Be merciful unto me, O God / for man would swallow me up / All the day long he fighting oppresseth me.
Mine enemies would swallow me up all the day long / For they are many that fight proudly against me.
What time I am afraid / I will put my trust in thee.
In God (I will praise his word) / In God have I put my trust, I will not be afraid / What can flesh do unto me? (Psalm 56:1-4).
No one particularly enjoys having enemies. But they do exist; we are foolish if we think we can navigate through life without them.
Westerners who have lived primarily during the last decade of the 20th century and into the 21st century have enjoyed a period of peace and calm which has been extraordinary in comparison with what came before. Many may find this statement difficult to believe in light of terrorist attacks and the constant specter of jihad; that speaks more to what Westerners expect in life than anything grounded in historical reality.
For the majority of human history everyone was always in some danger of attack by enemies. The Old Testament relates plenty of stories of how people would attack each other’s cities, slaughter the men and their wives, and take unmarried women as war prizes; this was reality in the ancient Near Eastern world. The Classical world was little different; many slaves became as much because they were prisoners of war, and enemy incursions could frequently reach far deeper than might be imagined. The medieval world is infamous for such constant war; the European continent has rarely seen peace in the past 1500 years. When it did for a century from 1815 until 1914, the continent then exploded with unparalleled fury in 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. Safety from enemies may exist for a period of time, but it has never been guaranteed, and it can never be perfectly maintained.
We have been lulled into thinking that we can easily and effectively keep our enemies at bay, maintaining them ensconced “over there” so as not to harm us “here.” We also think that we can somehow enact sufficient measures to provide complete protection from assault by our enemies. Some would even like to pretend that our enemies are too weak to really do anything to us; they pay them no mind at all.
The attacks of 9/11 shattered the myth that America was impregnable. Many have struggled to feel safe or protected since; they are easily scared by the prospect of yet another terrorist attack. In the name of doing things to be kept safe we have seen significant curtailment of personal liberty and the creation of a surveillance state which would have made George Orwell blush. We seem perfectly willing to do anything to feel safe from enemy attack.
David’s perspective is important, for David understands what far too many Westerners do not: none are guaranteed complete safety from enemies. Despite all the efforts of the surveillance state, some may successfully plot and attack. Despite all the security protocols, some may become sufficiently inventive and find a way to get through. Even if the authorities break up a lot of terrorist plots before they can be actualized, law enforcement is highly unlikely to keep a 100% active in perpetuity. There is a danger, indeed, but dangers have always existed. Danger is always present. Safety has never really been guaranteed!
David had plenty of enemies; the superscription of Psalm 56 suggests that he wrote the psalm while living among the Philistines to evade Saul (1 Samuel 27:1-2). At this stage in his life, David has almost no safety or security; at this juncture he has been forced to abide with the lesser of the acute dangers to his life. David knows of what he speaks in Psalm 56:1 when he cries out that man would swallow him up.
If David were to hope in arms or physical strength he would be undone. David knows that his true help is not among man, but from God. David seeks God’s mercy; when David is afraid (and he has good reason to be afraid!), he trusts in God (Psalm 56:1-3). Such is David’s great boldness and confidence: in God I have put my trust, so what can people do to me (Psalm 56:4)?
The events of the past couple of decades should be sufficient to disabuse us of the notion that complete safety and security can be obtained through the projection of force locally and abroad. We likewise should be disabused of the notion that the government, the military, or any other human force is able to keep us entirely safe. This is not cause for despair or discouragement; it is merely recognition of limitations. We want to feel safe and secure; our security cannot be in man who would swallow us up, but instead in God who is our hope, our salvation, and our refuge.
Even heavily secular, “de-Christianized” Western countries seem to be brought to prayer when terrorists strike, for all of their military and technological might and prowess still cannot save them. We will not find complete security in body scanning machines, online surveillance, or an all-out attack on a Middle Eastern country. Our hope and trust must be in the God who made us, who seeks to save us in Christ, and who will in Him deliver us from the bondage of sin and death. Only in God can we find true security, knowing that we will gain the victory no matter what may happen to us. Do you want to stop being afraid of man? Then join David and put your trust in God!
Ethan R. Longhenry