If you spend any time at all in the Psalms, you’ll come across passages like this:
O God of vengeance, shine forth! (Psalm 94:1b)
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked (Psalm 3:7)
Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings,
from the wicked who do me violence,
my deadly enemies who surround me. (Psalm 17:8–9)
My enemies say of me in malice,
“When will he die, and his name perish?” (Psalm 41:5)
You get the idea. There are dozens of these, maybe hundreds. Enemies surrounding us, enemies seeking our destruction, the wicked exulting in their evildoing, the violent lusting after blood. For years I struggled how to read this, and how to make them my own. If the Psalms are to be my prayer book and my hymnal, how can I, who has no apparent enemies seeking my death, pray these prayers with integrity? These are some of the propositions that have helped me; I pray they help you too.
I Have an Enemy
The psalmists’ enemies sought to devour and wipe out the righteous. As then, so now: my enemy and adversary prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). He is set against me, intent on my harm. He schemes against me (Ephesians 6:11). He seeks to deceive me (Revelation 12:9). Just spend a minute reading the first bit of Job, and you’ll see Satan’s role in the heavens as one seeking to tear the righteous down to his level.
Over-spiritualizing the Psalms?
Nonsense. If you think reading the devil-as-your-adversary into the Psalms is over-spiritualizing, look at the words of the apostle Paul: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Paul himself says who our enemy is. And by the way, he also says what to do about it:
“Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.” (Ephesians 6:13–18)
What about human enemies?
Though we might not have hostile human armies camped around our city, we still do have human enemies sometimes. So can we ask God to “break their teeth”? Well, Jesus told us something about human enemies.
First of all, children of God do the work of their Father, and everyone else does the work of theirs. “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). That’s not a popular thing to say outside of church walls, or even inside them. But there you have it: behind our human enemies is our true enemy, the devil.
But how are we to treat the human enemies that the devil tries to use against us? I think we need to start by acknowledging that they are slaves to their master, and stay your blade with pity (Bilbo? Anyone?). Then, we love them and pray for them: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43–45).
Second, sometimes your friends do the work of your enemy. “And Peter took him [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:22–23).
Third, sometimes you are your enemy. Or rather, your old self–the old man, the flesh-man inside you. I’ll just let Paul have the last word on this: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” (Romans 7:18–25)
This means that sometimes, it’s appropriate to read these enemy-oriented Psalms and consider your sin as the enemy at hand. For instance, consider this Psalm which I want to claim as my own sanctification battle cry!
“I pursued my enemies and overtook them,
and did not turn back till they were consumed.
I thrust them through, so that they were not able to rise;
they fell under my feet.
For you equipped me with strength for the battle;
you made those who rise against me sink under me.
You made my enemies turn their backs to me,
and those who hated me I destroyed.
They cried for help, but there was none to save;
they cried to the LORD, but he did not answer them.
I beat them fine as dust before the wind;
I cast them out like the mire of the streets.” (Psalm 18:37–42)
My enemy has lost the war
We need to read these (and all Psalms) with a robust hermeneutic that sees Christ. On the cross, our King landed the war-deciding blow on our enemy’s head. He won. He bruised his head, and broke his teeth. He brought the horn of the wicked low, and exalted the horn of the righteous. It is finished! That has real impact for how I read the Psalms. I can now read hopeful, or even imprecatory, Psalms as comfort that has already come to pass, and in Christ is now mine.
Give ear to my words, O LORD;
consider my groaning.
Give attention to the sound of my cry,
my King and my God,
for to you do I pray.
O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice;
in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.
For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
evil may not dwell with you.
The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;
you hate all evildoers.
You destroy those who speak lies;
the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.
But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love,
will enter your house.
I will bow down toward your holy temple
in the fear of you.
Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness
because of my enemies;
make your way straight before me.
For there is no truth in their mouth;
their inmost self is destruction;
their throat is an open grave;
they flatter with their tongue.
Make them bear their guilt, O God;
let them fall by their own counsels;
because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out,
for they have rebelled against you.
But let all who take refuge in you rejoice;
let them ever sing for joy,
and spread your protection over them,
that those who love your name may exult in you.
For you bless the righteous, O LORD;
you cover him with favor as with a shield. (Psalm 5)