Psalm 17
Expositor's Bible Commentary
A Prayer of David. Hear the right, O LORD, attend unto my cry, give ear unto my prayer, that goeth not out of feigned lips.
Psalm 17:1-15THE investigations as to authorship and date yield the usual conflicting results. Davidic, say one school; undoubtedly post-exilic, say another, without venturing on closer definition; late in the Persian period, says Cheyne. Perhaps we may content ourselves with the modest judgment of Baethgen in his last book ("Handcommentar," 1892, p. 45): "The date of composition cannot be decided by internal indications." The background is the familiar one of causeless foes round an innocent sufferer, who flings himself into God’s arms for safety, and in prayer enters into peace and hope. He is, no doubt, a representative of the Ecclesia pressa; but he is so just because his cry is intensely personal. The experience of one is the type for all, and a poet’s prerogative is to cast his most thoroughly individual emotions into words that fit the universal heart. The psalm is called a "prayer," a title given to only four other psalms, none of which are in the First Book. It has three movements, marked by the repetition of the name of God, which does not appear elsewhere, except in the doubtful Psalm 17:14. These three are Psalm 17:1-5, in which the cry for help is founded on a strong profession of innocence; Psalm 17:6-12, in which it is based on a vivid description of the enemies; and Psalm 17:13-15, in which it soars into the pure air of mystic devotion, and thence looks down on the transient prosperity of the foe and upwards, in a rapture of hope, to the face of God.

The petition proper, in Psalm 17:1-2, and its ground, are both strongly marked by conscious innocence, and therefore sound strange to our ears, trained as we have been by the New Testament to deeper insight into sin, This sufferer asks God to "hear righteousness," i.e., his righteous cause. He pleads the bona fides of his prayer, the fervour of which is marked by its designation as "my cry," the high-pitched note usually the expression of joy, but here of sore need and strong desire. Boldly he asks for his "sentence from Thy face," and the ground of, that petition is that "Thine eyes behold rightly." Was there, then, no inner baseness that should have toned down such confidence? Was this prayer not much the same as the Pharisee’s in Christ’s parable? The answer is partly found in the considerations that the innocence professed is specially in regard to the occasions of the psalmist’s present distress, and that the acquittal by deliverance which he asks is God’s testimony that as to these he was slandered and clear. But, further, the strong professions of heart cleanness and outward obedience which follow are not so much denials of any sin as avowals of sincere devotion and honest submission of life to God’s law. They are "the answer of a good conscience towards God," expressed, indeed, more absolutely than befits Christian consciousness, but having noticing in common with Pharisaic self-complacency. The modern type of religion which recoils from such professions, and contents itself with always confessing sins which it has given up hope of overcoming, would be all the better for listening to the psalmist and aiming a little more vigorously and hopefully at being able to say, "I know nothing against myself." There is no danger in such a saying, if it be accompanied by "Yet am I not hereby justified" and by "Who can understand his errors? Cleanse Thou me from secret faults."

The general drift of Psalm 17:3-5 is clear, but the precise meaning and connection are extremely obscure. Probably the text is faulty. It has been twisted in all sorts of ways, the Masoretic accents have been disregarded, the division of verses set aside, and still no proposed rendering of parts of Psalm 17:3-4 is wholly satisfactory. The psalmist deals with heart, lips, feet-that is, thoughts, words, and deeds-and declares the innocence of all. But difficulties begin when we look closer. The first question is as to the meaning and connection of the word rendered in the A.V. and R.V., "I am purposed." It may be a first person singular or an infinitive used as a noun or even a noun, meaning, in both the latter cases, substantially the same, i.e. my thinking or my thoughts. It is connected by the accents with what follows; but in that case the preceding verb "find" is left without an object, and hence many renderings attach the word to the preceding clause, and so get "Thou shalt find no [evil] thoughts in me." This division of the clauses leaves the words rendered, by A.V. and R.V., "My mouth shall not transgress," standing alone. There is no other instance of the verb standing by itself with that meaning, nor is "mouth" clearly the subject. It may as well be the object, and the clause be, "[It] shall not pass my mouth." If that is the meaning, we have to look to the preceding word as defining what it is that is thus to be kept unuttered, and so detach it from the verb "find," as the accents do. The knot has been untied in two ways: "My [evil] purpose shall not pass," etc., or, taking the word as a verb and regarding the clause as hypothetical, Should I think evil, it shall not pass, etc.

