Psalm 3

Psalm 3:1-8, ASV translation, as prose:

A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.
YHWH, how are mine adversaries increased! Many are they that rise up against me.
Many there are that say of my soul, “There is no help for him in God.” Selah.
But thou, O YHWH, art a shield about me; my glory and the lifter up of my head. I cry unto YHWH with my voice, and he answereth me out of his holy hill. Selah.
I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for YHWH sustaineth me. I will not be afraid of ten thousands of the people that have set themselves against me round about. Arise, O YHWH; save me, O my God: for thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone; Thou hast broken the teeth of the wicked. Salvation belongeth unto YHWH: Thy blessing be upon thy people. Selah.

Psalm 3:1-8 ASV according to Hebrew parallelism (as marked in BHS):

A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.
YHWH, how are mine adversaries increased! / Many are they that rise up against me.
Many there are that say of my soul / “There is no help for him in God.” Selah.
But thou, O YHWH, art a shield about me / my glory and the lifter up of my head.
I cry unto YHWH with my voice / and he answereth me out of his holy hill. Selah.
I laid me down and slept / I awaked for YHWH sustaineth me.
I will not be afraid of ten thousands of the people / that have set themselves against me round about.
Arise, O YHWH / save me, O my God /
For thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone / Thou hast broken the teeth of the wicked.
Salvation belongeth unto YHWH / Thy blessing be upon thy people. Selah.
For the Chief Musician on stringed instruments.

Psalm 3 in the Scottish Metrical Psalter of 1650:

A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.

1 O Lord, how are my foes increased?
against me many rise.
2 Many say of my soul, For him
in God no succor lies.

3 Yet thou my shield and glory art,
th’ uplifter of mine head.
4 I cried, and, from his holy hill,
the Lord me answer made.

5 I laid me down and slept; I waked;
for God sustained me.
6 I will not fear though thousands ten
set round against me be.

7 Arise, O Lord; save me, my God;
for thou my foes hast stroke
All on the cheek-bone, and the teeth
of wicked men hast broke.

8 Salvation doth appertain
unto the Lord alone:
Thy blessing, Lord, for evermore
thy people is upon.

Psalm 3 as Poetry

Psalm 3 is fairly straightforward. Only the first set of versets features intensification; most versets in Psalm 3 simply denote progression. Psalm 3:1-6 prepare for the exhortative petition of Psalm 3:7, expressing the number of foes and the dire situation so as to justify the demand for action and deliverance; as is consistent with lament Psalm 3:8 concludes with affirmations of confidence and faith in YHWH. YHWH as shield in Psalm 3:4 is the only metaphor of note; the shield is the Hebrew magen, a small shield for light infantry to ward off attack (cf. Genesis 15:1, Deuteronomy 33:29, 2 Samuel 22:2-3). In context Psalm 3:4 “holy hill” is to be taken quite literally, since David is confident that YHWH maintains His presence on Zion in Jerusalem. “Save me” in Psalm 3:7 shares the same root as “no help” in Psalm 3:3 along with “salvation” in Psalm 3:8; David calls for YHWH to do the very thing his foes are convinced will not take place, and since we can read this Psalm and know that David’s rule continued, we know that YHWH has answered and vindicated him.

In Psalm 3:2, 4, 8 we are introduced to selah. We do not know the precise meaning of selah; the Septuagint renders it as diapsalma, an interlude of strings; Jerome in the Vulgate rendered it as “always”. Some wish to emend the term to a Hebrew word meaning “raising the voice to a higher pitch.” Of all the possible variants the Septuagintal understanding would make the most sense but we cannot know for certain.

Psalm 3 in Context and Canon

Psalm 3 is a psalm of lament.

Psalm 3 is the first Psalm with a superscription and also a context: David wrote Psalm 3 and did so when fleeing from his son Absalom (ca. 1000-970 BCE; 2 Samuel 15:1-16:23). As David learns of all of his former associates who have turned to Absalom he speaks of how his enemies have multiplied; they taunt him with confidence that God will do nothing for him (Psalm 3:1-2; “soul” should not be understood in new covenant terms but as the whole person). Meanwhile David believes YHWH is a shield around him; he has the confidence that if he asks, God will answer, and will do so from His dwelling place in Jerusalem even if it is now in physical possession of Absalom (Psalm 3:3-4). David maintains trust in YHWH: he went to bed and arose again since YHWH sustained him, and he does not fear even ten thousand people who arrayed themselves against him (Psalm 3:5-6). David implores YHWH to arise and save Him, for He will overcome David’s wicked foes [Psalm 3:7; the use of the perfective denotes confidence that it will be done and does not imply it has already been done (grammatically “precative perfective”); “break the teeth” involves “rendering harmless,” if not literal in its expected execution (Job 29:17, Psalm 58:6-7)]. David closes with a benediction of faith in YHWH, for salvation belongs to Him, and he asks for YHWH’s blessings on His people (Psalm 3:8). In context we must remember how physical and concrete the words and expectations remain: David is looking for political rescue, the defeat of Absalom and his forces, and restitution to his throne in Jerusalem.

