Loving your enemies and the imprecatory passages in Scripture By Jack Kettler
“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)
Similar cross-reference passages are found in:
Proverbs 25:21; Luke 6:27; Luke 6:28; Romans 12:14, and Romans 12:20
In this study, an attempt will be made to reconcile Jesus’s saying in Matthew 5:44 with imprecatory passages in Scripture. Are there two different contradictory ethical systems in the Bible? A look at imprecatory Psalms and other passages will be crucial.
What are imprecatory Psalms?
“Imprecatory Psalms, contained within the Book of Psalms of the Hebrew Bible (תנ”ך), are those that invoke judgment, calamity, or curses, upon one’s enemies or those perceived as the enemies of God. … As a sample, Psalm 69:24 states toward God, ‘Pour out Your indignation on them, and let your burning anger overtake them.’” Imprecatory Psalms – Wikipedia
Are imprecatory Psalms, and prayers contrary to the text from Matthew 5:44? Can a Christian pray an imprecatory prayer or sing an imprecatory Psalm today?
A sampling of imprecatory Psalms, chapter, and verse:
Psalms 5:10; 6:10; 7:6; 9:19-20; 10:2,15; 17:13; 28:4; 31:17-18; 35:1,4-8, 19, 24-26; 40:14-15; 41:10; 54:5; 55:9,15; 56:7; 58:6-10; 59:5,11-14; 63:9-10; 68:1-2; 69:24-25; 70:2-3; 71:13; 79:6,10-12; 83:9-18; 94:1-4; 97:7; 104:35; 109:6-19, 29; 119:84; 129:5-7; 137:7-9; 139:19-22; 140:8-11; 141:10; 143:12.
Two examples of imprecatory Psalms:
“Destroy thou them, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; cast them out in the multitude of their transgressions; for they have rebelled against thee.” (Psalms 5:10)
“I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them, mine enemies.” (Psalm 139:22)
Imprecatory passages are not limited to the Old Testament. Finding imprecatory passages in the New Testament refutes the idea that imprecatory passages are part of a uniquely Old Testament ethic that is now done away in the Christian era.
Imprecatory passages in the New Testament:
“But into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you not, go your ways out into the streets of the same, and say, Even the very dust of your city, which cleaveth on us, we do wipe off against you: notwithstanding be ye sure of this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you. But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable in that day for Sodom, than for that city. Woe unto thee, Chorazin! Woe unto thee, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon, which have been done in you, they had a great while ago repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted to heaven, shalt be thrust down to hell. He that heareth you heareth me; and he that despiseth you despiseth me; and he that despiseth me despiseth him that sent me.” (Luke 10:10-16)
“And they cried with a loud voice, saying, how long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10)
Other imprecatory passages in the New Testament:
Luke 10:10-16; Galatians 1:8; 5:12; 1 Corinthians 16:21-22; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10; 2 Timothy 4:14; Revelation 6:10; 19:1-2.
Jesus’ use of imprecatory language and other imprecatory passages in the New Testament is problematic to those who want to posit an Old Testament, New Testament divide in the area of ethics as a solution for those who see Matthew 5:44 as being out of harmony with Old Testament imprecatory language.
Back to the starting question, how are these imprecatory passages resolved with loving your enemies? The imprecatory Psalms offended the well-known Christian writer, C. S. Lewis.
C. S. Lewis refers to the imprecatory Psalms as: “The refinement of malice” and “contemptible.”
In addition, he said: “We must not either try to explain them away or to yield for one moment to the idea that, because it comes in the Bible, all this vindictive hatred must somehow be good and pious. We must face both facts squarely. The hatred is there – festering, gloating, undisguised – and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it…” (1)
As seen, Lewis was not impressed with the imprecatory Psalms.
Unfortunately, for Lewis, the apostle Peter in Acts 1:20 quoted imprecatory Psalms 69:25 and 109:8. In essence, Lewis calls Peter wicked for condoning these Psalms. In addition, in John 2:17, Jesus quotes, “For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up; and the reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen upon me” (Psalm 69:9). When attacking God’s Word as Lewis did, he ended up refuting himself.
