Enemies and Sons
I didn’t want to preach on this Psalm this morning. But my wife made me do it.
Let me explain what I mean by that. Psalm 35, which we just read together, is one of those Psalms where David or another Psalmist prays for God’s judgement against his enemies. They are known as the “imprecatory Psalms,” because the word “imprecation” basically means “curse.” These are Psalms of curse against one’s enemies.
And these Psalms aren’t exactly my favourites. And if they are your favourites you might have a problem. I didn’t exactly want cursing to be the notes we ended on in our last stop in the Psalms this summer.
But we can’t ignore these Psalms. There’s well over a dozen specifically focused on this theme, and there are many more Psalms which include at least a verse or two asking God to judge their enemies, or celebrating the fact that He will.
We even find this in Psalm 63 which we love so much. “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you” (Psalm 63:1). But you know what you find towards the end of that Psalm? “But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth; they shall be given over to the power of the sword; they shall be a portion for jackals” (Psalm 63:9–10).
That part never makes its way into praise choruses today, does it? But it’s there, and we can’t ignore it.
Probably the biggest reason I chose to preach on an imprecatory Psalm this morning is that a number of you ladies are reading through the Psalms together this summer. And my wife told me that the question has come up in her Bible reading group: “What are we supposed to do with these Psalms? How do these fit with Jesus’ command to ‘love our enemies?’”
And so that’s why I said that my wife made me do this today. Aimee really encouraged me that preaching on one of these Psalms would be helpful, especially to you ladies who are reading through them together in these months.
At the same time, I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m apologizing for Psalm 35 or others like it. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable,” says 2 Timothy 3:16. That includes the imprecatory Psalms. These words of judgement and curse are the word of the living God and so we don’t need to apologize for them or dance around them. But we do need to understand them.
And, with God’s help, that’s what we’re going to do this morning. We’re going to walk through Psalm 35, consider who the characters are, what the situation is, and what is being prayed for. Then we’ll step back and consider a number of truths both from this Psalm and from the rest of the Bible that help us process and understand what’s going on here.
As we start by walking through Psalm 35 itself, we see that this Psalm divides somewhat evenly into three sections. The first section is vv. 1-10, the second is vv. 11-18, and the third is vv. 19-28. We’ll refer to these as the three movements in Psalm 35 as we walk through them one at a time.
Movement 1: vv. 1-10
Let’s start at the beginning of movement 1. Verse 1 really sums up the whole idea of this Psalm: “Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me!” (Psalm 35:1). People are fighting against David, and in response David is asking God to fight against them. Verses 2 and 3 go on to picture God like a warrior picking up weapons to fight against David’s enemies while speaking words of comfort and promise to David’s soul.
If we scan verses 4 and 7 we get a picture of what these enemies were doing to David and why he was calling out for help. In verse 4 we see that they were seeking after his life and devising evil against him—dreaming up evil plans. Verse 7 says that “without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life.” These people are schemers, setting up traps to try to ruin David and bring him down.
This is a really important theme in Psalm 35 and many of the other imprecatory Psalms. David didn’t write this Psalm about his “normal” enemies like the Philistines or the Amalekites. No; Psalm 35, and others like it, were written when David’s friends betrayed him and became his enemies. He hasn’t done anything wrong to them, but they are after his life.
And so in response to this, David prays in verse 4 that they will be shamed and dishonoured, turned back and disappointed. In verse 5 he prays that they’ll be like chaff before the wind, powerless and meaningless as the angel of Yahweh drives them away. In verse 6, he prays that their “way”—the whole course of their life—will be dark and dangerously slippery, again with Yahweh’s angel pursuing them.
And in verse 8 he prays that the evil plans they had worked up for David would come back upon themselves. That they would fall into the nets that they had spread for David.
So already I think we’re seeing a bit of a picture emerge here. These are no ordinary enemies. These are wicked traitors who are trying to bring David down for no good reason. And David is praying that God will fight for him and bring their evil plans back upon themselves.
It’s really important to notice that this first movement ends with a statement of praise to God. David anticipates that God is going to save Him, and when that happens, verse 9, “my soul will rejoice in the Lord, exulting in his salvation.” Notice the joyful worship, like we discussed last week? Verse 10: “All my bones shall say ‘O Lord, who is like you, delivering the poor from him who is too strong for him, the poor and needy from him who robs him?”
