Chased by Enemies
Topic: English Passage: Psalm 35:1-28
This morning is sermon #4 in our study of various psalms. I’ve said it several times already, but I think it’s important to repeat: the psalms God has given cover a broad range of human emotion and human expression to God.
Our first sermon was a psalm of righteousness. It was a song intended to help us desire to live in integrity before God.
The second sermon was a psalm of confession. It’s a psalm you can use when you know you’ve sinned and need God’s restoration.
Two weeks ago, we covered a psalm of lament, which was an example of someone turning to God in some very desperate circumstances.
This morning, we come to something similar. It will be a psalm from a desperate time. But it’s categorized a little differently. Turn with me, if you would, to Psalm 35. Psalm 35.
This is what is known a psalm of imprecation. It’s an imprecatory psalm. And we’ll talk a little more about what that means in just a moment.
As far as psalms go, Psalm 35 is a little longer than most of them. If you’re into numbers, you might be interested to know that the average psalm has 16.4 verses. The shortest is Psalm 117, which only has two verses. The longest is Psalm 119 with 176 verses.
Of the 150 Psalms we have, 131 have less than 25 verses, and only 19 have more than 25 verses. So, this is one of the longer ones.
That being the case, rather than go through the psalm verse-by-verse like we normally do, we’re going to sort of piece it apart by asking some questions.
And the first question is this: What in the world is a psalm of imprecation? What is an imprecatory psalm?
Well, in terms of prayer, you might be familiar with the word “supplication,” which means to ask humbly for something. And you’ve probably also heard of “intercession,” which means you’re asking on behalf of someone else.
“Imprecation” is a word that means a curse. To imprecate something or someone is to curse it, to wish its destruction.
That might sound somewhat foreign to us, but some people do it all the time. They don’t like the opposing sports team, so they’re yelling obscenities and curses.
In our culture, it’s just a swear word, but the obscenity g*d* is a word that comes from the idea of invoking God to condemn someone or something. That’s a serious expression to use.
And yet, though that word isn’t used in the Bible, that’s pretty close to the sentiment we get from some of the imprecatory psalms—not in a joking way, and not in a flippant way. This is someone asking God to curse someone else.
Those of us who will be part of a Family Life Group this week, we’ll be looking at another imprecatory psalm—Psalm 52.
The psalmist isn’t just asking to be rescued. He’s asking God to take vengeance on His enemies. And I’m going to do what I can to deal with that issue as we look at this psalm a little more. Should we pray these kinds of prayers today? That’s a question I want to do my best to answer, but before we do that, we need to understand the psalm better.
So for now, let’s just move on the next question. Now that we understand what an imprecatory psalm is, let’s ask this question: What’s happening here? Why was this psalm written? What is the author going through?
Because of the superscript, we know David wrote the psalm. But what’s going on in his life that prompted the psalm?
We don’t know. It is, however, obviously a very troubling time for him. I think the two best options are that this was written early in his life when he was being hunted by King Saul and his army, or it came later in life when he’s being hunted by his son and his army.
Either way, David’s life is in danger. And more important than knowing David’s specific circumstances, I want us to understand how David describes what’s happening to him. What’s happening to David?
Hopefully as we read through the psalm, you could pick up on the ways he described those who were attacking him.
Verse 1 calls them “those who contend with me and fight against me.” Usually “contend” is a legal word, like in a lawsuit, but in this case it’s a military battle. It’s a fight.
In verse 3, David calls this group “his pursuers.” They’re coming after him. They’re the aggressors, and they’re determined to see David dead. Verse 4 says they seek his life. They are devising evil against him.
Figuratively, verse 7 says they have hidden a net and dug a pit in order to trap him. That’s like a hunter chasing an animal. You would lure an animal into a net or into a pit, so you could kill it.
And although David’s words are very personal, we also have a hint that he’s not the only one being targeted. Verse 10 talks about the poor being attacked and robbed. Keep that in mind. David is part of a group that is being targeted.
Look at verse 11. It says they are malicious witnesses accusing him. Verse 12: They repay evil for good. So, whoever this group is, this was a group David was loyal to. He was faithful to them.
