The Psalms: God’s Will or Mine?

The king rejoices in your strength, Lord.
    How great is his joy in the victories you give!

You have granted him his heart’s desire
    and have not withheld the request of his lips.[b]
You came to greet him with rich blessings
    and placed a crown of pure gold on his head.
He asked you for life, and you gave it to him—
    length of days, for ever and ever.
Through the victories you gave, his glory is great;
    you have bestowed on him splendor and majesty.
Surely you have granted him unending blessings
    and made him glad with the joy of your presence.
For the king trusts in the Lord;
    through the unfailing love of the Most High
    he will not be shaken.

Your hand will lay hold on all your enemies;
    your right hand will seize your foes.
When you appear for battle,
    you will burn them up as in a blazing furnace.
The Lord will swallow them up in his wrath,
    and his fire will consume them.
You will destroy their descendants from the earth,
    their posterity from mankind.
Though they plot evil against you
    and devise wicked schemes, they cannot succeed.
You will make them turn their backs
    when you aim at them with drawn bow.

Be exalted in your strength, Lord;
    we will sing and praise your might.

– Psalm 21

Psalm 21 is a difficult Psalm for a post Holocaust, post 9/11, post Desert Storm world. David is obviously on a high relishing his military victory, revelling in the defeat of his enemies and ascribing his triumph to God’s help.

Sadly, painfully, we know all too well how, in the centuries since David, kings and politicians have all been too quick to enlist God to their war efforts. Back in the 1960s Bob Dylan lacerated this theology when he picked up his guitar and sang, ‘With God on our side.’

Fifty years later we still live in a world where there are people who will willingly drag the divine into conflicts caused by human greed and desire for power.  We see and quickly condemn that tendency in other religions but church history shows a serious blind spot in our own vision, a myopia which confuses the kingdom of God with our own.

David rejoices in the annihilation of God’s enemies (verses 8, 10) but in reality, they are also the king’s enemies, defeated by the king’s armies.  When it comes to war it is all too easy to assume that God is on our side – that’s what Pharaoh thought, it’s what the Babylonians thought, it’s what the Romans thought and it has often been what Christians have thought as well.

The topic of violence in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament invites us to serious thinking, not to superficial platitudes. The demonization of the enemy in David’s euphoria is hard to square with the biblical emphasis on the fallenness of all mankind and difficult to reconcile with God’s love for his enemies exhibited in Christ’s life and words.

Yes David is right, evil will be defeated. Yes, those who trust in God will be protected but let us be aware of the prophet’s words: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things’ (Jeremiah 17:9), and let us not be uncritical about how easy it is to confuse our will with God’s.