We see this idea again of David being the innocent victim of powerful oppressors who who rob the poor and take advantage of the powerless. But David’s hope is that God will answer and save him, and he looks forward to praising God when He does this.
Movement 2: vv. 11-18
Let’s consider the second movement, from verses 11-18. This movement focuses on the how wicked these enemies are, and how different they are from David.
“Malicious witnesses rise up; they ask me of things that I do not know” says verse 11. The picture here is that David is in a courtroom, and these people are coming to ask him trick questions in order to get him into trouble. Verse 11: “They repay me evil for good; my soul is bereft” (Psalm 35:12). “Bereft” means “bereaved,” like a parent who has lost a child. That’s how his soul feels as they heap evil upon him, despite the fact that David has done them nothing but good.
That’s what he explains in verses 13-14: “But I, when they were sick— I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting; I prayed with head bowed on my chest. I went about as though I grieved for my friend or my brother; as one who laments his mother, I bowed down in mourning” (Psalm 35:13–14).
Once again, these are no ordinary enemies. These are people who were close to David, whom he cared about. When they were sick, he grieved for them as if they were his own family. He showed them so much kindness and compassion.
Verse 15: “But at my stumbling they rejoiced and gathered; they gathered together against me; wretches whom I did not know tore at me without ceasing; like profane mockers at a feast, they gnash at me with their teeth” (Psalm 35:15–16).
Something bad has happened to David, whether he’s gotten sick or fallen into some hard times like he experienced many times in his life. And rather than showing him the love he showed them, they are gathering around him to have a party. They are celebrating his suffering, and treating David 100% opposite of how he treated them.
And so he prays, in verse 17, “How long, O Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their destruction, my precious life from the lions!” Here, he is simply praying to be delivered and saved from these people who are too powerful for him.
And then this second movement ends with another outburst of praise in verse 18: “I will thank you in the great congregation; in the mighty throng I will praise you.” Once again, he’s looking ahead to God saving him, and he can’t wait to praising God for that together with His people.
Movement 3: vv. 19-28
In verse 19 we come to the final movement in this Psalm. And this section is full of requests for God to do justice on his enemies. “Let not those rejoice over me who are wrongfully my foes, and let not those wink the eye who hate me without cause” says verse 19. “Winking they eye” refers to using little signals, perhaps again in a courtroom setting, to pass secret messages that will cause David harm.
Verses 20 and 21 further describe the kinds of words that these people are using to hurt David. Words can do so much damage, can’t they? And these enemies are using their words expertly. “They devise words of deceit” says verse 20.
So again David prays. Verse 22: “You have seen, O Lord; be not silent! O Lord, be not far from me!” He asks in verse 23 that God would get up and come fight for him. In verse 24, he asks that God would be the judge who would vindicate David, setting the record straight by declaring that David was not wicked like these people were suggesting. In verse 25 he prays that his enemies won’t get what they want: “Let them not say in their hearts, ‘Aha, our heart’s desire!’ Let them not say, “We have swallowed him up.’” In other words, “Don’t give them what they want, God.”
In verse 26, David makes his final request regarding these enemies. “Let them be put to shame and disappointed altogether who rejoice at my calamity! Let them be clothed with shame and dishonor who magnify themselves against me!”
In that culture, being shamed and dishonoured was a really big deal. It was like getting “cancelled” in our culture. Your reputation would be dirt for the rest of your life.
And that’s what David prays will happen to his enemies. He prays that they would wear their shame like clothes that will cover them and go with them wherever they go.
And then, just like the previous two movements, this final movement ends with hope and praise. Verse 27: “Let those who delight in my righteousness shout for joy and be glad and say evermore, ‘Great is the Lord, who delights in the welfare of his servant!’ Then my tongue shall tell of your righteousness and of your praise all the day long” (Psalm 35:27–28).
When God steps in to save, the result will be that God is honoured and worshipped as the One who cares for His servants. God will be worshipped as great and righteous. And so David’s whole prayer here in Psalm 35 is ultimately about that. “Hallowed be your name.”
And that’s what Psalm 35 is about. David is in a weak and vulnerable spot in life. And people who should be his friends are instead gathering around to take advantage of him. They are celebrating his suffering and are scheming in order to hurt him even further. And so David prays that God would glorify Himself by saving David, and turning back upon David’s enemies the evil they were plotting for him.
