Thursday, August 5, 2021
Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away a newly-wed groom woke to a very bad morning.
The kingdom’s evil king had sent his henchmen to watch the house of the newly-wed groom. They had orders to kill the groom that morning.
However, and thankfully, the morning was not quite as bad as it might otherwise have been, since the evil king’s assassin-goons were temporarily delayed. They watched the house in vain that morning.
Somehow, the newly-wed bride had received inside information. She had been told what the henchmen actually intended. Together the newlyweds devised a plan. They put a dummy in a bed to make it look like the groom was still there. Then she went to the front door and faced the king’s goony henchmen. She told them, “I am so sorry. I realize you are looking for my husband, but he has fallen ill and is still asleep in bed.” Her ruse bought her newly-wed groom enough time to jump through a side window and slip away.
So what happened to the newly-wed bride? Did she get into trouble? Was she arrested? No, not exactly. Instead, the bride was brought before the evil king. When she arrived, she had another line ready. “Well, you see your royal highness — Daddy dearest — my horrible new husband threatened to kill me — me, your own darling little princess — unless I cooperated and helped him slip away.”
Yes, the evil king was the bride’s own father. The evil king had ordered and arranged for the killing of his new son-in-law.
From the king’s perspective, it was never supposed to have happened in the first place. The evil king never intended for the wedding to happen. He believed he had come up with a clever way to conveniently get rid of a popular young rival. The evil king proclaimed that he would give his own daughter in marriage to the young man, who had served him as a courageous military commander, if only the young man would go collect one hundred enemy scalps. Except, you should know that I am using the word scalps as a euphemism for some other circle of skin. The evil king believed that, given the odds against him, the courageous young military commander would surely meet a lamentable defeat, and heroically face his untimely demise. It was an altogether convenient strategy, a win-win for everyone involved. The evil King would win total unrivaled control. And his young courageous commander would win a place in history as a tragic, glorious martyr.
The young courageous military commander agreed that the king’s proposition would result in a win-win. He would win the king’s daughter. And the king would win a battle against his enemies. So he happily agreed to the king’s proposal. He determined to go collect not one hundred enemy “scalps,” but two hundred. And… surprise, surprise… he succeeded. He won the battle. Consequently, the king had to deliver.
From the king’s perspective, the wedding was never supposed to have happened. But then it did. It was all very awkward and embarrassing for the king, who envied the young commander. And now the young commander was his son-in-law.
Desperate times call for extreme measures, they say. The king deemed this a particularly desperate time. The young courageous commander was far too successful and far too popular, even among the king’s own children. Years before, the king’s own son, the heir apparent, had become the commander’s best friend. And then, the commander had managed to beat the odds and win the king’s daughter as his bride. The king would not watch everything slip away without a fight. He seethed with resentment and jealousy. His throne was in jeopardy. His new son-in-law had to die, and die as soon as possible.
By the way, this story is not original to me. And I am not making any of this up. I am simply retelling an old, old story. This is all in the Old Testament, in the Bible.
The king’s name is Saul. The young commander’s name is David. You can find this story for yourself in the Book of First Samuel, chapters eighteen and nineteen. Go ahead and check if I have retold the story accurately.
Spoiler alert: David does eventually end up winning the throne. He becomes king. But before he does, King Saul spends a lot of time and effort trying unsuccessfully to kill him.
I write all this because it is the back story to a Psalm, Psalm 59.
Psalm 59 caught my attention because it contains what appears to be two contradictory requests. In verse 11 the Psalmist prays that God would not kill his enemies. But then in verse 13 the Psalmist prays for God to consume his enemies, consume them until they are no more.
This makes no sense whatsoever. It seems like a complete contradiction: “Please don’t kill my adversaries, God — just completely consume them.”
But it does make sense if and when you understand the backstory. The Psalmist is none other than David. His adversaries include his father-in-law, once-close friends, and former comrades. The Psalmist does not want them to die. But he does want God to eliminate their threats and the vicious smear campaign. So he prays that God will undo them.
Crucially, the word for consume in the original language — the Hebrew language — also means finish. David wants God to finish his adversaries, but not necessarily kill them.
The word for consume or finish might also connote their eventual destruction, as opposed to their immediate destruction. If that is the case, then David desires that God would give them more time before their demise. Considering that they had tried to kill him, why would David want them to live any longer, though? Perhaps his motives are noble. Perhaps he desires both vindication and reconciliation.
In the second half of verse 11 David further explains why he does not want any of them to meet an untimely, premature death. “Lest they forget,” he says. “Do not kill them, lest my people forget.” David wants “his” people not to forget what happened. Might he want not just his loyal subjects, but even his old adversaries alive to remember?
That assumption works best, I think. David wants even his opponents to witness his victory and his vindication, so that they will realize that they were wrong all along. He wants them to remember the lies they once believed, wants them to see their error, and wants them to realize that they had him wrong. In other words, he is praying for his vindication and for their potential conversion. David does not want them dead. Instead, he wants God to bring their hostility to an end. He wants to finish them off as adversaries, but not as individuals.
Unless you know the backstory, the Psalm does not make sense. But once you do know the backstory, not only does it make sense, it also serves as a good example of how to pray for those who do you wrong.
Do not kill them, God. Just undo what they have errantly said and done; and let everyone who witnessed the fiasco observe how it all ends, and thereafter recall who was wrong and who was right.
In other words, Psalm 59 is a prayer not for vengeance, but for vindication.
Personally, I like that prayer. I like it a lot.