Misunderstandings: Religion and violence

In various recent conflicts and certainly in the tragic events of 11 September religious convictions have plaid a role. Owing to that some criticize all religion and call it the big source of violence and war. 
Others are trying to find answers and solutions that enable them to defend and clear their own religion in that respect. Christians often say, that the essence of their faith is the message of love. It does not give an answer to the question how Psalm 137:9 can be made to agree with that message of love: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” 

The same question rises with respect to the order to exterminate seven peoples in Canaan and to kill all inhabitants of Jericho. Is it correct what Dr Kessler propagates, that it is no longer appropriate to search for the one and only correct meaning of a text? Is it rather essential to examine, as the rabbis have traditionally done, a number of different interpretations, each with its own context? Is the willingness to see a multitude of different possible meanings acceptable if it provides us with the means of handling different biblical texts? Can the principle of rejecting whatever promotes hatred, discrimination or the superiority of one group over another decide in the question what interpretation has to bear most weight? Do biblical texts need reinterpretation when human life is at stake? 

That however would mean, that Christians can no longer see the Holy Scriptures as the infallible and binding Word of God, what would clash with their faith in Jesus Christ as the true God. For He said, that Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35).

Do not generalize.

The condemnation of religion as a source of violence and war is too general. There is a difference between a religion in which there is an express command to kill every one who has a different opinion or does not agree with that religion, and a religion in which such a command does not exist and in which murder is condemned. 

It cannot be denied that that Christians have perpetrated violence in the name of their faith, like the crusades and the persecution of so called heretics. But it is not the question whether men, religious people as well, can commit crimes and violence. They certainly can and have done so. But not the grounds of religion only. People have murdered prompted by lust for power, by pursuit of gain or by jealousy. They often used religious pretexts to conceal their real motives. It will therefore be necessary to investigate whether a religion teaches to act with violence, even murder, and not what religious people have done.

A difference between the Old and the New Testament.

Nobody can pretend about the books of the New Testament that they contain a command to violence and murder. Christ teaches hid disciples to love their enemies and He himself prayed for them that crucified Him. Anyone who knows those books more or less can confirm that. 

In the Old Testament however there are passages speaking differently. It boils down to a reproach about Christianity that is restricted to the Old Testament. 

That reproach is not new. Long ago it has been pointed out that a great difference can be seen between the God of love in the New Testament and the cruel God of judgment in the Old Testament. Can the difference be explained?

Different times.

So there seems to be a difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. Seems to be, for in fact there is no difference. The Old Testament testifies regularly of the God of love and longsuffering, and the New Testament closes with the Revelation, for the greater part filled with the description of the coming judgments. 

A passage in Ecclesiastes 3 reads as follows: “To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven: 
2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; 
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 
5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 
6 a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; 
7 a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 
8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.” 
Likewise there is a time with God to warn and a time not to warn any longer, but to judge. The flood in the days of Noah is an example. He had to build the big ark in which men and animals would be safe during the great flood that would come as a judgment of God. One hundred and twenty years he has been building that ark. People have seen it, have asked their questions and got the answer. He preached with words and with his hands and his message was confirmed by his building that enormous ship. He warned and invited the listeners to enter into that ark and seek safety there. 

God might have judged sooner, but He waited those hundred and twenty years and used Noah as his prophet. It was a time of mercy. After that judgment came. 
In the book of Jonah we have the same thing. 
He got the command to go to Nineveh and to preach and announce judgment. He went however in the opposite direction, fearing that God intended to be merciful. He was right. For after Jonah had been instructed for the second time and had preached in Nineveh, God did not what Jonah had announced. The town was not overthrown, for the people believed the message, turned from their evil ways and cried to God and God showed mercy. 
Then Jonah said “therefore I fled. I knew that thou art a gracious God”. He had known that God is merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness. 
But then there is the book of Nahum. He prophesied about Nineveh and announced judgment that has come indeed. So we see that there has been a time of mercy but also a time of judgment. 

There is also the prophecy of Isaiah in chapter 61: "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord hath anointed Me to preach good tidings unto the meek. He hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God.” (61:1 and 2). 

Here again the two sides are mentioned: the acceptable year of the Lord and the day of vengeance of our God. In passing I touch on the fact, that the prophet spoke of an acceptable “year”, but of a “day” of vengeance, what lets us understand, that mercy is according to God, whereas He is forced to judge because of sin, but that not with whole his heart. 

It is of more importance, that Christ read the passage in Isaiah 61 in the synagogue in Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; He hath sent me to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18 and 19). 

