Jesus taught us to love our enemies. But sometimes, the Psalms seem to teach the opposite. What are we to make of this?
Psalms 1-41 is called Book One in the Psalms. All but 3 of these 41 Psalms are said to be authored by David. Most likely, it was David himself who not only wrote them but compiled them and produced them as a hymnal for Israel’s worship. Later, as time went by, further compilations were added to Book One. The Psalter was expanded until it reached the form we have today.
Book One forms a curious collection. The first Psalm has no statement of authorship but begins by commending the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked. They are described as those who will be condemned in the judgment.
The enemies of David are a constant theme in the first book. Psalm 3 begins with the words, “O LORD, how many are my foes!” Psalm 4 addresses evil slanderers who try to make David’s honorable name into a shame. Psalm 6:8 says, “Depart from me, all you workers of evil.” Psalm 7 begins with the words, “Save me from all my pursuers.” Any casual reader of these Psalms will find a repetition of the theme of enemies who seek to crush David, and who do not fear God. Psalm 10 is especially filled with images of the wicked. The wicked convince themselves they will not meet with adversity. Their mouths are full of cursing. They sit in ambush, waiting to murder the innocent. They seize the poor and crush the helpless. They tell themselves that God has forgotten their deeds and they will never have to face him in judgment.
In many ways, persecuted Christians will take comfort in these words. They will learn that what they are experiencing is not unique to them. They will also learn how it is, that God protects them and delivers them.
But there is a troubling aspect to David’s psalms. Psalm 5:4 emphatically states that God hates evildoers. Psalm 10:15 says to God, “Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer.” Psalm 11:6 says of God, “Let him rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur…” Psalm 21:10 says, “You will destroy their descendants from the earth, and their offspring from the children of man.”
Sometimes, modern day Christians find such words to be disturbing. David seems so vindictive. David seems so out of step with the teaching of Jesus. Jesus called upon us to forgive our enemies and David calls upon God to break their arms and destroy their memory from the earth. How can those two, seemingly disparate sentiments be reconciled? Are we left to conclude, as do some, that the First Testament presents a different morality than the New?
But the New Testament offers many of the same sentiments that we find in the Psalms of David. Jesus constantly warned of the place of torment, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew 23:33 records Jesus telling the Pharisees, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” Hebrews 10:27 reminds us of the fearful expectation of judgment that will consume the adversaries of God. Revelation 3:9 promises the church of Philadelphia that the synagogue of Satan that has been persecuting them will one day be forced to bow down at their feet. The promise that God will break the arms of the wicked is found in the New Testament as well. Although Jesus did not use those very words, he certainly did express thoughts that sound very much like David.
How then do we put together the command to love our enemies, while hearing the prayers of David to break the arms of the enemies? The answer to this is found in Romans 12:19. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”
That’s how to read David’s Psalms regarding his enemies. We are to refrain from avenging our foes. We are even called to love our foes. But some foes are enemies of the gospel. And because a just God will break the arms of the foes, we can be at peace, knowing God will act in due time.