Psalm 124

This is ascribed specifically to David. We should take notice how very much this is like a responsive song, heavy with Hebrew parallelism.

We have this basic confession: Were it not for Jehovah’s favor, there would be no Israel. Think just a moment about her history. How many times did the Patriarchs stand threatened by circumstances? And didn’t Israel face a very well-armed force trying to escape unarmed from several generations of slavery? And that generation that died in the wilderness? Remember those biting serpents, the droughts and lack of food? How many times should Israel as a nation have died by normal human reckoning? This sentiment is restated twice.

This sentiment is expressed in two ways. First, is the image of larger and better armed nations rising against them, described twice. Then the metaphor of an overwhelming flood is expressed three times. Make no mistake — this echoes the crossing of the Reed Sea and Jordan during flood stage.

The song then jumps into praise. God didn’t let them eat us alive. David compares this to a bird caught in a snare that escapes because the trap broke. It’s not that Israel was smart enough to stay out the traps, but that God kept breaking them free. Their salvation was in the “name of the Lord.” That’s a Hebrew turn of phrase that reminds us God operates as an eastern suzerain, and we are His vassals. This is all about His glory, His reputation. Let us remind everyone that this is our Creator.

Psalm 122 (Updated)

Though written by David whose palace sits in Jerusalem, he assumes the perspective of a pilgrim who has come from the farthest distance.

We have arrived! We are here in Jerusalem and the first thing we want to do is pay our respects to God. This first verse is very popular, though seldom properly understood in context. Instead of seeking rest and recovery from the journey, the pilgrims hurry to seek God’s favor. The anticipation that energized them on the journey brings a demand that cannot be denied. Meanwhile, they pause just a moment to celebrate the fact their feet are now inside the gates of the city. You can almost see them bowing down to kiss the stone pavement. This becomes a song to Jerusalem as the capital of the nation and the symbolic home of God’s Presence among His people.

It’s not just any city; Jerusalem is a most winsome place. The word typically translated as “compact” carries the connotation of communion, a place where the whole nation returns to their spiritual home. It signifies the sense of moral fitness, that everything is in its place, and that the whole universe is in proper balance under God’s favor. It’s a primary meaning behind shalom. The sense of unity in the vast nation is a testimony to God’s greatness. Surely we can all share our gratitude to Jehovah. How proper it is that the City is also the seat of government, the City David won for himself from the Jebusites.

So while we are in the House of God, let us pray for the continued shalom of this lovely place. Given what it represents, let the Lord’s favor rest on those who love to be here. Let there be that powerful sense of peace and rest and vivid life that demonstrates God’s promised blessings. And even if David has to write it himself, there is a standing command from God to pray for the welfare of the king.

Meanwhile, lest we imagine that David is tooting his own horn, he explains his true motives here: David is still the shepherd boy serving his Lord. All of this is for the sake of his flock, his tribe, his nation, his brothers and sisters Israel. If there is peace in the City, it’s a whole lot easier to insure that peace rests on the whole kingdom. So it is for the sake of God’s great name on the earth that David seeks the well-being of his whole nation.

Note: Keep in mind that when David wrote this, there was as yet no Temple. The “House of the Lord” would have been the Tent of Meeting standing in the courtyard outside his fortress-palace.

The Humble Shepherd King

It was a high and festive day when King David brought up the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. He set up a proper Tent of Meeting in the courtyard. Keep in mind that the city was still rather primitive at that time. The “palace” was still part fortress and not all that large. David had built it up somewhat from the old Jebusite fortress he had captured early in his reign, but it was still rather small. It was a walled enclosure standing on the lower extension of a much larger ridge, but this lower extension had the advantage of steeper sides and was relatively narrow, very easily defended. Even better was the presence of a fresh water spring just below the the crown of this ridge.

