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Posts Tagged ‘love of enemies’

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 14:47-15:9

Our topic today, the destruction of the Amalekites, is really just background in terms of what is focused on in the broader story of 1 Samuel 15, which is Saul’s disobedience. We will come back to this theme.

Background

The events of Exodus 17:8-16 set up our story. This tells how the Amalekites attacked Israel, when they were leaving Egypt. And God promised there that because of this “I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (v. 14).

And then Deuteronomy 25:17-19 says, “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.” These verses establish Amalek’s guilt. They sought to destroy Israel, killing the weak among them. And so God will use Israel to destroy them.

If you’re wondering why the material on Saul’s family and military pursuits comes here, it shows that the right conditions have been met, according to Deuteronomy 25, “when God has given you rest.” Israel had rest under Saul and so now is the time to deal with Amalek. (V. Philips Long)

Questions

Now as Christians we rightly have questions about the destruction of whole peoples. If this was merely background in their day because this kind of warfare was known and practiced around them (and so we see no reaction to it recorded in Scripture) for many today this is the focus (even the only focus) of reading this passage.

We know that God loves and cares for all people. So, why would God command this, and previous to this the destruction of the Canaanite nations? These are the two, and only two places where this command is given.

Devotion to destruction

Referring to the Canaanites Deuteronomy 7:2 says, “you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.” And Joshua 6:21 records the fulfillment of this in relation to Jericho – “Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.”

And these are Samuel’s words to Saul in 1 Samuel 15:3 – “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”

These verses speak of the practice of Herem, a Hebrew word which refers to something beyond normal warfare – protecting land or invading but making treaties and intermarrying. It is translated here as “devote to destruction,” something more brutal and bloody than the already brutal and bloody warfare of the day in which they lived.

So this is our topic.

What should we say about this?

First, we need to see what actually took place, which is to say that 1. not everyone was killed. Scripture itself makes this clear.

In the case of the Canaanites, Joshua 10:40 says, “So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” (This refers to the conquest of southern Canaan. See also Joshua 11:12 for his conquest of northern Canaan.) So Joshua was successful and fulfilled the command of the Lord (Deuteronomy 7:2).

But . . . later Joshua 23:12 talks about “the remnant of these nations remaining among you” and gives instructions for how to relate to them. (See also Joshua 13:13; 15:63; 16:10; 17:13. Also Judges 1:1-4. And note the contrast regarding Hebron between Joshua 10:36-37 and Judges 1:10.) Many Canaanites remained.

So there’s some hyperbole going on here. You can actually see this in the space of one verse in Joshua 10:20 – “When Joshua and the sons of Israel had finished striking them with a great blow until they were wiped out, and when the remnant that remained of them had entered into the fortified cities . . .” it goes on to say that Joshua’s army came back to him. So they are “wiped out,” but in the same sentence, it acknowledges that a “remnant” remains.

In the case of the Amalekites, Saul was faithful to the command. As 1 Samuel 15:8 says he, “devoted to destruction all the people with the edge of the sword.” Except, of course, he left king Agag alive and as well, the good livestock. There’s no criticism of him other than these two things. So a straightforward reading of the story seems to tell us that all the rest of the Amalekites are dead.

But . . . later 1 Samuel 27:8 says, “Now David and his men went up and made raids against the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites, for these were the inhabitants of the land from of old, as far as Shur, to the land of Egypt.” Many Amalekites remained. Even in the same geographical area. And later in chapter 30 they attack David. (See also 1 Chronicles 4:43. In the book of Esther, Haman was an Agagite.)

So there’s some hyperbole going on here too. Just as Joshua destroyed the Canaanites, and is praised for being faithful – but many remained, so Saul destroyed the Amalekites, and carried out the instructions in this regard – but many remained.

In both of these cases a Herem war can come across as the complete destruction of a people. Now, this was, no doubt, a bloody affair, but it was not this. In the first, Joshua dealt a crippling blow to the Canaanites to establish Israel in the land. In the second, Saul dealt a crippling blow to the Amalekites who were mortal enemies of Israel.

Judging from all this, it seems that the commands to “devote to destruction” (Herem) were never meant to accomplish complete destruction.

Now, in all of this, we need to understand that 2. God is the sovereign judge of all peoples and nations. As our creator, God has the right and even the obligation to judge evil. Do we not get frustrated when God doesn’t deal with evil as quickly as we want?