Now my guess is that most of us are mostly okay with this Psalm, except for that last part I just mentioned. We understand David praying to be rescued from his enemies. But the part we struggle with is David praying that his enemies would suffer. When he asks God to turn them into chaff, chased along a dark and slippery way, wearing life-long shame and ultimately being destroyed.
So what are we to make of all that? Is David wrong to ask God to destroy his enemies? And how does this jive with Jesus’ command that we love our enemies? And do Psalms like Psalm 35 have anything to do with you and I today?
To answer those questions, we’re going to consider four truths. Two of them come from Psalm 35, and to of them come from other places in the Bible. And I trust that these four truths together will help us make sense of Psalm 35 and see how it fits in with the rest of the Bible and even our lives today.
1. Sin is a Big Deal
The first truth to help us understand Psalm 35 is to remember that sin is a really big deal. And this is a truth that comes right out of Psalm 35 and the other Psalms like it. Sin is a really big deal.
We need to be reminded of this because we live in a world that tends to downplay sin and make it out to be no big deal. Psalm 35 shatters through that illusion to remind is of just how ugly and awful sin really is.
When David’s enemies took advantage of the weak, oppressed the vulnerable, celebrated when someone is sick, and schemed to trap an innocent person, these were awful, ugly, terrible sins.
And so we should understand that David prays that these people who do these things will be beaten like chaff and chased down dark and slippery ways by God’s pursuing angel, he’s not overreacting. That punishment is exactly what their sin deserved.
This is a really important lesson we need to apply any time we read something in the Bible that seems harsh. We can either assume that we know what’s best and say “Wow, David or even God is really overreacting there.” Or, we can say “Wow, sin must be a bigger deal than I think.”
We talked about this a couple of months ago when we looked at Genesis 3. Adam and Eve ate a fruit, and God cursed the whole universe as a result. Either God was overreacting, or sin is a much bigger deal than we tend to think. And if we understand that all Scripture is breathed out by God, then I hope we know which is the right option.
And that’s what Psalm 35 and others like it remind us of. What David prays for his enemies is exactly what their sins deserve, which reminds us of the fact that sin is a really big deal.
So that’s the first truth that Psalm 35 teaches us, and which helps us understand this Psalm and the many like it.
2. David Is Praying for God’s Justice, Not Personal Revenge
The second truth that helps us understand this Psalm is to notice something so obvious but so important: in Psalm 35, and the many others like it, David is praying for God to judge his enemies.
Just think about that. David is not plotting personal revenge. He’s not saying, “When I’m better, I’m going to go out there and show those guys who’s boss.” Rather, he is praying for God to do justice. “God, you deal with these people. You do what you’ve promised to do. You give them what they deserve.”
And David has a pretty good basis for these prayers. God promised in Deuteronomy 28 and 29 to punish the people who broke His covenant. He promised that whoever cursed His people would be cursed (Genesis 12:3, Numbers 24:9).
And David is simply asking God to do this. He’s not taking matters in to his own hands. He’s not taking revenge. He’s praying for the God of justice to do what He promised.
And that’s the second truth, right out of Psalm 35, that helps us understand what’s really going on here. First, sin is a really big deal. Second, this is about God’s justice, not personal revenge.
Next, we’re going to consider two truths from outside of Psalm 35 which further help us understand what’s going on here.
3. We Need to Remember the Real Battle
The third truth is that we need to remember the real battle. Any time we see conflict in the Bible, we need to remember the big picture of where that conflict comes from. Where did it start? And what is it all about?
The starting point for all conflict in the Bible is found in Genesis 3:15, when “The Lord God said to the serpent… ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel’” (Genesis 3:15).
“Enmity” sounds like the word for “enemy,” and it kind of means the same thing. God told Satan that his offspring and Eve’s offspring were going to be enemies with each other from that point on. They were going to be at war until the offspring of Eve won that war by crushing the serpent once and for all.
So often when we hear this we think right away about Jesus crushing Satan on the cross. And that’s right. But it’s easy for us to forget that part part about the offspring of the serpent always being at war with the offspring of the woman.
So who are the offspring of the serpent? And the Bible tells us that the offspring of the serpent are the people who act like the serpent.
Do you remember John the Baptist? “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’” (Matthew 3:7). “Brood of vipers” means “baby snakes.” The Pharisees and Sadducees were the offspring of the serpent because they acted like the serpent. They had serpentine hearts just like the devil.
Jesus said the same thing to them later on in John 8:44: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” 1 John 3:8 opens it up even more: “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.”