In what follows, three readings from three different authors will be considered to see how this alleged conflict between Old Testament imprecatory language and Matthew 5:44 has been dealt with.
The next entry is speculative and is one possible solution to the supposed contradictory nature of Matthew 5:44 and imprecatory passages.
The Meaning and Misuse of Love Your Enemies in Matt. 5:44 by Dennis Linscomb: “Therefore, before we try to apply v. 44 to today, we need to realize that it was intended for the audience of the Sermon on the Mount. N.T. Wright puts it this way: “The Sermon on the Mount…makes excellent sense in a Palestinian setting in the first third of the first century [i.e. before the Jewish revolt of 66-70 A.D.]. There is no need to force this material into a post-70, let alone a non-Jewish, setting. It addresses directly the question people were asking: how to be faithful to YHWH in a time of great stress and ambiguity, a time when many thought the climax of Israel’s history was upon them…. The question of how to apply the sermon to different times and places is another matter, and cannot be allowed to dictate the question of historical origins. (Wright 292)
Wright, N.T., Jesus and the Victory of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), p. 292.
In conclusion, the following summarizes the main points I have made in this paper:
1. Jesus presented “love your enemies” as an ideal ethic which his Sermon on the Mount listeners should have as their goal as they dealt with the Roman occupation they faced in the first century. This was not intended to be a universal ethic to apply in all situations.
2. Although “love your enemies” in Matt. 5:44 is stated in absolute terms and does not contain any conditions or qualifications, that does not mean that there are none. It was Jesus’ teaching method to speak in absolute terminology without giving any conditions or qualifications.
3. Jesus (and Paul) saw no contradiction in saying that we should love enemies and also cursing them for evil behavior similar to the OT.
4. Loving your enemies is an objective ethic, but it is not an absolute ethic (i.e. regardless of circumstances) because it very much depends upon the circumstances.
5. We should use other principles (such as the greater good) & wisdom in determining the application of “love your enemies” for today.
6. Probably the best application for today of “love your enemies” is at the personal level in cases where there is no threat to life or physical harm.” (2)
An imprecatory Psalm from the Treasury of David on Psalm 139:22: “EXPOSITION
Verse 22. I hate them with perfect hatred. He does not leave it a matter of question. He does not occupy a neutral position. His hatred to bad, vicious, blasphemous men is intense, complete, energetic. He is as whole hearted in his hate of wickedness as in his love of goodness.
I count them mine enemies. He makes a personal matter of it. They may have done him no ill, but if they are doing despite to God, to his laws, and to the great principles of truth and righteousness, David proclaims war against them. Wickedness passes men into favour with unrighteous spirits; but it excludes them from the communion of the just. We pull up the drawbridge and man the walls when a man of Belial goes by our castle. His character is a casus belli; we cannot do otherwise than contend with those who contend with God.
EXPLANATORY NOTES AND QUAINT SAYINGS
Verse 22. I hate them with perfect hatred. What is “with a perfect hatred”? I hated in them their iniquities, I loved thy creation. This it is to hate with a perfect hatred, that neither on account of the vices thou hate the men, nor on account of the men love the vices. For see what he addeth, “They became my enemies.” Not only as God’s enemies, but as his own too doth he now describe them. How then will he fulfil in them both his own saying: Have not I hated those that hated thee, Lord”, and the Lord’s command, “Love your enemies”? How will he fulfil this, save with that perfect hatred, that he hate in them that they are wicked, and love that they are men? For in the time even of the Old Testament, when the carnal people was restrained by visible punishments, how did Moses, the servant of God, who by understanding belonged to the New Testament, how did he hate sinners when he prayed for them, or how did he not hate them when he slew them, save that he “hated them with a perfect hatred”? For with such perfection did he hate the iniquity, which he punished, as to love the manhood for which he prayed. – Augustine. (3)
Spurgeon, commenting on “Love your enemies” touches on the seeming tension of praying for those lost and hating their iniquity in his citation of Augustine.
The Scriptures are not contradictory when mentioning bad hatred and good hatred:
1. “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.” (1 John 3:15)
2. “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” (Revelation 2:6)
The first passage says hating your brother is bad. The second passage says hating a false professing person is good. This distinction gets to the essence of the apparent conflict in the ethics of Jesus (Matthew 5:44) and the imprecatory passages in Scripture.