Either of these renderings has the advantage of retaining the recognised meaning of the verb and of avoiding neglect of the accent. Such a rendering has been objected to as inconsistent with the previous clause, but the psalmist may be looking back to it, feeling that his partial self-knowledge makes it a bold statement, and thus far limiting it, that if any evil thought is found in his heart, it is sternly repressed in silence.

Obscurity continues in Psalm 17:4. The usual rendering, "As for [or, During] the works of men, by the word of Thy mouth I have kept me," etc., is against the accents, which make the principal division of the verse fall after "lips"; but no satisfactory sense results if the accentuation is followed unless we suppose a verb implied, such as e.g., stand fast or the like, so getting the profession of steadfastness in the words of God’s lips, in face of men’s self-willed doings. But this is precarious, and probably the ordinary way of cutting the knot by neglecting the accents is best. In any case the avowal of innocence passes here from thoughts and words to acts. The contrast of the psalmist’s closed mouth and God’s lips is significant, even if unintended. Only he who silences much that rises in his heart can hear God speaking. "I kept me from," is a very unusual meaning for the word employed, which generally signifies to guard or watch, but here seems to mean to take heed so as to avoid. Possibly the preposition from, denoted by a single letter, has fallen out before "paths." This negative avoidance precedes positive walking in God’s ways, since the poet’s position is amidst evil men. Goodness has to learn to say No to men, if it is ever to say Yes to God. The foot has to be forcibly plucked and vigilantly kept from foul ways before it can be planted firmly in "Thy paths." By holding fast to courses appointed by God stability is ensured. Thus the closing clause of this first part is rather an acknowledgment of the happy result of devoted cleaving to God than an assertion of self-secured steadfastness. "My feet do not slip," not so much because they are strong as because the road is good, and the Guide’s word and hand ready.

The second part repeats the prayer for help, but bases it on the double ground of God’s character and acts and of the suppliant’s desperate straits; and of these two the former comes first in the prayer, though the latter has impelled to the prayer. Faith may be helped to self-consciousness by the sense of danger, but when awakened it grasps God’s hand first and then faces its foes. In this part of the psalm the petitions, the aspects of the Divine character and working, and the grim picture of dangers are all noteworthy. The petitions by their number and variety reveal the pressure of trouble, each new prick of fear or pain forcing a new cry and each cry recording a fresh act of faith tightening its grasp. The "I" in Psalm 17:6 is emphatic, and may be taken as gathering up the psalmist’s preceding declarations and humbly laying them before God as a plea: "I, who thus cleave to Thy ways, call upon Thee. and my prayer is that of faith, which is sure of answer." But that confidence does not make petition superfluous, but rather encourages it. The assurance that "Thou wilt answer" is the reason for the prayer, "Incline Thine ear." Naturally at such a moment the name of God springs to the psalmist’s lips, but significantly it is not the name found in the other two parts of the psalm. There He is invoked as "Jehovah," here as "God." The variation is not merely rhetorical, but the name which connotes power is appropriate in a prayer for deliverance from peril so extreme. "Magnify [or make wonderful] Thy lovingkindnesses" is a petition containing at once a glimpse of the psalmist’s danger, for escape from which nothing short of a wonder of power will avail, and an appeal to God’s delight in magnifying His name by the display of His mercy. The prayer sounds arrogant, as if the petitioner thought himself important enough to have miracles wrought for him; but it is really most humble, for the very wonder of the lovingkindness besought is that it should be exercised for such a one. God wins honour by saving a poor man who cries to Him; and it is with deep insight into the heart of God that this man presents himself as offering an occasion, in which God must delight, to flash the glory of His loving power before dull eyes. The petitions grow in boldness as they go on, and culminate in two which occur in similar contiguity in the great Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32:1-52 : "Keep me as the pupil of Thy eye." What closeness of union with God that lovely figure implies, and what sedulous guardianship it implores! "In the shadow of Thy wings hide me." What tenderness of fostering protection that ascribes to God, and what warmth and security it asks for man! The combination and order of these two petitions may teach us that, if we are to be "kept," we must be hidden; that if these frail lives of ours are to be dear to God as the apple of His eye, they must be passed nestling close by His side. Deep, secret communion with Him is the condition of His protection of us, as another psalm, using the same image, has it: "He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty."

