Saint Augustine, it is said, had written out and pinned at eye level four psalms on the wall beside his bed. These he could read and reread as often as he liked, as he lay there dying. These four psalms became the core of the seven later known as the Penitential Psalms. Although the Penitential Psalms played a significant role in the medieval church, as witnessed by many paintings of the period, during the Reformation and beyond, they diminished in importance and liturgical practice. In the evangelical church today, few have even heard the phrase “penitential psalms,” let alone know which they are or why they are called that.
Association of penitence with seven particular psalms is rather a misnomer and a mistake. The seven particular psalms considered “penitential” as a group are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. As the centerpiece, Psalm 51 is indeed penitential. Psalm 51 supposedly records David’s heartfelt remorse for his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and his later murdering of her husband as a coverup when it became known that David had caused her to become pregnant. David expresses genuine and merited sorrow for his reprehensible sins. However, Psalm 6 and Psalm 102 carry no mention of sin at all. In fact, in each of these the speaker attributes his suffering to the persecution of his enemies. Enemies are a persistent theme throughout these seven psalms. Psalms 32 and 51 are the only ones which make no mention of enemies.
What is the reader to make of these inconsistencies of theme? Why group seven psalms which vary in such basic ways? One possibility is to consider that the traditional understanding of the word “penitent” is at fault. The use of the word penitence to represent a sorrow and suffering over one’s own sin follows a Latin language tradition. There is, however, a Greek semantic pathway using the base syllable “-pen-“, which corresponds to a meaning of extreme sorrow born of deep humility and humbleness of state. The core of this semantic pathway does not require a sense of guilt for sins committed. Rather, the humility can be a response to any number of physical or situational causes, such as poverty, lowliness of social estate, or physical distress. And sorrow born of suffering is in fact a theme which unites the seven penitential psalms. When one considers that the earliest church Bibles were written in Greek and that the Septuagint was the Old Testament of the early church for several centuries, this explanation of the grouping of the penitential psalms seems reasonable.
But the question remains: why does the psalmist maintain his innocence and righteousness, while at the same time grieving and mourning over his sins? Apart from Christ, there can be no reasonable explanation for unity among these psalms. Christ alone, as a human being, can maintain complete righteousness and innocence. This characteristic of the actions of his incarnated life, combined with his sinless divine nature, are what qualified him to be the lamb of God. The sacrificial lamb of Old Testament tradition needed to be one without spot or blemish of any kind. Only Christ qualifies. And yet, five of the seven penitential psalms carry confession of sin in greater or lesser extent.
The answer is simple. “God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God.” (2Corinthians 5:21 NET) The hermeneutic key that unlocks the Psalter is Jesus Christ. The New Testament teaches everywhere that Christ the man suffered, and that he suffered for our sins. Christ the man is the voice of the psalmist throughout the penitential psalms and so many others. As prophecy, these seven psalms foretell in first person the sufferings of the innocent, righteous Christ as he bore the sins of the world in his own person. Only with Christ does the psalmic paradox of the righteous sinner disappear. So, Christ is the dramatic speaker persona of the penitential psalms.
Before closing, one further word about why these seven psalms as a grouping have fallen into disuse and even disfavor. For all but the earliest history of the church, the majority opinion has not recognized that Christ is the voice of the psalmist. Further, the Latin textual tradition overran and trampled the Greek in all but the Orthodox churches. The Latin concept of penitence, as a kind of mournful wailing over sin that self-flagellates the heart of a penitent over and over again throughout the life of the penitent, no longer dominates our churches, especially evangelical ones. It appears as though the lesson was learned–yes, we all begin in universal sin. However, we repent once and then in Christ we move on. The Bible teaches forgiveness of sin and new life in Christ. Joy in salvation and holy living replace guilt for sins committed. Fresh sins are confessed and forgiveness is received. There is no need to wail over one’s past for the remainder of one’s life. The Christian life is lived out through the Spirit of Christ who indwells each and every believer. Joy replaces sorrow.
Nonetheless, the Christian heart will always benefit from considering the depth of sorrow in the heart of Christ as he endured the persecution of his enemies, which culminated in his physical sacrifice upon the cross. Doing so can only increase appreciation for the love of God for us expressed through Jesus our Savior and Lord. The seven Penitential Psalms will always be useful for this contemplation.
How constantly grateful I am to know as certainty that Jesus God’s Son–and through him, God Almighty–has been here and experienced everything we as humans experience, in person, himself. He knows all our trials and tribulations, our triumphs and joys.
I lived most of my life in that exact part of the US where the recent mass gun slaughter occurred in what was considered by all a “safe place.” The very next day, while grief and shock were still stabbing hearts, vicious and ferocious fires broke out. My heart and mind have been with dear friends and family in that area all this past week. In the gun slaying and fires we see both evil and love at work.
When people kill other people because of hatred based upon their appearance or beliefs of any kind, that is evil. “Judge not,” the Bible teaches, “so that you will not be judged (condemned.)” Humankind’s first sin was siding with God’s enemy. The second sin was brother killing brother. All humans are brother/sister one with another. We are not to kill our brothers and sisters because we do not like them or because we disagree with them.
God knows the evil in the human heart. He’s always known everything that lies in our collective hearts. Yet he chooses to love us anyway, laying his own life as incarnated human on the line. God knows firsthand the effects of evil. Apart from whether or not you believe in Christ as the Son of God, the facts of his life as recorded in the Book show him as a good and loving man, someone who went around doing only good for others. His enemies killed him mainly out of jealousy. It’s not about race. It’s about what lies in every human heart.
God also knows firsthand what it is to love others. He loved others in Jesus his Son, when he sent him to us in the first place. Jesus voluntarily lay his life down for all humanity. He died a painful death, the innocent for the undeserving.
In the gun slaying, we saw a police officer who lay his life down for strangers. In the recent fires, and in every fire, we see firemen and other public servants laying their own lives down for people they haven’t met; they do this because these are human beings. Firefighters sometimes die. They know the dangers before they go out, yet they go out anyway. A huge thank you to all of these. “John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (NKJ)
In this post, post-modern world we live in, it is time to get back to calling evil, evil. It is wrong to kill another human being out of jealousy or hatred for who they are or what they represent. Both vengeance and judgment belong to God alone.
In Psalm 17, the psalmist, whom I read as the prophetic voice of the incarnated God–by that I mean Jesus–this psalmist cries out to God for help from his enemies, who are extremely powerful and who have marked him for death. The fact of history is that Jesus did die. We might say, “He died anyway, even though he prayed for God’s help.” The other fact of history is that he rose from the dead. Notice Jesus’ faith in his resurrection in verse 15–
And I–in righteousness I will see your face; when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness. (NIV)
One of the very best things about believing in Jesus as God’s anointed, his Son, is that his resurrection from death into life produces a resurrection from death into life for all who believe. Often we pray for a trial to go away or to not happen in the first place. Often it happens anyway–God alone knows why. Bottom line, there is a resurrection into life eternal. This life will end, and eternal life in Christ will last forever. God’s love has triumphed over all the evil this world and its people can possibly throw at us. Blessed are those who choose the side of love.
Psalm 17:1 A prayer of David. Hear, O LORD, my righteous plea; listen to my cry. Give ear to my prayer–it does not rise from deceitful lips.
2 May my vindication come from you; may your eyes see what is right.
3 Though you probe my heart and examine me at night, though you test me, you will find nothing; I have resolved that my mouth will not sin.
4 As for the deeds of men–by the word of your lips I have kept myself from the ways of the violent.
5 My steps have held to your paths; my feet have not slipped.
6 I call on you, O God, for you will answer me; give ear to me and hear my prayer.
7 Show the wonder of your great love, you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes.
8 Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings
9 from the wicked who assail me, from my mortal enemies who surround me.
