Imprecatory Psalms versus Love your Enemies?

Q. Jesus taught us that we should love and pray for our enemy. Mt 5:44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Why is it that in Ps 109 David curses his enemies before God?

A. Imprecatory psalms and prayers invoking curses on ones’ enemies are a problem to many Bible readers, who find it difficult to reconcile these passages with Jesus’ command to love your enemies. And it’s not just David being vindictive, but involves other people such as prophets as well, who are God’s spokesmen and ought to know better e.g.

Jer 18:21 Therefore, give their children over to famine
And deliver them up to the power of the sword;
And let their wives become childless and widowed.
Let their men also be smitten to death,
Their young men struck down by the sword in battle.

It is especially problematic in view of God saying, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19; Heb 10:30) What were these people thinking? Don’t they know what God said? Some therefore consider such passages as sub-Christian and shouldn’t be in the Bible. How do we reconcile them as they are indeed part of Scripture?

Rather than consider those who call upon God to judge their enemies as being mean-spirited and beneath what a Christian should do, my opinion is that it is us who are not as close to God as the imprecatory psalmists were, who were more concerned about God’s name being profaned by their enemies than seeking revenge for themselves. David did evil in the sight of the LORD when he committed adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:27, 12:9) and when he ordered a census of Israel’s army (1 Chron. 21:7), but God never faulted him for his imprecatory prayers. That should alert the critics that they overlooked something.

The LORD called David a man after His own heart (1 Sam 13:14; Acts 13:22). David knew “Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? And who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood And has not sworn deceitfully (Ps 24:3-4). He was not afraid to call upon God to “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,” (Ps 139:23-24a). I would not dare to do so unless my heart was totally free from personal motives and 100% pure before God.

And his actions vindicated his thoughts. David had the opportunity to get back at those who wronged him, but he did not take matters into his own hands, instead leaving it to the LORD to exonerate him e.g. sparing Saul’s life twice (1 Sam 24; 1 Sam 26).

My conclusion is that unlike us who often view things through jaundiced eyes tainted by self-interest, David saw things in sharper contrast of right vs. wrong, conformity to God’s character or against it, positive or negative impact on God’s name etc. He therefore called upon God to deal justly with His enemies and give them the punishment they rightly deserved. Notice that in v 6-20 all the righteous judgment are taught elsewhere in the Bible, including doing unto his enemies what they did to him, and David had not gone overboard in retaliation against his enemies. He left the “settling the scores” entirely in God’s hands.

My last comment is that biblical ethics is a progressive revelation. While there is continuity between OT and NT ethics, with the coming of Christ in the age of grace, people receive a fuller understanding of what God requires of us than in OT times. We should therefore not read back NT standards into the OT and expect full compliance.

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Least in the Kingdom of Heaven?

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Q. Are Mt 5:19 & 11:11 talking about different kinds of people? Who is the least in the Kingdom? What are these least commandments?

A. The kingdom of God or heaven is not a physical kingdom, but the rule of God on earth:
Lk 17:21 the kingdom of God is in your midst.
Those in the kingdom are the kingdom’s subjects.

Both Mt 5:19 & 11:11 refer to the least in the kingdom i.e. the lowest rank within the kingdom, and are talking about the same kind of people:
Mt 5:19 Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
• Mt 11:11 Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Also Lk 7:28)

The least in the kingdom of heaven are those who:
• annuls one of the least of the commandments, &
• teaches others to do the same.
“Annuls” translates the Greek verb “lyo” and literally means “loosens” or “relaxes”. It does not mean “breaks”, in which case the perpetrator would be transgressing the law and become a “sinner”, which would disqualify him from the kingdom. It means he complies with the commandment, but not fully, barely meeting the minimum requirements.

Which are the least commandments? The Bible did not say, but note:
Mt 23:23 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.
The weightier provisions of the law, or the more important commandments, are justice, mercy, and faithfulness. In comparison, tithing, ceremonial cleansing (Mt 23:25-26), outward appearance (Mt 23:27-28) are lesser matters of the law. Whether they are the least, the Bible did not specify.

Lastly, we can also get some clues from the converse:
Mt 18:1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
• Mt 18:4 Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

The opposite of “the least” is “the greatest” in the kingdom. Who are the greatest? They are the ones who humble themselves like a child:
Mt 23:12 Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.
• Lk 14:11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Also Lk 18:14)
• Jas 4:10 Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.