Immediately after the confidence of the wisdom of trusting in YHWH and YHWH’s affirmation of the Davidic king in Jerusalem in Psalms 1 and 2 the Psalter continues with five psalms of lament, as if juxtaposing the great power and confidence one can have in YHWH with moments of trial, distress, and pleading for His salvation. YHWH has made promises yet sometimes in life they seem remote and distant; the Psalter already expresses the vagaries and difficulties of life as truly experienced in reality. In Psalm 2 YHWH installs the king on the throne; in Psalm 3 the son of the king dethrones the anointed father. In Psalm 2 the Davidic king has power; in Psalm 3 he must be delivered from those over whom he used to rule. In Psalm 2 the king is installed in Jerusalem; in Psalm 3 the king has run away from Jerusalem, and yet trusts in YHWH to arise from His holy hill there in Jerusalem to rescue him. Yet throughout it all confidence in YHWH is maintained, for such faith in YHWH and His blessings for His people is the high concern for the Psalter.

Psalm 3 Throughout History

Psalm 3 originates with David in response to a dire threat to his crown and his life; he trusted in YHWH and YHWH delivered him. Psalm 3 would have been relevant at other times during the period of the monarchy and for the Davidic king: when the Assyrians invaded Judah the Rabshakeh taunted Hezekiah and Judah with a similar message to Psalm 3:1 (701 BCE; 2 Kings 18:35). Hezekiah and Judah responded by maintaining their trust in YHWH and were vindicated (2 Kings 19:35-37).

In terms of the Temple cult Psalm 3 would have given voice to any Israelite petitioner who felt ostracized and/or betrayed by his fellow man. Psalm 3 would serve to remind the petitioner that his sustenance and confidence comes from YHWH and YHWH would make sure righteousness was upheld and wickedness punished.

During the exile and in the Second Temple period Psalm 3 would serve as the necessary reality check after Psalms 1 and 2: YHWH has promised much, the Messiah will break those who rage against YHWH, but until then, Israel is surrounded by enemies who are confident of victory. Psalm 3 would give voice to those in such distress, especially those directly encountering persecution by the pagan powers of the time, and sustain the hope and faith of the Israelites in YHWH.

As David felt surrounded by enemies and trusted in God for his salvation and rescue, so Jesus likewise was surrounded by enemies when He was betrayed, tried, and crucified (Matthew 26:1-27:56). As David called for YHWH to “arise” and “save” him, YHWH vindicated Jesus by raising Him from the dead in triumph over death and His foes and thus He is able to save all who trust in Him (Romans 1:4, 5:6-11, 8:1-3). In turn the followers of Jesus would suffer at the hands of their enemies all around them and took comfort in Psalm 3, seeing in it the solidarity of Jesus with His followers and using it as a prayer for the people of God. They meditated on Psalm 3:5 and understood it Christologically, and by extension, of their own hope: they would “lay down” in death and would “arise” in the resurrection (cf. Romans 8:17-25)!

In the monastic era Psalm 3 would become part of the morning office of prayer. “Pseudo-Bede” marked the appropriateness that this is the third psalm, understood as speaking of resurrection as Jesus was raised on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:4). Many commentators spoke of the parallelisms between David and Absalom and Jesus and Judas in light of Psalm 3.

Throughout the generations believers have taken strength and confidence from Psalm 3 when they felt as if beset and under siege by enemies all around them, be they political or spiritual or both.

Psalm 3 Today

We may live in different times in different environments and under a different covenant, yet Psalm 3 can maintain great power for the Christian. We have heard, as Israel did, that YHWH prospers the righteous and makes it go well with him while the wicked suffer and will experience torment. We trust that YHWH has established His Anointed on the throne and has given him power over the rebellious, just as Israel did. And yet, as with Israel, our earthly reality oftentimes can overcome our hope. The righteous should prosper and the wicked should suffer, and yet there are times when the people of God suffer persecution from the hand of those of the world. Those of the world may mock and deride the people of God, confident that they have no justifiable hope in their God. In such a time and place it may seem that God’s rule is a joke, or cruel, or not really present; where did He go? Why is He not acting according to His promises?

If one observed the life of Jesus of Nazareth as He entered Jerusalem and then found Himself betrayed, tried, scourged, and crucified, one would easily wonder the same thing. This is how God allows the righteous to be treated? This is YHWH’s “deliverance”?

Yet, as we know, at that particular juncture the story was incomplete. Yes, Jesus was betrayed, tried, scourged, and crucified, but God raised Him from the dead on the third day in triumph (Romans 6:1-11, 8:1-3). Through suffering Jesus gained the victory; through suffering and tribulation His followers will enter His Kingdom (Acts 14:22, Romans 8:17-18, 2 Timothy 3:12). John saw this in graphic detail in Revelation 12:1-19:21.

Whenever the people of God have suffered on account of their faith they have been reminded to trust in God on account of what He has done, past and present, and what He has promised in the future (e.g. 1 Peter 1:3-12). For Israel it was the Exodus; for Christians, Jesus’ death and resurrection. God is faithful; God knows what He is doing.

Psalm 3 stands at the intersection of promise and trial and points the believer to faith. There are times when we feel that the world is full of foes standing against us, mocking and deriding our confidence in God. They exist. But YHWH God of Israel, the Creator God, is stronger than they; He will vindicate His righteous ones in His good time. We can go to sleep and awake again through God in Christ in confidence of His sustenance; if we are called upon to sleep in death, then we have confidence that we will rise again in the resurrection. Salvation continues to belong to YHWH, and He will bless His people. Let us stand firm in faith and confidence in God, always aware of His care and provision, especially when foes beset us, and obtain the resurrection in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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