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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Psalms 3

 

 

Verses 1-8

Psalms 3:1-8

ANOTHER pair of psalms follows the two of the Introduction. They are closely connected linguistically, structurally, and in subject. The one is a morning, the other an evening hymn, and possibly they are placed at the beginning of the earliest psalter for that reason. Ewald and Hitzig accept the Davidic authorship, though the latter shifts the period in David’s life at which they were composed to the mutiny of his men at Ziklag. [1 Samuel 30:1-31] Cheyne thinks that "you will find no situation which corresponds to these psalms," though you "search the story of David’s life from end to end." He takes the whole of the Psalms from 3 to 17, excepting 8, 15, 16, as a group, "the heart utterances of the Church amidst some bitter persecution"-namely, "the period when faithful Israelites were so sorely oppressed both by traitors in their midst and by Persian tyrants" ("Orig. of Psalt.," pp. 226, 227). But correspondences of the two psalms with David’s situation will strike many readers as being at least as close as that which is sought to be established with the "spiritual kernel of the nation during the Persian domination," and the absence of more specific reference is surely not unnatural in devout song, however strange it would be in prosaic narrative. We do not look for mention of the actual facts which wring the poet’s soul and were peculiar to him, but are content with his expression of his religious emotions, which are common to all devout souls. Who expects Cowper to describe his aberrations of intellect in the "Olney Hymns"? But who cannot trace the connection of his pathetic strains with his sad lot? If ever a seeming reference to facts is pointed out in a so called Davidic psalm, it is brushed aside as "prosaic," but the absence of such is, notwithstanding, urged as an argument against the authorship. Surely that is inconsistent.

This psalm falls into four strophes, three of which are marked by Selah. In the first (Psalms 3:1-2) the psalmist recounts his enemies. If we regard this as a morning psalm, it is touchingly true to experience that the first waking thought should be the renewed inrush of the trouble which sleep had for a time dammed back. His enemies are many, and they taunt him as forsaken of God. Surely it is a strong thing to say that there is no correspondence here with David’s situation during Absalom’s revolt. It was no partial conspiracy, but practically the nation had risen against him, "ut totidem fete haberet hostes quot subditos" (Calvin).

Shimei’s foul tongue spoke the general mind: "The Lord hath delivered the kingdom into the hand of Absalom". [2 Samuel 16:8] There had been sin enough in the king’s recent past to give colour to the interpretation of his present calamity as the sign of his being forsaken of God. The conviction that such was the fact would swell the rebel ranks. The multitude has delight in helping to drown a sinking man who has been prosperous. The taunt went deep, for the Hebrew has "to my soul," as if the cruel scoff cut like a knife to the very centre of his personality, and wounded all the more because it gave utterance to his own fears. "The Lord hath bidden him," said David about Shimei’s curses. But the psalmist is finding refuge from fears and foes even in telling how many there are, since he begins his complaint with "Jehovah." Without that word the exclamations of this first strophe are the voice of cowardice or despair. With it they are calmed into the appeal of trust.

The Selah which parts the first from the second strophe is probably a direction for an instrumental interlude while the singer pauses.

The second strophe (Psalms 3:3-4) is the utterance of faith, based on experience, laying hold of Jehovah as defence. By an effort of will the psalmist rises from the contemplation of surrounding enemies to that of the encircling Jehovah. In the thickest of danger and dread there is a power of choice left a man as to what shall be the object of thought, whether the stormy sea or the outstretched hand of the Christ. This harassed man flings himself out of the coil of troubles round about him and looks up to God. He sees in Him precisely what he needs most at the moment, for in that infinite nature is fulness corresponding to all emptiness of ours. "A shield around me," as He had promised to be to Abraham in his peril; "my glory," at a time when calumny and shame were wrapping him about and his kingdom seemed gone; "the lifter up of my head," sunk as it is both in sadness and calamity, since Jehovah can both cheer his spirit and restore his dignity. And how comes this sudden burst of confidence to lighten the complaining soul? Psalms 3:4 tells. Experience has taught him that as often as he cries to Jehovah he is heard. The tenses in Psalms 3:4 express a habitual act and a constant result. Not once or twice, but as his wont, he prays, and Jehovah answers. The normal relation between him and Jehovah is that of frank communion; and since it has long been so and is so now, even the pressure of present disaster does not make faith falter. It is hard to begin to trust when in the grip of calamity, but feet accustomed to the road to God can find it in the dark. There may be an allusion to David’s absence from sanctuary and ark in Psalms 3:4. The expectation of being answered "from His holy hill" gains in pathetic force when the lovely scene of submissive sacrifice in which he sent back the Ark is recalled. [2 Samuel 15:25] Though he be far from the place of prayer, and feeling the pain of absence, the singer’s faith is not so tied to form as to falter in the assurance that his prayer is heard. Jehovah is shield, glory, and strengthener to the man who cries to Him, and it is by means of such crying that the heart wins the certitude that He is all these. Again the instruments sound and the singer pauses.

