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Heading ‘A psalm of David when he fled from Absalom his son.’
The headings of the Psalms were clearly very ancient and this may well therefore be a reliable tradition.
The context in which this psalm was written by David is thus stated to be the civil war in Israel caused by the rebellion of Absalom, the son of David, as he wrought to seize the kingdom from under David’s control (2 Samuel 15-18). This is probably why it follows Psalms 2:0, whose message is pertinent here. Even his own nation rages and his own people have risen up against YHWH’s anointed, a ‘king’ has set himself against him, and taken counsel together with his advisers. They wanted to be free from his iron control.
The Psalm brings out the attitude of such peoples. They think that he is a write-off. They say of him, ‘there is no help for him in God’ (Psalms 3:2). They consider that God has finished with him. But they had forgotten that it was YHWH Who had set him on the holy hill of Zion, and that He was merciful to those who called on Him. And they thus do not realise that from that holy hill He will reach out and deliver him (Psalms 3:4).
The rebellion caused David great bitterness of soul. His complacency had been shattered, his anguish that his beloved son would do this to him tore at his heart, and even his triumph over Absalom would cause a bitterness all the greater because of the death of his son. Here in this Psalm we have depicted his personal despair at such an unexpected event, and how he responded to it. And that is why it was retained and sung. It was a continuing reminder that however bitter the circumstances might be in a man’s life, God can provide a solution to them.
Some have argued that the psalm does not contain a sufficiently clear reference to what happened and is therefore simply a more general psalm. But there is no evidence for their position apart from that, and we can argue quite reasonably that David is here expressing his own personal emotions and spiritual battles, rather than praying about the circumstances in detail. He is not concerned with the details of the situation, but with God, and with his own emotions and how it affected him personally.
Furthermore it is likely that he did not want to include mention of his son in it, the son whom he loved who had betrayed him, for that would have meant giving details of his betrayal. It would have seemed like a betrayal of love on his own part. So it was deliberately a very personal prayer even though produced for public usage. It brings out just how personally he felt the situation.
The Psalm splits up into four sections.
1) The distress in which he found himself (1-2).
2) His recognition of God’s help and protection (3-4).
3) His confidence in the midst of danger (5-6).
4) His prayer for deliverance, and cry for blessing on his people (7-8).
Section 1. The Distress in Which He Found Himself.
‘YHWH, how are my adversaries multiplied,
Many are those who rise up against me,
Many are those who say of my life (nephesh),
“There is no help (‘deliverance’) for him in God”. Selah (possibly a musical pause, a pregnant silence, meaning ‘think of that!’).
The Psalm opens with a cry of distress and almost despair. As he lay in his hastily erected tent, snatching a few brief hours of stolen rest, before moving on again, hopefully to relative safety, David was deeply aware that his life was in grave danger. He had only just escaped with his life by a hairsbreadth, and he had seen how many there were who were against him. The rebellion had taken him completely by surprise, even though he must have been aware of Absalom’s activities and attempts to win the people’s hearts. For in his sublime self-confidence he had not doubted the people, and he had indulgently thought that his son was simply preparing for the time when he died, when it would be normal for sons of different mothers to dispute the right to the throne. He had even probably smiled tolerantly to himself, knowing what his own plans were.
Now, however, he was appalled. He was totally taken by surprise, and very upset, to discover how many there were who were clearly disenchanted with his reign. He had not expected this. He had not realised, in his sense of his own supremacy, that the days of his early popularity had gone, and that his reign was now probably considered too harsh. His constant calling on men for war to sustain the status quo, and his plans for expansion which involved them even more, had disillusioned the people (e.g. 2 Samuel 11:1). They had been unable to work their land as they had wanted to, and had had to spend too much time away from home. Apart from his own private army, (‘his men’), the whole army had turned out to be disenchanted with him. And with some reason, for it was clear that justice for the ordinary people had become hard to find (2 Samuel 15:2-4) and that they felt cut off from the king (2 Samuel 15:5). That was always the danger of becoming powerful, it resulted in becoming remote from the people. But he had not realised that it had happened.