They are greatest because God exalts them. The value system in God’s kingdom is upside-down from the world’s!

Was Uzzah’s Punishment too Harsh? (2 of 2)

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(Continued from yesterday)

Now let’s return to Uzzah’s case. Who carried the ark, and how?
2 Sam 6:2-3 And David arose and went with all the people who were with him to Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God which is called by the Name, the very name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned above the cherubim. They placed the ark of God on a new cart that they might bring it from the house of Abinadab which was on the hill; and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were leading the new cart.

Some assumed that Uzzah was a Levite, based on Josephus (Ant. 6.1, section 4), but the Bible does not state this explicitly. There is no biblical genealogy to prove this. He lived in Baale-judah, another name for Kiriath-jearim (see NASB footnote), also called Baalah (Josh 15:9, 1 Chron 13:6):
1 Chron 13:6 David and all Israel went up to Baalah, that is, to Kiriath-jearim, which belongs to Judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, the LORD who is enthroned above the cherubim, where His name is called.
Kiriath-jearim was in Judah (Judg 18:12, 1 Chron 13:6), but was not one of the 23 cities (Josh 21:4-5) given to the Kohathites by the other tribes (Josh 21:9-26; 1 Chron 6:54-61, 66-70). It is possible that Uzzah was a Kohathite not living in a city given to them, but there is no evidence to support this claim. If he was not a Kohathite at all, then he had no business escorting the ark.

Furthermore, they placed the ark on a new cart drawn by oxen, which is definitely against God’s instructions. God’s work must be done God’s way.
1 Chron 13:7, 9-10 They carried the ark of God on a new cart from the house of Abinadab, and Uzza and Ahio drove the cart. … When they came to the threshing floor of Chidon, Uzza put out his hand to hold the ark, because the oxen nearly upset it. The anger of the LORD burned against Uzza, so He struck him down because he put out his hand to the ark; and he died there before God.

Some believe that Uzzah (Uzza) reached out his hand to steady the ark as a natural reflex, but that’s an assumption, eisegesis and not exegesis. The text said God struck him down for his irreverence (2 Sam 6:7). A more likely explanation is that the ark remained at Abinadab’s house for twenty years, and familiarity breeds contempt:

1 Sam 7:1-2 And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took the ark of the LORD and brought it into the house of Abinadab on the hill, and consecrated Eleazar his son to keep the ark of the LORD. From the day that the ark remained at Kiriath-jearim, the time was long, for it was twenty years; and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD.

Uzzah no longer considered the ark as the most holy object, and treated it as common. The ark was only nearly upset. Uzzah probably thought if it fell, it might be damaged or soiled by the ground, but did not realize the hand of a disrespectful sinner was more defiling than the dirt, and God struck him down for his irreverence. This punishment was clearly spelled out and had overwhelming precedents. He had no one to blame but himself.

One last point is the distinction between justice and mercy. God was just in punishing Uzzah for what he deserved. The punishment fits the crime. We don’t know Uzzah’s heart, expected God to show mercy, and are dismayed when He did not. But mercy is always voluntary and cannot be expected:
Rom 9:15 I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION.
God saw Uzzah’s heart and judged it to be irreverence. He had not treated God as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel (Num 21:12), therefore God gave him justice. Never complain to God “that’s not fair! I want justice!” If God had dealt justly with us we would have died many times over, because the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). Beg for His mercy, which we don’t deserve. Never stand in judgment of God.

Was Uzzah’s Punishment too Harsh? (1 of 2)

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Q. Was God’s punishment of Uzzah too severe for the crime?

A. Uzzah’s incident is in 2 Sam 6:6-7:

But when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out toward the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen nearly upset it. And the anger of the LORD burned against Uzzah, and God struck him down there for his irreverence; and he died there by the ark of God.

Some felt this was grossly unfair. The oxen nearly upset the ark of the covenant and Uzzah out of the goodness of his heart tried to steady it, yet God immediately struck him dead. Didn’t God over-react? What’s the big deal? He was only trying to help. Why kill a man for such a small thing? Before you decide a case based on your feelings, let’s review what the law says.