Look at verses 13 and 14—But I, when they were sick— I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting; I prayed with head bowed on my chest. I went about as though I grieved for my friend or my brother; as one who laments his mother, I bowed down in mourning.
So, when things went bad for this person, David mourned for them as a faithful friend. But notice how they respond in return. Verses 15-16—But at my stumbling they rejoiced and gathered; they gathered together against me; wretches whom I did not know tore at me without ceasing; like profane mockers at a feast, they gnash at me with their teeth.
In verse 17, David calls them destructive lions. In verse 19, they’re his foes. They “wink the eye.” They hate him without cause. Winking your eyes back then wasn’t some cute gesture. It was a gesture of deceit and duplicity. These are fake friends. They backstabbers. Verse 20 says: For they do not speak peace, but against those who are quiet in the land they devise words of deceit.
So, again this group isn’t just after David. They’re after the entire group of people who want peace and righteousness in the land. Verse 25 says they want to swallow him up.
So, what’s the picture here? This is not some group that’s annoying David or making his life somewhat uncomfortable. This is a group of people hostilely opposed to God, and opposed to David because he’s on God’s side.
And they’re not threatening David’s comfort or style. They’re literally threatening his life. They want him destroyed. They want him dead. They oppose all who love God. I hope you get that picture.
And that brings us to the next question: How does David feel because of his circumstances? How does his enemies power and hatred make him feel?
How would you feel in this kind of circumstance? The vast majority of us are so detached from this kind of scenario. This is not even at the level of a criminal who robs a bank and holds a hostage at gunpoint. This is an enemy personally seeking to kill you. That’s the goal. That’s the objective.
So, how does David describe how he feels? There isn’t a lot of detail in the passage, but there is one line that points to how David is feeling. Verse 12—They repay me evil for good; my soul is bereft.
“Bereft” is a word that’s used when someone you love has died. In the Hebrew, the word has the basic idea of being childless. It could apply to a woman who was barren, which was seen as a divine curse in Israelite society. Or it could be applied to a woman who had miscarried or lost her children later in life. It’s an extremely distressing word. It’s an emptiness. It’s a desolation. David feels completely isolated. There’s no immediate comfort or relief.
In verse 17, he asks God, “How long, O Lord, will you look on?” It’s too much for him to bear. It’s gone on too long. David’s at a breaking point.
So here’s the next question: What is he asking for? Besides expressing his situation and how he feels, what is David actually asking for in this psalm? What’s the request?
Like I said, this is an imprecatory psalm. David is not just going to ask God to save him from his enemies. He’s going to ask God to take vengeance.
This is the majority of the psalm. This is how the psalm opens. Look at verse 1. Look at the requests.
Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me!
In other words, “Lord, whatever they’re doing to me, I’m asking You to do to them!”
Verse 2—Take hold of shield and buckler and rise for my help!
That’s asking for protection, the defensive response, but verse 3 goes back to the attack. Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers! Say to my soul, “I am your salvation!”
David is not asking for a one-sided salvation. He’s asking, on the one hand, to be rescued. But on the other hand, he’s asking for his enemies to be destroyed. He wants them to be cursed by God.
Look at verses 4-8. This is a longer section.
Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life! Let them be turned back and disappointed who devise evil against me! Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them away! Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them! 7 For without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life. Let destruction come upon him when he does not know it! And let the net that he hid ensnare him; let him fall into it—to his destruction!
In other words, “Lord, let this blow up in their faces! Don’t let them win. Humiliate them. Devastate them. Don’t let them win!”
Skip down to verse 19. Let not those rejoice over me who are wrongfully my foes, and let not those wink the eye who hate me without cause.
Verse 21 describes their hatred, and verse 22 calls on God to ask: They open wide their mouths against me; they say, “Aha, Aha! Our eyes have seen it!” You have seen, O Lord; be not silent! O Lord, be not far from me!
And then, all the way to verse 26, David is again asking God to deal with them.
