Office and Duties of the Christian Pastor by Patrick Fairbairn: 14. III. Whether A Spirit Of Revenge Is Countenanced In The Writings Of The Old Testament.

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Office and Duties of the Christian Pastor by Patrick Fairbairn: 14. III. Whether A Spirit Of Revenge Is Countenanced In The Writings Of The Old Testament.


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III. Whether A Spirit Of Revenge Is Countenanced In The Writings Of The Old Testament.

WHEN a spirit of revenge has been charged upon the morality of the Old Testament, the charge has usually been associated with passages in the Psalms and the Prophets, rather than with the precepts of the law. Superficial writers have sometimes, indeed, endeavoured to find it also in the latter, but without any proper warrant in the law itself. This, we trust, has been satisfactorily established at the proper place. (Lec. IV., pp. 98, 103.) But there are portions of the Psalms, and occasional passages in the prophetical writings, which are very commonly regarded as breathing a spirit of revenge, and, as such, not unusually have the term vindictive applied to them. The lyrical character of the Psalms, which not only admitted, but called for, a certain intermixture of personal feeling with the thoughts appropriate to the particular theme, naturally afforded larger scope for utterances of a kind which might with some plausibility be viewed in that light, than could well be found in the writings of the Prophets. In the Psalms, the train of thought often runs in such a strain as this: the Psalmist finds himself surrounded with enemies, who are pursuing him with bitter malice, and are even plotting for his destruction; and in pouring out his heart before God with reference to his position, he prays, not only that their wicked counsels might be frustrated, and that he might be delivered from their power, but that they might themselves be brought to desolation and ruin—that he might see his desire upon them, in the recoil of mischief upon their own heads, and the blotting out of their memorial from the land of the living. In a few Psalms, more particularly the 69th and the 109th, imprecations of this nature assume so intense a form, and occupy so large a space, that they give a quite distinctive and characteristic impress to the whole composition. In others, for the most part, they burst forth only as brief, but fiery, ebullitions of indignant or wrathful feeling, amid strains which are predominantly of a cheerful, consolatory, or stimulating description:—as in Psalms 63, one of the most stirring and elevated pieces of devotional writing in existence, which yet is not brought to a close without an entreaty in respect to those who were seeking to compass the Psalmist’s destruction, that they should fall by the sword, and become a portion for foxes; Psalms 139, in which, after the most vivid portraiture of the more peculiar attributes of God, and the closest personal dealing with God in reference to them, the Psalmist declares his cordial hatred of the wicked, and asks God to slay them; or Psalms 68, written in a predominantly hopeful and jubilant tone, yet opening with the old war-note of the wilderness, ‘Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered,’ and identifying the future prosperity and exaltation of the Lord’s people with their wounding the head, yea, dipping their feet in the blood, of their enemies, and the tongue of their dogs in the same. Somewhat corresponding passages are to be found in Jer_11:20, Jer_18:23, Jer_20:12, where the prophet asks the Lord that he might see his vengeance on those who sought his life; also in Mic_7:9-10.

