God Over Enemies
Today is Remembrance Day. What do we do with this day? When we lived in Manitou, I often participated in the Remembrance Day service which was held every year by reading Scripture. However, the Legion chaplain, who was a friend of mine, kept asking me to preach and so one year I did preach at that service. In the message, I acknowledged the horror of what the veterans and those who had lost their lives had experienced and used it as a foundation to say that we need to make every effort to work towards peace and never go to war again.
I suspect that this day creates a little bit of a quandary for us. On the one hand, we don't want to be insensitive to the fact that people have given their lives for our country. On the other hand, our understanding that God has called us to be peacemakers and the fact that some among us have been conscientious objectors makes full participation in this day somewhat uncomfortable. MCC invites us to call it Peace Sunday and to use it as an opportunity to speak about being peace makers.
One of the things that makes this whole question difficult is that the Bible speaks in different ways about conflict between the nations, particularly conflict between God's people and the nations surrounding them in the Old Testament. We know that in the Old Testament, God actually sent his people to war. In addition, we have such violent expressions of hatred for enemies as we read earlier in Psalm 58:6-9. What do we do with these passages? We have chosen to derive our theology from the words and example of Jesus in the New Testament, particularly such passages as Matthew 5:38-48, which we also read this morning. These passages call us to turn the other cheek and to be peacemakers and we believe that this is not only to be applied in personal situations, but also national ones.
So what do we do with all this? This morning, I would like to examine Psalm 9 with you. This Psalm does not answer all of the questions I have raised this morning, but it does give us a framework from which we can begin to think about them. The Psalm, is written by David who was a man who had much experience with war and with dealing with enemies. In it he speaks about personal enemies and national enemies and so the thoughts expressed here can help us think about our response to conflict both individually and nationally. I hope that reflection on these verses will help us understand who God is so that we can think about these things from the perspective of God's mind on the issue. I am not going to look at the whole Psalm nor follow the logic of it, but rather, I will pick out some of the main themes which repeat themselves in the Psalm and which speak to the issue before us.
I. God Is A Just Ruler
Our thinking about conflict and our response to it must be shaped by our understanding of who God is and how He relates to this world. If evil is the ultimate reality in the world and if bullies are the power brokers in the world, then we are in real trouble and fighting against them is the only solution. But the Psalm helps us understand that there is another reality. The ultimate reality in the world is not evil, but God.
A. He Is Involved
One of the stories in the Bible that I particularly enjoy is the story of Elisha and his servant. The Arameans had surrounded Dothan, where Elisha was living, with the expressed purpose of killing Elisha. Their large army surrounded the whole city and when the servant of Elisha woke up and saw the multitude he was terrified. He cried out, "Alas, master! What shall we do?" In II Kings 6:17 we read, "Then Elisha prayed: 'O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.' So the LORD opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha." This story reveals how God was present with Elisha. It is an example of what David understood about God. We read in Psalm 9:4, "For you have maintained my just cause..." God is not uninvolved, blind or uncaring. God is aware of His people, what they are experiencing and what kind of enemies are threatening them.
God's care is also seen in several other places in this Psalm. Several times we read in this Psalm that God is totally aware of and fully cares for those who are oppressed. In verse 9 we read, "The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble." Verse 12b tells us, "he does not forget the cry of the afflicted…" and in vs. 18 it says, "the needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor perish forever."
When Mary was told that Jesus would be born to her, she sang a song. We would expect that the song would be about the joy of having a child or perhaps even the joy of giving birth to the Saviour. It is all of that, but it is amazing to read the extent to which she perceived that with the coming of Jesus, God was showing His care for His people, particularly for those who are oppressed. In Luke 1:51-53 we read, "He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." Jesus' coming speaks to God's plan to care for the afflicted and Mary understood that.
The awareness God has about the danger his people might be in and the assurance that He cares is an important part of thinking about how to respond to either a personal or a national threats of violence.
B. He Rules
There was another time when the Arameans were threatening the people of Israel and the people were filled with fear. The situation was desperate as described in I Kings 20:27 where we read that "Israel encamped opposite them like two little flocks of goats, while the Arameans filled the country." In the next verse we have an interesting perspective of the Arameans. They thought, "The Lord is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys…" Because of this inaccurate and arrogant thinking about God, God delivered the Arameans into the hands of Israel.
