Praying for enemies

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ said Jesus in his famous Sermon on the Mount. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43).

If you’ve ever wondered why many people refused to follow Jesus during his earthly ministry, you have to look no further than that verse.

praying for enemies

In our day, we have watered down the term “enemy” so much that this command has lost much of its shock value. Today, “enemy” is used primarily in reference to people who are rude to us or treat us unkindly. We even use the portmanteau “frenemy” to refer to an associate pretending to be a friend or someone who really is a friend but also a rival.

But in Jesus day, the Jews in Israel had real enemies. For the entirety of their existence as a people they had been fending off enemies — from their slavery in Egypt to the state of occupation by their latest enemy, the Roman Empire. Telling them to love and pray for enemies was akin to telling the Christians in Iraq to love and pray for ISIS.

And yet, that is exactly what Jesus was saying. When Jesus gave the command to love and pray for our enemies he knew it would one day require praying for Islamic extremist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda who murder his Bride. Jesus was saying that when we think of those people, we no longer even see them as enemies. As John MacArthur explains, “we are not to be enemies of those who may be enemies to us. From their perspective, we are their enemies; but from our perspective, they should be our neighbors.”

But how do we do that? How should we pray for these neighbors who want to murder members of our family? Such a task is difficult, but there are three specific ways we can pray for those who are engaged in persecution against Christians:

1. Pray for their conversion

There are two primary reasons we don’t pray for the conversion of Islamic extremists. The first reason is that we believe it is absurd to think they’ll become Christians. The second reason is that we fear they might actually convert.

The first reason is more common, since praying the terrorists will convert seems like a useless plea. We recognize the theological truth that God can do for them what he did for us: provide the gift of grace that they might be saved (Ephesians 2:8). But we look at the situation “realistically” and tell ourselves that the probability of their genuine conversion is so close to zero that it would be a waste of our time (and God’s) to even bother to ask.

No doubt such conversions are unlikely and rare. Yet we should pray for their conversion anyway. If we truly love our enemy, how could we not at least petition God on their behalf?

Another, less frequent, reason we don’t pray for their conversion is because we fear they may actually repent. Like Jonah in Nineveh, we want our enemies to receive their just desserts, not mercy and forgiveness. Consider all of the Christians who dutifully prayed for the Nazis. How would they have felt if they discovered that Hitler, in the moments prior to his death, had truly repented of his sins and was forgiven by God? Many of those Christians would have felt cheated, as if it was unfair of God to forgive such horrific crimes. They would likely want to complain, as Jonah did when God spared the Ninevites, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2)?

But it is precisely because he is a gracious and compassionate God that we ought to pray for the conversion of our enemies. How could we do anything less than ask God to show them the same grace shown to us?

2. Pray the evil they do may be restrained

There is no dichotomy in praying for the good of our enemy and praying that their evil actions be restrained. It is to their benefit as well as ours that they be prevented from committing more evil. For those who have hardened their heart against God, it would be better that their life was shortened than for them to continue to persecute his children.

The protection of innocents from slaughter may require human governments to take military action against that Islamic extremists. We are warranted in supporting the just use of force in restraining such evil. But we should remember that while the death of the terrorists may be the only effective way to restrain their actions, we should not rejoice in their suffering or death (Proverbs 24:17).

3. Pray they will receive divine justice

Just as we seek justice on earth from duly established governmental authorities, we can seek the divine justice of our holy God. As John N. Day says, “hereas love and blessing are the characteristic ethic of believers of both testaments, cursing and calling for divine vengeance are their extreme ethic and may be voiced in extreme circumstances, against hardened, deceitful, violent, immoral, unjust sinners.”

In asking that divine justice be done, we should be careful to guard our motives. Praying for divine justice can be a way to circumvent our duty to love our enemy. While we must leave vengeance to God, we must not forget what is commanded of us. As Paul writes in Romans 12:19-21:

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.

In the order of our prayers, asking for divine justice should be included as the “last resort” option, a plea for doing what is necessary for those who will neither turn to God nor turn away from doing evil.

