Surrounded, but not Surrendered (Psalm 83:1–18)

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Psalm 83 is the last of the Asaphian psalms, which began in Psalm 50.

Many of these have been lamentations concerning the condition of the nation of Israel, especially with reference to being threatened by opposing nations. As we have seen, in at least some cases, they were lamentations concerning the people of God in captivity. Yet we have also noted that such lamentations were accompanied by hope—hope in the Lord. So in this last psalm of Asaph.

As with many of the psalms, we are unsure of the particular setting of this one. It is clear that the nation is enfolded by foes, but regarding a specific event we are not sure. Some ten nations are mentioned in the psalm as opposing, actually surrounding, the people of God. There is no historical record of this happening, but 2 Chronicles 20:1–30 comes the closest.

Though only a few of these nations mentioned in Psalm 83 are recorded in 2 Chronicles 20, it is possible that it only chronicles a sampling of the troublemakers.

On the other hand, it is possible that this psalm mentions these ten nations as a historical survey to poetically describe Israel’s lot throughout history; namely, that they were constantly under threat. For they were, have been and continue to be surrounded by those who desire to wipe them off of the map. As Kidner notes, this psalm records “the perennial aggression of the world against God and His people. The psalm may have been the product of a habitual consciousness of this.”1

In this psalm, we will learn something about the historical and biblically significant reality of Israel being constantly opposed as a people.

This is helpful for us as the new Israel of God (Galatians 6:16). The church of the Lord Jesus Christ, ever since its beginning in Jerusalem some two thousand years ago, has had a history somewhat like this ancient text before us. She has been the object of many attacks, ultimately by Satan, in order to blot her from the face of the earth. But, like Israel, she still remains. In fact, like Israel, her numbers continue to increase. And they will continue to do so.

Also, like Israel, the church at times finds herself desperately crying out to God, who seems to be indifferent, for help. Both local churches and individual believers sometimes experience this. This psalm should give us some insight into how to respond and what to pray for, as well as what to expect.

The psalm is simply divided into two sections: vv. 1–8 and vv. 9–18.

Surrounded by Scoundrels

Verses 1–8 highlight the particular enemies surrounding Israel. As Kidner says, Israel is “ringed by an unholy alliance dedicated to her destruction.”2 But it also contains their cry for help; it begins with this cry.

A Silent Sovereign

Asaph begins, “Do not keep silent, O God! Do not hold Your peace, and do not be still, O God!” (v. 1).

This is bold praying. It is, in fact, faithful praying. Leupold is correct when he comments, “An address such as we find in this verse is spoken in the boldness of faith, which knows that it may speak freely to the Almighty.”3

When you know God, you can speak freely to God. This is not an example of insolent irreverence; rather, it reveals the heart of one who takes God, His Word and His purposes seriously—very seriously. What follows in fact proves this. But before looking at this we should pause to consider the silence of God.

The Bible contains many examples of His people beleaguered by troubles while God seems to silently sit by. But that is an unfair conclusion.

God, in His sovereign wisdom, runs the universe according to His perfect clock.

One thinks of Israel who was in Egypt for some four hundred years. For most of those years they suffered as slaves. Where was God, and what was He doing? He was working His plan (Genesis 15:13–16). When the time was right, God “heard” their cries, in the sense of responding wisely and powerfully (Exodus 2:24–25). God’s timing is always perfect.

Job experienced this. And, by the way, when the Lord did deliver Job, he was not given insight into the whys and wherefores. God remained silent about that. God simply took Job to the zoo, and that was sufficient for Job to rest in the Sovereign.

Church history is often like this. We find ourselves in trouble at the hands of those who want to destroy the work of God. We continue to labour and to live trusting God. Yet He seems silent. How should we respond? With bold praying.

But what guards bold praying from becoming brash and belligerent praying? The answer is found in vv. 2–5.

A God-Centred Concern

Asaph’s concern was not primarily for Israel but for God.

For behold, Your enemies make a tumult; and those who hate You have lifted up their head. They have taken crafty counsel against Your people, and consulted together against Your sheltered ones. They have said, “Come, and let us cut them off from being a nation, that the name of Israel may be remembered no more.” For they have consulted together with one consent; they form a confederacy against You.

(Psalm 83:2–5)

Note in this passage the usage of the second person: “Your enemies” (v. 2); “those who hate You” (v. 2); “counsel against Your people” (v. 3); “against Your sheltered ones” (v. 3); “a confederacy against You” (v. 5).

