The Psalm of the Day this weekend was Psalm 54. Here it is in its entirety:
O God, save me by your name and vindicate me by your might.
For strangers have risen against me; ruthless men seek my life; they do not set God before themselves.
Behold, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life.
He will return the evil to my enemies; in your faithfulness put an end to them.
With a freewill offering I will sacrifice to you; I will give thanks to your name, O Lord, for it is good.
For he has delivered me from every trouble, and my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies.
Psalm 54 is one of the imprecatory* psalms, which pray God's wrath upon the psalmist's enemies. Christians sometimes struggle with these prayers, wondering if they are in opposition to Jesus' command to love our enemies. But I think most Christians in their heart of hearts (myself included) can also strongly identify with them. We have all experienced times in our lives when we have felt sinned against, wronged, taken advantage of, persecuted, and unfairly attacked and have longed for the guilty one to get what he deserves. When I was a new student in a small rural school who for no apparent reason became the object of scorn of a large number of the girls in my class, you can bet I wished for justice upon them. When I was the victim of a purse-snatching and the theft from my car of a video camera that had irreplaceable tape of my children, I most certainly wanted the perpetrators to be punished. When people in my life have spoken untruths about me or my family, I have found myself hoping that their evil deeds turn back on them.
And yet, as Pastor pointed out in his sermon, that is not really what the imprecatory psalms are about. In order to understand them rightly we need to ask ourselves who the enemies are. Are they those mean girls in my junior high school or the criminals that victimized me or those who bear false witness against me? Certainly they are enemies in the temporal sense. But they are not the real enemies. In truth, in this fallen world we are all enemies of one another and of God, having been separated from Him by Adam's sin and now having to muddle through this messy life at war with His creation. But because of the death of Jesus for all sinners, we who were at war with our Creator may now claim the gift of salvation freely given. The only ones who may not claim that gift is Satan himself, his minions sin and death, and those who persist in following the way of death rather than clinging to the cleansing and life-giving robe of the Saviour.
Here is Martin Luther's introductory note on Psalm 54, from my copy of Reading the Psalms with Luther:
"The 54th psalm is a psalm of prayer against the persecutors who seek the life of the godly on account of the Word of God. Thus Saul and those in Ziph had attempted to kill David on account of the Word of God, through which he had been called and consecrated to be king. The psalmist prays for deliverance from his enemies and for vengeance upon them."
Here is Luther's prayer that follows Psalm 54:
"Lord, our God, who desires not the death of the wicked, convert those who hate us without a cause, and turn the hearts of those who persecute Your Christians. Protect the poor and the innocent against the oppression of unjust men. Grant us patience under the cross, and preserve us in the true faith to our end. Amen."
The psalmist cries for evil to be vanquished. As Luther said elsewhere, any time we pray the Lord's Prayer--"Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven"--we are praying for the same thing. But our prayer is also that the wicked (among whose number we must include ourselves) repent and come to faith. In fact, the best thing we can pray for our enemies is that they come face to face with God's Law and His righteous anger, that they might be convicted of their sin and turn from it. Those who are baptized into Christ daily pray for themselves the death of Old Adam and the ascendance of the New Man. Certainly we can pray the same for our enemies.
Psalm 54 ends with a proclamation of the psalmist's deliverance from persecution and victory over his foes, stated not as a hope but as a feat already accomplished. May you and I, as we daily face the pains and struggles of this world, rest secure in that same confidence, fixing our eyes on the cross just as David did. Although he was looking forward in time, and we are looking back, the war and its combatants have always been the same, and the victory is for all time.
*Here is another helpful link about imprecatory psalms.