Perfect Hatred: An Ash Wednesday Response to Those Not on My Side (Or God’s for that matter)

ash-wednesdayThe Psalmist, David, wrote, in one of the several so-called imprecatory Psalms these words:

“Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? And am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies” (Psalm 139.21, 22).

And these words are on my heart this Ash Wednesday morning; in particular that one phrase in verse 22: “perfect hatred;” or better yet, “complete hatred” as the English Standard Version puts the Hebrew. And I will tell you why I am thinking about “perfect hatred.”

It seems to me that we who love the Lord are in danger today; a different kind of danger. The danger that I speak of is not the danger of compromise with the all-too obvious sinfully sensate culture in North America though such danger exists. I speak of the danger of a deep, personal bitterness, a hatred if you will, towards those “who are not on my side.” I came face to face with that bitterness in my devotions this morning. On a day when I am thinking, in my own heart, of my concern for our government, seemingly sinking into socialism, which is against the very founding principles of our nation, and most certainly far from the representative, self governing principles of the Bible on which, I for one believe, that our nation was sought to be founded; and in a season when, on this Ash Wednesday, I am thinking of the dark bloody stain of abortion and the sad, soul-chilling consequences of approving (that and other behaviors) that which God condemns, I read E.J. Young’s commentary on Psalm 139 (The Way Everlasting: A Study in Psalm 139 [Banner of Truth, 1965]). And there I came upon the words of David that “I hate them with perfect hatred.” I felt at once that the Psalmist was experiencing something of what I was feeling. The Psalmist had contemplated the glorious omniscient and omnipresent God who knew David better than David knew himself. David extolled the God who was always there and from whose presence no man can escape. And in exploring this theme David bursts into this enigmatic statement concerning a “perfect hatred.” I felt at once that my heart needed checking at this statement. David of course was so overwhelmed with the awesomeness of God that he, as a man, cannot but say, with the most vehement expressions, that he “hates” those who hate God. God’s enemies are David’s enemies. We understand this. We too could use a word such as “hate” in terms of those, even today, who stand against the Lord and His people. And yet we know the Bible is one. We know that Jesus told us to love our enemies. And so we are left with a crisis. One one hand we feel what David feels but we desire to follow Jesus as well. The caution of E.J. Young is well worth repeating here:

“Unless we walk with God, depending upon Him for all things, our hatred will be the wrong kind of hatred, and the wrong kind of hatred is sin” (111).

And this is where the Holy Spirit deposits this phrase, “perfect hatred.” A perfect hatred is an expression that is only uttered when one’s own life is presented to God for His inspection. Thus David begins and ends this Psalm with “Search me.” A perfect hatred is one in which the believer draws close to God in prayer and is lost in love and awe and wonder. This hatred is not a hatred which is vicious and seeks retribution on account of one’s personal losses. It is a “hatred” that desires earnestly that the entire earth should bow down and join in worship of this gracious God. It is a perfect hatred that so detests the opposition of God by Man that either Man will be consumed in righteous judgment or converted in gracious pardon. And as we look to our Lord Jesus who was the Lamb of God stapled with Roman iron nails to a cross of execution do we not hate! Do we not hate the sin that put him there? But as we hate we hear; we hear His words, “Father, forgive them they know not what they do.” And we come to see that our deepest expression of hatred has been surpassed in an incalculable way by God’s own hatred. Indeed, it is impossible to “hate” as perfectly as God hates. But God’s hate comes, in love and grace, against His own Son rather than against Man. And we, like Rembrandt who placed himself in his own painting as one who stood and took part in the mob’s crucifixion of Jesus, sink down to see our own image in the mob that we so hate. And our hatred is perfected by our own admission of sin. The boiling water of emotion subsides and though still steeping in our defense of God’s honor, we come to see ourselves not at one with this holy God but still yet apart from Him and so we say, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139.23,24).

This is what Calvin said of this “perfect hatred” passage:

“We are to observe, however, that the hatred of which the Psalmist speaks is directed to the sins rather than the persons of the wicked. We are, so far as lies in us, to study peace with all men; we are to seek the good of all, and, if possible, they are to be reclaimed by kindness and good offices: only so far as they are enemies to God we must strenuously confront their resentment” (Calvin’s Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Psalm 139.22, Accordance Software).

Good words for us today. What did our mothers tell us, “Hate the sin, son, but love the sinner.” It sounds so simplistic until we see that our mothers simply got it from Calvin.

And so I look upon those who hate my Lord and know that I have been among them. My “perfect hatred” is altogether a response to gazing upon the perfect beauty of God’s Person, not a personal resentment against those who stand against me and mine. Just the opposite. As I hated my own sin and its consequences, and I now cannot imagine even knowing that man who once openly blasphemed Jesus Christ, and yet stand amazed at the love of God who forgave me and made me his son and put me into the ministry of the Gospel, so this morning I would hate with a perfect hatred those who oppose Christ, and yet seeing Christ crucified, seeing Christ risen, the sinless made sin for those in sin that they might become the righteousness of God, and knowing that in the Gospel there is hope that those who curse Jesus today shall preach Him tomorrow. Thus perfect hatred leads to perfect love and perfect hope. And do we not need this now more than ever?

I did not attend any early service and receive a sign of ashes. But I did find in myself a seething hatred that needed to be burned in the love of Jesus to perfect it. If I can wear that today, and not wash it off tomorrow, then this will have been a good Ash Wednesday.

About Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D., MPA (University of Wales; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author.
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