I am not at all sure I can do justice to this psalm. When I first began reading it, I found it odd in several respects. There are two difficult issues with it. First, the opening verses are a cry to the Lord for help, a cry the psalmist justifies by appealing to his own innocence (vv. 1-5). I only wish that I could say with the psalmist, “You have tested me and you find nothing.” Perhaps the best way to understand this claim is to situate it in the very present context of accusation that the psalmist is facing: “With respect to these charges, you know, Lord, that I am innocent!” (Craigie, 162). Yet even the ancient Hebrews had difficulty with these verses, with the Midrash on Psalms constructing a dialogue from these verses in which God demonstrates to David that he cannot pass God’s test, and like everyone else requires God’s pardon and forgiveness (see Charry, 78).
The second odd feature of the psalm, at least as it is presented in the NASB, occurs in vv. 13-14, where the psalmist prays that God would deliver him from the wicked—the very wicked whom it seems God has blessed and favoured! They and their children are filled with treasure and satisfied. He is in effect, asking God to reverse his policy with respect to the wicked.
The psalm begins, as mentioned, as a cry that God would hear, give heed, and give ear to his prayer. He claims a just cause and so the prayer is a plea for justice from one who claims innocence (vv. 1-5). It is also a request for protection, including the beautiful words of verse 8: “keep me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings” (vv. 6-9; cf. Deuteronomy 32:10-11). The ‘apple’ of the eye is the pupil, with the psalmist requesting that God protect him as he would the most delicate or vulnerable part of the body.
In this section of the psalm we are introduced to the ‘wicked who despoil me, my deadly enemies who surround me’ (v. 9), who are then described as unfeeling and proud, as a lion eager to tear its prey to pieces (vv. 10-12). And so we come to the prayer for deliverance, and it is here that the psalm gets tricky. NASB translates verses 13-14:
Arise, O Lord, confront him, bring him low; Deliver my soul from the wicked with Your sword, From men with Your hand, O Lord, From men of the world, whose portion is in this life, And whose belly You fill with Your treasure; They are satisfied with children, And leave their abundance to their babes.
Craigie, who admits that verse 14 is ‘exceptionally difficult to translate’ (161), translates:
Arise, O Lord! Confront him to his face. Make him bow! Deliver my soul from wickedness by your sword. Kill them by your hand, O Lord! Kill them from the world, their portion from among the living. But your treasured ones—you will fill their belly, sons will be sated, and they will bequeath their surplus to their children.
Craigie acknowledges that his translation makes the prayer especially violent, but argues that the language should not be understood literally, but as part of the military metaphor rather than a precise expression of the psalmist’s desire (164). It sets the fate of the wicked and the faithful in stark contrast, in a way reminiscent of the two ways (see Psalm 1), and perhaps also funds a kind of prosperity message.
Both translations, then, are problematic. It may be that the best resolution is found in verse 15: “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; I will be satisfied with your likeness when I awake.” This verse may, of course, reflect the assurance of the psalmist that God will indeed answer his prayer so that his anxious concern of the night (v.3) might give way to vindication in the day. Or it may be read as a point of contrast with verse 14, and in light of the hope of the resurrection. The “men of this world” (cf. 10:18) have their portion only in this life, whereas the psalmist finds his portion in God alone. He shall behold the face of God, and be found like him when he ‘awakes.’
The life of the children of God transcends the bounds of this life. Its primary concern is not its own fullness in this world, but the hope of seeing God and being transformed into his likeness. This religious and moral emphasis in life may not result in earthly prosperity, but the psalmist, however, suggests he will be satisfied. To see the face of God, and to be conformed to his image, is more than enough.