Bible Commentary: Psalm 83

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Psalm 83

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Psalm 83, the last of Asaph's psalms and the concluding psalm of the second cluster of Book III, implores God to rouse Himself against a confederacy of national enemies conspiring to wipe out Israel--these nations here declared to be God's enemies (compare  Psalm 81:14-15).

Present in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary along with the account of the chariots of Mesopotamia helping the Ammonites against David's army is Psalm 83 (see the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on 2 Samuel 10; 1 Chronicles 19; Psalm 60; Psalm 108; Psalm 83). This may be what is meant in Psalm 83:8: "Assyria also has joined with them; they have helped the children of Lot." The nations of Ammon and Moab were both descended from Abraham's nephew Lot. Yet there is a larger coalition mentioned in verses 5-7, containing nations not mentioned in 2 Samuel 10 or 1 Chronicles 19. However, some of these, having been subdued by David in earlier campaigns, could have been in revolt on this later occasion (see the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Psalm 60). Of course, considering that other prophecies of various nations here describe them rising up together against Israel in the end time, Psalm 83 may well be an end-time prophecy of "Asaph the seer" (see 2 Chronicles 29:30). Perhaps the song is dual in meaning--with an ancient coalition prefiguring a similar confederacy of the last days.

In the list of conspiring enemies, the foremost and perennial enemy of Israel is given first--Edom (Psalm 83:6), the nation descended from Jacob's brother Esau. David subdued the Edomites prior to the fight with Mesopotamian forces (see 2 Samuel 8; 1 Chronicles 18). But since the Syrians were also earlier subdued and rebelled at the time of the later conflict, it is possible that the same thing happened with the Edomites. In an end-time setting, which seems applicable here, the Edomites may be found among the Palestinians in Israel and Jordan, among the Turks, among the Iraqis and other Middle Eastern peoples and, due to immigration, in growing numbers in Europe. (For more on the Edomites and their modern identity, see the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Obadiah, Isaiah 34 and 63, Jeremiah 49:7-22 and Ezekiel 35.)

The Ishmaelites, listed second (Psalm 83:6), are the Arabs generally--descended from Abraham's first son Ishmael. The Arab nations of today stretch from across North Africa to Iraq.

Third on the list, Moab (same verse), as mentioned above, was, along with Ammon, descended from Lot (see verse 8). As with the Edomites, David subdued the Moabites prior to the fight with Mesopotamia's chariots (see 2 Samuel 8; 1 Chronicles 18). But, as with Edom, it may be that the Moabites rebelled during the later conflict. The Moabites are probably to be found today among the Palestinians in Jordan and Israel and among other Middle Eastern peoples.

Listed fourth are the Hagrites (verse 6). The Israelite tribes of Reuben and Gad fought against the Hagrites in the days of Saul (1 Chronicles 5:10, 1 Chronicles 5:18-19). As was noted in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on 1 Chronicles 5, the name Hagrites perhaps denotes descendants of Ishmael's mother Hagar (and thus Ishmaelite or related tribes). The conflict with the Trans-Jordanian tribes would make these north-ranging Arabs. Assyrian inscriptions mention Hagrites as part of an Aramean (i.e., Syrian) confederacy (Zondervan, note on Psalm 83:6). Thus, the Hagrites are perhaps to be identified in modern times with the Arabs of Syria.

Fifth is Gebal (verse 7). As The Nelson Study Bible notes on Ezekiel 27:9, Gebal was an important Phoenician port city "between Sidon and Arvad (see Joshua 13:5; 1 Kinngs 5:18). It was called Byblos by the Greeks and Romans, and Gubla by the Assyrians and Babylonians." The Phoenician city is today known as Jbail or Jubayl in Lebanon, 25 miles north of Beirut. Yet the name Gebal, related to the Arabic Jebel, is simply the word for "mountain," and many believe another location could be meant. "Some interpreters...conclude that the reference here is to a place or region in Edom [southern Jordan], south of the Dead Sea near Petra" (Zondervan, note on verse 7).

Sixth on the list is Ammon (same verse). It was the conflict with Ammon that led to the fight against Mesopotamia's forces. The Ammonite capital, Rabbah, is now Amman, the capital city of Jordan. Like the related Moabites, the Ammonites today are probably to be found among the Palestinians in Jordan and Israel and among other Middle Eastern peoples.

Seventh is Amalek (same verse). The Amalekites were a hostile Edomite people of southern Canaan (Numbers 13:29) who ambushed the stragglers in the Israelites' rear ranks when they came out of Egypt. For this ruthlessness God said He would have war with them from generation to generation and eventually cause them to be wiped out (Exodus 17:8-16; Deuteronomy 25:17-19). Though suppressed under Saul and David, the Amalekites remained. They appear to have eventually ranged over a large territory--some migrating all the way up into Central Asia (see the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Obadiah and Esther 3). The Amalekites today may be among the Palestinians, Central Asian Turks and other Middle Eastern peoples.