From Hating the Haters of God by Professor David Engelsma “The Ground of This Hatred
The reason for David’s hatred of these men is their hatred of God. We may read the text this way: “Do not I hate them, O Lord, because they hate thee? Do not I loathe them, because they rise up against thee?” This comes out even more strongly in the original Hebrew. Literally, we read: “Is it not so, them that hate thee, O Jehovah, I hate?” Their hatred of God is put first in the text, as the cause of our hatred of them. Therefore, there is nothing carnal, nothing selfish and nothing “personal” in our hatred. It is not due to any injury that they did to us. Even though in their hatred of God they probably cursed, mocked and hurt us, it is not what they did to us that explains our hatred. We are not being vindictive in hating them. The reason is this only: they hate God. Thus, our hatred is a holy hatred.
We must be sure of this. It is so easy to corrupt our hatred with personal and carnal motives. In this light, we can see how our hatred for God’s enemies is to be harmonized with our calling to love our enemies. In Matthew 5 and Luke 6, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. We read in Matthew 5:43-44: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” We must not hate our enemies but love them. These are people who bear a personal grudge against us. But they are people who are also our enemies for Christ’s sake, for they persecute us.
It might seem that there is conflict between Psalm 139 and Matthew 5, between our calling to hate God’s enemies and our calling to love those who persecute us. This is, in fact, the position of those who say that we may never hate anyone. They view Matthew 5 as contradicting Psalm 139 and they use Matthew 5 to set Psalm 139 aside.
We hold, however, that the two passages do not contradict each other. Both are Scripture and both must be true in the life of Christ’s disciple. There is harmony between the passages, and the harmony is this: We love men who are our enemies but we hate men who are God’s enemies. This can be one and the same person. Insofar as a man hates, curses and harms me, I love him and I show this by doing acts of kindness to him. Inasmuch as the same man hates God and opposes him, I hate him and count him my enemy. The trouble often is that we do opposite: we readily hate our personal enemies but go on loving those who hate God.
The ground of our hatred of some men is their hatred of God. Ultimately, the ground of our hatred of them is our love of the God whom they hate. Our hatred for those who hate God is an aspect of love—love for God. We love this God. We love him with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. Our love for God, by grace, is a “perfect” love, that is, a thorough, complete, extreme love. We love Him as the only God. We love Him as our maker, as verses 13-16 of this Psalm confess. We love him as Jehovah, the God of our salvation in Jesus Christ. Because we love Him, we hate those who hate Him. This is the high spiritual plane that the Old Testament saints stand on in our text.” (4)
Professor David Engelsma, in the bold highlighted selection, reconciles this alleged contradiction between the imprecatory passages of Scripture and Jesus in Matthew 5:44.
Like the Psalmist, we should pray:
“Pronounce them guilty, O God! Let them fall by their own counsels; Cast them out in the multitude of their transgressions, for they have rebelled against You.” (Psalms 5:1)
In addition, at the same time, Christian ambassadors for Christ can affirm:
“Love your enemies…” (Matthew 5:44)
“Loving your enemies” lines up with other passages like, “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
In closing, Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible on Matthew 5:44 is appropriate, and his exegesis is trustworthy: “But I say unto you, love your enemies,…. That is, as the Apostle Paul may be thought to interpret the words of Christ, Romans 12:20. “If thine enemy hunger, feed him: if he thirst, give him drink”: unless our Lord should be supposed rather to regard the internal affection of the mind; since outward expressions of love, by words and works, are urged in the following exhortations: the actions of a man may be hated, and just indignation be expressed against them, and yet his person be loved, tenderness be used to him, and pity shown him: all men, even enemies, are to be loved with a natural love, as men; though they cannot be loved with a spiritual affection, as brethren in Christ: and in natural affection there are degrees, according to the relation and circumstances that persons stand in to one another.
