We have seen it time and again in the first 35 Psalms, David crying out to God because there are people who seek to do him harm. They have ill will in their hearts towards him and in some case want him dead. Each time David has cried out to the Lord for His protection as well as some punishment or retribution to be visited upon his enemies. In some ways Psalm 35 is not different. But in a critical way it is absolutely different and gives us a much better glimpse into the heart of David.
Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me;
fight against those who fight against me!
2 Take hold of shield and buckler
and rise for my help!
3 Draw the spear and javelin[a]
against my pursuers!
Say to my soul,
“I am your salvation!”
4 Let them be put to shame and dishonor
who seek after my life!
Let them be turned back and disappointed
who devise evil against me!
5 Let them be like chaff before the wind,
with the angel of the Lord driving them away!
6 Let their way be dark and slippery,
with the angel of the Lord pursuing them!
7 For without cause they hid their net for me;
without cause they dug a pit for my life.[b]
8 Let destruction come upon him when he does not know it!
And let the net that he hid ensnare him;
let him fall into it—to his destruction!
11 Malicious[c] witnesses rise up;
they ask me of things that I do not know.
12 They repay me evil for good;
my soul is bereft.[d]
13 But I, when they were sick—
I wore sackcloth;
I afflicted myself with fasting;
I prayed with head bowed[e] on my chest.
14 I went about as though I grieved for my friend or my brother;
as one who laments his mother,
I bowed down in mourning.
Early in this Psalm David is crying out to God to do something about the people who are his enemies. He wants God to take up the shield and spear against these people who have laid a snare for David. They are people who seek to take his life. He wants God to deal with them according to justice. This is a familiar theme with David. But there is something more in this Psalm. We get a glimpse at David’s personal reaction to these people. They maliciously rise up against him, but for his part, he visited them when they were sick, prayed for their recovery, wore sackcloth as a symbol of mourning over their affliction. What are we to make of this seemingly disjointed response, wanting God to smite them in one verse and praying for their recovery in the next? In reality the answer is rather simple. David is willing to let God deal with justice and vengeance while David focuses on loving his enemies. It is what Paul calls for in Romans 12:20 when he says we should feed our enemy if he is hungry and thus heap burning coals on his head. Now don’t get the idea that you can set their hair on fire. No, this is a reference to the way in which loving our enemies causes them to burn with guilt and desire to repent of their evil. Vengeance is left to God, which Paul explicitly states in Romans 12:19.
So this Psalm gives us the full biblical picture. We are to love our enemies by serving them in their time of need. But we can also pray that God who is our shield will protect us and even bring His just vengeance on them. In this way both justice and mercy can be fulfilled. We may want to be the ones who bring the vengeance and justice and leave the mercy to God. But that is not our place. We are called to freely dispense God’s mercy and let Him take care of the rest. It is not easy to love people that way. But maybe that is the point. Maybe because it is hard to love like as Jesus loves, that we are called to do it. Not to make it harder for us or to earn spiritual brownie points, but to show how radical and provocative the love of God really is.