Is It Always Wrong to “Hate”?
“I am confused about the Bible’s teaching on ‘hate.’ Sometimes hate is condemned, at other times it seems to be encouraged. Can you comment on this?”
There are two basic biblical words that represent the concept of hating. In the Old Testament, sane (used about 145 times) means to “to hate, to set against.” In the New Testament, the word is miseo (found some 40 times). It is used with the meaning of “to hate, despise, or to disregard,” depending upon the context.
The easiest way to approach this theme is to note that these terms are employed by sacred writers either in an absolute sense, or in a relative sense. This distinction is paramount in arriving at an understanding of this theme.
Hatred: The Absolute Sense
That there is nothing evil in hate per se should be evident from the fact that even God is represented as hating in a certain way. We must note in passing, however, that the attribution of strong feelings to Jehovah frequently reflects a biblical figure of speech known as anthropopathism (human passion), by which certain volatile emotions, common to man, are attributed to deity for the sake of emphasis.
As one scholar has noted, this is not an “emotional hate but a disowning of evil and those who commit it” (Bromiley 1985, p. 598).
And so, there is a fashion in which the Lord hates; similarly, there is also an appropriate expression of hate for the faithful servant of God.
Note the list of character flaws that are “hated” by the Lord (because of his innately holy nature — cf Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8), e.g., haughty eyes, the lying tongue, the shedding of innocent blood, the perpetration of family discord, etc. (Prov. 6:16ff).
The prophet Amos, speaking on behalf of Jehovah, delivers a stinging rebuke to the citizens of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Their worship exercises were mere formality rituals; though the people dutifully offered animal sacrifices, unrighteousness saturated their daily lives. Thus, God despised their worship facades (Am. 5:21ff; cf. Isa. 1:11ff).
A beautiful passage in the book of Hebrews represents God, the Father, as speaking to his Son, and saying,
bq. “You have loved righteousness, and hated iniquity. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows” (Heb. 1:9).
A psalmist admonishes, “O you who love Jehovah, hate evil!” (Psa. 97:10). This text illustrates that there is an appropriate level of hate entertained by godly people.
Another passage exclaims: “Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every evil way” (Psa. 119:104). The reverse implication is this: If one refuses to hate that which is corrupting and bad, he is void of an understanding of Heaven’s law.
When Christ dispatched a letter to the church at Ephesus, though he censured them in several particulars, nonetheless he had this word of commendation for those saints:
“But this you have, you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Rev. 2:6).
It is believed that this ancient sect advocated compromise with idolatrous cultism and sanctioned sexual immorality.
Paul used the term “hate” in a context wherein he expressed his deep remorse relative to occasional lapses in his spirituality. If I may take the liberty of paraphrasing the apostle, with great anguish he confesses:
“Sometimes I do not understand why I yield to the things I do. There are things I know I should be doing, yet I am not. And I find myself doing things that I actually hate ... wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death” (Rom. 7:15, 24).
While we may entertain a certain level of self-esteem, because we are creatures in God’s image (Gen. 1:26), and due to the fact that we have been bought with the Lamb’s blood (1 Cor. 6:19), nevertheless, we ought to genuinely hate the sins into which we fall through weakness.
Hatred: The Relative Sense
In the ancient world, the term hate did not necessarily carry the overwhelmingly negative tone that it does in modern society. The Middle East vocabulary was characterized by a greater degree of excitability, and so what we might describe as a lesser love, or possibly a disregard, the Eastern mind would call hate — though such should not be understood in the sense we normally would refer to hate (see Thayer 1956, p. 415).
Several examples will suffice to illustrate the point.
One recalls that Jacob longed to marry his beloved Rachel, but at the time of the marriage feast her sister, Leah, was “palmed off” upon the unsuspecting groom by the girls’ father, Laban. Likely Leah’s identity was concealed by the use of the oriental veil (Gen. 29:22-25; see Walton 2000, p. 62).
Subsequently, however, Jacob did marry Rachel, who was “loved more” than her sister (Gen. 29:30). The “lesser love” for Leah, though, is depicted as “hate” in that antique style of phraseology (v. 31).
There is a similar example in the Gospel records. Christ taught that one cannot become his disciple unless he “hates” his fleshly family (Lk. 14:26). In a parallel passage, however, it becomes clear that “hate” is the equivalent of “love less” (Mt. 10:37).
The point is this: Love for the Son of God must be unrivaled by mere familial love. Jesus Christ will not take second place! One who is deity has every right to make such a demand.
This idiomatic use of hate is again seen in Christ’s challenge regarding the kind of quality service that is essential in serving God. The Lord stated that the person who exalts his own life to the status of the supreme, will actually lose that life.
By way of contrast, the one who “hates” his life (i.e., he is willing to subordinate it to the higher interests of God’s kingdom), is the one who, in fact, saves his life (Jn. 12:25).
A curious passage in the book of Romans (though grounded in the Old Testament – Mal. 1:2ff) can be understood only in the light of the exaggerated use of “hate.” Paul says, regarding the two sons of Isaac, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Rom. 9:13).
There are those (especially of the Calvinistic persuasion) who contend that this text argues that God elects some to be saved and others to be lost, strictly on the basis of his sovereignty—irrespective of one’s response to the will of the Lord, or his rejection of the same.
Douglas Moo has written regarding Romans 9:13:
“I have argued that this passage gives strong exegetical support to a traditional Calvinistic interpretation of God’s election: God chooses those who will be saved on the basis of his own will and not on the basis of anything — works or faith, whether foreseen or not — in those human beings so chosen” (Moo 1996, p. 587).
Professor Moo’s mistake lies in his assumption that individual “salvation” is under consideration in this context. That is not the case. Rather, as Jack Cottrell has argued convincingly, “the subject here is not individual salvation but election to service” (Cottrell 1998, p. 83).
And so, as M. T. Braunch has observed:
“The strong expression ‘Esau I hated’ must be seen as a typical example of Eastern hyperbole, which express thing in terms of extremes ... Neither in Malachi nor in Paul’s use of [hate] is there then any warrant for the idea that God has determined in advance the eternal destinies of either the people of Israel or the people of Edom. The historical situations of the two, their ‘election’ or ‘rejection,’ are but temporary evidences of God’s sovereign freedom with which he moves history toward his redemptive purposes” (Kaiser 1996, pp. 560-561).
On the basis of the available data, it is quite clear that the term “hate” must be examined in the light of the immediate contexts in which the term is found, and out of the cultural background whence the word arises. When these considerations are factored in, there is no difficulty in viewing the term in different senses without any conflict being attributed to the sacred Scriptures.
- Bromiley, G. W. Ed. 1985. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament — Abridged. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Cottrell, Jack. 1998. The College NIV Commentary — Romans. Vol. II. Joplin, MO: College Press.
- Kaiser, Walter C., Jr., _et al. 1996. Hard Sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove, PA: InterVarsity Press.
- Moo, Douglas. 1996. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Thayer, J. H. 1956. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
- Walton, J. H., V. H. Matthews & M. W. Chavalas. 2000. The Bible Background Commentary — Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.