As former enemies of God, we should be gracious and grateful that we are allowed to pray for our current enemies, secure in the knowledge that Jesus will hear us. We should be thankful enough for the grace of God that we want even our enemies to receive it too. But if they refuse and harden their hearts against the one who would spare them, then we must ask they receive the divine retribution due everyone apart from the righteousness of Christ.

Additional Resources: In discussions of praying for our enemies it’s important to consider the role and relevance of the imprecatory prayers found in the Bible. The topic was too complex to address in this brief article, so for more on that topic I recommend Sam Storms’ essay “Imprecations in the Psalms.”

www.thegospelcoalition.org

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

It was the practice of the Prophet ﷺ to supplicate and pray to Allah to guide his enemies of Islam and to benefit them in the Hereafter. Islam teaches us to love for others what we love for ourselves. Each one of us wants to be guided and, therefore, we should ask Allah to guide others even if they are unbelievers, sinners, or oppressors.

We should supplicate for guidance and forgiveness for people in general. It is the essence of Allah to be forgiving and mericful, and the angels roam the earth seeking forgiveness for everyone upon it. By expressing mercy and forgiveness in our supplications, we fulfill Allah’s plan for the creation.

Allah said:

وَالْمَلَائِكَةُ يُسَبِّحُونَ بِحَمْدِ رَبِّهِمْ وَيَسْتَغْفِرُونَ لِمَن فِي الْأَرْضِ ۗ أَلَا إِنَّ اللَّهَ هُوَ الْغَفُورُ الرَّحِيمُ

The angels exalt the praise of their Lord and ask forgiveness for those on earth. No doubt, Allah is the Forgiving, the Merciful.

Surat al-Shura 42:5

It was the practice of all of the Prophets to supplicate for their oppressors, although they suffered bodily harm and pain at their hands.

Abdullah ibn Mas’ud reported: I saw the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, tell the story of a prophet who was beaten by his people and he wiped the blood from his face, saying:

رَبِّ اغْفِرْ لِقَوْمِي فَإِنَّهُمْ لاَ يَعْلَمُونَ

My Lord, forgive my people for they do not know.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 6530, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi

In another narration, the Prophet ﷺ himself said this prayer after being attacked and harmed during the battle of Uhud:

اللَّهُمَّ اغْفِرْ لِقَوْمِي فَإِنَّهُمْ لا يَعْلَمُونَ

O Allah, forgive my people for they do not know.

Abu Hatim, may Allah be pleased with him, said:

يَعْنِي هَذَا الدُّعَاءُ أَنَّهُ قَالَ يَوْمَ أُحُدٍ لَمَّا شُجَّ وَجْهُهُ

The Prophet said this supplication during the battle of Uhud when they slashed his face.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Ibn Ḥibbān 985, Grade: Sahih

This incident demonstrates the Prophet’s ﷺ strict adherence to ethical virtues despite enduring persecution at the hands of unbelievers.

An-Nawawi comments on this tradition, saying:

فِيهِ مَا كَانُوا عَلَيْهِ صَلَوَاتُ اللَّهِ وَسَلَامُهُ عَلَيْهِمْ مِنَ الْحِلْمِ وَالتَّصَبُّرِ وَالْعَفْوِ وَالشَّفَقَةِ عَلَى قَوْمِهِمْ وَدُعَائِهِمْ لَهُمْ بِالْهِدَايَةِ وَالْغُفْرَانِ وَعُذْرِهِمْ فِي جِنَايَتِهِمْ عَلَى أَنْفُسِهِمْ بِأَنَّهُمْ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ

In this tradition is what the Prophet practiced of forbearance, patience, forgiveness, and compassion for his people, his supplication for them to receive guidance and to be forgiven, and for them to be excused for their sins as they did not know.

Source: Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1792

On several occasions, the companions asked the Prophet ﷺ to supplicate against the enemies of Islam, the very same people who threatened them, hurt them, and caused great suffering. He refused to condemn his enemies to the Hellfire in the hope that one day they might see the light.

