Humbly Hating Injustice Like David

27/01/2021 6:37:38 AM | Dale Campbell
Hatred in a Psalm of Praise?
Right from the start, Psalm 139 is a steady stream of loving adoration, as David praises God for his intricate knowledge of him.  It’s an intimate focus.  Not once is any person other than ‘you’ and ‘I’ mentioned:
                O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
                You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
                    you discern my thoughts from far away.

And then there is a sudden eruption of anger in verse 19. 
                “O that you would kill the wicked, O God.”

What is going on here?  How does David so suddenly swerve from adoring worship to angry wrath? 
The Godliness of Hating Injustice
Our confusion may flow from a common tendency to see anger as the opposite of love.  However, hatred at times can actually flow from love.  Elie Wiesel, who endured the unimaginable injustice of Nazi concentration camps, is known for this saying (possibly from an earlier source): “The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.”  As Wiesel understood only too well, indifference does nothing to combat injustice – whereas loving hatred is moved to speak, pray and act against it.

This perspective can help us understand not only God’s loving anger or wrath, but also the righteous anger at injustice we see in Scripture, history and our news feeds.  Hatred of injustice is because of, not in spite of, love for God’s creation.  When anyone, therefore, hates such evils as racism, sexism, inequality or other forms of harm, whether they know it or not, they are echoing the loving hatred of God.

This is the context in which we understand David’s seemingly sudden hatred in Psalm 139.  His love for God fuels his hatred of those who oppose God’s ways by through their violent wickedness.  David goes so far as to say “I hate them with a perfect hatred.” 
The Danger of Becoming What You Hate
Some of us will remember the 2012 film and movement to stop the violent regime of Joseph Kony.  Not only is this another example of good, godly hatred in the face of injustice, I also find it ironic that the name of Kony’s horrific, violent and unjust movement was the L.R.A. – the “Lord’s Resistance Army”.  In the context of ethnic and cultural enmity in Uganda, they understood themselves to be “resisting” what they understood to be an enemy of the Lord.  This may be an extreme example, but it illustrates the warning not to become the very thing we hate.

So then, how do we express our godly righteous anger without becoming what we hate? 
The Wisdom of Expressing Anger to God
Another person who has personally experienced the reality of injustice is Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf.  In his masterful work, Exclusion and Embrace, he goes so far as to say that even victims, in their understandable desire for vengeance, can “mimic the behaviour of the oppressors” and “be shaped in the mirror image of the enemy” (p. 116).  Volf commends, like David expressing his perfect hatred, the practice of bringing anger to God, placing “both our unjust enemy and our own vengeful self face to face with a God who loves and does justice.” (p. 124)

But there’s a final twist to Psalm 139 we must not miss. 
The Humility of Examining Self
Just as David moved from praising God to hating adversaries, he finishes with examining himself.  David, who knows that God knows him better than he knows himself, invites God to “search me” and see if there is “any wicked way in me”.  David seems aware that the very same wickedness he hates in his enemies (19a) may be lurking in his own heart (24a).   Just as David’s love for God moves him to perfect anger of his violent enemies, his awareness of God’s knowledge of his own heart moves him to humble confession of his own tendency to become just like them.

This is a helpful background for understanding some wider biblical instruction on anger.  Yes the anger we see in Scripture is a necessary part of kingdom living, but we are also reminded that our “anger does not produce the righteousness (or justice) of God” (James 1:20).

There is a lot of injustice in world for me to be angry about.  The Scriptures show this anger to be good and godly.  The same Scriptures provide me with examples of how to express this anger to God in a way that participates in God’s loving care for the whole creation, and they also instruct me to remain humbly aware of my own tendencies toward the very injustices I hate.
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Dale is Education Specialist at Tearfund NZ, and Producer of the Justice Conference Aotearoa / NZ.  He is married to Diane and father of Thomas.  His masters thesis through Carey Baptist College / Graduate School explored Baptist Worship in Aotearoa, and he has a chapter in The Art of Forgiveness (eds. Habets and Halstead).  His interests include worship, mission, justice, reconciliation, 12-step recovery and practical spirituality.

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