The psalm begins with a plea: “O God, do not keep silence; do not hold Your peace or be still, O God!” (verse 1). Apparently the psalmist, Asaph, is feeling rather abandoned by God. He isn't hearing Him. He isn't receiving His reassurance. He isn't seeing Him act. Right now, he seems to be wondering where God is. So he cries out to Him. Notice the urgency here. Do not keep silence. Do not hold Your peace. Do not be still. Do something, God!
What has the psalmist all riled up? There are enemies about, and they are “in tumult” (verse 2). In other words, as indicated by the Hebrew word hâmâh, they are making a lot of noise, growling, roaring, and stirring up quite a commotion. These enemies hate God, and now they are boldly and pridefully rising up against God's people. These are crafty enemies, sly and subtle, and they are plotting and conspiring against those who claim to be under God's protection (verse 3). Their goal is to wipe out Israel completely so that it is no longer a nation. They don't even want the name of Israel to be remembered in the future (verse 4). That's the kind of widespread, total destruction they are planning.
Further, Israel isn't just facing one enemy nation or tribe here. Several foes have joined together, making a covenant against God (in stark contrast with Israel's covenant with God). With their common goal, they have created a formidable, united enemy of Edom, the Ishmaelites, Moab, the Harites, Gebal, Ammon, Amalek, Philistia, the people of Tyre, and Assyria (verses 5-8). It seems that all of the traditional enemies of Israel are on hand to fight for Israel's destruction. They are a mighty force indeed. Doesn't it seem strange that all these people should band together to destroy one, little nation that shouldn't really have much influence at all in the larger scheme of things? There must be something awfully special about Israel.
The psalmist knows what that is: God. And it is God he turns to now as he watches Israel's enemies prepare to attack. He begins by reminding God of all the things that He has done for His people in the past. It isn't that God needs reminding. He knows Israel's history perfectly well. The psalmist, and by extension all of Israel and all of us, are the ones who need reminding. We're the ones who are likely to experience hard times and forget God's past help. We're the ones likely to despair and lose focus. So in his prayer, the psalmist reminds himself of what God has done.
What exactly, then, has God done for Israel? He has defeated its enemies again and again. He destroyed the Midianites (see Numbers 31 and Judges 7). He defeated the army of King Jabin and Captain Sisera (see Judges 4). He turn His enemies into nothing more than manure worked into the earth, a graphic image certainly, but it does emphasize the thoroughness of God's victory. He triumphed over Oreb, Zeeb, Zebah, and Zalmunna, who were Midianite Kings. There names have pretty much faded from history, except for a few scattered references in Scripture. Even though they lusted after Israel's land, God shattered their power (verses 9-12).
The psalmist then asks God to do to Israel's enemies what He has done in the past. “O my God, make them like whirling dust, like chaff before the wind” (verse 13). Make them so insignificant that they simply blow away, scattered in the wind. “As fire consumes the forest, as the flame sets the mountains ablaze, so pursue them with Your tempest and terrify them with Your hurricane” (verses 14-15). Show them Your intense power, Lord. Chase after them. Set them trembling before Your might. Don't let them get away. Consume them in Your fire.
Then the psalmist changes his tune just a bit. “Fill their faces with shame, so that they may seek Your name, O Lord” (verse 16). Let them know their shame, their disgrace, their dishonor. Then they might turn to You, God. They might seek You out. The Hebrew for “seek” is bâqash. It is an intensive verb that implies a striving after, a desire, an eager search. If these enemies see enough of God's power and are made to feel their shame, the psalmist seems to think, they might leave behind their violence and seek God. They might turn to true worship and change their ways completely.
The next verse, however, suggests that while the psalmist prays this, he does not really think it will happen, and perhaps he even wonders if he really wants it to happen. “Let them be put to shame and dismayed forever; let them perish in disgrace” (verse 17). He still wants his enemies to feel their shame, to be confounded and tremble with fear, to be totally humiliated. He wants them dead so that he never has to worry about them again.
In the last verse, the psalmist waffles again. He almost seems to feel guilty for wishing his enemies such harm. His final prayer is this: “Let them know that You alone, Whose name is the Lord, are the Most High over all the earth” (verse 18). This prayer could have a couple different meanings. Perhaps the enemies in their final moments will realize that they have been defeated by the Most High God. This would only add to their sufferings. On the other hand, perhaps the psalmist is leaning back toward his prayer in verse 16 and hoping that his enemies will come to know God, the Most High, and in doing so, change their ways. If they truly know Him, if they see Him for Who He is and understand Him, they would accept Him and no longer be enemies of His people.
The psalmist, then, seems rather torn about what he wants God to do to his enemies. Destroy them or change their hearts? Wipe them off the face of the earth or draw them to God? We as Christian know how we are to pray. Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. As hard as it may be, then, we are to choose the route of praying that God change our enemies' hearts and draw them close to Him.