The late author of ‘The Spirit of the Hebrew Poetry,’ having referred to passages of this description, says: ‘Undoubtedly we stay the course of our sympathy at such points as these. It could only be at rare moments of national anguish and deliverance that expressions of this order could be assimilated with modern feelings.’ (Isaac Taylor, ‘The Spirit of the Hebrew Poetry,’ p. 152.) He so far, however, vindicates them as to hold them consistent with genuine piety in the writers, and suitable to their relative position. ‘These war-energies of the Hebrew mind, in a past time, were proper to the people and to the age; and would continue to be so until that revolution in religious thought had been brought about, which, in abating national enthusiasm, and in bringing immortality into the place of earthly welfare, gave a wholly new direction to every element of the moral system.’ This explanation may be said to point in the right direction, though, if taken alone, it would go far to antiquate such portions of Old Testament Scripture as no longer suitable, and even appears to concede to the force of circumstances a power of determination in respect to what is right or wrong in spiritual feeling, which it is scarcely proper to allow. The explanation, however, is partial and defective rather than in correct; and, did the choice necessarily lie between them, it were greatly to be preferred to that often adopted in the more popular class of commentaries, which would silence objection by turning the imprecations into predictions. So Horne, for example: ‘The offence taken at the supposed uncharitable and vindictive spirit of the imprecations, which occur in some of the Psalms, ceases immediately if we change the imperative for the future, and read, not, “Let them be confounded,” etc., but “They shall be confounded” of which the Hebrew is equally capable. Such passages will then have no more difficulty in them than the other frequent predictions of Divine vengeance in the writings of the prophets, or denunciations of it in the Gospels.’ In a grammatical respect, the explanation will not stand; for the Hebrew imperative is not so interchangeable as it supposes with the future, and is not so regarded either by the ancient translators or by the more exact of modern scholars. But even if it were, what would be gained by it? The real difficulty would be only shifted from one position to another; and, indeed, from a lower to a higher, because placed in more immediate connection with the mind and will of God. Acute rationalists have not been slow to perceive this; and one of them (Bauer), proceeding on the moral ground assumed in it, though with a different intent, asks, ‘How could David think otherwise, than that he had a perfect right to curse his enemies, when he had before him, according to his conviction, the example of God?’ Bauer saw well enough that if the matter stood so with reference to God, there was no need for any change of mood in the verb; since it could not be wrong for the Psalmist to desire and pray for what he had reason to believe God was purposed to do. Grant that to curse, or take vengeance on, one’s enemies is known to be the will of God, and how can it be supposed otherwise than proper to pray that it be done? The only room for inquiry and discrimination must be, on what ground, and with respect to what sort of persons, can such a line of desire and entreaty be deemed justifiable and becoming? Considered with reference to this point, the language in question will be found to have nothing in it at variance with sound morality.

First of all, a strong consideration in favour of another view of the passages than one that would find in them the exhibition of a spirit of revenge, is the circumstance already noticed, that such a spirit is expressly discouraged in the precepts of the law. For it was thus stamped as unrighteous for those who lived under that economy; and to have given way to it in those writings which are intended to unfold the workings of a devout and earnest spirit in its more elevated and spiritual moods, would have been a palpable incongruity. One great object of the Psalmodic literature was to extract the essence of the law, and turn it into matter both for communion with God and practical application to the affairs of life. Nothing, therefore, that jars with the morality or religion inculcated in the law could find a place here; and the less so on this particular point, as in other passages there is a distinct response to the teaching of the law regarding it, and a solemn repudiation of the contrary spirit. In the Proverbs, which stand in close affinity with the Psalms, there are various passages of this description; (Pro_10:12; Pro_16:32; Pro_19:11; Pro_24:17-18.) and one so explicit and full, that when St Paul would recommend such an exercise of love as might triumph over all hostile feelings and repay evil with good, he could find nothing better to express his mind than the language thus provided to his hand. (Pro_25:21-22; Rom_12:19-20.) In like manner, in the Book of Job, which partly belongs to the same class, the patriarch is represented as declaring, that he would allow his friends to hold all his calamities sufficiently accounted for if he had rejoiced over the misfortune of an enemy, or had so much as wished a curse to his soul. (Job_31:29-30.) Similarly, also, the royal Psalmist—who goes so far as to invoke the Divine vengeance on his head, if he had done evil to him that was at peace with him, or had spoiled him that without cause was his enemy (for so the words should be rendered in Psa_7:4); and once and again, during the course of his eventful history, when by remarkable turns in providence it came to be in the power of his hand to avenge himself in a manner that would at once have opened for him the way to freedom and enlargement, he put from him the thought with righteous indignation. (1Sa_24:5-6; 1Sa_26:8-10.) He even expressed his gratitude to Abigail, and to the restraining hand of God through her interposition, that he had been kept from avenging himself on Nabal, and thereby doing what he knew, in the inmost convictions of his soul, to be evil. (1Sa_25:31-33.) Is it, then, to be imagined that the spirit which David, as an individual believer, and in the most critical moments of his life, rejected as evil, should yet have been infused by him into his Psalms—the writings which he composed in his holiest seasons, and destined to permanent and general use in the sanctuary of God? This is against all probability, and can only be believed when it is forgotten what the real position of David was, whether as a servant of God, or as one supernaturally endowed for the purpose of aiding the devotions and stimulating the faith and hope of the covenant people. In both respects he would have acted unworthily of his calling, had he given expression to revengeful feelings.