10 They close up their callous hearts, and their mouths speak with arrogance.
11 They have tracked me down, they now surround me, with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground.
12 They are like a lion hungry for prey, like a great lion crouching in cover.
13 Rise up, O LORD, confront them, bring them down; rescue me from the wicked by your sword.
14 O LORD, by your hand save me from such men, from men of this world whose reward is in this life. You still the hunger of those you cherish; their sons have plenty, and they store up wealth for their children.
15 And I–in righteousness I shall see your face; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with seeing your likeness. (NIV, 1984)
Good and evil, life and death, pleasure and pain are a paradox as old as human history. Why are these opposites so intertwined, even in the fabric of existence itself? The Bible answers this question for those who will receive: God created good, while his enemy brought evil.
Psalm 13 reveals the heart cries of God’s Son incarnate , even as he falls victim to the inescapable paradox of humanity. It is a short psalm. Verses 1-4 present the bad and ugly of his seeming abandonment by God, while verses 5-6 present the equally real blessings of God’s faithful love.
1 To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David. How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
5 But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Psalm 13, ESV)
The life, death, resurrection, ascension, and reign of Christ perfectly exemplify the human paradox. Psalm 13 prophetically expresses the complete humanity of Jesus Christ, God’s anointed, as he lives and dies through this paradox. God the Father could never know experientially what Christ knew. It was necessary for him to send his Son in human flesh, living through the basic paradox all humans experience, so that he could perfectly represent them before God’s throne of grace. Jesus lived and died in suffering. He rose, ascended, and reigns in blessed triumph. What he did, all humanity can now do through him. Truly his sufferings lead us to life .
 These posts on Psalms presuppose that they are written about Christ and express his feelings and prayers during the time of his incarnation. For more information on this theme, consult this author’s Annotated Bibliography, https://onesmallvoice.net/2018/03/22/psalms-2-annotated-bibliography/. See also this author’s former series, Christ in the Psalms, https://onesmallvoice.net/2018/01/19/psalms-contents-second-go-round/.
 Other psalms written in the same pattern as Psalm 13 include Psalms 43, 73, and 143. Each of these displays the human paradox of pain and blessing combined.
Have you ever been stabbed in the back? Betrayed? Ratted on? The psalmist in 52 just has. This is his response.
Typical to Psalms, there are two groups of people in this one: the good and the evil. Within the framework of Psalms, who is good and who is evil? In Psalms God judges according to the intent of the heart. God is good; someone who follows God and wants to please him is good. A good person wants good for other people; he or she does not initiate harm. A wicked person, by contrast, hates God and opposes him in all he speaks, thinks, and does. A wicked person in Psalms plots and carries out harm toward others, especially toward the followers of God. (Just as the bad guys do in your favorite adventure movie, right?)
This principle is so important I want to repeat it. In Psalms, people are not judged as good or wicked according to whether or not they commit certain sins, but according to their allegiance. Everyone who pledges allegiance to God is called good, and everyone who pledges allegiance against God is called wicked. Enemies of God, those who willfully oppose him and oppose his principles, are wicked. Friends of God are good. Psalms paints people black or white. Unfortunately for us, there are no gray zones with God. His vision is sharp and clear–not fuzzy like ours. God knows who his friends are and who his enemies are, just as a shepherd knows which sheep are his and which are not.
Psalms are real life. Just as in our own experience, some people in Psalms pretend to be on God’s side by pretending to be on the side of God’s friends. But they lie. In their hearts, they are false friends who speak falsely and lead others down a wrong path. Often the deceit of these people is found out; they are discovered, and their duplicity becomes apparent by their actions that seek to harm someone who is good. Psalm 55:12-14 gives an example of this kind of person. A good person in Psalms always tells the truth, even when that truth means confessing his own sin. Psalm 51:1-17 is an example of a good person confessing his sin to God. Remember, a good person is someone who wants to please God. Good people do not become wicked people by sinning, but by betraying God. To betray God is to fully and finally join the enemy’s team. God is always kind and gracious to forgive everyone who asks him with a true heart. By the standard of Psalms, a good person may sin perpetually, but he or she also always wants to do better and to please God. Wicked people never truly want to please God; they hate him.
So with that as background, what about Psalm 52?
Though not necessary, a bit of history may help to understand this psalm. The superscription of verse 1 reads, “To the choirmaster. A Maskil of David, when Doeg, the Edomite, came and told Saul, “David has come to the house of Ahimelech.”
David, the servant of Saul the King, was running for his life from Saul, who had gone mad and wanted to kill him. Doeg was Saul’s chief shepherd (1 Samuel 21:7). David most likely knew Doeg, since David was also a shepherd. Ahimelech was an innocent priest who was unaware of the full situation between David and Saul. When David in his flight from Saul asked for food and a weapon, Ahimelech provided these, because he believed David’s lie that he was on a secret mission for the king. Doeg happened to see David at the priest’s tabernacle that day, and reported to Saul. Saul, not in his right mind, ordered his servants to kill Ahimelech and his whole household. When they refused, out of respect for the priesthood and knowing that Ahimelech had done no wrong, Saul ordered Doeg to do so. Doeg gladly slaughtered 85 innocent, unarmed priests, plus women, children, nursing infants, oxen, donkey, and sheep–all that lived in the nearby town of Nob, a city of priests. Patrick Reardon writes at length concerning Psalm 52 that Doeg was worse than Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus Christ. (Reardon, 101-102)
If Psalms were a play and I was the director, I would have the sole character in this scene pacing back and forth in barely contained fury and anxiety in order to reflect the back and forth movement between the poles of good and evil in the psalm. The psalmist is clearly angry when he speaks these words,
Why do you boast of evil, O mighty man? The steadfast love of God endures all the day. 2 Your tongue plots destruction, like a sharp razor, you worker of deceit. 3 You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking what is right. Selah 4 You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue. 5 But God will break you down forever; he will snatch and tear you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living. (Psalm 52:1-5 ESV)
Notice in verse 1 the contrast between the evil man and the good God, whose “steadfast love…endures all the day.” Then again, after the diatribe against the wicked, the psalmist switches back to consider the fate of the good people in verse 6 which continues, “The righteous shall see and fear, and shall laugh at him, saying … ” Verse 7 takes us back to the fate of the wicked, as spoken by the righteous of verse 6, “See the man who would not make God his refuge, but trusted in the abundance of his riches and sought refuge in his own destruction!” Then the psalmist considers his own situation in verse 8, “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.”
Finally, the psalmist quits his pacing back and forth and settles his vision fully on God, where it fixedly remains as he speaks the final verse directly to God, “I will thank you forever, because you have done it. I will wait for your name, for it is good, in the presence of the godly.” (Psalm 52:9 ESV)
Prayer is like Psalm 52. In the spiritual battle of prayer, the human heart is torn between consideration of the painfully dangerous situation at hand and faith in the steadfast love of God that endures forever and works its goodness forever in perfect reflection of the eternal goodness of God. In prayer, our hearts and minds pace back and forth between the poles of the power of what is bad and the greater power of God, who is good. May we always, as the psalmist does, align our hearts fully and fixedly on the goodness of God, whose power and judgment win out in the end.
Psalm 52 is a highly passionate psalm, yet we don’t want to leave it without considering the technical aspect of how speech functions within its nine verses.
There is one actor throughout the psalm. Nevertheless, he speaks in more than one voice and variously addresses more than one audience.
- In verses 1-3, the sole actor speaks his words directly to the “mighty man.” He describes this evil man’s words, his tongue, and his heart. There is a pause at the end of this block, written as “Selah.”
