We do not know the origin of this psalm, or the circumstances in which it was written. The superscription refers to it as “A Mikhtam of David.” Just what a Mikhtam is, no one really knows, and numerous suggestions have been made. Five other psalms of David are also named Mikhtam (Psalms 56-60), and four of these include a historical note of desperate circumstances faced by David. Perhaps, then, a Mikhtam is a type of Psalm that instructs “one how to think and behave theologically when in extremis” (Charry, Psalms 1-50, 73). If so, then this psalm is a beautiful picture of trust and confidence in God, in a time when the singer was under extreme pressure.
The psalm opens with an appeal for protection: “Preserve me O God, for I take refuge in you.” The image of taking refuge in God is prominent in the early psalms, with its first appearance in 2:12 setting the tone: “How blessed are all who take refuge in him!” (cf. 5:11; 7:1; 11:1; 14:6). This psalm enumerates the rich blessings that await the ‘refugee’ who seeks their shelter in God (Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 86).
What it means to seek refuge in God is shown in the following verses. Verses 2-4 are a firm declaration of allegiance towards God, and a refusal to seek help and refuge elsewhere. Verses 5-6 are a joyful acknowledgement of God’s enduring blessing. Thus, to take refuge in God is to turn to him, acknowledging and submitting to his lordship, and to seek and find in him alone our sole good and sole source of good. That is, it is to turn away from every other promise or source of good, blessing, life, joy or satisfaction (Stott).
Every commentator acknowledges difficulties in the translation and interpretation of verses 2-4a. Craigie suggests that the psalmist is not the speaker in these verses but is presenting a dialogue with a syncretist (“You said to the Lord”)—someone confessing Yahweh and also trusting in idols (‘holy ones’ and ‘the noble’ or ‘mighty ones’; Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 154-155). While Craigie bases his argument on the grammar of the Hebrew, it is more straight-forward and easier to make sense of the passage if we accept the traditional interpretation which reads verse two as “I said to the Lord…”
Thus, the psalmist acknowledges the lordship of Yahweh: “You are my master,” and recognises that his sole good is found in God. This affirmation is expanded in verses 5-6 where the psalmist confesses that God himself is his inheritance. That is, the Lord does not give something else as his inheritance, something other than his presence and being, but gives himself. The psalmist finds that he is satisfied with God himself and not simply with the gifts, blessings and protection that God gives. “The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; Indeed, my heritage is beautiful to me.” God himself is his portion and cup. God himself is his hope and inheritance.
This single-minded allegiance to God has a corollary: the repudiation of all other gods as the source of good, protection and life. Thus the psalmist vows that he will not participate in idol worship, nor even speak the names of these so-called gods. Nor will he associate with those who follow other gods: his associates will be the ‘saints,’ the ‘holy ones’ and ‘the noble’ of the land. He delights in the fellowship of the faithful. Verse 4a gives the reason: “those who choose [or run after] another god multiply their sorrows.” Again, although the underlying Hebrew text is difficult, the meaning of the traditional translation is quite clear: the path of sorrow awaits those who turn from the Lord to trust in and serve other gods. Kidner (84), noting that the language echoes that of Genesis 3:16, notes that “there could hardly be a more ominous allusion to what follows from apostasy.” Just as the fall of Adam and Eve resulted in great suffering and loss for them and their children, so those who forsake their allegiance to God ultimately will know only sorrows.
The first six verses of this psalm, then, are an affirmation and declaration of steadfast allegiance to Yahweh, and an acknowledgement that only in him will the psalmist find his true and only good. That Mikhtam suggests that these words were spoken in a time of stress and distress only heightens the degree sense of trust being shown by the psalmist. It is easy to trust when the sun is shining; far more difficult when life is a struggle, and exceedingly hard in desperate times when we are tempted to look for any refuge that promises deliverance.
For myself, the psalm speaks not only to external pressures, but also to internal. To what do I turn when feeling stressed or distressed? What do I see as my ‘good’? To what do I look to satisfy an aching heart, a lonely soul, a distressed mind, or a stressed life? Where do I look for my source of joy, relief, satisfaction and hope? Can I truly say to the Lord, “You are my sole good—my soul good—I have no good besides you”? Idols are made not only of wood and stone; our psychological idols can also drive the sins and addictions that assault our lives. This psalm reminds us that all our hope, joy, satisfaction and life is found only in God, and that we err when look for them elsewhere.
To be continued next week