The striking thing is, that the Lord omitted something. He did not read the words that follow after “the acceptable year of the Lord”. Those words are “the day of vengeance of our God”. Why did He not read that? Because the time for vengeance had not yet come, even now not yet. To Nicodemus the Lord said that God “sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17). The present time is still the time in which God saves sinners and does not yet judge the world. 

In Gods time that will change. In Luke 21 the Lord has said: “When ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. Then let them which are in Judea flee to the mountains and let them which are in the midst of it depart out. And let not them that are in the countries enter there into. For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled”. (21:20-22) 
Days of vengeance. 
The days of vengeance that are meant in Isaiah 61. This prophecy has been partly fulfilled in the year 70. Partly, for the complete fulfilling will be in the days preceding the coming of the Lord, mentioned in verse 27. 
We see there is a time of longsuffering and grace, the acceptable year of the Lord in which we live, and a future day of vengeance. Old and New Testament agree in that respect.

The time that preceded the present period in which the Lord is building his church.

Christ has come to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. Before that the acceptable year of the Lord had not yet come. The whole period from Adam can be indicated with the words of Romans 3:25: “sins that are past, through the forbearance of God”. 
There is a difference between the longsuffering of God in our days of the acceptable year of God and Gods longsuffering in the time before Christ. Through his sacrifice Christ laid the foundation for the present time of Gods mercy. In the time before Christ God acted in forbearance. 

The period before Christ can be more specified:

  1. Before the flood, ending with that inevitable judgment.
  2. The short time of the flood.
  3. From the flood till the confusion of tongues.
  4. From that confusion of tongues till the Sinai, the law.
  5. The period of the law and Gods reign in Israel.
  6. The period of the power of the nations, still going on.

The beginning has been the reign of Nebuchadnezzar: “Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; thus shall ye say unto your masters: 
5 I have made the earth, the man and the beast that are upon the ground by My great power and by My outstretched arm, and have given it unto whom it seemed meet unto Me. 
6 And now have I given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, My servant; and the beasts of the field have I given him also to serve him. 
7 And all nations shall serve him and his son and his son's son, until the very time of his land comes; and then many nations and great kings shall themselves be served by him. 
8 And it shall come to pass, that the nation and kingdom which will not serve the same Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, and that will not put their neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, that nation will I punish, saith the Lord, with the sword and with the famine and with the pestilence, until I have consumed them by his hand.” 
It coincides with Ezekiel 11:22 and 23 “Then did the cherubims lift up their wings, and the wheels beside them; and the glory of the God of Israel was over them above. And the glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city, and stood upon the mountain which is on the east side of the city.” 

We see that the great difference between the fifth and the sixth period is, that in the fifth period God was reigning in Israel, whereas He had left the sanctuary in Jerusalem and given the power in the hands of a heathen monarch in the sixth period, in which we also are living. That period has been shown to Nebuchadnezzar in his dream (Daniel 2) and will end with the coming of Christ.

The command in the Bible to exterminate certain peoples.

The fifth period is the time in which a command has been given to Israel to wipe out certain peoples in Canaan. The Bible does not mention a command to them that fear the Lord to kill people of other convictions in preceding times. The reproach, that the Bible commands believers to use violence or to kill people applies to the fifth period in which God was reigning in Israel. The command in that period has been given to Israel exclusively, and related the mentioned peoples exclusively. Later a command has been given to king Saul to destroy the Amalekites. In both cases Israel has been the power God used to execute his judgment. A command to destroy all unbelievers has never been given to Israel, nor to any other group of believers. No one can use violence or commit murder on the ground of the command to Israel or any other passage in the Bible. 

But there is the last verse of Psalm 137, calling them happy, that take and dash the little ones of Babel against the stones. It does not fall under the command to Israel in the fifth period and refers to a totally different time. The Psalm is speaking prophetically, like most psalms, of the period after the time of the church on earth, which has not yet come. 

As for the peoples in Canaan, the command to annihilate them can be compared with the flood and with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Before the flood sin had reached its summit and God could no longer postpone judgment. In Sodom and the other towns of the plain it has been the same situation. In Genesis 18 we read that Abraham prayed and asked whether the Lord would not spare the city if there still were righteous people. The Lord answered that He would spare the city if He would find ten of them. There were not ten who were righteous. There only was one, Lot. But for his sake the Lord was willing to save not only his wife and daughters, but even the men who were intended to marry those women. It proves that God does not judge before it is inevitable and that He does not like to judge but rather would show mercy. 

