Some of the insults in the Bible tell us something bad about the character of those who spoke them. For instance, Saul’s words to his son (1 Samuel 20:30), or the youth’s words to Elisha (2 Kings 2:23). But other criticisms, insults or outright curses are in the mouths of people not so easily dismissed, ranging from God himself to Jesus to prophets speaking for God.
Paul tells us that all of scripture has been breathed out, or inspired, by God and that it is all profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, in order that people may be equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16). Some things in the Bible are there to emulate. Other things are there to serve as a warning. Wisdom is in knowing the difference. Also, wisdom comes in knowing how to respond to whatever life might bring.
I am convinced that everything in the Bible can be summarized by two commands: to love God and to love people (see Matthew 22:36-40, Romans 13:9-10 and Galatians 5:14). In interacting with the people around me, I am convinced that one must relate to them in a loving manner, always. Verses about turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:39) and whenever it is in your power, get along with everyone ( Romans 12:18) are paramount in my thinking. But I have found that being nice, speaking kindly, does not always result in beneficial outcomes.
Several years ago I was drawn into an email discussion with an anti-Semite who claimed to be a Christian and who claimed to believe the Bible. I was hopeful that if I approached him in a loving way, and if I carefully and lovingly presented the biblical message of God’s grace and love, that I could help him see that his hatred for Jewish people was incompatible with his claimed Christianity.
To my horror, not only did he dismiss all that I showed him, the nicer, the more loving and gentle I was with him, the nastier he got, the more vitriol that poured from his emails. I couldn’t understand it at all. Since then, I’ve had dealings with both other anti-Semites, as well as a handful of other crackpots holding to bizarre beliefs, and I’ve discovered that without exception, they reacted to loving and gentle words with extreme malice. I discovered the hard way what Jesus meant when he said, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” (Matthew 7:6)
As I read through the Bible, I came to discover that Jesus behaved with certain sorts of people in ways that seemed, at first, at odds with my concept of “love.” For instance, in John 2:13-16 we have the story of him making a whip, dumping tables, and driving the money changers from the Temple. I found him condemning the Pharisees with the harshest words imaginable (Matthew 23:13-39). Elsewhere in the Bible, I discovered prophets, in the name of God, issuing blanket condemnations (i.e. Isaiah 1:10-17) and I began to think that perhaps my approach to the self-righteous crackpots had been all wrong.
While Jesus would treat some people with great patience and kindness, others were treated harshly. As I considered this, I thought about my childhood and how I relate to my own children. My parents found that I was easily moldable; a command, not even harsh, and I would instantly obey. My sister, on the other hand, required much yelling and occasional corporal punishment to get a reaction out of her. Different people required different discipline. Same thing with my children. I have three daughters and each of them required different techniques for improving their behavior. And discipline, as parents know, is—at least ideally—done out of love for the child: the author of Hebrews points out that any discipline from God, though perhaps painful at the moment, has as its goal our best interests and afterwards, as we grow from the experience, we can recognize that fact (see Hebrews 12:4-12)
Thus, as we consider the imprecatory words and actions displayed in the Bible, rather than being horrified, we instead need to recognize that there is a time and place for even the most bitter and harsh of statements. Love is not all just hugs and kisses. Sometimes it is curses and blows.
Blows and wounds cleanse away evil,
and beatings purge the inmost being. (Proverbs 20:30)
With anti-Semites and other crackpots, that seems the only method that has any hope of working. Of course, I’m also reminded of something else the author of Proverbs wrote:
Though you grind fools in a mortar,
grinding them like grain with a pestle,
you will not remove their folly from them. (Proverbs 27:22)
Sometimes there’s just nothing that can be done.