And all nations and peoples deserve judgment because of human sin and evil. This is not the world God intended. And it is this way because God allows us to make our own choices. And we are accountable to our creator for these choices.

And God can choose how and when judgment will happen. That’s what it means to be sovereign. The timing and severity of God’s judgments are set by God. Some things are more fully judged in this life, and some will be more fully judged in the age to come. So yes, God can bring about a severe judgment on the Canaanites and the Amalekites for their evil, and others experience less intense expressions of this. Just as God brought a more severe judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah – fire from heaven – than on other sinful peoples.

And God still raises up nations to judge other nations in various ways – just as God used Babylon to judge his sinful people, Judah and then in turn judged Babylon for their sin and evil at the hand of the Persians. And God continues to use the governments of nations to punish evil among their citizens.

The bottom line is that this is not Israel acting on its own. This is God the rightful judge of he universe, sovereignly choosing to judge the Canaanites and the Amalekites.

And judgment, whether in this life or the next is never a pleasant thing. It involves suffering and death. As Paul says, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” – Hebrews 10:31.

We know that none of this was God’s original plan. And given who God is, as Ezekiel 18:23 says, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked?  . . . and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” – given this, we know that God judges with a heavy heart.

Now, if we accept the message of the book of Job, that we as humans are not in a place to assess the full moral calculus of God’s administration of this sinful world, we should still note that 3. God is working here in the context of a moral framework.

In both cases we are looking at, the Canaanites and the Amalekites, there are reasons for judgment.

  • Amalek’s attempt to wipe out Israel, which we have seen. (In 1 Samuel 15:18 God call them “the sinners.”)
  • And the religious and moral depravity of the Canaanites. This is noted in numerous passages – things like idolatry, child sacrifice, religious prostitution, incest and more. (Genesis 15:16; Leviticus 18:24-25; 20:22-24; Deuteronomy 9:5; 12:29-31; Hebrews 11:31.)

But also in both cases there is amazing patience on God’s part.

  • He gave the Canaanites 400 years to change according to Genesis 15:16. And no doubt God was working among them, seeking their change. But they didn’t. They got worse.
  • And likewise there is a similar span of centuries between Amalek’s attack and the judgment for this. And no doubt God was working among them. But they continued to be hostile to Israel.

Also, we need to remember that non-Israelites could escape by becoming a part of Israel, just as Rahab and her family escaped Jericho. They were to show no mercy, but there was mercy for those who turned to the true God. No doubt many of the remnant of the Canaanites that remained in Israel eventually became a part of Israel.

God also severely judged his people when they practiced what the Canaanites did. God doesn’t play favorites. The northern kingdom of Israel was judged and passed from the annals of history. The southern kingdom of Judah was judged and spent 70 years in exile, vomited out of the land for their sins, just as the Canaanites were. (Leviticus 18:28; Jeremiah 25:9; Amos 3:2)

We also need to take into account 4. the context of God’s larger purpose. These severe judgments were a part of a bigger process of movement forward meant to bless all peoples and nations. This was God’s purpose for Israel. He said to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 – “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

Israel had to be established, and protected from the influence of idolatry to accomplish its mission to the world (Deuteronomy 7:4; 12:29-31). And as the prophets foresaw, this mission comes to include even Israel’s foremost enemies (Zephaniah 3:9-10; Zechariah 9:7; Isaiah 19:23-25) including for sure the Canaanites and the Amalekites.

Finally, 5. God’s highest revelation in Jesus commands us to love even our enemies. One of the most difficult parts in all of this , is that God used his own people as the instrument of his judgment. So could God come to us today and command us to do this? The answer is clearly no.

In certain situations, God allowed and even commanded his people to hate (Deuteronomy 23:6) and kill their enemies (Deuteronomy 7:2) in the Old Testament. Jesus notes this and then raises the standard in Matthew 5:43-44. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

And whatever love means, it certainly does not include killing the person. So not only are Christians forbidden to even entertain the thought of devoting people to destruction, we are not to be involved in any situation that would lead us to kill someone.

Things have indeed changed. We are living under the New Covenant, not the Old. Yes, there is still judgment and the final judgment is coming. But God’s people are not to be his instrument of destruction, but his instrument of grace to the world.

(I am indebted to Christopher J.H. Wright, Paul Copan and Stephen N. Williams)

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As we celebrate the Lord’s supper today we are not only reminded of Jesus’ great love for us, we must also be reminded that he is modeling for us, how to live. In other words – how he died, shows us how to live.

