Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
With this psalm the hymn-book of Israel properly begins. The title indicates it as the first psalm of a Davidic collection formed at some time previous to the arrangement of the rest of the Psalter—a date, however, which we cannot recover. We also find ourselves on probable historical ground. The only reason to suspect the tradition embodied in the title which refers Psalms 3 to the time of the flight from Absalom, is in the mention of “the holy mountain”; and this is explained as in Note to Psalm 3:4. There is a beautiful conjecture which connects the two psalms with the actual day of the flight from Jerusalem—the day of whose events we have a more detailed account than of any other in Jewish history. The close connection of the two psalms is seen by a comparison of Psalm 4:7 with Psalm 3:3, and Psalm 3:5 with Psalm 4:8, and of both with the narrative in 2 Samuel 15, 16, 17.
The absence of any allusion to Absalom by name may be accounted for by the tender feeling of the fond father for the rebellious son. Ewald calls attention to the evidence in the tone of Psalms 3, not only of a tried religious sense, but also of the elasticity and strength supplied by a peaceful sleep. “The calmer mood of a cheerful morning” comes to crown the constancy of a faith which is not of yesterday, but has been built up by a lifetime. The same eminent critic declares that here “the elevation, the stamp, the style of David are unmistakable.” The rhythmical arrangement is so artistic that we must suppose the poem composed at leisure, after the excitement of the rout was over.
Title.—A Psalm of David. Heb., Mizmôr ledavid, the usual form of announcing authorship. Mizmôr, which occurs only in the inscriptions to psalms, must be regarded as the technical term for a particular kind of lyric composition, and possibly originated with David. It corresponds to ψαλµὸς in the Greek version; and whether the root from which it is derived primarily means “to prune,” or is, as some think, a word formed to express the sound of a harp-string when struck, it means a song composed for musical accompaniment, as is shown by its being sometimes united with shir, the generic name for song. (See titles to Psalms 48, 66)
A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son. LORD, how are they increased that trouble me! many are they that rise up against me.(1) How . . . many.—“And Absalom and all the people, the men of Israel, came to Jerusalem” (2Samuel 16:15). Ahithophel counsels Absalom to take 12,000 men, and go in instant pursuit of the fugitive. Hushar’s advice shows, of course, the exaggeration of flattery: “Therefore I counsel that all Israel be generally gathered unto thee, from Dan even to Bcersheba, as the sand which is by the sea for multitude.”
Many there be which say of my soul, There is no help for him in God. Selah.(2) There is no help.—According to the current creed, misfortune implied wickedness, and the wicked were God-forsaken. David, too, had sent back Zadok with the Ark, which in the popular view meant sending away the power and the presence of God. Even Zadok seemed to share this feeling; and David’s words to him, “thou a seer” (2Samuel 15:27), seem to contain something of a rebuke.
Selah.—This curious word must apparently remain for ever what it has been ever since the first translation of the Bible was made—the puzzle of ordinary readers, and the despair of scholars. One certain fact about it has been reached, and this the very obscurity of the term confirms. It has no ethical significance, as the Targum, followed by some other of the old versions and by St. Jerome, implies, for in that case it would long ago have yielded a satisfactory meaning. There are many obscure words in Hebrew, but their obscurity arises from the infrequency of their use; but selah occurs no less than seventy-one times in the compass of thirty-nine psalms, and three times in the ode of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:3; Habakkuk 3:9; Habakkuk 3:13). It is pretty certain that the sense “for ever,” which is the traditional interpretation of the Rabbinical schools, does not suit the majority of these places, and no other moral or spiritual rendering has ever been suggested; nor is it a poetical word, marking the end of a verse or the division into strophes, for it occurs sometimes in the very middle of a stanza, as in Psalm 20:3-4; Psalm 32:4-5; Psalm 52:3-4, and often at the end of a psalm (Psalms 46). There is only one conclusion, now universally admitted, that selah is a musical term, but in the hopeless perplexity and darkness that besets the whole subject of Hebrew music, its precise intention must be left unexplained. The conjecture that has the most probability on its side makes it a direction to play loud. The derivation from sâlah, “to raise,” is in favour of this view. The fact that in one place (Psalm 9:16) it is joined to higgaion, which is explained as a term having reference to the sound of stringed instruments, lends support to it, as also does the translation uniformly adopted in the Psalms by the LXX.: διάψαλμα—if, indeed, that word means interlude. It is curious that the interpretation next in favour to Ewald’s makes the meaning of selah exactly the opposite to his—piano instead of forte—deriving it from a word meaning “to be silent,” “to suspend.”
But thou, O LORD, art a shield for me; my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.(3) For me.—Better, behind me. A protection from the emissaries of Absalom, now on his track.
My glory, and the lifter up of mine head.—
“O et praesidium et dulce decus meum.”
HORACE, Ode I., 1:2.
The significance of this sublime trust comes out as we read in 2Samuel 15:30 how the humiliated monarch went barefoot over Olivet, with head bent down and muffled in his mantle; no glory or dignity left; mute and humiliated under the insults and curses of Shimei.
I cried unto the LORD with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy hill. Selah.(4) With my voice.—That is, aloud. The verbs are present, expressing the habit of the royal psalmist.
I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about.(6) That have set themselves—i.e., have arrayed themselves as for battle. (See 1Kings 20:12.)
Arise, O LORD; save me, O my God: for thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone; thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly.(7) Thou hast smitten . . . broken.—Better, thou smitest . . . breakest. The enemies are conceived of as wild beasts, like the lion and bear of the adventures of David’s own youth, whom God would render harmless to him.
Salvation belongeth unto the LORD: thy blessing is upon thy people. Selah.(8) Thy blessing . . .—Rather, let thy blessing be upon thy people. It is not the statement of a fact, but an intercessory prayer. The true Shepherd of His people was a noble and generous man. This close, as Ewald says, “throws a bright light on the depth of his noble soul.”