I planned to leave off psalms at 120 and read song of songs. Which I probably still will do. But it would have been neater to break after 119, as this is the first of a new collection of 15 psalms, the songs of ascents.
Commentator says they may have been literally psalms sung step by step from each of the 15 steps up to the temple, but more likely they were the songs generally used for pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to visit the temple.
Appropriately enough for songs about starting a pilgrimage, this one is about being a long way from Jerusalem, living as a believer in hostile territory.
It’s a brief and poignant Psalm. The writer is in distress because of lying and deceit. At first I thought he was at battle with his own sinful nature, but he meant others around him who are corrupt. My mistake jolted me into thinking about how little I worry about external enemies.
Enemies have gone out of fashion in my Christian circles. And there is a good biblical reason for me to feel uncomfortable with examples such as this psalm where he wishes sharp arrows and burning coals for the evil people around him.
Jesus had a number of teachings where he expressly preached discontinuity with the old testament, notably on the subject of enemies.
Love them, he said. No more eye for eye, tooth for tooth; do not resist evil.
Donald Trump gloriously displayed his spiritual, and biblical, ignorance by saying his favourite Bible verse was “an eye for an eye”, unwinding Jesus’ teaching back to the old testament (he was so lampooned for this he now avoids answering, saying it’s ‘something very personal’)
Ironically, even the old testament used that in the context of constraining violence to a moderate and proportionate response, ie: only an eye for an eye. DJT’s formula of “you hit me, I hit back harder” doesn’t even reach that standard.
His entire political appeal seems to be based on nurturing hatred of a mess of enemies. And the church seem to have connived at that… What is their excuse? They’re supposed to know this stuff!
Australian Federal election today, which tends to raise passions about enemies even in this relatively laissez faire country. If you are a true Christian you’ll obviously vote for the progressives because they stand for justice for the oppressed, lifting up the poor, opposing greed and inequality. And if you are a true Christian you’ll clearly vote conservative because they stand for religious freedom, and generally resisting society’s rising tide of antipathy towards the eternal gospel truths. And whoever is not for us is against us!
Jesus grew up in an invaded society, ruled by enemies, and this psalmist is ruled by enemies. Maybe we are heading for a tipping point where we are ruled by enemies, aided in their hatred of Christians by all the church hypocrisy over abuse that has come to light in recent years.
We can circle the wagons, resist, fight and long for the good old days.
We can capitulate, become indistinguishable from our enemies, maybe betraying God by losing the salt of our message. I’m more at risk of that.
Certainly I think there is a lot about our Christian culture that is not inherent to God’s character. Instances of God’s eternal changeless truth are much more fluid to our cultures, and capable of being present in human creativity and interpretation than I think I’ve given it credit for.
If Jesus was for real about not resisting evil, surely it’s a reasonable response to Christianity losing its cultural dominance to shrug and say “thy will be done”? Have faith, let God do the wrath, trust his justice and love.
I’m a lot like that, and the note on which the psalm ended is for me a helpful reminder. Enemies are real, there is malice.
Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.
How you respond? Give me wisdom, Lord!