“Chaff” in the Bible

Dear Sirs:

Three decades ago in a heated Synodical debate in connection with the “Janssen Case” a minister of the Christian Church (in good standing at the time but deposed in the subsequent Common Grace issue), when asked whether he was sure he cherished love for the person of Dr. Janssen, replied by quoting Psalm 39:21f. (“Do not I hate them that hate thee? I hate them with perfect hatred.”)

A pained hush fell upon the assembly. Some of the men of God gasped at what they heard. It was as if someone had spoken blasphemy. And an old elder, long since gone to his reward, said that evening that that one speech had caused him to determine how she should vote in the matter. “Into the councils of men who talk thus glibly of hating, my soul may not come.” This he said sadly as his steel-grey eyes looked far away.

We who were just then beginning to take an interest in things ecclesiastical felt that the man who prated thus piously of hating a specific fellow man had done so in a moment of fury, that the tensions of the moment had had much to do with his awful talk. Not until some years later did it become evident that there was method to the man’s madness, that there was articulated theology back of it. And we were happy subsequently to see this theology exposed as less than biblical and short of being Reformed.

As an article in the latest issue of Torch and Trumpet reminds me of the event, and, of the theology. I refer to “Chaff” in the Bible? in the Dec. 1953–Jan. 1954 issue. I wish to register my emphatic disagreement with the line of thought developed in said article. Its call to the fine art of hating saddens me, coming, of all times, in this blessed Christmas season with its welling emotions of love and kindness!

I have forbidden myself to do the thing “Chaff” wants to make legitimate. I bid my soul to love, in the language of Joe Palooka, to love everybody. I try in my stumbling way to love all comers, to pray for them, even if they should despitefully use me and persecute me. And this I do because I would fain emulate my Father in heaven. (I do hate the sins of men, myself not excluded. More of this distinction anon.)

That man of thirty years ago made his big mistake when he pinpointed a fellow man, a person whose visage was familiar to him and whose street address he knew, and then said of that specific person “That man there is the object of my hatred.” He should have reflected that we do well in this dispensation not to proceed as though the Judgment Da y were past already. But the writer of “Chaff” brushes aside every hesitation at this point. Writes he, “Nor can this attitude on the part of God and Christ and the Christian be reduced to a ridiculous impossibility by seeking to establish that no object of this hatred can be definitely established in this present historical situation.”

And then he adds victoriously, “If the objects of this hatred in history can be no thing more than straw men which we construct only in theory, then I dare say that the Holy Spirit would not have identified the Nicolaitans of Revelation 2:6 as the rightful objects of hatred on the part of both Christ and the Christians. The Christians in Ephesus were not chided for being absolutistic in their evaluation of the Nicolaitans but were rather commended for their attitude as followers of the Christ. The relativities of their historic situation did not, apparently, preclude the possibility of a judgment based upon the Word of Christ.” Not only does the writer of “Chaff”  tell us that it is right and proper, even obligatory, to spot specific folk and make them objects of our hate: he also tells us how to go about it to locale them. He in forms us, “Here too the Scriptures give ample guidance for the Christian, for example, Matthew 7:16–20 and Matthew 12:30” (By their fruits ye shall know them: etc.” and “He that is not for me is against me.”) Aha, so if I judge a man’s works to be those of a “corrupt tree” I earn the approval of my Master if I write that man’s name in my black-cove ed hate book. And if I opine that another given man is rather “against” than “for” the Christ he will smite on me if I write that man’s name also into my ever extending list of haled ones! And I will need a larger ledger to carry all the names of all those whom, if the argument of “Chaff” to stand, I hate; all Unitarians, all Modernists, all Arminians—if only I make myself believe that they are “against.” I must then hate all harlots and Publicans; in fact, most of the people I meet on our streets—for are not their “fruits” by and large those of a “corrupt tree?”

I am not only saddened at the line of thought presented in “Chaff” I am as much alarmed at the exegetic liberties employed. The writer, to begin with, equates the wrath of God with the hate of God. Just like that. “All those who seek by sin to do violence to the demands of God become by that ver fact the objects of God’s wrath and hatred.” Now it is true, we had better speak in subdued tones when we talk of the emotions of God; the subject will ever be fraught with mystery. But if I am to grasp anything at all about this subject I shall have to approach it with the experiences gained in contacts between man and man. Anthropomorphism is inescapable here. That is why God tells us, as he broaches something of this mystery, “Like a father pitieth his children…” Now I have oftentimes experienced the wrath of my lamented father—but I have never experienced his hate! Wrath and hate, also in the heavenly Father, must not be glibly identified!

