With everything that’s happening this week (who knows what else by the time you read this?), I’d like to focus our attention on a portion of Psalm 139 that is NOT scheduled to be read this Sunday. (The lectionary version is just vv. 1-5 & 12-17.) It’s easy to see why.
Most of the psalm provides one of my favorite reflections on God’s intimacy with us: No matter where we are, we are always transparently in God’s presence. I love all that. (There’s a fantastic sermon on this by Paul Tillich, for the theologically inclined: “The center of our whole being is involved in the center of all being; and the center of all being rests in the center of our being.”)
But what about this part—“O that you would kill the wicked, O God … I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies” (20, 22)?
Where did THAT part come from? It seems totally out of keeping with the rest of the psalm.
It’s also out of keeping with what Jews and Christians take to be the fundamental character of God. (Check out next week’s reading from the book of Jonah. Jonah wants God to “slay the wicked“ Assyrians. God would rather save them.)
So that part’s jarring. No wonder the lectionary skipped it! But these days we need to take a closer look.
“I hate them with a perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.” That’s the sentiment that’s all too common right now. It’s like a different sort of virus driving us to attack each other.
It’s this sentiment that’s fueling plots to harm people in the coming days. But it’s also my knee-jerk reaction to the plotters. I’m reluctant to admit even to myself how angry I am. Sometimes I’m so angry I’m not willing to listen even for a moment to somebody with a contrasting outlook.
Hating with a “perfect hatred” is running rampant through our common life. And those of us who presume to repudiate this are in constant danger of succumbing to it ourselves.
Plus, we can’t retreat to the delusional safety of “moral equivalence”: The anger behind Black Lives Matter is NOT equivalent to the anger behind a privileged but threatened white fragility.
Anger, of course, is not hatred, not quite. It can legitimately accompany a loving but uncompromising stand against movements of hatred. Nevertheless, it can easily slip into mirroring the very hatred we oppose. And there is no “perfect” hatred. Period.
So do notice that this psalm is not an endorsement “perfect hatred.” It’s another one of the psalmist’s natural reactions to living transparently in God’s inescapable presence.
First the psalmist is tempted to flee, but realizes that’s futile (7-12). Why flee? Because being fully searched out and known feels threatening. Our own inner conflicts are exposed. Maybe we’ll be rejected. But flight can’t work. “I come to the end—I am still with you” (18).
So now the psalmist is trying to shift God’s attention—“But what about them? Maybe if I shift God’s attention to others’ failings, mine will slip by unnoticed.” But that won’t work either. The psalmist already knows God’s attention can’t be shifted.
So the psalm ends with a plea. I hear it this way: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. [Oh, I guess you’ve done that already!] See if there is any wicked way in me [like maybe hating with a “perfect hatred”?], and lead me in the way everlasting” (23-24).
“Lead me in the way everlasting.” Lead US in the way everlasting! Opposing movements of hatred uncompromisingly? Definitely! That’s what God’s all-embracing, inescapable love does constantly. Hating with a “perfect hatred”? Never! That’s what we project onto God when we experience Love’s uncompromising opposition to hatred.
God will not be fooled by our attempts to hide or by our attempts to stand in judgment on others. Either way, God continues to lead us in the way everlasting. No “perfect hatred.”