The first couple of times I studied this psalm I identified the theme as “the righteous and the wicked”—a theme not uncommon in the psalms. But perhaps I was overly hasty; now I see more of the holiness and mercy of God.
What do you see as the theme of this psalm?
The psalm begins in verses 1-3 with a plaintive, urgent cry to God for help. Like Psalm 3, this seems to be a morning prayer (v. 3), and the psalmist, with inner groaning and outer cries, dedicates himself to prayer.
Verses 4-8 reveal the psalmist’s confidence that his prayer will be heard. This section is more about the character of God than that of the wicked. God is holy and takes no pleasure in wickedness; no evil dwells with God. The psalmist details what constitutes evil: boastfulness (pride?) and falsehood, bloodshed and deceit. Indeed the language here is troubling: God “hates” all who do iniquity, “abhors” those who speak falsely. We ought not blunt the force of this language, but neither should we regard it as univocal, taking it with the kind of literalness that treats it in isolation from the rest of the Bible. Certainly the text speaks of God’s uncompromising holiness, and his active disposition against all forms of pride, deceit and violence. Nevertheless it must be read in the light of other more central texts which proclaim the primacy of the divine loving and the divine mercy. God must be understood christologically, as the one who in Christ, loves all the world—see my very first post on this blog!
The psalmist cries out, “But as for me…” (v. 7). Although the ascriptions of authorship in the psalms are not necessarily reliable (e.g. see verse 7: is David the author, seeing the temple was not in existence during his lifetime?), if the psalm does originate with David, we see also the mercy and lovingkindness of God, for David was a man who shed much blood, and trafficked in deceit, at least in the case of Uriah (see 2 Samuel 11). By his own account he has no right or place in the presence of God. Yet, by the abundant grace and mercy of God, there he is! I am reminded of a chorus we used to sing: Only by grace may we enter; only by grace can we stand. The psalmist dedicates himself to bow in reverence before God. He prays for God’s guidance, that he might walk in God’s ways (v. 8).
In verses 9-10 the psalmist’s foes come into view, and we hear now the content of his prayer: that God would judge them and cast them out. The language here is reminiscent of Psalm 1:5 where judgement is also portrayed in terms of collapse and expulsion. The depiction of the foes in verse 9 finds echo in the New Testament in Jesus’ teaching that an evil heart issues in evil words and brings forth evil fruit (cf. Matthew 12:33-35), and in Romans 3:13 where Paul argues that all of us are sinners in need of the redemption that is in Christ.
In a final paean of praise, the psalmist celebrates the steadfast goodness and protection of God. These verses (11-12) recall Psalm 2:12 “Blessed are all those who take refuge in him.” Those who take refuge in God may rejoice, for God is their shelter and shield.
More than anything, this psalm focuses on who God is: Lord and Judge, holy, merciful and good. The psalmist addresses God as “My King and my God” (v. 2). But it also exhorts God’s people and calls them to a similar dedication: As for me! Just as the king bowed in reverence before the King, so too may we enter God’s house and bow in reverence. So too may we rejoice in God and pray, especially that God would lead us in his righteousness, and make his way straight before us.
Blessed are all those who take refuge in him!