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Psalm 17

A SUFFERER, in imminent danger, professes his sincere conformity to God’s will, and invokes his Favour and protection, ver. 1–5. This petition is enforced by an appeal to former mercies, ver. 6, 7, and a description of the wickedness of his enemies, ver. 8–12, whose character and spirit he contrasts with his own, ver. 13–15.

The position of this psalm in the collection seems to have been determined by the resemblance of its subject, tone, and diction, to those of the sixteenth, with which it may be said to form a pair or double psalm, like the first and second, third and fourth, ninth and tenth, &c.

  1. A Prayer. By David. Hear, O Jehovah, the right, hearken to my cry, give ear to my prayer not with lips of deceit. This psalm is called a prayer because petition is its burden, its characteristic feature, its essential element. By David, literally, to David, i.e. belonging to him as its author.—The right, righteousness or justice in the abstract, here put for a just cause, or perhaps for one who is in the right, who has justice on his side. The prayer that God will hear the right implies that no appeal is made to partiality or privilege, but merely to the merits of the case. The righteousness claimed is not merely that of the cause but that of the person, not inherent but derived from the imputed righteousness of faith according to the doctrine of the Old as well as the New Testament. The quality alleged is not that of sinless perfection but that of sincere conformity to the divine will. The last clause, not with lips of deceit, applies to all that goes before, and represents sincerity as necessary to acceptance. The original expression is still stronger, and conveys much more than a negative. It does not merely say, not with deceitful lips, but more positively with lips not deceitful.

  2. From before thee my judgment shall come forth; thine eyes shall behold equities. This sentence really involves a prayer, but in form it is the expression of a confident hope. From before thee, from thy presence, thy tribunal. My judgment, my acquittal, vindication; or my justice, i.e. my just cause, my cause considered as a just one. Shall come forth, to the view of others, shall be seen and recognized in its true character, as being what it is. The reason is, because God’s judgments are infallible. His eyes cannot fail to see innocence or righteousness where it exists. The plural, rectitudes or equities, is an emphatic abstract. See above, on the parallel passage, Ps. 11:7.

  3. Thou hast tried my heart, hast visited (me) by night, hast assayed me; thou wilt not find; my mouth shall not exceed my thought. He still appeals to God as the judge and witness of his own sincerity. The preterites represent the process as no new one, although still continued in the present. Visited for the purpose of examination or inspection, in which specific sense the English verb is often used. By night, as the time when men’s thoughts are least under restraint, and when the evil, if there be any, is most certain of detection. Purged me, as the purity of metals is tested by fire, to which process the Hebrew word is specially applied. Thou shalt not find any thing at variance with the sincerity of this profession.—The future form implies that the investigation is to be continued, but without any change in the result.—The last clause is doubtful and obscure. The common version, I am purposed (that) my mouth shall not trangress, agrees well enough with the form of the words, but is forbidden by the accents. The reversed construction, my thoughts shall not exceed my mouth (or speech), is ungrammatical; nor does either of these constructions suit the context so well as the first, which makes the clause a renewed profession of sincerity.

  4. (As) to the works of man, by the word of thy lips I have kept the paths of the violent (transgressor.) The works of man are the sinful courses to which man is naturally prone. The generic term man (אָדָם) is often used in reference to the sinful infirmities of human nature. See 1 Sam. 24:10 (9), Hos. 6:7, Job 31:33. The word of God’s lips is the word uttered by him, with particular reference to his precepts or commands, but including his entire revelation. By this word, by means of it as an instrument, and in reliance on it as an authority.—The verb (שָׁמַר) translated kept properly means watched, and is elsewhere applied to the observance of a rule, but in this place seems to mean watched for the purpose of avoiding, as we say in English to keep away from or keep out of danger.—From the verb (פָּרַץ) to break forth, elsewhere applied to gross iniquities (Hos. 4:2.) comes the adjective (פָּרִיץ) violent, outrageous, here used as an epithet of the flagrant sinner.

  5. My steps have laid hold of thy paths, my feet have not swerved. His profession of integrity is still continued. The first verb is in the infinitive form, but determined by the preterites before and after. The English language does not furnish equivalents to the parallel terms in Hebrew, both which denote footsteps. The common version violates the context by converting the first clause into a prayer, which would here be out of place.

  6. I have invoked thee because thou wilt answer me, O God! Incline thine ear to me, hear my speech. The alternation of the tenses is significant. ‘I have invoked thee heretofore, and do so still, because I know that thou wilt hear me.” It is needless to observe how much the sentence is enfeebled by the change of either to the present.—Thou wilt hear me, in the pregnant sense of hearing graciously or answering a prayer. See above, on Ps. 3:5 (4).—O (mighty) God! The divine name here used is the one denoting God’s omnipotence. See above, Ps. 5:5 (4), 7:12 (11), 10:11, 12. 16:1.—My speech, what I say, אִמְרָה from אָמַר to say.

