Friday, November 1, 2013

Psalm 18

Introduction (vv. 1–3). Neither 2Samuel 22 (David's Song of Thanksgiving), nor Psalm 18, with which it is virtually identical, are included in the RCL, but here we will lean on the psalm in keeping with our aim of a comprehensive and more inclusive reading, as well as the goal of giving representation to all the psalms. As stated elsewhere, this sprawling psalm—one of the longest in the Psalter—is a good example of one that may well require a local decision to narrow the selection to the most important verses.

The primary verse that is unique to the psalm—the verse that is most conspicuously absent from 2Samuel 22—is the first verse, one that is virtually unique in the broader canon as well, and thus strongly merits inclusion, not only for its singularity, but for its sweetness, for the simple, direct, devotional prayer to God: "I love you ..." (18:1).

After this earnest testimony of adoration, which reads more fully, "I love you, O God, my strength," the psalmist shifts into speaking of God in the third person to the reader, the auditor, or the worshipping assembly, in order to tell of the LORD's deed of strength on behalf of the psalmist: "The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold." Thus is the theme of the LORD's strength established, whom the psalmist invokes: "I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised" (18:3). But an important final phrase is attached to the introduction, one that should not be overlooked. It is a statement of purpose that we might be inclined to dismiss as self-serving or an ulterior motive, but it is neither of these things; on the contrary, when the psalmist (let us reserve the latitude of calling him David in keeping with the superscription) says he calls upon the praiseworthy LORD, "so I shall be saved from my enemies," he is evidently indicating something that has already verifiably occurred (see again the superscription) and that he takes as something of a spiritual law or a covenantal principle that describes his relationship with the LORD. The LORD is invested in David and in his worshiping people; the LORD's glory and praise, his honor and reputation is at stake when his servant is under threat. Therefore, when one directs one's pleas to him for help, when one worships him, one will surely find refuge and deliverance from one's enemies, who would not dare assail such a stronghold as the LORD.

Act I (vv. 4–19). The royal thanksgiving unfolds in three acts. Act I tells of David's plight, his plea to the LORD, and the LORD's deliverance of his favored one. Here the psalm is a first person narrative that speaks of the LORD in the third person, with but a single "upward" direct address to the LORD in the second person: "the foundations of the world were laid bare at your rebuke, O LORD" (v. 15). Otherwise, this act is a poetic narrative directed to the audience of this cosmic drama. David is near death, ensnared in its "cords" and "the torrents of perdition" (vv. 4–5); he cries to the LORD out of his distress and his cry "reached his ears" in his temple (v. 6). A certain distance is presumed, which adds to the dramatic urgency, especially when we think of the time it takes for sound to travel a great distance. Yet the LORD's response ripples and rumbles throughout the created order: earthquake and smoke convey his anger; wind and angels convey him; heaven itself is "bowed" or bent down before him; rain and clouds, darkness and thunder, hail and lightning attend him. At the voice of the Most High, the heavens resound in thunder, and lightning flashes forth like arrows (or arrows like lightning) and rout the psalmists' enemies. It is notable that v. 3 provides the antecedent to go with the definite articles "them" in v. 14. So insignificant and forgettable are they, that one must search forensically through a dozen verses to find the barest identifying trace of them!

After the brief direct address to God the royal audience (so as to remind us that the LORD is still within earshot and listening to this thanksgiving song), the rescue of the psalmist is described again, but with an even clearer sense of the verticality of God's divine intervention. "He reached down from on high, ... he drew me out of mighty waters" (v. 16). The psalmist now makes mention of his enemies in more detail who "confronted (him) in the day of (his) calamity." A "strong enemy" is mentioned in the singular, along with "those who hated me" (v. 17).

What happens to the psalmist's enemies is not mentioned here, apart from a previous reference to their being "routed" (v. 14). Whether they are simply frustrated or destroyed, we are not told. The focus is on what the LORD does for the psalmist. "But the LORD was my support" suggests the psalmist is not entirely passive (v. 18), though it is clear that the LORD conveys the psalmist to safety, "into a broad place," the breadth of which clearly contrasts with the confining, constraining grip of death from which he uttered his cry in the first place. Most notable at the conclusion of Act I is a causal phrase that serves as a transition to Act II. The reason for the LORD's deliverance of David, we are told, is "because he delighted in me" (v. 19). While the following section will elaborate on the favor in which the psalmist is held by God, here we may well ask the reason for this divine delight in the psalmist. The meritorious tones of Act II should not perhaps drown out all memory of the aforementioned torrents of perdition. Whence these torrents? Who is responsible for said perdition? We have little to go on. But we do have the evidence from elsewhere of the LORD's delight in wisdom, who "rejoices before him always" (Proverbs 8:30). Wisdom, with the royal Davidic (and other) psalms, will in time accrue and reveal their Christological associations. Here I would simply suggest that the introduction to this dramatic psalm may again be instructive: "I call upon the (praiseworthy) LORD, ... so I shall be saved" (v. 3). Praise of, and pleas to, this praiseworthy LORD (we have every reason to conclude) are heard by the LORD with favor and (now we may add) delight (v. 19).

Act II (vv. 20–30). The psalmist now sings of his righteousness and of the LORD's reward for the same; while this self-confidence is surprising, and even runs counter to the larger biblical presupposition of original sin, a presupposition often voiced in the psalms themselves: "there is no one who does good" (Psalm 14:1, 3; 53:1, 3; cf. Romans 3:10, 12), we should note the fact that the psalmist does not declare himself perfect. No, that is an adjective he reserves for God (v. 30). Rather, the psalmist's righteousness, the cleanness of his hands, his loyal adherence to the ways of the LORD, his blamelessness and innocence—these are attributes of the obedient, the one who is mindful of the covenant and who lives accordingly, the one whom the LORD will reward.

