Good Monday morning to you. Maybe you’re listening on your way to class or to work. Monday, for many of us, is a day to re-enter the complexities of life as God’s redeemed children, living out our faith in a world that is hostile to our heavenly Father. And that raises questions like this: Should the world like us, or should the world hate us? Which result shows us to be most faithful? It’s a huge question — one for another day. We’ll get to it in two Fridays.
Today’s question, Pastor John, is about the sinfully vile in this world. Should we despise them, or should we love them? Here’s the question: “My name is Parker. I’m 14. Psalm 15:4 says, speaking of a blameless man, that ‘in [their] eyes a vile person is despised.’ How can we both despise the vile, and yet also love our enemies?” And the same question came from a listener named Peter. “Hello to you, Pastor John. David says in Psalm 15:1–2, 4, ‘O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? He who walks blamelessly and does what is right . . . in whose eyes a vile person is despised.’ But Jesus says in Matthew 5:44, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ These categories of (1) vile people and (2) enemies and persecutors are not entirely overlapping, but I think it’s safe to say that there’s at least some overlap between them. I suspect David had his enemies in mind in Psalm 15 when he was talking about vile people. Do you agree? If you do, how are we to simultaneously despise and love the sinfully vile?”
“It is indeed possible to love someone you despise.”
The short answer is that it is indeed possible to love someone you despise. In fact, it is not just possible but necessary, because the psalm says that one of the marks of the person who dwells with God, who enjoys God’s fellowship, is that “in [his] eyes a vile person is despised.” That’s a mark of being welcomed into God favor. In fact, we don’t even need to jump from the psalm to Jesus in order to see what love requires toward a vile person.
Who Shall Dwell on Your Hill?
Let me read Psalm 15:1–5, because the whole thing is remarkable in this regard. I’ll just pause and mark the key parts as we go along. “O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent?” That’s the question. Who gets to enjoy fellowship with God? “Who shall dwell on your holy hill?” (Psalm 15:1). In other words, what are the marks of a person who can enjoy the presence and the fellowship of God? And here comes the answer: “He who walks blamelessly and does what is right” (Psalm 15:2). So he’s not free. This person who qualifies to be with God is not free to call just anything right. He does what is right — namely, what God calls right.
Now, continuing, “And [he] speaks truth in his heart; who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor” (Psalm 15:2–3). Now that’s very crucial, because it comes just before the word about despising. Paul said in Romans 13:10, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” So when the psalmist says, “[He] does no evil to his neighbor,” he is saying, “I must love my neighbor. I may not wrong him.”
And then the text continues, “. . . nor takes up a reproach against his friend; in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the Lord; who swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Psalm 15:3–4). That means he keeps his promises even when it hurts him. “Who does not put out his money at interest” — which means he doesn’t take advantage of anyone financially — “and does not take a bribe against the innocent” (Psalm 15:5). So he won’t let himself be lured by money to treat anyone unjustly. And then, “He who does these things shall never be moved.” End of psalm.
Posture of the Heart
So, what do we make of this? Here’s David (a psalm of David), the man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). And he says that the person who can dwell with God and enjoy God’s fellowship (1) does what is right, (2) does not slander anyone, (3) does no evil to his neighbor, (4) doesn’t charge interest to gouge anyone, and (5) doesn’t let bribery pervert justice in his hands.
In other words, this is not a careless moment for David, in which he’s on some kind of hate tirade against evildoers. This is a thoughtful listing of beautiful traits of the person God delights to have near him. And right after saying, “[He] does no evil to his neighbor,” one phrase later, he says that in this godly man’s eyes a vile person is despised and one who fears the Lord is honored (Psalm 15:3–4).
So, we take Paul’s definition of love from Romans 13:10 (“Love does no wrong to a neighbor”), and then David who is saying, “The man whom God welcomes loves his neighbor and despises him if he’s vile.” Notice the two halves of Psalm 15:4. We call this kind of poetic parallelism “antithetical.” That means the two halves express opposites. Here’s what he says in verse 4: “In whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors [which is the opposite of despised] those who fear the Lord [which is the opposite of vile].” What David is drawing attention to in the godly person’s heart is not how they act, not how they treat people. That’s not the point of verse 4. That’s the point of verse 3: you do no wrong to a neighbor. But the point of verse 4 is what they feel about the character of a person — what they admire in their hearts or don’t admire, what they praise, glorify, honor.
The godly person does not glorify the vile person. He glorifies the one who fears the Lord. The godly person does not admire, or venerate, or want to be like the vile person. He admires, he wants to be near and be like the person who fears the Lord. In other words, to despise in Psalm 15 does not mean you desire to destroy a person, or to see a person come to ruin. To despise means you regard the person’s character — not their body — as ugly, dishonorable, shameful, disgraceful, unworthy of praise. There are people like that, and it would be ungodly not to despise them.
And David is saying, “If you have the kind of heart that enjoys being around vile people who don’t fear God, if you admire and esteem vile people, you’re not fit for the presence of God.” That’s what he’s saying.
Despise the Vile
What David meant and what Jesus meant by loving our neighbor is not that we should admire their wickedness. We should despise their wickedness. And I know there’s someone who’s saying, “But you shouldn’t say it like that.” If you think I should be saying here, “Despise the sin and not the sinner” (that’s what some of you are thinking), that would be true if despising meant feeling desires for their ruin, but the problem with that traditional way of expressing love — love for the sinner, not the sin — is that it is precisely the person who is vile. That’s what it says.
And there are vile people. The vileness is not an alien intruder into a good person. Sin is not the only thing that’s vile; people are vile. People produce sins; sins don’t produce people. “Evil comes from the heart,” Jesus said (see Matthew 15:18). It doesn’t come from outside and contaminate the innocent heart. It’s people who will be judged for being vile, not just their vileness. Vileness doesn’t go to hell; people go to hell.
Love Your Enemies
So let me say it again. What David meant and what Jesus meant by loving our neighbor is not that we admire their wickedness. We should despise their wickedness. And that includes despising the kind of person that loves and does wickedness. And we should love them and be willing to lay down our lives for them. Jesus prayed on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). He was praying for people whom just days before he had said were fools, whitewashed tombs, full of wickedness and greed (Matthew 23:27), and who on Pentecost, fifty days later, would be saved. His prayer would be answered. Three thousand came to Jesus, including many priests (see Acts 2:41; 6:7).
“It is a godly trait to feel that vileness is repulsive and despicable. To admire it would be sin.”
Now besides Jesus himself, the clearest example in the New Testament of loving someone we despise is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans are chosen in this parable because they despised each other. (Look at John 4:9, and numerous other texts.) And so Jesus illustrated what neighbor love involves by portraying a Samaritan stopping to help a wounded Jew. There’s not a word in this parable about his liking him or admiring him as a Jew — only that he had compassion on him in his misery and took practical steps to relieve his suffering.
So my answer to Parker and Peter’s question is that it is a godly trait to feel that vileness is repulsive and despicable. To admire it would be sin. Admiration belongs to the fear of the Lord; despising belongs to despicable vileness. But the radical call on our lives as Christians is to love even those we despise and join Jesus in saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).