In the Psalms, as in life, the enemy is often hidden and relentlessly scheming. Here as in so many other of its observations, the book of Psalms displays its characteristic realism.
We are more sentimental and romantic about our adversaries, at least in those moments when we can bring ourselves to admit their existence. We do alright with evil, comfortably abstract and remote. But we resist the notion of evil people. They’re a bit too concrete for our post-modern aesthetic, where everyone gads about on pretty much the same moral plain and almost any action can be tolerated if we can just find an angle from which to understand its causes.
Psalm 21, apart from a wider biblical context that radically constrains the king’s authority, might be seen as a set piece of tyranny, a clumsily ideological tract that frames anything the king wants as God’s will and God’s way. But that wider context stubbornly exists, for example in the urging of Psalm 146 not to ‘put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help’.
Something strong but something that is not clumsy is going on here. The psalmist prays that his king might see through the sinister designs of his—and therefore our—adversaries.
Your hand will find out all your enemies; your right hand will find out those who hate you …
Though they plan evil against you, though they devise mischief, they will not succeed.
Only a generation ago, everyone knew that people and peoples had real enemies. Perhaps the lightning fast-forward of the past couple of decades has advanced us beyond the common wisdom of human history towards enlightenment. Or perhaps we’ve lost our stomach for reality, with its inconvenient jagged edges.
In the seamier, more brutal corners of humanity, where the spin of events allows no luxury for explaining away evil, let alone evil people, it is an ordinary thing to pray that one’s enemies might be found out before they carry off our child or our neighbor’s. Plotting and scheming seem less like delusional projections when last week’s car bomb was placed precisely where our women buy their vegetables on Tuesday mornings.
Those dark corners may be where we live one day, God forbid. If so, Israel’s prayer that its king’s right hand might find his enemies in time will likely tumble more naturally from our once refined lips.