The following is a post by Pastor Rob Golding of First Artesia Christian Reformed Church. He also writes for the Westminster Theological Seminary Magazine.
John Calvin called the Psalms the heart of the Bible—not only do they occur toward the middle of our Bibles, but they express the heartbeat of Christianity. Pain, grief, joy, and the desire for victory over enemies are Christian emotions infallibly set down in God’s Word. That last emotion, however, is one that many Christians struggle to apply from the book of Psalms. The enemies (oyiev), foes (tsar), and adversaries (shoreir) of Israel litter the Psalms over a hundred times. What are we, as 21st-century (American) Christians, supposed to do with that? I don’t have any enemies who “trample my life to the ground” (Ps 7:6). I can’t say “my deadly enemies … surround me” (Ps 17:9). Do these Psalms only apply to persecuted Israelites but not Christians?
No, they apply to all Christians. Every believer in Christ is in a struggle more significant than mortal life. We are in the battle of eternal life (Eph 6:12). We must fight against “the schemes of the devil” (Eph 6:11) because he “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8). We have an adversary who is more powerful and who seeks to do more damage than all the nations the Psalmist wrote about. The Amorites, Babylonians, and Egyptians are nothing compared to the schemes of the devil. They can take lives, but the devil wants your soul.
Throughout history, Christians have understood themselves to be in a three-part war. They have seen themselves in a fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil. If we apply the Psalms to that fight, we see that, indeed, they do apply to our battle against worldly powers. That is the context of most of the Psalms. But, we must consider the reason the Israelites were in that earthly fight. It was not for gold or glory or national gain. The fight was always theological. God commanded the Israelites to fight because He knew that if they lost and the nations ruled over them, they would forsake Him. The physical fight was always just the servant to the spiritual battle.
The Psalmist complaining of his physical enemies in Psalm 22 was only a shadow of the real battle. The Psalmist said, “Many bulls have surrounded me; Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me” (Psalm 22:12, LSB). But Jesus fulfills this Psalm when He says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46 // Mark 15:34 citing Psalm 22:1). Jesus quotes the first line of Psalm 22 while He is in the middle of a war with Satan. As the snake’s fangs sunk into the heel that crushed his head (Gen 3:15), our Savior quoted the Psalms of War. He did so to tell us something we dare not forget: “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but … against the spiritual forces of evil” (Eph 6:12).
We are little, limping, often listless warriors following our Great King into battle. Our armor is heavy, and our heads hang low. Our knees shake, and our minds wander. We stray into paths of wickedness and listen with eager ears to the siren songs of the enemy.
The Psalms are our smelling salts. They tell us we are not in a constant physical war like the Israelites. They shout to us that we are in a much more significant conflict. The blades of Bashan and the chariots of Egypt were mere children’s toys—war games for schoolchildren—compared to the weapons of our enemy Satan and his henchman Sin (or, in the words of historic Christians mentioned above, the flesh and the devil).
We drain a significant amount of blood from our spiritual hearts if we neglect so great a gift. When the Psalmist speaks of the enemies he so desperately wants God to kill, we should imagine that pet sin Satan intends to use to drag us to hell. When we read of the incessant desire of the Psalmist’s adversaries, we should think of our own constant temptation to Sin. We should read these poems of war as our poems of war. We should be encouraged not just to sit through hard times but to fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil with our only weapon—the sword of the Spirit. To mix the metaphor, the Psalms are the fuller of the sword (the central groove cut into the middle of the blade to make it easier to wield and simultaneously stronger). They provide easy-to-understand directions and prayers for our warfare; they strengthen us to remain steadfast under the heavy blows of the enemy; they encourage us to fight back.
“Now look around, regret
As the ax swings before your eyes,
think how everyday we spent dreaming
Never once did you pick up the sword
and learn to fight
Now is the time
Pick yourself up and fight
Learn to swing
Learn to swing
What a cunning foe we’ve met
Our horizons pushed pages away to a new fight
A new method, new plan, but how do I train?
How do you ready a child for war?
Oh, what a cunning foe we’ve met”
-Oh Sleeper, “We Are The Archers”
“He trains my hands for battle, So that my arms can bend a bow of bronze. You have also given me the shield of Your salvation.” (Psalm 18:34–35a, LSB)
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