- In verses 4-5 the same actor addresses the wicked man’s tongue, “4 You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue. 5 But God will break you down forever; he will snatch and tear you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living.” In verse 5, although the psalmist still appears to be addressing the tongue, it seems apparent that the tongue is a metaphor for the man as a whole. The technical words for this figure of speech are synechdoche (part for the whole) and personification (assigning personality to an object). A second Selah pause ends the address to the tongue.
- In verses 6-7, the addressee is not specified. The psalmist appears to be talking to the air, to himself, or perhaps to an invisible audience placed somewhere beyond the bounds of history and viewing its final outcomes, “The righteous shall see and fear, and shall laugh at him, saying…”
- In verse 7, the same actor quotes the words of the righteous, but again, the addressee to whom the righteous speak are not specified. The righteous do seem to be in a position of being able to know and see final outcomes.
- In verse 8, the psalmist appears to be speaking to himself, “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.”
- Finally, in verse 9, the psalmist addresses God directly, using the second person, “you,” “I will thank you forever, because you have done it. I will wait for your name, for it is good, in the presence of the godly. (ESV)
Why is this important?
Today’s readers can appreciate the content and passion of Psalm 52 without thinking much about the dialogue within it. Noticing the changes in speech and addressees, however, prepares the reader to encounter other psalms in which such changes clarify meanings of content that may be more obscure. Examples of such psalms are Psalm 110 and Psalm 118.
Well, folks, here it is.
Psalm 137:7 Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”
8 O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us–
9 he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. (NIB)
Yuk! Did you read that? And it’s right there in the middle of the Bible.
People deal with seemingly sanctioned biblical violence in different ways. Here are just a few.
- Skim over and ignore.
- This was a very long time ago in a different culture. At that time, the cultural norm was different than today. Things are changed now.
- God is sovereign. He judges whom and how he pleases.
- They were given their chance to repent.
- They earned it.
- The psalmist doesn’t represent the heart of God here.
Can you spot the common thread in all of the above responses? There’s one thing they all have in common. Waiting…waiting…Ok time’s up. All the above responses are defensive. If you are reading this, then most likely you are the sort of person who would try to defend, gloss over, or somehow explain away the presence in Scripture of this offensively violent vengeance. It does offend us. There’s no getting around that response. Believers feel they must explain and defend God for including these words right in the middle of the Bible. How uncomfortable. What a great spot for critics and skeptics to attack Christians, and they do. Because, in fact, these words challenge us in our gut.
So here’s my take on this at this point in my life: We read it because it’s here.
When I was still young in the Lord, but growing, I worshiped with a small congregation. The format of the services included songs, Scripture reading, and communion. Each of these was congregationally led. Some used to call it Spirit led. That is, there was no preplanned program for the day. There were no predetermined songs, readings, or specified time for communion. Someone would lead out and others would join in or listen as appropriate.
I used to enjoy reading from Scripture at these services. Psalms were often read by myself and others. Over time, I noticed that whenever I selected a psalm to read, I tended to select only portions of psalms. Many if not most of the psalms have a sentence or two of judgment and/or punishment concerning the “wicked” in them. Because I felt that our Sunday worship services were meant to be joyful, I only read the happy verses in Psalms. Eventually, the burden became too great. My own censorship piled up to an enormous height, so large that I could no longer bear it. The result was that in my personal devotions, I began reading all of Scripture. I quit censoring. I quit cutting out large segments because I could not deal with them.
My discovery? That God is a God of judgment. And not just in the Old Testament. Not just in the “old days” before Christ came. It’s often quoted that Jesus talked about hell more than anyone else in all of Scripture. “There men shall weep and gnash their teeth.” That’s the phrase that kept gnawing at my heart so miserably before I converted to Christ. It dug into me and ate my insides out like a worm. I hated that phrase. As an unbeliever in great need, I used to open my Bible as a desperate, frightened beggar lost in life. I hoped I would find comfort, but instead I repeatedly found, “There men shall weep and gnash their teeth.” And I would slam my Bible shut.
Eventually, my need for help won out, and I turned to the God of the Old Testament, confessing my need and total ignorance of him. Interesting…he didn’t meet me with condemnation. He met me with love, a strong love that continues to this day.
So what do we as believers in Jesus do with Psalm 137:7-9 and similar statements sprinkled like salt throughout Psalms? We read them and admit that they are there and that God intends those words to be there and that he hasn’t changed his mind, because God never changes.
Several decades ago, I realized that the God of creation is the same God who loves me. What a privilege and blessing that is! Think by name of all the evil dictators in the whole world over all time. God could have been like one of those. But he isn’t. When I think of God, I see his Son hanging on a cross to save the world. “If you have seen me,” Jesus said, “you have seen the Father.” I believe that God is both a God of judgment and a God of love. Fortunately for us, the love won out. But what good does that love do you if you don’t know about it and haven’t received?
If you remove heat, you have cold. If you remove light, you have darkness. If you remove love, you have pain. If you remove mercy, you have judgment. So turn towards the heat, turn towards the light, turn towards love, and turn towards mercy. In short, turn towards God. He loves you.
Psalm 42 is a remarkable love letter from the Son to the Father. The Son used to have an eternal existence in heaven face to face with his Father (John 1:1-3). But now, by his Father’s will, he has come to earth as a human being to open a pathway for humans back to the throne of God, their creator who loves them.
God the Son had many enemies on earth. The loudest of these were those who claimed for themselves the position of God’s favorites. They weren’t. They studied God’s books of law and interpreted them according to the standards of their own wicked hearts. They completely missed God’s love for his people. These self-styled favorites lorded it over others and condemned everyone who didn’t worship God exactly as they themselves did. They were blind to the fact that they worshiped themselves, not God, and what they really wanted was to be at the very top of the heap. Far from respecting them, even with outward deference, Jesus called out their hypocrisy. He loved his Father with a true and passionate heart, and he loved his Father’s people. He condemned the false religious favorites, and for this cause, they wanted to kill him. And finally, they did kill him.
Psalm 42 records the heart cries of the Son to his Father during the period when he was being tried and executed by the false religious leaders. His death was very painful, because in those days, the Romans, who performed the actual execution, nailed convicted criminals to a wooden cross and let them suffocate for as long as it took. These are the Son’s words of trust and love to his Father during this horrendous event. Other psalms record Jesus’ thoughts, most notably Psalm 22.
The plot line of Poem 42 runs like this, “Father God, I am all alone here. Where are you? You’ve been hiding yourself for a long while. They’re killing me, and everyone has noticed that you’re not here. This discourages my soul so much. But my soul’s response doesn’t make sense to me, because I know you will rescue me. I know that eventually I will pass through this situation and come to a place where I will be thanking and praising you again. So come on, Soul. Perk up and hope in God. He is my help and my God.”
Here is the poem:
NIB Psalm 42:1 For the director of music. A maskil of the Sons of Korah. As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?
3 My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
4 These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.
5, 6 Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon–from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.
8 By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me–a prayer to the God of my life.
9 I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?”
10 My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
11 Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. (Psalm 42:1-11 NIV, 1984)
Parallels with Other Scripture, Indicating that Psalm 42 Is a Prophetic Reference to Christ on the Cross
1. Psalm 42:10 My bones suffer mortal agony… (NIV)
Psalm 22:14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint… (NIV)
Psalm 22:17 All my bones are on display; (NIV)
2. Psalm 42:10 … foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?” (NIV)
Psalm 22:7 All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
8 “He trusts in the LORD,” they say, “let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” (NIV)
Matthew 27:42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.'” 44 In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him. (NIV)
3. Psalm 42:7 Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.
Jonah 2:2 He said: “… From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.
