[Note: This speech was given 1/24 at the Portland Spokesmen’s Club as a Graduate #3 Speech on a difficult scripture. It received the award for Most Effective Speech for the night.]
A few months ago, one of the young people in our local congregation publicly posted about his wrestling with a difficult scripture that can be found in Psalm 139:22 , which reads as follows: “I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.” This young man asked the sorts of question that are very typical when someone wrestles with a difficult scripture. Could David possibly mean what he said? Is it ever acceptable for Christians to hate anyone under any circumstances? Does this verse not contradict other verses that clearly command love for one’s enemies? How can someone who clearly and openly expresses their perfect hatred for someone else be considered a man after God’s own heart, as it is written in Acts 13:22? Can such a statement be applicable and relevant for Christians today? Today I would not only like to give a brief exegesis of this difficult scripture, but also, in the process, to briefly outline a three-step approach to dealing with difficult scriptures in general.
The first step is to look at a passage in its immediate context. After all, what seems difficult when looking at a particular verse in isolation often becomes more clear when we step back and see how a verse relates with its neighbors. Using this principle, we can note at least two levels of context for Psalm 139:22. The immediate context can be found starting in verse 19. The passage this difficult verse appears in reads as follows: “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.” This immediate context lets us know that David hates his enemies with perfect hatred because of their disobedience for God. It is not out of personal spite or vindictiveness that David hates them, but he opposes them, and wishes for God to punish them, because of their rebellion and hostility towards God. We should note that this is precisely the sort of hatred that is consistently praised in the Bible, whether it is the approach of not seeking vengeance for ourselves spoken of in Romans 12 or the praise God gives to the brethren of Ephesus for their hatred of the deeds of the Nicoliatans in Revelation 2, which God also hates. The larger context is useful as well to briefly discuss, since Psalm 139 as a whole is written with an apparent awareness of the book of Job and seeks to demonstrate David’s greater understanding of how God operates than Job’s. The psalm as a whole is an answer of faith to Job’s questions of doubt in the midst of his own troubles.
The second step in understanding a difficult scripture is to move beyond the immediate context and to view other verses that deal with the same general concept, so as to frame the possible meanings of the scripture given the totality of what the Bible says about a subject. This often requires lengthy and in-depth word studies, as well as a broad understanding of the Bible, so that we can grasp the wider context of a particularly problematic verse, and so we do not get carried away in our interpretations of any isolated verse without an appreciation of what the Bible as a whole says. We have already spoken a bit about the larger biblical context, either by implication or reference. Revelation 2:6 praises the Ephesians for their hatred of the wickedness of the Nicoliatans. Matthew 5:43-48 tells us that we should love our enemies and not only our friends, which informs us that perfect hatred includes on some level love. Leviticus 19:18 prohibits believers from hating someone secretly in their heart, and commands open rebuke, meaning that the perfect hatred of David, as a public rebuke of evil in a psalm that was likely intended for public worship, is an appropriate response for a believer to take. Also of interest, we can see in Luke 14:26 that Jesus Christ used hate in a particular sense concerning the possibility of rejecting our parents and our earthly parents in order to obey God that reminds us of the broad meaning of hatred to include rejection of someone’s ways, and not bitterness and enmity of heart, reminding us that David’s perfect hatred of the enemies of God involved a rejection of their ways and not a hatred of them as people. Through reading in a wider context, we can better understand what the Bible is saying in a specific instance.
The third step in dealing with a difficult scripture is that after we have looked at the local and the global context of a particularly challenging verse, we then interpret this verse according to the biblical rules of interpretation. Scholars often describe the Bible with the unfamiliar term hermeneutics, but the Bible itself gives straightforward rules of interpretation that can help us to avoid difficulties in reading and understanding the scriptures. For example, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 reminds us that all scripture is useful for instruction and reproof. Isaiah 28:10, 13 remind us that the truths of God must be found here a little and there a little, not necessarily all in one place for convenient reading. John 10:35 reminds us that the scripture cannot be broken, demonstrating that there is no contradiction in the Bible, but rather it is only the misinterpretations of people that contradict, or that find contradictions in the scriptures. It is through these biblical principles that we should view the Bible, as a way of informing us of what interpretations are permissible and which are not. In addition, our view towards the Bible, and towards any text that we encounter, or any people, is to give all benefit of the doubt that is possible, to view others in the most charitable light possible given the evidence. We come to a text not as prosecutors looking for fault or judges looking to decide what is and is not inspired, but humbly, as students seeking to learn.
Putting it all together, what do we see when we look at Psalm 139:22 in the light of its immediate context, the whole biblical context, and the biblical rules of interpretation discussed earlier? For one, we see that David’s hatred of evildoers is not personal or emotional, but rather it is his close identification with God, and making God’s enemies his own, that is being referred to in the verse. In the broader context, we see that David hated the deeds of the wicked and not the wicked as people, in a way that is consistently praised in scripture. Using the biblical rules of interpretation, we see that a verse like this cannot be viewed in isolation, but in light of the whole Bible together, and that it would be improper and impermissible to seek to pit verses of the Bible against each other to claim that a given verse was uninspired or not important for a believer to understand and apply. The perfect hatred that David hated with is the same hatred that we should have for evil, even as we act as charitably as we possibly can to all others.
 For a more lengthy discussion of this passage, see: