One of the greatest and most loving things godly theologians, pastors and teachers have done for me is drive me to the Scriptures. What I mean is that they forced me to fall before the greatness of God, in love and fear, by making me think biblically and theologically when it come to the whole counsel of God. They drove me, specifically, to difficult (for a finite, sinful creature to comprehend) passages of the Bible and forced me to make sense of it all. This in turn moved me to love God all the more and proclaim His holiness. In short the study of theology has moved me into greater communion with God and obedience to His name.
One of the ways this was done was be taught about God’s holiness. In a day and age when all we hear is “love,” “love,” “love,” and a very warped view of love I might add, it is difficult for many Christians to read the imprecatory Psalms- Psalms that invoke hatred and call judgment and curses upon God’s enemies- and make sense of it in regards to God’s love. Because Christians are accustomed and trained to know about God’s love these days; precisely because that is all they hear from the pulpit, they seem only to know of the love of Jesus and little else. Thus when they come across passages that teach on the holiness, righteousness, justice and anger of God they becomes quite confused, embarrassed even or maybe apologetic for God while others may simply pass by such passages quite content with being unable to account for the difficulties.
Ask the average believer about passages like:“Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me! They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies” (Ps 139:19–22) and passages like “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…(Mt 5:44); now ask them to make sense of the two and note the oft repeated assertion “But that is the Old Testament” or “That is Old Testament while we live in the New Testament.” Others may show a look of puzzlement and admit as much but are quite content to leave it there and go on their merry way.
I remember years back thinking that if God loves people then that must mean others are the object of His hatred. It perplexed me and the thought of God “hating” people certainly did not fit with all that I was taught about “God hating the sin but loving the sinner.” So I pursued it no longer and was satisfied with either ignoring the subject or returning to my cliche “God hates no one but does hate sin.”
Along came these godly and learned theologians, pastors and teachers who continued to press and not let God’s holiness be swallowed by His love. They further taught and proclaimed the attributes of God starting with His holiness. Because He is holy He is perfectly just and will serve justice upon those that continue in lawlessness. And if God is just then He must be vengeful. If He is just and vengeful then He must have objects of His vengeance. He must have enemies. And if He has enemies they must be the objects of His perfect hatred just as David claimed for himself in Ps. 139: 19-22).
John Day explains it this way:
“Loving” and “cursing” are kept in harmonic tension throughout Scripture so that in every era of their lives God’s people must wrestle with the implications of both in their context. Since the character of God does not change, the essence of his ethical requirements does not change. Therefore, as the imprecatory psalms were at times appropriate on the lips of believers before the Incarnation, so they-or their like-are at times appropriate on the lips of believers today. There is a time and place to call for tangible, temporal divine judgment; there is, indeed, a “time to curse.”
The central issue of divine vengeance presents an initial stigma. This is so partly because the promise of divine vengeance forms much of the basis upon which the psalmists voice their cries of cursing and partly because of the concept of vengeance itself. To the modern ear, the word vengeance evokes images of malice and revenge. By its very nature it bears negative, even sinful connotations. In this mind-set, vengeance-whether human or divine-is in no sense to be construed as virtuous. But to the ancient Israelite and through the pages of Scripture, the concept of vengeance is tied to the requirements of justice.’ Where justice is trampled, vengeance is demanded.’ The display of God’s vengeance, as presented in Scripture, is, in fact, coupled with his character as just and holy and his claim as world sovereign.”‘ Indeed, the Scriptures do not equivocate in their proclamation of Yahweh not only as Warrior, but also as judge and King. As H. G. L. Peels observes,
“If it is said of this God, who is King, that he avenges himself, this can no longer be considered to be indicative of an evil humor, a tyrannical capriciousness, or an eruption of rancor. God’s vengeance is kingly vengeance. If he takes vengeance, he does so as the highest authority exercising punishing justice. The vengeance of God is the action of God-as-King in the realization of his sovereign rule. This action is directed against those who offend God’s majesty through transgression against his honor, his justice or his people.”
Furthermore, God’s vengeance is inseparably linked to his loving-kindness.” His vengeance is the other side of his compassion, the “dark side” of his mercy.” The Scriptures are definite in affirming that God is by no means an indifferent Being but one who in history has passionately and decisively taken sides for his people.” If he is to save his people from sin, oppression, and injustice, he must exact vengeance upon his enemies-the enemies of his people.
This understanding of divine vengeance is borne out, for example, by Yahweh’s execution of vengeance against Edom.’s In the book of Isaiah, the language of vengeance is the language of violence-of slaughter and sacrifice, of holy war” and jealous rage.” As a consequence, the imagery of vengeance is the gruesome imagery of gore: “Yahweh’s sword is all bloody, it is gorged with fat” (Isa. 34:6). However, lest Yahweh become relegated to the company of pagan and bloodthirsty deities, notice in Isaiah the stated purpose of this violence against the wicked: “to contend for Zion” (34:8). This point is reiterated in the next chapter of Isaiah, which speaks of the paradise of the redeemed arising out of the carnage against the wicked: “Behold, your God, he will come with vengeance; with divine recompense he will come, and he will save you” (Isa. 35:4; cf. 63:3-4, emphasis added). Yahweh is a God who saves his people; but without God’s vengeance against his enemies, there can be no salvation for his people.
The ramifications of this tension are weighty. Raymond Swartzbach goes so far as to assert that, without a clear understanding of the significance of divine vengeance, “there is no way of comprehending the nature of the Christian God, for we can never speak of the `love’ and `justice’ of God without reflecting upon his `wrath’ and ‘vengeance.'”
If one were to start with the holiness of God much of the problems with God’s justice, hatred, wrath would dissipate. Much of our flub is that we have zeroed in on “love” to the exclusion of God’s other attributes. The objection is that the New Testament emphasizes the love of God hence that is where we should start. The answer to such an objection is twofold. The love of God is most certainly found in the Old Testament. David who hated God’s enemies with a perfect hatred and called upon God to slay them (Ps. 139:19-22) is also the same godly man that that appealed to God’s steadfast love for forgiveness of his sins- “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin (Ps 51:1–2)! Furthermore the people of the New Testament had a backdrop of which to view and appreciate Christ’s love- His holiness. That is to say that they did not struggle with the idea of God’s justice and judgment. For them the issue was how to escape it. Which is why the words of Christ in John 3:16-18 are so beautiful and precious, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
I realize that I brought forth a perplexing question that I did not explicitly answer by presenting Psalm 139:19-22 alongside Matt. 5:44. Another loving thing great men of God have done for me is to not always answer things immediately. They didn’t give me pat answers. They allowed me to think things through and drove me back to Scripture to study for myself ( 2 Tim. 2:15). Then they directed me to other resources to help me out.
Having said that, I plan on addressing such things in a second part. As R.C. Sproul said “Burning hearts are not nourished by an empty head.”
Soli Deo Gloria!
*John N. Day. Crying for Justice: What the Psalms Teach Us About Mercy and Vengeance in an Age of Terrorism (Kindle Locations 38-60). Kindle Edition.