PSALMS: Psalm 109 by W. Robert Godfrey

Psalm 109 by W. Robert Godfrey

From Learning to Love the Psalms

The praise of Book Five follows on the prayer for the deliverance of the exiled people near the end of Book Four: “Save us, O Lord our God, and gather us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise,” (Psalm 106:47).  Psalm 107 praises God for answering that prayer: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!  Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom he has redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south,” (vv. 1-3).  The psalm similarly ends with great confidence in the love of the Lord: “But he raises up the needy out of affliction and makes their families like flocks.  The upright see it and are glad, and all wickedness shuts its mouth.  Whoever is wise, let him attend to these things; let them consider the steadfast love of the Lord,” (vv. 41-43).

This praise of Psalm 107 not only teaches that God has gathered again his people but also implies the restoration of the temple and the kingship.  The praise of verse 1 of this psalm is the praise offered first by David when the ark came to Jerusalem, (1 Chronicles 16:8), and then by Israel under Solomon when the ark was brought to the temple at the time of the temple’s dedication, (2 Chronicles 5:13; 7:3).

After this opening psalm of the fifth book, there follow three psalms by David, implying a restoration of the kingship.  In Psalm 108, David is confident of triumph over his enemies: “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations.  For your steadfast love is great above the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.  Oh grant us help against the foe, for vain is the salvation of man!  With God we shall do valiantly; it is he who will tread down our foes,” (vv. 3-4, 12-13).  Still, the situation the king faced is not all peace and triumph.  Serious problems and questions remain: “Have you not rejected us, O God?  You do not go out, O God, with our armies.  Oh grant us help against the foe, for vain is the salvation of man!” (vv. 11-12)   But hope remains dominant: “With God we shall do valiantly; it is he who will tread down our foes,” (v. 13).

The character of this restored king is unfolded in Psalms 109-112.  In Psalm 109, we see the suffering of the king.  In Psalm 110, we see the triumph of the king.  Psalms 111 and 112 celebrate the Lord’s provision for his king.  Psalm 111 focuses on God and his provision: “He remembers his covenant forever.  He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the inheritance of the nations,” (vv. 5b-6).  Psalm 112 celebrates the blessedness of the righteous man, God’s king.  Psalm 112 praises the Lord for preserving this righteous man: “For the righteous will never be moved; he will be remembered forever.  His heart is steady; he will not be afraid, until he looks in triumph on his adversaries,” (vv. 6, 8).

Psalm 109 is an important reflection on the suffering of the king.  In the New Testament, this psalm is quoted several times as being fulfilled in Christ.  For example, Matthew 27:39 alludes to Psalm 109:25: “I am an object of scorn to my accuser; when they see me, they wag their heads.”  John 15:25 applies Psalm 109:3 to Jesus: “They encircle me with words of hate, and attack me without cause.”  Jesus is the suffering king presented in Psalm 109.

While the words of Psalm 109 apply in many ways to the entire passion of our Lord, they have a special application to his suffering in the garden of Gethsemane.  He might well have prayed this psalm as his prayer there.  In this prayer, we are able to see how the suffering of our Messiah-King was not a sign of failure but an essential part of his saving work.  In particular, this psalm makes clear that this suffering came to him from God: “Let them know that this is your hand; you, O Lord, have done it!” (v. 27)

In this psalm, we can see various aspects of the king’s suffering.  The first part is his agony, which he expresses in verses 1–5.  He prays for relief, especially for the false things said about him.  While he is a man of prayer, goodness, and love, he is accused by lying and hateful tongues of being evil.  These words of his enemies sting him, and he prays for God to speak words of comfort and help for him.  But God does not speak: “Be not silent, O God of my praise!” (v. 1).  God did speak to Jesus at his baptism and his transfiguration, but when he prayed in the garden and when he hung on the cross, God was silent.

The second part of the psalm, verses 6–19, presents an interesting question of interpretation.  Most commentators see these verses as further words of Jesus as he pronounces imprecations on his enemies.  While this interpretation is possible, there are features in the text that suggest another way of understanding these verses.  In the first part of Psalm 109, the speaker, the king, is singular, and he speaks about his enemies, who are referred to in the plural.  In this second part, the speakers are plural, and they talk about an enemy in the singular.  It seems likely that verses 6–19 really should be placed in quotation marks as the words that the king’s enemies are speaking about him.  As the king complained about their words, so now we hear those words.  We hear the words of the enemies spoken by the “wicked man,” “the accuser,” that is, Satan, (v. 6), spoken against the king.  In this interpretation, the psalmist is really arraigning the enemies of the king by citing their own words that they speak against the king.

(One argument against the interpretation that we are following here is that Acts 1:20 quotes Psalm 109:8 as prophesying the fall of Judas: “May another take his office!”  Doesn’t that mean that Psalm 109:8 is an imprecation spoken by the king against the wicked?  Not necessarily.  Verse 20, which returns to the words of the king, prays, “May this be the reward of my accusers from the Lord.”  In other words, in verse 20, the king prays that the evil plans that the wicked had plotted against him might instead fall on them.  This prayer reminds us of Psalm 7:15-16: “He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made.  His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends.”  The wicked, of whom Judas was one, had wanted to take to the office of Messiah from Jesus, but instead they lost their own office.)

The words spoken against Christ are absurd lies, both those told about him in his own day and ever since.  The words in the second part of Psalm 109 ask that he be legally condemned, (vv. 6-8), that he experience great personal calamity, (vv. 9-13), and that he be filled with corruption, (vv. 14–15).  He deserves such treatment because he had “clothed himself with cursing,” and, “did not remember to show kindness, but pursued the poor and needy and the brokenhearted, to put them to death,” (vv. 16-19).

Such words of accusation against Christ would be laughable if they were not so sad.  His person and work are deliberately misrepresented and smeared.  Throughout the Bible, words are treated as important and powerful.  They show the heart of the speaker and usually lead to action.  Those who spoke these lying words about Christ would put him to death.  He was condemned to the death of a vile criminal even though in reality he was the innocent, blessed, and holy One who in his whole life did only good to those in need.

The third part of the psalm, verses 20–31, returns to the words of the king.  He suffers in great weakness, (vv. 22-25), yet he is confident that the Lord will save him: “Help me, O Lord my God!  Save me according to your steadfast love!” (v. 26).  We hear of the resurrection to come: “For he stands at the right hand of the needy, to save him from those who condemn his soul to death,” (v. 31).  Here is the promise of resurrection for Jesus and for us.

Psalm 109 is a powerful psalm about the redemptive suffering of our Savior.  It helps us as much as any text in scripture to understand the pain he suffered in our place.  It should lead us to say with Isaiah, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,” (Isaiah 53:4).

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  • How does the character of the restored king unfold beginning in Psalm 109?  How is it an important reflection on the suffering of the king?  In what ways does Psalm 109 point to the Lord’s suffering in the garden of Gethsemane?
  • Other than as imprecations, how can verses 6–19 be interpreted?  Do you agree with one interpretation more than the other?  Why or why not?
  • What about Psalm 109 causes you to echo Isaiah 53:4: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”?

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