Bless them that curse you: when wicked men curse you, as Shimei cursed David, do not “render evil for evil, or railing for railing, but contrariwise, blessing”; give good words, use kind language, mild and soft expressions; such as may either win upon them, or put them to shame and silence: “bless, and curse not”; the latter belongs to them, the former to you; “let them curse, but bless thou”: curses better fit their mouths, and blessings thine. Blessing here, does not signify praising them, for that would be sinful, which is sometimes the sense of the word; nor wishing, or praying for a blessing on them, which is right and good; but this is mentioned afterwards, as distinct from blessing; wherefore, it is better to understand it of a sweet and engaging address unto, and behaviour and conduct towards such, whose mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.
Do good to them that hate you; such as hate you in their hearts, and discover their hatred by their actions; do not make returns in the same way, but on the contrary, do them all the good you can; perform all the kind offices that lie in your power; let them partake of your bounty and liberality; if poor, feed, clothe, and supply them, as you are able, with the necessaries of life; and give them wholesome advice for the good of their souls: by “so doing”, you will “heap coals of fire on their heads”; of enemies, make them friends; engage their affections to you, and you may be happy instruments in doing them good, both in soul and body:
and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you. What Christ here commands and advises to, he himself did; for as he hung upon the cross, he prayed for his crucifiers, who were then using him in the most despiteful, as well as cruel manner; saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”: and in this he has left us an example, that we should tread in his steps; and here in he was quickly followed by his holy martyr Stephen; who, whilst he was being stoned, prayed for his persecutors and murderers, saying, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge”. This breathes out the true spirit of Christianity, and is peculiar to it. The whole of this is directly opposite to the tenets of the Jews, particularly the Scribes and Pharisees; who allowed of revenge, and keeping anger against any person that had done them an injury, as has been observed: and which were also the sentiments of the Karaites, or Scripturarians, another sect among them who kept to the letter of the Scriptures, and rejected the traditions of the elders, which the Pharisees held: but in this they agreed with them, “that it was right to do good to their friends, and to forgive them that asked pardon of them; but to such men who rendered evil, and did not return to do well, that they might receive forgiveness, ‘it is not forbidden to revenge, and to keep anger against them’ (s).”’
It is indeed said (t) of their former holy men, “Hasideans”, which some have thought to be the same with the “Essenes”, and a sort of Christians; however, were a better sort of Jews; that these “heard their reproach, but did not return it; and not only so, but they pardoned him that reproached them, and forgave him.”’
And it is reported of these men, that they used to pray to God to pardon and forgive all that disturbed them. But the Pharisees, whom Christ had to do with, and against whom he inveighs, were men of another complexion.” (5)
God’s general benevolence or common grace helps interpret Matthew 5:44. In the next verse from Matthew, we read:
“That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45)
Christians made in God’s image can think God’s thoughts after Him. Therefore, the believer can despise unrighteousness and, at the same time, show grace to non-believers. Matthew 5:44 and imprecatory passage such and some of the Psalms are not contradictory. In addition, in certain qualified circumstances, a believer can pray an imprecatory prayer. The book of Psalms is the songbook Jesus used. So following the example of Jesus, the believer today can sing the songs that Jesus sang, including the imprecatory Psalms.
In seeking the lost, we must love them regardless of how a believer may be treated by them. In standing for God’s righteousness, the believer must hate sin. The Matthew passage and imprecatory passages are dealing with different categories of Scriptures. By forcing or pitting them together, in essence, a contradiction is manufactured but not real. Christians should have a forgiving spirit; this, however, does not negate seeking criminal or civil damages in a court of law or a court of the church when wronged by an un-believer.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)
1. C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958), 20–2.
2. Dennis Linscomb M.Div., The Meaning and Misuse of Love Your Enemies in Matt. 5:44, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School 2015.
3. C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Vol. II, (Nashville, Tennessee, Thomas Nelson), p. 265; 286.
4. David Engelsma, Hating the Haters of God, (Pamphlet, Covenant Protestant Reformed Church) https://cprc.co.uk/pamphlets/hatingthehatersofgod/
5. John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, Matthew, (Grace Works, Multi-Media Labs), p. 137-138.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For more study:
22 Reasons to Pray the Cursing (Imprecatory) Psalms by Benjamin Kandt https://praypsalms.org/22-reasons-to-pray-the-cursing-psalms-b4a85ae40aa9
What are the imprecatory psalms? https://www.gotquestions.org/imprecatory-psalms.html