William Gurnall on Imprecatory Prayer

GurnallWilliam Gurnall’s classic work on spiritual warfare, The Christian In Complete Armor,  is basically an extended exposition of Ephesians 6:10-20 (totaling some 1,200 pages!). In it he includes a lengthy section (over 300 pages long) on prayer, which is, of course, his treatment of v.18-20 (where Paul speaks of prayer in relation to the whole armor of God).

In that section on prayer, Gurnall takes the time to speak of a subject that is rarely heard of today – imprecatory prayers.

What is imprecatory prayer? An imprecatory prayer is that prayer of God’s people which is directed at or against the enemies of God and His people. They often consist in prayers, not just for deliverance for God’s people from their enemies and His, but also for God’s just judgment against the wicked. Gurnall himself defines it as that prayer “wherein the Christian imprecates the vengeance of God upon the enemies of God and his people” (Vol. 2, p.444).

The Psalms are practically filled with such prayers. Here are just a few examples: Psalm 3:7 says, “Arise, O LORD! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.” Psalm 7:6 says, “Arise, O LORD, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies; awake for me; you have appointed a judgment.” Psalm 10:15 says, “Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer; call his wickedness to account till you find none.” If the idea of imprecatory prayer makes you uncomfortable, then you will find the book of Psalms to be a rather uncomfortable book indeed.

Not only does the book of Psalms include such prayers, but they are also found on the lips of the saints in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 6:9-10 we are shown “the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” crying out out with a loud voice, saying, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” So even the martyrs in heaven are depicted as crying out for justice! They are crying out for the Lord to avenge their blood! And what does the Lord tell them? Does he tell them that they have the wrong idea? Does He tell them that such prayers are no longer appropriate? No! He tells them to “rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (v.11). Justice will come, and their blood will be avenged, but they might have to wait a bit longer.

Gurnall actually warns the wicked not to get the saints engaged in praying against them! He writes to them, “Take heed that by your implacable hatred to the truth and church of God, you do not engage her prayers against you” (p.448). He goes so far as to say:

“The prayers of the saints are more to be feared . . .than an army of twenty thousand men in the field” (ibid).

He points to the example of Esther (cf. Esther 4:16), whose prayers hastened Haman’s destruction on his own gallows; and also of Hezekiah’s prayers against Sennacherib (cf. Isaiah 37:14-20), which “brought his huge host to the slaughter, and fetched an angel from heaven to do the execution in one night upon them” (ibid.). He draws upon the examples given in Scripture to prove his point. The prayers of the saints really are to be feared indeed!

Now, Gurnall does offer some rules or guidelines as a caution against the possible abuses or misuses of imprecatory prayer. (See Vol.2, p.444-446.) They are as follows:

  1. “Take heed thou dost not make thy private particular enemies the object of thy imprecation.” So the right and proper subject of imprecatory prayer must be God’s enemies, the enemies of Christ and His people. And we must be careful not to presume that our own particular enemies are necessarily the enemies of God Himself, His Christ, or His church.
  2. “When thou prayest against the enemies of God and his church, direct thy prayers rather against their plots than person.” Our primary aim in such prayers should be that the Lord Jesus would defend His church. Imprecatory prayer (rightly conceived) should not preclude praying for the salvation of our enemies.
  3. “When praying against the persons of those that are open enemies to God and his church, it is safest to pray indefinitely and in general: ‘Let them all be confounded . . .that hate Zion,’ Ps.cxxix.5; because we know not who of them are implacable, and who not, and therefore cannot pray absolutely and peremptorily against particular persons.” In other words, you just never know whom God might have chosen to save. The Lord defended His church both by judging Herod (Acts 12:20-24), and converting Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:1-19).
  4. “In praying against the implacable enemies of God and his church, the glory of God should be principally aimed at, and vengeance on them in order to that.” Just as the glory of God comes first in both sequence and priority in the Lord’s Prayer (i.e. “hallowed be your name” – Matthew 6:9; Luke 11:2), even so God’s glory must also then come first even in the right practice of imprecatory prayer.
So Gurnall cautions us against the improper use of imprecatory prayer, but nevertheless he also cautions the enemies of God’s people that if they should, through persecution or other such evil, incite the saints to the practice of imprecatory prayer against them for that evil, God will not count it as wasted breath. The prayers of the saints (as Gurnall states above) really are “more to be feared . . .than an army of twenty thousand men in the field.”
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