How easy it is to become like David. We become complacent with our lives and fail to observe that we are no longer taking account of the feelings of those around us Our complacency leads us into taking too much for granted rather than into putting in the effort that success requires. We feel that we can manage very well as we are, and we forget to keep strict accounts of our lives, and to recognise that others might have concerns different from ours. The ministry of many a servant of God has been minimised because of complacency. And the consequence is that one day we can be pulled up short by unpleasant realities.
So David’s cry here was concerning the huge number of people who were teemed up against him, and, (and this was what hurt most), especially the number of the people of Jerusalem his own city who were against him. He had won Jerusalem for them (and from some of them) and now they had turned against him. But worse. Not only had they turned against him, but they were also clearly equally convinced that YHWH had turned against him, for they cried, ‘there is no help for him in God’. The word for ‘help’ is ‘deliverance’ as in Psalms 3:8. Thus they believed that God would no longer watch over him and deliver him, and that they could therefore rid themselves of him with impunity. They no longer saw him as ‘the Lord’s Anointed’.
This last fact especially smote his conscience. Their feelings seemingly went very deep. And he reluctantly had to recognise that much of it was probably due to his sin against Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:2-5) and Uriah the Hittite. They had seen his adultery, and they had also heard of his callous and dreadful murder, by underhand means, of a faithful servant (2 Samuel 11:6-21). For the rumours would undoubtedly have spread, and the whisperings would have gone on behind people’s hands. They knew by this that he had openly broken the covenant, no, that he had shattered it. He had committed sins worthy of death. And that was why they could not believe that God could still support such a king. Thus, as a result of his actions, they could only consider that he was no longer YHWH’s anointed, the representative of the people, the ‘breath of their nostrils (Lamentations 4:20). They expected better of the king than they expected of themselves, and he had failed them. And the result was that they had lost their awe of him, and their confidence in him.
So as he saw how the people had multiplied against him David’s conscience was smiting him, and the more so because he knew that he deserved it. He was aware that he was unworthy, not only before these men but before God. And he recognised that there were some grounds for their doubts, for they were not fully aware of the depths of his repentance (Psalms 51:0) and of how God had forgiven him.
It must be remembered that the king had an important part to play in the people’s worship of YHWH. He had a role of non-sacrificing priest, a priest ‘after the order of Melchizedek’ (Psalms 110:4). For he regularly had to approach YHWH on the people’s behalf (compare how the prince had a special place reserved for him in Ezekiel’s temple - Ezekiel 44:1-3). He was their intercessor before YHWH (compare 2 Samuel 24:14; 2 Samuel 24:24-25; Jeremiah 30:21). And they felt that he had thus failed his people. Of what use was an intercessory priest whose life was so tainted? And he had to face up to the fact that they were partly right.
So here he now was, lying as a fugitive in his tent, fleeing for his life, with a great army of common people (2 Samuel 15:12-13), the disillusioned people who had once looked to him and admired him, ready to seek him out and destroy him. And with a deeply troubled conscience concerning what had brought it about, he was, at this moment, in an agony of doubt. He was aware of their numbers. He was conscious of the smallness of his own force. What hope then had he against them? He knew that if they caught up with him he was done for. So he brings his need before God.
We all need to remember that how we behave inevitably affects the way that people think about us and behave towards us. And that once we have lost their confidence it is hard to regain it. Like David we may find forgiveness but the physical consequences of our sins may go on and on. If we sin an open sin others may consider that God can no longer be with us. This was true of David. He was forgiven by God, but his people remembered and had not forgiven him. It is sometimes easier to find forgiveness from God than from fellow-sinners.
We can compare here Matthew 27:43 where a greater than David was subjected to similar taunts. He had not sinned but He too was surrounded by enemies, enemies greater than we could ever know (Colossians 2:15), but He defeated them all.
Section 2. His Recognition of God’s Help and Protection.
‘But you, O YHWH, are a shield about me,
My glory and the lifter up of my head.
I was crying to YHWH with my voice,
And he was answering me out of his holy hill.’ Selah (think of that!)
However, in the moment of his extremity David did the wisest thing possible. He took his eyes off himself and looked at God. Having acknowledged his own inadequacy he turned his thoughts towards God’s complete adequacy and faithfulness.
