The Psalms and hating people (Psalm 139:19-24)

The Question

Psalm 139 starts with 18 wonderful verses about God’s intimate love for us. Then it suddenly breaks out into this:

O that You would slay the wicked, O God;
Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed.

For they speak against You wickedly,
And 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 the utmost hatred;
They have become my enemies.

What?!

How should we respond to verses like these?

  • Endorse them?
  • Spiritualize them first and then endorse them?
  • Endorse the honesty of the Psalm but reject the attitudes expressed in it?
  • Treat the Psalm as an example of what not to think or say?

Here’s my take on this particular Psalm.

“Search me”

Psalm 139 is a little different from most other imprecatory Psalms (the “imprecatory Psalms” are those in which the Psalmist calls down curses upon his enemies). First, the first 18 verses have a gentle tone that is in sharp contradiction to the hatred that follows. Second, just after saying he hates God’s enemies, David continues by saying:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;

And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way.

It’s as if he himself is doubting whether his hatred is really such a wonderful thing after all.

Sorting out our emotions in God’s presence

I don’t think verse 19,

O that You would slay the wicked, O God;
Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed,

should be read as some sort of doctrinal claim or as the logical conclusion of what came before. Rather, it’s a sudden outburst of emotion.

In fact, I think the whole section from 19-24 is about the emotion of hatred, not about a commitment to hate. What if the emotion of hatred is not always a sin? After all, feeling sadness or anger or fear is not by itself always a sin – what matters is what we do with those emotions. I suggest that the same thing is true here.

Suppose we read the Psalm this way: when David begins the Psalm, he comes to God distressed by feelings of hatred and anger. He needs to bring these emotions to God and process them him in His presence. What we see in Psalm 139 is how being in God’s presence transforms David’s emotional state into something that is pleasing to God.

Read this way, the Psalm falls into four sections. In verses 1-18, David first spends time getting his heart right before God. In verse 19 David finally bursts out with the pain that’s been in his heart, that’s been driving the entire Psalm. In verses 20-22 he reframes and reinterprets the emotion he feels in a more God-centered way. If he is going to hate, he wants to at least hate God’s enemies, not his own enemies. Finally, in verses 23-24 he surrenders his anger altogether, allowing God to change whatever needs to be changed in him.

There are three essential aspects in this process: admit the emotion, reframe it, and surrender it.

1. Admit the emotion

I just watched Inside Out over the weekend. In the movie (spoiler alert!), an 11 year-old girl named Riley moves across the country and finds herself miserable. Unfortunately, she feels like she has an obligation to be happy. Things get worse and worse. In anger and grief she can’t admit, she withdraws from her friends, her family, and, in a way, from herself. Eventually she shuts down her emotions completely.

At the cathartic moment of the film, she helplessly starts to cry. Her parents respond with understanding and sympathy. The message of the whole movie is that if we are to be emotionally healthy we have to accept sadness, and all our natural emotions, as essential parts of who we are. Repressing them is only bad for us in the long run.

In a similar way, I think part of the lesson of Psalm 139 is that we need to honestly express our emotions to God, even the negative ones.

Feeling our way through the Psalms

I’ve mused a lot about how to interpret the Psalms. I’ve come to think that they aren’t written so much to teach us what to believe as to shape our emotions. If that’s the case, then I should expect that there will be times when I feel the same as David did in Psalm 139, and this Psalm is supposed to mold my emotional responses much as it did David’s.

It’s not that I am obligated to feel anger or hatred, but that I inevitably will. When I do, I need to take those emotions to God. This Psalm is written to help me do that.

I said earlier that one response to imprecatory Psalms was to endorse the honesty of the Psalm but reject the attitudes expressed in it. My own view is that we should indeed endorse the honesty of the Psalm and follow David’s example when we feel the same emotions.

2. Reframe the emotion

Emotional expression can be unhealthy for us. Self-pity is a trap.  Exploding in anger is usually destructive to us and those around us. Resentful feelings very quickly turn into resentful attitudes. We want to process negative emotions, not necessarily vent them or wallow in them.

David didn’t just self-indulgently express his hatred; he sought to understand it in light of the truth of God. This involved a before and an after phase.

Preparing beforehand

Before David ever said anything about his anger, he spent 18 verses focusing on the goodness of God. After he had spent time meditating on God’s presence, protection, and intimate love, David was finally at the place where he could bring up his anger from a God-centered perspective.

When David bursts out:

O that You would slay the wicked, O God;
Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed,

we can see why the previous verses were important. He was surrounded by and threatened by violent men. He was probably afraid, perhaps unappreciated, definitely in emotional turmoil. But he was able to respond to the situation in a somewhat balanced way because he had spent time remembering that God was there with him, and had lovingly designed his future.

Reorienting our emotions afterwards

After David told God how he was feeling, he went on to say this:

For they speak against You wickedly,
And 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 the utmost hatred;
They have become my enemies.

I think what we are seeing here is David attempting to understand his anger in terms of God’s glory and agenda. It is as though he says, “Well, God, if I’m going to be angry about this, let me at least be angry on your behalf, not on my own. Let me hate your enemies rather than mine.”

I believe that every negative emotion can be either self-centered or God-centered. Reorienting something so that it is God-centered makes all the difference. Selfish fear paralyzes me, but fear of God frees me to act boldly. Selfish sorrow fills me with self-pity, but godly sorrow nurtures a richer sympathy for others. Selfish anger blinds me and leads me to attack people. Godly anger rouses me to courageously fight spiritual battles.

In this case, David shows us what God-centered hatred should look like – it focuses on whatever stands in the way of the honor and glory of God. That’s very different from verse 19 – it’s very different from hating those that attack my honor or threaten my safety. Compare John 2:13-17 and Psalm 69:9.

When I feel strong negative emotions, I want to learn to do what David did: prepare my heart first by meditating on God and his character, and then reinterpret the feelings in order to put God at the center of them.

3. Surrender the emotion

Just saying, “I am angry on God’s behalf” doesn’t mean my anger is godly. Some of the worst atrocities in history were committed by people who were acting on God’s behalf. It’s not enough for me to change my theory about my feelings to a God-centered one. I need to surrender my heart.

Once I’ve recast my negative emotions in terms of God’s agenda, if I am listening to the Holy Spirit, I’ll usually become aware of anything in me that isn’t quite right. I’ll become uneasy about the degree to which the flesh is involved. My rationalizations won’t be as convincing as they were. Whether or not I have qualms about my feelings, I need to move on to do what David did. I need to ask:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;

And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way.

In fact, the Psalm started with a similar prayer:

O LORD, You have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You understand my thought from afar.

You scrutinize my path and my lying down,
And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.

David knew from the beginning of the Psalm where this was headed – he wanted God to sort out his feelings and show him what to repent of.

Surrendering the emotion doesn’t mean that we stop feeling it. (The emotion might even be one God is inviting us to feel.) What it does mean, though, is that we surrender to God the right to feel it. We ask God to change our hearts. Anger, hatred, and similar emotions are tremendously self-justifying. Surrendering them to God means letting him strip us of our illusions about what we are feeling.

Comments?

Some of what I wrote above was first suggested to me by our church’s worship pastor. Thanks, Aaron! I appreciate your insight!

Do any of the rest of you have thoughts you want to pass on? Please comment below. I look forward to seeing what people have to say.

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