Still, his small fortified palace was sumptuous by the standards of his day. And here was the Ark of God’s Presence out in a tent in his courtyard. Surely he could honor his God with better accommodations? God sent a prophet to inform David that this was not the time for such things. At this point a significant portion of David’s kingdom still lived tents. Indeed, his little capital was growing fast, with tents clustered all around, the housing of choice until more permanent structures could be built. This was a nation born of nomads serving a God who owned all Creation. For now, the symbolism of God’s “house” as a tent was appropriate.

David was chosen to establish something more important than mere walls; it was his job to assert the authority and power of God on behalf of Israel. When every nation around them had been subdued and/or turned into supporting allies, it wouldn’t matter what your house was made of. God promised to deliver all of this into David’s hands, but it still required him going to war. That was his job. This divine presence in the form of shalom in its fullest meaning as the one place on earth where mankind could see and know God was far more important than what any mere man could build. There was time enough for the symbolism of a fancy city with a fancy temple later for David’s heir.

It was not lost on David that this meant God intended to establish a dynasty after his name and to favor the whole nation through this arrangement.

Then King David went in and sat before the Lord; and he said: “Who am I, O Lord God? And what is my house, that You have brought me this far? And yet this was a small thing in Your sight, O Lord God; and You have also spoken of Your servant’s house for a great while to come. Is this the manner of man, O Lord God? Now what more can David say to You? For You, Lord God, know Your servant. For Your word’s sake, and according to Your own heart, You have done all these great things, to make Your servant know them. Therefore You are great, O Lord God. For there is none like You, nor is there any God besides You, according to all that we have heard with our ears. And who is like Your people, like Israel, the one nation on the earth whom God went to redeem for Himself as a people, to make for Himself a name — and to do for Yourself great and awesome deeds for Your land — before Your people whom You redeemed for Yourself from Egypt, the nations, and their gods? For You have made Your people Israel Your very own people forever; and You, Lord, have become their God.

“Now, O Lord God, the word which You have spoken concerning Your servant and concerning his house, establish it forever and do as You have said. So let Your name be magnified forever, saying, ‘The Lord of hosts is the God over Israel.’ And let the house of Your servant David be established before You. For You, O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, have revealed this to Your servant, saying, ‘I will build you a house.’ Therefore Your servant has found it in his heart to pray this prayer to You.

“And now, O Lord God, You are God, and Your words are true, and You have promised this goodness to Your servant. Now therefore, let it please You to bless the house of Your servant, that it may continue before You forever; for You, O Lord God, have spoken it, and with Your blessing let the house of Your servant be blessed forever.” (2 Samuel 7:18-29)

Psalm 110

This prophetic psalm is quoted extensively in the New Testament — Matthew 22:44; Luke 22:69; Acts 2:34-35; Hebrews 1:13, 5:6 and 10:12-13. Well before Jesus’ birth, rabbis had recognized this as a wholly Messianic prophecy. Jesus claimed this as His own. However, we know from more ancient Hebrew culture that this kind of thing bore echoes throughout the history of Israel until that final moment on the Cross when the New Covenant was instituted. Several major figures between David and Christ manifested elements of what is promised here, as God’s way of showing He had not forgotten the core of the promise.

That core promise is cast in terms of Ancient Near Eastern feudal terms, that God the Father would pour out His wrath against sin until no one was left to resist when His Son inherits the domain of Creation. It is the image of an imperial declaration upon the Son’s completion of a grand quest that earned His vestment as heir to the throne.

As you might expect, the Hebrew language in this psalm has been parsed to death, yet often poorly translated. In the first line, David declares that the Lord Jehovah spoke an oracle to His Son, whom David calls his Lord. The oracle was that the Son could take His rightful place of honor until the final completion of the Father’s plans in preparing a worthy inheritance. The standard protocol is to insist that the realm would be pacified first. In the ears of Israelis hearing this psalm, that signifies breaking down even the smallest flicker of resistance to their divine mission of revealing Jehovah. It also carries the subtle warning that if any in the nation resists that mission and calling, they will perish, as well.