This, however, is only the negative aspect of the matter; we turn now, in the second place, to the positive. David, and other men of faith in former times, could neither teach nor practise revenge; but they could well enough ask for the application of the law of recompense, as between them and those who sought their hurt—on the supposition that the right was on their side, that their cause was essentially the cause of God. And this supposition is always, in the cases under consideration, either distinctly made or not doubtfully implied. If the Psalmist speaks of hating certain persons and counting them his enemies, it is because they hate God and are in a state that justly exposes them to His wrath. If he expects to see his desire upon his enemies, their counsels defeated, their mischievous devices made to return upon their own heads, it is because God was upon his side and against theirs—because he was engaged in doing God’s work, while they were seeking to impede and frustrate it. So, also, with the prophet Jeremiah, and other servants of God; it was as wrestlers in the cause of righteousness, and in a manner identified with it, that they besought the retributions of judgment upon their keen and inveterate opponents. The question, therefore, between the contending parties must of necessity come to an issue on the law of recompense; and so the Psalmist sometimes formally puts it, as in Psa_18:23-27, ‘I was upright before Him, and I kept myself from mine iniquity. Therefore hath the Lord recompensed me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in His eyesight. With the merciful thou wilt shew thyself merciful; with an upright man thou wilt shew thyself upright; with the pure thou wilt shew thy self pure; for thou wilt save the afflicted people, but wilt bring down high looks.’ To the same effect also in the history. (1Sa_24:12-15.)

This law or principle of recompense is merely an application of the Divine righteousness according to the parts men take in the conflict between good and evil. It is confined, therefore, to no particular age, but, like every other distinguishing characteristic in the Divine procedure, has its fullest manifestation in the work and kingdom of Christ. Hence we find our Lord taking frequent opportunities to unfold it, as well in its benign aspect and operation toward the righteous, as in its contrary and punitive bearing upon the wicked; and not merely in respect to these two parties considered individually and separately, but also in their relation to each other. As regards individuals, some very striking and prominent exhibitions are given of it,—first, in the form of encouragements to the good, in such passages as the following, Mat_5:7-10, Mat_10:40-42, Mat_19:28-29; Luk_12:37; then, also, by way of warning to the careless and impenitent, in the terrible woes and judgments pronounced by Jesus upon the cities of Galilee, which heard His words and saw His mighty works, yet knew not the day of their merciful visitation; in the like judgments and woes that were gathering to alight upon the Scribes and Pharisees, upon Jerusalem, and the Jewish people generally, or more generally still, in the aggravated doom declared to be the portion of those who (like the unforgiving servant in the parable (Matthew 18.)) have acted with severity or injustice toward their fellow-men. On the law of recompense in this form, however, we are not called at present to remark; we have to do with it only as bearing on the relative position of parties, who have espoused antagonistic interests—the one hazarding all for the truth and cause of God, the other setting themselves in determined array against it. In such cases, the triumph of the one interest inevitably carries along with it the overthrow of the other; and though it is a sad alternative, yet the heart that is true to its principles cannot but wish for it. The ungodly world must perish, if Noah and the faithful remnant are to be saved; at a later period, the Egyptian host must be drowned in the sea, if the ransomed of the Lord are to reach a place of safety and enlargement. And so still onwards—the discomfiture of the enemies of God is the indispensable condition of security and wellbeing to His elect—whose cry to Heaven in their times of trial and conflict must ever in substance be, that God would revenge their cause. (Luk_18:7-8.) Why should not David and other ancient wrestlers in that cause have sought such a vindication when the claims of righteousness demanded it? Why should they not have wished and prayed that the good should prevail, by confusion being poured on the bands of evil who had brought it into peril? Indeed, as matters then stood, no other course was left for them. There was proceeding a trial of outward strength between spiritual light and darkness a contest between forces essentially antagonistic, in which, if the right should be able to maintain its position and carry out its designs, the contrary part, with all its adherents, must be driven from the field. And who can for a moment hesitate on which side the wishes and prayers of God’s people should have run?

