Enemies (in Psalms)

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While “enemy” (’ōyēb, ṣar/ṣār) in the OT usually refers to the national enemies of Israel (Josh 23:1; 24:11), it is also used to designate personal enemies (Exod 23:4; Judg 16:23; 1 Sam 18:29; and especially in the psalms). An enemy is one who seeks to harm, steal from, or otherwise complicate the life of a person, including individuals or matters of concern to that person.

The community or national laments focus on threats by military foes, famine, drought, or some pestilence. Enemies threaten the city of God (Pss 46:6; 48:4; 76:5–6). These enemy powers are characterized as “kingdoms,” “princes,” or “kings.” They are the people who wage war against God’s people (2:2, 8, 10; 18:47–48; 45:5; 72:11; 110:5; 144:2). National laments portray catastrophe as having already struck (44:11). The city is sacked and becomes no more than a heap of stones (79:1; 102:14). The ravaging of the countryside is seen as an event of cosmic proportions (80:12–13).

God intervenes for his king and aids him to defeat and destroy the enemies (2:5, 8–9; 21:8–9; 110:2–3, 5; 144:1–2). Faith is expressed that the God of Israel reigns over the hostile powers in unchallenged sovereignty and strips them of all power (96:5; 135:15–18).

Regarding the enemies of the individual, the situation is more complex. The terms include “enemy” (’ōyēb: 3:7; 6:10; 7:5; 9:3, 6; 13:4; 17:9; 31:8, 15; 41:5; etc.), “foe” (ṣar/ṣār: 3:1; 13:4; 23:5; 27:2; 31:11; etc.), “evildoers” (mĕrē‘îm: 26:5; 27:2), and “the wicked” (rĕša‘îm: 3:7; 9:17; 10:2–4; 11:2, 6; 12:8; 17:9; 26:5; etc.). The foes of the individual are the godless and the persecutors (5:9; 9:6; 14:1).

We cannot determine the particular identity of these enemies. Earlier attempts to identify the enemies in the psalms suggested false accusers (Hans Schmidt), sorcerers and demonic forces (Sigmund Mowinckel), foes of the king (Harris Birkeland), or party strife within the Israelite community. The opponents are described in stark terms, with strong and negative imagery.

Three common metaphors are used to illustrate the uncanny and gruesome assaults of the foes: wild beasts, hunters or trappers, and hostile armies. The enemies of individuals are often compared to ravenous beasts, which suddenly spring on a person (7:2; 22:12–13; 27:2; 35:21). The enemies are likened to a ravening lion, an aggressive bull, the venomous serpent, and a pack of wild dogs (10:9–10; 17:12; 58:4; 59:6–15; 74:4; 91:13; 92:10; 140:3). Or they are compared to hunters or trappers, who seek their prey with pits, nets, or arrows (7:15; 9:15; 31:4; 35:7–8; 57:6; 64:3–4; 140:5). The bow is not only a weapon of the hunter, but also of the warrior. Thus, the foes of the individual are often compared with a hostile army that attacks the helpless (3:6; 27:3; 55:18; 56:1–2; 59:1–3; 62:3).

Two areas where readers frequently meet the “enemies” in the psalms are in the institution of divine judgment and the cleansing of the sick. In judicial cases, the enemy powers appear as accusers and persecutors, using lies, slander, and false witness to accuse the victim of breaking the law. The one who is unjustly accused submits to the verdict rendered by God through the priest (7:8; 26:1–2; 35:22–24). By accusations and slander, the enemies of the sick person are eager to focus on a commonly held causal relationship between guilt and sickness (32:1–4; 38:3–11; 39:8, 11).

That the “enemies” of the individual cannot be identified more specifically allows these psalms to speak for persons who cry out to God in all kinds of situations of tension, hostility, and conflict. For example, reference to the “enemy” may even refer to death itself as a force hostile to life (31:7–8, 12). This poetic language is open and metaphorical and speaks to situations of distress in every generation (B. Anderson, 1983: 82–90; Miller: 50–51).

Before the LORD, the enemies stumble and vanish as the mischief they planned returns on their own heads (7:16; 9:3, 6). Those who have been persecuted can look back with thanks and joy at the defeat of the enemies when it occurs (33:4–5; 138:7). While one can find in the OT the spirit of goodwill and kindness toward personal enemies (Exod 23:4–5; 1 Sam. 24:17–19; Job 31:29), Jesus further clarifies the command of love for enemies (Matt 5:43–44). Paul, spelling out the meaning of loving one’s enemy, quotes Proverbs 25:21–22 to make his point: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads” (Rom 12:20).

References: B. Anderson, 1983: 82–90; Keel: 78–109; Kraus, 1986: 125–36; Miller: 49–51.


  • Anderson, Bernhard W. Out of the Depths. Revised and expanded ed. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1983.
  • Keel, Othmar. The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms. Translated by Timothy J. Hallett. New York: Seabury, 1978.
  • Kraus, Hans-Joachim. Theology of the Psalms. Translated by Keith R. Crim. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1986.
  • Miller, Patrick D., Jr. Interpreting the Psalms. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1986.

James H. Waltner