3 You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. (NIV)
Psalm 42:1 As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? (NIV) [Also, the entire psalm is a heart cry of a prayer to God]
Jonah 2:4 I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’ (NIV)
Jonah 2:7 “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple. (NIV)
Matthew 12:40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (NIV)
I have been so very blessed to see the heart of the Son’s love for the Father in this psalm, and to see the heart of the Father’s love for his Son in so many other psalms. The love between Father and Son is extended to us, the recipients of the marvelous gift of redemption, a gift that cost the Son so much pain. If you can, ask God to help you soak in the deep richness of Psalm 42, this marvelous love letter from Christ to his God.
The seeds of mercy sown in Psalm 59 as a glimmer of hope break forth as morning light in Psalm 60. Psalm 60 records God’s answer to the intercessory prayer of Psalm 59:11, and then presents further prayer.
Psalm 59:11 Slay them not, lest they forget thy law; scatter them by thy power; and bring them down, O Lord, my defender. (LXE)
Psalm 60 opens with three verses which describe in past tense, as though already accomplished, the suffering of God’s people, “apostate Israel” (1), at the hands of God himself. Why did God punish Israel? God displayed his judgmental wrath upon his own nation, because they failed to recognize their Messiah when he came. Or, having recognized him, they rejected him. Forcing the hand of the Romans who occupied their land, they crucified him. Both the crucifixion of the King and the wrath of God against those who did so were foretold in Psalms 56-59, “as a memorial,” as though written on stone (2). Psalm 60, the last of the five psalm packet, is the final memorial stone. It describes the restoration of those who crucified Messiah. It opens, as already mentioned, with a recap of their punishment.
1 O God, thou hast rejected and destroyed us; thou hast been angry, yet hast pitied us.
2 Thou hast shaken the earth, and troubled it; heal its breaches, for it has been shaken.
3 Thou hast shewn thy people hard things: thou has made us drink the wine of astonishment. (LXE)
So many good things open up in Psalms once the reader realizes who is the speaker. Psalms 56-59 establish Messiah Christ as the speaker. By following the thread of his speech, the reader discovers the single plot thread that extends from beginning to end through these five psalms. With his Passion in mind, it breaks as pure blessing upon the tender heart to realize that the Rejected One is now interceding from the resurrection side of the cross for the very people who disowned him, for those who had been among the enemies who pursued him to death. In Psalm 60, the speaker presents himself as one of those who received the judgment of God, which is so poignant in Psalm 59:11. He prays “us,” “us,” “thy people,” and “us,”–four times total in the first three verses. Psalm 60 is where the just judgment of God meets his mercy (Psalm 85:10). The “Father forgive them,” is reconciled with God’s understandable wrath.
Psalm 56:7 For their crime will they escape? In wrath cast down the peoples, O God! (ESV)
Luke 23:34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. (ESV)
Paul in Romans 9-11 tackles the difficult subject of God’s having blessed the Gentiles with salvation in Christ, while so few of his fellow Jewish people believed. Had God rejected his people Israel? Appearances to the contrary, Paul answers no. His argument takes three forms.
1. First, God is sovereign. He gives grace to whom he wishes. No one merits his mercy, but it must be received by faith.
Romans 9:15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (ESV)
Romans 9:30 What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as it is written, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” (ESV)
2. Second, at the outset of the Christian message there was a remnant of Israel who did receive the Good News of salvation in Christ alone by faith. That is to say, Israel was not rejected in whole. Paul counts himself as part of this remnant.
Romans 11:1 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” 4 But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. (ESV)
3. God’s plan all along was to make room for the Gentiles. In describing this, Isaiah uses the metaphor of stretching out the boundaries of a tent, and Paul uses the metaphor of branches being cut off from an olive tree, others being grafted in, and finally, the cut-off branches being grafted back in.
Isaiah 54:1 Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that dost not travail: for more are the children of the desolate than of her that has a husband: for the Lord has said, 2 “Enlarge the place of thy tent, and of thy curtains; fix the pins, spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy pins; 3 Spread forth thy tent yet to the right and the left: for thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles, and thou shalt make the desolate cities to be inhabited.” (LXE)
Romans 11:15 For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? (ESV)
17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, (ESV)
20…They were broken off because of their unbelief, (ESV)
23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree. 25 Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; 27 “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” (ESV)
The text of Romans 11:26 reads, “And in this way all Israel will be saved.” Paul had been speaking of a remnant of Israel in the first portion of this chapter, as quoted above. Now here, “all Israel” refers to the whole of Israel, not just the remnant. And Gentiles are included in Israel’s olive tree. God’s victory over all nations–Israel and Gentile nations combined–this is the theme of Psalm 60. It is a happy theme.
First, Gentiles are included:
Romans 4:16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring– not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations” (ESV)
Next, how will this happen? The answer lies in the “spirit of stupor” that had been placed upon Israel as a consequence of their having rejected their Messiah, God’s anointed. The spirit of stupor will be removed. This phrase binds Isaiah 29, Psalm 60, and Romans 9-11 together as speaking of the same topic and the same people, God’s people, Israel.
Isaiah 29:10 For the LORD has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep, and has closed your eyes (the prophets), and covered your heads (the seers). (ESV)
Psalm 60:3 Thou hast shewn thy people hard things: thou has made us drink the wine of astonishment. (LXE)
Romans 11:8 as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.” (ESV)
Paul’s New Testament word for “stupor” in Greek is “κατανύξεως (Rom 11:8 BGT).” The word translated “astonishment” in Psalm 60 is “κατανύξεως (Psa 59:5 LXX),” and in Isaiah the Greek Septuagint for “deep sleep” is “κατανύξεως (Isa 29:10 LXT).” Thayer’s Lexicon reports that these three citations are the only place in all of Scripture where this lemma (stem) and even the form occur. Clearly, these verses are tied together.
Unwrapping Psalm 60
A Word about the Superscription
The superscription of Psalm 60 contains much Davidic history into which most commentators delve. The thesis of this blog on the Psalter is that the psalms are first and foremost a prophetic word about Christ. As such, delving into the historic details of David’s life would be a distraction, rather than an aid (3). David’s life was limited, in that David was human and mortal. As such, the details of his history are a distraction to the larger, metanarrative events of the life of Messiah, God’s Son, God and human in one, who both died and was resurrected (Acts 2:25-32).
In an exception to my usual custom, I’ve written extensively (2) about a select phrase in the superscription of each of the psalms in this packet, as found in the Greek Septuagint. The phrase is, “εἰς στηλογραφίαν” or “for a memorial,” as something written on a stone. The phrase, “εἰς στηλογραφίαν,” as found in these five psalms, is unique to all of Scripture. This phrase is one item that binds these psalms together as a packet. The accompanying phrase, , “εἰς τὸ τέλος,” or “for the end,” strengthens the association.
The superscription of Psalm 60 has a further phrase of interest. It is, “τοῖς ἀλλοιωθησομένοις ἔτι.” This is translated as, “for them that shall yet be changed,” by Brenton, “for those that shall yet be changed,” by NETS (Pietersma), and “for things yet to be changed,” by the Orthodox Study Bible (See the Bibliography for all three). The Greek word “change” is most often used literally in Scripture, and it means simply, “to change.” See, for example, Luke 9:29. Many commentators confess not knowing what the Hebrew of the Masoretic might mean, but the phrase is often interpreted as a musical instruction. Clearly, however, the phrase as it stands in Greek follows the plot line of the five psalms remarkably well, when the speaker is seen to be Christ and when Psalm 60 is interpreted as the change of heart and fortune of the people of God, that Paul describes in Romans 11.
Unpacking the Body of Psalm 60
1. Verses 1-3: description of the disaster.
Psalm 60:1 O God, thou hast rejected and destroyed us; thou hast been angry, yet hast pitied us.
