Psalm 54 is one of the imprecatory psalms. It may be one of the milder imprecatory psalms, but the language of, say, v. 5 still makes us uncomfortable: “He will return to evil to my enemies; in your faithfulness put an end to them.” This is the kind of language that we might find difficult to echo in our prayer lives.
If you do feel a slight disconnect, you are not alone. Many Christians have expressed difficulty in understanding the imprecatory psalms. Halley’s Bible Handbook, for example, argues that the imprecatory psalms are “just the opposite of Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemies” and suggest that, in the Old Testament, God “accommodated himself to men’s ideas” while, in the New Testament, he “began to deal with men according to his own ideas.”
One commentary states that the imprecatory psalms “give us, not God’s precept, but man’s defective prayers.” C. S. Lewis called the imprecatory prayers “devilish.” Peter Craigie suggests that “the words of the psalmist are often natural and spontaneous, not always pure and good” and plainly argues that “these Psalms are not the oracles of God.” While it is true that each of these psalms relate the burden of the psalmist’s heart, we must not forget that all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for us (2 Timothy 3:16–17) and that “every word of God is pure” (Proverbs 30:5, CSB).
But how, then, do we understand words like these—and far stronger sentiments elsewhere in the Psalms—as we allow these Scriptures to guide our own prayers? What can we learn from them?
The superscription tells us that Psalm 54 was written “when the Ziphites went and told Saul, ‘Is not David hiding among us?’” David had gone to Ziph for protection but, rather than sheltering him, the Ziphites betrayed him to Saul. Though the Ziphites had failed to help him, “behold, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life” (v. 4). They had handed him over to die, but God was his protector. He was confident, and prayed confidently, that God, his protector, would “return the evil to [his] enemies” and “in [his] faithfulness put an end to them” (v. 5).
The key to understanding this particular psalm is to recognise that David’s prayer was not one of revenge for personal hurt. Many interpreters have observed that Psalms 52–54 form almost a trilogy of sorts, arising from similar life circumstances. In each of these psalms, David’s stated concern was not wrongdoing that he had personally suffered but the fact that his enemies were God’s enemies. He was concerned about “the man who would not make God his refuge, but trusted in the abundance of his riches” (52:7). He complained about those who said in their heart, “There is no God” (53:1) and those who “do not call upon God” (53:4). And, in the psalm before us, he prayed against those who “do not set God before themselves” (v. 3).
In Psalm 54, the basis of David’s hope is God’s name (vv. 1, 2, 4, 6). He was convinced that God would return evil to his enemies (v. 5) but not because of his own personal righteousness. He was convinced that God would act because, ultimately, God was being slighted. The betrayal of the Ziphites was more than a personal affront to David; it was an affront to God, who had chosen David as his king instead of Saul.
Here is the principle: It should burden us when people “do not set God before themselves” (v. 3), particularly when that results in them harming God’s people. It should burden us when, around the world, people do not acknowledge God and instead betray his people.
Do we share David’s passion? Do we deliberately, boldly, and confidently pray for the downfall of those who do not put God before them and who use their rejection of God as an excuse to turn his people over to others? Do we pray for the downfall of religions and systems that oppose God and his people? There is precedent in Scripture to do so. Let’s be faithful in praying that God’s enemies will fall so that his glory will be magnified.