Psalm 139 is a favorite among God’s people. David’s description of God’s inescapable presence and exhaustive knowledge is both intimidating and comforting. We cannot escape God’s gaze and his ability to discern our heart’s deepest thoughts, nor can we run from God’s holy presence or providence. We are hemmed in at all times by our God who knows all things and is everywhere all at once.
Yet, David also stood in awe of God’s intimate care for him, rejoicing at God’s handiwork, evidenced in the intricacy of David’s own body (vv. 13-14). God has never been indifferent toward the course of David’s life. On the contrary, God had planned all of David’s life, even before he was born (v. 16). Meditation upon these sweet truths caused David to well up with love for his Creator: “How precious are your thought, O God.”
Well and good. But there is a section in this psalm that should trouble the careful Bible reader. The passage seems, at first glance, not to fit the flow of the psalm. Following his reflections on vastness of God’s knowledge and the comfort David has when he realizes that God is always with him (v. 18), David says,
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.Psalm 139:19-22
But this paragraph’s fit within the larger context of the Psalm is the least of our problems. Jesus’ words in the gospels seem to contradict David’s statement about his hatred for God’s enemies. Consider these two texts:
Matthew 5:43-45: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”
Luke 6:26-27: “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
How can we make sense of these these passages? On the one hand, we have David’s statements which seem to advocate for hating one’s enemies. On the other hand, Jesus makes it clear that we are not to hate our enemies, but love them.
Two Inadequate Solutions
One solution to this dilemma is to simply conclude that David was wrong to speak like this. He had a sudden burst of unrighteous anger and in his impassioned haste he wrote words that were sinful and inappropriate. The application for us? No believer should feel or speak this way about their enemies.
I find this solution unsatisfying because there is no indication that God disapproved of David’s statements here or that David himself, upon further reflection, found them to be distasteful. In other psalms, when the psalmist says or feels something that is not aligned with God’s will, he admits his fault. Asaph, for example, conceded that his feelings of envy toward the wicked were sinful, which is why he didn’t publicly express his perplexity (Ps 73:15) and admitted that these sinful emotions made him like a beast toward God (v. 22). This kind of self-rebuke is not found in Psalm 139.
Another solution is to say that David, like he does elsewhere, is speaking as the Messiah (see Psalm 22:1). As God’s final King, the Messiah is able to say and do things that God’s people cannot do. Therefore, although they are still hard to hear, words about hating God’s enemies are more fitting in the mouth of the Messiah than they are in the mouth of God’s people. Believers are not allowed to speak this way, but the Messiah can because he is God’s Son (Ps 2:12) and therefore has the divine right and holy character to hate his enemies (see also Psalm 5:5; 11:2). I think this is a legitimate interpretation. It is true that many Psalms speak directly of the Messiah or provide words from the Messiah. The reason I don’t take this route is because there is no place in the New Testament where Jesus takes these words upon himself.
Furthermore, this interpretation doesn’t really solve our problem for two reasons. First, David expresses a similar sentiment in an earlier Psalm where he describes the character and conduct of a godly person (Ps 15:4). Second, a non-Davidic psalmist expresses the same emotions toward his enemies in a context where the psalmist’s attitudes are intended to be exemplary for believers (Ps 119:113). We will consider these texts specifically in a moment.
Another solution is to argue that Scripture calls us to respond to our enemies in a way that is more complex than what is conveyed in the reductionistic question, “Should we love our enemies or hate them?” This is the path that I take. Rather than suggesting that David’s words are in conflict with Jesus’ words and that believers must choose between one or the other, I believe it is far better to assume that these passages are meant to fit together and then labor to understand how the truth they convey can reside in the soul and life of the Christian.
Despising a Vile Person
I want to start our query by looking at the two Old Testament texts I just mentioned. In Psalm 15, David describes the kind of person who is able to enjoy intimacy with God (v. 1). The person who enjoys close fellowship with their Creator is blameless and does what is right (v. 2); he speaks the truth in his heart and doesn’t slander people (v. 3a); he does no evil to his neighbor and doesn’t break loyalty with his friends (v. 3b); he keeps his word (v. 4), and doesn’t try to profit off of the less fortunate or take a bribe (v. 5). But he also is one in whose eyes “a vile person is despised” (v. 4a).
The word “despised” here is different than the word “hate” in Psalm 139, but they convey the same emotion. The word translated “despise” in Psalm 15:4 is used to describe Esau despising his birthright (Gen 25:34) and how Goliath despised David (1 Sam 17:24). Indeed, the English word “despise” is synonymous with words like “abhor,” “detest,” “disdain,” “loathe,” and, of course, “hate.” We can say it this way: The one who enjoys intimacy with God is one who hates a vile person. What does David mean?
We can better understand David’s meaning if we consider what he has already said about the character and conduct of the godly person, specifically in relation to other people. The godly man who despises a vile person is also someone who doesn’t slander with his tongue or commit evil against his neighbor. In other words, whatever it means to despise a vile person, it cannot include slander or doing evil to them. Therefore, we can conclude that David is focusing on the inward impulse, not the outward actions, that the godly person will have toward someone who is ungodly. The despising here does not lead to intentional attacks on the vile person’s reputation or violence to their person. But, if we love God and love holiness and love obedience to God’s Word, then we must have an inward repulsion toward their evil.
Hating the Double-Minded
A similar point can be made about the psalmist’s statements when he says, “I hate the double-minded, but I love your law” (Ps 119:113). The psalmist speaks elsewhere of hating false ways (Ps 119:104, 128) and abhorring falsehood (Ps 119:163). In verse 113, however, he narrows his focus on the double-minded person. What does he hate? He hates their double-mindedness. In this context, the psalmist is not speaking of a fellow believer who sometimes acts inconsistently (see James 1:8), but one who characteristically lacks integrity and is double-minded when it comes to the truthfulness of God’s Word.