2 Thou hast shaken the earth, and troubled it; heal its breaches, for it has been shaken.
3 Thou hast shewn thy people hard things: thou has made us drink the wine of astonishment. (LXE)
Psalm 60 opens with the speaker’s recounting to God his rejection and destruction of “us.” The phrase at the end of verse 1 (LXE), “yet [thou] hast pitied us,” links back to the glimmer of hope found in the prior psalm’s verse 11, “slay them not…scatter them.” As Psalm 60 opens, the destruction has already been accomplished, and the speaker looks back upon the “hard things” and the “wine of astonishment” God had made them drink (vs 3).
2. Verses 4-5: the intercessory prayer.
4 Thou hast given a token to them that fear thee, that they might flee from the bow. Pause.
5 That thy beloved ones may be delivered; save with thy right hand, and hear me. (LXE)
Verse 4 is difficult, “Thou hast given a token to them that fear thee, that they might flee from the bow. Pause.” The Greek word for “token” is σημείωσις, related to the word “sign” found so frequently in John’s writing. One example is John 2:18.
John 2:18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?”
21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body.
22 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. (ESV)
In the above passage from John, the “sign” given was the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Seeing this sign, the disciples believed. Going back to Psalm 60:4, the token, or sign, was given to “them that fear thee.” In Scripture, including the Psalter, to “fear” the Lord is good. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” (Proverbs 1:7 LXE). Those who “fear” the Lord are God’s people and recipients of his blessing. So far then, we have God giving a sign to those who fear him–both of these are positive elements, and the last portion of verse 4 also speaks blessing, “…that they might flee from the bow. Pause.” Most frequently in the Old Testament, the word “bow” refers to the weapon, as in a bow and arrow. An example of this usage is Psalm 46:9, “Putting an end to wars…he will crush the bow, and break in pieces the weapon…” Taken at simple face value, the sense of the Septuagint in Psalm 60:4 seems to be that God is giving a sign of warning to his followers to flee some form of war or violence. That sign could be the resurrection of Christ, and the violence could be that foretold in Psalm 59, God’s wrath upon those who did not fear him, but persecuted his anointed. Jesus himself gave such a warning in Matthew 24:15-21.
Matthew 24:15 “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, 18 and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 19 And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 20 Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. (ESV)
Moving forward to verse 5, the speaker pleads with God that he would save his “beloved ones,” so that they might be delivered. Whoever verse 4 may refer to, perhaps believers who heeded the sign and thereby fled from the bow of God’s wrath, it seems best to place verse 5 with verses 1-3. That is, the “beloved ones” are the “us” and “thy people” whom God has rejected and destroyed, yet pitied. The “Pause” after verse 4 reinforces the likelihood that a different group is here being spoken of. The “beloved ones” are they that need to be delivered and saved, because having missed the “sign,” they have already experienced God’s wrath. The speaker prays that God’s harsh treatment of them will now end. It is of course the risen Christ, the victor of Psalm 59, who prays (see Romans 8:34).
3. Verses 6-8: God replies.
6 God has spoken in his holiness; I will rejoice, and divide Sicima, and measure out the valley of tents.
7 Galaad is mine, and Manasse is mine; and Ephraim is the strength of my head;
8 Judas is my king; Moab is the caldron of my hope; over Idumea will I stretch out my shoe; the Philistines have been subjected to me. (LXE)
The striking thing about the series of place names in verses 6-8 is that the first five stretch from one end of Israel to the other, while the last three are Gentile lands. As Isaiah describes in chapters 11 and 12, all the land will belong to the Lord. All kingdoms will be conquered by him. In God’s kingdom, it is good to be conquered by the love of his Son, for there is salvation under no other name. All portions of Old Testament prophecy point to the same outcome: the unification of God’s original people Israel with Gentile nations under one banner of love, the cross of Jesus Christ. Bonar writes of verse 4, “Here is the voice of Israel owning Jehovah’s gift of Messiah to them,” (Bonar, See note 1). Paul writes in Romans 11:23-25 that when the full number of the Gentiles has come in, then, if Israel does not continue in their unbelief, they, too, will be grafted in again. God answers, “Yes!” to the speaker’s intercessory prayer in Psalm 60.
4. Verses 9-12: Christ and the church respond.
Who is it that will lead me into Gentile lands, as represented by Idumea (in a part-for-the-whole metaphor)? asks the speaker. He answers his own question, Isn’t God the one who will do this? Just so, Jesus in his ministry on earth ever and always submitted to and depended upon God his Father. Here it is the same.
Who speaks this section? In verses 9-11, the speaker appears to be the same first person voice as the speaker of verses 1-5. In verse 12, the last verse, it is easy to hear the voice of a chorus of people, as is the case with the last verse of many psalms (4). Verses 9-12 as a whole speak of the evangelization of the earth by Christ and his church, comprised of believers from all nations, Israel and Gentile combined. Together with their Lord, they go forth in dependence upon God to take the gospel to all remaining nations.
Andrew Bonar (see footnote 1) titles this psalm, “The Righteous One asks, and rejoices in, Israel’s restoration.” A plain, straightforward reading of Psalms 56-60 in the Septuagint English version (I use Brenton’s translation), readily yields this conclusion. I recommend reading these five psalms together, start to finish, in one sitting. Although one’s interpretation of details may vary, when viewed as a sequential packet, the overall plot thrust of these psalms is unmistakable. This packet speaks of Christ, God’s Son the King, in his ministry on earth up to and through his Passion. The packet extends beyond to his resurrection and the subsequent punishment of God’s people, who had rejected and persecuted him. And, most blessedly, it extends even further to the time when the victorious Son owns them in mediatorial intercession for them, so that they “shall yet be changed” and be restored. At that time, God will lead his Christ and his people as a single unit into all Gentile lands. The prophecy of this packet of psalms runs parallel with the gospel messages of Isaiah and Paul the Apostle.
1 Andrew A. Bonar, Christ and His Church in the Book of Psalms, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1978, 182.
2 A substantial explanation of certain key phrases in the Greek superscriptions of Psalms 56-60 is available in the first article of theis series, titled, “Psalms 56-60: A Packet–Part 1, The Superscriptions.” It can be accessed at https://onesmallvoice.net/2019/09/12/psalms-56-60-a-packet-part-1-the-superscriptions/.
3 I have found that commentators who are most concerned about the historical events alluded to in the superscription are less likely to mention Christ in regard to the psalm.
4 See, for example, Psalm 18:50.
“While this psalm carries deep philosophical import, answering the question of evil in the presence of a good God, it very simply shares with us the benefits of placing one’s complete trust in the God of Love. Those who do evil will be punished and brought low; the righteous will be rewarded with the mercy of God.”
Psalm 59 contains two major applications: one general and one specific. The premise of the general application was stated in the last verse of the prior psalm.
Psalm 58:11 LXE And a man shall say, Verily then there is a reward for the righteous: verily there is a God that judges them in the earth.
ESV Mankind will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.”
The specific application applies to the speaker himself, identified previously as the Son of God on earth during the days of his tribulation and Passion. The following verses further identify him as the Spotless Lamb:
2 Deliver me from the workers of iniquity, and save me from bloody men.
3 For, behold, they have hunted after my soul; violent men have set upon me: neither is it my iniquity, nor my sin, O Lord.
4 Without iniquity I ran and directed my course aright: awake to help me, and behold. (Psalm 59:2-4 LXE)
1Peter 1:19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (ESV)
2 Corinthians 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (ESV)
If there is a God in heaven–so the argument goes–and if he is a good God, how can he permit such evil on earth? The answer given in Psalm 59 is that he does not. There will be a judgment: the righteous will be rewarded, and the wicked will be punished. The blood of the innocent by the hands of the wicked will be avenged.
Psalm 59 is divided neatly into sections.