That’s because the mission to is the Flaming Sword of Eden. A part of the ancient image of that Sword is that the one who wields it must first fall on its blade himself. He must purge himself with the same fire of truth before he can turn it against the darkness of this world. So the mission and calling of revelation on Israel is also the mission to go out in battle formation with that truth and revelation into all Creation. Jehovah will use His Covenant Army to complete this pacification for His Son’s inheritance.

So David declares that God’s people will most certainly be eager to carry out this pacification. David uses such beautiful language to describe an army of holy warriors assembled in the wee hours of the morning, ready to march at the Lord’s command.

In the meantime, Jehovah declares His Son a priest according to the Order of Melchizedek. The writer of Hebrews expounds on this, imbuing the title with meaning that is not obvious. Jesus would serve as High Priest according to something more ancient than the Covenant of Moses, a timeless primordial covenant that rests on the foundation of Creation itself, a priesthood that stood before Moses and would stand after Moses is closed out.

No human agency has sufficient power or authority to resist this divine commission. No ruler or combination of rulers, or even all the combined political power of the entire human race could resist His sovereign majesty. Who resists will die, plain and simple. And God will not cease this mission. He’ll camp out in the field and drink from His own provision of wild streams in the wilderness as He pursues His enemies. He will “lift up His head” — the image is someone who is altogether content with harsh conditions in the field so long as there is a single soul unconquered. His resolve will never waver.

Psalm 109

We are hard put to understand an individual imprecatory psalm in this final book of public worship songs, but must trust the wisdom of those who acted within that ancient culture. It’s for sure that all of us have experienced the underlying core of this prayer — a betrayal by someone we trusted, and for whom we cared. At least in that sense, we understand using this as a common ritual, since it is such a common experience, and the solution modeled here is clearly seeking a pure heart.

It is this business of heart-led faith that remains so foreign to our Western sensibilities. It is so very central that there is no need to speak of it directly here. Yet without it, we would miss the meaning of the curse David prays on his enemies. It seems a little extreme. On the one hand, we cannot forget that hyperbole is rather the norm in dramatic poetry like this. On the other hand, if this symbolic enemy has truly closed off his mind to the moral leadership of his heart, then the curse simply lays bear the awful things this man has done to himself and to those who depend on him for life. Thus, the attitude of the psalm is, “Lord, let him have the fullness of the evil he has chosen!” David prays this for the very reason that it reveals the moral character of God most clearly.

The format presumes at least some political authority. The office of king is merely the chief elder of the nation. It is his duty to take some risks in parceling out the vast moral duties of shepherding to feudal servants. With all the care he could take, David still finds himself suffering the presence of fakes who seek unjust personal gain. Sadly, he doesn’t always find out until rather far down the line of trust. Thus, David begins by setting the scene of betrayal of a trusted subordinate, someone he elevated to high trust and some power. This person used their position to bring David down for personal gain. In particular, they have falsely accused David in a very public manner. We presume David would hardly balk at a justified accusation, as we know from the record of Scripture, but this was something that was done all completely wrong, and it was false in the first place.

David responds with a detailed curse. We note that it is a long string of common images and standard idioms from those times. It starts with asking God to make his life hard, and then to make it short. And to ensure that no one learns from his evil ways and takes up his selfish thinking, David prays that his family suffer as well. We forget how dangerous it is to the whole nation if people who close up their hearts and commit themselves to mere human comfort are allowed to prosper and multiply. It is a common presumption of the Ancient Near East that the bad morals of a head of household corrupt everything he rules over — people, property and all. David goes further in asking God to withhold mercy and not forget the moral evil that brought forth such a traitor.

Such a man is presumed to curse vainly at others, since it was so common. Without a heart-led moral awareness, all that’s left is the lusts of the fallen soul. David prays that God return all those vain curses back on the man who uttered them. Let them wrap themselves around his soul, and soak into his very being — like excessive water a man drinks that overflows his stomach and is absorbed through his bowels, like oil wastefully lavished on everything until it soaks through his clothes and skin into his bones.