Even in v. 4 the tone is that of concern about the “nation of Israel” being cut off. The nation of Israel was particularly and uniquely was God’s possession.

We will see this God-centred concern again later, but this is precisely the point. The plea for God to break His silence is due to a concern—and I believe a passionate concern—for the glory of God’s name. So it should be for the church of our day; so it should be for this church.

When we, the church, are surrounded by scoundrels who clearly hate the Lord, when we observe the arrogance of God-rejecters conspiring to overthrow His rule (see Psalm 2), when we note the attempts to shut down God’s church and to cut off our influence, then, for the glory of God’s name, we must pray with boldness, “Do not keep silent, O God! Do not hold Your peace, and do not be still, O God!”

It is clear that, in places like Iraq and Syria, with special reference to ISIS, there is a concerted effort to cut off the church, to annihilate Christianity from the face of the earth. The horrendous butchering of God’s people must disturb us. But what of the contempt that this shows for Almighty God (not the false god Allah but rather the true God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ)? This should stir us to stir God to action! The Lord’s Prayer gives us the authority to do so.

This sense of reverent desperation should permeate our prayers and especially our prayer meetings. We are still too focused on the temporal matters of health and the like. Without dismissing such legitimate concerns we must be more passionately committed to the honouring of God’s name by the spreading of God’s fame as sinners believe the Saviour’s name (Acts 4:12).

Enfolded by Foes

Verses 6–8 identify the scoundrels who seek to wipe Israel off the world map.

The tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites; Moab and the Hagrites; Gebal, Ammon, and Amalek; Philistia with the inhabitants of Tyre; Assyria also has joined with them; they have helped the children of Lot. Selah.

(Psalm 83:6–8)

It is interesting to note the enemies here listed. The Edomites were the offspring of Esau. Throughout history, they sought the demise of Israel. The Ishamaelites, like the Edomites, were family to the children of Abraham, but they were hostile and estranged family. The Moabites traced their lineage to Lot. Again, we see a family connection.

The Hagrites were on the east of Israel, and at one time had been a major thorn in the side of the tribes of Manasseh and Gad. The identity of Gebal is uncertain, but perhaps they were near what today is known as Beirut. The Ammonites, like the Moabites, were distantly related through Lot. The Amalekites, who traced their roots to Esau, were from the earliest days a constant enemy to Israel. Philistia and Tyre were located along what today we might call the Gaza strip and Lebanon. Assyria, under Tiglathpaleser, would one day conquer the northern tribes and carry them off captive.

If you look at a map of that day, you will note that these ten nations literally surrounded Israel. Clearly there was good reason for Asaph to pray! The people of God were surrounded by the enemies of God, and apart from the Lord’s help they were hopelessly helpless.

But I want to note what I highlighted above: the close family connection that existed between the enemies of God and the friends of God. There is something here that we should contemplate with empathy and sympathy.

Shortly, we will read the imprecations of Asaph concerning God’s enemies. Yet it does seem that his desire was not so much their destruction but their conversion. This should be how we approach this matter.

Yes, we are disturbed by the ungodliness of those who oppose the church. But ultimately we are all related through Adam. Paul highlights this in Acts 17:26–27. The point I am making is that we should feel deep pity for those who oppose God, while at the same time feeling great disgust at their behaviour. This is why we should pray both for pauls to come from ISIS as well as for judgement upon those who will not be transformed by the gospel. “Human flourishing” is the current theological buzzword. It is a good concept, and one we should desire. But people need to experience the power of the gospel to flourish as God intended. Let’s help our neighbours by being honest with them about their sin and the hope in the Saviour.

Finally, before moving on, let us realise that we are not the first people in history to experience opposition. Nor will we be the last (Revelation 20:7–10). Yet judgement Day is coming, (Revelation 20:11–15).

Surrounded but Secured

In the concluding section of the psalm (vv. 9–18), the prayer becomes imprecatory as Asaph pleads for justice. He asks the Lord to intervene to defeat His enemies. But the prayer is not a hopeless lament; it is rather rooted soundly in historical events in which the sovereign Lord delivered His people from enemies. And surely if the Lord would and could do that then, He will and can now. We need this conviction.

Surrounded by Scripture

Verses 9–12 remind us of God’s strength in our weakness.

Deal with them as with Midian, as with Sisera,

As with Jabin at the Brook Kishon, who perished at En Dor, who became as refuse on the earth. Make their nobles like Oreb and like Zeeb, yes, all their princes like Zebah and Zalmunna, who said, “Let us take for ourselves the pastures of God for a possession.”

