We can love our enemies while praying against evil:
It is common for critics of the Bible – and even somewhat unknowledgeable believers who really should know better – to try to pit the New Testament against the Old Testament. They especially seek to present the Jesus of the NT as being radically different from the God of the OT.
When it comes to things like dealing with enemies, they certainly press this argument. But are they right? Does Jesus take a totally different direction from what we find in the OT regarding enemies? I think not. Let me explain. A text that immediately springs to mind from the lips of Jesus is Matthew 5:43-44: “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.”
As to verse 43, the command to love your neighbour is certainly biblical (See Leviticus 19:18), but the bit about hating your enemy is nowhere to be found in the OT, but it was a popular rabbinic interpretation at the time. And notions of loving one’s enemy are also found in the OT (eg., Exodus 23:4-5).
And Jesus of course also could speak about judgment to come on those who refuse to repent – those who remain enemies of God. So while we love and pray for them, that does not mean they will get off Scot-free. But here I want to look at just one part of the OT – Psalm 35 in particular.
The Psalter is jammed-packed with prayers about enemies. David and others are constantly asking God to deal with enemies, to protect them from enemies, to frustrate the plans of enemies, and to vindicate them against these enemies. In the first 50 psalms alone, a full 32 of them deal with enemies, at least in part. So this is a major theme here, and elsewhere in the OT.
Just about every verse of the 28 verses found in Psalm 35 deals with enemies in one way or another. Let me offer just some of them:
1 Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me;
fight against those who fight against me!
4 Let them be put to shame and dishonor
who seek after my life!
Let them be turned back and disappointed
who devise evil against me!
7 For without cause they hid their net for me;
without cause they dug a pit for my life.
11 Malicious witnesses rise up;
they ask me of things that I do not know.
12 They repay me evil for good;
my soul is bereft.
17 How long, O Lord, will you look on?
Rescue me from their destruction,
my precious life from the lions!
19 Let not those rejoice over me
who are wrongfully my foes,
and let not those wink the eye
who hate me without cause.
24 Vindicate me, O Lord, my God,
according to your righteousness,
and let them not rejoice over me!
So what are we to make of all this? Are such pleas for protection, for justice, and for vindication at odds with what Jesus taught? No, I think they can peacefully coexist. Some of these psalms are known as lament, or complaint, psalms, and a subsection of such psalms are the imprecatory psalms.
These psalms seek God’s justice against enemies and evildoers, and ask God to act against them. Psalm 35 is an imprecatory psalm. I have discussed these sorts of psalms before: billmuehlenberg.com/2012/02/02/the-imprecatory-psalms-part-one/
And I look at Ps. 35 in the second part of this article: billmuehlenberg.com/2012/02/02/the-imprecatory-psalms-part-two/
Also, I have written often about how appropriate and biblical it is for Christians today to pray for God’s justice and to ask him to move against evil – and evildoers. See this piece for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/08/04/yes-seek-justice-and-vindication/
But let me speak a bit further to Ps. 35, drawing upon just one commentator. James Johnston, in his Preaching the Word commentary has a lot of wise things to say about this psalm, and he too addresses the seeming conflict between the prayer of David and the words of Jesus.
He begins by reminding us that the psalms were used as songs of corporate worship for ancient Israel. Christians also sing the psalms today. But, “we don’t sing many songs with words of Psalm 35 though.” Yes quite so – we would be far too squeamish about such psalms.
He first looks at some wrong answers as to how believers today should understand a psalm like this one. One involves what I already mentioned: seeking to divorce the OT from the NT. Both Testaments of course contain both divine love, grace and mercy, as well as divine wrath and judgment.
Another wrong answer is to claim David was just being vindictive and out for revenge. This is wrong for three reasons. First, “it doesn’t square with what we know of David.” Second, David asks God to be his avenger. He “never asks to take vengeance himself on his enemies.” Third, “David was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:25).”
Just as David could praise God for bringing about vindication and just judgment, so we can praise God that Jesus does the same – see Revelation 19:1-3 for example. “A good judge clears the innocent and condemns the guilty. God is a good judge. Should we expect less of him than a judge in our courtrooms?”
Johnston also reminds us that David was not acting as a private citizen here, but as the king of Israel: “As the king, he represents something more than himself – he represents peace and stability for the nation through his leadership.” He continues:
His enemies were also hurting innocent people. David mentions that “the poor and needy” were being robbed (35:10) and the quiet people of the land were suffering (35:20). It’s one thing for you and me to forgive someone who hurts us—this is what Jesus meant when he said in essence, “turn the other cheek.” But if you are the king, you can’t turn the other cheek when your people are attacked. God has placed kings in authority to maintain order in society (Romans 13:3, 4). King David was responsible to provide law and justice, peace and security for the citizens of his kingdom—he could not turn a blind eye to evil.
‘But,’ you might object, ‘we are not kings.’ True enough. But the concern to see justice triumph and wickedness come to an end is fully biblical and is something that all of God’s people – from both Testaments – can and should earnestly seek for. Says Johnston:
If you have a rose-tinted, Pollyanna view of God—maybe like a nice, white-haired grandfather in Heaven—you will be shocked to hear David praise God for sending destruction. But this is not indiscriminate anger—the people God destroys were robbing the poor. David was the king; he was responsible for the safety of all his people. These enemies were trying to kill him and were terrorizing villages. Do we want them to stop their attacks? Of course. But if they will not stop and they continue their violence, there comes a point when we will praise God for laying them low.
When David says he rejoices in God’s judgment on these enemies, it doesn’t say what else he might be feeling. When the police catch a criminal, you might feel sorry for the offender even though you are glad he is off the streets. We can praise God for judging an evil person while we are grieved by the sin that controlled him, dragged him down, and destroyed him. It is possible to rejoice and weep over the same event.
As is always the case with the expository sermons found in the PTW series, each one ends with an appeal to Christ and what he has done for us. Says Johnston:
The good people in Israel were loyal to David, and they rejoiced when God rescued him. . . . In the same way, as believers we rejoice at God’s faithfulness in saving our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the great Son of David, and ultimately this psalm is about him and the opposition he endured. The leaders of Israel were thrilled when they killed him on the cross. They had their heart’s desire. But God raised him from the dead and rescued him. And now Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father, waiting for God to place all his enemies beneath his feet (Psalm 110:1).
Christ’s enemies hate him still today. I wish they would put down their swords, stop their lies, and worship him, but they will not. And so there is nothing left for them but the judgment God has warned us about in both the Old and New Testaments.
Yes and amen. So we can love our enemies and pray for them. And at the same time, we can implore God to bring a speedy end to injustice, unrighteousness and evil. Often we will not see vindication in our lifetime, but in God’s good time he always does act. Whether it is bringing to an end the evil Assyrians and Babylonians in OT times, or bringing to an end Soviet Russia or the Nazis in our times, God does always act. And there is nothing amiss in asking him to act.