What the people had overlooked was that he was a forgiven sinner, that he had deeply repented of his sins, and had been forgiven and accepted back by God. That he was still therefore YHWH’s anointed. Thus in this moment of deepest need, and even perplexity, and with his conscience screaming out at him, his heart reached upwards and he turned towards YHWH, his covenant God. He no longer now prayed to Him as ‘God’. He prayed to Him as ‘YHWH’, the One Who loved him.
Lonely and desolate in his tent he sought reassurance. He reminded YHWH, and himself, (for that is often what prayer is, something in which we remind ourselves of the promises of God), that YHWH had promised to be his shield. To be the One Who guarded and protected him, like a great shield of war. That He was his glory, the One without Whom David knew that he was nothing, and that He was the One Who lifted up the head of, and restored, those who were cast down, and so would lift up David’s head. And he threw himself on the grace of God.
‘You are a shield about me.’ To a warrior like David the shield was a vital weapon. His trusty shield had saved his life many a time. Thus the thought of YHWH as his shield comforted him. He Who was Abram’s shield (Genesis 15:1) must be his shield, for he was the seed of Abram, one of the kings who came from his loins. He Who was Israel’s shield (Deuteronomy 33:29) must be his shield, for in himself he represented Israel before God. And he could remember back to when God had given him the shield of His deliverance when He had saved him from Saul (2 Samuel 22:3; 2 Samuel 22:36. See also Psalms 5:12; Psalms 84:11; Psalms 119:14). So he knew that God was like a surrounding shield to him, a great protective shield, even greater than one carried in the ordinary way into battle.
We also as we face the problems that life can bring need to constantly remember that if we are truly His, God is our shield. If we are walking in faithfulness to Him, with our sin forgiven and behind us, we too can be confident of His protection, both in the trials of life, and from the arrows of the Evil One. He will not fail us nor forsake us.
‘You are my glory.’ The glory of the king was the reflected glory of YHWH. He was YHWH’s anointed, glorious because YHWH was glorious. For the king’s glory was obtained from YHWH, and given to Him by YHWH. YHWH’s glory was also revealed in His deliverance of him, when YHWH laid on him honour and majesty (Psalms 21:5 compare Psalms 62:7). So in every way he knew that his glory depended on YHWH Who was his glory. Without YHWH he was nothing. And without YHWH he would no longer gain the victory. So he now looked again to YHWH and trusted Him to restore his glory, because He was his God.
We too need to recognise that without God our glory is nothing, our lives are nothing. We may strut around for a while convinced that we are something, and that we are achieving great things, or we may stumble along in doubt and feel that life is no longer worthwhile. But unless we recognise that our glory comes from God we will finally achieve nothing. Either way we need to look off to God’s glory, the one in order to learn humility, the other in order to gain strength. For it is only as our eyes are set on things above, and as our confidence is placed in Him, that our lives will become finally meaningful and we will then become ‘something’, something that will be everlastingly worthwhile. Jesus Christ will cover us with His glory (John 17:22).
‘The lifter up of my head.’ At this moment when his conscience was revived over his past doings David’s head was bowed, and he needed it to be lifted up, so that he was no more ashamed and could be assured that he was truly restored to favour. He knew that YHWH had done exactly that for him in the past and he was confident that He would do it again. Thus his cry was that YHWH would lift up his head in deliverance.
In other references the lifting up of the head also reflects release from prison and restoration to favour and prominence (Genesis 40:13; Genesis 40:20; 2 Kings 25:27), and its negative to not being able to invade any more because of weakness (Judges 8:28). Compare also Psalms 27:6; Psalms 83:2. Thus the idea includes here David’s confidence that God will restore him in his time of need, will release him from the danger of captivity, and will weaken Absalom in his plotting against him.
And he knew within him that his prayer was answered. That is why he wrote down his agonised complaint and his prayer, - and then the consequence of his prayer. He knew that it was happening already. ‘I was crying to YHWH with my voice, and He was answering me out of His holy hill.’ Peace now flooded his soul. He knew that his prayer was being heard. YHWH had seen his distress and had drawn near to him and was in process of delivering him. As he continued on with YHWH, constantly looking to Him, he knew that he need not be afraid. He may still lay tossing in his tent, with the enemy still pursuing. He may have to strike camp shortly and continue his flight. But now he knew that God was on his side, and he had nothing to fear.
