Sunday, June 18, 2023

Dread of the Enemy

“Preserve my life from dread of the enemy.”

Dread is a strong word, but a relatively common one in scripture. The Hebrew word translated “dread” in my ESV turns up 49 times throughout the Old Testament. Its most common object is the Lord himself, as we might expect, and its second most common object is the nation of Israel.

That also is predictable. To mess with Israel was to mess with Israel’s God.

Terror and Awe

The writer of Genesis twice refers to the Lord as “the fear of Isaac”. Of the trio of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we know the least about Isaac. This much we know: he feared God, and the Spirit of the Lord has made that clear.

Often Christians will try to soften the word “dread” or “fear”, making the emotion something akin to “reverential awe” rather than stone cold terror. In some cases, that may indeed be how a writer intended us to interpret the word. In other instances, I’m not sold. For example, when Moses writes concerning the chiefs of Edom, the leaders of Moab and the inhabitants of Canaan that “Terror and dread fall upon them”, he does not have reverential awe in view, and the English translation teams have taken that into account in their rendering of the word in that context. He means they were quivering in their sandals and contemplating running for the hills. There are times when the Lord ought to be feared in the same sense, not by his family, but by those who oppose him and those who take his name falsely.

Occasionally the fear of other things is in view. In Psalm 64, David asks the Lord, “Preserve my life from dread of the enemy.” Here he is not asking for preservation from the enemy itself; that will come in the next verse. No, David wants to be saved from the premature contemplation of what might go wrong in his life and, I think, more importantly, from potentially making bad choices because of his fears. He does not want his life to be characterized by hesitation, uncertainty, cowardice or paranoia.

Fear and the Will of God

That’s one of the major problems with allowing ourselves to reflect too long on what might happen when things go wrong: the steps we take to try to prevent it. Like compromising on the truth, or running away, or grabbing the wheel and trying to steer, or maneuvering in a fleshly, independent way rather than looking to the Lord to accomplish his purposes. Allowing worry to take hold of us doesn’t just waste perfectly good brain and heart bandwidth on something we can’t control (“Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?”), it also tempts us to veer off in directions that take us out of the Lord’s revealed will.

Something like that happened to David for just a moment when Nabal rejected his polite request for food for his men. He was out in the wilderness with six hundred discontented followers, some of whom might easily have blamed his comparatively gracious leadership style for their hard times and hunger. Until Nabal’s wife Abigail appealed to his better nature, David was sorely tempted to “work salvation with his own hand” rather than trusting the Lord. He was grateful for Abigail’s wisdom and discretion; they saved him from giving in to either his fears or his anger.

Whispers, Plots and Manipulations

David’s enemies were often physical, truly dreadful in the manner of Goliath: huge, murderous and implacable. That sort of fear we can understand. But in this psalm David’s mortal enemies are of a different sort. It is their manipulations and lies he dreads, their “secret plots”, their “tongues like swords”, their “bitter words like arrows shooting from ambush at the blameless”. It is not the physical danger they pose, but the things they say (or might be saying) that threaten to rent space in David’s head and push him in the wrong direction. Absalom, for example, started a civil war with a whisper campaign of division, turning brother against brother and father against son. David never saw him coming. But just imagine ascending the throne every morning in the years that followed Absalom’s rebellion wondering if any of your remaining eighteen sons were hatching similar plots. There’s legitimate cause for concern!

If we can’t relate to stepping up to a giant with only a sling in our hands, we can definitely relate to that species of dread. The corporate world is full of this kind of thing. The most powerful leaders of the business community are not insulated from the intrigues of those who benefit when they fall. Periodically, they do. How much more are those of us in middle management positions vulnerable to lies, tale-telling and unscrupulous plotting?

Churches too are not immune. If we are not careful about the sort of speech we indulge around us (or engage in), the local congregation can become a nest of gossip and backstabbing. Nobody is going to get punched in the nose or skewered with a stray arrow, but the wounds that come from ungodly interactions between professing Christians can do damage that lasts a lifetime.

A Bad Case of Spiritual PTSD

I have a good friend who takes the side of the alleged offender in every case of church discipline and the person who leaves in every marriage breakdown. It’s not that these people are always right. Many times they are not, though they may have compelling reasons to feel the way they do. But my friend has been hurt by spiritual authority figures so often that he is predisposed to view them as the enemy by default. That makes him a less effective counselor than he should be: he has already chosen his side before he hears word one.

A bad experience may only last a few days or weeks, but those among us who have experienced injury from other Christians need to watch ourselves carefully for the spiritual equivalent of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). We can find ourselves living “in dread of the enemy” even when we are not under attack: unable to give the benefit of the doubt to others, suspicious of every friendship that doesn’t include us, predisposed to believe everything negative we hear about our fellow believers, ready to sabotage or abandon relationships at the first failure of loyalty, soured by a chronic victim complex.

Lord, save us from “dread of the enemy”! Sometimes dread does more damage than any real enemy could.

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