From Learning to Love the Psalms
Psalm 18 is a psalm of David, a song celebrating “the day when the Lord rescued him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.” This psalm, the longest of Book One, praises God for his deliverance. It is also recorded, with slight differences, in 2 Samuel 22. At the center of this psalm is a strong confession of faith: “With the merciful you show yourself merciful,” (v. 25).
This psalm begins (vv. 1-6) and ends (vv. 46-50) with praise offered to God. It is praise filled with love and thanksgiving for God’s protection from enemies and from death. The praise rejoices in the victories God has given his king and his people – victories displayed before the world.
The central section of the psalm (vv. 20-29) celebrates the faithfulness of David and of God. David served the Lord with integrity (we will look at the difficulties that seem to surround this kind of claim below). The Lord on his part had always been reliable and blessed his king.
On each side of this central meditation on faithfulness we have the record of God’s powerful help for David (vv. 7-19; 30-45). Each of these two sections has its own character. Verses 7–19 emphasize the work of God to save David. Verses 30–45 highlight David’s success as God worked through him.
In light of this overview of the psalm’s structure, we want to look more closely at several points. First, how can David claim to be blameless, (vv. 20-24)? The claim of blamelessness is a recurring theme in the psalms. It is stated with special force in Psalm 26: “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering. Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and my mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in your faithfulness. I do not sit with men of falsehood, nor do I consort with hypocrites,” (vv. 1-4). But David is a murderer and an adulterer, to name only some of his sins. How can he claim to be blameless?
We need to recognize that David was a devoted and persevering follower of the Lord even though he did fall into very serious sin. When Nathan confronted him with his sins, he repented and grieved deeply for them. He expressed his repentance in beautiful psalms of penitence such as Psalms 32 and 51. His life as a whole was characterized by his faithful keeping of God’s covenant in obedience and repentance.
What David pleads, then, is not absolute moral perfection. He recognized that by such a standard he would never stand: “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you,” (Psalm 143:2). Rather, he pleads his faithfulness in comparison to the wickedness of those who hate God and his king. He makes this comparison not to claim that he deserves or has earned God’s favor, but to show that God’s saving grace has really made him different from the wicked in the ways in which he thinks, believes, and lives. David loved the Lord and his law, so his sin is grievous to him and he willingly repents and seeks to lead a Godly life. In contrast, the wicked despise God and his holy law. They ignore God and seek in every way to harm their neighbor.
Again, David is not claiming that his perfect righteousness earns him God’s favor. Rather, he says God has brought him into his covenant and given him the integrity that he has. It is “God who equipped me with strength and made my way blameless,” (v. 32). He belongs to God and follows God and therefore knows that God will be kind to him. It is not the self-righteous whom the Lord saves, but the humble: “For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down,” (v. 27). All his strength comes from the Lord (v. 1) and the faith or trust of the psalmist always turns to the Lord for help (v. 2; cf. Psalm 26:1: “I have trusted in the Lord without wavering”). The foundation of God’s care for David is not David’s deserving, but the Lord’s election: “He rescued me, because he delighted in me,” (v. 19).
While David wrote this psalm and had every right to sing it in his faithfulness, once again we see the psalm drawing our minds beyond David to one greater and purer than David. This psalm belongs more to the Christ, who was fully blameless in every way, than to David. Paul demonstrates this in his use of this psalm in Romans 15:8–9. He writes: “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, ‘Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.’” In citing Psalm 18:49, Paul shows that it speaks of Jesus at least as much as it does of David. Indeed, even David can claim covenantal integrity only as he is in Christ.
Another feature of this psalm is the vivid picture of God’s coming to David’s rescue (vv. 7-15). David cried out for help (v. 6) and the Lord answered. “He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. He rode on a cherub and flew; he came swiftly on the wings of the wind,” (vv. 9-10). The fury of the Lord shook the Earth (vv. 7, 15) and thunder and lightning preceded him (vv. 12-14). Hot smoke poured forth from his nostrils and fire from his mouth (vv. 8, 15). Here is a marvelous picture of the power and determination of God to save. But when in David’s life did this happen? As we scan Old Testament history, we can find no such episode. Something like this happened when the Lord met with Israel at Mount Sinai, but nothing close to it happened in David’s experience.
The explanation is, of course, that David is speaking poetically here. He records not what he saw with his physical eyes, but what his eyes of faith saw happen. Although this awesome power of God usually remains hidden from view, it is absolutely real, and it is exercised for the well-being of his people. God is always working powerfully and passionately for his people even when we do not see it. David’s poetic imagery shows us more than eyes can see.
This truth is taught over and over again in the Bible. We need to have it taught repeatedly because we are so inclined to think that only the visible is real. Think of the experience of Elisha. He sat in Dothan apparently defenseless against the strength of the king of Aram. When his servant panicked, Elisha replied, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them,” (2 Kings 6:16). And then to comfort his servant further, Elisha prayed and God did an amazing thing. “Then Elisha prayed and said, ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha,” (v. 17). Elisha had never been in any danger, for the Lord was on his side.
We see something similar when the authorities came to arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus appeared weak and defenseless, Peter, in a panic, tried to protect him with a sword. “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?’” (Matthew 26:52-53) Jesus submitted to arrest not because he was helpless, but because he accepted the Father’s will for his death and our redemption.
This psalm reminds all of us that God is always at work for us and for our good. In the New Testament, the Apostle John makes the same point: “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world,” (1 John 4:4). We do not need to fear, for God will save us in his good time. We should praise God for his mercy and help as this psalm does.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- How does this psalm praise God for his deliverance? How does it emphasize both the work of God in saving David and also David’s success as God worked through him? Is there an example from your own life where God worked success through you?
- How can David claim to be blameless throughout this psalm? How does this psalm draw our minds to the One who is greater and purer?
- What poetic imagery in this psalm provides a vivid picture of God coming to David’s rescue? How is this truth taught over and over in the Bible? What is something for which you praise God that was accomplished through his mercy and help?