How to Pray When There Are No Words  

How do you pray for situations that are almost too horrific to comprehend? The devastation of senseless terrorist attacks. Children being sold into slavery. Widows and orphans living with little or no hope. Our hearts ache. The burden (rightly) sits heavily on us. We cry out to God…but sometimes, we can’t find the words to pray. 

When we’re lost for words to pray, a wonderful ‘go to’ is the Bible. Reading aloud Psalms is a wonderful way to align our thoughts with God’s. Recently, I came across an article1 that spoke of ‘Imprecatory Psalms’. Do you know what they are? I didn’t until this week. 

In the Bible you will come across imprecatory Psalms. For example, David says in Psalm 55:15 ‘Let death steal over them; let them go down to Sheol alive; for evil is in their dwelling place and in their heart.’ Wowsers! There are many other prayers like this which David and other Psalmists wrote. The apostle Paul prayed such a prayer against those who turn away from God. Jesus also quoted some of the imprecatory Psalms (John 15:25). 

So, does this mean we can call down curses on someone who cuts us off in traffic?! The short answer is no. Jesus clearly taught us to pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44). However, these imprecatory Psalms do show that we can pray for God’s justice against clear evils in our world. They give the victims of sexual abuse, slavery and other devastating evils the words to say in their pain and anguish. They give us permission not for vendettas but to ask God to do justice (this can actually help rather than hinder the process of forgiveness). Think of these Psalms as ‘justice Psalms’. These prayers remind us that God will do what he’s promised; He will judge righteously on earth. 

In his beautiful devotional ‘In the Lord I Take Refuge’2, Dane Ortlund writes this about Psalm 58 (another imprecatory Psalm): 

The graphic, almost savage imagery of this psalm catches us off guard. Surely the Bible is too holy a book for such violent retribution toward the wicked at the hands of the righteous! 

Such a response is understandable. But we must take the Scripture whole, or else not at all. If we received only those parts of the Bible that we found palatable, we would be in fact not sitting under the Bible in submission but standing over it in authority, making ourselves the final arbiter of what God could say. We would become the teacher, God the pupil. Moreover, if God never wrote these kinds of things into the Bible, would it not be harder to receive it as a word to us in our real world? The glory of a psalm like this is its realism, its earthiness, its utter honesty about the horrors of life in this fallen world. 

Above all we must recognize that the psalmist is calling for evil to be judged not simply out of mean vindictiveness but out of a cry for justice. Wrongs must be righted. This is only proper. 

David is being ill-treated. If God exists, this ill-treatment must be judged and dealt with. David is calling for the wicked to receive what they deserve, not worse than they deserve. 

Have you been ill-treated? Are you in the midst of ill-treatment, even now? Pray, with David, “Surely there is a God who judges on earth” (v. 11). God will right all wrongs. The final judgment of God is a deeply liberating doctrine. All will be put to right. We can release the need to judge now. We can leave it in his wise hands. 

Friends, please hear me… we are not to use these imprecatory Psalms for petty vendettas! Rather, they give us permission to pray for justice. They remind us that God will come to judge the living and the dead. He is just and righteous. Let’s pray for our enemies, for their salvation first and foremost, and then for God’s will to be done. May His kingdom come and will be done.  

‘Mankind will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.”