(Psalm 83:9–12)

Asaph could have chosen any number of past victories in which the Lord gave tremendous (and undeserved) victories; particularly from the book of Judges. But he chose two particular ones from that record, and I think for a significant reason. But first let’s look at the two he chose.

Gideon’s Lanterns

The first victory is that of Gideon over Midian, as recorded in Judges 7–8.

He mentions this in v. 9 and then comes back to it in vv. 11–12. You perhaps remember the story in which God whittled down the gathered army of 32,000 to a mere three hundred. Even those three hundred did not need to bloody their swords, for the Lord sent such terror among the Midianites that they ended up killing each other. If there was ever a case of friendly fire destroying an army, this was it.

Later, Gideon then slew four well-known Midianite rulers: Oreb, Zeeb, Zebah and Zalmunna.

What is remarkable is that these victories were completely unprecedented and, by human standards, very unlikely. Three hundred men with lanterns defeated thousands with the best weaponry of the day!

Jael’s Nail

The second reference comes from the record of Judges 4–5 and concerns the defeat of Jabin, the king of the Canaanites by the conquest of Sisera, his military leader, and his army.

The Canaanite army had some nine hundred iron chariots. That made it perhaps the most powerful army of its day. But not powerful enough to defeat God and His purposes. The Lord heard the cries of His people and gave them an unlikely victory.

He used Deborah and Barak to rout Sisera and his army. As Sisera fled, he sought refuge, rest and food in the home of a woman named Jael. She fed him and then, while he was sleeping, gave to him a splitting headache (Judges 4:19–22).

Verse 23 records the conclusion: “So on that day God subdued Jabin king of Canaan in the presence of the children of Israel.”

This is precisely why Asaph reminds those who are singing this psalm of these events. He wanted them (and God wants us) to remember what He had done in the past concerning the progress of His kingdom to the glory of His name. The entire victory was of the Lord. Along this line, VanGemeren writes, “The omission of the names of the judges indicates that the primary deliverer was the Lord himself!”4

This truth encourages us that, when things look humanly hopeless, we need to look up.

I am sure that things looked really bleak to the people of Israel when the Midianites kept looting their lands and when the Canaanites did the same. But, in each instance, God stepped in and gave a remarkable victory. Asaph wanted God’s people to remember this so they would look up. We need the same. The kingdom of God is under assault, yet we must look up.

We should look up Scripture and remember what God has done and then be encouraged by what He can do. We should also look up Scripture to read His promises of what He will do.

Second, we need to look up and set our gaze upon the Lord rather than upon our enemies. No, we don’t ignore them, but neither are we to focus on them.

Surrounded by the Sovereign

The imprecatory pleas of vv. 13–15 point to Asaph’s conviction that God is able to sort out His enemies.

O my God, make them like the whirling dust, like the chaff before the wind! As the fire burns the woods, and as the flame sets the mountains on fire, so pursue them with Your tempest, and frighten them with Your storm.

(Psalm 83:13–15)

Many are uncomfortable with such a prayer but we should not be, for several reasons.

First, these words are never corrected by God. Though not everything recorded in Scripture is approved by God (e.g. Genesis 3:4), nevertheless the Psalms, which include such words, are accepted as acceptable to God.

Second, the motives are not personal vengeance. Rather, as we saw clearly in the opening verses, this is a plea for the vindication of God’s name (cf. vv. 16–18).

Third, such a prayer is justified by the biblical emphasis upon justice. God is honoured by the punishment of evildoers. And it is not right to argue that He is more honoured by mercy and grace. Both are legitimate means of God’s name being hallowed. As Leupold asks, “Why not pray intensely for that which you well know God also wants?”5

Fourth, and related to number three, just think what a glorious world this would (and will!) be without the presence of such evildoers. When God’s enemies are vanquished, what a wonderful world this will be.

Finally, as several commenters have rightfully asked, in a similar situation, what kind of prayer would you pray? Leupold helpfully comments, “We have here a normal prayer of an endangered people, for which no apologies need be made.”6

Surrounded by Possibilities

As the psalm comes to a close, the imprecatory pleading desires the honouring of God’s name. And ultimately this will be the case. However, there are two possible ways that this will happen.

