Since the death of the renowned atheist, Christopher Hitchens, the Christian blogosphere has been a-buzz with pronouncements of hate for him and literal delight at his demise. To justify their attitude of inner pleasure people point to Psalm 139:21-22, which declares, “Do I not hate those who hate you, LORD, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.”
It is also being said that Jesus’ words “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) comport with David’s words this way: when your enemy hates you, you must love him, but if he hates God, then it is permissible to hate him.
This answer only raises more questions. As a Christian how can a person hate me but not hate God? Jesus said “You will be hated by all because of My name” (Mark 13:13). According to Jesus’ view of things, people hate me for being a Christian because they first hate God. Their hatred of me is a byproduct of their hatred for God. So the possibility of somehow surgically loving others who hate me while simultaneously hating those who hate God is problematic, to say the least.
But perhaps the more important matter is the meaning of Psalm 139:21-22 and its relationship to Matthew 5:44. In ancient times, suzerainty treaties were struck between rulers and vassals. Such treaties date to the 2nd millennium B.C., and have been discovered among ancient Hittite kings.
Without going into the intricacies of such treaties, it will be sufficient here to note that the dominant entity is called a suzerain. Among other things, he provided his vassal(s) lands and limited self-rule. In return, the vassal paid a form of tribute to the suzerain. The treaties were often convenient ways overlords kept potential enemies mollified. In medieval times the practice continued, though modified greatly in form, to include feudal lords and vassals. Here the giving of lands and titles by Kings to powerful gentry was a hopeful means of keeping the peace.
Central to the covenant between the suzerain and the vassal was also a pledge of loyalty on the part of the vassal. This most often took the form of a vow to be on the right side of warfare should the suzerain be attacked. A typical pronouncement of such loyalty was “With my friend you shall be friend, and with my enemy you shall be enemy.” Another way to put this is “Your friend shall be my friend and your enemy my enemy.” The customary pledge of fidelity did not call upon the vassal to sit around all day hating those whom hated the suzerain. It simply meant that should the King or Lord be attacked, the vassal was prepared to spring to his defense.
What does any of this have to do with whether or not we should hate Christopher Hitchens? Returning to Psalm 139:21-22, we find here the inclusion of covenantal terms that mirror the ancient and customary pledge of vassal loyalty. Now we wish to be brief so here is the point. In the New Covenant, Jesus is the vassal “servant” who fulfilled all of the stipulations of that covenant. In essence, at the cross he went to war for the King. There he overcame all haters of God, including the devil, and freed his elect by giving himself an atoning sacrifice for our sins (Hebrews 2:14-15). Indeed, “For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death. For HE HAS PUT ALL THINGS IN SUBJECTION UNDER HIS FEET” (1 Corinthians 15:25-27).
Now that God’s righteous demands have been met in His Son, we are instructed to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). The surgical interpretation of Psalm 139:21-22 and Matthew 5:44 is simply unnecessary and confusing.
The loyalty pledge of the Psalmist is a prophetic indicator of Jesus’ Messianic mission. Its completion in history means that by his obedience we are free to love our enemies. By way of analogy, it also means that should our God and his gospel be attacked we are not to stew in hatred of God’s enemies but are always to be ready to spring in defense. We are to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15).
John Barber, PhD