The third strophe (Psalms 3:5-6) beautifully expresses the tranquil courage which comes from trust. Since sleeping and safe waking again in ordinary circumstances is no such striking proof of Divine help that one in the psalmist’s situation would be induced to think especially of it and to found his confidence on it, the view is to be taken that the psalmist in Psalms 3:5 is contemplating the experience which he has just made in his present situation. "Surrounded by enemies, he was quite safe under God’s protection and exposed to no peril even in the night" (Riehm, in Hupfeld in loc.). Surely correspondence with David’s circumstances may be traced here. His little band had no fortress in Mahanaim, and Ahithophel’s counsel to attack them by night was so natural that the possibility must have been present to the king. But another night had come and gone in safety, disturbed by no shout of an enemy. The nocturnal danger had passed, and day was again brightening.

They were safe because the Keeper of Israel had kept them. It is difficult to fit this verse into the theory that here the persecuted Israelitish Church is speaking, but it suits the situation pointed to in the superscription. To lie down and sleep in such circumstances was itself an act of faith, and a sign of the quiet heart which faith gives. Like Christ on the hard wooden "pillow" during the storm, or like Peter sleeping an infant’s sleep the night before his purposed execution, this man can shut his eyes and quiet himself to slumber, though "ten thousands have set themselves against him." They ring him round, but cannot reach him through his shield. Psalms 3:6 rises to bold defiance, the result of the experience in Psalms 3:5. How different the tone of reference to the swarms of the enemy here and in Psalms 3:1! There the psalmist was counting them and cowering before them; here their very number is an element in his triumphant confidence. Courage comes from thinking of the one Divine Ally, before whom myriads of enemies are nothing. One man with God to back him is always in the majority. Such courage, based on such experience and faith, is most modest and reasonable, but it is not won without an effort of will, which refuses to fear, and fixes a trustful gaze not on peril, but on the protector. "I will not be afraid" speaks of resolve and of temptations to fear, which it repels, and from "the nettle danger plucks the flower" trust and the fruit safety. Selah does not follow here. The tone of the strophe is that of lowly confidence, which is less congruous with an instrumental interlude than are the more agitated preceding strophes. The last strophe, too, is closely connected with the third, since faith bracing itself against fear glides naturally into prayer.

The final strophe (Psalms 3:7-8) gives the culmination of faith in prayer. "Arise, Jehovah," is quoted from the ancient invocation, [Numbers 10:35] and expresses in strongly anthropomorphic form the desire for some interposition of Divine power. Fearlessness is not so complete that the psalmist is beyond the need of praying. He is courageous because he knows that God will help, but he knows, too, that God’s help depends on his prayer. The courage which does not pray is foolish, and will break down into panic; that which fears enough to cry "Arise, Jehovah," will be vindicated by victory. This prayer is built on experience, as the preceding confidence was. The enemies are now, according to a very frequent figure in the Psalter, compared to wild beasts. Smiting on the cheek is usually a symbol of insult, but here is better taken in close connection with the following "breaking the teeth." By a daring image Jehovah is represented as dealing the beasts of prey, who prowl round the psalmist with open mouth, the buffets which shatter their jaws and dislodge their teeth, thus making them powerless to harm him. So it has been in the past, and that past is a plea that so it will be now. God will be but doing as He has done, if now He "arise." If He is to be true to Himself, and not to stultify His past deliverances, He must save his suppliant now. Such is the logic of faith, which is only valid on the supposition that God’s resources and purpose are inexhaustible and unchangeable. The whole ends with confident anticipation of an answer. "Salvation belongeth unto Jehovah." The full spiritual meaning of that salvation was not yet developed. Literally, the word means "breadth," and so, by a metaphor common to many languages, deliverance as an act, and well-being or prosperity as a state. Deliverance from his enemies is the psalmist’s main idea in the word here. It "belongs to Jehovah," since its bestowal is His act. Thus the psalmist’s last utterance of trust traverses the scoff which wounded him so much (Psalms 3:2), but in a form which beautifully combines affiance and humility, since it triumphantly asserts that salvation is in God’s power, and silently implies that what is thus God’s "to will and do" shall certainly be His suppliant’s to enjoy.

Intensely personal as the psalm is, it is the prayer of a king; and rebels as the bulk of the people are ("ten thousands of the people"), they are still God’s. Therefore all are included in the scope of his pitying prayer. In other psalms evil is invoked on evil-doers, but here hate is met by love, and the self-absorption of sorrow counteracted by wide sympathy. It is a lower exemplification of the same spirit which breathed from the lips of the greater King the prayer, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 3:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/psalms-3.html.

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Saturday, December 7th, 2019
the First Week of Advent
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