Awake and rouse yourself for my vindication, for my cause, my God and my Lord! Vindicate me, O Lord, my God, according to your righteousness, and let them not rejoice over me! Let them not say in their hearts, “Aha, our heart's desire!” Let them not say, “We have swallowed him up.” Let them be put to shame and disappointed altogether who rejoice at my calamity! Let them be clothed with shame and dishonor who magnify themselves against me!
That’s pretty strong language. And David is saying the same thing he was saying in the first half of the psalm: “God, don’t let them win. I’m not the bad guy here. They are. Fight for me. Destroy them. Finish them off. Get rid of them. Wipe them out.”
Does that sound like a very Christian prayer to you?
In our culture, that would be a tough psalm to read out loud, wouldn’t it?
There’s worse language in Psalm 137. Maybe it’s some of the harshest language in an imprecatory psalm. Psalm 137 is a song that was written while the Jews were in captivity to Babylon. They were taken captive and they were being abused by the ones who captured them. They were being taunted.
Israel, as a nation, had walked away from God. They deserved to be taken captive. But that doesn’t mean their captors were righteous. They were just the ones God used for judgment.
Anyway, the Babylonians were evil. They took delight in destroying Jerusalem and mocking God. And the last verse of Psalm 137 says this. It’s addressed to Babylon. “Blessed shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”
In other words, blessed be the one who leaves you bereft of your children.
Is that a proper prayer? Does it honor God if we pray like that? We’ll get to that question soon, but before we do, I want to make sure you understand a couple things about David’s prayer here in Psalm 35. You should keep two things in mind.
Number 1, David is innocent of what’s happening. He’s innocent. He doesn’t deserve what’s happening to him. Whether it’s Saul or his son or some foreign army after him, this is not the result of some sin in his life. He’s innocent. He’s righteous.
And number 2, this is the key to all this, this is not a prayer for personal vengeance. This is not a prayer for personal vengeance.
If you notice, verse 23 and 24 both talk about vindication. Vindication is when someone gets proven right. One commentator pointed out that there’s a big difference between vindication and vindictiveness.
Vindictiveness is like revenge. It’s a personal payback. You attack me, so I attack you. That’s vindictiveness. That’s not what David wants. That’s not what he’s asking for. He’s asking on behalf of God. David is asking on behalf of God because that’s what he ultimately cares about. He cares about God’s name, God’s holiness, not his own personal life.
Go back with me for a second and look at verse 3 again. You can see what David says to God in the second half of the verse. “Say to my soul, ‘I am your salvation!’”
In other words, “God, let me see who you really are. Let me see it one more time, that You are who You say You are.”
Look again at verse 24. “Vindicate me, O Lord, my God, according to your righteousness.”
David is expecting God to defend His own name, His own glory. David is expecting God to be who He is—a God of holiness, a God who will punish evil.
And if God acts in this way, if God destroys David’s enemies, how is David going to respond? What’s he gonna do?
His response will be thanksgiving and praise. Thanksgiving and praise.
Personal vendettas are about revenge and some kind of personal element of closure. But again, David is thinking about God. If God answers David’s prayers, look how David is going to respond—Then my soul will rejoice in the Lord, exulting in his salvation. All my bones shall say, “O Lord, who is like you, delivering the poor from him who is too strong for him, the poor and needy from him who robs him?”
David’s enemies rejoice over his downfall, but David is going to rejoice He’s in the Lord. He’s going to praise God for His power and His holiness and His faithfulness.
Skip down to verse 18. We see it again there: I will thank you in the great congregation; in the mighty throng I will praise you.
If God comes through for David, his only boast will be in the Lord. And he’ll make sure other people know who gets the credit for the victory. He will thanks and praise God, and he expects other around him to respond the same way.
This is actually how the psalm ends. Look at verses 27 and 28—the final two verses.
Let those who delight in my righteousness shout for joy and be glad and say evermore, “Great is the Lord, who delights in the welfare of his servant!” Then my tongue shall tell of your righteousness and of your praise all the day long.
Everything about this is God-ward. This is all God-oriented, not self-oriented. David wants God to rescue him and to destroy his enemies, so that David can respond in thanksgiving and praise. That’s what the imprecatory psalms are all about—pleading with God, because of His righteousness, so that we can respond with thanksgiving and praise.