Philistia, land of the Philistines, eighth on the list (Psalm 83:7), was located along the southwest coast of Israel. David had subdued the Philistines prior to the engagement with the Mesopotamian forces (see 2 Samuel 8; 1 Chronicles 18). But, as with Edom and Moab, it could be that the Philistines revolted at the time of the fight against Mesopotamia. A significant portion of the area of ancient Philistia is today the Palestinian Gaza Strip--Gaza being one of the ancient Philistine cities. The Philistines gave their name to Palestine, the name used by the Greeks and Romans for the land of Israel. And there may be some Philistines among the Palestinians of today.

Listed ninth are "the inhabitants of Tyre" (Psalm 83:7). It might seem problematic for this to apply to the time Asaph wrote--as King Hiram of Tyre was closely allied to David and Solomon. The same problem exists for a Phoenician Gebal if that is the city intended, as Gebal was under Tyre's dominion. Yet it could be that there were rogue elements in Tyre favorable to the Mesopotamians against Israel. Perhaps this is why the wording "inhabitants of Tyre" is used instead of just Tyre. On the other hand, it could be that the psalm simply did not concern events of Asaph's time--that it was instead exclusively a prophecy of the end time. In a modern setting, Lebanon could be indicated. However, modern descendants of the Phoenician Tyrians, along with modern descendants of the Babylonians, may be found in southern Europe (see the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Isaiah 13:1-14:2). And ancient Tyre prefigured the end-time European-centered Babylonian commercial system of the last days (see Ezekiel 27; Revelation 18).

Listed tenth and last is Assyria (Psalm 83:8). This was probably the principal Mesopotamian power involved in the conflict with David. In a modern setting, the land of Assyria could perhaps indicate northern Iraq. However, it could be that the modern descendants of the ancient Assyrians are intended--apparently, as noted in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Isaiah 10:5-34, to be found among the Germanic people of Central Europe. As the same comments note, the early Catholic theologian Jerome applied Psalm 83:8 to the Germanic tribes invading western Europe along the Rhine.

In modern times, all the various Middle Eastern peoples listed here have fiercely opposed the people of Israel (foremost among "Israel" being the United States and Britain) and Judah (the Jewish people, including the modern Israeli state)--constantly plotting and conspiring against them and at times actually fighting them militarily or through terrorism, with many shrieking "Death to Israel!" and "Israel into the sea!" After the Arab states came together in the Arab League at the end of World War II, one of its first major actions was a joint attack on the Israeli state when it was established in 1948. Conflict has erupted numerous times since, with Israel fighting several wars for survival against overwhelming odds.

As for European involvement, Germany fought America and Britain in World Wars I and II and waged the terrible Holocaust against the Jews. The Germans were allied with the Ottoman Turks in World War I and with anti-Semitic Arabs in World War II--the Muslim Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al Husseini, finding common cause with the Nazis. As pointed out in a recent article, "In late March 1933, al-Husseini contacted the German consul general in Jerusalem and requested German help in eliminating Jewish settlements in Palestine--offering, in exchange, a pan-Islamic jihad in alliance with Germany against Jews around the world" (David Dalin, "Hitler's Mufti," Human Events, Aug. 3, 2005). And since the formation of the state of Israel shortly after World War II, Germany and other European nations have politically and economically supported the Palestinian cause against what they see as Israeli "occupation" and "oppression."

This decades-long hostility (with its intermittent wars and intifadas) may be what is meant in Psalm 83, though the song could parallel other end-time prophecies in foretelling a more concerted and severe onslaught closer to the end of the age.

Asaph calls on God to deal with the enemy forces as He dealt with seemingly overwhelming enemies before (verses 9-12). "As with Midian" (verse 9) refers to God's victory accomplished through Gideon in Judges 7. "As with Sisera, as with Jabin at the Brook Kishon" (Psalm 83:9) refers to God's victory accomplished through Deborah and Barak in Judges 4-5. Oreb, Zeeb, Zebah and Zalmunna (Psalm 83:11) were leaders of the Midianites killed by Gideon and his men (Judges 7:25-8:21).

Asaph then calls for judgment on the enemy nations--remarkably for the cause of redemption. He asks that God would pursue, frighten and shame the enemies so that they would repent and seek a relationship with God (verse 13-16). He further prays that they be dismayed, confounded forever and shamed and that they perish (verse 17). Is there a contradiction here? Some think Asaph seeks for the enemies to repent but, if they still refuse, for them to then be destroyed. That may be, but the passage is not directly worded that way.

We should realize that the word translated "forever" in verse 17 does not necessarily mean for all eternity as in modern English usage (compare Exodus 21:6). Indeed verse 18, which says that the punishment is so that the enemies will know that God is "the Most High over all the earth," appears to hint at the second resurrection. For how will these enemies know anything if they are dead forever? While the lesson will of course be learned by those left alive, a straightforward reading of these verses would seem to say that the lesson is for those who perish. The desire in verse 18, then, seems to be that the mortal defeat the enemies experience from God in this age will convince them of His sovereignty when they are raised in the future--leading them to the repentance mentioned in verse 16. (Jesus spoke of this resurrection to repentance in Matthew 11:20-24 and 12:41-42, and the Bible mentions it in several other references. To learn more about God's plan to offer salvation to all human beings who lived without a proper understand of His ways, see our free booklet What Happens After Death?)