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Section 1. The author. This psalm purports in the title to be “A Psalm of David,” and is the first one to which a title indicating authorship, or the occasion on which a psalm was composed, is prefixed. The title is found in the Aramaic Paraphrase, the Latin Vulgate, the Septuagint, the Syriac, the Arabic, and the Ethiopic versions. It is not, indeed, certain by whom the title was prefixed, but there is no reason to doubt its correctness. The sentiments in the psalm accord with the circumstances in which David was more than once placed, and are such as we may suppose he would express in those circumstances.
Section 2. The occasion on which the psalm was composed. The psalm, according to the title, purports to have been written by David, “when he fled from Absalom his son.” That is, it was composed at the time when he fled from Absalom - or in view of that event, and as expressive of his feelings on that occasion, though it might have been penned afterward. Neither of these suppositions has any intrinsic improbability in it, for though at the time when he fled there was, of course, much tumult, agitation, and anxiety, yet there is no improbability in supposing that these thoughts passed through his mind, and that while these events were going forward, during some moments taken for rest, or in the nightwatches, he may have given vent to these deep feelings in this poetic form. Kimchi says that it was the opinion of the ancient rabbis that this psalm was actually composed when David, with naked feet, and with his head covered, ascended the Mount of Olives, as he fled from Jerusalem, 2 Samuel 15:30.
It is not necessary, however, to suppose that in these circumstances he would actually give himself to the task of a poetic composition; yet nothing is more probable than that such thoughts passed through his mind, and nothing would be more natural than that he should seize the first moment of peace and calmness - when the agitation of the scene should be in some measure over - to embody these thoughts in verse. Indeed, there is evidence in the psalm itself that it was actually penned on some such occasion. There is Psalms 3:1-19.3.2 an allusion to the great number of his foes, and to those who had risen up against him, and an expression of his agitation and anxiety in view of that; and there is then a statement that he had, in these circumstances, cried unto the Lord, and that God had heard him out of his holy hill, and that, notwithstanding these alarms, he had been permitted to lie down and sleep, for the Lord had sustained him Psalms 3:4-19.3.5. In these circumstances - after preservation and peace during what he had apprehended would be a dreadful night - what was more proper, or more natural, than the composition of such a psalm as the one before us?
If the psalm was composed by David, it was most probably at the time supposed in the title - the time when he fled from Absalom his son. There is no other period of his life to which it could be regarded as fitted, unless it were the time of Saul, and the persecutions which he waged against him. Hitzig indeed supposes that the latter was the occasion on which it was written; but to this it may be replied:
(a) That there is no direct evidence of this.
(b) That the title should be regarded as good evidence, unless it can be set aside by some clear proofs.
(c) That the contents of the psalm are no more applicable to the time of Saul than to the time of Absalom.
(d) That in the time of the persecutions of Saul, David had not been in such circumstances as are implied in Psalms 3:4, “he heard me out of his holy hill.” This, according to the fair construction of the language, must be understood as referring to Mount Zion (compare the notes at Psalms 2:6), and implies that David at the time referred to was the established king, and had made that the seat of his authority. This had not occurred in the time of Saul; and there can be no reason for supposing, as Hitzig does, that Mount Horeb is intended.
The flight of David, which is supposed to be referred to here, is described in 2 Sam. 15–18. Absalom rebelled against his father; gathered together a great number of the disaffected in the kingdom; and under pretence of performing a vow which he had made, obtained permission to go to Hebron, having given instructions to his followers to meet him, and having made arrangements to be proclaimed king there. So artful had he been, so numerous were his followers, so extensive seemed to be the defection, and so little prepared was David to meet it, that the only prospect of safety seemed to be in flight. With a few attendants David left Jerusalem, and passed over the Mount of Olives, designing to seek a place of refuge. This was to him the great trial of his life, for there is no greater trial than the ingratitude of a son when he seeks the life of his father. All the circumstances of this case are such that we should suppose that David would cry to God in some such language as is found in this psalm.