So, this leads us to the final question for today, and this is question I said we were going to get to. Should we as Christians pray like this? Is it valid for you and I to pray like this? Is this is a Christian prayer?
More than likely, you’re not going to see an imprecatory psalm crocheted on a Bible cover somewhere. You’re not going to see it on a plaque in someone’s house. But just because we don’t use them very often, or just because they are uncomfortable passage ins our culture doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them, right?
But we want to have a biblically informed answer. So, what do we do with passages like these? What do we do with the imprecatory psalms? What should we think about them?
There’s a lot of nuance in the way people can answer this question, but for the sake of clarity, I’m going to give you my answer upfront, and then I’ll try to unpack it.
Should we pray the imprecatory psalms today? My answer is: Yes, if you apply them correctly. Yes, if you apply them correctly. How do we apply this kind of psalm to our lives? Good question. I’m going to give you some principles for this okay. Principles for applying the imprecatory psalms in your own life.
Principle number 1: Assess the situation. Assess the situation. David was in a life-threatening situation involving people who were hostile to God and to His people. You need to start there.
If you’re being sued by your neighbor because he claims your dog ate his cat, that’s not the same thing. You don’t pray the imprecatory psalms over your neighbors. What do you do? Love your neighbor.
If you’re parents are being unreasonable, you don’t pray the imprecatory psalms over your parents. This doesn’t’ apply. You honor your parents.
If your boss is harsh and angry with you, you don’t pray the imprecatory psalm over him or her. You submit to your boss. That’s the biblical principle.
Maybe a helpful biblical example here is in the gospels, when a Samaritan village refuses to let Jesus pass through. This is in Luke 9. So, Jesus gets turned down, and James and John say, “Lord, do you want us to call fire from heaven to consume them?” And Jesus rebuked them. They didn’t get it, right?
There is a time for fire from heaven, but this isn’t it, right? They weren’t assessing the situation correctly.
Jesus’ harshest words weren’t for the sinners who had never heard of him. It was for the Jewish leaders who knew the Bible, and yet stood opposed to Jesus. They were fixed in their unbelief. And Jesus said to them, “Woe to you! You brood of vipers. How are you going to escape being sentenced to hell?” Jesus knew who he was talking to. They were a group planning to kill him.
So, is there a time where you and I can pray like this for ourselves? In the culture we’re in, probably not yet. Generally speaking, our lives aren’t in danger. But that doesn’t mean we can’t pray for justice for the Christians who are in North Korea or Afghanistan, or in the parts of the world where their lives are being threatened because of their faith.
We want to see God bring deliverance there, don’t we? Nobody like to hear about Christians being murdered. But that’s the reality in those parts of the world. And I would encourage you to read from sources like persecution.com which is from Voice of the Martyrs. Or look at OpenDoorsUSA.org. and read about what’s going in these kinds of countries. Those are the kinds of things you can incorporate into your prayer life. There are some very serious enemies to Christianity around the world, and you should be aware of them. And it’ll give you a better perspective on life here in the United States.
So that’s principle number 1: Assess the situation. Make sure you’re dealing with this kind of extreme situation.
Principle number 2 is this: Check your heart. Check your heart.
This come right out of what we saw in David’s desire. Remember this is unrighteous suffering. It’s not the direct result of his sin. So you need to check your heart with regard to the cause of the suffering, but you also need to check your heart with respect to your desires. What do you really want?
David wanted to see God be glorified. He wanted God to be praised. Is that what you want? What if your worst enemy came to Christ? Would that satisfy you? Or would it enrage you, like it did Jonah?
Our first response to our enemies should be, like Jesus said, “pray for those who persecute you.” The imprecatory psalms are not about personal vengeance. They’re about giving God the glory for showcasing His righteousness. So, make sure you check your heart.
Principle number 3: Know the promises. Know the promises.
When David prayed to God, he was essentially asking God to do what He had promised to do for Israel—bless the righteous and punish the wicked. That’s an important point to keep in mind,
This is the Old Testament we’re talking about. And though the nature of God doesn’t change, there are some differences between how he dealt with Israel and how He deals with the church right now. You need to understand that. The church is not a replacement for Israel. We’re in a different time period in God’s plan for the world. And what’s important to know is that not every promise made to Israel applies to the church.
