With friends like these… (part 2)

You know the stereotype: the sleazy, shifty guy who wants to con you into buying that old clunker on the used car lot. He’ll say anything to convince you what a great deal you’re getting. He’ll feign amazement at how savvy a shopper you are. He’ll whisper that he really shouldn’t be letting the car go for so little, but seeing how much he likes you, and how he wouldn’t do this for anyone else…

We like to think that we’d know better than to fall for such drivel. Surely if we saw someone dressed like the guy on the right, grinning like a cat about to pounce on a canary, we’d go shop somewhere else.

Then again, some of us are just nice people. You know, trusting people. We give others the benefit of the doubt unless they give us a clear and compelling reason not to. Indeed, as Malcolm Gladwell argues in Talking to Strangers, this is a rather common default setting among humans. We’re just not that hard to deceive if someone has a mind to do it.

Caveat emptor.

And buyers aren’t the only ones who should beware.

. . .

Psalm 55, as we’ve seen, has something of a dual personality. On the one hand, parts of it read like a relatively consistent complaint about the wickedness of the psalmist’s enemies, peppered with a pungent curse or two. The psalmist pleads for God’s help and faithfully declares that God will indeed act on his behalf.

On the other hand, the psalm is also a lament about being betrayed by a friend. The psalm seems to ping back and forth, as if two separate psalms had collided into a single jumbled mix. I choose to interpret the psalm as a complaint about being betrayed by a friend to one’s enemies, which is why I think of Judas Iscariot when I read it.

We can’t know exactly what this Judas of a friend did. What we do know, however, is that the deed was done with deceitful, slick speech:

My friend attacked his allies,
    breaking his covenant.
Though his talk is smoother than butter,
        war is in his heart;
    though his words are more silky than oil,
        they are really drawn swords:
“Cast your burden on the Lord—
    he will support you!
    God will never let the righteous be shaken!
” (vss. 20-22, CEB)

The betrayer is an untrustworthy covenant-breaker, someone who turned traitor on his “allies” — literally, people with whom he was in shalom. He smooth-talked his way into the psalmist’s confidence, all the time intending harm (tellingly, the word translated here as “war” is the same one used in verse 18 for the psalmist’s “struggle” with his enemies).

Furthermore, the turncoat may have used pious language to further gain the psalmist’s trust. The Common English Bible chooses to put quotation marks around verse 22, making it a manipulative comment by the betrayer instead of a statement of trust from the psalmist. If that’s the right reading, it represents a deeper twist of the knife. The false friend, masquerading as an ally in the faith, has used that influence to sell out the psalmist.

This is the kind of betrayal that can shatter our social world, our ability to trust God or others, or even to trust our own judgment. Small wonder that the psalmist seems to rant and curse: “Let death devastate my enemies; let them go to the grave alive because evil lives with them — even inside them!” (vs. 15). The psalmist pleads that God would not only rescue him but punish his enemies: “God, bring the wicked down to the deepest pit. Let bloodthirsty and treacherous people not live out even half their days” (vs. 23).

Yikes.

One lesson for us is that we should never take it for granted that deceit, selfishness, and betrayal are absent from our places of worship. Members of the same household hurt and betray one another, and members of the household of faith sometimes do the same. It may be outright deception or a habit of self-deception; it can be a power-grabbing lie or a face-saving denial of responsibility that throws someone else under the church bus. As Jesus said, in the face of such brokenness and sin, we need to be “wise as snakes and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16).

But how should we take the psalmist’s raw language of wishing death upon his enemies? Even Jesus, about to be betrayed by those closest to him, “loved them fully” (John 13:1) and served them, humbling himself to wash their dirty feet.

This should tell us something about how we might approach the curses we find in the Psalms, as we’ll begin exploring in the next post.

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