David expresses the perspective on which the people of God can rest in Psalm 9:4, where we read, "…you have sat on the throne giving righteous judgment." The thought expressed in this verse reminds us about who is in charge. God is not just the God of the hills, He is the sovereign Lord over everything. He is not just the God who rules over one nation or one country, but is the God who is over every nation and every creature on earth.
Verse 7 adds another thought to this perspective when it says, "the Lord sits enthroned forever." This means that whatever happens on earth on any given day, year or even century is not the whole story because God is eternal. The final perspective on God's eternal reign is given to us in Revelation 19 where we read about the rider on the white horse who shed his own blood and is declared to be "King of kings and Lord of lords."
What a comfort to know that whenever enemies threaten God still reigns over all.
C. With Righteous Judgment
Another important aspect to recognize is that God who reigns is also the righteous judge of all the earth. Several times in this passage the just judgment of God is mentioned. In vs. 4 it says that He is the one enthroned, "giving righteous judgment." Verses 7 & 8 also speak very clearly about this. There we read, "But the LORD sits enthroned forever, he has established his throne for judgment. He judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with equity."
How often we have read about the unjust and violent actions of the world's dictators, like Hitler, Saddam Hussein and many others. The natural reaction is that something must be done about these evil people. There is no doubt that something must be done. Evil and injustice are things that God hates and He is the judge of all the earth. What difference does it make that God is the judge who will make all things right? I believe that this understanding helps us address several difficult questions. It helps us understand why there were wars in the Old Testament. God, as the sovereign and final judge determined that at that time war was the way to deal with the unjust. For the same reason we can work for peace today because God has told us that for the present time, we are called to be peacemakers, in the knowledge and hope that He will bring justice in the end.
Hope in God as the judge of all the earth helps us rest in His plan and know that He will do what is right. This allows us to work for peace in a non-violent way. It allows us to work for justice, even though we may not be able to change everything. We can keep pressing for justice in the knowledge that God will make everything right in the end. When injustice seems to have the upper hand, it allows us to hope in Him and know that this is not the end of the story. Even though it may appear so at the time, unjust rulers are not getting away with anything. In the end, God will make everything right.
D. He Gives Victory Over Enemies
Because God reigns and because He is the righteous judge and because He cares, God deals with His enemies and the enemies of His people. This theme is repeated throughout the passage in many verses. Please take note particularly of verses 5, 6, "You have rebuked the nations, you have destroyed the wicked; you have blotted out their name forever and ever. The enemies have vanished in everlasting ruins; their cities you have rooted out; the very memory of them has perished." In addition Psalm 9:15-17 tells us that those who reject God will be caught in their own traps. There we read, "The nations have sunk in the pit that they made; in the net that they hid has their own foot been caught. The LORD has made himself known, he has executed judgment; the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands. The wicked shall depart to Sheol, all the nations that forget God."
II Kings 7 tells another story about what happened to the Arameans. They had maintained a siege around Samaria during the days when Elisha was prophesying in Israel. The siege was very bad so that there was hardly any food left. One day four lepers, who, because of their leprosy lived outside the city, decided that they had nothing left to lose. They decided that there was no point entering the city because the famine was so severe there. They reasoned that if they went to the Aramean camp, they might be spared or they might be killed, but their situation was so bad that it didn't matter much to them any more. So they decided to go to the Aramean camp in the hope that they would get some food and perhaps be spared. When they got to the camp they found it deserted. God had caused the Aramean army to hear another army and they thought that perhaps the Egyptian army had come in support of the Israelites. It was a good day for the whole nation because God had chased off their enemy without them having to do anything.
God has done similar things in our day. In the 1950's Krushchev worked very hard to eliminate Christianity in the Soviet Union. Some have said that he boasted that within a short time he would display the last Christian in the Soviet Union. It was a terrible time for God's people in that country, but he did not succeed. Last Sunday we heard about the work of God's church which is happening in Russia and the Ukraine today. Christians are not being eliminated, but are growing in influence. The same thing is happening in China. From these examples we see that God deals with those who oppose Him. Because of His sovereign justice He decides the fate of the enemies of His people.
