How many of us, when life becomes difficult or painful, turn to the Psalms for comfort? As we read the Psalms, we hope to get a sense that the psalmist (and behind him, the LORD) has walked the path of earthly anguish before us. We expect—and rightly so—to feel a bond with the psalmist, to identify with him. And yet, so often, we find ourselves having to skip—or at least skim—over whole sections of psalms which do not seem to fit our experience. For example, we love the first 18 verses and the last 2 verses of Psalm 139. The thought of the LORD having known us from our mother’s womb and his intimate presence with us brings us comfort and moves us to worship. But what do we do with verses 19-22? In those verses, David seems to go into a tirade against his enemies, calling for God to slay them. The effect of these verses is jarring, to say the least. We may find ways of appreciating such sections of the psalms, but they never come from a natural reading of the text, and always seem to leave us in a bit of an awkward spot.
The outright and external threats and hostility of physical enemies just isn’t part of our experience. We live in the modern world, where our enemies are not generally physical. We may have neighbors or coworkers or some such people in our lives who are definitely “out to get us.” But this is generally a matter of social agitation and nothing like the kind of experiences that the psalmists are writing about and expecting us to sing with feeling. Sometimes, if we take up arms in the name of the state, we can find ourselves in a real firefight with very physical dangers. But then, those “enemies” are not trying to do us harm because of our faith in YHWH or His Messiah, but rather because we wear the uniform of one earthly political entity, and they wear the uniform of another, and the two are at war.
It is common for American Christians to thank God for the blessings we have as Americans. We thank Him that we live here in this country where we are free to worship Him without fear of persecution—at least not the sort that Christians in other times and places have had to experience. We think of Chinese Christians living under the constant threat from the communist government or African Christians who live under the threat of brutality from their Muslim neighbors or governments. We think of them. And we thank God that we don’t have it so tough.
But does it occur to us that what we are thanking God for is the very reason we cannot identify with much of what we find in the Psalms? Perhaps, rather than thanking God for this comfortable situation, we should be asking, “What’s wrong with this picture?”
As we look at the Scriptures, might we not ask whether it was ever expected by the Lord and His apostles that there would be such a place and time in the story of the people of God when they would be so far removed from the threat of persecution?
Almost immediately following the stoning of Paul at Lystra, the apostles Paul and Barnabas went right back through the cities of Lystra, Derbe, Iconium and Antioch of Pisidia—where they had been so cruelly treated by the people in power. They did this in order to strengthen the disciples in those towns, the ones who had responded in faith to their preaching of the kingdom of God. And central to their program of fortifying these churches was this message: “It is necessary that we enter the kingdom of God through many tribulations” (Acts 14:22).
“Necessary!” What in the world does that mean? Well, at a minimum, it means that Paul and Barnabas did not imagine that there would ever be any Christians or any churches who would be entering the kingdom of God without going through the crucible of tribulations.
The New International Version and the New American Bible both seem to be trying to soften the impact of this scandalous announcement by translating the noun thlipsis as “hardships,” rather than “tribulations” or “persecutions,” as other translations do. Everybody has hard times, right? Even American Christians know what it’s like to go through “hardships.” We know what it’s like to have a flat tire in the pouring rain. Or more seriously, we know what it’s like to lose a loved one to cancer. But as real and bothersome as these difficulties are, they simply are not what Paul and Barnabas are taking about—not directly, anyway.
The apostles expect that it is the norm for Christians to be persecuted for the sake of God’s kingdom, so much so, that they see it as necessary. Imagine telling Paul and Barnabas that there would one day be a country far across the world where everyone would be free to practice their religion as they wish; that, in fact, this country would be founded on Christian principles; and that the believers in Jesus who will be blessed enough to live there will not actually find it “necessary” to enter the kingdom of God through many persecutions. What might Paul and Barnabas say to such a prediction? I can imagine that their response would be as though they were told that there would be a land where the chariots ran on square wheels. It simply would not compute.
If this is true, then there would seem to be a rather large gap between the true nature of the kingdom of God and somebody’s understanding and experience of it. We are left to ask a rather uncomfortable question: Who has the greater gap? The apostles? Or we American Christians?
Let us assume for a moment that Paul and Barnabas had it right. Let us assume that God always intended His people to be in the world in such a way as to be able to identify quite easily with the Psalms which cry out to Him about persecution from material enemies. What then are we to make of the situation in which we find ourselves? How did we get here? Where exactly is here? What do we do now that we find ourselves here?
These are some of the questions I find myself puzzling over these days.