Abu Huraira reported: At-Tufail came with his companions and they said, “O Messenger of Allah, the tribe of Daws has disbelieved and rejected you, so pray to Allah against them.” And it was said, “May the tribe of Daws be destroyed!” The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

اللَّهُمَّ اهْدِ دَوْسًا وَائْتِ بِهِمْ

O Allah, guide the tribe of Daws and bring them to me.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 4131, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi

Abu Huraira reported: It was said, “O Messenger of Allah, pray against the idolaters!” The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

إِنِّي لَمْ أُبْعَثْ لَعَّانًا وَإِنَّمَا بُعِثْتُ رَحْمَةً

Verily, I was not sent to invoke curses, but rather I was only sent as mercy.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2599, Grade: Sahih

Jabir reported: It was said, “O Messenger of Allah, the arrows of the tribe of Thaqīf have pierced us, so pray against them!” The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

اللَّهُمَّ اهْدِ ثَقِيفًا

O Allah, guide the tribe of Thaqīf!

Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 3942, Grade: Sahih

In one of the most famous examples, the Prophet ﷺ prayed for Allah to guide Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, who at the time was a powerful enemy of Islam.

Ibn Umar reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

اللَّهُمَّ أَعِزَّ الْإِسْلَامَ بِأَحَبِّ هَذَيْنِ الرَّجُلَيْنِ إِلَيْكَ بِأَبِي جَهْلٍ أَوْ بِعُمَرَ بْنِ الْخَطَّابِ

O Allah, strengthen Islam with one of two men whom you love more: Abu Jahl or Umar ibn Al-Khattab.

Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 3681, Grade: Sahih

Because of the Prophet’s supplication, Umar went on to become one of the greatest of the early Muslims and a role model for the entire Muslim community.

In another story, the Prophet ﷺ was violently rejected by the people of Al-Ṭā’if. They mocked him and ran him out of the city whilst pelting him with stones, to the point that blood soaked his sandals. In this moment, Allah sent to the Angel of the Mountains to him with a choice: If he desired, he could overturn the mountains upon the entire city and destroy all of its inhabitants. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, refused the request, saying:

بَلْ أَرْجُو أَنْ يُخْرِجَ اللَّهُ مِنْ أَصْلاَبِهِمْ مَنْ يَعْبُدُ اللَّهَ وَحْدَهُ لاَ يُشْرِكُ بِهِ شَيْئًا ‏‏‏

No, rather I hope that Allah will bring from their descendants people who will worship Allah alone without associating partners with him.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 3059, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi

When we refuse to supplicate and pray for the benefit of others, this is usually because our hearts are being influenced and misled by spiritual diseases of hatred, malice, and envy. The cure for these diseases is to do the exact opposite of what they command us; if incite us to curse people, then we should respond by praying for their guidance.

Al-Ghazali writes:

وأما العمل النافع فيه فهو أن يحكم الحسد فكل ما يتقاضاه الحسد من قول وفعل فينبغي أن يكلف نفسه نقيضه فإن حمله الحسد على القدح في محسوده كلف لسانه المدح له والثناء عليه وإن حمله على التكبر عليه ألزم نفسه التواضع له والاعتذار إليه … فَهَذِهِ هِيَ أَدْوِيَةُ الْحَسَدِ وَهِيَ نَافِعَةٌ جِدًّا إِلَّا أَنَّهَا مُرَّةٌ عَلَى الْقُلُوبِ جِدًّا وَلَكِنَّ النَّفْعَ فِي الدَّوَاءِ الْمُرِّ

As for beneficial deeds, it is to be a judge over envy. For everything that envy brings to court of sayings and deed, he should oblige himself to do its opposite. If envy compels him to disparage the envied, then he should oblige his tongue to praise him and commend him. If envy compels him to be arrogant against him, then he should require himself to be humble before him and apologize to him… These are the cures for envy and they are very beneficial, although they are very bitter for the heart. Rather, the benefit is in bitter medicine.

Source: Iḥyāʼ Ulūm al-Dīn 3/199

Indeed, it is a difficult and bitter medicine to swallow when we pray for people who have wronged us and harmed us in terrible ways. Yet, it is for our own good to do so, as the hatred in our hearts is more harmful to ourselves than our prayers are against them.

In fact, it is the Sunnah to cleanse the heart of hatred, malice, and rancor every morning and evening by praying for the benefit of others.

Anas ibn Malik reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said to me:

يَا بُنَيَّ إِنْ قَدَرْتَ أَنْ تُصْبِحَ وَتُمْسِيَ لَيْسَ فِي قَلْبِكَ غِشٌّ لِأَحَدٍ فَافْعَلْ

Young man, if you are able every morning and evening to remove any rancor from your heart towards anyone, then do so.

