Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

Psalm 17

EXEGESIS:

INTRODUCTION:

In this prayer, David proclaims his righteousness (v. 1), and claims that Yahweh has tried him and found no guilt (v. 3).

We don’t know if David wrote this psalm before or after his dalliance with Uriah’s wife and his murder of that loyal soldier (2 Samuel 11).  If afterwards, David is leaning hard on Yahweh’s forgiveness––is assuming that forgiven sins are permanently eradicated.  That is the heart of the Christian Gospel, so we have to agree.

The lectionary reading omits verses 8-14––an unfortunate omission, because those verses are at the heart of this psalm.  David intended his claim of righteousness to be a foundation for his main point––a prayer that Yahweh would protect him from his enemies, whom he describes as powerful and devious.

David then takes it one more step.  He prays, “Deliver my soul from the wicked by your sword” (v. 13b).  That plea for vengeance is probably the reason the people who developed the lectionary omitted verse 8-14.

From our vantage point, we understand that a prayer for vengeance violates Jesus’ admonition to “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5-44-45).

However, I am uneasy with omitting scriptures with which we feel uncomfortable.  Those scriptures have something to teach us.  In this instance, David’s prayer reminds us of thoughts of vengeance that most of us have felt.

If I were preaching a sermon on this psalm, I would include the omitted verses, and talk about the anger that stimulates thoughts of vengeance––and the new and better way that Jesus shows us.

Psalm 17 has much in common with Psalm 16.  The differences are twofold:

  • In Psalm 17, David’s pleas are much more urgent than in Psalm 16.
  • In Psalm 17, it is quite possible that David introduces the idea of resurrection in verse 15.

SUPERSCRIPTION:

A Prayer by David.

In many psalms with superscriptions that claim Davidic authorship, there are reasons to question that.  See the commentary on Psalm 15 for a more complete explanation.

However, the commentaries seem to agree that Psalm 17 is a Davidic psalm.

PSALM 17:1-5.  HEAR MY RIGHTEOUS PLEA

1 Hear, Yahweh, my righteous plea;
Give ear to my prayer, that doesn’t go out of deceitful lips.

2 Let my sentence come forth from your presence.
Let your eyes look on equity.

3 You have proved my heart.
You have visited me in the night.
You have tried me, and found nothing. I have resolved that my mouth shall not disobey.

4 As for the works of men, by the word of your lips,
I have kept myself from the ways of the violent.

5 My steps have held fast to your paths.
My feet have not slipped.

“Hear, Yahweh, my righteous plea; (Heb. sedeq)
Give ear to my prayer, that doesn’t go out of deceitful lips” (v. 1).  The word sedeq has to do with meeting high ethical standards.  In Israel, that would have meant adherence to Torah law. David’s plea assumes his righteousness as reason for Yahweh to listen to his plea.

David reinforces his plea by claiming that his prayer to Yahweh passes lips that are not deceitful.  This could be a claim that he is not intending to deceive Yahweh, which would be the ultimate in futility.  But he might be claiming that he is generally honest in the words that he speaks.

“Let my sentence (Heb. mispat) come forth from your presence” (v. 2a).  Sentence (mispat) is a legal word that speaks of judgment or legal decisions.  In this instance, the psalmist is asking that Yahweh be the one to evaluate his plea and pronounce his judgment.

“Let your eyes look on equity” (Heb. mesar) (v. 2b).  The word mesar means rightness or equity.  David seems to be asking Yahweh to look at David and see that his life manifest rightness.
“You have proved (Heb. bahan) my heart.
You have visited
(Heb. paqad) me in the night.
You have tried
(Heb. sarap) me, and found nothing” (v. 3abc).  The word bahan (proved) means to examine, prove, or test.  All three definitions are appropriate to this verse.  Testing in the Hebrew scriptures means checking to determine the character of the person being tested.  While the testing might result in a person being condemned, God’s purpose in testing is not to destroy but to redeem.

The verb paqad (visited) means to pay attention or visit or search out.  David is saying that Yahweh has taken time to visit him––to get acquainted––to assess David’s character.  Yahweh will not be making his judgment remotely.

What is the significance of “at night”?  Perhaps David is talking about sleepless nights when worry caused him to seek Yahweh’s help.

The word sarap (tried) means to refine, test, or purify.  It is most often used in connection with the process of refining metals, which involves melting the metal and separating the desired metal from the dross.

When David says that Yahweh has tried (sarap) him, the image is of Yahweh putting David through an extreme test––perhaps a fiery trial––to test David’s character and faith.  David claims to have survived the trial with reputation intact.

“I have resolved that my mouth shall not disobey” (Heb. ‘abar) (v. 3d).  The word ‘abar has many meanings having to do with passing or crossing.  The meaning in this verse is similar to that in Numbers 14:41, where Moses asks the people why they continue to go against or transgress (‘abar) Yahweh’s command.

David says that he has resolved not to allow his mouth to pass over into forbidden speech.

“As for the works of men, by the word of your lips,
I have kept myself from the ways of the violent”
(v. 4).  David has observed the works of men––how they have behaved––what they have accomplished.  Trying to follow Yahweh’s word (which equates to Yahweh’s will), David has kept himself from the ways of the violent.

That seems like a remarkable claim, given David’s posture as a warrior.  Presumably, he considers battles against Israel’s enemies as God’s will rather than violence.  Most likely, when he says “the ways of the violent,” he is talking about people who willfully engage in destructive behavior.

“My steps have held fast to your paths.
My feet have not slipped”
(v. 5). In the psalms, the word path means, not a dusty road, but the direction of a person’s life.  In this verse, the psalmist claims to have held fast to Yahweh’s path, by which he means that he has walked in the direction that Yahweh would have him to go––has lived in accord with Yahweh’s will.

He claims that his feet have not slipped.  Given what we know about human nature, we have to consider that to be an optimistic appraisal.  See the comments about Uriah in the Introduction above.

PSALM 17:6-9.  TURN YOUR EAR TO ME

6 I have called on you, for you will answer me, God.
Turn your ear to me.
Hear my speech.

7 Show your marvelous loving kindness,
you who save those who take refuge by your right hand from their enemies.

8 Keep me as the apple of your eye.
Hide me under the shadow of your wings,

9 from the wicked who oppress me,
my deadly enemies, who surround me.

“I have called on you, for you will answer me, God.
Turn your ear to me.
Hear my speech”
(v. 6).  Now that David has stated his innocence and his loyalty to Yahweh, he asks Yahweh to hear him––but uses the word ‘el (a generic word for any god) instead of YHWH (Yahweh)––the proper name of Israel’s God.  He pleads that Yahweh will hear him.

So we are getting to David’s primary concern in this psalm––that Yahweh will protect him from his enemies.  He want Yahweh to listen to him, but he wants even more.  He wants Yahweh to act in his behalf.

“Show your marvelous (Heb. pala’) loving kindness” (Heb. hesed) (v. 7a).  The word pala’ means to do something wonderful––majestic.  David is asking Yahweh to demonstrate his hesed (loving kindness).

The word hesed means loving, kind, and merciful.  One of the chief characteristics of God is that his love is enduring.  He established a covenant with Abram and Abram’s descendants, and remained Israel’s covenant God through thick and thin.  When they sinned he punished them, but not to destroy them but to redeem them.  His love never faltered.

“you who save those who take refuge by your right hand from their enemies” (v. 7b).  A better translation might be, “Savior of all who seek refuge from those who rebel against your right hand.”

For most people, the right hand is the dominant hand––the strong hand––the hand that wields a sword.  Therefore the right hand is a symbol of power and authority (Exodus 15:6, 12; Nehemiah 4:23; Psalm 18:35; 20:6; 21:8; etc.).  Yahweh’s right hand, therefore, represents Yahweh’s authority.

David is asking that Yahweh would save those who rebel against Yahweh’s right hand (his authority).

“Keep me as the apple of your eye” (Heb. ‘ison) (v. 8a).  The word ‘ison means the pupil of the eye or the apple of the eye.

We talk about the eyes being windows into the soul, because they give us insight into the deeper reaches of the person.  The Israelites prized the pupil of the eye as something to be closely guarded.  The Israelites used “the apple of (your) eye” to speak of something especially precious (Deut. 32:10; Proverbs 7:2; Zechariah 2:8).  So in this verse, David is asking Yahweh to protect him, even as Yahweh would protect his own eye.

“Hide me under the shadow of your wings” (v. 8b).  The image is of a mother hen sheltering her chicks under her wings (see also Psalm 36:7; 57:1; 63:7).  David is asking for that kind of protection––that kind of safe haven.

“from the wicked who oppress (sadad) me,
my deadly enemies, who surround me”
(v. 9).  David specifies those from whom he needs protection.

  • Those who sadad (oppress) him. The word sadad means to devastate, destroy, or oppress. David clearly feels the threat of his enemies.
  • The deadly enemies who surround him.

PSALM 17:10-14.  NOT IN THE LECTIONARY READING

10 They close up their callous hearts.
With their mouth they speak proudly.

11 They have now surrounded us in our steps.
They set their eyes to cast us down to the earth.

12 He is like a lion that is greedy of his prey,
as it were a young lion lurking in secret places.

13 Arise, Yahweh, confront him.
Cast him down.
Deliver my soul from the wicked by your sword;

14 from men by your hand, Yahweh,
from men of the world, whose portion is in this life.
You fill the belly of your cherished ones.
Your sons have plenty,
and they store up wealth for their children.

See the Introduction above for a brief treatment of these verses.

PSALM 17:15.  I WILL BE SATISFIED WITH SEEING YOU

15 As for me, I shall see your face in righteousness.
I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with seeing your form.

“As for me, I shall see your face in righteousness” (Heb. sedeq) (v. 15a).  Earlier, when Moses asked to see Yahweh’s face, Yahweh said:  “You cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live.” (Exodus 33:20).  However Yahweh also gave a blessing to Moses for the people of Israel that included these words:  “Yahweh make his face to shine on you, and be gracious to you” (Numbers 6:25).

For sedeq (righteousness), see the comments on verse 1 above.

Does this comment suggest a belief in life after death?  Very possibly.

“I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with seeing your form” (v. 15b).  This line seems to confirm that the psalmist does indeed anticipate his resurrection.  The key word here is “awake.”  While that word can mean simply arousing from sleep, it can also point to a belief in resurrection (see Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2).

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.  The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament.  The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.  We are using the WEB because we believe it to be the best public domain version of the Bible available.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

COMMENTARIES:

Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 1-72 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)

Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999

Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)

Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)

Craigie, Peter C., Word Biblical Commentary, Psalms 1-50, Vol. 19 (Dallas: Word Books, 1983)

DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament:  The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)

Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)

Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1-72, Vol. 14a (Downers Grove, Illinois:  Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)

Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000

Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)

McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)

Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 1-41, Vol. 1  (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2012)

Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)

DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:

Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)

Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)

Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)

Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)

Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)

Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)

Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)

Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)

Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2006)

Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)

Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol.  (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)

VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)

Copyright 2019 Richard Niell Donovan