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I will see my desire for their destruction come to my enemies

3 May 2011

If you were to build a grand house,  what would you write above the door? 

Some people put the initials of the builder or owner and the date when it was done. 

In a blog on 17 February 2010 – yes, we have been going a long time – I wrote about an old house in the Austrian mountains which Hilary and I came across years ago. Inscribed on its white wall, in what seems to me somewhat unusual German, it says, translated:

This House
That seems to me to be a very good thing to put on a house.  When a house has stood a long time and had many occupants, it teaches us to speak in this wise, humble and generous way. 

I was sorting out some old photos this morning and came across one taken somewhere in Germany maybe ten years ago.  

boast house

Above the door, the text is from Psalm 118. v 7, in Luther’s famous translation:

The Lord is with me to help and I will see my desire (Lust) on my enemies.

Somewhat ambiguous.  It is one thing to let everyone know that the Lord is with me, and will help me, and I value and rely on his help.  That might mean, I can offer a generous welcome to you, because the Lord is with me, the generous Lord who helps me to be more generous than I would be by myself. 

But then the inscription turns out to be quite unwelcoming, threatening, aggressive:  I will see my desire upon my enemies. 

The same sentiment is found in Psalm 54.  Insolent men have risen against me.   Ruthless men seek my life.   Behold, the Lord is my helper…he will requite my enemies with evil:  in your faithfulness put an end to them.    …I will give thanks to the Lord, for he has delivered me from every trouble and my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies.  

The aggression, the lust for revenge, the delight in the destruction of the enemy, are the other side of fear, defensive anxiety. Why was this house built so strong and bold?  Why are gated estates built for the rich today? Because we fear. And fear grows in us, so we are not content to be protected and to live at peace; we want to see our enemy destroyed.  

A strong house with a bold boastful front can hide frightened weak souls.  

Merely boasting that the Lord is my helper does not mean my ambiguity of spirit has been sorted out. 

We can coopt God into our anxiety and ambition and use God for our own purposes

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

A poison tree by William Blake

There is a further irony about the inscriptions on this house.  Above the text about the Lord being my helper, it says (I think – my German is as open to correction as my magpie recognition skills):  ‘Diligence, hard work, brings its own reward with it’.  How much do we need the Lord?  What help does the Lord give?  

It is an irony akin to lurks in the motto, ‘In God we trust’ on dollar coins and bills. What really do we have confidence in? A similar irony is found in  the Prayer Book petition: Give peace in our time, O Lord: for there is none other that fighteth for us, but only Thou, O Lord. Why then are we spending so much on excellent armed forces? 

It is irony inescapable in Christian religion. Irony which brings ambiguity, and threatens to discredit our profession of faith. For we are told to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling – in short to be diligent and not be lazy. And then we can end up trusting ourselves, thinking: Hard work brings its own reward – my right hand has done it. We don’t need much help from the Lord.  But any good work we do is not without God.  We work along with what God does: for it is God who is at work in us, to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil.2.12,13). His good pleasure, not our lust.  

What then do we write up on the house of our lives for all the world to read? It is not a bad thing to write something. It is good to confess our faith, and to say the Lord is my helper.  It is good to let the Lord help us to find the text we will put above our door, so that it speaks clearly about love and peace and welcome.   

But we live in a world of enemies, do we not?  And not only on the day after bin Laden has been killed. There are many reasons for being defensive, and then reacting in a practical way, becoming tough and boastful. It is not easy to find the way.    Pray the Lord of Gethsemane to lead us.

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