What did David mean when he said “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies”? The man “after God’s own heart” had enemies “without a cause” (Ps 35:19). Jesus, the perfect man, and the personification of perfect love, had enemies. That also made them enemies of the Father of creation (Jn 15:24)! If we live in this world for God we will have enemies. Not that any of us want enemies, and not that we want to make ourselves enemies to people, but it seems that we just cannot prevent it and at the same time love and serve God.
So, knowing that we will have to contend with and deal with people who have made themselves our enemies, what are we to do? Paul said that “as much as depends on you, live at peace with all men” (Rom 12:18). While we diligently seek this that “peace” also depends on the one who hates us and has made up their mind to be an enemy. We cannot control a person’s feelings of hatred and ill-will toward us when they have turned away from true justice and mercy. We can only control our own.
What then can we do under such circumstances? Jesus commands us to “love your enemies” (Mt. 5:44f). He is not commanding us to love their attitudes and behavior toward us. What He is commanding is that we love them, and that means to have “good will” for them. We sincerely will want good things for them despite what they want to happen to us. Jesus gives us this example from the cross as his enemies mocked Him, spat on Him, beat Him, and crucified Him, by praying to His Father: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”. He did not like their attitudes and behavior, but He still had good will for them. Love is not a feeling. It is a decided perspective with principle.
When we think clearly about it, all those who make themselves our enemies are simply ignorant. They “know not what they do”. If they truly knew that they were sending themselves to hell by hating people who have done them no wrong, they would cease the ungodly attitudes and behavior. I believe that it is possible to remember that people who hate are just ignorant. Maybe they shouldn’t be, but they are. Otherwise they would not hate us. And, if we can remember that we want them to have a chance to turn around and get their souls right with God, we can see that “love” in this sense is a principle that we can actually live by.
David said that he found that the Lord had prepared a table for him “in the presence of his enemies” (Psalm 23:5). There was something good for His enemies to see that He could rejoice in God’s blessings and care while in the presence of those who hated him. The Lord can also help us to remember to look at our enemies with compassion toward their ignorance and with real concern regarding their destiny. We don’t have to like what someone is doing or an attitude toward us, but we can remember that “they know not what they do” and that when they give account to God it will not be a good end for them unless they repent. Because we love our enemies, we hope that they will learn better and turn it around before it is too late. That is the love that Jesus commands.
Stephen learned this principle and learned how to love “in the presence of his enemies” (Acts 7:51ff). He did not like what they were inside and he did not like the stones they were throwing at him, but he found that the Lord gave him a “table” to eat from in the presence of his enemies. We can do this too!