The aspects of the Divine character, which the psalmist employs to move God’s heart and to encourage his own, are contained first in the name "God," and next in the reference to His habitual dealings with trusting souls, in Psalm 17:7. From of old it has been His way to be the Saviour of such as take refuge in Him from their enemies, and His right hand has shielded them. That past is a prophecy which the psalmist grasps in faith. He has in view instances enough to warrant an induction absolutely certain. He knows the law of the Divine dealings, and is sure that anything may happen rather than that it shall fail. Was he wrong in thus characterising God? Much in his experience and in ours looks as if he were; but they who most truly understand what help or salvation truly is will most joyously dwell in the sunny clearness of this confidence, which will not be clouded for them, though their own and others’ trust is not answered by what sense calls deliverance.

The eye which steadily looks on God can look calmly at dangers. It is with no failure of faith that the poet’s thoughts turn to his enemies. Fears that have become prayers are already more than half conquered. The psalmist would move God to help, not himself to despair, by recounting his perils. The enemy "spoil" him or lay him waste, the word used for the ravages of invaders. They are "enemies in soul"-i.e., deadly-or perhaps "against [my] soul" or life. They are pitiless and proud, closing their hearts, which prosperity has made "fat" or arrogant, against the entrance of compassion, and indulging in gasconading boasts of their own power and contemptuous, scoffs at his weakness. They ring him round, watching his steps. The text has a sudden change here from singular to plural, and back again to singular, reading "our steps," and "They have compassed me, " which the Hebrew margin alters to "us." The wavering between the singular and plural is accounted for by the upholders of the Davidic authorship by a reference to him and his followers, and by the advocates of the theory that the speaker is the personified Israel by supposing that the mask falls for a moment, and the "me," which always means "us," gives place to the collective. Psalm 17:11 b is ambiguous in consequence of the absence of an object to the second verb. To "set the eyes" is to watch fixedly and eagerly; and the purpose of the gaze is in the next clause stated by an infinitive with a preposition, not by a participle, as in the A.V. The verb is sometimes transitive and sometimes intransitive, but the former is the better meaning here, and the omitted object is most naturally "us" or "me." The sense, then, will be that the enemies eagerly watch for an opportunity to cast down the psalmist, so as to lay him low on the earth. The intransitive meaning "to bow down" is taken by some commentators. If that is adopted (as it is by Hupfeld and others), the reference is to "our steps" in the previous clause, and the sense of the whole is that eager eyes watch for these "bowing to the ground," that is stumbling. But such a rendering is harsh, since steps are always on the ground. Baethgen ("Handcommentar"), on the strength of Numbers 21:22, the only place where the verb occurs with the same preposition as here, and which he takes as meaning "to turn aside to field or vineyard-i.e., to plunder them"-would translate. "They direct their eves to burst into the land," and supposes the reference to be to some impending invasion. A similar variation in number to that in Psalm 17:11 occurs in Psalm 17:12, where the enemies are concentrated into one. The allusion is supposed to be to some one conspicuous leader-e.g., Saul-but probably the change is merely an illustration of the carelessness as to such grammatical accuracy characteristic of emotional Hebrew poetry. The familiar metaphor of the lurking lion may have been led up to in the poet’s imagination by the preceding picture of the steadfast gaze of the enemy, like the glare of the green eyeballs flashing from the covert of a jungle.

