This is a psalm in praise of YHWH. The principle idea of it is that once a man has put his trust in YHWH and taken Him as his refuge he can stand firm against all opposition, whatever the danger, because YHWH is with him. For YHWH looks down and sees all, and brings about His righteous will. And it stresses that such a man will not stoop to the evil behaviour of the unrighteous in retaliation, for to do so would shake the very foundations of God’s Law. To behave in such a way would be to make him evil too. And then what would the righteous do? To whom would they be able to turn? It is a firm statement that if men behave unrighteously towards us it does not justify our behaving in the same way towards them.
‘For the Chief Musician. Of David.’
The psalm is dedicated to the Choirmaster and is of the Davidic collection, of which a large part, if not all, were written by David himself. For his reputation as a psalmist see 2 Samuel 23:1 where he is called ‘the sweet psalmist of Israel’; 1 Chronicles 16:7; Amos 6:5.
There may be good reason to see that it was indeed written by David for it pictures his situation exactly. For if the psalm is by David it may signify the time when he was under threat by Saul while in his service, but refusing to flee and raise up his supporters against him, although aware that an attempt might be made by a secret hand to strike him down. For although he was too popular for Saul to condemn him publicly, an assassination was always a possibility. Would it not then be sensible to strike first?
On the other hand it could apply to any situation where a godly man was under threat. It does not mean that a man must not take wise precautions, but is a reminder that there are times when a man must not flee, but must bravely face a strong opposition in order to stand firm for the right.
‘In YHWH do I take refuge.
How do you say to me,
Flee, oh bird, to your mountain,
For, lo, the wicked bend the bow.
They make ready their arrow on the string,
That they may shoot in darkness at the upright in heart.
If the foundations are destroyed,
What can the righteous do?’
Note the central point. The one spoken of has taken refuge in YHWH. He could have no stronger or safer position. Thus all his judgments must be made in this light. Sometimes such a man may need temporarily to flee, but he must also consider his duties and responsibilities and decide what is best for the establishment of righteousness and a true foundation for life.
So he challenges the advice given to him by those around him. How should such a one as he flee? (compare Nehemiah 6:11). The next question we must then ask is whether the reference to the wicked assassins continues the argument of the advisers or is part of the psalmist’s reply to suggestions made by those advisers (‘For, look, it is the wicked who bend the bow’).
If the psalmist is David this reply to the advice to flee may well indicate the suggestion made by others (whether friend or subtle foe) that he flee to where he had men waiting in their mountain refuge, so that they may return secretly and deal with the tyrant Saul once and for all through an arrow coming out of the darkness. If so David’s reply is one of horror. He signifies that it is only the wicked who behave in such a way. It is the wicked who would shoot arrows out of the darkness; those who are truly upright are the targets of such evil, not its perpetrators. And he wants to be one of the upright.
He was especially aware that if his men fired their arrows in this way it would be against YHWH’s anointed. And to slay YHWH’s anointed would be to destroy the very foundations of the covenant to which they were all committed. How then could he, as one who has taken refuge in YHWH, behave in such a way? And if he did what then could the righteous do? He would have destroyed the very foundations that he and they believed in.
We know in fact that David did behave exactly like he claimed, refusing to slay Saul even when Saul was hunting him down to kill him (1 Samuel 23:14; 1 Samuel 23:25-26), precisely because Saul was YHWH’s anointed (1 Samuel 24:6; 1 Samuel 24:10). He would not lift up his hand against YHWH’s anointed. And in the same incident he uses a similar picture of Saul as seeking him like he would seek a partridge in the mountains (1 Samuel 26:20).
The more general thought may be that the psalmist’s friends have advised him to flee for refuge like a bird to the mountain where he has his supporters, because there is someone out to get him. Again the thought being that he return with his supporters secretly and kill his adversary. But the psalmist is horrified. He has taken His refuge in YHWH, how then can he behave in such a way, like the wicked, for murder hits at the very foundations of the covenant. Then he would rightly lose any respect from the righteous. He would cease to be regarded as upright. Rather must he remain where he was and stand firm for the truth.
Or it may be that his advisers are declaring that there are those who are ready to bend the bow, fit their arrow, and shoot at him in the darkness, and that he should flee before it is too late. Then he is suggesting that to flee in the face of such a threat would be cowardly and to give way to tyranny, and thus by such cowardice he would help to destroy the foundations of society. The tyrant would then think that he could do the same to others, and achieve his purposes by threats. And if that happened what then could the righteous do? There are some men whose position is such that they must stand firm and even be willing to face the possibility of death so as to be on hand to defend justice and truth.
