Psalm 83

June 17, 2001

Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

We believe that we can always count on God. But there are Christians, older and more devout than we, who came to a moment in their lives when there was doubt about whether God was there and whether he would help them in their need. What does one do at a moment like that? That’s the lesson that the psalmist of Psalm 83 has to teach us.

In 1978 a woman named Edith Schaeffer, the wife of Francis Schaeffer, and co-founder of L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, wrote a book titled, Affliction. At one point in the book she observes, “There is no place to go to escape the hostility of the evil of the universe. The Fall affects every area of life.” And then she prays a prayer,
Give me strength, Lord, for living this hard moment to Your glory. May I honestly be willing to pay the price that is my part of the whole, because Christ died to make it possible to go on after this particular devastation.

In Psalm 83 the Psalmist confronts a problem that affects the whole nation of Israel. They are surrounded by enemies and they are in doubt about God. It doesn’t get much worse than that. They may not survive. So the Psalmist in verse 1 calls upon God, “O God, do not keep silent.” But in fact that is how things seem.

Notice how the plea proceeds in verses 2-4. “Your enemies are astir.” The enemies are not merely enemies of Israel, they are enemies of God as the Psalmist points out in verse 2, “See how your enemies are astir....” When in April, 1995 Timothy McVeigh set off the bomb blast in Oklahoma City that would kill 168 people, some of them children in a day care in the building, he believed that he knew history - when all he had read was The Turner Diaries, which are propaganda of the American survivalist movement. He imagined he was fighting the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Americans who didn’t agree with him. In a way, McVeigh was like the nations around Israel who had a warped perspective on God and on Israel. McVeigh thought he was in touch with history, but he wasn’t. The nations around Israel had the attitude of verse 3, “With cunning they conspire against your (meaning again, God’s) people; they plot against those you cherish.” So the Psalmist pleads with God to do something.

On what grounds does the Psalmist ask God to intervene?

There are two of them: 1) on the basis of who God is. He is the Most High over all the earth, according to verse 18, and he is Israel’s God, as the Psalmist says in verse 1 and verse 12. Thus God ought to care for injustice and see that it is not acted out. And 2) God can intervene since he did that in the past for the sake of his people. For example, verse 9, “Do to them as you did to Midian....” This argument that asks people to look at what God has done in the past, and then says, “Do it again, God,” is often used in the Psalms. It reminds people that God is consistent. That’s important because the Bible is continually giving us two things at once. The Bible never hides the problems. They are part of this life. On the other hand, the people in the Bible are continually trusting God since what we cannot see but have only heard of is also part of the whole possibility of things.

When we are God’s people and spending time with God as we read the Bible, what we understand about God constantly grows and increases throughout our lives. What we grow in is seeing the breadth, length, depth and height of God’s love. As we grow we become more confident about how God is involved in the world.

But if we concentrate only on this Psalm, we get out of balance. This is a hard Psalm because the Psalmist is so vindictive in the way he asks God to judge their foes. I read one of the well known commentaries on the Bible, The Interpreters Bible. On Psalm 83 the commentator says, “This Psalm is an unending and tedious catalogue of bloody violence.... These factors are largely responsible for the consensus that regards this Psalm as one of the least religious of all the poems in the Psalter.”

I also looked at two hymnals in my collection that contain hymns on most of the Psalms. Psalm 83 is not included in either of them. It is hard to sing the message of this Psalm.

In verses 5-8 the Psalmist names 10 nations lined up against Israel. 10 is one of those perfect numbers the Scripture uses in a way different from the scientific manner in which we use numbers. The Hebrews regarded 10 as a number which was about the character of something rather than a quantity. But there is something else here about those nations we may see if we stare at a map and read verses 6 and 7. Edom, The Ishmaelites, Moab, the Hagrites and the Ammonites are all tribes to the east of Palestine. Gebal, or Byblos as it was called at one period, and Assyria, are nations to the north of Palestine. The Amalekites lived to the south of Palestine; while Philistia and Tyre are to the west of Israel. Israel is literally surrounded by enemies. These nations surrounding Israel are saying, verse 4, “come, let us destroy them as a nation.”

In verses 9-11 the Psalmist recalls times recorded in the book of Judges (chapters 4-8). He mentions Midian and Midian’s leaders, Oreb, Zeeb, Zebah and Zalmunna. And he mentions Sisera and Jabin who are defeated by Deborah and Barak. Jabin was a Canaanite king who lived in Hazor Sisera was the commander of Jabin’s army. God planned great defeats for these enemies of his people. And the Psalmist reminds the people that God had delivered them from their enemies in the past. He wants God to do so again, but the situation is tense and uncertain.

So where do we find balance? Well, we can turn to other passages in the Bible. Isaiah 25:9: “This is our God; we have waited for him and he will save us.” In the Bible we get two things: statements full of hope for God’s deliverance, and statements like those in Psalm 83 where there is uncertainty about what God will do. If we concentrate only on this one Psalm we get out of balance. It would be like during an orchestra concert, listening to the sound of only one instrument. We would be hearing the music out of balance.

What the Scriptures do is they pick up first one note, then another; but we are meant to consider Scripture over a lifetime with a growing understanding yet one that will never come to a point of completion. We are always growing.

In verses 13-17 the Psalmist gives a series of images of the destruction and shaming of these enemies. We can’t help but see they are vindictive images. What is wrong with the images is not merely their intensity, but they place all the blame for the coming war on the enemies around Israel, with no hint that there needs to be repentance among God’s people. In fact, part of the problem in Israel is that there has been no repentance among God’s people for their sins.

What has God’s reaction been toward Israel when there was no justice in the land, and when the poor and widows were oppressed? He sent Assyria and Babylon, the Philistines and Edom against them! So the Psalmist may not be telling us the whole story about the situation behind Psalm 83. We don’t know what the exact situation behind this Psalm is, but we know Israel’s history. They were always going off in a direction askew from God’s laws and God’s will. Maybe God is silent because the foreign armies are meant to bring Israel to repent.

The early Pilgrim settlers in New England were an interesting lot. When a storm destroyed their crops, they turned to God in repentance. When Indians raided, they went to worship and repented. They had learned a lesson from the Old Testament. Today we don’t make any causal connection between harsh circumstances and a lack of repentance. There are too many inexplicable events in the world - or are there?

Do you notice in verse 16, how the Psalmist asks God to cover the faces of their enemies with shame. Our culture is a culture of pride. The culture of the middle east is a shame culture. When something brings shame on a person it demands retaliation. Shame must be dealt with in some way. “May they ever be ashamed,” verse 17 goes on. Shame may lead a person to retaliation, or it may lead to repentance. To not win in battle is shame. But the Psalmist wants God to win the battle so that these hostile people might come to know the Lord and to know, as verse 18 puts it, “that you alone are the Most High over all the earth.”

Let’s say you are pretty good at playing soccer. You’re having a shoot out with some friends and a guy comes on the field and plays way over your head, and that is embarrassing, but then you learn this is Kobe Jones - who plays for the US Olympic team - and then it’s not so bad that a guy like that beat you.

That’s the position the Psalmist wants these nations to be in. They look powerful and unbeatable in their conspiracy, but then someone comes onto the field who whomps them. The Psalmist wants them to recognize this guy - it’s the Lord, Most High over all. Will these enemies acknowledge God? It seems unlikely, but then Nebuchadnezzar did, Constantine did, King Gustav of Sweden did. In the affairs of men, God works in the lives of Kings and Queens, and common people and those who were once hostile to him.

So the end of the matter in this Psalm is an expectation that God will break his silence. We may turn to other Psalms where that in fact happened. But at the time of Psalm 83, either God is going to break these nations to demonstrate that he is the Lord, or he is going to bring Israel to repentance.

What does God need to do in our lives in order that the Grantham Church, and you who are part of it, would come to know that God alone is the Most High over all, including over your life? There are things going on in your life. You’re asking, where is God? It is when you read the Scriptures along with your life that you are enabled to see, the Lord is most high over all!