There are a lot of beautiful psalms and proverbs in the Bible. The Old Testament contains a book psalms consisting of 31 chapters. The Old Testament also contains 150 Psalms, also all in one book. These two books are side by side in scripture and you can open any Bible to just about the middle and land on these sections. Psalms are, in a sense, song lyrics. Proverbs are, in this context, words of wisdoms or short sayings that reveal wisdom about how things are and how things ought to be.
We attribute most of the Psalms to King David and most of the Proverbs to King Solomon (David's son who also happened to author a zesty little book entitled the Song of Solomon/Songs which was like 50 Shades of Grey for Bible time people). I often resonate with the psalms and proverbs which mention violence. Below are some examples.
Psalm 11:5, "The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence."
Psalm 17:4, "With regard to the works of man, by the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent."
Proverb 13:2, "From the fruit of his mouth a man eats what is good, but the desire of the treacherous is for violence."
Proverb 16:29, "A man of violence entices his neighbor and leads him in a way that is not good."
Proverb 21:7, "The violence of the wicked will sweep them away, because they refuse to do what is just."
Proverb 24:15, "Lie not in wait as a wicked man against the dwelling of the righteous; do no violence to his home."
Proverbs 3:31-32: "Do not envy a man of violence and do not choose any of his ways, for the devious person is an abomination to the Lord, but the upright are in his confidence" [emphasis mine].
In a recent blog article I used the previous proverb and a friend pointed out to me that using it was problematic if I was aiming to use it as a support for claiming that the scriptures command a nonviolent lifestyle. He mentioned that the violence mentioned by either David or Solomon can't be seen as a general violence, as we typically view violence, but rather a violence that is "unjust" because it wielded with the motivation of greed, hate, or some other kind of evil. Thus, we can't see the violence mentioned by David and Solomon (when in a condemning context) as the kind in war or self defense because those forms of violence are not motivated by evil but are instead a reaction to evil.
His claim is a very good one. The question raised by the context of David and Solomon's perspective is one that must be addressed. It can easily seem problematic for someone such as me who believes nonviolence is a central piece of universal Christian ethics.
The key to reading the Old Testament as a Christian is to read it through the lens of Christ. What that means is we must read the Old Testament passages with the knowledge and wisdom that has been given to us from the Spirit as we've ventured through the New Testament and have had God revealed to us more clearly through the person and work or Jesus Christ. Our Christology (study of Christ) must dictate how we view scripture because Christ is the very Word of God (John 1:1).
As a person of the Trinity, Jesus is God and has existed since before the creation of the world (Genesis 1:26). Thus, he breathed the scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16). When we are taught this truth we are also taught that all scripture is useful "for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." This was written to early Christian churches to remind them that the Old Testament is not to be tossed out but rather to be treasured! There is still wonderful truth in the Old Testament. Jesus even teaches some folks about how to read the ancient scriptures and identify Jesus through them in ways they were unable to do before (Luke 24:13-27). Jesus literally taught people to read the Old Testament with a Christological lens!
Again, having this understanding of Christ and how he affects our reading of scripture is of immense importance. We must remember that because Jesus is the fullest revelation of who God is and how God functions (Colossians 1:19) we must always side with what we know about Jesus whenever there seems to be a dispute between an Old Testament passage and a New Testament passage. Jesus, in a cliche, is a trump card when it comes to the interpretation of the Old Testament scriptures. Jesus reveals the truths we did not know. In Christ, the mysteries of God which were once hidden are made known to us and now that we have that knowledge (Colossians 1:24-29, Ephesians 3:7-12) we can read the ancient scriptures with/through that gift.
Back to David, Solomon, and their words on violence. As my friend said, we have to take into account who these men were and what their perspectives were as a result of who they were as people.
Both men were kings of Israel. They fought wars as leaders of giant armies. David's road to becoming king started when he was a young man, still guarding sheep as a shepherd, and ended up killing a military phenomenon named Goliath in a 1 on 1 fight by hitting him in the head with a stone (from a sling) and then cutting off his head with a sword (1 Samuel 17). Violence led to his kingship and established him as someone to be respected. He fought many battles and had many soldiers under his wing. They sang of David, even before he replaced Saul as king, "Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands" (1 Samuel 18:7). He killed so many that when God wanted a temple built he forbade David from participating in the process because he had too much blood upon his hands (1 Chronicles 22:8). Solomon's story isn't as red as David's but he was also a king in Israel and experienced the wars of his father. In some ways, he was his father's son.