1) In the first section, verses 1-5, the speaker (who is Messiah) lays out his condition and his petition. Bloody and violent men pursue the speaker with intent to kill. After his proclamation of innocence, the speaker petitions God in prayer to visit all the heathen and to pity no one who does iniquity. Then there is a “pause.”
An interesting petition
2) In the second section, verses 6-13, the speaker details God’s future actions against his enemies and contrasts these with his own trust in God and God’s mercy on him. Before a second “pause” which closes verse 13, the speaker makes an interesting petition in verses 11-13.
11 Slay them not, lest they forget thy <1> law; scatter them by thy power; and bring them down, O Lord, my defender.
12 For the sin of their mouth, and the word of their lips, let them be even taken in their pride.
13 And for their cursing and falsehood shall utter destruction be denounced: they shall fall by the wrath of utter destruction, and shall not be; so shall they know that the God of Jacob is Lord of the ends of the earth. Pause. (LXE)
He asks in verse 11 that God not “kill” his enemies but “scatter” them and bring them “down,” in the sense of higher to lower. This seems rather an apt request, considering that Jesus’s enemies were religious leaders who thought themselves to be above the people.
Luke 18:11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers– or even like this tax collector. (NET)
Some textual variations
Throughout the entire psalm the speaker in the Greek Septuagint of Brenton’s translation always refers to himself in singular. There are no plurals, such as “we,” “us,” or “our,” not even in verse 11. The supplicant represents himself throughout the psalm; he is not praying on behalf of a “people.” Therefore, God is always referred to with the descriptor, “my,” rather than “our.” Although the Septuagint does reference God as the “God of Israel” (verse 5) and “God of Jacob” (verse 13), the speaker gives no indication that he is praying on behalf of a “people.” This is important in helping to determine the subject of verse 11. Verse 11 differs in Brenton’s Septuagint from translations based upon the Masoretic.
First, however, all versions agree that the request is for a scattering rather than an annihilation. The example below is one of the more graphic:
11 Use your power to make them homeless vagabonds and then bring them down, O Lord who shields us! (NET)
All versions further agree that the reason for the request is to prevent someone forgetting something. Who the someone is and what is not to be forgotten is hard to decipher. The Masoretic translations ask God to scatter rather than kill “lest my people forget,” (ESV) leaving the “what” unmentioned. The Greek Septuagint, which follows a different textual tradition, doesn’t specify who “they” is and places a text note at the object of the verb “forget.” According to Rahlfs, there are three Septuagint families of readings for the genitive object of “forget” (1). The Greek text that accompanies Brenton’s translation uses “thy law,” (τοῦ νόμου σου) “Slay them not, lest they forget thy law; scatter them by thy power.” A second reading is “people,” as in the Masoretic; however, people is objective rather than subjective, “lest they forget thy people,” not, “lest my people forget,” as in the ESV. The third reading is “your name,” “Slay them not lest they forget your name.” (2)
Finally, all versions agree that the powerful enemies, as an effect of their scattering, will be brought completely down, or low.
So, which one?
The biblical plot line, the plot line of the Psalter, the plot line of the Gospels, and the plot line of the New Testament letters require that the “enemies” are among God’s own people and among the Gentiles. (That pretty much includes everyone.) God’s own people were distinctively given the commandment to guard God’s Law, the Ten Commandments delivered through the hand of Moses the great prophet. Based upon the entire sense of the psalm, I conclude that the speaker’s request in verse 11 of the Septuagint is lest “they,” the enemies, “forget thy law.” The enemies are the prideful religious leaders, caretakers of God’s Law, and the speaker is God’s Son. The speaker wants these enemies brought low, but not destroyed, because he wants them to remember God’s Law. Clearly, the speaker’s enemies broke the first commandment in its entirety, “Deuteronomy 6:5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
The predicament of modern unbelievers as they stumble upon Psalm 59 is this. While the mind agrees that righteousness needs to be vindicated and that the travesty of disrespect and murder against God’s own Son is unfathomable in its magnitude, our culture teaches prejudice against the biblical God. If the speaker were anyone other than God’s own Son, our own natural sense of justice would demand that the death of a completely innocent person by the hands of a ruthless enemy be avenged. And yet, because God is so authoritatively powerful, we deny the justice given to every common creature to his Son, who in his flesh was every bit as common as each one of us. And, on the other hand, for believers there is no cause for rejoicing in this psalm. How can any tender-hearted person rejoice in destruction?
The Good News, however, is that the enemies were not killed, but scattered. The outcome of A.D. 70 was that the temple and its sacrifices ceased, the power of the religious leaders was completely broken, and the people were indeed scattered. However, God’s Law continued to be guarded and protected.
Paul best explains this plot twist:
Romans 11:11 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. (ESV)
More cannot be said now without entering into Psalm 60, the last psalm of this packet.
As concerns Psalm 59, it helps this author to bear in mind constantly that the Psalter is prophetic and that a large purpose of Psalm 59 is to prophesy in order to verify the credentials of Messiah. Prophecy is a testimony that leads to faith.
Consider Psalm 59 in the context of these biblical statements.
Psalm 17:8 Keep me as the apple of your eye. (See also all of Psalms 16 and 17, which match closely Psalm 59.)
Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!
5 “And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
6 “And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart;
7 and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.
8 “And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead.
9 “And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (NAS)
(See also all of Psalm 119.)
Ezekiel 19:10 ‘Your mother was like a vine in your vineyard, Planted by the waters; It was fruitful and full of branches Because of abundant waters.
11 ‘And it had strong branches fit for scepters of rulers, And its height was raised above the clouds So that it was seen in its height with the mass of its branches.
12 ‘But it was plucked up in fury; It was cast down to the ground; And the east wind dried up its fruit. Its strong branch was torn off So that it withered; The fire consumed it.
13 ‘And now it is planted in the wilderness, In a dry and thirsty land.
14 ‘And fire has gone out from its branch; It has consumed its shoots and fruit, So that there is not in it a strong branch, A scepter to rule.'” This is a lamentation, and has become a lamentation. (NAS)
Matthew 21:33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard and put a wall around it and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and rented it out to vine-growers, and went on a journey.
34 “And when the harvest time approached, he sent his slaves to the vine-growers to receive his produce.
35 “And the vine-growers took his slaves and beat one, and killed another, and stoned a third.
36 “Again he sent another group of slaves larger than the first; and they did the same thing to them.
37 “But afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’
38 “But when the vine-growers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and seize his inheritance.’
39 “And they took him, and threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
40 “Therefore when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?”
41 They said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers, who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, This became the chief corner stone; This came about from the Lord, And it is marvelous in our eyes’? (NAS)
Matthew 23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
38 See, your house is left to you desolate.
39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'” (ESV)
Luke 23:28 But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. (ESV)
Luke 19:41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it,
42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.
43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side
44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
45 And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold,
46 saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.”
47 And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, (ESV)
Luke 21: 5 And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said,
6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (ESV)
And finally, the Scripture all but quoted in Psalm 59:8:
Psalm 2:4 He that dwells in the heavens shall laugh them to scorn, and the Lord shall mock them. (LXE)
Compare the previous verse with Psalm 59:8.
But thou, Lord, wilt laugh them to scorn; thou wilt utterly set at nought all the heathen. (LXE)
The prophecies of Psalm 59 were indeed fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the destruction of Jerusalem with its temple and its religious hierarchy in 70 A.D.
3) The third and final section of Psalm 59 consists of the last two verses, 16-17.
16 But I will sing to thy strength, and in the morning will I exult in thy mercy; for thou hast been my supporter, and my refuge in the day of mine affliction.