For when Jesus’ enemies harmed him, he responded differently than the way the world tells us to respond. The world says, there is only one way to do handle this, return harm to your enemies; return harm for harm. And so there is an endless cycle of people harming each other. But Jesus endured harm and suffering on the cross and returned good for evil. He shows us another way; that we are to return good for evil. And in doing this he shows us how to overcome evil with good. He wasn’t overcome so that he did harm back to his enemies. He overcame through the power of love.

Paul speaks of this in Romans 12:19-21. And I want us to look more closely at this passage today. Paul says,

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

First we look at the negative side of this –

Being overcome by evil

This comes from the phrase in v. 21, “do not be overcome by evil.” This is how it works. Someone harms you. This can happen on a small scale, for instance, someone insults you. Or it can happen on a big scale, for instance, someone kills a loved one.

How will we respond? It’s natural to be angry and to want justice; in fact, we usually want more than “an eye for and eye;” we want to give back much more harm than we got. Evil is very powerful. When we become a victim of it, it gets into our system and tries to replicate itself through our anger – so that we start doing evil as well.

The question is ‘What will we do with our anger?’ Usually we give in to our anger to one degree or another. And when we do this we return harm for harm. In various ways – through personal vengeance, the court system or warfare, we seek to hurt or destroy our enemy.

overcome by evilThe result is that you are now harming another person, just as your enemy harmed you. You are doing the same thing. You have been overcome. You are now caught up in the cycle of harm for harm, just responding to others based on how they have treated you; a captive of other people’s actions.

But harm for harm never truly satisfies – even, for instance, if someone kills your family member and the criminal is executed. It doesn’t restore what was taken away from us. It doesn’t give us peace. You may even the balances and that might feel good on a certain level, but you will never overcome evil or harm with more harm. So we should set this response aside. As Paul says in Romans 12:17 – “Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” or as it is better translated “harm for harm.”

Let’s look now at the other side of this –

How to overcome evil with good

Paul tells us in v. 21 to “overcome evil with good.” There are three steps in this process. When an enemy harms us:

1) Endure the harm without giving it back. Paul says in v. 19, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves.” Now, as I have taught you before, there is a lot that we can do, within the limits of loving our enemies. We can stand up for ourselves and for what is right. We can stop an evildoer, even harm them to stop them. As long as we are acting in love for them – we have some freedom.

But what we can’t fall into is simply giving back the same that they gave to us, returning harm for harm as payback.

2) Look to God for your justice. v. 19 goes on to say, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”

It is normal to have anger when someone harms you. This is due to our sense that an injustice has happened. This is how God made us. We are not to deny this or try to suppress it. It is what you do with your anger that is the issue. Paul teaches us that we are to place our anger in God’s hands. This is the key to overcoming evil and breaking out of the cycle of harm for harm – giving the agenda of justice or payback over to God. He can fight for us and judge our enemies according to his will. This is what God says he will do – “I will repay.” Not, “you will repay,” but “I will repay, says the Lord.”

So when we suffer harm from an enemy, pray something like this, “God I am bearing this wrong. Take note of what they are doing to me. Act for me in the way that is pleasing to you. I give it into your hands and trust you with it.” It is our trust in God that sets us free. We know that God can handle it. It might not happen right away; it might not happen until the final day – but all wrongs will be righted by God. We can trust God on this matter.

3) Do good to your enemies. Once we have placed the agenda of payback into God’s hands this frees us up to love our enemies and do good to them. We can focus on mercy, since we know that God will take care of issues of justice.

Paul says in v. 20, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” Rather than harming our enemies we return good for evil.

overcome evil

This is counter-intuitive, for sure, but we can only overcome evil by choosing mercy and love, and by returning good for evil. This releases us from being captive to the cycle of anger, hatred and harm for harm. The circuit is broken. We are set free! Our trust in God sets us free.

And we hope that such acts of love will lead our enemy to repent, and we hope and pray for this. But if not, we know that God is more than able to deal with them. 

The cross

As I said before, how Jesus died, shows us how to live. Jesus modeled for us these three steps of overcoming evil with good when he died on the cross. When his enemies sought to harm him:

1. He endured the harm without giving it back. As 1 Peter 2:23 says, on the cross, “when he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten.”

2. He looked to God for vindication.1 Peter 2:23 tells us that while he suffered, he “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” He gave the agenda of payback and justice into God’s hands.