The third part (Psalm 17:13-15) renews the cry for deliverance, and unites the points of view of the preceding parts in inverted order, describing first the enemies and then the psalmist, but with these significant differences, the fruits of his communion with God, that now the former are painted, not in their fierceness, but in their transitory, attachments and low delights, and that the latter does not bemoan his own helplessness nor build on his own integrity, but feeds his soul on his confidence of the vision of God and the satisfaction which it will bring. The smoke clouds that rolled in the former parts have caught fire and one clear shoot of flame aspires heavenward. He who makes his needs known to God gains for immediate answer "the peace of God which passeth understanding," and can wait God’s time for the rest. The crouching lion is still ready to spring; but the psalmist hides himself behind God, whom he asks to face the brute and make him grovel at his feet "Make him bow down," the same word used for a lion couchant in Genesis 49:9 and Numbers 24:9. The rendering of Psalm 17:13 b, "the wicked, who is Thy sword," introduces an irrelevant thought; and it is better to regard the sword as God’s weapon that slays the crouching wild beast. The excessive length of Psalm 17:14 and the entirely pleonastic "from men (by) Thy hand, O Lord," suggest textual corruption. The thought runs more smoothly, though not altogether clearly, if these words are omitted. There remains a penetrating characterisation of the enemy in the sensuous limitations and mistaken aims of his godless being, which may be satiated with low delights, but never satisfied, and has to leave them all at last. He is no longer dreaded, but pitied. His prayer has cleared the psalmist’s eyes and lifted him high enough to see his foes as they are. They are "men of the world," belonging, by the set of their lives, to a transitory order of things - an anticipation of New Testament language about "the children of this world." "Their portion is in [this] life," while the psalmist’s is God. {Psalm 16:5} They have chosen to have their good things in their lifetime. Hopes, desires, aims, tastes, are all confined within the narrow bounds of time and sense, than which there can be no greater folly. Such limitation will often seem to succeed, for low aims are easily reached; and God sometimes lets men have their fill of the goods at which their perverted choice clutches. But even so the choice is madness and misery, for the man, gorged with worldly good, has yet to leave it, however unwilling to loosen his hold. He cannot use his goods; and it is no comfort to him, sent away naked into darkness of death, that his descendants revel in what was his.

How different the contrasted conditions of the hunted psalmist and his enemies look when the light of such thoughts streams on them! The helpless victim towers above his persecutors, for his desires go up to Him who abides and saturates with His blessed fulness the heart that aspires to Him. Terrors vanish; foes are forgotten; every other wish is swallowed up in one, which is a confidence as well as a desire. The psalmist neither grudges, nor is perplexed by, the prosperity of the wicked. The mysteries of men’s earthly lot puzzle those who stand at a lower elevation; but they do not disturb the soul on these supreme heights of mystic devotion, where God is seen to be the only good, and the hungry heart is filled with Him.

Assuredly the psalmist’s closing expectation embodies the one contrast worth notice: that between the present gross and partial satisfactions of sense-bound lives and the calm, permanent, full delights of communion with God. But does he limit his hopes to such "hours of high communion with the living God" as may be ours, even while the foe rings us round and earth holds us down? Possibly so, but it is difficult to find a worthy meaning for "when I awake" unless it be from the sleep of death. Possibly, too, the allusion to the men of the world as "leaving their substance" makes the reference to a future beatific vision more likely. Death is to them the stripping off of their chosen portion; it is to him whose portion is God the fuller possession of all that he loves and desires. Cheyne ("Orig. of Psalt.," p. 407) regards the awaking as that from the sleep of the intermediate state by "the passing of the soul into a resurrection body." He is led to the recognition of the doctrine of the resurrection here by his theory of the late date of the psalm and the influence of Zoroastrianism on it. But it is not necessary to suppose an allusion to the resurrection. Rather the psalmist’s confidence is the offspring of his profound consciousness of present communion, and we see here the very process by which a devout man, in the absence of a clear revelation of the future, reached up to a conclusion to which he was led by his experience of the inmost reality of friendship with God. The impotence of death on the relation of the devout soul to God is a postulate of faith, whether formulated as an article of faith or not. Probably the psalmist had no clear conception of a future life; but certainly he had a distinct assurance of it, because he felt that the very "sweetness" of present fellowship with God "yielded proof that it was born for immortality."

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