First, who should carry the ark?
Deut 10:8 At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the LORD, to stand before the LORD to serve Him and to bless in His name until this day.
• Num 4:4 This is the work of the descendants of Kohath in the tent of meeting, concerning the most holy things.
• Num 4:15 When Aaron and his sons have finished covering the holy objects and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, when the camp is to set out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry them, so that they will not touch the holy objects and die. These are the things in the tent of meeting which the sons of Kohath are to carry.
• Num 4:18-20 Do not let the tribe of the families of the Kohathites be cut off from among the Levites. But do this to them that they may live and not die when they approach the most holy objects: Aaron and his sons shall go in and assign each of them to his work and to his load; but they shall not go in to see the holy objects even for a moment, or they will die.

God had chosen the tribe of Levi, in particular the families of Kohathites, to carry the ark of the covenant, the most holy object in the most holy place (holy of holies). No one unauthorized may look at the objects and live.

Second, how should the ark be carried?
Ex 25:14 You shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, to carry the ark with them.
• Ex 37:5 He put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, to carry it.

The ark should be carried by poles through the rings on its sides, on the shoulders of the Kohathites.

Third, are there any precedents of what happens when the rules are violated? Yes:
1 Sam 6:19 He struck down some of the men of Beth-shemesh because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. He struck down of all the people, 50,070 men, and the people mourned because the LORD had struck the people with a great slaughter.
Beth-shemesh was at the Judah-Philistines border. The men of Beth-shemesh were Israelites. God struck down 50,070 of them for looking into the ark. He meant what He said.

(To be continued)

Biblical Economics (2 of 2)

(Continued from yesterday)

1. Private Property. Although ultimately everything belongs to God, His laws on property rights in the OT (e.g. Ex 22:1-15, Lev. 25, 27) established the right to private property.
Ex 22:1 If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.
• Ex 22:7 If a man gives his neighbor money or goods to keep for him and it is stolen from the man’s house, if the thief is caught, he shall pay double.

God allows private ownership as an incentive to diligence. I therefore believe capitalism is more aligned with God’s plans than socialism or communism, but see below for moderating factors.

2. Justice. Economics is about distribution of scarce resources, and God’s aim is justice for all:
2 Sam 8:15 So David reigned over all Israel; and David administered justice and righteousness for all his people. (Also 1 Chron 18:14)
As such, He executes judgment with equity:
Ps 9:8 And He will judge the world in righteousness; He will execute judgment for the peoples with equity.
• Ps 98:9 Before the LORD, for He is coming to judge the earth; He will judge the world with righteousness And the peoples with equity.
• Ps 99:4 The strength of the King loves justice; You have established equity; You have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.
• Prov 1:3 To receive instruction in wise behavior, Righteousness, justice and equity;
• Prov 2:9 Then you will discern righteousness and justice and equity and every good course.

Some people wrongly assumed that to be fair you must treat everyone the same i.e. equity means equality. They are not. Equality treats everybody the same, but that does not translate into fairness when some start out disadvantaged. Equity means eliminating the disadvantages to provide everyone access to the same opportunities, thereby achieving fairness or justice.

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3. Industry. Industry here does not mean manufacturing goods in factories, but hard work. The parable of the ten minas (Lk 19:12-26) teaches that ideally reward should be proportional to diligence or effort. See also:
Prov 10:4 Poor is he who works with a negligent hand, But the hand of the diligent makes rich.
• Prov 12:24 The hand of the diligent will rule, But the slack hand will be put to forced labor.
• 2 Thes 3:10 For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.

When communism first took over China, it stipulated a wage of RMB 36 a month for all workers, regardless of position, skill, or diligence. This goal of equality in fact destroyed incentive to get ahead, and rewarded laziness rather than initiative and creativity. Industry and fair competition is the better way.

4. Compassion. We live in a fallen world. Despite our best efforts to be fair and equitable, some fall on hard times and are poor and needy. What does God want us to do for them? That’s where compassion comes in:
Deut 15:11 For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’
• Ps 72:13 He will have compassion on the poor and needy, And the lives of the needy he will save.
• Ps 113:7 He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
• Prov 14:31 He who oppresses the poor taunts his Maker, But he who is gracious to the needy honors Him.

The idea is tied back to fairness:
Co 8:13-14 (ESV) For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness.

There are many more economic principles in the Bible e.g. division of labor, money and taxes, God’s view of debt etc. But these four form the foundation on which we can build our economic structure for a just society.