Notice also the exegetic license employed in connection with Revelation 2:6, (“This thou hast that thou halest the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate”). The writer of “Chaff”…glides serenely over the fact that the text speaks of hating the works of the Nicolaitans, not of hating the Nicolaitans, as he would have it. The words of Christ at this place, as at every place, are, we may be sure, chosen with care. (In verse 15 it is the teachings of the Nicolaitans not the Nicolaitans, that he says he hates and wants us to hate.) Let him who misquotes the Savior by dropping important words out of the text in order to make them serve his purpose know that he disapproves of such tampering (Cf. Rev. 22:19).

Good exegetical habit would require of us not t.o miss the point that the term “Nicolaitans” is a symbol. It stands in a book that is full of symbols, a book in which “that woman Jezebel” marches again. (The word “Nicolaitans” was probably coined in order to give in the Greek the essential meaning of the Hebrew “Balaam” .) To make this word stand for specific persons is extremely risky exegesis, to put it kindly.

The writer of “Chaff”  is not afraid of being absolutistic. And he tells us that “The Christians in Ephesus were not chided for being absolutistic in their evaluation of the Nicolaitans. I would, however, be happier if he had paused to point out that the writer of Psalm 139 gives evidence of being startled. so to speak at his own absolutism: for he proceeds at once to implore in deep humility, ‘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” (Capitals are not mine but David’s). I have often been deeply grateful for those final words in which David rejoins the company, so to speak, of those men over whom he had uttered h is imprecations! Without this turn in his thought I would have at least one Scripture that seems to feed absolutism.

As I conclude this article strains of Christmas music float on the air. May this season that sets forth ever again the stupendous sweep of the love of God inspire us to a life of love. May it inspire us to love, to love all men, saints and sinners alike (which docs not mean in one and the same modality). And may it teach us to hate sin as never before, even as we love men, the sin fullest of men! – LEONARD VERDUIN



Reply: Leetsma to Verguin

Perhaps one of the greatest dangers that beset those who seek to study and understand the Word of God is the fact that our interpretation and evaluation is in danger of being predominantly conditioned by the experiences, either good or bad, of the past rather than the Word of God itself. To be so conditioned in our interpretation of the Word of God often causes us to lose the propel’ perspective which is necessary for correct understanding. When our past experiences have a determining effect upon our interpretation of the Word our evaluation and appreciation of it will be impaired by our preconceived judgments. Such prejudgments are hurdles of no small size which must by one means or another be overcome. It seems that my consideration of the imprecatory Psalms and particularly the passage from Psalm 139 was faced with a judgment which was conditioned, at least in part, by an event which look place “three decades ago, in a heated Synodical debate.

It would seem to be far better for us to seek to understand and evaluate a specific passage of Scripture in the light of Scripture itself. When we so proceed it will make little difference whether we deal with a given passage at Christmas or Easter or Reformation Day, for the truth of God and its application is not and cannot rightly be, limited to a specific time or a specified season. The Word of God, even that of Psalm 139, is applicable to our lives at Christmas time just as well as at any other time precisely beca use it is the Word of God. On this we are, undoubtedly, all agreed.

The problem which forms the basis for this discussion seems, then, to be the correct interpretation of Psalm 139:2ff and such other passages which may serve to a id us in a correct understanding of this problem.

I would fully agree that we as Christians are obliged to love all men according to the command of Christ. To love all men as the creatures of God. To love all men because they are by reason or creation the image bearers of God. This is a duty which the Christian cannot escape. It seems to me, however, that to so love all men is not love for them ultimately for their own sakes but rather to love them for God’s sake. The love of the Christian must be directed to God in first instance, but then also the works of his hands for his sake. This is but to say that theology is determinative also for sociology. That the second table of the law proceeds necessarily from the first table of the law. On this we are, I trust, also agreed.

A cursory consideration of the passage in question, however, namely Psalm 139:21f, would indicate that the Psalmist is not here considering sinful men in the light of this creatural relationship. He is rather considering sinful man as he stands over against God in the moral respect. The religious relation of the heart to God which characterizes sinful man is here the basis of his analysis. Man as hater of God (Rom. 1:30) by reason of the revolution of sin and apart from the reconciling grace of God in Christ Jesus is the subject under consideration by the Psalmist. It is in the light of this fact, which to David at least is a discernible fact, that he is led by the Holy Spirit to utter the imprecation of the text.