By contrast to this, David looks to his Master to save him from such accursed people. Better to face the wrath of God on his genuine sin than the “help” from people like that. David pours out the depth of sorrow and pain from this awful betrayal. There is also that common note, “O Lord, how long shall I endure this sorrow?” Then David asks the God deliver Him in such a way as to let people see he stands in God’s favor. Let them be ashamed of all their unjustified cursing and plotting secretly against him; expose them as liars. But as for David, his focus is on reflecting back the glory of God before a watching world.

Psalm 108

Echoes of Psalms 57 and 60, this combines praise and lament. Likely David used common worship phrases to lift up a battle song, not so much preparing for a literal fight, but to stir both confidence and humility before God.

David proclaims that his heart is standing tall and on the firm footing of God’s glory. From before the dawn, his heart awakens him in worship, so that his hands will awaken the musical instruments. It hardly matters where David finds himself at any moment, for there is a proper place to sing the glory of Jehovah, Creator of all things. The greatness of His mercy and truth stand above the brightness of the sun. So should all of Creation see His glory.

David’s call on God is not merely for Himself, nor so much for any particular people, but for the glory of His mission given to Israel. It is His own revelation living within the nation that He loves most. This is the only justification for calling on His limitless power.

And what does God say? He will exult in the triumph of His truth revealed among men. He knows the intimate details of such landmarks as Shechem between the mountains of Ebal and Gerizim, or the Valley of Succoth. He owns the vast grasslands of Gilead and the Tribe of Manasseh that resides there. He keeps the Tribe of Ephraim powerful and safe in the fortress of His mind, and the power of His Law is exercised through the Tribe of Judah. Moab is just a place to wash His feet, while He drops His sandals on Edom. Philistia will tremble with the echo of His triumph.

David asks who could possibly give him the military prowess to invade Edom. Perhaps this was one of those times when Edom was a problem for Israel. David asks rhetorically if God has not tossed Israel aside already, a standard protocol of prayer and supplication to one’s sovereign. It’s best to wait on God for dealing with such trouble, because mere man cannot solve anything that matters. Indeed, it is with the hand of God that all human trouble is put down.

Psalm 103

A source of countless contemporary songs, this is one of the most popular psalms, and for good reason. Some doubting scholars question whether David could have written this. There is no doubt this psalmist was way ahead of his peers in moral discernment. You would almost think it was penned after Christ, but we know its actually quite ancient. Instead, it scolds us for imagining that ancient beliefs were too primitive for such soaring spiritual awareness.

It’s clear David must have been looking back from late in his life when things were going well. He gives glory where it is due — to the God who carried him like a child through all the sorrows of his life. The sweetness of life is the mercy of God forgiving his sins and healing his suffering. This is no mere theory or doctrine, but a personal experience both long and vividly remembered.

But not only for me, says David, but His mercy falls on anyone who calls on His name. He is the same God to all Creation and all living. He revealed Himself most famously through Moses (up to that point in history). And if there is any proof of God’s mercy, it’s in His dealings with rebellious Israel. David notes most forcefully that Israel never received the full measure of wrath she deserved. God’s patience and forbearance is off the charts. The space between heaven and earth cannot contain His mercy. The distance between east and west hardly match His power to separate us from our sins. He treated Israel as His own child, and never forgot that humans are just so much wet dirt.

Have you ever noticed how those desert flowers pop up during the brief rains? Yet when their time is past and the dry season returns, you would think the ground had never seen a single blossom. Just so, the Lord forgets our sins, because His mercy is more durable than the rocks in that same wilderness. He keeps His covenant promises long after men have forgotten His name. How much more so for those who seek His favor!

The eternal Jehovah established His throne outside this realm of existence. Not only we creatures, along with all Creation, but the angels owe Him praise and glory. His authority reaches from the heavens to our very lives here. Let no one fail to praise and glorify Him.

