First post: Nonresistance: A Personal Background Previous post: Nonresistance: A Biblical Theology of Violence (Part 3)
I’m going to try to pick up the pace a bit and finish out the Biblical theology section. We’ll finish up the Old Testament in this installment, and then come back for a couple posts covering the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. After that, we’ll be ready to go back and summarize what the Bible says for us today about violence and self-defense.
“Wisdom literature” generally encompasses Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. As you probably already know, David and Solomon both contributed heavily to the Psalms and Proverbs (though they weren’t the only ones). And, as part of God’s inspired word, these are more than just their opinions or journal entries. They’re given for our edification. So there are a couple more or less related things we will pull out from these books before we finish up the Old Testament.
In the Psalms, we see cries for justice. Sometimes referred to as imprecatory Psalms, we have examples of the Psalmist praying for salvation from and judgment on those who persecute him. See, for example, Psalm 69.
But in Proverbs, we seem to see something contradictory - passages that tell us to care for our enemies, give them food or drink when they are in need, and not to rejoice when they fall. Why the difference?
The key is that the imprecatory Psalms aren’t praying for judgment for the sake of personal vengeance, against a personal enemy. The Psalmist begs for deliverance from the enemies of God so that those who see it will glorify God and trust in His saving hand. By contrast, Proverbs is telling us how to relate on a personal level to our personal enemies - those who have wronged us, but are not necessarily making themselves enemies of the Gospel.
There really is no conflict between the imprecatory Psalms and the teachings of Proverbs; they merely apply to different situations. As Ecclesiastes says, there is a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time for war, and a time for peace. Part of discerning the Biblical theology of violence is being able to differentiate between those situations. We will spend more time later defining those differences more specifically.
Israel was growing tired of the seemingly constant warfare with their enemies. Sometimes a strong king would rise up who would cause God’s law to be kept in the land, and it would prosper for a time; then an evil king would come into power, and Israel’s enemies would return again. But through the din, God’s prophets carried a thread of hope: There will be a time when God causes wars to cease. The Lord Himself will judge between nations, and decide disputes; His Law will prevail, and there will be no need for warfare any more.
Warfare is essentially a fight against evil. It is necessary, in this life, while evil prevails; but it is only temporary. Violence will, ultimately, come to an end as evil’s influence on creation does. This is the hope that we look forward to.
But in the mean time, violence remains a part of life. Governments use violence as part of their God-ordained role in maintaining justice. This is why, when soldiers came to John the Baptist, he commanded them to be just in their dealings: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” He didn’t command them to give up violence, or to quit being a soldier; even though they worked under the command of a heathen emperor1, their position was still a legitimate one.
We will be moving on to the New Testament in the next post. In the mean time, I’d like to ask a favor. I will probably be doing a post on objections down the road, so as you’re reading through this and my other posts, feel free to leave comments with any objections you come up with. Don’t worry if they aren’t well thought out or particularly deep. If it occurred to you, it’ll likely occur to someone else as well, and I can evaluate them and perhaps explain them better in the future.
Whether the soldiers were Roman or Jewish, the Roman occupation meant they were ultimately under the authority of and answerable to the Roman emperor. ↩