Should We Pray Against Our Enemies? #244
Happy Thursday, intrepid Bible Reading Podcast listeners. I’m not going to lie to you, today we encounter one of the weirdest chapters in the Bible. I’ll just read them, and you can decide which one I’m talking about. Okay, actually, I don’t have the patience for that. It’s 1 Samuel 19. WOW – this chapter has everything you could ask for in a weird Bible chapter. Attempted murder. Actually, three attempted murders. Oath-breaking. Family tensions. A daring escape by night. Assassins prophesying. Murderous kings prophesying. Actually, murderous kings prophesying while laying down naked the whole day. The old-switcheroo – this time involving a household idol covered in goat hair and placed in the bed instead of the assassins target. I’ll bet you haven’t heard that one before! Evil spirits tormenting somebody. Hiding in a secret place. And, honestly, probably more than that. You’d think with all of that intrigue and interesting content that 1 Samuel 19 would be our focus passage, but no-way. I realize that I am a pastor, and, a daily Bible podcaster, but I’m scratching my head at 1st Samuel 19 just as much as you are. Maybe we can find an oracle to ask about it, or maybe one of those really old and wise Bible guys like John Piper. Anyway, our other Bible readings for the day include Psalms 35, Lamentations 4, and 1 Corinthians 1. Our focus passage is Psalms 35, and we have a very thought-provoking question that not everybody will agree with. Should we pray against our enemies? I am asking the question, because our Psalm (and many like it) opens up with a bold prayer from David, asking God to oppose his enemies:
Oppose my opponents, Lord;
fight those who fight me.
2 Take your shields—large and small—
and come to my aid.
3 Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers,
and assure me, “I am your deliverance.” 4 Let those who intend to take my life be disgraced and humiliated; let those who plan to harm me be turned back and ashamed. 5 Let them be like chaff in the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them away. 6 Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them. 7 They hid their net for me without cause; they dug a pit for me without cause. 8 Let ruin come on him unexpectedly, and let the net that he hid ensnare him; let him fall into it—to his ruin.
Should we still pray these types of prayers? Should we ask God to fight against those who fight against us? Psalms 35 is a fairly mild version of what are called imprecatory Psalms. These Psalms (Psalms 69 is a very famous one) often involve prayers for judgment, violence and ruin for the enemies of God and the enemies of the Psalmist. Some of those prayers for judgment and violence can be quite extreme, to say the least. Should we quote these Psalms against our enemies and pray these prayers – from the Bible! – against those who do evil to us?
Here’s my answer: I don’t believe we are allowed to do that anymore. Now – this is where you need to stop me and say, wait a minute…are you telling us we shouldn’t do something that is in the Bible? And the answer is, yes, I am…but I am not telling you that on my own authority, but on the Bible’s authority. Consider Luke 6:
27 “But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you,28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.29 If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also. And if anyone takes away your coat, don’t hold back your shirt either.30 Give to everyone who asks you, and from someone who takes your things, don’t ask for them back.31 Just as you want others to do for you, do the same for them.32 If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.33 If you do what is good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners to be repaid in full.35 But love your enemies, do what is good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High. For he is gracious to the ungrateful and evil.36 Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.
We also have passages like:
When we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 1 Corinthians 4:12
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Give careful thought to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. 18 If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for God’s wrath, because it is written, Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord Romans 12:17-19
We also have the example of Jesus, forgiving His murderers on the cross, and Stephen in Acts doing the same, “23 when he was insulted, he did not insult in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten but entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” 1 Peter 2:23
And many more like it. I believe that we no longer ask God to destroy and judge and kill our enemies, but we recognize that Jesus is giving us a new commandment that supersedes the old. In the same way that we no longer stone people for adultery or disrespecting parents, and in the same way that it is no longer a sin to wear clothing with mixed fabric, thus we no longer pray for the destruction of our enemies. We are under a New Covenant, not the Old Covenant. Consider these three previous episodes of the show for a deeper discussion of this reality:
Let’s close with some of Tim Keller’s thoughts on another imprecatory Psalm:
Then the other question is why is it true in the New Testament we’re told never to say the things David says right there? Did you see verses 19–22? What does he say? “I hate those who hate you, O Lord. I abhor those who rise up against you. I have nothing but hatred for them. They are my enemies!”
Do you know the New Testament says we are never allowed to say that? We’re supposed to love our enemies. We’re supposed to do good to those who abuse us. We’re supposed to pray for our enemies. What happened between David, and you and me, that the Bible now says you must never talk the way David talks right there?
What happened? You know what happened. David’s greater son, who died on a cross praying for his enemies, happened, and that is the answer to the riddles. That’s how David could have this assurance (though he probably doesn’t understand why) that the presence of God is not going to destroy him. That’s the reason we are not supposed to say the things David said, because David’s greater son died praying for his enemies.
Let’s compare them. Jesus Christ died praying Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” If you read the rest of Psalm 22, it’s all about distance: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from the words of my groaning? Do not be so far from me. O Lord, be not far off!” The whole psalm is about a God who is far away. Here’s David, and he can’t lose the presence of God. He can’t get far away from God. And here’s David’s greater son, Jesus Christ, and he can’t find the presence of God. Do you know why?
David knew because God had him by the hand even darkness would turn to light. But Jesus knew because God had let go of his hand even the midday light was turning to darkness. He was plunged into darkness. David was knit together in his mother’s womb. Jesus was torn apart on the cross. Why? Why did Jesus get the absence of God? Why did Jesus get torn away from God? Why did Jesus lose the Father’s hand?
He was getting what we deserve. You see, we try to get away. We try to live our own lives. We try to escape the inescapable, and that’s wrong. What’s the penalty? It’s to get what we ask for, to be abandoned. Jesus was abandoned. He lost the presence of God so if you believe in Jesus, you have the presence of God forever. He’s got you by the hand, and he’ll never let you go. Never.
You know, friends, once you understand the gospel of Jesus Christ, the doctrine of the presence of God becomes a transforming though edgy comfort. What do I mean by edgy? There’s still an edge to it, isn’t there? He’s always with you. He sees what you’re doing. “You shouldn’t do that. You shouldn’t say that.” You should live consistently because he’s there. There’s an edge, but in the end it’s an infallible comfort because it doesn’t matter how dark things are. It doesn’t matter what you’re going through. He has you by the hand.
If some of you say, “But everything’s going wrong lately,” well, maybe that’s him actually making sure you come back to him. He’s pursuing you. He’s not abandoning you. I can tell you something. The worst times of my life, when I thought he was abandoning me, I can look back on them and say, “No, no, he was pursuing me.”
In Jesus Christ, he will never let you go. He has you by the hand. Even death will be just a nice night’s sleep, and all of your darknesses will turn to light. There is no refuge from him. There is only refuge in him.
Timothy J. Keller, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive (New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013).