Psalm 101

A psalm of David, you might imagine he wrote this as a vow upon ascending to the throne of Israel. However, it is rooted much farther back in David’s life when he was just a shepherd boy. The shepherd is the quintessential biblical image of moral manhood, and all the more so for one who actually cares for a flock of people. Anyone with social leverage is morally bound to this manner of leadership.

We dare not forget that the image of holiness is striving to maintain social order on God’s terms. The Law of Moses detailed what social stability meant in Israel, offering a clear path. David’s primary image of wickedness is someone who wanders from that path of moral truth. Do they want something not provided in the Law? Let them keep going and not come back; they don’t belong in the flock of Israel.

David begins by vowing to celebrate the mercy and justice of God. This is how he will worship his God. He declares his sincere intention to walk in purity by the Lord’s wisdom in his heart. What kind of man is eager for his Master’s inspection of his work? This is quite the opposite of Adam and Eve hiding from God in the Garden. Lesser men are always looking for ways to avoid such close attention, but David craves it because it also means he will grow closer and have a better image of his Lord. Thus, from such close communion, he will be able to walk in full integrity.

He uses a colloquial Hebrew expression — setting something before one’s eyes — to indicate he would dismiss quickly anything that doesn’t actively promote his commission from God. He would shortly brush off anyone that fails to show a similar commitment to the Law. Because David lives by his heart, he is ready to sense the hearts of others. He has no time for hearts that don’t resonate with similar convictions.

Let them sneak around and stir up trouble for others, seeking an advantage in diminishing someone else. David trusts that God will reveal such evil to him so he can take action. In the presence of a penitent king, there is no room for arrogant and ambitious courtiers.

Instead, David will keep his heart’s radar attuned to others with a commitment to the Lord. These are the people he will promote into his royal service. The first time he senses deception, that person is put out on the street. Indeed, he’ll start the day bright and early looking out for troublemakers. While he would hardly claim to be the perfect judge, he knows that laziness about it will ensure God’s wrath. So by investing some energy in sifting out false hearts, David hopes to keep the windows of Heaven open to rain blessings on his reign.

Psalm 89

This is the final psalm in Book 3; the last verse is more likely a benediction to the collection than for this psalm. The author here is Ethan, brother of Heman who gave us the previous hymn, and equally famous for his wisdom and as a Temple musician during David’s reign.

At least a couple of modern English songs take their words from the first few lines here. No other starting place would make sense than to praise the name of the Lord. Whatever else may follow, these declarations are true. Never mind what it looks like or what it feels like, Our God never fails. This is followed by a recitation of the divine call and promise to David as King of Israel.

Unless you are foolish enough to reject the Lord’s anointed ruler, this is very good news to anyone who resides in the Land of Israel. Thus, the next few verses celebrate what a marvel this promise represents in terms of revealing God’s character. Given how He has been so incredibly faithful before making such a promise, including smashing Egypt to set His people free, how could this grand promise go wrong? Who is like Our God? No one compares favorably with Jehovah.

The Ethan lavishes rich praise on God for demonstrating unquestionable mastery over the whole earth. He rattles off the names of landmarks visible for many miles around, as if God had simply pinched them up with His fingers. It’s hard to summarize all the symbolism. People who serve God can walk with confidence and pride that the world itself is their ally. If God favors you, nothing else matters in this world. So God’s promised favor on David is very good news for the rest of the kingdom.

Indeed, Ethan paints a glowing image of God’s choice and ritual anointing of David. It was virtually the same as adopting David as His own Son. For a moment he says things scholars have long insisted were Messianic prophecies, if for no other reason than that they could not be literally true of David the man. Even while his memory lives fresh in the psalmist’s mind, David has become the symbol of a promised deliverer. While David eventually dies, the promise he symbolized will eventually walk the earth again.