3. He continued to love his enemies. As Luke 23:34 tells us, while he was on the cross, he prayed for his enemies, for mercy and forgiveness.

Jesus models for us how to overcome evil with good on the cross. As Peter says, Jesus left us an example, “so that (we) should follow in his steps” – 1 Peter 2:21.Let’s remember this example and commit ourselves to  it as we celebrate the Lord’s supper together this morning.

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We’re back again in Psalm 139. Last week we covered the first 18 verses, highlighting the theme that God knows all about you.

The first thing I want us to do today is step back and take a big picture look at the Psalm as a whole, all 24 verses. And I want us to think about why it was written, or what the point of the psalm is.

You have a handout –  Psalm 139 that portrays how the Psalm is put together for your reference. I won’t go into this, but I do invite you to keep this at hand as we look at –

The purpose of Psalm 139

Let me give you the situation that I think is going on here right up front. David has been accused of not being loyal to God. Why? I don’t know. Maybe someone thought he was too sympathetic to a wicked person. Just a speculation. In any case, there is an accusation, and it is one that David considers false. And from reading this Psalm, this accusation must have been a painful thing for him to deal with.

What does he do? He takes it up in prayer with God. This Psalm is one long prayer to God. Let’s briefly look at this.

In A. or v. 1 he says, “Lord, you have searched and known me.” In B. vs. 2-3 we learn that God knows all that he does and thinks; his thoughts and ways. Likewise in C. v. 4 God knows all his words. In D. v. 5 God is all around, with his hand on him; God knows all that goes on in his life. And then in E. v. 6 he pauses to ponder such knowledge that is beyond him.

In F. vs. 7-12 he points out that even if he wanted to “flee” somewhere to hide – and secretly sin, he can’t. God would see and know him everywhere, for God is everywhere. In F1 vs. 13-16 he points out that God formed him and his days from beginning to end. Nothing is hidden from God. In E1 vs. 17-18 he again pauses to ponder the amazing sum of God’s thoughts.

So in all this, in vs. 1-18 David is offering up an appeal to God. God you know whether I am loyal or not. You know all about me, right? You know my commitment to you.

And then starting in D1 – B1 or vs. 19-22 David offers up several expressions of his loyalty to God. This section is key to understanding this Psalm, because it is here that we see that his loyalty has been challenged.

First in v. 19 he prays, “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!” And he says, “O men of blood, depart from me!” Then we have the words of the wicked in v. 20, which obviously disgust David, “They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain!”

And then we have some clear statements of David’s loyalty to God in vs. 21-22, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.” We will talk in a moment about his language, but the point here in context is that, “Hey God, I am on your side.” I hate evil and I love the good. From his point of view there is no question about his loyalty to God.

And then finally, in A1 or vs. 23-24 he gives an open ended invitation for God to keep searching and knowing him. He wants to make sure that he is right before God in his heart and actions; that he is not guilty of the accusation made against him; that he is not missing something.

So the purpose of the Psalm is David’s prayerful working through of an accusation made against him. And as we see at the end, even though he is open to God’s searching, he believes that his loyalty is clear. This brings us to what I am calling –

The problem of Psalm 139: David’s prayer of hatred

It is David’s expressions of loyalty to God, and specifically his prayer in v. 19, so central to the Psalm, that cause Christians discomfort. And, I believe, rightly so.

The prayer is straight forward. v. 19 – “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!” Kill them, God. And this prayer springs forth from his heart-felt and self-confessed hatred of God’s enemies, found in vs. 21-22, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.”

Now, this is certainly not the only place in the Old Testament or in the Psalms, where there are expressions of hatred for enemies and calls for God to judge them. Let me give one other brief example from Psalm 109:8-9. David prays this concerning his enemy – “May his days be few . . .. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow!”  So he prays for his enemy’s death. Then he prays that the man’s children, now orphans, would be beggars, and that no one would help them. And he goes on to pray that all his resources would be seized by creditors, and that the man’s parents would be judged by God. I could give you more examples, but this will do.

The problem for Christians in all this should be clear:

  • We are called not to curse, but to bless (Luke 6:28; Romans 12:14; 1 Peter 3:9)
  • We are called not to condemn, but to give mercy (Luke 6:36-37; Romans 2:1-5)
  • We are called not to hate, but to love enemies (Matthew 5:44; Romans 12:20)
  • We are called not to return harm for harm, but to return good for harm (Romans 12:17, 21; 1 Peter 3:9)

We are to be agents of grace, not judgment.

