This article first appeared in the Practical Hermeneutics column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 34, number 01 (2011). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
“God hates the sin, but loves the sinner.” This old saying often is used to resolve the tension between God being both just and loving toward fallen people. There are, however, instances in the Bible that appear to defy this principle. When David cries out, “The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and the one who loves violence His soul hates” (Ps. 11:5),1 or when Malachi prophesies, “I have loved Jacob; but I have hated Esau” (Mal. 1:2b–3a), they appear to communicate that God hates certain people. A closer examination of these passages in their immediate context and in relation to the overarching message of Scripture reveals these to be ways of expressing God’s opposition toward corrupt souls bent on committing sinful actions.
The Lord Hates the One Who Does Violence. Psalm 11 is attributed to David. It reflects a time when the psalmist took refuge in the Lord on being warned that he had been targeted for death and needed to fly to the mountains like a bird (vv. 1–2). The psalmist’s world was in such upheaval that he cried, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (v. 3).
In the psalm’s second stanza, David envisaged the Lord in the heavenly temple reigning over and knowing all things (v. 4), and says, “The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and the one who loves violence His soul hates. Upon the wicked He will rain snares; fire and brimstone and burning wind will be the portion of their cup” (vv. 5–6).
The Hebrew word translated “hate” in Psalm 11 is Sänë´ (שֶׂנֵא). It “expresses an emotional attitude toward persons and things which are opposed, detested, despised and with which one wishes to have no contact or relationship.”2 This is not hate out of ignorance or animosity; rather it is a righteous God’s opposition to wickedness. The same idea is communicated by Isaiah against unrepentant Israel, declaring, “I hate [Sänë´] your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, they have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them” (Isa. 1:14). Solomon, likewise, says, “There are six things which the LORD hates [Sänë´], yes seven which are an abomination to Him: Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers” (Prov. 6:16–19).
A number of commentators believe the historical backdrop to Psalm 11 is the time when David had to flee from Saul, who sought to take him down like a man hunting partridges in the mountains (1 Sam. 18:8ff).3 Sin had so corrupted Saul that he not only tried to assassinate David on more than one occasion (1 Sam. 18:10ff), but also succeeded in murdering the priest, women, and children of Nob, who provided David sanctuary (1 Sam. 21–22). Saul was indeed in the place of receiving divine judgment, and the lyricist rightly captures the situation in poetic hyperbole with the words “the one who loves violence His soul hates” (Ps. 11:6).
Jacob I Loved, but Esau I Hated. Malachi prophesied to the Jewish people after the Babylonian exile around the middle of the fifth century BC. His oracle begins, “‘I have loved you,’ says the Lord. But you say, ‘How have You loved us?’ ‘Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?’ declares the Lord, ‘Yet I have loved Jacob; but I have hated Esau’” (Mal. 1:2–3a).
Historically, Esau and Jacob were the sons of Isaac and Rebekah. Prior to their birth, God revealed to Rebekah her sons would become two nations but “the older shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23). God’s word came to pass when Esau despised his birthright by selling it to his younger brother for some lentil stew, and Jacob with the aid of his mother tricked his father into giving him the elder brother’s blessing (Gen. 25:19–34; 27:1–40). Jacob ultimately fathered the nation of Israel and Esau the nation of Edom.
Malachi’s prophecy concerns the nations of Israel and Edom during the post-exilic period of Old Testament history. He puts God’s love for Jacob in antithesis to the divine hate toward Esau. The same Hebrew word for “hate” [Sänë´] is employed, signifying God’s righteous opposition to sinful Esau. The reason divine hate came was that “not only did the Edomites gloat over the ruin of their Israelite brothers, but also actively helped the Babylonian invaders by acting as informants and cutting off escape routes, (Ps. 137:7; Ezek. 25:12–14; 35:15; Obad. 8–16).”4
God’s opposition to Edom was further demonstrated in the nation’s expulsion from their homeland. What happened was that around the sixth century, prior to the days of Malachi, the Nabateans invaded Edomite territory. They left the Edomites’ cities in ruin and forced them to resettle in southern Palestine in an area later called Idumea. The prophet alludes to this invasion saying, “I have made [Edom’s] mountains a desolation and appointed his inheritance for the jackals of the wilderness. Though Edom says, ‘We have been beaten down, but we will return and build up the ruins,’ thus says the Lord of host, ‘They may build, but I will tear down; and men will call them the wicked territory, and the people toward whom the LORD is indignant forever’” (Mal. 1:2b–3). Edom’s sins were hostile to the ways of a righteous God, so the prophet’s hyperbolic expression “Esau I hated” is befitting.