And we need to remember this truth any time we see a conflict between the righteous and the unrighteous. Any time we see God’s people being persecuted or oppressed by the wicked, what we are seeing is the offspring of the serpent at war with the true offspring of the woman. God’s people and Satan’s people in conflict.
With that in mind it’s important to see how many times David compares his enemies to beasts. Verse 15 and 16 describe this group of people gathering around David to tear at him and gnash their teeth at him. The animalistic picture is even clearer in verse 21 where they “open wide their mouths against me,” and in verse 25 where they are saying “we have swallowed him up.”
This kind of language is used many times in the Psalms to describe the enemies of God’s people. They are like wild beasts, coming in for the kill, and that perfectly fits with this big picture that these enemies are the offspring of the serpent. Sons of the snake.
And so when David prays for God to crush their enemies, once again he’s simply praying for God to do what He promised to do back in Genesis 3:15. And whether he knew it or not, he was ultimately praying for the Messiah to come and do away with sin once and for all.
So that’s the third truth that helps us understand Psalm 35 and others like it. We need to remember the big picture and the real battle between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the snake.
4. “Love Your Enemies” Isn’t the Last Word
But even after all of that, there may still be some doubt bouncing around in your mind. Because didn’t Jesus tell us to love our enemies?
““You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:43–45).
Jesus is telling us to love our enemies the way that God loves His enemies. And it’s surely true that God is not quick to anger. He is patient and kind and sends rain on the just and the unjust. Just think about the fact that at this very moment there are wicked, God-hating people all over this world who are enjoying sunshine and warm breakfasts and the love of their families. God is showing a certain kind of love to His enemies in billions of ways right now, and we’re called to do the same.
But we also need to recognize that this love that God has for his enemies is not his final word. There is a day coming when the wicked will be judged and people will receive from God what they actually deserve.
Just consider these words from 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, where Paul writes that God about the strong faith that the Thessalonians had in spite of the persecution they were experiencing.
And he says that God “considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:6–9).
God is going to do that some day. And that’s in the New Testament. So is this passage from Acts 17:30-31: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31).
This whole idea that God was tough in the Old Testament and soft in the New Testament just doesn’t line up with the Bible itself. Jesus is the righteous judge who will crush His enemies and so the call of the gospel is a command to repent before it’s too late.
That’s very different from how we often preach the gospel here in North America, isn’t it? We like the sound of “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” We don’t so much like the sound of “God commands you to repent because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world.” But which of those two is more in line with how the apostles actually preached the gospel?
And so when we turn back to Psalm 35, we see it reminding us that Jesus Himself is coming to crush his enemies. He is coming to pour out his wrath on the offspring of the serpent, those who oppress and harass and persecute God’s people. He is going to give His enemies exactly what they deserve, just like David prayed for in Psalm 35.
What About Us?
So can you and I pray Psalm 35, and others like it, for our enemies today? The answer is most certainly. Just like Paul with the Thessalonians, when we see God’s people persecuted and oppressed by Satan’s offspring, we can cry out to God and take comfort in the fact that His just judgement is coming.
In fact, in Luke 18 Jesus specifically taught us to pray for justice against our enemies. “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily” (Luke 18:7–8).
But let’s never forget that we don’t take matters into our own hands. We let God deal with His enemies. And until Christ returns in judgement, we use every opportunity to show them love. We long for our enemies to repent and be saved and become our brothers and sisters. If they won’t, judgement is coming. But how much better it is when they do repent and are saved.
Because the amazing truth of the gospel is that the worst enemy of God can be saved because on the cross, Jesus was treated like God’s enemy in our place. On the cross, God the father took up shield and buckler and marched out in wrath against His own son. “It was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10). Jesus experienced the curse of God, and all of the darkness and shame and dishonour in the world, as He hung on that Roman cross.
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:13–14).
Let Psalm 35 remind us that the Son of God was treated like an enemy of God so that enemies of God—like you and I—could become sons and daughters of God.
Our sin is a really big deal. We deserve the worst that Psalm 35 describes. And Christ took it all for us.
If you don’t know Jesus this morning, I invite you to come and receive from Him this mercy that he offers us. Because the offer won’t last forever. There is a day coming when He will judge the world in righteousness. Repent today while you still have the chance.
And if you do know Christ, may Psalm 35 send is out of here rejoicing in the gospel which has saved us, loving our enemies, and longing for the day when Jesus will return and make all things new.