“Do Not Forgive Them, Oh Lord, For They Do Know, What They Do!”

No doubt many Christians find this title disturbing, for many reasons.  It is a negation of Luke 23:34 which traditionally has been the first of the Seven Last Words from the Cross.  Beyond being disturbed by the theology of this negation, many would also consider it disturbing to realize that this whole sentence, recorded only in the Gospel of Luke, is not even found in many of the best Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke.  The Net Bible [https://bible.org/netbible/] and the NRSV put it in brackets to indicate this problem, and most other modern translations use a footnote to indicate some early manuscripts omit this sentence, Luke 23:34a.  It is doubtful in the judgment of many scholars that this sentence was in the original version of the Gospel of Luke.  Besides, who wants a sermon or sermon series on Jesus’ Six Last Words from the Cross J?  Since most believers still embrace the piety and theology of this questionable Lukan reading of 23:34a, I want to address this as a segue to an issue and important interpretation in the book of Revelation.

In my limited experience I have met Christians who believe this verse teaches a kind of general divine amnesty, regardless of the situation or sin.  This is problematic in itself since it ignores the term “for” (Greek gar, γὰρ) which gives the reason that Jesus intercedes for those killing him.  Consequently, it does not require a huge step to draw the implication that if the killers of Jesus did in fact know what they were doing, then the intercession would have been worded very differently, perhaps similar to the title of this post.  There certainly is other evidence that God’s forgiveness can be predicated upon the knowledge or ignorance of those who have sinned.  Paul’s autobiographical reflections indicate this about his own salvation and God’s forgiveness toward him when he wrote to Timothy, “I was shown mercy because (Greek hoti, ὅτι) I acted in ignorance and unbelief . . .  .  But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:13b, 16).

Sketch of Polish artist Arthur Szyk, 1949.  Entitled, “Do No Forgive Them, Oh Lord, For They Do Know, What They Do!”
Sketch of Polish artist Arthur Szyk, 1949. Entitled, “Do No Forgive Them, Oh Lord, For They Do Know, What They Do!”

 The title for this post comes from the Polish artist Arthur Szyk (1894-1951), who fled Poland as a Jew seeking refuge from the growing menace of Hitler and Nazi anti-semitism.  He moved to the UK in 1937 and to the USA in 1940, where he remained until his death.  Szyk had used this title of a work depicting Hitler’s rape and killing of women and children in Europe. But in 1949 he used the same words as the title of a drawing depicting the mistreatment of an American Black man by the KKK.  Besides pointing out some of the similarities between the racism of Nazi ideology and KKK racist ideology, it seems that Szyk’s point was that some crimes against other humans are so intentionally barbaric and egregious that one unwilling to repent goes beyond the limits of God’s general amnesty.  Any serious student of Scripture knows that both the OT and NT teach that there are limits to the practice of intercession to God on behalf of others.  That is, if their crimes against God and others are so wicked, then repentance and change of behavior are the preconditions for effective intercession (Jer. 15:1-3; 1 John 5:14-17, from the “Apostle of love”).  Thus, Szyk is pointing out that the architects of these brutal ideologies, both National Socialism and KKK racism, should not expect forgiveness since their crimes arose from cancerous souls and petrified hearts and not from ignorance of their barbarism.

With these issues and interpretations before us, let’s go now to a scene in the book of Revelation, namely the prophet John’s depiction of the 5th Seal (Rev. 6:9-11).  This has become a controversial part of John’s vision, since in the mind of some critics the prophet presented martyred Christians acting in ways that are “sub-Christian.”  Although not unique to the 20th century, the very influential 20th century NT scholar Rudolf Bultmann (a German NT scholar whose methods I love to hate) promoted the idea of what has been called Sachkritik [content-criticism].  This approach allows one to criticize the content of portions of Scripture using other portions of Scripture regarded as more central or important than the part being criticized.  Sometimes even one part of a NT writer’s content will be criticized on the basis of another part of the same author’s writings.  In Revelation some have criticized John’s depiction of martyred saints who “in a loud voice” ask God, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Rev. 6:10).  Those who have problems with this scene of the 5th Seal point to the unchristian nature of a follower of Christ asking for revenge.

In an earlier post I attempted to initially address the issue of the importance of justice to God, and how this can be seen in sections of Revelation.  I want to look at this again, but this time from the perspective of the heavenly temple furniture in Revelation’s depiction of the opening of the 5th seal.  Apparently because of the occurrence of the two terms “slain/slaughtered” and “blood” in Revelation 6:9-10, it has become the default interpretation for many scholars to see this imagery of the altar in terms of the OT sacrificial system.  Thus, Reddish (Revelation, p. 130) writes that “This imagery was likely suggested by Leviticus 4:7. Which states that the blood of the sacrificial bull was poured out at the base of the altar,” while Fair (Conquering With Christ, A Commentary on the Book of Revelation, p. 190) notes, “The association of their [the martyrs] death with an altar implies two possibilities, either the altar of sacrifice or the altar of incense and prayer. Both are implied.”  Talbert’s commentary says very little on this issue (The Apocalypse. A Reading of the Revelation of John, p. 33) and Aune’s (Revelation 1-5 (Word Biblical Commentary 52a) does not invest much time on the altar, though he does give many references to the idea of God’s retribution to those who shed innocent blood.

