By Jon Berry
“IT IS NOT ENEMIES WHO TAUNT ME – I COULD bear that; it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me – I could hide from them. But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company…” – Psalm 55, v. 12-14
You don’t have to go far into Psalms to discover its preoccupation with conflict. It is the subject of the first sentence of the first Psalm: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked.” (Ps 1:1) Psalms – lyrical, beautiful, beloved Psalms – is teeming with conflict. Of the about 1,100 times that the words “enemy,” “enemies,” “wicked,” or “evil” occur in the Old Testament, 25% are in Psalms. No other book in the O.T. comes close.
It’s tempting to gloss over – to see the seething as products of a violent, bygone era, or religion-building (“It appears to belong to the invention of piety that one considers certain people as enemies,” writes one scholar), or to turn it into a metaphor for illness or inner conflict.
But as I write this, troops of one of the world’s powers are massed on the border of a smaller nation. Every morning, when I walk to work, I pass by the 9/11 memorial at the site of the former World Trade Center in Manhattan.
I sometimes harbor notions that I'm above conflict. I'm a member of the Society of Friends, after all, one of the traditional peace churches. But, in truth, I'm not. It piles up in my email inbox. And in life. Some is political; something I am part of because of a group I belong to. Some, though, is personal. The question is, what do I do with it?
In Psalms, we have, handed down through thousands of years, ritualized ways of dealing with conflict. Rather than quashing dark feelings like anger and fear, Psalms gives voice to them. And it does so in specific, stylized ways. “Complaint” Psalms articulate, in often wrenching detail, what the speaker is going through – in Ps 55, turmoil made all the more acute because it turns out to be at the hand of a friend.
“With speech smoother than butter, but with a heart set on war; with words that were softer than oil, but in fact were drawn swords,” the psalmist has been set up.
But complaint psalms don’t leave it at that. Each, as a prayer, becomes an address to God containing a request: What, specifically, does the psalmist want? Sometimes it is revenge; sometimes refuge, redemption, or peace (requests made, importantly, to God, rather than taken into the speaker's own hands). In Ps 55, it seems to be some of each. Complaint Psalms also include an expression of trust (e.g. “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you” in Ps 55). Most also have a promise to praise God. And insofar as the Psalms were voiced aloud in the congregation, they were communal as well. It’s thought that Ps 55 was said with its foe present – a direct challenge, in the presence of the community.
I’m not sure, 2,000-plus years on, if the ways we handle conflict are so much better.
To read Psalm 55, click here.
The word counts above are based on my key-word searches using the online New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) Bible. The New Testament, if you’re wondering, has a bit under 500 occurrences of “enemy,” “enemies,” “wicked,” and “evil.” But it’s also a shorter collection.