On Righteous Indignation
We can use some zeal and passion for the things of God:
Christians are to mirror their Lord. If he loved righteousness and hated iniquity, then we believers should do the same. We should love what God loves, weep over what God weeps over, and be indignant over what God is indignant over. His concerns should be our concerns.
So if God cares deeply about justice and deplores injustice, we should too. As Proverbs 28:5 puts it: “Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely.” Or as we read in Amos 5:15: “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate.”
So this is where the idea of righteous indignation comes into play. One can and should be righteously indignant about all sorts of things, including sin, evil and injustice. It should bother us when we see gross injustice occurring. It should upset us to see justice trampled underfoot and wickedness abound in the land.
I have written before on this topic, such as here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2007/06/16/righteous-indignation/
But I want to revisit the topic, based on what I just recently read in my daily Bible reading. In 1 Samuel 11:6 we find these words: “And the Spirit of God rushed upon Saul when he heard these words, and his anger was greatly kindled.” The chapter has to do with how Saul defeated the Ammonites, and the context is found in verses 1-7:
Then Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-gilead, and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a treaty with us, and we will serve you.” But Nahash the Ammonite said to them, “On this condition I will make a treaty with you, that I gouge out all your right eyes, and thus bring disgrace on all Israel.” The elders of Jabesh said to him, “Give us seven days’ respite that we may send messengers through all the territory of Israel. Then, if there is no one to save us, we will give ourselves up to you.” When the messengers came to Gibeah of Saul, they reported the matter in the ears of the people, and all the people wept aloud. Now, behold, Saul was coming from the field behind the oxen. And Saul said, “What is wrong with the people, that they are weeping?” So they told him the news of the men of Jabesh. And the Spirit of God rushed upon Saul when he heard these words, and his anger was greatly kindled. He took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hand of the messengers, saying, “Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!” Then the dread of the Lord fell upon the people, and they came out as one man.
So the unjust actions and demands of the Ammonites aroused Saul’s righteous indignation. But, some might say: ‘Didn’t Saul go off the rails? He cannot be held up here as some sort of template for us.’ Yes he did eventually lose God’s approval, but not yet at this point in the narrative. (We read about God rejecting him in 1 Sam. 15, and in 1 Sam. 16:14ff we read about God’s Spirit departing from him.)
And the text clearly states that the Spirit came upon him, and his anger was the direct result of this. So there is a place for righteous indignation, and the Spirit can even be behind this. And the obverse would also be true: if we do not get righteously angry about injustice and evil, that may indicate we are not heeding the Spirit.
The truth is, there are plenty of complacent Christians around who really do not seem to care about anything, except themselves. The war against marriage and family does not seem to matter to them. The slaughter of the unborn is not of concern to them. The global war against Christianity seems to mean nothing to them. They need the Spirit of God to rush upon them, wake them up, stir them up, and move them to take a stand against evil and injustice.
As John Woodhouse comments on the passage in 1 Samuel:
This was God-inspired rage. The anger inspired in Saul by the Spirit of God was obviously directed at the threat posed to the people of Jabesh-gilead by Nahash and the Ammonites. The association between God’s Spirit (or Breath) and his wrath against evil is an important Biblical theme (see Isaiah 40:7; 61:1-3; Matthew 3:11, 12). It was prominent in the book of Judges, where the Spirit drove the judges to violent action against the oppressors of God’s people (see particularly Judges 14:19).
In itself Saul’s experience seems almost identical to that of the earlier judges (see Othniel in Judges 3:10, Gideon in Judges 6:34, Jephthah in Judges 11:29, and especially Samson in Judges 14:6, 19 and 15:14 where the same verb “rushed” is used to describe the Spirit’s coming).
And while just above I mentioned things like the culture wars where we believers need the Spirit’s empowerment, Woodhouse focuses on evangelism. He writes:
Before we see the consequences that flowed from this remarkable victory (1 Samuel 11:12-15), let us come back to our earlier questions about Christian evangelism as warfare. What light is shed on our efforts to proclaim the gospel of Jesus by Saul’s conquest of Nahash? Let me draw to your attention just two things.
First, Christian evangelism has this in common with Saul’s conflict: the enemy is real. Precisely because the enemy in this case is not a physical enemy, evangelism cannot and must not be physically violent. However, we do not take the gospel into a happy marketplace, selling an idea to eager customers. There is an enemy. An evil enemy. An enemy hostile to God, God’s purposes, and God’s people. The enemy has an army: unbelief, godlessness, pride, ignorance, sin. And the proclamation of the gospel is a war against the enemy and his forces. Do not forget that the war is not a worldly war. Our weapons must be the weapons of righteousness — and no other. But do not think that what we go to do can be painless.
Second, and even more important, we must see that the New Testament uses battle language for gospel proclamation only after it shows us God’s appointed King has already won the victory. What God did through Saul that day is a pale shadow of what God did to the great enemy when King Jesus died on the cross. We go to battle only after the decisive battle. The blood has been shed. The enemy has in fact fallen. Do not be afraid.
Important points indeed. We need a passion to do God’s work in God’s way. We need the same zeal, and when needed, the same righteous indignation. Let me close by reminding you that this is not just something found in the Old Testament.
Indeed, I had a critic the other day say this in a comment to my site: “Christ preached love and tolerance, not hatred. Try reading the New Testament instead of the OT stories.” Actually I have read the NT, and I consider both Testaments to be fully inspired and about the same God. For example, consider what we read in John 2:13-17:
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
That is a quote from Psalm 69:9. Jesus had real zeal, often leading to acts of righteous indignation. He hated evil and injustice. So should we. Believers today could use the same zeal and commitment that Jesus had.