Then the Prophet said:

يَا بُنَيَّ وَذَلِكَ مِنْ سُنَّتِي وَمَنْ أَحْيَا سُنَّتِي فَقَدْ أَحَبَّنِي وَمَنْ أَحَبَّنِي كَانَ مَعِي فِي الْجَنَّة

Young man, that is my tradition (sunnah) and whoever revives my tradition has loved me, and whoever loves me will be with me in Paradise.

Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2678, Grade: Hasan

Finally, we ought to understand that supplicating and praying for others is, in reality, to pray for our own selves. Among the rights of Muslim brotherhood is to pray for the Muslims the same way you pray for yourself.

Al-Ghazali writes:

الدعاء للأخ في حياته وبعد مماته بِكُلِّ مَا يُحِبُّهُ لِنَفْسِهِ وَلِأَهْلِهِ وَكُلِّ مُتَعَلِّقٍ به فتدعو له كما تدعو لنفسك ولا تفرق بين نفسك وبينه فإن دعاءك له دعاء لنفسك على التحقيق

(Among his rights are) prayer for his brother in his life and after his death for everything that he loves for himself, his family, and everything related to him. Thus, you pray for him as you pray for yourself, without distinction between yourself and him. Indeed, your prayer for him is a prayer for yourself in reality.

Source: Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn 2/186

Even our wayward brothers and sisters in humanity, who may be lost and stumbling, deserve for us to prayer for their guidance, just as we would want them to pray for us if we were lost in misguidance.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.

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Have you ever prayed for someone’s complete to ruin? That God would destroy them and wipe them off the face of the earth.

It doesn’t seem very Christian does it?

Nevertheless these kinds of prayers are recorded in the Bible and especially in the Book of Psalms.

Prayers that call for the death and destruction of others are called imprecatory prayers. You may not have given much thought to this kind of prayer before, and I hope that you never need to.

Before the war started in Ukraine I also had not thought very much about the place of imprecatory prayers in my own life and in my theology. War, however, has a way of shaping your thinking and calling into question certain ideas.

Recommended reading

War or not, if you read your Bible seriously you can’t ignore the passionate plea for the violent destruction of enemies. Check out a few of them for yourself in the following Psalms: 5, 10, 17, 35, 58, 59, 69, 70, 79, 83, 109, 129, 137, 139, 140.

They Are Inspired

We can’t just write these Psalms out of our Bible, Jesus himself considered them inspired and he never apologized for them, corrected them, or indicated that they do not teach truth.

Jesus quoted from at least two imprecatory psalms; Psa 35 and 69 (Joh 2:17 and 15:25). The Apostle Paul and Peter also quoted from Psalm 69 (Acts 1:20 and Rom 11:9).

An Example

For a good example of what an imprecatory prayer looks like let’s look at Psalm 69.

Psa 69:22-28
(22) Let their own table before them become a snare; and when they are at peace, let it become a trap.
(23) Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually.
(24) Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them.
(25) May their camp be a desolation; let no one dwell in their tents.
(26) For they persecute him whom you have struck down, and they recount the pain of those you have wounded.
(27) Add to them punishment upon punishment; may they have no acquittal from you.
(28) Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous.

There are many texts in the Bible that talk about God’s judgment but an imprecatory prayer does more than just talk about God’s judgment it calls for God to bring judgement on someone.

But Jesus Said Love Your Enemies

One of the biggest problems Christians have with imprecatory prayers is that Jesus’ words seem to contradict the idea of praying for the destruction of your enemy.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

Mat 5:43-45

Some claim that imprecatory prayers represent David’s sinful desire for revenge and thus we should not copy him. Others claim that Jesus revoked this type of prayer when he told us to love our enemies in Matthew chapter 5.

I don’t believe that either of these solutions work well. Neither Jesus nor any of the other New Testament writers specifically correct the imprecatory prayers of the Old Testament.  In fact there are some New Testament texts that also seem to be imprecatory in nature.