It is indeed objected by Horsley that there is “nothing in the psalm that had any particular reference to this event,” and hence, he supposes that the title should be, “Prayer of a Believer for Deliverance from the Atheistical Conspiracy.” But there is nothing in the original title that corresponds with this; and there is no need for departing from the common supposition. It is true that there is in the psalm no express mention of Absalom; but the same remark may be made of nearly all the psalms. A considerable portion of David’s psalms were doubtless composed in view of the circumstances in which the writer was placed, and were designed to be expressive of his own feelings on the occasion, but they were also designed for the Church at large, and were intended to be used in the Church in all times to come, and hence, a general form is given to the sentiments, and the local allusion is barely referred to, or omitted altogether. It is, perhaps, also an indication of the nature of true devotion, that it will turn away from, or forget, for the time, the personal and local circumstances of distress, and give utterance to sentiments of piety that will express the feelings of the children of God in all ages and in all circumstances. The psalm thus becomes one of general use; and the language is such as is adapted to the use of the Church in all generations.
It is also objected by DeWette that the psalm is devoid of all the tender feelings which we should suppose the heart of a father would pour out on such an occasion. But to this it may be replied, that this was not the occasion to pour out such feelings. The thoughts are fixed on his own danger; on the nnmber of his enemies; on the suddenness of the peril; on the great ingratitude and crime of those who had risen up against him. It is a time to look to God for help; not a time to express affection for an ungrateful and rebellious son. When this son died - when he was put to death in violation of the commands and entreaties of himself as a king and a father 2 Samuel 18:5, 2Sa 18:12, 2 Samuel 18:14 - he poured forth all his heart in language such as had never been used before, and has never been equalled since, 2 Samuel 18:33.
Section 3. Analysis of the psalm. The psalm is naturally and regularly divided into four strophes or parts, each one embracing two verses; and in three of them closed by the word Selah, indicating a pause either in the sense, in the melody, or in both. See the notes at Psalms 3:2.
I. The first is expressive of the anxiety of the psalmist from the fact that many enemies had risen up against him, Psalms 3:1-19.3.2.
II. The second expresses his confidence in God in the midst of his troubles, Psalms 3:3-19.3.4. He was his shield and his helper, and he heard his prayer out of his holy hill.
III. The third refers to the fact that in his troubles he had, contrary to what there had been reason to apprehend, been permitted to lie down calmly and to sleep, and to arise again in the morning. In view of this, refreshed and invigorated by rest, and having this new proof of the divine favor and protection, he says that he would not be afraid though ten thousands of people should set themselves against him round about, Psalms 3:5-19.3.6.
IV. In the fourth part, the psalmist calls upon God to arise and save him for in other times he had smitten his enemies upon their cheek bone, and had broken the teeth of the ungodly, and salvation belonged only unto him, Psalms 3:7-19.3.8.
Lord, how are they increased - How are they multiplied; or, how numerous they are. Perhaps the idea is, that at first they seemed to be comparatively few in number, but had now so multiplied as to endanger his crown and life. This is an appropriate expression on the supposition that it refers to Absalom. At first the number of those who adhered to Absalom was not so great as to excite much alarm; but by the arts of a demagogue, by complaining of the government, by saying that if he were made a judge in tim land, every man would have justice done him 2 Samuel 15:4-10.15.5, he won the hearts of the people, and gathered so many under his standard as to make it necessary that the king should flee from Jerusalem to a place of safety.
That trouble me - literally, my enemies. The allusion is to those who were now enlisted under Absalom, and who were engaged in endeavoring to overthrow the government.
Many are they that rise up against me - That is, that have become my enemies.
A Psalm of David - literally, belonging to David; that is, belonging to him as the author. This is marked in the Hebrew as the first verse, and so in the Syriac version, the Latin Vulgate, and the Septuagint, making in the Hebrew, and in each of these versions, nine verses in the psalm instead of eight, as in our translation. This may have been prefixed to the psalm by the author himself, for it was not uncommon in ancient times for an author to prefix his name to his own composition, as is commonly done by the apostle Paul in his epistles. It is not absolutely certain, however, that this was done in the Psalms by the authors themselves, but it may have been done by him who collected and arranged the Psalms, indicating the prevalent belief in regard to the authorship, and under the Spirit of inspiration.
When he fled - On the occasion of his fleeing. That is, it was composed at that time, or was subsequently composed in remembrance of it. See Introduction, Section 2.
From Absalom his son - See the introduction, Section 2.
Many there be which say of my soul - Or rather, perhaps, of his “life,” for so the word used here - נפשׁ nephesh - frequently means Leviticus 17:11; Deuteronomy 12:23; Genesis 9:4; Genesis 35:18; 1 Kings 17:21. The object of their persecution, as here stated, was not his soul, as such, in the sense in which we now understand the word, but his life; and they now said that they were secure of that, and that all things indicated that God would not now interfere to save him. They were perfectly sure of their prey. Compare 2 Samuel 17:1-10.17.4.