Chances are good that both these men saw the violence they committed as good, necessary, perhaps even righteous at times. Why wouldn't they? They were kings and leaders of militaries and that's just what those sorts of men think. How could they not have the perspective that the violence they committed was not wrong? As my friend pointed out, their violence was not motivated by evil unlike their enemies. After all, they were God's people.
It's not at all difficult to enter the mentality of these men. But why did they have this mentality? Why were they such warriors? Scripture actually gives us a pretty good read on the answer.
For a long time, God was the king of Israel. They were a theocracy (which is a people who are ruled by God alone). They had no human ruler. God led his people and he fought on their behalf in unique ways (examples: Exodus out of Egypt, the walls of Jericho, the swarm/hornet which would go before the Israelite army, etc.). God did not lead his people like human kings, he did it better, more justly, less violently. However, there came a time when the people of Israel grew tired of this theocratic system and demanded a human king.
1 Samuel 8 records this change in kingship. Basically, the people tell the prophet Samuel (who has grown old and had sons who abandoned justice) that they desire a human king. He appeals to God, telling him what the people have demanded in hopes that God would not allow it to pass. God tells Samuel that the people have made their choice and he will honor it and so they shall be given a human king so that they may be just like all the other nations (and thus no longer a theocracy and unique nation among all the others). The catch is that Samuel must tell the people the consequences of their decision before they are given a human king.
The first of the consequences is stated in 1 Samuel 8:10-12, "So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, 'These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.'" In other words, the human king will create large armies and change the economic climate into one that fuels war.
David and Solomon were kings of Israel. These kings, as God said, created large armies and brought forth much war. It's a part of the deal that comes with putting humans in power. Just like every other nation that didn't belong to God or worship him, so the kings of Israel led God's people into war. Not strangely, the people, upon hearing Samuel's words exclaim, "...there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles" (1 Samuel 8:19-20).
This is not what God desired. This is not the type of leadership God wanted for his people. This is the type of leadership that comes from sinful creatures. Economies that bless violent war were not in the plans for God's people. Yet, David and Solomon fall into the category of men who would create such economies and lead the people into wars. In a sense, it's not their fault. It's just what humans in power are bound to do.
So why do David and Solomon have the perspective they do? Because they are human kings who are bound to create war. It's near unavoidable for them to see the world the way that they do. And after being raised and drenched in such a culture of human kings and war it's hard not to have the perspective that they do. Of course the violence of other nations seems evil and theirs appropriate! Yet, God has said that they are going to function just like other nations, they will be the same. Their violence is the same. Their wars are the same.
But let us not forget, David was a man after God's heart (1 Samuel 13:14). Solomon asked God for wisdom above strength, power, or riches (2 Chronicles 1:7-11). These aren't evil men. They are men who love God and want to honor him, and often do honor him! It just so happens they are men who love God that are also kings and leaders of war. They are sinful men. It ends up that they are like you and me. In their pursuit of being righteous, they miss the mark. They fall short. They get it wrong.
The only reason we can claim that they may have missed the mark is because of Jesus. There are a lot of differences between Jesus and these two kings. For one, Jesus is the ultimate king. He is God. He is the original King of Israel. God's kingdom is his kingdom because Jesus is God. He is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (1 Timothy 6:15, Revelation 17:14, 19:16). These are political terms! He's the rightful ruler. He was Plan A* and after Plan B didn't work out (because the wars didn't end up going in Israel's favor due to their continued rebellion against God) Jesus comes to reconcile God's people to him so that they may come back under his rulership.
Second off, Jesus is sinless (2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 2:22, 1 John 3:5). He is not tainted by the culture he grew up in and did not succumb to the sinfulness around him. He was able to lead properly. Along with this, unlike David and Solomon, Jesus only does what the Father tells him to do (John 5:19, 14:9-10). As stated before, he reveals the fullness of God. This means that those who lived before Jesus did not understand God as well as those who would come after Jesus because they did not get to know of this unveiling of mystery. David and Solomon lived, ruled, sang, and wrote when the mysteries of God were still hidden. Thanks to Christ's life we now have a better picture of God. In other words, we have the potential to see God more clearly than David and Solomon.