Shame, which Leads to God-Honouring Conversion

In v. 16, the psalmist tempers his imprecation with a prayer for the conversion of God’s enemies: “Fill their faces with shame, that they may seek Your name, O Lord.” I agree with Boice who writes, “Although desiring deliverance and judgment, the ultimate desire of the psalmist is that other people, even the Jews’ enemies, might come to know and obey the true God.”7

Asaph apparently desired that the enemies of God, and therefore the enemies of God’s people, would be humbled by God’s intervention in order that they might turn to Him. Once they experienced His power in judgement, they would turn to Him in repentance and faith. They would then be transformed from being at enmity with Him to being His friends.

This is how the gospel works: God convicts us of our sins; we see His judgement for our sins on the Lord Jesus; we are ashamed at our rebellion; and we respond in repentance and faith. We are no longer enemies of God but are rather reconciled to God in Christ. Shame is powerful. It can be a destructive power in leading us to further rebellion or it can be a constructive power in bringing us to our knees, crying out for mercy and experiencing saving grace.

Shame, which Leads to God-Honouring Condemnation

Asaph recognised that not all of God’s enemies would respond appropriately by repentance and faith. Yet he did recognise that, ultimately, every enemy of God will bow the knee in recognition of His lordship. Unfortunately, for many, it will too late for conversion—but precisely on time for condemnation. As Kidner notes, “There is a richer knowledge of God than the reluctant assent which is envisaged in verse 18, but this is the minimum.”8 God will receive the honour due to Him (Philippians 4:9–11).

It is this assurance that surrounded Asaph even as the enemies surrounded him and his people. He was secure in knowing that the Lord would have the last word. All peoples would come to acknowledge the name. Kirkpatrick observes, “If they will not acknowledge Israel’s God as the God of revelation, let them be compelled by reiterated judgements to recognise Him as the Almighty Ruler. The ruin with which they threaten God’s people will recoil upon themselves.”9 We need to remember that God’s name does not only reveal His mercy, but also His justice (Exodus 34:6–7). This brings us to a final and very important observation from this psalm.

Shame, which Leads to God-Honouring Consummation

As we have seen, the psalm recounts the historical characteristic of Israel under the oppression of enemies. Her entire history has been something of an ongoing holocaust. I doubt that there has ever been a century in which Israel has not been under attack. And the reasons are not merely political; rather, there is a spiritual and historical reason.

The historic promise of Genesis 3:15 was a promise carried, literally, by the nation of Israel throughout history. Satan has hated her for this. He still does, long after her mission was accomplished.

As I said earlier, in spite of all of the attacks upon ethnic Jews, their numbers have multiplied. In fact, the geopolitical nation, at least in our day, still exists. Boice notes, “In the face of such hatred, the preservation of the Jews throughout history, in spite of their persecutions and scattering, has been both a mystery and a miracle.”10 The Jewish people exist because God is faithful to His promise; He is faithful to His people.

Ethnic Jews who are truly God’s people (Romans 9:6)—those chosen from before the foundation of the world—will be saved: every one of them. And one day, in space-time history, a large number of ethnic Jews will be converted. Paul explains this clearly in Romans 11.

The Bible does not teach that one day Israel, as a geopolitical nation, will rule the world with Jesus on a physical throne in Jerusalem. Rather, it promises something far better: The church of God of all ages will one day comprise a multitude of Jews and Gentiles making up the New Jerusalem, which has already (and not yet) descended from heaven.

One day, a massive number of Jewish people will be convicted of their sins. They will feel the shame of their sins and of their wages: the death of Jesus Christ, They, like every other person saved by grace, will call on the name of the Lord. And, according to Romans 11, when this happens the result will be a vast number of Gentiles converted to Christ. And then, after all of the elect have been converted, Jesus will return to consummate God’s kingdom purposes (1 Corinthians 15:25–28). What a day that will be!

Yes, though God’s people, both Jew and Gentile, are oppressed, there is coming a day when we will be oppressed no more. In the meantime, though we be surrounded, let us not surrender. Let us be focused on the reality that we are surrounded by the Sovereign. And, because of this, we know that we are surrounded and secure. That is something to sing the Psalms about.

Show 10 footnotes

  1. Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 2:300.
  2. Kidner, Psalms, 2:299.
  3. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 598.
  4. Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:540.
  5. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 602.
  6. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 597.
  7. James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 2:686.
  8. Kidner, Psalms, 2:302.
  9. A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Cambridge: Scripture Truth, n.d.), 504.
  10. Boice, Psalms, 2:684.