I both judgments God acted without enlisting men. When judging the peoples of Canaan God acted differently. They too have been judged because the measure of their sins was full. In Sodom that had been the case four centuries earlier. In Genesis 15:16 the Lord said about the inhabitants of Canaan: “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full”. The Israelites therefore had to wait over four hundred years before they were allowed to enter Canaan in order to execute the judgment of God as his instrument. (See Genesis 15:13). 
So there has never been given a command nor an allowance to kill foreigners or people of other religion in general. The command was for that time and related to the seven peoples in Canaan only. God even has forbidden them to attack Edom, Moab and Ammon. 
In the case of Saul God used Israel again to execute his judgment of Amalek. 
Many centuries later God used Assyria and Babel to judge the Israelites for their iniquity. 

Since the days of Ezekiel we have another situation. The Lord is no longer dwelling in a temple on earth and does no longer reign from Jerusalem. He gave the power to the peoples. The first universal monarch has been Nebukadnezzar. With him the time of the nations has begun: “I have made the earth, the man and the beast that are upon the ground by My great power and by My outstretched arm, and have given it unto whom it seemed meet unto Me. 
6 And now have I given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, My servant; and the beasts of the field have I given him also to serve him. 
7 And all nations shall serve him and his son and his son's son, until the very time of his land comes; and then many nations and great kings shall themselves be served by him. 
8 And it shall come to pass, that the nation and kingdom which will not serve the same Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, and that will not put their neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, that nation will I punish, saith the LORD, with the sword and with the famine and with the pestilence, until I have consumed them by his hand” (Jeremiah 27:5-8). We too live in that time of the nations. It will end when Christ returns and establishes his kingdom. A presentation of the successive empires we have in the dream of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2) and in the vision of Daniel (Daniel 7). 

It is clear, that God using Israel as executers of his restricted and well defined judgment is quite another thing than a command to kill anyone of another religion. 
It is absolutely incorrect to regard as equal the Bible and Christianity as a source of violence and war with other religions in which there is a command for the adherents of that religion to kill people of other opinion or conviction. In the Bible, the book of Jews and Christians, such a command is nowhere to be found and murder or violence is not recommended but considered as a crime.

Psalm 137.

The psalms are very much prophetic. They speak of the sufferings of Christ (Psalm 22, 40, 69 and others), the sufferings of Israel (Psalm 79, 80 and many others), not only in past time, but also in future. There will come a time of “after Christianity”, when the task of the church on earth has ended. Then the Lord will again turn to Israel (of which we see the prelude in our days). In his dealing with them He will chastise them, as He did with the brethren of Joseph during the time of hunger. They then will repent, like those brethren, and will accept Jesus Christ they once rejected. 

The psalms speak particularly of that time of tribulation and also of the judgment God finally will bring over the nations. In that judgment He will again use Israel (See Isaiah 41:14-16, Jeremiah 51:19-23, Zechariah 12:6-9 and Micah 4:13, 5:6-8). To explain these things sufficiently a full commentary on the prophetic writings would be necessary, which is not the purpose of this short article. It will be sufficient to make clear, that the Psalm in question with many similar ones relates to the future time of Gods judgments and does not justify or recommend any violence, war or murder as we see now around. As the preacher said there is a time of mercy, but also of judgment. It now is about two thousand years the acceptable time of mercy. And when God shows mercy, a Christian ought to do as He does. 
In due course, when the time of the church on earth has ended and God will judge the world (not the final judgment, but the judgments described in the Revelation) it would be wrong to criticize God and to say that it would be better to show mercy. God decides and knows when it is time to judge. In those days they who do not follow the antichrist, but fear God, will assume an attitude conform to Gods dealings in that time and that explains the utterance in Psalm 137. 

In Revelation 11:16-18 we find the elders praising God in a way we could not do now: “And the four and twenty elders, who sat before God on their seats, fell upon their faces and worshiped God, 
17 saying, "We give Thee thanks, O Lord God Almighty, who art, and wast, and art to come, because Thou hast taken to Thee Thy great power, and hast reigned. 
18 And the nations were angry; and Thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that Thou shouldest give reward unto Thy servants the prophets, and to the saints and them that fear Thy name, small and great, and shouldest destroy them that destroy the earth."

We cannot imagine that we would thank God for judging. But then we live in quite another time, other circumstances, God dealing differently from the way He does now. In the day of Gods wrath things will be different for believers. In that time the words in Psalm 137:9 and other passages in the psalms and other prophetic books will be appropriate. With murder, violence, hatred etc. those texts have nothing to do. They relate to the future time of Gods judgments and the prelude to the fulfillment of the promises to the people of Abraham, Isaak and Jacob.