‘Out of His holy hill.’ Probably, in the light of Psalms 2:6, this means the holy hill of Zion. There was the Tabernacle, and there was the Ark of the Covenant of YHWH. There were the symbols that spoke of His faithfulness and love. There was YHWH’s earthly dwellingplace, and from there He had responded to David in the past and would continue to do so.
His faithful priests had in fact brought the Ark to accompany them in their flight, but David had sent it back to the Tabernacle, confident that if it was YHWH’s will that he should be restored to minister there again (2 Samuel 15:24-29), it would be so. He knew that God was with him wherever he was, whether the Ark was there or not, but he had wanted YHWH still to be seen as reigning from Zion. Whatever happened to him God was not to be put to flight. That was unthinkable. He was the God of Israel, not just of David.
Section 3. His Confidence In The Midst of Danger.
‘I laid myself down and slept,
I awoke, for YHWH sustains me.
I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people,
Who have set themselves against me round about.’
So satisfied that YHWH had heard him he could now settle down to sleep. And in the morning he awoke, aware that he was still safe because YHWH was sustaining him. With that knowledge he would not be afraid of anyone, even ‘ten thousands’ of people (a great army), even though they had surrounded him and were set against him.
The picture fits exactly into the circumstances. David in the camp, supported by his men, his faithful private army, together with others who had accompanied them, faced with the possibility of an approaching army of Israel surrounding the camp in order to destroy them, but no longer afraid because YHWH sustained him.
His Prayer for Deliverance, and Cry for Blessing on His People.
‘Arise, O YHWH, save me, O my God,
For you have smitten all my enemies on the cheekbone
You have broken the teeth of the wicked.’
David’s cry here parallels the marching song of the hosts of Israel (Numbers 10:35; compare Psalms 68:1) as they went forward in confidence with the Ark leading the way. In the same way he was confident that YHWH would equally be with him even though the Ark was not there, for he knew that YHWH was not restricted to a physical object, however sacred.
He brings to mind past victories when God had smitten his enemies on the cheekbone. The smiting on the cheekbone was an act of reproach to a defeated opponent (Job 16:10; 1 Kings 22:24). It indicated reproach offered to someone who should have known better, and was a sign of total victory, and that all their resistance had ceased. Thus would YHWH again vindicate him at this time.
‘Breaking the teeth’ of the wicked meant rendering them powerless, removing their weapons, and was based on the idea that captured wild animals would often have their teeth broken so as to render them safe (see Psalms 58:6). He has no doubt that God will deliver him again, rendering his enemies powerless and subject to reproach for attacking YHWH’s anointed.
Those who trust in God can always be sure that even though they may have reached their weakest point God will hear them. Indeed the fact is that He often deliberately brings us to our weakest point so that we might learn to trust Him more.
‘Salvation belongs to YHWH.
Your blessing be on your people.’
The psalm ends with a cry of confidence. Salvation is in the hands of YHWH, for all deliverance is finally in His hands. This includes the deliverance of a nation or a king, and it includes a person’s own personal deliverance. He is the Saviour (or otherwise, as He chooses) of kings, nations and individuals. All salvation belongs to Him. We are not therefore to look to strength of arm, but to the strength of God. In the New Testament this develops into the idea of God’s saving action in each individual life. He works within us to will and to do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). So daily we should face life with the same cry, ‘Salvation belongs to God’. And it is to Him that we should look daily in order to continually enjoy it. For although in one sense once we become His our salvation is complete, in another we need Him to continue to save us daily.
‘Your blessing be on your people.’ Finally he prays that God’s blessing may be on His people. Not just those who were with him at that time but on all his people. He recognised that much of the blame for the rebellion lay at his own door. Thus he sought that when he was finally delivered they might be blessed under his own re-enlightenment. Even in his extremity he did not forget his intercessory role. And as 2 Samuel 19:8-10 reveals, not all the people had followed Absalom. In the confusion of unexpected civil war, and leaderless, many of them had simply sought refuge in their homes to await events.
And as we know from our knowledge of later events, things turned out just as the Psalm says.
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Psalms 3". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29