This is another Bible passage which is not so much difficult as one which has been badly handled, poorly interpreted, and often wrongly applied. The verse in question is this: “Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.” The problems revolve around who exactly is being referred to here, and what application, if any, can we have today with this passage.
We hear quite often whenever a spiritual leader or pastor is being critiqued or put under the spotlight that this is wrong, and we dare not “touch the Lord’s anointed”. The idea is that anyone who is in a position of spiritual oversight or leadership almost seems to be above reproach, and can never be challenged, rebuked, held to account, or criticised.
Either the leaders themselves or their devoted followers will throw this passage out whenever someone is questioning something leaders might be doing or teaching. It is like a magic button which is pressed to immediately deflect any criticism or concern about what a leader is doing or saying.
They think that by throwing this verse at you, they have automatically won the debate, and have put you in your rightful spiritual place. Thus far too many leaders remain above any accountability or correction or scrutiny as a result. But is this the proper interpretation and application of this verse?
Obviously all texts must be seen in their contexts, and that is certainly the case here. What is this psalm in fact saying, and how are we to understand it? Getting a handle on what is being said here is the first step we must take to properly understand what v. 15 is all about.
This verse is part of an account of Israel’s history as found in Psalm 105. The 45-verse psalm especially looks at the call of Abraham and the promises made to him, and takes the story up to Moses, the deliverance from Egypt, and the wilderness wanderings.
In vv 8-15 we read about how God’s protecting hand was on Abraham, his family, and the other patriarchs. He allowed none of his foes to oppress them and he even rebuked kings for their sake (v. 14). The main point here seems to be that God prevented enemies to harm them – primarily in a physical fashion.
He protected them and kept them alive in other words. God had a great purpose to use Abraham to make a great nation, so of course he had to keep him and those who followed on from him from harm. So that particular promise was rather specific, and not necessarily something we can latch onto unconditionally today.
As John Goldingay comments, “The description ‘anointed’ strictly applies to priests and kings, but is extended metaphorically to the leaders of the ancestral family, who functioned both like priests (e.g., Gen. 12:7,8) and like kings (see esp. Gen. 14). As people who were metaphorically anointed, they were people whom Yhwh had laid hold of and claimed, and they were therefore under Yhwh’s protection; no one could attack them with impunity.”
Another passage often appealed to here concerns a similar situation, this time involving David and Saul, as recorded in 1 Samuel. Saul of course had become jealous of David and sought to kill him (1 Sam 18-19). In a reversal of fortune, David ended up with some opportunities to return the favour, but he refused to kill Saul. Instead of seeking to cause him any physical harm, David said he could not touch the Lord’s anointed (1 Sam 24:6; 26:9, 11, 23).
These episodes are as much about timing as anything. Saul had already been rejected by God (1 Sam 15), and David had been anointed king (1 Sam 16). So while two anointed kings were in existence, one was about to give way to the other. Thus what David did in ch. 24 was rich in symbolism.
In that chapter we read about how David spared Saul’s life while cutting off a corner of his robe. As Bill Arnold comments, this act “has enormous symbolic significance, denoting perhaps not only that Saul’s hold on the kingdom is over but that David’s has now begun. . . . He will eventually have the throne of Israel, but as a gift of God rather than as a result of his grasping and maneuvering.”
Or as John Woodhouse notes, “There was something very unusual going on here. David understood that the kingdom, which would certainly be his one day, was not for him to take by his own power. The kingdom had been given to Saul by God (in this sense ‘he is the Lord’s anointed’), and it was up to God to take it away from him, in his own time and in his own way.”
Thus both of these passages have to do with physical force used against kings or those leaders God has called as part of the messianic line leading up to the new covenant. These texts cannot be appropriated today with the intent that church leaders and pastors cannot be spoken against, questioned, held to account, or at times challenged or rebuked.
As is always the case, seeking the biblical balance here is vitally important. As happens so often, we can easily go off into one of two unhelpful extremes. In this case, we can either end up with cult-like authoritarianism, or we can end up with leaderless flocks. Both are wrong and both are unbiblical.
The New Testament certainly speaks to the importance of leaders and leadership. Consider just a few verses, such as:
-Ephesians 4:11-12 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry
-1 Timothy 3:1 Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.
-Titus 1:5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you
-Hebrews 13:7 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.
-Hebrews 13:7 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.
So leaders are part of the way God runs his church. But heavy-handed leadership which abuses its position is to be guarded against. We had for example the unhealthy excesses of the shepherding movement in the 70s and 80s in which leaders took too much power and authority, lording it over their flocks, demanding basically complete submission in all things.
That is the mark of a cult, not a healthy biblical body of believers. But the other extreme is to do away with leaders altogether, and imagine that the body of Christ is not to have any leadership at all. Or the danger is for leaders to be constantly challenged, undermined, subverted and resisted, and not shown due respect.
So we must get the balance right. We are to support, obey and show respect to our leaders. But leaders are also to be held to account. Their activities must line up with the word of God, and if they go astray in either conduct or teaching, they must be challenged.
Paul for example, although a leader himself, was quite happy to challenge another pillar in the church: Peter. He publicly rebuked him when he got into theological error, as recorded in Galatians 2:11-21. No human leader is to be above scrutiny and assessment.
Principles of how believers are to challenge leaders who may be going off the rails or are in need of spiritual input and critique cannot be gone into here. Suffice it to say that those who speak about ‘not touching the Lord’s anointed’ as a means of deflecting all criticism or questioning of leadership do not have solid ground to stand on here.
As I say, getting the biblical balance right is what we must strive for. It is not always easy, but we must seek and work for it nonetheless.