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On Having Enemies – Psalm 57:3

יִשְׁלַח מִשָּׁמַיִם וְיוֹשִׁיעֵנִי חֵרֵף שֹׁאֲפִי סֶלָה יִשְׁלַח אֱלֹהִים חַסְדּוֹ וַאֲמִתּוֹ
“He will send from heaven and save me, he will put to shame those who trample on me. Selah. God will send forth his steadfast love and his faithfulness.” (NRSV.)

Hebrew_bible_4Recently I posted some thoughts about the first phrase in this Psalm: “[God] will send from heaven and save me….”

The next phrase (“he will put to shame those who trample on me”) points up one of my long-standing problems with the Psalms.

When I first began to read the Psalms, as a young man, I was put off by the recurrent theme of “enemies.” Praying to God in the midst of confusion and need I could understand. Praying to God in times of distress and suffering I could understand. But, the frequent and recurrent theme of persecution by enemies was something with which I could not connect.

Or, maybe I just didn’t want to connect with it.

I hated to think of myself as having enemies. I was put off by the strong war-like terms in which this is described.

Bishop Reuben P. Job

Bishop Reuben P. Job

And, I’m not the only person who has felt that way about the Psalms. This is one of the most common problems people encounter when trying to use the Psalms for personal devotion. Notice the following remarks from Reuben P. Job & Norman Shawchuck  in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants:

Some people are disturbed by the ‘bloodthirstiness’ of many of the Psalms and have rejected them to their own spiritual deprivation. In fact, the Psalms can (and should) be used to remind us of the ‘enemies’ that seek our destruction, that we should hate, and then to guide us into prayer that God may destroy them before they destroy us.

In earlier times and places, the enemies were physical and concrete. This was the case in the experience of the writers of the Psalms. David did have a death warrant hanging over his head; an army was dogging his every step; he and his companions did have reason to fear the ‘arrow that flies by day’ and the ‘pestilence that stalks in darkness’ (Psalm 91:5-6).
Those who first heard the Psalms knew there were real lions, tigers, and serpents ‘out there,’ and the tents they called home were slim protection from such enemies.

But what about us? Are our lives free of ‘arrows’ and ‘terrors’ and ‘enemies’ which threaten to destroy us? No, the ‘enemies’ are just as many and as deadly, but they are now ‘in here,’ inside us, and they are more subtle and harder to escape – enemies such as the lust for power, laziness, spiritual boredom, worry, fear, unrelenting anger, extramarital relationships, pride, coveting another pastor’s parish.

If we see the ‘bloodthirsty’ Psalms as the expression of frustration and helplessness every Christian experiences as he or she struggles against the enemies unique to himself or herself and a desperate plea for God’s justice and deliverance, then the Psalms can become some of our most powerful prayers.

Spiritual growth requires that we do battle, not that we pretend the enemy is not there. The journey into the wilderness by the children of Israel-there to confront enemies, terrors, hardships and to discover the guardian care of God’s angels — is a true picture of our own journey. In these struggles, the word of God is one of our greatest resources of prayers, hope, and direction-resources which max’ be wasted if we do not define our own wilderness and the enemies which lurk there.

I appreciate any attempt to overcome this problem. And yet, I find this solution to be unsatisfying. It seems to spiritualize the theme away. This gives these passages a meaning they didn’t originally have. I resist this type of solution. But: nice try.

The sad truth is that enemies really are a problem in life! While I hate to think of myself as having enemies, I have managed to gain some anyway. And, there are people I think of as enemies — even though I probably shouldn’t. In fact, life is so weird that sometimes your friends become your enemies.

There is of course the common and well-documented phenomenon of the parishioner who befriends new pastors only to betray them later on. This is so common that a lot of people who have been in the ministry for a while are automatically leery of the parishioners they first meet in a new church.

People in public positions gain enemies. Pastors gain enemies. Teachers and school administrators gain enemies. Public officials gain enemies. School board members gain enemies. (In one community I lived in, none of the local business owners wanted to serve on the school board for fear of ruining their business.)

saulanddavidguercino1646And, here, again we need to remember the connection made in the scribal note at the beginning of this Psalm — the connection to the life of King David. David had enemies. King Saul was an enemy in his early career. But, one of his most dangerous enemies turned out to be his own son, Absalom.

Since our enemies are people who lash out against us, it is natural for us to lash out at them. It’s the instinctive response. But, to this the Bible responds with God “will put to shame those who trample on me.” We are reminded of the words of the apostle Paul in the New Testament: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'” (Romans 12:19 NRSV) Leave room for the wrath of God. Leave room for the justice of God. It is not that action should not be taken — sometimes that is necessary, where other poeple are involved, etc. — but leave it in the hands of the One who alone can take the appropriate action. The accounts don’t always get settled in this life. We are, none of us, impartial and fair and just enough to decide everyone’s case. Never avenge yourself.

This is not saying that some sort of retribution wouldn’t be appropriate. It’s saying we need to learn to leave these things in the hands of God. In spite of hurt or anger we say: But, I leave this thing in your hands. Do what is right. Do what is best.

And, then, the teaching of Jesus takes this to the next level. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….” (Matthew 5:44 & Luke 6:27) “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” (Luke 6:35 NRSV)

candle-tipAfter all, enemies need love too. They need God’s love. They need respect and understanding and support like anyone else. While it is not our place to hand down vengeance or justice, it is our place seek the best for all people.

Not that you’d want to invite your enemy over for dinner. Not that you’d want them to move in next door. Not that the memory of what they have done has necessarily been erased. We love our enemies when we desire the best for them, when we pray for them, when we catch ourselves in our anger and refuse to speak to speak ill of them. We remember that they are only limited and fallible human beings — as we are also.

A fellow pastor in one of the communities I lived in taught me this lesson: pray a blessing on your enemies. It brings you some measure of peace. At first it seems wrong. But, when you dare to do it — not to pray about them but to really pray for them — you begin to see them as people. You begin to sense your human commonality with your enemy. And, even though there may never be reconciliation, you leave things in the hands of God.

There is injustice in the world. We experience it. (We may even sometimes perpetrate it.) Justice issues belong ultimately in the hands of God. It is grace that allows us to leave them there.


An old prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
Who didst command us to love our enemies,
and those who defame and injure us,
and to pray for them and forgive them;

Who Thyself didst pray for Thine enemies, who crucified thee:

grant us, we pray,
the spirit of Christian reconciliation and meekness,
that we may heartily forgive every injury
and be reconciled with our enemies.

Grant us to overcome the malevolence and offenses of people
with Christian meekness
and true love of our neighbor.

We further beseech Thee, O Lord,
to grant to our enemies true peace and forgiveness of sins;
and do not allow them to leave this life without true faith and sincere conversion.

And help us repay evil with goodness,
and to remain safe from the temptations of the devil
and from all the perils which threaten us,
in the form of visible and invisible enemies. Amen.


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