There is no help for him in God - He is entirely forsaken. He has no power of defending himself, and no hope of escaping from us now, and all the indications are, that God does not intend to interpose and deliver him. Circumstances, in the rebellion of Absalom (2 Samuel 16:1 ff), were such as to seem to justify this taunt. David had been driven away from his throne and his capital. God had not protected him when he had his armed men and his friends around him, and when he was entrenched in a strong city; and now he was a forsaken fugitive, fleeing almost alone, and seeking a place of safety. If God had not defended him on his throne and in his capital; if he had suffered him to be driven away without interposing to save him, much less was there reason to suppose that he would now interpose in his behalf; and hence, they exultingly said that there was no hope for his life, even in that God in whom he had trusted. It is no uncommon thing in this world for good men to be in similar circumstances of trial, when they seem to be so utterly forsaken by God as well as men, that their foes exultingly say they are entirely abandoned.
Selah - סלה selâh. Much has been written on this word, and still its meaning does not appear to be wholly determined. It is rendered in the Targum, or Aramaic Paraphrase, לעלמין le‛alemiyn, forever, or to eternity. In the Latin Vulgate it is omitted, as if it were no part of the text. In the Septuagint it is rendered Διάψαλμα Diapsalma, supposed to refer to some variation or modulation of the voice in singing. Sehleusner, Lexicon. The word occurs seventy-one times in the Psalms, and three times in the Book of Habakkuk, Habakkuk 3:3, Habakkuk 3:9, Habakkuk 3:13. It is never translated in our version, but in all these places the original word “Selah” is retained. It occurs only in poetry, and is supposed to have had some reference to the singing or cantillation of the poetry, and to be probably a musical term. In general, also, it indicates a pause in the sense, as well as in the musical performance. Gesenius (Lexicon) supposes that the most probable meaning of this musical term or note is silence, or pause, and that its use was, in chanting the words of the psalm, to direct the singer to be silent, to pause a little, while the instruments played an interlude or harmony.
Perhaps this is all that can now be known of the meaning of the word, and this is enough to satisfy every reasonable inquiry. It is probable, if this was the use of the term, that it would commonly correspond with the sense of the passage, and be inserted where the sense made a pause suitable; and this will doubtless be found usually to be the fact. But any one acquainted at all with the character of musical notation will perceive at once that we are not to suppose that this would be invariably or necessarily the fact, for the musical pauses by no means always correspond with pauses in the sense. This word, therefore, can furnish very little assistance in determining the meaning of the passages where it is found. Ewald supposes, differing from this view, that it rather indicates that in the places where it occurs the voice is to be raised, and that it is synonymous with up, higher, loud, or distinct, from סל sal, סלה sâlâh, to ascend. Those who are disposed to inquire further respecting its meaning, and the uses of musical pauses in general, may be referred to Ugolin, ‘Thesau. Antiq. Sacr.,’ tom. xxii.
But thou, O Lord, art a shield for me - Not only in these dangers, but in all dangers. The declaration here has a general form, as if he could trust in him at all times. It shows what his feelings were on the occasion here referred to, when dangers stood thick around him, and what his feelings habitually were in times of peril. The shield was a well-known part of ancient armor, of use, according to the ancient modes of warfare, when swords, and spears, and arrows were employed, but of use only then, since they would constitute no defense against a musket or cannonball. They were usually made of tough and thick hides, fastened to a rim, and so attached to the left arm that they could be readily thrown before the body when attacked, or so that, as they were usually held, the vital parts of the body would be protected. See the notes at Ephesians 6:14-49.6.16. From this use of the shield it was natural to speak of God as the “shield,” or the “Protector” of his people - an appellation which is often given to him in the Scriptures (Genesis 15:1; Deu 33:29; 2 Samuel 22:3; Psalms 28:7; Psalms 119:114; Psalms 144:2; Psalms 33:20; Psalms 84:11; Proverbs 30:5.
My glory - My honor, or the source of my honor. That is, he bestows upon me all the honor that I have, and it is my glory that I may put my trust in him. I regard it as an honor to be permitted, in times of danger and trouble, to rely on him - a sentiment in which every true child of God will unite.