For instance, in the book of Revelation, those martyred cry out to God and say,

“They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
(Rev 6:10)

Different Contexts

Recommended reading

It’s important to understand the difference in context between the imprecatory prayers of the Psalms and Jesus Sermon on the Mount. It’s clear from the context, Jesus is speaking about personal relationships what he asks us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us or to go the extra mile.

Jesus is not talking about mass genocide or a full military invasion of another country, he is talking about personal offenses and that’s exactly why he uses the example of turning the other cheek (Mat 5:39) there’s nothing inherently dangerous about receiving a slap on the cheek but it is humiliating personally.

On the other hand if we look carefully at the imprecatory Psalms we find a much different situation. They were written by a king, the leader of a nation, a general of an army. Although, sometimes his prayers may look very personal, they are personal in the sense that he represents God’s people, thus an attack on him was an attack on God’s people.

The imprecatory prayers also focus their attention on how evil men have offended a holy God. Thus they call for judgment not simply because these men have killed the innocent but because they have offended the Holy. In this way the imprecatory prayers are also prophetic as they look forward to God’s just punishment on wicked men who will not repent of their evil deeds.

Where Does that Leave Us?

We know we are supposed to love our personal enemies and pray for them as Jesus commands us, but what if we find ourselves in a different context, one that looks more like David’s context?

Can or can’t we pray like David did against our enemies?

Here are some principles that I see in the imprecatory prayers that may help you decide if you should pray for the destruction of your enemies or not.

1. It should not be about personal revenge.

In every instance of an imprecatory prayer in the Bible it’s clear that it’s not simply personal revenge and pride on the line. While the offence takes on a personal nature this is simply because the author is the representative of an entire nation.

You, LORD God of hosts, are God of Israel. Rouse yourself to punish all the nations; spare none of those who treacherously plot evil. Selah.
(Psa 59:5)

Imprecatory prayers are never against the neighbor down the street who doesn’t like you and has called you a few bad names. Instead of personal revenge imprecatory prayers are about just retribution against an evil enemy who has come against another nation and against God.

2. It’s about stopping evil.

A common theme you can see in the imprecatory prayers is that of stopping evil short so that it can not continue destroying the lives of the innocent.  These prayers are directed at evil men who have the power to take thousands or even millions of lives.

Here’s and example from Psalm 109

May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the LORD, and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out! Let them be before the LORD continually, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth! For he did not remember to show kindness, but pursued the poor and needy and the brokenhearted, to put them to death.
(Psa 109:14-16)

Let’s face it, war is the handy-work of Satan and he enjoys the death and suffering that it brings. Unfortunately no one suffers more in war than the innocent. Often the quickest and most effective way to end the killing of innocents is by taking out the evil man/men who are in charge.

That’s what an imprecatory prayer is about!

3. It’s about honoring God.

Above all the imprecatory prayers show a desire to see God honored and glorified.  God is called upon to bring justice against men who do not honor him or worship Him.  The psalmists call upon God to restore his fame, to defend his name,  their deepest desire is not for revenge but for God’s glory and honor.

Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and atone for our sins, for your name’s sake!
(Psa 79:9)

Reminders for Us

I believe the imprecatory prayers were the right thing at that time in that situation for those who prayed them, thus they are righteous and inspired prayers. On the other hand I cannot tell you whether or not you should ever pray an imprecatory prayer. My suspicion is that few of us will have the exact circumstances that David had when he prayed these prayers. Nevertheless, imprecatory prayers serve to remind us of two things.

1. Sin is worse that we thought.

First they remind us of the awfulness and terribleness of sin. The reminder us that sin always brings destruction and death, that sin always against God, and that it is often the innocent who suffer because of sin. They remind us that sin causes all of war.

We underestimate sin, we underestimate the consequences of evil, we underestimate its power to destroy, and we underestimate how much is offends our holy God!

2. We aren’t concerned enough about God’s honor.

Second he reminds us of our responsibility to honor God in all circumstances. In individualistic Western cultures is easy to focus only on your personal responsibility to honor God, yet we all live in nations cities societies families who are also called to honor God. Our desire to bring God glory should be set so deep within our hearts that when we see that someone not honoring God it bothers us!

Question: How do you understand the imprecatory prayers? Have you ever prayed one? Would you ever pray one?

Recommended Reading

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