Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian most known for his book The Cost of Discipleship and his involvement in the plot to assassinate Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, suffered a great deal at the hands of the Nazis, including his eventual execution. In the summer of 1937, just as the Gestapo was arresting Bonhoeffer’s friends, the pastor preached about God’s judgment in Psalm 58 — but he didn’t say what a modern American might expect.
“The wicked are perverse from the womb; liars go astray from their birth. … O God, break their teeth in their mouths; pull the fangs of the young lions, O LORD. Let them vanish like water that runs off; let the arrows they aim break in two. … The righteous will be glad when they see the vengeance; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. And they will say, ‘Surely, there is a reward for the righteous, surely, there is a God who rules in the earth'” (Psalm 58:3, 6-7, 10-11).
So how did Bonhoeffer, a Christian who lost his life trying to assassinate Hitler, apply this verse to his own life? Did he rail against Hitler’s evil? Not exactly. (For the full letter, read Meditating on the Word, a compilation of Bonhoeffer’s works compiled and translated by David McI. Gracie.)
“Is this fearful psalm of vengeance to be our prayer? May we pray in this way? Certainly not! We bear much guilt of our own for the action of any enemies who cause us suffering,” Bonhoeffer declared in a sermon on July 11, 1937.
This message is powerful, given what had happened to Bonhoeffer in the months — and even days — before. In January 1936, he lost his grandmother — who defied a Nazi boycott of Jews by shoving through brownshirts to buy strawberries from a Jew. Throughout 1937, the Gestapo carried out interrogations, house searches, confiscations, and arrests against Bonhoeffer’s seminary students. Ten days before this sermon, they arrested his friend and fellow pastor Martin Niemöller (the man famous for the “first they came for the Jews …” poem).
“Even in these times of distress for the church, we must confess that God himself has raised his hand in wrath against us, in order to visit our sins upon us: our spiritual indolence, our open or hidden disobedience, our great lack of discipline in daily living under his Word,” the pastor declared.
Bonhoeffer added, “How then should we, who are guilty ourselves and deserving of God’s wrath, call down God’s vengeance upon our enemies? Will not this vengeance much more strike us? No, we cannot pray this psalm. Not because we are too good for it (what a superficial idea, what colossal pride!), but because we are too sinful, too evil for it!”
According to the pastor, only one man could pray this prayer, and that is Jesus Christ himself. “No, we sinners do not pray this song of vengeance, innocence alone prays this psalm. The innocence of Christ steps before the world and accuses it. And when Christ accuses the world of sin, are we not ourselves also among the accused?”
As only Jesus can condemn, so only Jesus can see the true extent of wickedness, Bonhoeffer said. “Into this depth of wickedness only perfect innocence may look. We may very much want to believe that there is something we can change, something we can improve,” he argued. “Innocence understands the dark mystery, that Satan has already taken hold of his own in the womb.”
Sin and Satan are extremely powerful, and “only the one who has power over Satan, God himself, can take the matter in hand.” Bonhoeffer warned that “whoever wants to avenge himself still does not know with whom he is dealing; he still wants to take things into his own hands.”
But evil must be dealt with. “Only the one who is entirely free from hatred and would not use his prayer to satisfy a craving for revenge can pray in purity of heart: ‘God, break their teeth in their mouths; pull the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!'”
God has taken vengeance — on the cross. “Jesus Christ died the death of the godless; he was stricken by God’s wrath and vengeance,” Bonhoeffer said.
“Now we stand beneath his cross as the godless ones, and now a most difficult mystery is resolved: Jesus Christ, the innocent, prays in the hour of God’s vengeance on the wicked of the earth, in which our psalm is fulfilled: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Lk. 23:34).” The pastor explained that “no one may offer this prayer but him.”
At this point, Bonhoeffer returned to verse 10: “the righteous … will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.” How should Christians apply this verse, which seems to glory in the death of the enemies Jesus told his followers to love (Matthew 5:44)?
“God’s vengeance is extinguished, and the blood of the wicked, in which we bathe ourselves, gives us a share in God’s victory; the blood of the wicked has become our salvation, making us clean from all our sins. That is the great marvel,” the pastor intoned. Jesus’ death on the cross is the moment of his victory, the moment of our redemption, and God’s judgment on sin. This is the only way sinners like Bonhoeffer and like us can be saved.
Even in the face of Hitler persecuting Bonhoeffer and his fellow Christians, this pastor remembered his own sinfulness — rather than using a vengeance psalm as a pretext for attacking the evil Hitler was.
Indeed, the pastor concluded his sermon this way: “And now we too pray this psalm with him, in humble thanks that we have been granted deliverance from wrath through the cross of Christ; in the fervent plea that God will bring all of our enemies under the cross of Christ and grant them grace.”
Did you catch that? Bonhoeffer told his fellow believers to pray that God will forgive “all of our enemies.” That would include Adolf Hitler himself.
Rather than take a psalm about God’s vengeance as a pretext to condemn one of the worst tyrannical mass murderers in history, Bonhoeffer humbled himself before Christ. He acknowledged his own sinfulness, and encouraged his listeners to pray for the forgiveness of their enemies, just as Jesus did from the cross.
Bonhoeffer, the man who would later dedicate himself to killing Hitler, nevertheless urged Christians to pray for Hitler’s redemption. He knew what every true humble repentant Christian knows — we don’t deserve God’s forgiveness any more than our enemies do.
This does not mean Bonhoeffer decided not to hate evil. He hated what Hitler’s regime was doing, extolled the virtue of his grandmother who fought against it, and eventually lost his life to bring it down. But rather than focus on the evil of the world, Bonhoeffer focused on the justice, love, and mercy of Jesus Christ.
This allowed Bonhoeffer to read in Psalm 58 the exact opposite of what a modern American brought up to rightly hate the Nazis’ evil would expect. Even in a passage of scripture tailor-made for condemning his enemies, Bonhoeffer humbled himself and asked God to forgive the most evil man on Earth.
In doing so, Bonhoeffer displayed both the seeming foolishness of the gospel and the powerful forgiveness of God. A secular person might mock him, saying, “He would not even judge Hitler!” But a Christian must stand in awe of such a man, who internalized the gospel so much that he was willing to forgive Hitler himself.
Even while Bonhoeffer suffered under Hitler’s regime, this consummate man of God took a psalm of vengeance as a judgment on himself and a reminder of Jesus’ love and mercy.