This moral differentiation within mankind is one which is based not upon a humanistic analysis but rather upon a divine analysis. This analysis and this differentiation is made known to faith by the revealing God. Upon the basis of this revelation of the divine analysis the imprecations of David rest.

This antithetical religious relation to God is likewise the framework against which the words of Revelation 2:16 are to be placed. The Nicolaitans (Note 1.) are those who in moral respect stand in revolution over against God and are therefore the objects of Christ’s wrath and hatred. (Note 2.)

This difference between a religious relationship of sympathy through Jesus Christ and a religious relationship of antipathy by reason of the revolution of sin is a difference which is made known to faith. It is this difference of relationship which enters into the disposition of God to man so that he loves those who are his children through Jesus Christ and hates those who stand over against him in the revolution of their sin. (Note 3.) This is the gracious insight which is given to faith by the Word and the Spirit. This is not, I dare say, the insight which forms the basis for the love of Joe Palooka. His love is not a love which is conditioned and controlled at every point by the love of God for himself and his handiwork. His love, is, at best, the love of humanism which can quite easily change into the hatred of anti-humanism. This has become painfully apparent to us in the atrocities which characterized humanistic Germany during the second World War. The love of humanism will continue so long as it serves the purposes of the enthroned ego of man. Christian love will continue even for those who despitefully use us because it continues for God’s sake.

Finally, it seems to me, that David was not in the least taken aback by the boldness of his implication. He was, I believe, fully aware of what he was saying. Nor does he seek in t.he conclusion of Psalm 139 to rejoin the company or whose who are committed to the hatred of God.

To do so would constitute for him a virtual denial of the grace of God which had been manifested unto him. He was aware, I dare say, of the glorious and blessed position which was his as a man who was made to be by God’s grace a matter God’s own heart. As a redeemed sinner, he was also painfully aware of the fact that such Christians “sometimes through weakness, fall in to sin.” Therefore the Christian must of necessity pray the prayer, “Search me, O Lord and know my heart, try me and know my thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in me.” But as a Christian he was also led to see that he could “not therefore despair of God’s mercy nor continue in sin.” Thus in the boldness of faith and as a child of God he could also pray the prayer, way everlasting…”

Note 1. Granted that the word “Nicolaitan” is a symbolical term. It remains, however, that it is a symbolical term which refers to historically real persons. The book of Revelation is surely a book filled with symbolism but in every case it is it symbolism which refers to reality in past, present, or future time. This fact gives the book of Revelation its meaning. its beauty, and comfort. Without the recognition of this fact the book of Revelation loses its value and becomes or little consequence. It is the historical reference of the book of Revelation which must be recognized. This I believe, is characteristic of the entire book and surely of the first three chapters.

Note 2. The Christian has the glorious privilege to lake the words of the Heidelberg Catechism to his lips as his concession of faith. To say in the full assurance which faith alone is able to give “that the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is my Father” (Lord’s Day 9). In such a Father-son relationship the Words wrath and hatred cannot be used in combination for a Father may bring his wrath to bear upon his son, but n ever his hatred. On this we are entirely agreed. But the haters of God referred to in Psalm 139 and those who are the objects of hatred in Revelation 2:16 do not find themselves in this glorious, gracious, relationship through Jesus Christ as their Savior. A continuation of the quotation from Psalm 103 would have brought out this fact. “Like as a Father pitieth his children, so Jehovah pitieth them that fear him.”

Note 3. This is not to say that God no longer loves them as his creatures for he can not hate the work of his own hand. To do so would be to deny himself in a measure. Love and hate are not, it seems to me, mutually exclusive in God and must not, therefore, be mutually exclusive for the Christian . This is undoubtedly sheer foolishness to humanism. That fact that so often we consider them to be mutually exclusive may be due to the fact that our definition of love and hate has been influenced by humanistic presuppositions to a greater extent than we care to admit. If the ultimate basis for our attitudes to men be that of humanism, then we have no basis for hate. But nor do we have an adequate basis for love. Love cannot he defined or established apart from God himself. If love be de fined on the basis of God’s revelation it will not be coordinate with hate. Hate win rather be subordinated and conditioned by love. – REIN LEESTMA