17 Thou art my helper; to thee, my God, will I sing; thou art my supporter, O my God, and my mercy. (LXE)
The sorely pressed-upon speaker of this prayer displays a beautiful faith. The phrase, “But I will sing to they strength, and in the morning will I exult in they mercy,” looks forward to resurrection morning, bright and early, as the stone that entombs the undefeated Son of God is rolled away. The incarnated Jesus was a human, just as you and I, and he shares our frame and makeup in every aspect. He sweat as it were blood in his awful contemplation of being crucified and enduring the wrath of God as a sacrifice, a piece of meat, on behalf of sinners. God includes Psalm 59 in the Bible to show us that God has “prevented” us (to use the old King James way of saying it). That means, God has gone before us (Psalm 21:3) to prepare a way and to lead us in it. The Son of God is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
While this psalm carries deep philosophical import, answering the question of evil in the presence of a good God, it very simply shares with us the benefits of placing one’s complete trust in the God of Love. Those who do evil will be punished and brought low; the righteous will be rewarded with the mercy of God.
1 Rahlfs-Hanhart. Septuaginta: Editio altera. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2006.
2 NETS uses the “people” textual tradition, “or they may forget my people.” The Orthodox Study Bible also uses “my people.” Brenton stands alone in the textual tradition he chose to follow.
Ding-dong, the witch is dead! Which old witch? The wicked witch
Ding-dong, the wicked witch is dead. — lyrics from The Wizard of Oz. (1).
Question: Did the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz celebrate death and vengeance, or were they celebrating the ending of cruel slavery suffered by all when wickedness ruled the land?
Judgment is an uncomfortable theme for many Christians and Christian critics who have been raised on John 3:16 and its sequel, “God is love,” in 1 John 4:8. How can judgment possibly be consistent with the teaching of 100% acceptance in Jesus Christ for every willing individual? Nevertheless, the theme of judgment, and yes, punishment, occurs cover to cover throughout the Bible. After describing the characteristics of the wicked, Psalm 58 focuses on the theme of judgment for the enemies of God and his Son, the King.
This author bears no animosity nor any judgmental attitude toward any people group anywhere in the globe. Jesus Christ broke down all walls of division separating any given portion of humankind from any other portion (Ephesians 2:14-3:21). We are all one in Christ, and love rules the day. The importance of this packet of psalms lies in their prophetic word of Christ. These psalms function as an aid to help along the nascent faith of unbelievers and all Christians everywhere. For those who still may doubt that Psalm 58 treats of Christ, perhaps the quotes in the Notes section may help (2).
Who are these wicked?
Verse 1 of Psalm 58 states a basic premise that the mouth is indicative of what lies in the heart.
Psalm 58:1 If ye do indeed speak righteousness, then do ye judge rightly, ye sons of men.
Christ in in the New Testament states it this way,
Matthew 12:34 Offspring of vipers! How are you able to say anything good, since you are evil? For the mouth speaks from what fills the heart. (NET)
And James in the memorable passage concerning the tongue, introduces the topic of how one’s speech relates to the whole person:
James 3:2 For we all stumble in many ways. If someone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect individual, able to control the entire body as well. (NET)
Psalm 58 LXE (Septuagint in English by Brenton) goes on to describe the “sons of men” (3) or “sinners” in verses 2-4:
2 For ye work iniquities in your hearts in the earth: your hands plot unrighteousness.
3 Sinners have gone astray from the womb: they go astray from the belly: they speak lies.
4 Their venom is like that of a serpent; as that of a deaf asp, and that stops her ears;
5 which will not hear the voice of charmers, nor heed the charm prepared skillfully by the wise.
Again, Jesus puts it this way:
Matthew 15:8 “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;
Mark 7:21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery,
John 8:44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
Matthew 13:38 The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one,
Matthew 23:33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?
Luke 7:31 “To what then should I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, yet you did not dance; we wailed in mourning, yet you did not weep.’
Matthew 13:13 For this reason I speak to them in parables: Although they see they do not see, and although they hear they do not hear nor do they understand.
The kind of people described in both Testaments above are the ones who opposed Jesus every step of his ministry. They are those whom the gospels call the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the priests, the chief priests and elders, the Sanhedrin, the lawyers, and the scribes. These are people who hated the truth of God and Christ, who hated the actions of love and good works, especially towards the down and out and poor of person and spirit. They were absolutely sure that they were right and all who disagreed with them were wrong and to be hated. They were proud in their hearts and disdainful of all who were different than they. They believed that they merited special, favorable treatment from God because they believed themselves to be superior to others. They were the religious authorities of Jesus’s day who sought to annihilate him.
What will be the fate of the wicked who hate God and his Christ?
Psalm 2 first prophesies the outcome for this set of people.
Psalm 2:1 Wherefore did the heathen rage, and the nations imagine vain things?
2 The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers gathered themselves together, against the Lord, and against his Christ;
3 saying, Let us break through their bonds, and cast away their yoke from us.
4 He that dwells in the heavens shall laugh them to scorn, and the Lord shall mock them.
5 Then shall he speak to them in his anger, and trouble them in his fury.
6 But I have been made king by him on Sion his holy mountain,
7 declaring the ordinance of the Lord: the Lord said to me, Thou art my Son, to-day have I begotten thee.
8 Ask of me, and I will give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the ends of the earth for thy possession.
9 Thou shalt rule them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces as a potter’s vessel.
10 Now therefore understand, ye kings: be instructed, all ye that judge the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice in him with trembling.
12 Accept correction, lest at any time the Lord be angry, and ye should perish from the righteous way: whensoever his wrath shall be suddenly kindled, blessed are all they that trust in him. (LXE)
Psalm 58 is very similar to Psalm 2 in its approach. The basic premise of both psalms is that God has a Son with whom he is well-pleased. The Son, while sojourning on earth, will encounter opposition from enemies, who will be defeated. God warns them in advance of the consequences of their rebellion, and he encourages them to repent and receive his favor. (4)
Psalm 58:6 God has crushed their teeth in their mouth: God has broken the cheek-teeth of the lions.
7 They shall utterly pass away like water running through: he shall bend his bow till they shall fail.
8 They shall be destroyed as melted wax: the fire has fallen and they have not seen the sun.
9 Before your thorns feel the white thorn, he shall swallow you up as living, as in his wrath.
Jesus himself, the one who loved his Father so much that he willingly conformed to the Father’s will to provide a life raft for the sinking human race by dying a most painful death upon the cross, said this about the future of his enemies:
Matthew 11:21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
Matthew 23:13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.
Matthew 23:34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.
Matthew 23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate.
Matthew 8: 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Matthew 13: 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers,
42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Matthew 24:1 Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2 But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
Luke 19:41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
And as in Psalm 2, Psalm 58 pronounces blessing upon the righteous:
10 The righteous shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance of the ungodly: he shall wash his hands in the blood of the sinner.
11 And a man shall say, Verily then there is a reward for the righteous: verily there is a God that judges them in the earth.
Likewise, Jesus pronounces blessing upon the righteous.
Matthew 13:43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.
The destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in 70 CE fulfilled in whole or in part the prophecies of judgment pronounced in Psalms 2 and 58 against God and his King. (5) Looking ahead, Psalm 59 records again the speaker’s trials by the hand of his enemies, his expressions of faith in prayer, his expectations of vindication, and his prophecies of future judgment upon his enemies. In spite of the Wizard of Oz lyrics at the beginning of this article, neither Psalm 58 nor Psalm 59 are what one might call “happy.” God’s standards are higher than Hollywood’s, even when it comes to the little Munchkins celebrating the wicked witch’s demise. Happiness does come, but it must await Psalm 60.