What I think has been missing in many commentaries is the recognition of the biblical connection between justice which the martyrs cry for and their location at the altar.  Sometimes lost in all the Pentateuchal correlations of the altar and blood sacrifice, there is a neglected text in Exodus 21:14 that reads, “But if anyone schemes and kills someone deliberately, that person is to be taken from my altar and put to death.”  First we must remember that the altar was a place of blood and especially the “four horns” of the altar, as seen in Exod. 29:12, “take some of the blood of the bull and put it on the horns of the altar with your finger” (e.g., Lev. 4:7, 18, 25, 32).  Most scholars rightly believe that Israel’s altar, like in many other religions of the Ancient Near East and Graeco-Roman world, was considered a place of asylum or temporary sanctuary where accused could flee until a just decision was rendered.  Consequently, Exod. 21:14 is indicating that this divine place for true justice cannot serve as a place for criminals to look for amnesty.  A premeditated murder, for example, was viewed very differently by God from accidental death (hence, cities of refuge in Numbers 35).  Seeing this piece of sanctuary furniture as a location for justice certain resonates with the well known episode of 1 Kings 1:49-53.  Refreshing the memory, at the time of King David’s death his elder son, Adonijah, attempted a coup d’é·tat to seize the throne rather than allowing the heir designate, Solomon (son of David and Bathsheba), to become king.  When the coup is stopped in its tracks and Adonijah and his supporters realize the doom of their efforts, the author of 1 Kings reports, (1 Kings 1:49-53)

Then all the guests of Adonijah got up trembling and went their own ways.  Adonijah, fearing Solomon, got up and went to grasp the horns of the altar.  Solomon was informed, “Adonijah is afraid of King Solomon; see, he has laid hold of the horns of the altar, saying, ‘Let King Solomon swear to me first that he will not kill his servant with the sword.’”  So Solomon responded, “If he proves to be a worthy man, not one of his hairs shall fall to the ground; but if wickedness is found in him, he shall die.”  Then King Solomon sent to have him brought down from the altar. He came to do obeisance to King Solomon; and Solomon said to him, “Go home.”

Shortly thereafter Adonijah and his anarchist coterie make another attempt upon the throne.  The worst of them are killed, but not before one of them, Joab, attempts to escape by fleeing to the altar where he “grasped the horns of the altar” (1 Kings 2:28).  Since Joab has “schemed” in the sense of Exod. 21:14, Solomon has him removed from the altar and executed.

Four horned altar in the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden. Copyright, Richard E. Oster, Jr.
Four horned altar in the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden. Copyright, Richard E. Oster, Jr.
Four horned altar from the biblical site of Megiddo, dating from the 10th century BC.  Copyright the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.
Four horned altar from the biblical site of Megiddo, dating from the 10th century BC. Copyright the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.

My point: the altar is associated not only with sacrifices in the OT, but also as a place for those seeking justice, true justice.  When one reads the content of the 5th Seal, one needs to associate this theme of justice also with the very words of the slain martyrs.  The focus of their prayers is divine justice when they petition for judgment and vengeance (Greek, krinō and ekdikeis, κρίνεις καὶ ἐκδικεῖς).  How can God’s justice be evident when this butchery of believers goes unanswered?  It is no accident that later in Revelation (Rev. 16:7) John records, “the altar responded, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just!”  Even the altar itself could no longer be silent about God’s justice revealed through judgment, since that was an essential, even quintessential, facet of its own identity as an altar.

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7 thoughts on ““Do Not Forgive Them, Oh Lord, For They Do Know, What They Do!”

  1. Fascinating piece. Bultmann’s methods you love to hate. I love that. Yeah he said some things about the about the Hebrew Bible that just do not sit well with me. He thought the Christology of Revelation was sub-Christian too.

    On the martyrs, I think this is an intriguing interpretation. I have always asked myself why the souls were not happy because they are “in heaven.” I have understood them to be crying for the justice that would take place at final judgement and resurrection. They are with God but they are not as God intends them to be, that is disembodied. I can see how your suggestion could dove tail with that. I am always learning from you. Shalom. Bobby V

    1. Bultmann had a really low view of Revelation and most things apocalyptic; he thought it was part of a primitive, pre-scientific worldview. Needed lots of demythologizing.

  2. Helpful insight on justice. “From the horns of a dilemma to the horns of justice.” The cross of Jerusalem is the meeting of justice and mercy for the human race. Rejoice!

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