The point behind all these scenarios is that the righteous man must behave righteously whatever the provocation, otherwise the purposes which are dearest to his heart will collapse. To behave like the wicked would be to make him wicked. To flee unnecessarily would be to desert his cause.
‘Flee (singular), O bird, to your (plural) mountain.’ The idea would seem to be that the one who is to flee has a place of refuge in some particular mountain where he has supporters who are in possession of it. Fleeing to the mountains is a popular Biblical image (e.g. Genesis 19:30; 1 Samuel 14:22; 1 Samuel 23:14; 1 Samuel 26:1; Matthew 24:16). But the singular suggests a special mountain which can be a natural fortress.
‘If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?’ The important thing to the psalmist is that at all costs the foundations are preserved, otherwise the righteous have nowhere to turn. That involves maintenance of YHWH’s Instruction (Law) at all costs however hard it may be in the circumstances. To obtain the right in the wrong way, or not to defend it when called upon to do so, would be to destroy the right.
Of course the foundations can never actually be destroyed, for ‘The foundation of God stands sure, having this seal, that the Lord knows those who are his’ (2 Timothy 2:19). In the end all depends on God and on His personal and eternal knowing of His people. But it is still the duty of the righteous to uphold those foundations at whatever cost.
‘YHWH is in his holy temple,
YHWH, his throne is in heaven,
His eyes behold, his eyelids try,
The children of men.
The psalmist now turns from the challenge that has been put to him and the reply he has given, to the God in Whom he trusts, the God Who is his refuge. He knows that he does not need to defend himself in this case for YHWH is over all. He is on His heavenly throne (Psalms 9:4; Psalms 9:7), and from His heavenly Temple He watches over His people (compare 1 Kings 8:26 onwards) and over him. Indeed His eyes behold all men, and His eyelids test them out, so that the wicked are under His eye too. He knows all that they do. The idea behind the eyelids is that when we are carefully peering at something we tend to contract the eyelids. So God peers at the behaviour of men carefully and constantly. The word for testing out is used of the refining of metals. At a glance YHWH can distinguish what is true from what is base, for YHWH has an all-seeing eye.
For His Temple as signifying Heaven see also Psalms 18:6; Psalms 29:9; Micah 1:2; Habakkuk 2:20 compare also Psalms 9:7 with 11. This is a reminder that the earthly Temple was always seen as but a shadow of the heavenly, a kind of way by which His people could approach the heavenly Temple through the earthly (1 Kings 8:26 onwards). This was what was in Ezekiel’s mind when he spoke of the heavenly Temple descending on an anonymous high mountain, a pure and heavenly Temple accessible through the earthly altar in the physical Temple, the altar which men were commanded to build (they were not commanded in Ezekiel to build a Temple, only the altar).
YHWH tries the righteous,
But the unrighteous and him who loves violence his soul hates.
On the unrighteous he will rain snares,
Fire and brimstone and burning wind will be the portion of their cup.
For YHWH is righteous. He loves righteousness.
The upright shall behold his face.’
The psalmist finishes with a strong contrast between righteousness and unrighteousness. He is confident that YHWH accounts him righteous and so he will trust YHWH to watch over him and ensure that justice is done. ‘YHWH tries the righteous.’ That is, He tries them in order to establish their faithfulness and loyalty, in order that He might then bless them. So what have such to fear? In contrast, however, He tries the unrighteous, those who do not seek to obey His laws, and those who love violence, and He ‘hates’ them (has an aversion to them) because of what He finds. So the psalmist can safely leave his enemies to the judgment of God.
Indeed YHWH will rain snares on the unrighteous, and what they ‘drink’ will be fire and brimstone and a hot, searing wind such as some miserably experience in the desert. That will be their portion. And this must be so because YHWH, Who is Himself righteous, loves righteousness and hates iniquity, rewarding goodness and punishing sin.
Finally he points out that in contrast to those who must drink of YHWH’s anger, the upright look up and see His face. They walk in His presence. And if a man walks in YHWH’s presence why should he fear his foes?
Note the parallel between the upright at whom the wicked shoot their arrows (Psalms 11:3), and the upright who walk in His presence and see and behold His face. If we walk with God we should not be surprised that arrows are levelled at us (Ephesians 6:13). For the wicked hate God and all that is of God.
One final point we must remember. It was because of David’s situation and because of his position that he could not flee. He had been secretly anointed as the successor to Saul. He was a man of authority. He stood in the court for righteousness. Many looked to him for the future, and his destiny was there. It would not have been right for him to leave until he had no alternative, although when that time came he did flee. There are times when discretion is the better part of valour, but there are others where we must stand firm because so much rides on it. And God will help us to decide which applies when. We are not called on to be foolhardy. But we are called on to trust God in all circumstances.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Psalms 11". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany