From Learning to Love the Psalms
Psalm 3 bears a title indicating the author and the historical situation that inspired the psalm: “A psalm of David. When he fled from Absalom his son.” Although the psalm comes from the pen of the king and representative of Israel and relates to events of his life, the tone of the psalm is deeply personal. It expresses perfectly the prevailing theme of this book: real distress linked to deep confidence in God.
The poetic center of the psalm is verse 5: “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.” Here David confesses his confidence in the Lord even while he is asleep – a time of great potential weakness and danger. David may be thinking of how he had received a warning from the faithful Hushai: “Do not stay tonight at the fords of the wilderness; but by all means pass over, lest the king and all the people who are with him be swallowed up,” (2 Samuel 17:16). David heeded the warning and fled across the Jordan to safety, escaping the plotting of Absalom, (v. 22). The Lord had sustained him through the words of Hushai so that his bed did not become his deathbed.
David’s confidence is in the great God of Israel who does not sleep but watches over and provides blessings for his people even when they sleep. David knows God’s promises: “He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep,” (Psalm 121:3-4) and, “It is vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep,” (Psalm 127:2). God is ceaselessly vigilant for his own.
The theme of sleep connects some of the psalms of book One with one another. Psalm 4:8 picks up the central verse of Psalm 3, declaring, “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” In a different way, sleep is also an image in a prayer of Psalm 13:3: “Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.” Sleep that is like a foretaste of death can only be safe and blessed where the Lord ensures safety.
Psalm 3 begins and ends with prayer. The beginning is a prayer in which David prays about his personal trouble, while the ending is a prayer for blessing on all the people. The life of the king is inseparable from the well-being of the people.
The opening prayer calls the attention of the Lord to David’s many enemies and his great danger. David is not hesitant to open his heart to the Lord even though he knows that the God of Israel knows all things. The personal relationship of God and the believer is not to be short-circuited by a misuse of the doctrine of God’s omniscience. He wants us to speak of the concerns of our hearts even though he already knows them. He is our Father, who cares for us and wants to hear from us.
The number and malice of the enemies dominate the first two verses of the psalm. David recounts the proud boast of all these enemies: “There is no salvation for him in God,” (v. 2). Here, the psalm echoes the sentiments of rebellion against God and his king in Psalm 2:3: “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their bonds from us.” Repeatedly in the Psalter, the enemies of God assume that God does not know, does not care, or will not act to relieve the suffering of his beloved ones. But faith knows that they are wrong.
Perhaps David remembered particularly the cursing he received from Shimei as he fled from Absalom. Shimei cursed, “Get out, get out, you man of blood, you worthless man! The Lord has avenged on you all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose place you have reigned, and the Lord has given the kingdom into the hand of your son Absalom. See, your evil is on you, for you are a man of blood,” (2 Samuel 16:7-8). David did not allow Shimei to be punished for his act, but responded, “It may be that the Lord will look on the wrong done to me, and that the Lord will repay me with good for his curing today,” (v. 12). In Psalm 3, David is even more confident of the Lord’s care in his need. He knows God will deliver him from his enemies.
Verses 3–6 express David’s certainty and faith in the face of danger. God is a shield of protection and the one who lifts up those who are bowed down. He gives glory to his own (cf. Psalm 8:5). He is the one who hears the cry of the afflicted and answers from his throne. The Lord is the one who so supports and refreshes his own that even in the face of thousands of enemies, David does not fear. David uses the same Hebrew word in verse 5 – “the Lord sustained me” – to describe God’s support that he uses in Psalm 37:23-24, where it is translated “uphold”: “The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the Lord upholds his hand.” God sustains his own.
The concluding verses are primarily a prayer for God to arise both to destroy the enemy and to bless the people. Far from accepting the claim of Shimei that God will fail to deliver his own, David prays in confidence for deliverance (v. 7) and then confesses clearly, “Salvation belongs to the Lord,” (v. 8).
David was not only a poet, he was also a prophet. As we have seen in the introduction, this psalm, like all the psalms, is not just a poem for David or even for Israel. It is ultimately fulfilled in Christ. Christ is the true King, and we can reread this psalm as words on the lips of Jesus. Christ, like David, had great enemies of his rule. Indeed, the whole world opposed him. His covenant people rejected him, declaring, “We have no kind but Caesar,” (John 19:15). The Romans, representing the whole Gentile world, condemned and crucified him. They mocked his royal claim: “And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’” (Matthew 27:28-29). His enemies also mocked him, saying that God would not deliver him: “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel: let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God,’” (Matthew 27:42-43). Just as Absalom turned against David, so the world, which the Christ had made, turned against Jesus.
Jesus as King and man of prayer turned in his distress to his Father. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence,” (Hebrews 5:7). He never faltered in his confidence that his Father would deliver him even from the grave. “Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore,” (Psalm 16:9-11; cf. Acts 2:31, 13:35). Jesus knew that after his suffering would come his glory.
This psalm is not just for David and Christ, however. It is for all who are in Christ. He is our King and the great King over all the Earth. He is today, “King of kings, and Lord of lords,” and “the ruler of kings on Earth,” (Revelation 1:5, 19:16). We should pray as our King prayed. As he expressed his distress, so we may express ours. As he was confident of deliverance, so must we be.
At this point, we should raise a concern often voiced about the Christian use of the Psalms. Should we rejoice, declaring with verse 7, “For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked”? Such a desire for punishment is called an imprecation. Can Christians pray the imprecations of the psalms, since we are called in the New Testament to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, and to pray for those who despitefully use us?
We must remember that the imprecations of the Psalter are not prayers that we selfishly direct against our personal enemies but are the prayers of Christ and the church against the intransigent and unrepentant enemies of God. We should certainly pray first for their conversions. But for those who refuse to submit to God, judgment is surely coming. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord,” (Romans 12:19). Notice in this context that Paul admonishes Christians not to repay evil with evil, but this admonition is itself an imprecation. Quoting Proverbs 25:21-22a, Paul writes, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head,” (Romans 12:20). We should also remember that the great prayer of the church, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20), is in effect an imprecation. His coming will bring judgment on his enemies.
The word of judgment against the wicked in the Psalter is often severe: “You have rebuked the nations; you have made the wicked perish; you have blotted out their name forever and ever,” (Psalm 9:5). But in the Old Testament as well as the New, the call to repentance goes out to all the wicked. That call may not be explicit in every psalm, but it is implicit in all of them. We can hear it explicitly, for example, in Psalm 9:10: “You, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.” God is the deliverer of all who call to him in faith. Throughout the psalms, we will see that we should pray for the conversion of the wicked. But the unrepentant will face judgment.
Further, Christians must remember that behind every Earthly enemy of Christ stands the spiritual powers of wickedness. Satan and his demons seek to undo us (Ephesians 6:12). Against such foes, no imprecation can be too severe.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What makes this psalm deeply personal for David, the author? What examples within this psalm point to David’s confidence in God? How is the fulfillment of Christ as the true King and man of prayer portrayed?
- Why is the theme of sleep significant in Psalm 3? How does David express certainty and faith in the face of danger?
- What concerns, if any, are there about Christians’ use of the psalms? Should we emulate such prayers of imprecations and judgment against the wicked of our own day? Why or why not?