If there has been a phrase in the Bible that has been recently tortured until it confesses a lie, it is the phrase, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed.” I hear it a lot in Christian conversation today. Usually, the phrase is meant to caution anyone who is criticising the questionable teaching or way of life of a famous preacher or church leader. That is meant to be a no-go area.
The popular understanding of this phrase is that if you say negative things about “an anointed servant of God,” something nasty will happen to you. You might even die a horrible death. This is African traditional religion creeping into the church through the back door. In Africa, you do not say anything negative against an elderly person or a chief or a witchdoctor. If you do, something nasty will happen to you. You can even grow a beard at the back of you neck!
Where this teaching is found
“Touch not the Lord’s anointed” is found in Psalm 105:15 in the first person. Its full statement is, “When they [the Israelites] were few in number, of little account, and sojourners in it, wandering from nation to nation, from one kingdom to another people, he allowed no one to oppress them; he rebuked kings on their account, saying, ‘Touch not my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm!’” (Psalm 105:13-15). Here it referred to Israel as a nation and, more specifically, the prophets whom the Lord had sent to minister among his people.
This is illustrated a number of times in the life of David when he had already been anointed as the next king of Israel. King Saul did not want him to succeed him and so he tried every trick in the book to kill David. Through a turn of fortunes, it was David who ended up with a number of opportunities to kill Saul. However, David desisted from doing so saying, “The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’s anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the LORD’s anointed” (1 Samuel 24:6, see also 24:10, 26:9-11, etc.)
What makes this even more poignant is that Saul was by this time already forsaken by God because of his disobedience. Yet, David still desisted from dethroning him. He, as it were, left it to God to deal with him in his own time—which happened a few years later in battle.
The lesson is apparently sealed beyond debate when the individual who finished off the wounded Saul in battle is killed at the command of David (in 2 Samuel 1:14-16). This person thought David would commend him for getting rid of his enemy, but instead David instructs his guards to kill him because he had killed the Lord’s anointed.
How can we apply this phrase today?
When this is applied to today’s preachers, what is the correct application? Does what God taught in Psalm 105:15 and what David did in 1 and 2 Samuel teach that we should not express any negative views about pastors and that if we do something bad may happen to us?
The first test that such a view fails is in 1 Samuel itself. Was Saul ever criticised when he did something outrageously wrong? Yes, he was. Samuel himself criticized Saul a number of times, until he was told that God had rejected his kingship. Saul still continued to serve as king but God had long forsaken him. If criticizing “the Lord’s anointed” was wrong, surely Samuel would have been wrong to rebuke Saul and Nathan would have been wrong to rebuke David in 2 Samuel 13.
“Touch not the Lord’s anointed” is about harm, especially physical harm, and not legitimate criticism. Public teachers must be above reproach. That is one of their qualifications. If they meddle in heretical teaching or immoral living, they disqualify themselves. Thus, those of us who are aware of their devious dealings or dangerous teachings must sound the public alarm. We must warn the unwary lest they fall prey to them. Public sins must be rebuked publicly.
Paul named heretical teachers and wanted the church to keep a safe distance away from them. He wrote to Timothy saying, “But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some” (2 Timothy 2:16-18). Was he “touching” the Lord’s anointed? No, but he was certainly publicly naming those who were teaching heresy.
Similarly, John named a leader of the church who had disqualified himself by the way in which he was carrying on his leadership in the church. He wrote, “I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church” (3 John 9-10). Was John “touching” the Lord’s anointed? Again, no, but he was publicly naming the person whose lifestyle was perilous to the church.
A few concluding words
In each case, I am not justifying libel or slander. But that is not the issue here. The phrase “touch not the Lord’s anointed” is not being used against character assassination. Rather it is being used to stop people coming forward to testify against immoral and heretical preachers. Corruption in the church is multiplying while the silent majority dare not speak out lest they touch the Lord’s anointed. It is an epidemic! Extreme Charismatic pastors are emptying church coffers in order to line their own pockets and impregnating girls in the churches but those who have the evidence cannot speak out lest they touch the Lord’s anointed and something bad happens to them. That is the issue at hand. Clearly, that understanding of Psalm 105:15 and 1 Samuel is wrong.
Love demands that I rescue those whom I love from danger. So, if the preacher who has gone into immoral living or heretical teaching is someone I have a personal relationship with, love ought to compel me to talk with him privately with a view to restoring him to biblical orderliness. However, where his repentance is not as notorious as his sin, or I do not have such a relationship with him, or his heretical teachings or immoral life have become too widespread and are ruining the faith of many, the same love should compel me to oppose him publicly and thus restore the faith of many. Hence, love should cause any true preacher of the word not to keep quiet when the faith of many is being ruined, as is the case today in Africa.
Paul rebuked Peter publicly when he acted in a disorderly manner and his behaviour was going to undermine the gospel. This was not even heresy—yet it had dangerous long-term effects. Paul says, “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (Galatians 2:11-14). Evidently, Paul did not think that rebuking Peter publicly was touching the Lord’s anointed!