The Lord tests the righteous,
but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.
6 Let him rain coals on the wicked;
fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup. (Ps 11:5-6 ESV)
There are many imprecatory prayers in the Psalms, this being one of them. It is hard for us to understand how these can be model prayers since Jesus himself tells us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. In light of that, we see these prayers as conflicting. It is hard to know what exactly was going through the Psalmists mind when this was written. It may be that this Psalm of David came in response to Saul’s attempts to kill him. So what can we learn? It seems to me there are several things we can learn from these imprecations.
One, it shows us the absolute vile nature of sin, something that our culture does not grasp. Sin, no matter how small we may think it, is an affront to God who made us in His own image. If the punishment is to fit the crime, then we must see that when the infinite and holy God is disgraced (which is what sin does), then the punishment must be in equal proportions. Thus, praying for coals on the head of the wicked isn’t unjust. It expresses something of the deserving nature of the crime.
Two, we find a similar passage in Romans when Paul wrote, If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:18-21 ESV) Verse 20 is a quote from Proverbs 25:21-22. Paul takes Jesus’ command to “love your enemy” and connects it with this effect. Somehow, being kind to your enemy has the affect of heaping coals on his head. Commentators note how it is the conviction that this brings to the one sinning against you. In David’s own experience this was true. As Saul sought to kill David and David instead was given opportunity to kill Saul, David refrained. Each time, when David showed his restraint to Saul, Saul was convicted and it brought repentance.
Three, as David writes many of these imprecatory Psalms about Saul, we know that his own actions were never antagonistic toward Saul but always supportive. He refused to lift his hand against him. In other words, David did love Saul. Imprecatory prayers may very well thus have two applications. To the one who belongs to God it is a prayer for conviction and repentance. For the enemy of God it is a prayer for justice. In either case it is not contradictory. The difference for us in the New Testament is that God’s enemies are not known to us. Our calling is to take the gospel to the whole world – every tribe, tongue and nation. God will draw in His own from that effort. In the time of the conquest, the enemies of God were identified and the conquest was God’s judgment upon them. That is an important distinction.
Have you prayed imprecatory prayers like this? If so, where was your heart?
Chronological Reading Plan plus Psalms: 1 Sa 18-22, Ps 11, 59