1 Full lyrics and copyright information available at https://www.google.com/search?ei=vv20XaCHNMSUsgWrtLfgBA&q=wizard+of+oz+lyrics+ding+dong+the+witch+is+dead&oq=wizard+of+oz+lyrics+ding&gs_l=psy-ab.1.0.0j0i22i30l3.805142.810221..813139…0.0..0.70.1396.24……0….1..gws-wiz…….0i131j0i67.cBktK4kg-Eg. Accessed October 26, 2019.
2 John Barclay’s preface to Psalm 58: “The rulers of the people met, Like wolves around a lamb combin’d Against the Lord of glory set, Contrive the death they had design’d: But ah! the blood they mean to shed, (Which flows for our eternal weal,) Shall be for ever on their head, And more inflame the flames of hell. (Barclay, 57)
Samuel Lord Bishop Horsley writes concerning Psalm 58. “This Psalm has no obvious connection with any particular occurrence in the life of David; but it is connected remarkably with the history of Christ.” (Horsley, 139)
Andrew Bonar writes, “O that the sons of men would hear in this their day! O that every ear were opened to these words of The Righteous One reasoning with the ungodly in prospect of the day of vengeance.” (Bonar, 179)
3 Translations based upon the Hebrew Masoretic text generally ascribe the subsequent description to rulers.
4 See Bonar in Note 2. The quotation applies here, also.
RECAP: Based upon the evidence of the superscriptions, or titles, placed before the body of the psalms by an unknown editor from antiquity, the reader is justified in considering Psalms 56-60 as a packet, especially in the Greek version known as the Septuagint. Alone of all the psalms, these five psalms contain both the phrase, “for the end, εἰς τὸ τέλος” and “for a memorial, εἰς στηλογραφίαν.” (See Psalms 56-60: A Packet–Part 1, The Superscriptions.) The meanings of these two unique phrases were explored in the article at the just named link. Further, an extended study of “for the end” can be found at Psalms 56-60: “For the End”–Its New Testament Meaning. Additionally, the reader might want to recall that the premise of this blog is that many, if not most or even all, of the psalms are prophetic of the life, death, resurrection, and kingship of the Lord Jesus Christ (1).
Although there is a single speaker throughout the psalm, Psalm 56 (see also Septuagint) has three characters: the speaker, his enemies, and God. Verses 1 and 11 identify the enemy as “man, ἄνθρωπος,” verses 2 and 9 as “enemies” and “many warring against me,” verse 4 as “flesh,” and verse 7 as “people, λαός.” Additionally, verses 3, 5, and 6 refer to the enemy in the singular or plural pronoun forms, he, they, and their. Every verse except verses 2, 5, and six make reference to God. The presence of God and the enemies are inextricably interwoven throughout this prayer by the faith of the protagonist, the speaker.
Craig C. Broyles describes the enemies with these words, “…lurkers who hound and press their attack. (NIV ‘slanderers who hotly pursue…lurk’) They conspire, hide and watch the speaker’s steps…social prowlers hiding in secret.” (2)
How does Psalm 56 match the life of Christ? Compare the three verses below, which are the only three verses in Psalm 56 that make no mention of God, with the New Testament verses that follow them.
2 Mine enemies have trodden me down all the day from the dawning of the day; for there are many warring against me.
5 All the day long they have abominated my words; all their devices are against me for evil.
6 They will dwell near and hide themselves; they will watch my steps, accordingly as I have waited patiently in my soul.
–Septuagint, Brenton’s English Translation (LXE)
Matthew 12:14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted against him, as to how they could assassinate him. (NET)
Matthew 22:15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. (ESV)
Matthew 26:59 Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death,
Mark 14:1 Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. (NIV)
Luke 5:17 One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick. (NIV)
John 12:9 Now a large crowd of Judeans learned that Jesus was there, and so they came not only because of him but also to see Lazarus whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to kill Lazarus too, (NET)
Clearly, Psalm 56 is descriptive of the enemies who hounded Jesus throughout every step of his public ministry. Psalm 56 also describes well the faith of Messiah, Jesus. Compare these verses from Psalm 56 with the gospel accounts of Jesus’s faith and trust in God.
3 They shall be afraid, but I will trust in thee.
4 In God I will praise my words; all the day have I hoped in God; I will not fear what flesh shall do to me. (LXE)
9 Mine enemies shall be turned back, in the day wherein I shall call upon thee; behold, I know that thou art my God.
10 In God, will I praise his word; in the Lord will I praise his saying.
11 I have hoped in God; I will not be afraid of what man shall do to me. (LXE)
John 11:41 So they took away the stone. Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you that you have listened to me. 42 I knew that you always listen to me, but I said this for the sake of the crowd standing around here, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he shouted in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” (NET)
John 17:1 When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. (ESV)
Matthew 26:53 Or do you think that I cannot call on my Father, and that he would send me more than twelve legions of angels right now? 54 How then would the scriptures that say it must happen this way be fulfilled?” (NET)
John 19:30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (ESV) (3)
The last verse of Psalm 56, verse 13, prophesies the resurrection:
13 For thou hast delivered my soul from death, and my feet from sliding, that I should be well-pleasing before God in the land of the living. (LXE) (4)
And what of the enemies? They will be punished by God.
7 Thou wilt on no account save them; thou wilt bring down the people in wrath. (LXE)
Psalm 56 is not a happy psalm. It describes a faithful worshipper hounded by many enemies who seek to harm him. It prophesies God’s punishment upon those enemies (verse 7). But nevertheless, on the bright side, it shares the great faith of the speaker, who believes in God, trusts him, and thanks him for salvation from death, even before all this comes to pass.
Note: Footnote 4 contains a brief word study from verse 13.
2 Broyles, Craig C. Understanding the Bible Commentary Series: Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999, 241.
3 In John 19:30, the original (Greek) word for the phrase, “It is finished,” or, “It is completed!” (NET), is τετέλεσται, from the verb form of the noun found in the superscriptions of Psalms 56-60 (and so many other psalms, as well). When Jesus said, “It is finished,” the reader might ask, What is finished? According to the word studies of the prior two posts, Jesus’s many statements in the gospels concerning the fulfillment of the Scripture concerning him (see for example Luke 4:21 and Matthew 26:54 above), the New Testament letters, and Acts, what has been “finished” or “completed” is the sum total of all the Old Testament prophecies concerning the life and death of Messiah, the King. That which had been continuing–i.e., the prophesies concerning Messiah up to the point of his death–had reached their conclusion, their fulfillment, and were now at a close. Everything that needed to be done had been done, and this is the ending, the close, the completion, of that portion of prophecy that had been in place for many hundreds of years. Psalm 56 was written to prophesy of Messiah’s public ministry, and the events of Jesus’s life fulfilled those prophecies.
4 A Note on translations: “…that I should be well-pleasing before the Lord” in the Greek is equivalent to “that I may walk before God” in the Hebrew. The latter translation is the closest in meaning to the Hebrew idiom, while the former accurately translates the Greek. Each of these phrases implies faithful obedience that pleases God. This is much more than the phrase to “serve God” (NET) allows for, since many people throughout both biblical and secular history have in their own minds “served God,” while performing tremendous acts of evil. Saul, who later became Paul the apostle, “served God” with his whole heart in the days when he went from town to town persecuting and murdering Christians. (Galatians 1:11-14) Did not the chief priests and Pharisees of Jesus’s day think that they were serving God when they forced Pilate to crucify him? (See John 11:49-50.) Examples from post-biblical history are prolific; the reader can think of many.
Further, the phrase, “in the land of the living,” (LXE) and “in the light of life,” (ESV) mean “not dead,” as opposed to “as I enjoy life.” (NET) The context of the complete verse requires the meaning, “not dead.”
Psalm 56:13 For you have delivered my soul from death, yes, my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of life. (LXE)Psalm 56:13 For thou hast delivered my soul from death, and my feet from sliding, that I should be well-pleasing before God in the land of the living. (ESV)