So this raises several practical questions for us: What should we think of Psalm 139:19-22? Can we pray the prayer of v. 19 as it stands? And how should we pray regarding enemies? Let me share several reflections with you:

  • It is right to oppose evildoers and injustice. As we saw, in context, what David says is an expression of loyalty to God. “I am on your side, God. I want what it right.” In this case David is speaking of people who are murderers (“men of blood” – v. 19). They despise God, possibly even using God’s name to accomplish their evil, by swearing oaths to deceive people or to bear false witness against the innocent in court (v. 20).
  • It is also true that in the end evildoers must be judged, if God’s peace and justice is to be established. Those who refuse God’s grace cannot be allowed to continue to do evil indefinitely. There has to be a time of reckoning. The innocent must be rescued. Justice must be established.

But there are some differences between how David prays for this and how we should pray for this. Difference #1 – Christian prayers must be governed by love. David’s prayer was rooted in “complete hatred” of enemies, as he himself says. Our prayers must be rooted in love for enemies

And this is really a difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. These are Jesus’ words, “you have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” This is the Old Testament. “But I say to you (the New), love your enemies” – Matthew 5:43-44. In the Old Testament, God commanded love for neighbors, fellow people of the covenant. But not God’s enemies. In the New Testament, God tells us to have perfect or complete love; that is love that includes everyone – the good and the evil, the just and the unjust, as Jesus said in Matthew 5:45.

Our prayers must reflect this love and mercy for all people. Since this is true, this leads us to – Difference #2 – Christian prayers shouldn’t ask for non-redemptive judgment. What is this? The clearest example of non-redemptive judgment is when God takes someone’s life. Because when this happens there is no more grace, no more chance to be redeemed. This is what David prayed for.

I do not believe that Christians can pray for this. This would be an expression of harm for harm, hatred, cursing and condemnation through our prayers, not love. Indeed, Jesus rebuked his disciples for this when they sought to call down fire on the Samaritan town that rejected Jesus in Luke 9:54-55. As Jesus said in Luke 19:10, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Why then should we seek their destruction in prayer?

And also, how could we ask for this, since we ourselves are only able to stand before God by his grace? Can we ask God to act one way with others and another with us? Destructive judgment for others, mercy for us?

If we can’t pray for non-redemptive judgment, I do believe that we can pray for redemptive judgment. This is God’s judgment, but it still allows the person a chance to change. It is judgment, but it is also an act of grace to wake them up to repentance, if they are willing.

So yes, I can and have prayed that God would judge and stop an evildoer in this way. Maybe God would take away their political power, or use the legal system, or put difficult circumstances in their lives that cause them to stop. I believe that this is in accord with both God’s mercy and God’s justice.

Let me end by saying that in one case there is a tension in our prayers that can’t be escaped:

  • For, whenever we pray for Jesus to return; that God’s kingdom will come, this involves an indirect call also for non-redemptive judgment on the part of those who have rejected God.
  • And whenever our heart cries out for an end to evil and for an end to the suffering of the innocent, this involves an indirect call also for non-redemptive judgment for those who persist in doing evil.

The tension is that we want mercy for sinners, but we also want justice for the innocent – a time when wrongs are set right and there is peace in God’s creation. A simple illustration: you’re praying “Jesus, please come soon! No more suffering! Joy! Peace! Eternal life!” But then you think about a family member whose had a hard life and done a lot bad things that haven’t been dealt with. You think, “If Jesus comes now, it won’t be good for him.”

So what do you do? How do you pray? Mercy for the evildoer, or justice for those who suffer? Grace for the sinner, or peace for the world?

This tension, I believe, is in the very heart of God. When he looks at his creation he has to choose every day, “more injustice and suffering for the weak? Or more grace and a chance for the wicked to receive new life?

Why does God wait to redeem the world? We get angry at God that he doesn’t act; that suffering continues. Well, God hasn’t acted yet, because he wants those who are evil to change. (2 Peter 3:9).

So, again, what do we do? This is my answer – defer it to God. Only God can make the call for when the time of grace is to end, for each individual and for the world as whole.

So yes, pray for mercy for sinners, but with the understanding that when God chooses, the day of judgment will come. And pray for Jesus to return, but with the understanding that this will only happen when God chooses that the time of grace is done.

God has to carry the tension, we can’t. He has to make the call. We have to leave this in God’s hands.

William Higgins

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