Should we pray imprecatory prayers? You know, the type like the Psalm 137 where we ask for God for payback and then list cruel things like dashing babies against rocks?
Well, I think the question is phrased all wrong if we’re looking to justify cruelty.
Firstly most (if not all) imprecatory Psalms have an explicit or implicit condition of laying a curse upon oneself (even if there is a final component of evident vindication). For example, in Psalms 137 the onus is first laid heavily on the Psalmist: “If I don’t remember let me become crippled and mute” then the prayer ripples out to the enemies. In Psalms 69 the Psalmist asks for those who know God not to be ashamed nor dishonored through the Psalmist. In Psalm 139 the Psalmist spends the most time having his innermost being searched by God before moving outwards to “slay the wicked men of bloodshed!”
Secondly, the imprecatory Psalms are usually in the context of extreme circumstances. In one the Psalmist is betrayed and hunted, in another Jerusalem lies in ashes, in another tormenters mock their captives after having committed horrendous cruelty, in another the enemies are blasphemous, violent murdering God-haters.
Thirdly, the imprecatory Psalms have an equal measure of just deserves. The wicked hate God, therefore they are hated; the wicked destroy the city, therefore their city is to be destroyed; the wicked dash children to pieces therefore their children are to be dashed to pieces. The crime fits the punishment in what seems to be eye for eye and tooth for tooth format.
Fourthly, the imprecatory Psalms, as all Psalms, are often corporate. In other words, they’re not usually thought of in the context of one individual but as an individual in behalf of the group. Even the messianic ones (like Psalm 2) have a corporate component that pits God’s Holy community (be it Zion or God’s Mountain and all that that entails which is not limited to God and His Anointed One) against those who rise up against that community.
Fifthly, the Lord Jesus demands his disciple to turn the other cheek (Matt 5) and to bless those who curse (you), do good for those who hate (you), and pray for those who persecute (you). Paul, carrying through this thinking says to helpful place coals on your enemies head since vengeance doesn’t belong to you but to the Lord (Romans 12). Both these thoughts are echoes of the Psalms which do not take vengeance into their own hand but constantly acknowledge that there will be recompense and they happily stand on the side that awaits that recompense.
So a Christian can pray these types of prayers if they do so fulfilling the duty that the Lord demands, understanding that vengeance is the Lord’s, see the offense as affecting the greater community, if the punishment fits the offense, if the situation is indeed that dire and if the one praying makes sure to point at him or herself first for the purging of hyssop and creation of a clean heart.
Personally, that’s a frightful position to be in.