8 Replies to “On Righteous Indignation”
Bill, lately I have been stung by the clear passages that God is highly jealous of His glory. This from reading John and OT prophets. Somewhere I think it is said that God presides in the praise of His people. His holiness, righteousness, justice and glory actually count for the Father. Once I thought that my meagre praise must count for nothing to the Infinity. Now I know it is my essential obedience. Our obedience requires that we praise, worship, adore, obey and defend His glory. Today I wept at a song that proclaimed that Jesus died horribly in the lead up to and upon the cross, but ‘It should have been me. But now I am free!’ God’s holiness required His only Son became a man and die FOR ME! It should have been me that got scourged, crowned, carried the cross, and hung for 6 hours in agony and struggling for breath! And He did it for all mankind. But it required specific faith in Jesus, and repentance.
This is God’s glory, holiness, and perfect justice. They are totally rigorous, with no room for dilution. How can we quietly let the blasphemes against him, unremarked? Is the Spirit so dead within us? Are we so afraid of standing for our God and His saving Son? These are questions I ask myself.
Bill, I have a concern with the term “righteousness” because it can be so subjective when it comes to cultural/political issues. It is only our subjective opinion that our particular position would agree with God’s.
The primary reason we have so many Christian denominations is because of historical divisions over interpretation of Scripture. I get depressed when I see the Word weaponised in pursuit of culture wars that seem more about politics and polarisation than faith. I know you will disagree, but I’d be interested in your explanation of how we are to eliminate subjective bias and self-absorption when we proclaim that our view is more Biblical than alternative opinions.
My observation is that Christianity is in danger of being wiped out within the next few decades. My own local church is mainly attended by a dwindling number of old people and its future seems doomed. When I talk to my teenage grandchildren they are very dismissive of the relevance of the traditional Christian message to today’s society.
Thanks Richard. With only finite and imperfect believers living in a fallen world, we will never get to fully inerrant, objective and fool-proof biblical interpretation. But we seek to be as close to biblical truth as we can.
As to righteousness, culture and politics, again, we let Scripture guide us. The principles are clear – for example: “Righteousness exalts a nation but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34). That of course must be teased out in political and cultural situations. So we take Scripture seriously here. When we see the sanctity of human life upheld throughout the Bible, then that make it pretty clear that we must resist the culture of death and stand up for life. When we see the importance of heterosexual marriage and family upheld throughout the Bible, then that make it pretty clear that we must resist the radical trans and homosexual militants who are warring against this. Etc, etc.
And that has nothing at all to do with weaponising the Word. It has everything to do with defending it and using it in the culture we live in. It is called being salt ad light. So I have no probs here at all in seeking for public righteousness in an ungodly culture. It is actually good for everyone – Christian and non-Christian alike.
Lastly, as to declining churches, we know quite well that those churches holding to solid biblical teaching and ethics are growing, while those running with liberal theology and ethics are declining. That might tell us something as well.
Bill, Richard raises issues that has troubled me a long time. I strongly empathise, but he must let go of despair. Always know that no matter how bad things are in our individual situation, God wins.
It really troubled me that God let fall the Christian Roman south mediterranean empire to Islam in the 7th century onward; then later in the Balkans. Many good Christians fell. But many took the easy choice and elected for Islam. Was Christianity in fall, in the 7th century? As now, in the West? I do not know. But God does.
The Western Christian church has been in rapid fall for near a century. There are reasons for this. Modernism is the primary: eliminating the divine, adapting to society. I attend a Redemptorist church on Sundays. The leader preaches liberal, green, pacifist/red words. From a church that used to to thunder hell fire and repentance! I stopped attending my parish. The order started by Discalced Carmelites, whose founder suffered greatly at the hands of the Carmelites. He was radically for God. Now? Theresians, weak, washed out.
I have seen my various parishes decline. Like Richard notes, a few old folk, under insipid leadership. But God accords free will to all. Right now, we have a pope and clerisy that is modernist. But a thousand years ago, the Church was beset by cleric homosexuality – read Peter Abeles.
God stays in command, while allowing us free will. It really us up to us; but God will use us prepared to commit and suffer. Jesus forecast this very situation.
So, Richard, hang in there, be faithful and endure in prayer and strive for holiness. Elijah despaired that he was alone of true believers. Then God told him that He has protected a thousand of true believers. God wins! In the mean time, remain faithful.
Oh Bill, Thankyou Faithful Cultural Warrior.
How my soul Glorifies in the love of the Lord when I read such words as….
….’Jesus died on the cross. We go to battle only after the decisive battle. The blood has been shed. The enemy has in fact fallen. Do not be afraid.’
How apt those last 4 words apply to the last 3 ridiculous years.
And how joyous and joyful is the season that follows His amazing sacrifice and our previous 3 years of wandering in the desert.
This is The Year of Joy!
Come Lord Jesus!
The distinction between righteousness, self-righteousness and plain old bigotry is indeed a fine one. To a non-believer we can come across as up ourselves, to be frank, when we proclaim our beliefs by shaming other people, which can be easily interpreted as hateful and ungodly.
We have to be very careful when we express a viewpoint in an overly aggressive way. Too often it has the effect of making Christians appear repugnant and offensive. Instead of gaining respect we lose respect.
Thanks Margaret. It goes without saying that we must check ourselves and make sure we are expressing God’s heart on things, and not just being grumpy and the like. But the truth is, everything you said was also said about the prophets, Jesus, and the disciples – along with all true Christians who bravely spoke truth by the power of the Spirit to a sin-soaked and God-defying world. They were all accused of being hateful, bigoted, intolerant and offensive. Just consider Jesus, the most loving person that walked the planet. Folks constantly took offence at what he said. By simply speaking truth, they hated on him and ended up crucifying him. So we must not stop speaking truth, and we must know that to do so will always greatly upset sinners and carnal Christians. That cannot be avoided.