But it is impossible to separate double-mindedness from the person who is expressing the double-mindedness, which is why David says, “I hate the double-minded.” He does not admire their double-mindedness or their lack of integrity or their rejection of God’s Word. These sins are deplorable to the psalmist, and they should be deplorable to us.
But What About Loving Our Enemies?
But how can you hate those who rebel against God and still love them? We must be clear at this point: Jesus commands his disciples to love their enemies. In fact, if you come away from reading the Old Testament and conclude that it is morally acceptable to love your neighbor and hate your enemy, like the rabbis who had ensconced this interpretation in their tradition, then you’ve misunderstood the Old Testament according to Jesus. Even the Old Testament itself didn’t allow for hating one’s enemies. Consider this passage from Solomon:
If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.Proverbs 25:21-22
The apostle Paul quotes this verse in his instructions to Christians about how they are to handle injustices done to them (see Rom 12:17-20). Rather than taking vengeance into their own hands, believers are to leave vengeance to God and care for their enemies’ physical needs.
Jesus corrects the rabbinic tradition by instructing his disciples to love their enemies, just like God loves his enemies. But what does enemy love look like practically? It certainly doesn’t mean that God loves his enemies’ twisted character or rebellious sin. Love in this sense is God’s tangible provision for his enemies’ needs: “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:45). That’s the model for how his disciples are to love their enemies. We are to respond to our enemies with tangible actions for their good and blessing: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28).
Loving our enemies is evidence that something supernatural has happened to us, for enemy-love is entirely unnatural to the sinful human heart, as Jesus notes in the latter half of Matthew 5: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” In other words, if you only love your non-enemies, you provide no compelling evidence that you’ve been changed by God’s grace.
What Jesus is not calling us to, however, is moral indifference where we ignore their sin and rebellion against God. Even in Jesus’ statements in Luke there is a recognition that our enemies are cursing and abusing us. Cursing and abuse are evil, and we must assess them as such, and recognize that those who act in such a way are in rebellion against our God.
We must also notice that David’s feelings are inflamed for God’s sake, not his own. David takes offense when someone speaks or rises up against God or takes God’s name in vain (Ps 139:20-21). David’s hatred is not provoked by some petty infraction he has endured at the hands of these wicked people. Rather, he despises those who malign God by their words and deeds.
Now we can begin to understand how this section fits in the flow of David’s thought in this psalm. Up to this point, David has been expressing awe, wonder, and love toward his gracious Creator, rounding off his delight by proclaiming, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!” As he ponders the goodness and beauty of the Lord, David begins to think of those who act treacherously toward God, and his heart if provoked to anger, even hatred. Is he in sin? No. This is an appropriate response for someone who loves God more than anyone or anything in the universe.
What does this all mean for Christians? It means that spiritual maturity is expressed, not only in loving our enemies, but, in a sense, despising them as well. We do not admire their sin or rebellion against God; we are not edified by their twisted character; we cannot tolerate in our hearts their blasphemy against our God. We are not belligerent in our conduct toward them, nor do we seek their physical harm. We are even ready to provide for their needs if necessary and bless them when they curse us. But we have a strong distaste for their evil.
But Isn’t this Self-Righteousness?
One could object to this conclusion and argue that it is self-righteous to despise a fellow image-bearer for their sin. This objection has some teeth. For example, Luke prefaces Jesus’ parable of the repentant tax-collector with this description of the Pharisees: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). This passage, however, doesn’t overturn what I’ve argued in this article.
First, the Pharisees were guilty of looking down on others because they considered themselves to be of a higher spiritual class than other people. Those who have been saved by the blood of Christ, however, can’t think of themselves as spiritually superior to anyone, for we know what it took to save us, and all that we have is but a gift from God (1 Cor 4:6). Second, Luke says the Pharisees were known for treating others with contempt. They were disrespectful, condescending, and downright mean to those whom they perceived were spiritually beneath them, yet this kind of behavior is forbidden by the New Testament. Christians are “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2) precisely because “we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” until the grace of God saved us (see Titus 3:4-7). Paul is simply saying that we are to be kind and gracious toward unbelievers because we used to be one until God sovereignly changed us by his grace, apart from our works. Christians are not on a violence-laced, hate-filled tirade against unbelievers. Rather, knowing our previous state and what brought us to salvation, we are kind, respectful, and courteous toward all people.
But this gracious conduct doesn’t eliminate our responsibility to call sin what it is and feel appropriate loathing for it when it occurs in other people. Indeed, just a few verses later, Paul instructs Titus to remove a divisive person from the church after warning him twice because such a person is “warped and sinful” (3:11). Titus cannot allow himself to love the warped character and sinfulness of the divisive person; he must despise and remove it, which means despising and removing the divisive person.
How do we work this out practically? Solomon puts it well: “There is a time to love, and there is a time to hate” (Eccl 3:8). There will be times when it is appropriate to love our enemies, provide for their needs, bless them when they curse us, and pray for their salvation. But there will also be times when it is appropriate to despise their ungodly character and look forward to God’s judgment upon his enemies and our enemies (see Rev 6:10). That’s why David could pray, “Oh that you would slay the wicked” (Psalm 139:19)! We don’t delight in the suffering the wicked will endure at God’s hand, but we do delight in God’s justice and at the removal of all unrighteousness from the world:
And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.Revelation 21:22-27
Amen. Come Lord Jesus.