With this agreement, however, in the main between the things relating to this subject in the past and present dispensations of God, there is to be noted, thirdly, a difference in outward circumstances, which necessarily involves also a certain difference in the mode of giving effect to the principle of recompense. It is not that now—since life and immortality have been brought to light by the Gospel recompenses of evil as well as good in the cause of God have ceased to have a place in the present administration of the Divine kingdom, and that God will do in eternity what He cannot do in time; but that every thing respecting the kingdom has taken a higher direction; the outward is relatively less, the inward more; God’s favour and the wellbeing it secures are no longer to be measured, to the extent they once were, by national prosperity or temporal distinctions of a palpable kind. Both for individual believers and for the church at large, the conflict with the powers of evil has lost certain of its grosser elements; it has now greatly less to do with weapons of fire and sword, more with such as directly affect the reason and conscience; and it is the special duty of Christ’s followers to strive that the means of this latter description placed at their command should be employed so as to subdue the corruption of ungodly men—to destroy them as enemies, in order that as friends they may pass over into the ranks of God’s people. But in desiring and pleading for such spiritual results, the Christian now, as the Psalmists of old, must pray for the discomfiture of all adverse influences, and of all interests, personal or national, which have linked themselves to the principles of evil. The prayer of the church must still be, ‘Let all thine enemies perish, let them that hate thee flee before thee:’—only in pressing it, one may, and indeed should, have respect to a change for the better in the spiritual relation of the parties concerned, rather than in what concerns their temporal condition and their secular resources. For in the existing state of the world, it is usually by the one much more than by the other that the cause of truth and righteousness will be affected, and the tide of battle most effectually turned.

Finally, it must not be forgotten, in regard to the portions of Old Testament Scripture in question, that while the change of circumstances has necessarily brought along with it a certain change in the application of the principle embodied in them, their employment for religious culture and devotion has by no means lost either its reason or its importance. It serves to keep alive a right sense of the sins prevailing in the world, as dishonouring to God and deserving of His righteous condemnation; of the calling, also, of the church to wage with these a perpetual warfare, not the less real and earnest that it has immediately to concern itself with matters of a spiritual nature. A corrective of this sort is needed very particularly in the present age, when loose views of holiness and sin are ready from so many quarters to press in upon the minds of those who are but partially established in the truth. And it can only be found in revelations which teach that there is severity as well as goodness, justice as well as mercy, in the character of God, which must have its manifestation in a measure even here, but shall have it pre-eminently in the final issues of His kingdom; and this for the good of His people, not less than the glory of His own name. Hence, as justly remarked by Lange, (In Hertzog, ‘Zorn Gottes.’) ‘Christ recognises, in the fact of His crucifixion having been determined on, (Mat_23:39; Mat_24:1, seq.) the certain advent of the great day of wrath which is to bring the visitation of fire upon all the world. And indeed this inseparable combination stands in no contrariety to the reconciliation accomplished through the death of Christ; for as His death provides for the world the redemption which could meet all its necessities, so is the day of wrath the consummating act of redemption for all Believers; (Luk_21:28; 1Th_1:7; 2Pe_3:7-10.) and the judgment of fire, which with the day of wrath falls on the impenitent, is grounded in this very circumstance, that they had not accepted the salvation of God in the death of Christ, but in this death had sealed the judgment of God upon their blindness. They have turned the Gospel into a savour of death unto death.’