Earlier today, as I was at services listening to the Bible Study, I got notification from a friend of mine about a biblical question he had and had posted publicly in a Facebook group I happen to belong to. I made a brief comment, but given the larger conversation, I thought it appropriate to discuss this verse and its larger context, as it provides a chance to answer a set of related questions of considerable and delicate importance for Christians that raises larger implications that are also worth discussing at some length, even though I would prefer to go to bed early given how busy my day tomorrow looks like. The immediate verse in question is David’s comment in Psalm 139:22: “I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.” Given this verse, there are some immediate questions that come to mind: Is it acceptable for Christians to hate when God is love? If so, how? Does this verse contradict other verses that clearly show that we should not hate others? Did David speak amiss here? Let us take these questions in no particular order, and use them to both deepen and broaden the mystery, hopefully showing not only a way forward in understanding this passage, but a way in general to deal with difficult scriptures without seeking to pit one verse against another.
It is admittedly tempting to look at a verse like this one and to say that David got it wrong, and that he was no speaking properly in ways that are applicable to believers today. This temptation should be avoided as a first resort, for several reasons. For one, the language used in the Bible, and our understanding of it, is sufficiently imprecise that apparent contradictions frequently occur in the Bible  that are not real contradictions. For another, the technique of pitting one scripture against another is a way of picking and choosing what is and what is not valid, in a way that makes us the judge of a text as some sort of higher critic, rather than someone who is in the position of learning from the text. Furthermore, Psalm 139 is itself a very pointed psalm in at least two ways. For one, the psalm itself is a critical view of the book of Job, pointing out how David understands God’s nature better than Job did, and so he did not make the same foolish and mistaken judgements that Job did in assuming that God’s enemies got off easy while the righteous were punished, even if life looks like that sometimes . It is particularly grimly ironic to view a psalm that shows David’s superior knowledge of God than most believers as evidence of his lack of knowledge of God. We ought to be cautious about doing so in the absence of any sign that David was rebuked for saying what he did in Psalm 139:22, and in light of the glowing praise that Paul gives to David in Acts 13:22: “And when He had removed him [Saul], He raised up for them David as king, to whom also He gave testimony and said, ‘I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who will do all My will.’” How do we square David’s perfect hatred of other people with Paul’s glowing praise of David as a man after God’s own heart? Let us also note in passing that there was no lesser standard for believers before the time of Christ concerning hatred than is the case afterward. As it is written in Leviticus 19:17: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him.” So we cannot give David a pass and say he was under a lesser standard than believers today.
For it is without question that the Bible considers hatred and even anger to be very dangerous areas for Christians. A few obvious examples should suffice. As it is written in Matthew 5:43-48: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” It is similarly written in Romans 12:17-21: “Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Clearly, Christians are not to be the sort of people who act with hatred and wrath towards their enemies, even those who have wronged us in some fashion. Is there a way that David’s pointed statement meets the rigorous standard of loving one’s enemies commanded by Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul? Do the commands make it impossible for believers to hate anyone at all for any reason, or is it impossible to be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect with any sort of hatred towards other people whatsoever? These are immensely weighty questions. Before we can begin to answer them, let us first look at the passage that David’s words in Psalm 139 come from, namely Psalm 139:19-22: “Oh, that You would slay the wicked, O God!
Depart from me, therefore, you bloodthirsty men. For they speak against You wickedly; your enemies take Your name in vain. Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.”
In reading this passage a few factors should jump out at the reader. For one, David is not talking about his perfect hatred of these enemies as a matter of personal pique. David does not hate these men because of their behavior towards him, nor is he bearing some private grudge or even seeking to avenge himself on his enemies. Rather, these enemies are so because they hate and rebel against God, take his name in vain, are bloodthirsty, and are wicked. Likewise, David calls on God to judge them, not seeking to condemn them himself. In so doing, David gives vengeance over to God, and relies on God’s justice to prevail on those who refuse to be merciful and honorable in their behavior. Even if David expresses himself more harshly than we would, if we were truly loyal to God, would we not burn with frustration and anger about those who presumptuously and rebelliously act against God’s ways, who slay the innocent and pursue wicked ends with wicked means, who speak lies and utter falsehoods and slanders against the righteous. Speaking personally, I have burned in anger over such matters, not merely because offense was made against me (for this is natural and human, even carnal, to feel), but because such people mocked God, whom I love. Can we blame David for feeling the same sense of righteous indignation for those who hated and rebelled against God and made themselves God’s enemies? If someone is an enemy of God, are they not also an enemy of God’s people?
It is worthwhile at this point to note that hate, in the Hebrew sense, is a far more broad concept than we are used to dealing with. One example should suffice. It is written in Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.” We properly view this statement as hyperbole, recognizing that we are not commanded to hate our parents or children or siblings or our own life, but rather that our commitment to God and to Jesus Christ is to be so far above other commitments that we do not let anything hinder our obedience to God’s ways, even the closest of family ties, even if we continue to love those who are hostile to us in opposition. Yet if we are so willing to understand that hatred does not mean for Jesus Christ what we would assume it to mean for most people, why are we not as willing to give David the same credit when the circumstances are similar. David’s did not say he hated others for what they did or said about him, but for their rebellion against God. Nor did he seek to avenge God himself, but rather he placed judgement where it was appropriate, for the Eternal to attend to in His own time. Nor did David “hate” these enemies in his heart, but rather he publicly rebuked them for their sins, as he was commanded to do in Leviticus, in a psalm that was and is still used in public worship.
Is David’s example relevant for believers today? Absolutely. For a proper comparison, let us look at what is written in Revelation 2:6 about the church of Ephesus: “But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” We clearly see that believers are to hate the deeds of wickedness today, whether they are found in our own lives, in those of friends or family, of brethren, of neighbors, of fellow citizens, or of strangers. When it is falsely said by flagrant and unrepentant sinners in our own contemporary setting that believers are hateful people, we properly reply that we hate the sin and love the sinner. Did David behave this way? Absolutely, and we know largely because the Bible records so many of David’s psalms that we are able to read his heartfelt laments and his own hostility towards his own sins (see, for example Psalm 51), and his willingness to be rebuked by others (see, for example, Psalm 141 ). In remembering the context of Psalm 139:19-22, we see that what David hated about these enemies of God and himself was their deeds, their taking of God’s name in vain, their hatred of God, their wickedness. It was not prejudice or personal pique that made these people David’s enemies, but their hostility to God, and by extension their hostility towards those who are God’s and who live God’s ways. So it remains today. David hated the sin and passionately longed for the repentance of others, and so do we today. Therefore we do not need to show hostility towards David’s comments about his perfect hatred, because it was perfect hatred, focused on their wickedness and not on them personally, just as it was with Jesus Christ, with the church of Ephesus, and with us today.
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