Can we really pray with the psalmist, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord”?

Q.  I find it very meaningful to “pray the psalms,” that is, to read through them and turn them into my own prayers.  But I always balk when I come to places like the one in Psalm 139 where David says, “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! . . . Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? . . . I hate them with complete hatred.”  Aren’t we supposed to love our enemies?  I find it hard to make this kind of thing my own prayer, and I’m tempted just to skip over parts like this as I pray through the psalms.  Is that all right?

Each of the psalms is a complete composition in a specific genre or literary type, and so I would encourage all of us to read, study, and pray each of the psalms in their entirety, without leaving out or skipping over any parts we find difficult.  In fact, when we approach a psalm like Psalm 139 with an appreciation for the literary pattern it is following, the part you (and many others) find so troubling becomes much more understandable. Then I think we do become able to read it and pray it with integrity.

The psalms are of three main types.  Psalm 139 is a “psalm of supplication,” in which the psalmist asks God for help.  As I explain in this post, psalms of supplication are built out of a series of common elements.  Not every psalm has all the elements, and the ones that are used can be presented in a variety of orders, but a basic pattern can be recognized.

Psalm 139, for its part, contains just two of the typical elements of a psalm of supplication. It consists mainly of an extended “statement of trust.”  But at the end, there is a “petition” or specific request for assistance.  This is the passage in the psalm that you are having difficulty with.

We need to appreciate that such a petition may cite reasons why God should help the psalmist, and that these reasons may include a claim of innocence—that is, an “affidavit” that there’s no reason for God to punish the psalmist by allowing troubles to continue or adversaries to prevail, because the psalmist has not been pursuing an evil course.

One variety of this claim of innocence is an imprecation, an expressed wish that God would slay the wicked.  It needs to be understood that in the context of a claim of innocence, within a petition, within a psalm of supplication, the psalmist is actually saying, “God, if I’m really among the wicked myself, then slay me!”

This is what is going on in Psalm 139: “If only you would slay the wicked” is a petition equivalent to, “See if there is any offensive way in me.”  In essence, the psalmist is saying, “So far as I know, I haven’t been choosing any evil path; I’m so sure of this that if I have been, I’m asking you to slay me along with all of the other wicked.  But if there’s anything I’m not recognizing, please reveal it to me.”  I think all of us today could pray a prayer like this with integrity—but with great caution and humility, after serious self-reflection, because it is a very solemn thing to call down the wrath of God upon ourselves if we are being deliberately evil!

One other thing that should help is to recognize what is meant by “hatred” in this context.  It has been aptly said that love is properly not a feeling, but a commitment:  the commitment to act consistently in the best interests of another person.  Conversely, hatred is properly not a commitment, but a feeling.  It is that feeling of strong antipathy towards anything dishonoring to God that makes us want to have nothing to do with wrongdoing and not join in with wrongdoers.  Such a feeling is a valuable protection against temptation.  But if instead we are “out to get” somebody, that is, if we are committed to acting consistently contrary to their best interests, then this is not really “hatred” in the sense that the godly psalmists use the term.  It is instead bitterness or vengefulness—something we cannot in good conscience indulge.

I hope these reflections will help you pray through all the psalms, and Psalm 139 in particular, more meaningfully and wholeheartedly.

This post draws on the discussion of psalms of supplication in Session 2 of my Psalms study guide and the discussion of Psalm 139 in Session 7.

“Praying the psalms” is a time-honored spiritual discipline. In the Middle Ages, beautiful illuminated psalters such as the one shown here (the St. Albans Psalter) were created to facilitate and encourage this discipline.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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