Those Troubling Psalms of Imprecation (3) (Psalm 35, etc.)
Let me conclude our study of these unsettling psalms with a few words of practical application taken from my book, The Singing God (pp. 169-75).
Although it may sound contradictory, we are to “love” those whom we “hate”. We love our enemies by doing good to them (Luke 6:27). We love them by providing food when they are hungry and water when they thirst (Romans 12:20). We love our enemies by blessing them when they persecute and oppress us (Romans 12:14). We love them by responding to their mistreatment with prayers for their salvation (Luke 6:28).
And yes, we are to “hate” those whom we “love”. When they persistently oppose the kingdom of Christ and will not repent, our jealousy for the name of Jesus should prompt us to pray: “O, Lord, wilt Thou not slay the wicked? Vindicate your name, O Lord, and may justice prevail in the destruction of those who have hardened their hearts in showing spite to your glory.”
Our love is to be the sort that cannot be explained in purely human terms. It isn’t enough simply to refrain from retaliating. We are to bless and pray for those who do us harm. I don’t know who said it, but I agree: To return evil for evil is demonic. To return good for good is human. But to return good for evil is divine!
That sentiment is certainly Pauline! The apostle said as much when he told us not to seek vengeance on those who do us dirty. However, many have misunderstood Paul, as if he’s saying all vengeance is evil. But he says no such thing. The reason we are not to seek vengeance is because God has said he will (Romans 12:19), and he can do a much better job of it than we!
Enemy-love means that instead of responding to evil with evil of our own we are to do good. “In many cases,” says Dan Allender, “‘doing good’ is simply being thoughtful and kind. It boils down to nothing more glamorous than pouring a cup of coffee for someone or warmly greeting them at church and asking about their weekend. Kindness is the gift of thoughtfulness (‘Let me look for ways I can serve you’) and compassion (‘Let me know how I can enter your heart’)” (Bold Love, 211).
Paul tells us that in loving our enemies we shall “overcome evil”. Allender points out that when your enemy receives good for evil it both surprises and shames him, both of which have the potential to transform his heart.
The enemy spews out his venom expecting you to respond in kind. Part of the wicked pleasure he derives from being an enemy comes from provoking you to act just as wickedly as he does. “Goodness,” though, “trips up the enemy by foiling his battle plans. The enemy anticipates compliance or defensive coldness, harshness, or withdrawal. The last thing he expects is sustained kindness and steadfast strength. Therefore, when evil is met with goodness, it is apt to respond with either exasperated fury or stunned incredulity. Goodness breaks the spell the enemy tries to cast and renders him powerless” (216).
Goodness, empowered by God’s grace, might even open a crack in his hard-shelled heart. Powerless to explain your response in terms of what he knows about human behavior, he is led to acknowledge the life-changing presence of divine love in and through you and your response to his malicious intent. Allender explains the impact of this “turning the other cheek”:
“The enemy’s real pleasure in striking out is the power he enjoys to intimidate and shame. He enjoys inflicting the harm, to some degree, because it gives him a sense of control and the fantasy of being like God. Turning one’s cheek to the assault of the enemy demonstrates, without question, that the first blow was impotent and shameful. What was meant to enslave is foiled. Like a boomerang, the harm swoops around and smacks the back of the head of the one who meant harm. A sorehead may, with the working of the Spirit of God, ask, ‘Why did I strike that man?’ and eventually ask of the one hit, ‘Why didn’t you retaliate?’ Again, a measure of astonishment and curiosity is stirred, and the path toward repentance becomes slightly less dim” (224-25).
Furthermore, goodness shames the enemy. It forces him to look at himself rather than you. When the light of kindness shines back in the face of darkness, the latter is exposed for what it really is. Attention is diverted from the abused to the abuser. The shame he feels upon being “found out” will either harden or soften his heart.
In the very early days of my ministry, I was interim pastor of a small church with a history of internal problems. The tiny congregation stood on the brink of yet another split. A congregational meeting was convened at which everyone was given an opportunity to speak his or her mind.
I was young and a bit uncertain of myself, but when the time came I rose to my feet and tried to speak words of encouragement and unity. Suddenly, quite literally in mid-sentence, I was loudly interrupted by a lady who proceeded to accuse me of trying to “steal” the church for my own selfish gain. Unknown to her, or to anyone else present, I had previously accepted an invitation to join the pastoral staff at another church in the same city.
Her words were sharp and cut deeply into my heart. I distinctly remember formulating in my mind a plan of attack, to be launched as soon as she quit speaking. Were it not for the grace of God I would have destroyed her (and perhaps, unwittingly, myself as well). But the Spirit silenced my youthful impetuosity. As soon as her verbal barrage ceased, I resumed my comments at precisely the point where I left off. I did not respond to her accusations. I made no attempt at self-defense. It was as if she had never said a word.
The outcome was stunning. My refusal to engage her in the verbal gutter (a decision I attribute wholly to God’s grace) served to both silence and shame her. By declining to respond in kind, her baseless attack was exposed for what it was. Goodness acted like a shield that caused her venom to ricochet back upon her own head. My intent was not to humiliate or harm her in any way, but to lovingly compel her to own up to the motivation of her heart. For the first time I understood what Paul meant when he said, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head” (Romans 12:20).
“But Sam, you don’t know who my enemies are. You have no idea how vile and vengeful and irritating they can be. They take advantage of my goodness, they are unfair, they exploit the fact that I’m a Christian, they constantly embarrass me in front of others and lie about me behind my back.”
I don’t doubt for a moment that what you say is true. I’ve still got a few enemies like that myself. But if Stephen could love those who viciously stoned him, what excuse do we have for not loving people whose attack on us is admittedly far less grievous?
And what of Jesus himself? Did he not lovingly pray for his executioners even as they drove iron spikes through his hands and feet? John Stott is surely on the mark: “If the cruel torture of crucifixion could not silence our Lord’s prayer for his enemies, what pain, pride, prejudice or sloth could justify the silencing of ours?” (Christian Counter Culture, 119).
So, the next time someone starts throwing stones in your direction, remember the words of Peter:
“For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:19-23).