As part of this commitment to mercy, God declares that He will show exceptional restraint in correcting the people over whom David rules. They won’t get away with murder, but He will punish them with an eye to driving them back to His throne. God has no intention of tossing this covenant aside out of mere impatience with them. Again, the symbolic meaning is hard to miss.

So how sad it is that Israel must surely have driven hard against God’s patience, because things aren’t that happy right now. To all appearances there is no longer any covenant at all. Nothing protects them and shalom has departed utterly — no prosperity, no safety from human or natural enemies, no protection from plagues. If anything, the enemies around them have more favor from God than He grants to Israel.

In accordance with the courtly protocols of his day, Ethan asks rhetorically how long God will hide His face from them. Should the current generation who remember His divine mercy die before it returns, who would be left to teach His ways? Ethan wonders if he’ll die before God relents. So he cries out for the Lord to remember that not everyone in Israel has turned away from Him. How much longer must he hide in shame as God’s enemies parade and celebrate while insulting His people? Don’t forget us forever, O Lord!

Then comes the benediction we are sure belongs to this third division of Psalms.

Psalm 86

Don’t go looking for the precise spot David occupied when he composed this sweet hymn. We have no idea what human historical context goes with this impassioned plea, and precious few humans can even begin to share the moral place he stood. That’s what makes all the difference in the world, because it’s not enough to translate the words if we can’t transport our souls over into that moral sphere of the heart where Heaven calls us to rise from our natural fallen state.

Nor could we guess why the Temple music director pulled this psalm of David into the midst of their collection of songs, but we do understand how this fits into a penitent call that robes every soul sincerely seeking God’s favor. Without the moral tenor carried in these words, it won’t matter where you stand in the entire universe, you won’t stand in God’s Presence.

David begins by depicting a young child begging his father to bend down and hear his tiny voice. The Hebrew figure of speech often translated “poor and needy” is not merely an economic condition, but a sense of total dependence. While most English translations have David referring to himself as “holy” it might better be rendered as “godly” in the sense of morally consistent with God’s character. It’s the image of someone who manages to gaze upon this messy reality from an eternal viewpoint and then acting accordingly. The context is a claim to feudal loyalty. And it’s not so much that David cries all day long like a whiner, but that he cannot imagine going anywhere else with concerns that are far bigger than he.

A mighty lord in David’s time would surely rescue even his own domestic herds if they fell into a tight spot, so there’s nothing wrong with a human servant asking for a rescue from trouble. “Give me another reason to shout to the world what a mighty and good God you are!” So David refreshes his request for an honest hearing of his plea. This day and any day when things are difficult, David will call on no one else.

He goes on to contrast how Jehovah is not like any other deity. Whose gods could claim dividing the waters and making the seabed dry? Whose idols could speak with fire, smoke and earthquakes? Which of the gods dropped food from the sky daily for years on end? Which of the deities drove out entire nations of giants and massive armies with better technology? No god had such a record, and so David notes he can’t imagine thinking of any of them as actual gods. David paints the image of a mighty warrior king leading a vast army that includes all of Creation itself.

Verse 11 rings across the ages and appears in many modern worship songs. Reshape me, David says, and make me like You. Ancient Near Eastern law was conceived not as mere writ, but as the character of the ruler Himself, and David asks for insight into what God intends in His realm. “What would I do if it were You at work here?” In giving fresh life to a ruler’s moral character, David hopes to warm himself in the glow of divine truth as a living force in Creation. “I wanna make You look good, Lord!” After all God has done by bringing David into His empire, how could David not bring God fame? It was as if God had breathed life into David’s dead corpse.

And what did it bring him? David faced relentless opposition from those who were hostile to God’s revelation, those who rejected His call. David simply could not fathom how people might walk away from God’s mercy. In the final lines, he admits he’s just a nobody, wholly undeserving of any good thing. But he does make himself fully available, so if for no other reason, let God reshape David into an ensign of divine authority just to shake folks up. Show them You are Boss, O Lord!