10 Does he who disciplines nations not punish? Does he who teaches mankind lack knowledge? 11 The Lord knows all human plans; he knows that they are futile.
16 Who will rise up for me against the wicked? Who will take a stand for me against evildoers?
17 Unless the Lord had given me help, I would soon have dwelt in the silence of death. 18 When I said, ‘My foot is slipping,’ your unfailing love, Lord, supported me. 19 When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy.
20 Can a corrupt throne be allied with you – a throne that brings on misery by its decrees? 21 The wicked band together against the righteous and condemn the innocent to death. 22 But the Lord has become my fortress, and my God the rock in whom I take refuge.
The first lines of many of the Psalms are often used as calls to worship, but not this Psalm. Its opening cry for vengeance jars with modern Western sensibilities. Surely as Christians we shouldn’t have enemies? And didn’t Jesus say that we were to love them? Admittedly there are some psycho Christians who seem to revel in this sort of stuff, paying back your enemies, destroying them for their wickedness, but most of us are well of how much evil has been done in God’s name and know how ‘the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being’ (Solzhenitsyn), including our own.
On the other hand, our discomfort with the opening lines of the Psalm may just be because we enjoy a privileged and rather comfortable place on the planet. Put yourself in the shoes of the victims of people traffickers, the victims of sexual assault or abusive partners and we might find such a prayer on our lips. At the very least we should be mindful of those who might have reason to feel that way. The great Christian poet John Donne wrote ‘No man is an island, entire of itself,’ and we should remember in prayer those who have reason to feel crushed or oppressed or angry.
The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre once remarked that if there is no God then everything is possible. In Sartre’s view that was a good thing but he would have been aware that idea had been expressed a century earlier by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and the Russian writer had meant something quite different. With no objective moral standard, the great Orthodox Christian clearly understood that nothing would stand in the way of exploiting our neighbour, using them as tools for our pleasure or for our profit and such was the attitude of the wicked summed up succinctly in verse 7.
The Psalmist’s response is to turn to God and to be real before him (v. 3). Coming to God in prayer doesn’t always mean our problems go away but it does give a new perspective on them. There are difficult questions about why there is evil and suffering and the Bible, not least in the Psalms, acknowledges that, while confessing that God is not deaf or blind or indifferent or ignorant (v. 10).
In verse 16 the Psalmist switches to activist mode as he calls upon the listeners to stand up against evil. The ultimate victory belongs to God but we are not just passive bystanders to the conflict, we’re recruits. God calls us to actively seek his will on earth and to pursue his justice. There are some who pay the ultimate price for their courage in standing up to the bullies: Sophie Scholl, Franz Jagerstatter, Janan Luwum, Oscar Romero. We may not join them as martyrs but we also are to stand up for what is right, to stand up to the bullies in the workplace, to ensure producers get a decent wage by buying fairly traded products, to tackle modern slavery by supporting the work of organisations like International Justice Mission or Anti Slavery International.
If we are serious about struggling against evil and injustice there is a price to pay (v. 17) but the Psalmist has found that God aids him and supports him (v. 18) and protects him (v. 22) and brings him joy (v. 19). Ultimately God – the good God – will triumph (v. 23).