Psalm 86 (NIV)
1 Hear me, Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
2 Guard my life, for I am faithful to you;
save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; 3 have mercy on me, Lord,
for I call to you all day long.
4 Bring joy to your servant, Lord,
for I put my trust in you.
11 Teach me your way, Lord,
that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart,
that I may fear your name.
12 I will praise you, Lord my God, with all my heart;
I will glorify your name forever.
13 For great is your love toward me;
you have delivered me from the depths,
from the realm of the dead.
14 Arrogant foes are attacking me, O God;
ruthless people are trying to kill me—
they have no regard for you.
15 But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God,
slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.
16 Turn to me and have mercy on me;
show your strength in behalf of your servant;
save me, because I serve you
just as my mother did.
17 Give me a sign of your goodness,
that my enemies may see it and be put to shame,
for you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.
One of the challenges that Christians face when reading and singing the psalms is the emphasis on enemies. For the psalmists, the enemies of God are often visibly embodied in tangible enemies, like the Edomites, Philistines, or Babylonians who are arrayed against them. Christians know through divine revelation that, while we have innumerable struggles of our own, our deepest struggle is not with “flesh and blood” but with principalities and powers and the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). So, as a general principle, all the cursing and anguish against various enemies in the Psalms could be redirected to Satan and his legion of demonic forces, who are our true enemies.
However, the Psalms also understand, as we do, that we also face battles and enemies within. In other words, there are both external and internal forces arrayed against us, and we need to be mindful of both. This brings us to a second way we can understand and interpret enemies in the Psalms. We understand that evil temptations, immoral thoughts, bitter unforgiveness, and impure motivations are real enemies that we must all take very seriously. These represent foes far greater than the Babylonians or the Assyrians.
In Psalm 86, David highlights both enemies for us. On the one hand, he is wrestling against various external, though unnamed, foes: “The arrogant are attacking me, O God; a band of ruthless men seeks my life” (v. 14). On the other hand, David also looks within and sees the need for God’s grace and deliverance in his inner life. It has been lifted out and used by Christians as one of the great prayers of the Bible: “Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name” (v. 11).
To conquer the divided heart is one of the greatest victories in the Bible. James says that the “double-minded” are “unstable” (James 1:8), whereas a united heart represents a life that is focused on serving the Lord. It is the infilling and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit that enables us to dispel all the distractions that can cause our hearts to be divided. The result is a fully integrated self.
King David longs for this. He closes the psalm by asking God for a “sign” that his enemies (both internal and external) will be “put to shame” (Ps. 86:17). That sign has come in the person of Jesus Christ, who perfectly embodied the united heart and, through his death and resurrection, invites us to be in Christ and to share in his heart through the power of the Holy Spirit.