One of the core tasks of a traditional education is instilling the correct loves and desires into a pupil. As those who are born ignorant and naive, we require training. All the more so as those born sullied by sin and wired for wickedness as those fallen in Adam. A firm moral education in what is right to seek and proper to love is imperative. The necessary converse and complement in such a moral education is training in what is right to shun and proper to hate.
We’ve visited Psalm 139 regarding more than one prior theme in the Psalms. It speaks to being children of God’s covenant (vss. 13-14) and cursing God’s enemies (vss. 19-20). And we’ll visit it again. But we have an occasion now regarding our subject of godly hatred to visit this Psalm of David as well.
Do I not hate them, O Yahweh, who hate You?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against You?
I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.
– Psalm 139:21-22
Here, King David gives voice to the idea of practicing a perfect hatred, one that’s formed and informed by who God is, how God loves, and what God hates. This sort of godly hate seems to be an inevitable outcome in our lives as we grow in the knowledge of God.
Here are several citations from the Psalms that link the love of God and the study of his Law with hating that which should be hated, because we love what should be loved:
You who love Yahweh, hate evil!
He preserves the souls of his saints;
He delivers them out of the hand of the wicked.
Light is sown for the righteous,
And joy for the upright in heart.
Rejoice in Yahweh, O you righteous,
And give thanks to his holy name!
– Psalm 97:10-12
How sweet are your words to my taste,
Sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;
Therefore I hate every false way.
– Psalm 119:103-104
Therefore I love your commandments
Above gold, above fine gold.
Therefore I consider all your precepts to be right;
I hate every false way.
– Psalm 119:127-128
And yet I can anticipate the struggle, if not the apoplectic shock, that such a thought will trigger in many contemporary Christians. It comes from a popular distortion that sets the Scriptures and the God of the New Testament against the Scriptures and the God of the Old Testament as if they were two quintessentially different realities. The new God who’s love itself—a love that’s increasingly saccharine, empathetic, indulgent, coddling, and uncritically affirming—does away with an old God who’s strict, harsh, demanding, temperamental, and wrathful. This is heresy with a very old pedigree. And it’s infected many average Christians in these sorts of subtle ways.
And the biblical evidence that’ll be invoked and interpreted in this manner will be this portion of the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”
– Matthew 5:43-45a
It will be presented as an absolute antithesis: we used to hate, but now we love. There are reasons to not interpret Jesus’s teaching in this antithetical and annulling fashion.
One reason is that this approach ignores the nuance offered by the immediate context. It’s the sixth and final teaching in a series of amplifications of the Old Testament teaching. Each begins with Jesus saying, “You have heard it said … But I say to you …”. His teachings are not annulments. Jesus was clear; he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them. These are instances of Jesus teaching his disciples to do more than the bare minimum to keep the Law and practice righteousness. The bare minimum with no regard for the spirit or the weightier things of the Law is how the scribes and Pharisees practiced righteousness. Which is to say very poorly. Jesus taught his disciples that they must practice a better righteousness than that. As King David says in the Psalms, God desires truth in the inward parts. That’s what the righteous man seeks.
This maneuver is reminiscent of popular invocations of “judge not lest ye be judged” in Matthew 7 later in the same sermon. The single line is quoted and deployed to shut down all judgment. But reading its context in Matthew 7:1-6 shows it’s not a warning to stop all judgment but to stop all our hypocritical judgment, a warning to use the same standard of judgment upon ourselves first and then others.
Jesus’s teaching isn’t a contradiction and an overturning of the Law and the Prophets. He was the very Word of God who came speaking to Moses and the Prophets. So their words are his words. Rather, Jesus’s teaching was to practice righteousness more truthfully and consistently than it was being practiced. In this application, one doesn’t stop recognizing who’s an enemy and hating what it is that makes them so, but one practices benevolence in return. A righteous man doesn’t mistreat those who have mistreated him.
Returning to the Psalter, we read the following about the Great King who pleases God:
Your throne, O God, is forever and ever;
A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of your kingdom.
You love righteousness and hate wickedness;
Therefore God, your God, has anointed You
With the oil of gladness more than Your companions.
– Psalm 45:7
The writer to the Hebrews cites this passage in his description of Jesus as the Son who is King and is vastly superior to the angels. Here, we see Christ rules his kingdom forever with righteousness. This King who pleases God and rules with righteousness is described as loving righteousness and hating wickedness. Here we see that not even our blessed, blameless, and holy Lord Jesus Christ has ceased to hate that which ought to be hated.
Developing a perfect hatred is something we have to pursue. But it needn’t be a thing we pursue directly. In fact, we ought not. This isn’t about being consumed with hate. Rather, if we love God and as we grow in our knowledge of God—our intimacy with God and his Word—as our primary goal, such godly hatred of wickedness, falsehood, and perversity will be part and parcel of the fruit of our love of all that is good, and true, and lovely.