While David or Solomon may have seen a prayer requesting or action involving violent destruction towards their enemies as a just and permissible (even perhaps righteous) thing,** we see a different viewpoint from Christ in his approach towards enemies. He dies for enemies (instead of killing them), nonviolently interacts with them in moments of conflict (John 8:1-11), forgives on site of violent oppression (Luke 23:24), and demands that his followers only bless, pray for, nurture, and love their enemies as an imitation of Him (Luke 6:27-36).
I have to think that sort of teaching/ethic would look at prayers asking for God to violently overthrow those who oppose us (or those we closely identify with) as missing the mark. When David and Solomon lived there was a population notion that one should love neighbors but hate enemies but Jesus corrects this way of thinking (Matthew 5:43-48) by saying that we should love enemies as well. David and Solomon did not have this teaching close to them and thus it makes sense that they would have the perspective they did. Knowing the times that these kings lived and reigned, the conditions which brought about their rulership, and the teachings they followed, it becomes very easy to see (through the lens of Christ) why they might miss the mark of the specific issue of violence. It makes sense that they spoke of God with violent imagery. It's what they knew. They weren't wrong about God's power and his desire to defend his people but their requests and they view of violence was short-sighted as we now know thanks to Christ.
When I see Christ, the perfect king, live out nonviolence and speak against curses, retaliation, and unloving action towards others I can't help but come to the conclusion that while Solomon (or whoever truly wrote the proverb quoted) probably was alluding to a specific type of violence and not a generalized type of violence, it's safe to claim that we can look back at such wisdom through the lens of Christ, the Prince of Peace, and see it differently than was originally intended, without it being error. When I quote Proverb 3:31-32 (or a similar passage) it makes sense to speak of general violence because Christ has called us away from the way that David and Solomon approached the issue. He called us away from war, weapons, curses, and mistreatment of enemies. He called us back to his lordship, his reign, his kingdom, and a part of coming into all that means taking up our cross as self sacrificing imitators of Christ who forgive enemies as they kill us and do good to all people no matter what.
No longer do we live like David and Solomon or the people of Israel who desired a human king who leads us into war and creates an economy that blesses war. Now we live under the Prince of Peace, praying for his kingdom (which doesn't fight like the world according to John 18:36) and his will (which was always to defend his people in unique and often nonviolent ways) to be on this earth just as it is in heaven. With this perspective we can look at verses like Psalm 17:13 which states, "Arise, O Lord! Confront him, subdue him! Deliver my soul from the wicked by your sword," and connect it not to violence but to the sword of the Spirit and the word of God (Ephesians 6:17, Hebrews 4:12) just as we see it playing out in Revelation 19. We can see God subduing enemies with his powerful truth, unveiling their wickedness and bringing them out of rebellion and into his kingdom so that they are no longer enemies (now defeated) but brothers and sisters who share in the victory of Christ! Thus, we can pray the prayer of David in a different sense which is in line with the testimony of Jesus Christ.
When we read the words of those who came before us, let us do so with the lens of Christ so we can most clearly see what Spirit always meant to communicate to us through the words of the people God was using at the time. We've progressed, we've been brought forward by God's hand, let us honor that by not moving backwards and adopting what has been corrected and left behind. Let us live like Christ by no longer studying the ways of war (Isaiah 2:4) but instead making peace (Matthew 5:9).
*I'm not entirely comfortable with the terms Plan A and Plan B but for now they will have to suffice since I am at a loss for words on how to describe the role of each. I'm merely trying to communicate that God was supposed to always rule his people and when the people went with a human king things didn't turn out as well as they would have if they had followed God to begin with.
**Some of David's petitions to God in his psalms are for deliverance from is enemies and he frames the methods of deliverance in very violent ways. He even prays that God would break the teeth of his foes in their mouths (Psalm 3:7, 58:6). He frames God's judgment in warrior imagery as well, pairing it with destruction (Psalm 7:12-13). Simply, he is a man of war and communicates as a man of war would. Read original post