  7. Distinguish thy mercies, (O thou) saving those trusting, from those rising up, with thy right hand. The first verb is the same that occurs in Ps. 4:4 (3.) Here, as there, it means to set apart, or single out, but with particular reference to extraordinary Favours, implying an unusual necessity. Such mercy is described as perfectly in keeping with the divine mode of action in such cases.—Trusting, seeking refuge, i.e. in God. See above, on Ps. 16:1. The same ellipsis may be assumed after rising up, or we may supply against them.—With thy right hand, as the instrument of deliverance. Compare Ps. 16:11. These words must be connected in construction with saving.

  8. Keep me as the apple of the eye, in the shadow of thy wings thou wilt hide me. The first verb means to watch over, guard, preserve with care. See above, on ver. 4, where it occurs in a figurative application. The pupil or apple of the eye is a proverbial type of that which is most precious and most easily injured, and which therefore has a double claim to sedulous protection. The original phrase is strongly idiomatic, exhibiting what seems to be a singular confusion of the genders. Its literal meaning is, supplying the articles omitted by poetic license, the man (or the little man, or the man-like part) the daughter of the eye. The first word has reference to the image reflected in the pupil, which is then described as belonging to the eye, by an oriental idiom which uses personal relations, son, daughter, &c., to denote the mutual relations even of inanimate objects. The comparison is borrowed from Deut. 32:10, where it is followed by another with the eagle’s treatment of her young, to which there seems to be allusion in the last clause of the verse before us. The imperative form of the first verb is no reason for departing from the future form of the other, which is much more expressive. What he asks in one clause he expresses his assured hope of obtaining in the other.

  9. From the face of the wicked who have wasted me; mine enemies to the soul will surround me. The preceding sentence is continued, with a more particular description of the objects of his dread. “Thou wilt hide me from the face, sight, or presence of the wicked.” Wasted, desolated, destroyed, with allusion perhaps to the siege of a town or the invasion of a country. The same term is applied to a dead man in Judges 5:27. The enemies of the last clause are identical with the wicked of the first. Enemies in soul may mean cordial haters, or enemies who seek the soul or life, called deadly enemies in the English version. Or בְּנֶפֶשׁ may be construed with the verb: surround me eagerly (with craving appetite); or surround me against my soul or life, i.e. with a view to take it.—The future form suggests that the danger which the first clause had described as past, was still present, and likely to continue. As if he had said, “from my wicked foes who have already wasted me, and will no doubt still continue to surround me.” In this description present danger is included, whereas if we substitute the present form, we lose the obvious allusion to the future and the past.

  10. Their fat they have closed; (with) their mouth they have spoken in pride. The first clause, though not exactly rendered, is correctly paraphrased in the English Bible; they are enclosed in their own fat. This is no uncommon metaphor in Scripture for moral and spiritual insensibility; see Deut. 32:15, Job 15:27, Ps. 73:7, 119:70. The literal sense of the expressions derives some illustration from Judg. 3:22. Some give to fat the specific sense of heart, which is said to have in Arabic, “their heart they have closed.” But the other explanation yields the same sense in a more emphatic form, and with closer conformity to Hebrew usage.

  11. In our footsteps now have they surrounded us; their eyes they will set, to go astray in the land. The meaning of the first words, in our footsteps, seems to be, wherever we go. Compare Ps. 139:3, 5. For the masoretic reading us, the text has me, which, although harsher, amounts to the same thing, as the sufferer is an ideal person respecting many real ones. The parallel clauses exhibit the usual combination of the preterite and future forms, implying that what had been done was likely to be still continued. They fix their eyes, upon this as the end at which they aim. To go astray or turn aside, i.e. from the way of God’s commandments, to which the Psalmist, in ver. 5, had declared his own adherence. The translations bowing down and casting down are less in accordance with the context and with the usage of the Hebrew verb, which is constantly employed to express departure from God and aberration from the path of duty; see 1 Kings 11:9, Job 31:7, Ps. 44:19 (18), 119:51, 157. To the earth, or in the earth, although grammatical, affords a less appropriate sense than in the land, i.e. the holy land or land of promise, the local habitation of God’s people under the old economy; see above on Ps. 16:3, and compare Isaiah 26:10.

  12. His likeness (is) as a lion; he is craving to tear; and as a young lion sitting in secret places. The singular suffix refers to the enemy as an ideal person. The future (יִכְסוֹף) means that he is just about to feel or gratify the appetite for blood. To tear in pieces, as a wild beast does his prey before devouring it.—Sitting, lurking, lying in wait, with special reference to the patient promptness of the wild beast in such cases.—The comparison is the same as in Ps. 10:8–10.