God promised to protect Israel. And He promised to physically bless the nation if they would walk in obedience to Him. That’s part of the covenant blessings in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. So when the king of Israel asks for his enemies to be defeated and that the unjust be cast out, he’s asking God to do something He’s already promised the nation He would do.
You and I aren’t guaranteed the same thing. We are going to have persecution. So we can pray for God to intervene, but we should grow bitter if He doesn’t answer the way we’d like.
Think about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. “Our God can save us. But even if He does not, we will worship Him alone.” They didn’t have a guarantee that they'd be saved from the fire. They were hoping He would do it, but their faith wasn’t going to be compromised if God didn’t act the way they wanted.
You need to keep that in mind. Know the promises we’ve been given. Are we guaranteed physical protection in this life? No. Are we guaranteed that God will preserve us? Physically, no. We may be martyred one day. But God has guaranteed a spiritual preservation, right? None of his own can be lost to Satan. We cannot be snatched out of God’s hand. So, we can live with the confidence that God will take us to Himself. Because of what Jesus did, we will never see Hell.
And this leads to the fourth and final principle for applying a psalm like this in our lives today. Assess the situation, check your heart, know the promises, and number 4, remember the victory. Remember the victory.
In total, there’s about a dozen psalms with an imprecatory element. But the tone of the psalms isn’t sorrow or desperation. It’s a tone of victory. They fully expected God to act on their behalf. They expected a victory.
Ultimately, isn’t that what we’re expecting too? Jesus is going to come. And everyone who belongs to Him will enter into an eternal victory, an eternal vindication. No matter how much the world mocks, no matter how much persecution we endure, we will win in the end, right?
And the enemies of God will be punished forever. That’s an important element of the New Testament. It’s an expression of God’s faithfulness and God's holiness. He's not going to let sin go unpunished. If anyone hasn’t turned to Jesus in repentance and faith, they will face an eternal wrath.
We don’t need to shy away from that truth because the New Testament doesn’t shy away from it. The New Testament embraces it with joy—both our salvation and the destruction of God’s enemies. And the degree to which you and I find it difficult to embrace the destruction of God’s enemies is an indicator of our love for God.
We don’t always say it like this, but hell is for the glory of God. Hell glorifies God. There’s no way to escape that reality. If you believe in Jesus, if you believe in His salvation, then you believe in His judgment as well. And you should embrace it.
In First Corinthians 15, Paul taunts death and sin. He joyfully celebrates that final victory.
When Jesus taught the disciples to pray “Your kingdom come,” that was part of that. The kingdom of God includes the salvation of His people and the destruction of His enemies.
In Romans 12, when we’re told to love our enemies, and treat them with kindness, it says we can do it because we know that God is the one who will take vengeance.
When Paul talks about someone sinning sexually against someone else, it says "the Lord is an avenger.”
In 2 Thessalonians 1, Paul reminds them that God will repay with affliction those who have afflicted you. He will inflict vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
Every story you hear with a hero, a villain, and a happy ending ends with the failure and the defeat of the villain, doesn’t it? The bad guys are supposed to lose. If they’re not won over to the good side, they’re supposed to be defeated.
That’s exactly what’s going to happen. And we never want to lose sight of that victory, for the glory of God.
The Bible tells us that Satan is a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. It tells us not to be ignorant of his schemes. But it also reminds us that he is on the losing side. We are the ones who overcome. We are the ones who will win.
And so, when the martyrs pray in Revelation 6, “How long, O Lord? Judge for us! Avenge us!” God says, “just a little longer.”
And as you get to the end of the story, the world system is defeated. Babylon the great is defeated. And it says, “Hallelujah, the smoke from her goes up forever and ever.” And after the Millennium, Satan and all his followers are thrown into the lake of fire forever. And Jesus says, “I am making all things new.”
And do you know how John ends the letter? He’s not bothered. He’s not upset. He’s joyful because the victory is certain. And he says, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” Come, Lord Jesus!