When can we pray an imprecatory prayer? I am teaching through Nehemiah and on Chapter 4 this Sunday. Nehemiah prays “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. 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.” This is called an imprecatory prayer. I am confused as to when we are justified to pray this kind of prayer.
As you indicated, Nehemiah 4:4-5 is an imprecatory prayer, a call for God to punish their enemies. Sanballat is the enemy of Israel and his opposition has been unrelenting. In verses 1-3 we are told that the nation of Israel has just been mocked by Sanballat and Tobiah. In response to their unceasing opposition, Nehemiah prays this prayer.
Hear, O our God, how we are despised! Return their reproach on their own heads and give them up for plunder in a land of captivity. Do not forgive their iniquity and let not their sin be blotted out before You, for they have demoralized the builders.
Now the question is should we pray like this? How should we understand this passage? There are two options.
First, we could conclude that the prayer is unbiblical. Just because Nehemiah prayed the prayer does not mean that it is biblical. However, the answer to this option is found in statements that Jesus and the apostle Paul made. Jesus quoted Psalm 35:9 and Psalm 69:4, imprecatory prayers, in John 15:25. Paul quoted Psalm 69:22-23, an imprecatory prayer, in Romans 11:9-16. This means that imprecatory prayers are biblical.
Then the only other option is that imprecatory prayers are biblical. Habakkuk 1:2 is a plea for God to judge. Malachi 2:17 is another plea that is actually a criticism that God seems to favor the wicked and seems to do nothing about their wickedness. Revelation 6:10 predicts that the tribulation martyrs in heaven ask, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Since the martyrs are now holy, there call for justice on behalf of the body of Christ is without sin.
In Nehemiah 4:5, the NASB reads, “Do not forgive their iniquity and let not their sin be blotted out before you . . .” The Hebrew that is translated as “forgive” is actually two Hebrews words translated as one English word and together they mean “to cover over or conceal.” This is the predominate meaning. That is Nehemiah is asking God to not ignore their enemies – like the people in Malachi and the tribulation martyrs asked. This is a call for justice. I think we have to understand the phrase “let not their sin be blotted out” in the same sense. It is a call for justice.
If the calls were for personal vengeance, then the requester would be in sin. Proverbs 24:17-18 warns us against rejoicing over the punishment of our enemies. If we rejoice over them, God will stop His punishment. Romans 12: 14-21 tells us to bless those who persecute us and to not return evil for evil. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus encourages us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44). These passages warn us against personnel vendetta. Nehemiah 4:4-5 is a prayer for the nation. God’s people are being opposed and it reflects on God’s glory, but personal revenge is a sin.