I hate to admit it, but my first reading of this psalm with its reference to “a band of ruffians” brought a bit of a smile. The phrase ranks with similarly quaint terms like “scoundrel” or “rascal.” Yet “ruffians” fails to express the violence and terror of the original word.
O God, the insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seek my life, and they do not set you before them. – Psalm 86:14 (NRSV)
Eugene Peterson got it right in The Message, when he translated the Hebrew phrase as “a gang of thugs.” So did the King James Version, using “assemblies of violent men” to describe the psalmist’s assailants.
Getting the right translation is more than a linguistic exercise, especially for Christians. Psalm 86 is part of the spiritual heritage we have from our Jewish forebears. Tragically, we Christians have often comprised the gang of thugs who’ve set upon our Jewish neighbors and kindred.
Such events aren’t confined to the distant past nor last century. Charlotteville’s “Unite the Right” rally and the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol were “assemblies of violent men.” Their Nazi and Confederate flags and “Camp Auschwitz” tee-shirts targeted Jews, African Americans, and others. Such “assemblies” not only result in injury and death. They also inflict ongoing terror on communities far from the actual events. The main synagogue in my city now spends 10% of its budget on active-shooter training and other security measures.
As Christians, we have a moral obligation to speak out against acts of terror, whether toward Jews or any community. It’s in the sacred scripture we share with our Jewish kindred. May it also be in our hearts.
Give us the courage, God, to stand against violence and stand with your people, whoever they may be. Amen.
About the Author
Talitha Arnold is Senior Minister of the United Church of Santa Fe (UCC), Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the author of Mark Parts 1 and 2 of the Listen Up! Bible Study series and Worship for Vital Congregations.