October 28, 2012
Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said, “I brought you up from Egypt, and brought you into the land that I had promised to your ancestors. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you. For your part, do not make a covenant with the inhabitants of this land; tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my command. See what you have done! So now I say, I will not drive them out before you; but they shall become adversaries to you, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” When the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the Israelites, the people lifted up their voices and wept. So they named that place Bochim, and there they sacrificed to the Lord. Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and worshiped the Baals; and they abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the Lord to anger. They abandoned the Lord, and worshipped Baal and the Astartes. So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them, and he sold them into the power of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them to bring misfortune, as the Lord had warned them and sworn to them; and they were in great distress. Then the Lord raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen even to their judges; for they lusted after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their ancestors had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord; they did not follow their example. Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they would relapse and behave worse than their ancestors, following other gods, worshiping them and bowing down to them. They would not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways. So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel; and he said, “Because this people have transgressed my covenant that I commanded their ancestors, and have not obeyed my voice, I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died.” In order to test Israel, whether or not they would take care to walk in the way of the Lord as their ancestors did, the Lord had left those nations, not driving them out at once, and had not handed them over to Joshua.
(Judges 2:1-5; 11-23)
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
(Luke 1: 68-79)
I find it intriguing that, of the one hundred and fifty psalms included in the Bible, fully one third of them are concerned with deliverance from one’s enemies, either personal or national.
In fact, the presence of “enemies” is found throughout the biblical narrative—the period of the exodus had laws that governed proper attitudes toward one’s enemies. Israel, under Joshua, infiltrated the Holy Land believing their enemies were also Gods. The prophets warned repeatedly against adopting the customs of the enemies of Israel, and Jesus taught us that enemies are to be loved. We even say, coming into worship, “Lead me, O Lord, in thy righteousness, because of mine enemies,” which to my playful ear has always made us sound like some sort of spiritual underground. But given the frequency of the word “enemy” in the Bible and in worship, the question that occurs to me is, “Who are we talking about? Who is the enemy?”
To the nation of Israel during the period of the judges, the answer to that question was fairly simple. In fact, the third chapter of Judges lists the Canaanites, Sidonians, Hivites, Philistines, Hittites, Amorites, Perezites, and Jebusites. These were all distinguishable cultures residing in Canaan who worshiped other gods. Because of this, the Israelites felt compelled to either convert them or kick them out of the Holy Land for good (a goal that, incidentally, they never achieved). You can just picture an Israelite father from the tribe of Judah standing on a ridge with his son and saying, “Do you see that caravan of people down in the valley? Those are Amalekites, son; those people are your enemies.”
If this statement rings a little familiar, it may be because you’ve heard it before, maybe not in words, but in the subtle lessons that our elders and our society teach us as we grow. Perhaps you’ve learned to see people of different cultures—people of different nationalities or skin pigmentations—as your adversaries. I’ve heard that people trained to survive in the business world learn to see their colleagues as adversaries, since only the best in the business survive.
I’m not necessarily speaking of groups of people that you feel at war with; I’m thinking of those groups or individuals that you would rather avoid; if you have to interact with them, you erect an emotional barrier between you and them, so you don’t get any closer than you have to. My personal example: I tend to make adversaries out of the folks involved in telemarketing campaigns. Whenever I receive a call from a complete stranger who begins to read to me from a script telling me how they can fulfill a need that I wasn’t even aware I had, I enter a competitive frame of mind. Only one of us is going to “win” this conversation, and if I can say no even through all their paragraphs written to convince me to reconsider, I’ve won this particular little war.
I am not proud of this tendency in myself. I have set up an unnecessarily adversarial relationship by assuming this me-against-them frame of mind. I would be even less proud if this attitude were turned toward a nationality or religion or race of people. Making enemies out of other people is a costly thing to do in terms of personal energy, and it is a spiritually damaging thing to do because it inhibits the flow of love and concern from God through me to others. It may seem that we have as many enemies as the Israelites had other nations to pick on, but I don’t believe that any outside agency is an adequate answer to the question “Who are our enemies?” I don’t believe those are the enemies that all those psalms are really talking about. Let me share with you a poem by Leslie Brandt that I believe really gets to the heart of this issue:
Deliver me, O God, from the enemies of my soul.
I am no longer afraid of men who stand in my way,
even if those who obstruct your purposes
and who deceive their fellowmen with their
arrogant and clever cliches.
They anger me, but they do not frighten me.
My pain and confusion come by way of my
own weaknesses and faithlessness.
I strive for success, and am fractured by failure.
I reach for ecstasy and am clobbered with depression.
I wait for guidance, and your heavens are gray with silence.
I ask for infilling and am confronted with emptiness.
I seek opportunities and run into stone walls.
I overcome these pernicious demons in the morning—
Only to face them again when day turns into night.
They refuse to die, these persistent devils.
They plague my days and haunt my nights and
Rob me of the peace and joy of God-motivated living.
And yet, O Lord, you have surrounded my life like a great fortress.
There is nothing that can touch me save by your loving permission.
This poem, which is Leslie Brandt’s paraphrase of the fifty-ninth psalm, brings to light an important truth—that the real “enemies” are the enemies within. What lessons that you have learned in life separate you from your fellow human beings? What attitudes that you harbor prevent you from openly sharing God’s love with others? What pains that you carry keep you from living life to its fullest? These are the enemies that we, with the voice of a psalmist, ask the Lord to help us to overcome. The judges and the prophets cautioned Israel not to adopt the ways of its enemies, and through the Word they likewise caution us against incorporating the ways of our inner enemies into our thoughts and feelings toward others.
The Israelites fought with swords and slings and arrows, but the most effective weapon we may employ to grow out of our inner enemies is peace— the peace of wisdom in our thinking, and the peace of love in our hearts—the peace that is ours for the asking when we honor a covenant with the Lord. Live our lives according to the best we know, and our adversarial tendencies will be revealed to us bit by bit. Working with God, we will feel the support through our struggles that God granted the “conquerors” and settlers of the Holy Land. As it is written in the gospel of Luke, we will be “rescued from the hands of our enemies,” if only we will allow the Lord to “guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Lord, we come to you this day mindful that there is much in this world that separates us from others, and from you. Though this way of life is comfortable in its familiarity, we need to find a better way. Help us to search within and see clearly our inner enemies—those ideas and feelings that hamper our spiritual well-being, things we’ve made a part of us because we did not know how to resist them. Lend us divine strength and patience so that we may make peace with our enemies and free ourselves from their hurtful influence. For we desire sincerely to grow closer to your loving presence, and to be better enablers of your love in this world. Lead us, O Lord, in your righteousness, because of our enemies; Make your way straight before our face. Amen.
Rev. Eric Hoffman