Continuing my translation of book 3 of the Psalms, with comment.
A song. An Asaph Psalm
Don’t keep silence, God, or hold your peace,
Don’t stay quiet, God! Listen,
Your enemies are roaring;
Those who hate you have raised their heads;
They make crafty plans against your people;
They plot against the one you protect,
Saying, “Come, let’s annihilate them as a nation
So that the name of Israel be remembered no more.”
They have taken counsel together;
Against you they have made a treaty:
The tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites
Moab and the descendants of Hagar;
Gebal and Ammon and Amalek
The Philistines and the people of Tyre;
Assyria too has become their ally,
A strong arm for the children of Lot.
Do to them what you did to Midian,
To Sisera and Jabin at the Kishon river:
Wiped out in warfare at Endor
They were dung for the dusty ground.
Make their chiefs like Oreb and Zeeb
their nobility like Zebah and Zalmunna
For they said, Let’s possess for ourselves
The pastures of God.
Yes God, make them like thistledown,
Like chaff before the breeze.
As fire consumes the forest
As flame scorches the mountains
Harrass them with your hurricane
And terrify them with your storm-wind.
Fill their faces with dishonour
That they may seek out your name, Yahweh!
Let them be ashamed and terrified forever!
Let them die in disgrace!
Let them know that you alone, whose name is Yahweh,
Are the Most High over all the earth.
This is certainly the sort of prayer we would like to pray when people are treating us badly. Superior believers who deprecate the eye- for-an-eye anger of it, have probably never been in physical danger, far less been in a country attacked by a massive coalition of neighbours. We can also see, that for all the vigour of the prayer, the violence envisaged is defensive, and the victory is to be achieved in God’s power.
It is unclear whether the psalm refers to a particular incident, or whether it gives details typical of many such attacks. It does seem to come from a time well before the Exile, and uses as its historical encouragement an incident from the time of the Judges, celebrated in the Song of Deborah, (Judges 5) -the attack on Israel by Jabin and his general, Sisera, who was killed by a tent peg in the head. Oreb, Zeeb, Zebah and Zalmunna were Midianites killed in the campaign waged by Gideon (Judges 7,8).
For all the petitioning of God, it is clear from the historical examples, that Israel will have to defend itself. God will not do it all on his own, but may inspire his people and its leaders. Still the psalmist assumes that the enemies of his people are also enemies of God. This is a slightly troubling assumption, especially as it continues to be held by pious Israelis today. There is nevertheless every reason to believe that God is opposed to any nation that wants to attack, defeat and dominate another.
But what is expected of God? On the face of it, he has to summon up a tornado to disperse the invading army. That sounds impressive but perhaps most armies were used enough to the extreme weather events of the region. More likely the psalmist is asking for a personal appearance of the “God of armies” at the head of Israel’s troops. Doubtless those who believed he was there would fight with supernatural fury.
At first it seems that such a defeat is meant to turn the enemy’s mind towards Yahweh, but further curses envisage the enemies dying in disgrace, pursued by the terror of God.
There is a large gap between this theology which interprets God’s choice of Israel as a kind of justified favouritism ( if they obey, God will defend them) and that of Isaiah 53 which interprets it as a vocation to be God’s suffering servant. Wise interpreters will want to include both of these in their sense of being God’s people. Robust opposition to wrongdoers ought not to exclude witness to God’s love and a readiness to suffer in making that witness; while a commitment to being the suffering servant of God’s love ought not to exclude a robust defence of one’s community and opposition to the wrongdoer.