Romans 9 similarly references Jacob and Esau as part of a sophisticated argument demonstrating that the Jewish people rightly could be judged by God for rejecting Jesus Christ. Those who rejected the Lord identified themselves as descendants of Abraham, but Paul contends, “They are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (v. 6). Before Esau and Jacob were born, God told Rebecca that “the older will serve the younger“ (v. 12). The nations of Israel and Edom both sinned and went into exile, yet God brought back Israel but not Edom; hence, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (v. 13). Paul’s point is that “God has the right to choose among the chosen line,” and “not all Abraham’s descendants received the promise.”5 Their salvation would not be found in a genealogical connection to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.6 The Jews who rejected Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah sinned greatly and put themselves in opposition to God.7
Using the Clear to Understand the Unclear. God’s opposition to wickedness depicted in Psalm 11 and Malachi 1 should be considered in light of other truths Scripture reveals about God’s dealings with sinners. Readers can use clear passages of the Bible to understand unclear ones.
First, the Bible teaches that God offers common grace to all. For example, He sustains the creation, sending sun and rain on the farms of both saints and sinners alike (Matt. 5:44–45).
Second, the Bible teaches that God loves sinners and works to resolve the problem of sin. Paul writes, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). John likewise writes, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). In the same epistle, he writes that Christ “is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
Finally, the most remarkable thing the Bible teaches is that sinful and corrupt people do not have to remain that way. They can repent and enter into a right relationship with God. Zacchaeus came down from the tree, received the transforming grace of God, and committed himself to making restitution to those he defrauded (Luke 19:1–10). Paul also witnessed the resurrected Lord on the road to Damascus, which converted him from a persecutor of the church to an apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 8–28).
The God of righteousness opposes unrighteousness. It is, therefore, befitting for the psalmist to say, “The one who loves violence His soul hates” (Ps. 11:1), and for Malachi to prophesy, “I have hated Esau” (Mal. 1:3), to demonstrate God’s vehement disapproval of those bent on doing unrighteousness things. However, the Good News is that sinners can be saved by God’s grace through faith on account of Jesus Christ. —Warren Nozaki
Warren Nozaki is a graduate of Talbot School of Theology and a researcher for the Christian Research Institute.
- Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard version.
- Gerard Van Groningen, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 2, ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 880.
- Cf. Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 5, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 130, and J. A. Motyer, New Bible Commentary: Twenty-First Century Edition, ed. G. J. Wenham, J. A. Motyer, D. A. Carson, R. T. France (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 494.
- Gordon P. Hugenberger, New Bible Commentary: Twenty-First Century Edition, ed. G. J. Wenham, J. A. Motyer, D. A. Carson, R. T. France (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 885.
- Ibid., 885.
- Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 432–33.
- Whether or not Romans 9:13 can be used to support a particular view of divine election, Calvinism, Arminianism, or another mediating position is an issue that Christians can debate but should not divide over. For further study, see James White and George Bryson, “Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, Part One,” Christian Research Journal 23, 4 (2001): 32–41 (http://www.equip.org/articles/the-divine-sovereignty-human-responsibility-debate-partone-) and James White and George Bryson, “Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, Part Two,” Christian Research Journal 24, 1 (2001): 23–25, 41–47 (http://www.equip.org/articles/the-divine-sovereignty-human-responsibility-debate).