Praying Through the Bible project

Is It ever Appropriate to Ask God to Curse Someone?
(Neh 4.4-5)

Hear, O our God, for we are despised; turn their taunt back on their own heads, and give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover their guilt and do not let their sin be blotted out from your sight; for they have hurled insults in the face of the builders.

In this day of radical tolerance (except against those who refuse to tolerate indiscriminate toleration), most of us are likely to judge anyone who offers a curse-prayer. Yet they are part of the Biblical tradition of prayer. What can we learn from this one, and in our age, is a curse-prayer ever appropriate?

Background

The King allowed Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem and take charge of rebuilding the wall. Once there, he met with the leaders, went out and inspected the wall. He then asked the people to join him in the task, and the response was overwhelming. They started by rebuilding the “Sheep’s Gate” and worked counterclockwise around the city. Nehemiah details the work, the places on the wall rebuilt, and each group or tribe responsible for the rebuilding.

But the work is not without opposition. Nehemiah and his work anger a nearby leader, Sanballat (perhaps the governor of Syria) and Tobiah, a foreigner who lived in Jerusalem. They ridicule the wall, saying it was weak and pitiful, trying to demoralize the workers. This is happening in public, at the wall, with the workers and the tormentors face to face. Nehemiah’s response is the prayer above. He asks for God not only to turn their taunts back on them, but for their land to be overrun and taken into captivity. Further, he asks that God not forgive them or forget their sin, because of their insults against God’s work.

Meaning

To Nehemiah’s credit, rather than fighting back with words or actions against the bullies, he turns to God in prayer. This is because he saw the criticisms and ridicule aimed more at God than himself. It only made sense that God should be the one to address the issue.

He makes it clear that God’s honor is at stake, because it was God who called Nehemiah to travel to Jerusalem and help rebuild the wall. It was God who saw that the King supported him with generous amounts of money and supplies.

Nehemiah does not just pray a petition, he offers the answer—they should suffer what they are hoping others will experience. The words about their lands being plundered and captivity recall what happened to the Jews in decades and centuries past, especially King Hezekiah’s prayer when he was threatened by Sennacherib (2 Kings 19.14-19).1

Do not “cover their guilt” refers to the blotting out of sin as part of the atonement process when one comes before God. In this case, since God himself has been impugned, their sin should not be covered]

We have discussed a number of curse-prayers since we began with the first prayer in Genesis. As we have discussed, the idea of asking God to curse someone is difficult for most of us. Perhaps the fact that these people are ridiculing God’s own plan and purposes, we might understand it a bit more. Still, doesn’t everyone at least deserve a chance to repent first and then obtain forgiveness.

Some try to soften this sort of language by saying that it’s all about the context—Nehemiah believes that God himself is being insulted. Rather than taking matters into his own hands, he asks God to render punishment on them. (Would that we were more defensive of the name of God!) Moreover, we could say that imprecatory prayers (curse-prayers) were common at the time, because those people were less sophisticated than us and did not have the model and actions of Jesus to temper our prayers.

All true, of course, but what does it mean for us? We should probably be more outraged than we are when people work against God’s plans and ridicule Him and his people in our time. Should we pray a curse-prayer?

Application

Jesus, of course, addressed the issue of those who torment us. “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors” (Matt 5.44, REB). Paul was even more specific, for our purposes: “Call down blessings on your persecutors—blessings, not curses” (Rom 12.14). However, these texts are about those who persecute us. What about those who attack God? In the same letter, Paul writes,

My dear friends, do not seek revenge, but leave a place for divine retribution; for there is a text which reads, ‘Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay.’ (Rom 12.19, REB)

Paul’s words apply directly to Nehemiah’s prayer! But before we decide we can offer curse-prayers, read what Paul writes next:

But there is another text: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; by doing this you will heap live coals on his head.’ (Rom 12.20, REB)

Even more, there are passages in both the Old and New Testaments that urge God’s followers to practice radical forgiveness, even when it seems ridiculous. When Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive someone, Jesus told him to forgive endlessly (seventy times seven) (Matt 18.21–22). Peter reiterates that attitude and says that God’s followers should have the same (1 PEt 2.20–23). It is not just the New Testament that holds these values, Paul is quoting Proverbs 25.21–22 in the passage from Roman above.2

But for our study of prayer, we should look to Jesus himself, as he was being tortured and killed by those who accused him falsely as part of God’s master plan, prayed, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

It is clear that this is the better way—it is God’s own way, Jesus’ way, even in the most extreme circumstances. Does this mean that curse-prayers are no longer useful to the Christian? Perhaps we should not go that far. After all, Nehemiah did not take matters into his own hands—he turned the situation over to God. He did use a curse-prayer, but a curse-prayer asks God to act—and he can choose to ignore our request and offer grace instead.

Perhaps the best lessons from this prayer are these:: like Nehemiah, we should turn retribution over to God (even if we might, at times, offer a curse-prayer); we should go beyond that often—if not always—to bless and not curse; and we should, in our prayers and actions, imitate Jesus and the rest of the Bible in offering radical forgiveness.


  1. See also Psalms 44, 74, and 79 where similar curse prayers are offered.
  2. See also Exod 23:4–5; Lev 19:17–18; Prov 24:17.

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