And the lifter up of my head - The head, in time of trouble and sorrow is naturally bowed down, as if overpowered with the weight of affliction. See Psalms 35:14 : “I bowed down heavily as one that mourneth for his mother;” Psalms 38:6 : “I am bowed down greatly; I go mourning all the day.” Compare Psalms 42:5; Psalms 44:25; Psalms 57:6; John 19:30. To lift up the head, therefore, or to raise one up, is to relieve his distresses, or to take away his troubles. Such a helper, David says, he had always found God to be, and he looks to him as one who is able to help him still. That is, he feels that God can so entirely take away his present griefs as to reinstate him in his former happy and honorable condition.
I cried unto the Lord - That is, in these troubles, as he had always done in affliction. The form of the verb here is future - “I will cry” or call unto the Lord; probably, however, designed to state a general habit with him, that when troubles came he always called on the Lord. He speaks now of himself as if in the midst of the trouble; gives utterance to the feeling which he has always had in his sorrows; and says, “I will call upon the Lord,” thus declaring his purpose to make his appeal confidently to him. Thus, the language is not so much retrospective as it is indicative of the uniform state of his mind in the midst of afflictions.
With my voice - Not merely mentally, but he gave utterance to the deep anguish of his soul in words. So the Saviour did in the garden of Gethsemane Matthew 26:39; and so, perhaps, most persons do in deep affliction. It is natural then to cry out for help; and besides the fact that we may hope that any prayer then, though mental only, would bring relief by being answered, there is a measure of relief found by the very act of giving utterance or vent to the deep and, as it were, pent-up feelings of the soul. In calmer times we are satisfied with unuttered aspirations, with gentle ejaculations, with sweet mental communion with God; in overwhelming trials we give utterance to our feelings in the earnest language of pleading.
And he heard me - Or, “then he hears me;” that is, when I call. The psalmist refers to what he had constantly found to be true, that God was a hearer of prayer.
Out of his holy hill - Zion. See the notes at Psalms 2:6. That was the place to which David had removed the ark, and which was regarded, therefore, as the special dwelling-place of the Most High. To him, as dwelling in Zion, prayer was accustomed to be offered, and there he was accustomed to answer prayer. To this fact David here refers as one that had been illustrated in his former days. To that God who had thus answered him he felt that he might confidently appeal now.
Selah - Indicating another strophe or musical pause. See the notes at Psalms 3:2.
I laid me down and slept - Notwithstanding these troubles and dangers I had such confidence that God hears prayer, and such calm trust in his protection, that I laid me down gently and slept securely. The psalmist mentions this as a remarkable proof of the divine protection and favor. He was driven from his capital, his throne, and his home. He was compelled to wander as a poor fugitive, accompanied by only a few friends. He was pursued by enemies, who were numbered by thousands. He was made an exile, and persecuted by his own son; and with this son there were men of age and of experience in war. The forces of his enemies might come upon him at any moment. In these circumstances, persecuted as he was, and under all the anxiety and distress which he felt in view of the ungrateful conduct of his own son, he regarded it as a singular proof of the divine favor, and as an illustration of the peace which confidence in God gives to those who put their trust in him, that on such a dreadful night he was permitted to lie calmly down and sleep. As such a proof and illustration it may be regarded here: a proof of the unspeakable value of the divine favor, and an illustration of the effect of confidence in God in giving calmness and peace of mind in time of trouble. Psalms 127:2.
I awaked - Still safe and secure. He had not been suddenly attacked by his foes, and made to sleep the sleep of death; he had not been crushed by anguish of spirit. That we are “awaked” in the morning after a night’s refreshing slumber; that we are raised up again to the enjoyments of life; that we are permitted again to greet our friends and to unite with them in the privileges of devotion, should always be regarded as a new proof of the goodness of God, and should lead to acts of praise. We have no power to awake ourselves; and when we remember how many are taken away from our world each night - how many there are who lie down to sleep to wake no more, we should never rise from a bed of repose without giving our first thoughts in gratitude to our Great Preserver.
For the Lord sustained me - He kept me from danger; he preserved me from death. And it is as true now as it was then, that God is the supporter of life when men sleep. He guards us; he causes the action of the heart to be continued as it propels the blood through our frame; he secures the gentle heaving of the lungs, both when we slumber and when we wake.