II. If God Is Lord Over Our Enemies…
As a church we believe that God does not want us to fight against our enemies. Admittedly this is a problem in several respects. We wonder how we are to understand the wars of the Old Testament? We wonder how to follow Christ when our country calls for people to participate in the military through conscription? What do we do on a day like this when we are called to remembrance of those who have participated in war? The perspectives on God in these verses help us respond. Actually there are some specific statements that invite certain responses to these thoughts about who God is.
A. Trust Him
One of the things which this passage teaches us is that we can trust God in these situations as well. We do not need to take things into our own hands, but can follow the teaching of Jesus knowing that the sovereign Lord knows us, our situation and will make all things right in the end. When an enemy attacks us personally or attacks our nation, the first thing we can do is to express our hope in God because we know that He is aware and will do what is right.
One of the things which trust implies is that we do not need to take vengeance. In light of that, it is sometimes hard to understand how to view verses like those in Psalm 58 which we read earlier. Walter Brueggemann has a great perspective on it, which also teaches us to trust. He suggests that when someone wrongs us, there are three ways we may choose to respond to it. We can take vengeance, and we see lots of that, but we also see how badly that ends up most often. It results in situations of paying back eye for eye and tooth for tooth, which would result in everyone being toothless and blind. The second response is to do nothing and to simply bury the anger and injustice we experience. The problem with that response is that it usually ends up coming out somewhere else and causing damage for innocent bystanders. The third response is to bring it to God. That is what is happening in Psalm 58. The Psalmist expresses his anger and sense of injustice to God and in so doing chooses to leave it with God. Doing so is trusting God.
So in any situation of conflict, whether personal or national we can trust God. When we trust God, we will find that God will lead us to do what is right, whether it is to speak against injustice, to engage in non-violent protest or to wait until He acts. May we learn to trust God regarding our enemies.
B. Praise Him
The second response which this passage invites is to praise God. The theme of praise to God is found throughout this Psalm. Verses 1, 2 are the words of praise of the Psalmist who declares, "I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High."
God is worthy of praise because of who He is. He is the one enthroned above and He is righteous. So we have every reason to praise Him for His very character.
But He is also worthy of praise because of what He has done. The idea of praising God for what He has done is also found throughout the passage. For example, in verse 13, the psalmist speaks about what he has suffered, but also about how God is the one who "lifts me up from the gates of death." Then in verse 14 he responds to that experience when he says, "so that I may recount your praises."
Instead of complaining and fearing what is happening on the earth, as we are so often tempted to do, we can live in praise to God for all He has done. Last week we had a chance to declare praise to God because of what He has done in Russia and Ukraine. May we often take the time to declare praise to God.
C. Seek Him
The final response I would like to mention is that we can pray. This is what the Psalmist does in verse 13 when he says, "Be gracious to me, O Lord." This part of the prayer is a prayer for relief from personal difficulty and suffering. Many people who are in the midst of battle need the presence of the Lord.
But we can also pray that God will do right when an enemy threatens. In the current battle that is going on in the world, the battle against terrorism, we can respond in the same way. We can pray that God will gain victory over those who threaten and cause fear among the nations. In Psalm 9:19 – 20 we read, "Rise up, O LORD! Do not let mortals prevail; let the nations be judged before you. Put them in fear, O LORD; let the nations know that they are only human." Here we see that the Psalmist prays directly regarding the threatening situation before him. He asks that God will not let human beings prevail. He asks that God will judge the nations. He asks that those who wield power, who seem to think that they have the power to overcome, will know that they are "only human" and he prays that they will recognize that there is a God who rules over all. What a great prayer for us to pray in times of personal and national threat from enemies. Spurgeon said, "Prayers are the believer's weapons of war."
So how do we respond to some of the difficult questions I raised earlier? The knowledge of God as the righteous judge who reigns over all and is involved in our world helps us understand. I personally think it is good for us to remember those who have given their lives and to honor their memory. That does not mean that we have to agree with participation in war. Rather, we can live our lives and speak to the world from the perspective of understanding who God is in these situations. We can point to God as the righteous judge and we can invite trust in Him. We can remind people that He reigns over all and invite praise for all He has done. We can recognize that God cares about the world and about the people and about His kingdom and we can seek Him and pray to Him about all the situations of injustice, hatred and war in the world today.
When we recognize who God it also allows us to be peacemakers because that is what God has called us to in this time. It allows us to work towards peace and to reject violence and leave making things right up to God.
May we trust and praise our just and compassionate king.