  13. Arise, Jehovah, go before his face, make him bow, save my soul from the wicked (with) thy sword. On the meaning of the prayer that God would arise, see above on Ps. 3:8 (7).—Go before his face: the same Hebrew phrase occurs below (Ps. 95:2), in the sense of coming into one’s presence. Here the context gives it the more emphatic sense of meeting, encountering, withstanding. Make him bend or bow, as the conquered bows beneath the conqueror.—The construction of thy sword seems to be the same with that of their mouth in ver. 10. The Septuagint puts thy sword in apposition with my soul, the Vulgate with the word immediately preceding, men (who are) thy sword, as the Assyrian is said to be the rod in God’s hand (Isa. 10:5). But such a representation of the enemy as God’s chosen instruments, instead of enforcing, would enfeeble the petition. The verb translated save is a causative strictly meaning make to escape.

  14. From men (with) thy hand, from the world; their portion is in (this) life, and with thy hoard thou wilt fill their belly; they shall have enough of sons, and leave their residue to their babes. All the parts of this obscure verse have been variously explained. As in the preceding verse, some here read men (which are) thy hand, i.e. the instrument of thy wrath. The difficult expression מֵחֶלֶד is by some understood as a description of their character and spirit—men of the world—men who belong to it, and whose hearts are set upon it. Others give חֶלֶד its primary meaning of duration, and make the phrase descriptive of prosperity—men of duration or perpetuity—who not only prosper now, but have long done so, and seem likely to continue. The simplest construction is that given in the prayer-book version, which takes the proposition in the same sense before both nouns—“from the men, I say, and from the evil world.” “World is then simply a collective equivalent to the plural men. This translation of the former word is justified by the analogy of Ps. 49:2 (1).—Life is by some understood to mean a life of ease or pleasure; but this is far less natural than the obvious sense of this life, this present state as distinguished from futurity. The rest of the verse shews that their desires have not been disappointed. To the eye of sense God sometimes seems to have reserved his choichest gifts for the ungodly. Thy hidden (treasure), i.e. hoarded, carefully secreted. Fill their belly, satisfy their appetite. The future form implies that the state of things described is likely to continue.—The next clause may be also rendered: (their) sons shall be satisfied, and leave their residue to their babes. This would be a strong description of prosperity continued from generation to generation. According to the version before given, the men of the world are represented as having their largest wishes gratified, not only in the number but the prosperous condition of their children; see Ps. 127:3, 128:3, 4, Job 21:11. The whole is only a description of things as they seem to man, before God’s judgments interpose to change them.

  15. I in righteousness shall see thy face; I shall be satisfied in awaking with thy appearance. The pronoun expressed at the beginning of the sentence is emphatic. I, in opposition to the men described in the preceding verse. “They may rejoice in richer providential gifts, and be satisfied with what they thus possess. But I enjoy what they do not, the sense of acceptance in thy sight, righteousness, justification, recognition as a righteous person.” The ambiguity of construction in the last clause is the same both in Hebrew and in English. The preposition with may connect what follows either with awaking or with satisfied. Thus the prayer-book version reads, “And when I awake up after thy likeness, I shall be satisfied with it;” but the authorised version: “I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.” The latter construction is the one required by the accents, and preferred by most interpreters, the rather as the last word does not mean resemblance in the abstract, but form, shape, or visible appearance, Exod. 20:4, Num. 12:8, Deut. 4:16, 23, 25, Job 4:16. The idea here suggested is the sight of thee, exactly corresponding to behold thy face, in the parallel clause.—In awaking, or when I shall awake, is understood by some to mean, when I awake to-morrow, and from this expression they infer that the psalm was originally composed, and intended to be used, as an evening-song or prayer. See above on Ps. 3:6 (5), 4:9 (8), 5:4 (3). Others give the phrase the same sense but a wider application; in awaking, i.e. whenever I awake. As if he had said, while the men of the world think day and night of their possessions and their pleasures, I rejoice, whenever I awake, in the sight of God’s reconciled countenance and the consciousness of friendship with him. A third interpretation puts a still higher sense upon the phrase as referring to the act of awaking from the sleep of death. But this excludes too much from view the enjoyment of God’s favour and protection even here, which is the burden of the whole prayer. If the hope of future blessedness had been enough, the previous petitions would have been superfluous. The utmost that can be conceded to this view of the passage is that, by a natural association, what is here said of awaking out of sleep in this life may be extended to that great awaking which awaits us all hereafter. The same state of mind and heart which enables a man now to be contented with the partial views which he enjoys of God will prepare him to be satisfied hereafter with the beatific vision through eternity.

Alexander, J. A. (1864). The Psalms Translated and Explained (pp. 70–74). Andrew Elliot; James Thin. (Public Domain)

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