Morning Pages: Psalm 17
Studying psalms of lament has been a rich and helpful practice in my faith. And yet, writing about them sometimes feels a bit repetitive. Maybe reading reflections about them can feel that way too?
I've learned, though, that when biblical authors repeat themselves, they are teaching us something, and it is essential we pay attention. But attention—the kind that lingers with something long enough for it to take root and produce something fruitful—is a resource that is on the verge of distinction these days.
The endless scrolling of social media, news headlines, and even shopping websites gives me quick hits of dopamine for every new piece of visual input. The result of that over a long period is that I have difficulty reading and engaging longer-form writing. And that is so detrimental to my time in the Scriptures. I end up scrolling verses like social media, seeing but never perceiving, reading but never understanding. And then I close the book, check it off my spiritual to-do list, and walk away, not even remembering what I read.
So as we head into another psalm of lament, I am praying for God not to allow us to grow bored with his word and to give it our full attention.
From that intro, you might have guessed that Psalm 17 is another psalm of lament. And you would be right! In this psalm, David is (once again) surrounded by those who wish to harm him. They are like lions with their prey—laying in wait and bent on bringing him down. And, as David does, he brings his problems to the Lord.
Vs. 1 "Hear a just cause, O LORD; attend to my cry! Give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit!"
Three times in this verse, David pleads with Yahweh to hear his petition (hear, attend, give ear). This repetition is the echo of his anguished soul. He is desperate for the Lord to take note of his need. But he doesn't just want the Lord to listen to him; he wants Yahweh to be stirred to action in response to his suffering and on behalf of his just cause.
Vs. 2-5 "From your presence let my vindication come! Let your eyes behold the right. You have tried my heart; you have visited me by night, you have tested me, and you will find nothing. I have purposed that my mouth will not transgress. With regard to the works of man, by the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent. My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped."
David prays that the Lord will look upon what is righteous in his circumstance (which David seems to imply is him) and for his vindication (justice) to proceed from the Lord, not anyone or anything else. In whatever situation David is facing, his conscience is clear. He knows the Lord has
—Tried his heart (examined him in all the dark corners and crevices of his heart)
—Visited him in the night (searched him)
—Tested him (as through the refiner's fire, identifying any impurities within him)
And David says the Lord will find nothing. In fact, David states his innocence three times with powerful and clear language,
—Vs. 1 His “lips are free from deceit.”
—Vs. 3 “You will find nothing in me.”
—Vs. 4,5 “I have avoided the ways of the violent. My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped.”
The word slipped here is very interesting. He hasn’t even stumbled or tottered. He’s held firmly to God’s decrees. There are very few situations in my life where my conscience has been this clear of any wrongdoing. But David is utterly confident that he is innocent and that the Lord can confirm it. And from this confident posture, David appeals to God's sense of justice and righteousness to move on his behalf.
Vs. 6 “I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me; hear my words.”
Again, David appeals for the Lord to hear him—to incline his ear to David’s appeals. I love the word incline here…he’s asking to Lord to bend or extend his ear toward David, not just to hear but to listen on David’s behalf purposefully. And because David has seen the Lord's faithfulness to him over time, he is confident that the Lord will hear him and respond.
It's easy to think our conversation with God is one way—we talk he listens. But the Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation, prove that God wants to (and does) commune with his people. However, the noise and busyness of our lives crowd out any room for us to hear his voice—whether he is speaking to us through his word, a friend, his Spirit, a song, a pastor, a counselor, or any other means. It's hard to fight for silence and margin in this world, but that is often where we are most attuned to the voice of the Lord. And here, David reminds us to pray to be heard and wait expectantly for the Lord's response.
Vs. 7 “Wondrously show your steadfast love, O Savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at your right hand.”
This verse is so beautiful. David appeals to the Lord's steadfast faithfulness and loving-kindness (his hesed), and he acknowledges that Yahweh saves those who seek refuge from “at his right hand.” The imagery of God's right hand is present throughout Scripture. Scripture often uses pictures and imagery to communicate truths; here, his right hand is symbolic of his power. This verse not only illustrates his instrument of deliverance but also reminds Israel of God's past deliverance, as we see something similar in the book of Isaiah:
“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)
But this is symbolic of Jesus, who sat down at the right hand of God after completing his work on our behalf—once and for all delivering us from the bondage of sin.
“When Christ has offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” (Hebrews 10:12)
We have a God who is strong to save. He is a mighty deliverer. His ear is not too dull to hear, nor his arm too weak to save (Isaiah 59:1).
Vs. 8-9 “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings, from the wicked who do me violence, my deadly enemies who surround me.”
David is surrounded. The enemy is closed in on him and doing him great harm, so he asks the Lord to bring him in close. Very close. Quite literally, the apple of your eye means pupil. So he prays to be ever near, ever in Yahweh's sight and hidden in the shadow of his wings—where God's arms are outstretched, protecting and concealing David from those who would do him harm.
As we've seen in many of David's previous psalms, David entirely depends on the Lord to move on his behalf. Yahweh is his only good and only defense, which fuels David’s perseverance in prevailing upon the Lord for help.
Having addressed the Lord, he now turns to the problem of his enemies.
Vs. 10-12 "They close their hearts to pity; with their mouths they speak arrogantly. They have now surrounded our steps; they set their eyes to cast us to the ground. He is like a lion eager to tear, as a young lion lurking in ambush."
David describes his enemy's pursuit with strong language:
—they "close their hearts to pity" (they have closed, unreceptive hearts)
—they "speak arrogantly" (they are boastful and haughty and proud)
—they "set their eyes to cast us to the ground" like lions "eager to ambush and tear" their prey (they are bent on destruction)
The gravity of his situation launches David, yet again, to ask the Lord for deliverance:
Vs. 13-15 “Arise O LORD! Confront him, subdue him! Deliver my soul from the wicked by your sword, from men by your hand, O LORD, from men of the world whose portion is in this life. You fill their womb with treasure; they are satisfied with children, and they leave their abundance to their infants. As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.”
Arise. Confront. Subdue. Deliver. David uses strong language to rouse the Lord. He knows he is in a vulnerable situation. A lion stalking its prey is fearsome and mighty, but the Lord is more powerful still! So David pleads with the Lord to rescue him from sure defeat.
But the stark contrast of the last two verses is perhaps my favorite. Those who belong to this world—who reject Yahweh—receive their portion in this life. For them, this life is as good as it gets. But David and those who look to the Lord have something far beyond what this world can offer. They will behold God's face.
David sees his current problem in light of eternity. He knows his troubles are light and momentary. He understands that while his physical reality includes great suffering, there is a spiritual reality that transcends/supersedes his circumstances. And that almost produces a posture of pity toward his enemies. He knows that whatever gain they have from their wicked schemes will be relegated to this life only. It is fleeting and fragile. But what David has in Yahweh is eternal, substantive, and wholly satisfying.
This is a prayer God has answered in Christ. His righteous right hand has delivered us from the ultimate enemy of sin and death. And because we are hidden in Christ, whatever circumstances we face, we belong to Christ. That spiritual reality is more significant than anything we can meet here and now. We are drawn in close by, in, and through His Holy Spirit; his ears are inclined and attuned to our cries.
And because we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness, we can be sure that a day is coming when we will “behold his face” and be satisfied!
Until next week!
And here is a song on Psalm 17 by Poor Bishop Hooper!