just such unrestrained language that we need to wake us up. Perhaps God through these admittedly uncomfortable words is trying to stir us to feel something in the face of the atrocities committed by the powerful. The point is not to condone the individual petitions which may no more be the answer to the problems that prompted the psalmist to pray than our petitions are the real solutions to our problems. The point is to admire the passion that is roused by the human suffering caused by the wicked disregard of those profit from oppression. Will they ever take their own evil seriously if it never meets stiff resistance? Will they ever recognize and reconsider their hardness of heart if they do not feel the hot blast of divine wrath channeled at least in part by the protests and resistance of God’s people?

Here is a case in point. Gottfried Bachl was an SS officer of the Third Reich who was at the head of a squad that wiped out an entire village of 600 innocence in retaliation for the French resistance. He managed to escape accountability entirely, becoming a respected member of the community in East Germany until he was finally tried and condemned to life imprisonment in 1980. After he was sentenced, he granted an interview in which he repeatedly broke down in tears. His words are both staggering and instructive.

When the reporter asked, “Why are you crying now?” he answered, “Because I have been so happy, and now it ends this way.” The journalist continued, “Did you ever weep over the children, women, and men you killed that day? “No,” he said. “Did it never occur to you that you had done a terrible injustice to those people?” His answer: “No, not as long as I was free. Everything was quite normal. But now I often think that there must have been something wrong, that I was involved in it myself somehow, that probably the whole thing was wrong.”[1]

It was global outrage and demand for accountability that finally began to melt his ice-cold heart and prompted an introspection he had been fleeing for years. Divine judgment is a necessary part of the Gospel for this very reason and the imprecatory psalms remind us of this. Whether or not the actions they ask God to take are overstated or sound like overkill, the impulse is correct. It is the very impulse to galvanizes faith into action and without it we are left with a very anemic prayer life and Christianity indeed.


I still struggle to know how to pray these angry parts of the Psalms. I fear this may be because I have grown numb to the suffering and oppression that prompted your people to erupt into such violent petitions. I know that the answer is not to be overcome by evil but to overcome evil with good. But surely sharing your anger toward evil is good, even if we don’t always say it just right or know what the right response is, praying the best we know how is the right and only place to start. Lord Jesus, thank you for modeling the prefect balance between loving and forgiving your enemies while maintaining your resistance against evil. We forget your angry outbursts at the Pharisees in Matt 23 and the rage with which you cleared the temple preferring to remember only your gracious request for the forgiveness toward those who crucified you. Forgive us for reducing your forgiveness to such sentimental indulgence that does nothing to curb evil in the world. Holy Spirit, translate our imprecations into something worthy of the Father and as you do, transform us into people who, like our Lord, perfectly balance mercy and justice, love of the world and hatred of evil, forgiveness and accountability.


[1] Gottfried Bachl, “Das Gericht,” Christ in der Gegenwart 45 (1993): 397, quoted in Zenger, God of Vengeance?, 67.