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"Love your Enemies" and the Imprecatory Psalms

Of the many concise and surprising things Jesus instructed, "Love your enemies," rates pretty near the top. Many know the passage who've never picked up a Bible in their lives. When we are struck on the cheek, we offer the other also. When someone asks us to bear a burden for one mile, we are to carry it for two, we are to "go the extra mile". This teaching is so radical and unthinkable it has left a profound impact on his followers and even his non-followers, even on the English language in terms of the idiom "go the extra mile." 

One might say that love was the very center of Jesus "ethic". I would add that this love is taught in a context of grace. Jesus began that sermon by saying, "Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God." This is tantamount to saying, "Blessed are those who come to God with nothing and know it, pleading God for mercy, for he will give them everything, both his kind reign now, and his future kingdom for eternity." This is pure grace: those with nothing get everything! This is the context for the love Jesus demands. Jesus expects this kind of radical love to flow out of hearts both cleansed and transformed by the grace of God.

This is a foundation of Christian teaching. We who follow Christ, who name him as Lord, if we know anything about what he expects of us, it is at least this: to love others, even enemies, as we have been loved.

For something to so mark Christian teaching, one begins to wonder and question upon reading the OT Psalms and finding what are called the "imprecatory psalms". Psalm 139:19-22 is a good example:

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? 

One begins to wonder how these passages fit in with Jesus' command to love our enemies and bless those who curse us, which is so markedly a part of the Christian faith. How do these mix?

First of all, right before Jesus says "Love your enemies" in Luke 6:27, he spends Luke 6:24-26 saying "Woe to you who...", which, in a way, is calling down God's judgment and curse upon people who proudly reject God and think of themselves as self-sufficient! So Jesus is not against God judging people. He is interested in his disciples seeking the good of all people, as people transformed by grace, freely forgiving as they themselves have been.

But how are we to understand these Psalms? John Piper, in his What Jesus Demands from the World, has a very helpful section dealing with this question (pg. 221-223), in which he offers a helpful solution. 

[We are to understand] the psalmist speaking under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and foreshadowing the Messiah and Judge, who has the ultimate right to call down judgement on the enemies of God. (223)

Thus, we are to distance ourselves from such Psalms in the sense that we do not repeat their behavior, because we do not have the same role as the one speaking. We do not call down curses upon the wicked, because we are not the judge. The psalmist spoke prophetically as the future Messiah, i.e. King, Judge, and as such spoke on God's behalf condemning the "persistent and high-handed and God-despising" sin of the ultimately unrepentant. We, however, lack such credentials.

Piper counsels in closing:

We would do well to leave such final assessments to God and realize our own corrupt inability to hate as we ought. While there is unforgivable sin, we are told to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us and return good for evil. . . . This is our vocation by faith. (223)

Well said.


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Matt Hauck (郝柏昇)

A once enemy now son, forgiven and freed by Jesus' blood, adopted and called by grace for glory.   (more...)

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