I will not be afraid - As the result of this new proof of the divine protection, and in view of all that God has done and has promised, the psalmist now says that he would not be afraid though any number of foes should rise up against him. Perhaps this confiding and exulting spirit may be regarded in some measure as the “result” of the calm and refreshing slumber which he had enjoyed. The mind as well as the body had been refreshed and invigorated. With the bright light of a new morning he looked with more cheerful views and hopes on the things around him, and felt new strength to meet the dangers to which he was exposed. Who in trouble and sorrow has not felt this? Who has not experienced the influence of the slumbers of a night and of the light of the morning, in giving new vigour and inspiring new hopes, as if the returning day was an emblem of brighter scenes in life, and the passing away of the shades of night a token that all trouble and sorrow would flee away?
Of ten thousands of people - Myriads: Though myriads are arrayed against me. He does not, of course, pretend to any exactness here; but he felt that the number of his enemies was very great. This “was” the case in the rebellion of Absalom. Ahithophel proposed to Absalom to “choose out twelve thousand men” with whom he might pursue after David, implying that the number with him was actually much greater than that, 2 Samuel 17:1)
That have set themselves against me - That have arrayed themselves against me; or that have risen up in rebellion against me.
Round about - Intending to hem me in on every side. Of course this was to be apprehended in such a rebellion; yet David says that he could now look with calmness on all this, for he had confidence in God. Compare Psalms 56:3.
Arise, O Lord - This is a common mode of calling upon God in the Scriptures, as if he had been sitting still, or had been inactive. It is, of course, language taken from human conceptions, for in the intervals of active effort, in labor or in battle, we sit or lie down, and when we engage in toil we arise from our sitting or recumbent posture. So the mind accustoms itself to think of God. The idea is simply that David now calls upon God to interpose in his behalf and to deliver him.
Save me, O my God - He was still surrounded by numerous enemies, and he, therefore, calls earnestly upon God to help him. In accordance with a common usage in the Scriptures, and with what is right for all the people of God, he calls him “his” God: “O my God.” That is, he was the God whom he recognized as his God in distinction from all idols, and who had manifested himself as his God by the many mercies which he had conferred on him.
For thou hast smitten all mine enemies - That is, in former exigencies, or on former occasions. In his conflicts with Saul, with the Philistines, and with the surrounding nations, he had done this; and as the result of all he had established him on the throne, and placed him over the realm. In the remembrance of all this he appeals with the full confidence that what God had done for him before He would do now, and that, notwithstanding he was surrounded with numerous foes, He would again interpose. So we may derive comfort and assurance in present trouble or danger from the recollection of what God has done for us in former times. He who has saved us in former perils can still save us; we may believe that he who did not forsake us in those perils will not leave us now.
Upon the cheek-bone - This language seems to be taken from a comparison of his enemies with wild beasts; and the idea is, that God had disarmed them as one would a lion or tiger by breaking out his teeth. The cheek-bone denotes the bone in which the teeth are placed; and to smite that, is to disarm the animal. The idea here is not that of “insult,” therefore; but the meaning is simply that he had deprived them of the power of doing him wrong.
Thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly - The same idea is here expressed under another form, “as if” the teeth of wild animals were broken out, rendering them harmless. As God had thus disarmed his enemies in times past, the psalmist hoped that he would do the same thing now, and he confidently called on him to do it.
Salvation belongeth unto the Lord - That is, it pertains to God alone to save. The psalmist had no expectation of saving himself; he had no confidence in the unaided prowess of his own arm. If he was to be saved he felt that it was to be only by God, and the praise of this was to be given to Him. The particular reference here is to temporal deliverance, or deliverance from the dangers which surrounded him then; but the declaration is as true of spiritual deliverance - of the salvation of the soul - as it is of deliverance from temporal danger. In both cases it is true that God only saves, and that all the praise is due to him.
Thy blessing is upon thy people - Or perhaps, rather, “thy blessing be upon thy people,” regarding this as a “prayer” rather than an “affirmation.” It is true, indeed, as an affirmation (compare Psalms 2:12); but it accords better with the connection here, and is a more appropriate conclusion of the psalm to regard it as a petition, expressing an earnest desire that the blessing of God might ever rest upon his own people. Then the thoughts of the psalmist are turned away from his own perils to the condition of others; from his individual case to that of the Church at large; and he prays that all others may find the same favors from God which he had so richly enjoyed, and which he hoped still to enjoy. It is one of the characteristics of true piety thus to turn from our own condition to that of others, and to desire that what we enjoy may be partaken of by the people of God everywhere.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 3". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent