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I will call upon the Lord . . . and so shall I be saved from mine enemies. Psalm 18

I pray the Psalms daily. I use the Daily Office, and I pray through the whole Psalter every two months. I therefore find myself praying against my enemies. All the time. My adversaries. Those who are against me. Those who hate me.

I pray that God deliver me from them, and deal with them, and punish them. I would not pray this if I made up my own morning prayers. It’s a preoccupation of the Psalter, and if you pray the Daily Office, you have to come to terms with it, or at least get used to it. (C. S. Lewis wrote about it in his Reflections on the Psalms.) Indeed, salvation, in the Psalter, pretty much equals liberation from our enemies. And this is echoed twice in the morning canticle of the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah, from Luke 1.

Who are these enemies? The wicked? The ungodly? Gentiles? Other Jews? Who were the enemies of the Psalmist, or of David, or of Israel? Well, in one case, they were those Babylonians “who required of us a song.” In another case, it was “my own special friend who broke bread with me.” And in another case, it is simply “those whose portion in life is this world; whose bellies you fill with your treasure, who are well supplied with children, and leave their wealth to their little ones.” Yes, there’s envy in this talk of enemies, along with resentment directed back at God. Do I really want to be praying these thoughts so frequently in the morning?

One way to handle this language is to make “my enemies” a metaphor for my own sins and weaknesses. My enemies are internal. They are my desires, my appetites, and my temptations that trouble me. Or they may be external, as in the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Fair enough, and I guess this works, but it strikes me as overly pious. And the Psalmist knows how to pray about personal failures (Psalms 32 and 51) without doing it in terms of enemies.

Our Lord had enemies. So if I pray the Psalms with “the mind of Christ,” I can make the enemies the opponents and adversaries of the Lord Jesus, especially those who crucified him. But of course the Reformation hymns and catechisms tell me that I, even in my best self, am to be included in that number: “I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.”

To spiritualize my enemies in these ways too easily collapses the category. It is clear from the epistles of the New Testament that believers will have real enemies. And some of these enemies are within the church! The Johannine epistles speak of the “antichrists” (which I take to be a category rather than a particular individual) who cannot exist without a Christ. St. Paul has many enemies within the church, including those who once were with him but then turned against him.

So who are these enemies for me? Those who oppose my plans or take what’s mine? Those who hold to a different gospel? Those who claim the same ground as I do, forcing us to be opponents? Or those who actually mean to do me harm? I don’t know of anyone who means to do me harm, but I do know of sincere Christians who oppose my views and are willing to contest me on them, claiming the same ground, without room for both of us. I have such opponents right now, for example, who are ascendant in my denomination (the Reformed Church in America). They might not mean me any harm, but their convictions do harm others, in my estimation, which makes us enemies.

To try to identify and fix the number of my enemies is probably a mistake. When it comes to my own soul, it is better simply to acknowledge the category and the reality, and leave the reckoning of it with God, which is precisely what I do in prayer: I leave it with God. So it’s not that I have no enemies, but rather that I am to love them. And for me to do that, I very much need to begin my day with prayer.

When the Lord Jesus, in Luke 6, gathered his disciples, he told them: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. . .Woe to you when all speak of well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

But we American and Canadian Christians have long assumed that the public culture is on our side. (The United Church of Canada was created by an act of Parliament, for Pete’s sake.) Even if Christendom is over, even if we are no longer granted the preferments we once had, and even if our privileges, which remain substantial, are gradually being straitened, we still assume that the culture will be generally on our side and not oppose us. We expect “the good will of all the people” that the church first had in Acts 2, despite the persecution that followed six chapters later.

Granted, many conservative, evangelical, and fundamentalist Christians right now believe that their practice is under attack by real enemies in the American body politic (and the liberal churches?). Many of these Christians believe that they must fight back, aggressively, and for some, even violently. Despite Josh Hawley’s appeal to Abraham Kuyper, this is not the antithetical stance of Kuyperianism. Kuyper balanced Common Grace with sophisticated statecraft, and sought real participation in public life alongside, and even common ground with, his confessional opponents. Its enemies were not people or even institutions, but beliefs and ideas (which are not nothing!).

We good-citizen Protestants operate with a remarkable combination of a Christian belief that the world must eventually end so badly that only the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus can save it, together with the general American and Canadian assumptions of progress and freedom for all. The latter assumption is beginning publicly to be doubted, of course, because of climate change and economic stresses, and not from biblical convictions. But we nice Protestants still rely on this notion of progress for the comfort of our churches and our schools. And although we pray for Jesus to come again, you would hardly know it by our behavior, especially as we avoid the distasteful chiliasm of the pre-millennial evangelicals and fundamentalists. We have little to say about the End Times, nor do we bother to apply the Bible’s eschatological categories to our current cultural realities. Let’s just keep funding our Christian schools and plant new churches to replace our dwindling old ones, and by our good behavior keep the public in our favor.

Hendrikus Berkhof
1914-1995

The late Dutch theologian Hendrikus Berkhof did have things to say about the End Times in relation to our cultural realities. You might not expect this because he was no evangelical (in the North American sense), nor defensive about Christian culture, but highly respected in his public university (Leiden) and an ecumenical leader in the World Council of Churches. (Indeed, many Dutch Calvinists thought him a liberal.) Yet, in his view, we must count on having enemies — real enemies of the faith and of the Gospel.

Berkhof develops his argument that the Gospel has both a positive and negative impact in the world in his book Christ—The Meaning of History, and then he lays it out again in the final “eschatological” chapters of his dogmatics, The Christian Faith. He proposes that secularization is both a good fruit of the Gospel and then increasingly, perhaps inevitably, an enemy of it. When the Christian gospel enters the pagan world it liberates human beings from their bondage to the gods, but then, when liberated human beings either avoid or come around to reject the Lordship of Christ, they set themselves up as free from God and laws unto themselves, and become implicitly the enemies of God.

Our recent centuries are full of examples, in ever new forms. As these post-Christian movements gain power, the Christian community remains tolerable only as much as it is no threat. And so we will have enemies. (My summary does poor justice to Berkhof’s argument, and to gain perspective on the grand strategy of our evangelical mission he is well worth a read.)

But optimism about the world is not the same as Well-Founded Hope, to cite another of Berkhof’s titles. Realism about our enemies is not grounds for despair or defensiveness, and the New Testament carries none of the envy and resentment that one finds in the Psalms. In the same chapter of Luke 6 where the Lord Jesus offers his disciples those blessings and woes, he goes on to instruct his disciples, several times, to love their enemies and to do them good (with alarming examples). It would seem that the worse the opposition of my enemies, the greater is the call to love them and do them good, as challenging as that might be.

St. Luke closes the Book of the Acts with the cheery note that St. Paul lived in Rome “two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” St. Paul was being guarded by Roman soldiers who, ironically, kept him safe. One good reason not to count up your enemies is that the very same people are sometimes enemies and sometimes not. Such is the wonderful working of God’s providence, and the hidden secret of the Kingdom.

Opposition cannot be excised from our experience of faith. And, except when we are hurt or angry, it is probably a much larger component of our faith than we comfortable North American Protestants acknowledge to ourselves. So then, can I say that my enemies are a gift of God to me? I’m not sure, but I can certainly say that my having enemies is a benefit of God’s peculiar way with us within the world, even if it’s a benefit that is problematic and unwelcomed. I can’t explain this thought, and I don’t have to, as it’s one that you either recognize or don’t. And if you don’t, well then a pox on you and on your house.

Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter lives in New Paltz, New York and is a retired pastor and teacher in the Reformed Church in America.

12 Comments

  • Dan, you have done it again. What a wonderful and thought-provoking discussion. Thank you.

  • mstair says:

    Loaded piece today! Generated so many thoughts!
    This one required me to write out to begin to understand it …

    From your quote, “As these post-Christian movements gain power, the Christian community remains tolerable only as much as it is no threat. And so we will have enemies.”

    The effect of the Gospel on humans is as a point-in-time in this temporal reality – and (at the same time) a linear one in God’s non-temporal eternal reality. If we, the earth-bound converted, could just stop promoting our personal missions (after our change of heart) and simply live in Grace : receiving the gifts of spirit and bearing the fruit of those gifts …

  • David Hoekema says:

    Provocative and insightful. It will always be hard to know how to read some of those Psalms (and whether to skip them when young ears are listening) but your reflections help put them in context.
    And we’d all better rush to our local bookstores before all the Hendrikus Berkhof titles sell out, now that you’ve alerted us to his still relevant political theology.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      David, you might like his Two Hundred Years of Theology, which has an awful lot of philosophy in it. It surveys the various attempts (mostly failures) by theologians to make epistemological bridges to the various critical philosophies of Europe since Kant.

  • John K says:

    What a tour de force, Daniel! Exhaustive. Even Kuiper and Berkhof!
    And your last sentence. LOL. Love the humor there.
    For us “both/and” Christians, it’s tough to be reminded of the Us vs Them, “either/or” Christians.
    May the chaff IN ME get gathered up and destroyed. That is enemy enough. Now. . .and then.

  • Daniel Miller says:

    Love the last line!

  • Jodi MacLean says:

    One of your best, ever. Such a timely message, as we are even now making enemies and fighting fruitlessly (while attempting to “fix” from all sides) within our own denomination. If God is sovereign, and God’s providence is real, what is the point of engaging in any of this earthly enmity? You remind me to leave the reckoning to God in prayer and love the other humans, all of them. Jesus asks us to do this. The connection to the Psalter was fascinating and a new insight for me. My heart was glad to read this lesson from you today.

  • Jim Heuving says:

    Is Hendrikus Berkhof like the favored wine that gets better with age? He has been one of my go to favorites over the years. Thanks for mixing him with the psalms as my reading them has led to recent asking, “Who are my enemies?” Thanks for opening up and encouraging a pathway to wrestle well with the realities of ministry and life.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      You are welcome. I had the privilege of knowing Prof. Berkhof, from his visits to New York in 1978 and New Brunswick in 1980. We talked a lot. I read his books then. But you are right, like a fine wine, I read them all again starting three years ago and got much more out of them, and saw how prescient and prophetic he was. His Two Hundred Years of Theology is a brilliant survey of the intellectual, even titanic struggle of Christian thought with the apparently more powerful secular mind of Europe and now the global intellectual world. He has double credentials as an historian of philosophy and a Bible scholar.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    So much to ponder here. I think I will come back to this for further thought when I write my essay for Saturday’s post. Meanwhile, that paragraph about the tension between our disastrous apocalypse narrative and our progress narrative is so perceptive. And puzzling. What do we DO with that? I’ll have to think more… Thank you for such a provocative essay.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Daniel. How we try to interpret the thoughts of the Psalmist, then our own thoughts, then Berkhof’s, then the world’s, and then again our own. You may be right. Then again, who knows?. Thanks.

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