The psalmist follows this explanation of his own righteous relationship with the LORD by addressing the LORD directly, but now in more general terms that apply to anyone who would look to the LORD for such merciful and blessed favor. He lauds, in fourfold form, the like-for-like treatment that one may expect from the LORD:

"With the loyal (blameless, pure), you show your self loyal (blameless, pure)" (18:25–26a). The fourth line of this revealing stanza, however, is a major contribution to scriptural theodicy, a rare and singular light shining on and revealing much of the darkness encountered in the world: "and with the crooked you show yourself perverse" (v. 26b). The emphasis is clearly on God's goodness, with this single warning attached that just as clearly lays the responsibility for crooked perversion at the feet of those whose conduct is unrighteous and outside the bounds of what the LORD regards with grace and favor.

A fifth general attribute is mentioned, namely, the LORD's way of delivering humble people, and of lowering the proud countenance of those with "haughty eyes" (v. 27).

Thereafter, those doxological strains addressed to the LORD take on a personal focus once again, with each of two second person assertions matched by third person statements:
"It is you who light my lamp;
the LORD, my God, light up my darkness.
By you I can crush a troop,
and by my God I can leap over a wall" (vv. 28–29).
Finally, the perfection of God is declared, as is the certainty and truth of his promise, along with the protection he offers to those who seek refuge in him (v. 30). Such are the attributes of God: perfection, truth, and refuge, of which the reader and the assembly are assured.

The LORD is mentioned again in the third person, but the intermingling of doxological outbursts with public declarations ensures that the assembly is aware of the presence of the LORD, ever within earshot of all that is being said to and about him, even that which would account for the way in which his appearance seems perverse to the unrighteous.

Act III (vv. 31-45). The final act before the conclusion of this psalm testifies to the LORD's provisions for the psalmist, all of which are, in a sense, cited as evidence to support the psalmist's answer to the rhetorical question: Who is God except the LORD?" (v. 31) Clearly, the intended answer is "no one," for it is the LORD who has strengthened (v. 32), trained (v. 34), and guided the psalmist (vv. 32b-33). Such are the deeds recounted for the reader and the assembly.

But once again the psalmist turns to address the LORD directly: "You have given me the shield of your salvation" (v. 35). "You gave me a wide place for my steps under me" (v. 36); "you girded me with strength for the battle; you made my assailants sink under me" (v. 39). "You made my enemies turn their backs to me" (v. 40). "You delivered me from strife with the peoples; you made me head of the nations" (v. 43).

This crediting of the LORD—"your right hand has supported me; your help has made me great" (v. 35)—as the decisive, determining agent behind the psalmist's victory, vindication, and ascent to power is interrupted several times with descriptions of David's actions, but only once by a third person reference to the LORD. This reference may be the most difficult to reconcile, since here we are told that, under David's relentless onslaught, his enemies "cried for help, but there was no one to save them; they cried to the LORD, but he did not answer them" (v. 41).

This report is unsettling, for it deprives us of the ground on which we might be inclined to characterize the cry to the LORD as having automatic and universal power to save, regardless of the supplicant's spiritual disposition. Such a generalization, however, can find no support here, for such an interpretation attempts to sidestep any sense of covenantal favor, freedom, or election on the part of God, and indeed ignores altogether the passive, but real agency of God when we are told, "he did not answer them." What are we to gather from this bleak end to which the enemies come? Perhaps we can see a trace of grace in that, while their cries for help were unanswered, their final cry was at last, and at least, directed to the LORD. If their lives were lived in vain and entirely unrighteously, perhaps the final moment saw them properly oriented as they entered eternity. This may be fanciful and an overly rosy spin on the darkest note of this psalm, but we should not ignore even the slightest sign of hope, as long as we can see it in the text, and here, the sequence and the final direction of their cries as recounted by the psalmist should not be ignored any more than the outcome of the cry to the LORD should be thoughtlessly assumed to bear magical saving power to dispense happy outcomes to God's enemies on the near side of death. If and when such cries are answered with mercy, there is surely no other explanation that the sheer grace of God, but grace, by definition, is never something to be presumed.

Conclusion (vv. 46–50). David's concluding outburst reveals once again an alternating pattern of testimony and doxology. The simple statement: "The LORD lives!" testifies to the reality and responsiveness of the intervening God. And this God's interventions on behalf of David, the vengeance, the victory over, and the deliverance from, his enemies—these actions appear to be listed in reverse order of their occurrence—constitute the ground on which David blesses and exalts the LORD (v. 46) and (in direct address) resolves to "extol you among the nations and sing praises to your name" (v. 49).

Perhaps most interesting and instructive here is the turn to doxology, and the use of the term "exalted" to describe what the LORD has done for the psalmist (v. 48). Again we see the covenantal pattern of like-for-like. David cries, "exalted be the God of my salvation!" (v. 46), for "indeed, you exalted me above my adversaries" (v. 48).

A single summary verse addressed to the assembly testifies to the great victories and the steadfast love the LORD gives and shows to his king (v. 50). The ongoing verbal sense is surely deliberate, as is the enduring and eternal claim for the future, namely, that this like-for-like relationship is the way it shall be between the living, saving God and the anointed line of his worshipping people.

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