The Book of Psalms

Tuesday: The Encircling Foe


Theme: Surrounded by Enemies
From this week’s lessons, we see that when we are wrongly attacked, we are not to seek vengeance, but instead are to entrust ourselves and the situation to God.
Scripture: Psalm 83:1-18
What is significant about the specific peoples listed in the ongoing flow of the psalm (vv. 6-11) is that they form an almost complete circle of entrapment around Israel. The Edomites (v. 6) were descendants of Esau, the twin brother of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson. The Ishmaelites (v. 6) had descended from Ishmael, Abraham’s son by Hagar. The Hagarites (v. 6) were a tribe against whom the Transjordanian tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh fought at the time of the Jewish conquest of Palestine. These peoples, plus the tribal nations of Moab (v. 6) and Ammon (v. 7) were situated to the east of the Jews’ territory.
Identification of Gebal (v. 7) is uncertain. It might be a tribal area south of the Dead Sea linked with Edom, Moab, Ammon and Amalek. The Amalekites (v. 7) also lived in the area. Or Gebel might be a Canaanite and Phoenician port about twenty miles north of modern Beirut, known to the Greeks as Byblos. The modern site of ancient Byblos is called Jebeil (a variant of Gebal). As for Philistia and Tyre (v. 7), these areas were to the west of Israel on the Mediterranean coast. Philistia was south, roughly what we today call the Gaza strip; and Tyre was to the north.
The tenth and last tribal or national power mentioned is Assyria (v. 8), the great and later very formidable power which always came down into Jewish territory from the north. It was Assyria under the leadership of Shalmaneser that besieged, captured and destroyed Samaria, overthrew the northern kingdom of Israel and deported its people in 721 B.C. 
But that was later than when Psalm 83 was written. There was no time in Israel’s history, so far as we know, when these precise ten powers were actually arrayed against her. So the listing in verses 6-8 is probably a generalization. It is a way of saying that the Jews always seemed to be surrounded by enemies and in danger of being liquidated.
This has been the actual condition of Israel throughout history as many peoples and nations have arrayed themselves against her. We can start with Egypt. This is because the fierce efforts of the Pharaoh of the generation immediately prior to the birth of Moses to enslave and then kill the Jews is the first expression of anti-Semitism in world history, and supplies a pattern which has been repeated again and again. God had blessed the Jewish people in faithfulness to his ancient promises to Abraham. He had said, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:2, 3).
This resulted in a striking growth in numbers of the people so that they literally became like “the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” (Gen. 22:17). The growth created fear in Pharaoh, and he instigated a pattern of abuse and oppression that extended to the murder of the Jewish male children. However, the end of the persecution was not the destruction of the Jews but rather the destruction of Egypt by the plagues effected through Moses and eventually the death of Pharaoh and his soldiers when they tried to cross the waters of the sea that had parted to allow the Jews to pass over but had returned on their pursuers.
Even after the overthrow of their nation by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. and by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., persecutions continued. We know from the New Testament that the Jews were expelled from Rome in the days of the Emperor Claudius (Acts 18:2).
Jews were persecuted during the Middle Ages, both before the time of the Crusades and during them. Thousands were abused, attacked and murdered in Germany, France, Italy and England.1 In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries these earlier pogroms were repeated, only with greater intensity. In the fifteenth century, 510 Jewish communities were exterminated in Europe and more were decimated. When the Jews were driven out of Spain at the end of the same century, they relocated to Italy, Holland, Egypt and Turkey. But they were not allowed to stay longer than a few weeks or months in some places, and in others they were confined to a ghetto or Jewish quarter, as in Venice and Rome.2
Coming to more modern times, we remember with horror the systematic attempt to exterminate the Jews of Nazi Germany and German-dominated states in the period leading up to and during World War II. More than six million Jews perished in Adolf Hitler’s death camps.
1See Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol. 4, The Age of Faith: A History of Medieval Civilization—Christian, Islamic and Judaic–from Constantine to Dante: A.D. 325-1300 (Norwalk, CT: The Easton Press, 1992), pp. 385-394.
2Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol. 6, The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300-1564 (Norwalk, CT: The Easton Press, 1992), pp. 727-737.
Study Questions:

Why does Dr. Boice call the listing of tribes a generalization?
What conclusion can we draw about the time period from the evidence presented?
How did Egypt respond to Israel’s blessing? What was the outcome?

Dictionary: Pogrom: An organized massacre, especially of Jews.

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