“A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son. O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying of my soul, “There is no salvation for him in God.” Selah But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me. I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around. Arise, O Lord! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked. Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be on your people! Selah” (Psalm 3, ESV)
This Psalm contains a strong description of the enemies and dangers by which the writer was surrounded, and an equally strong expression of confidence that God would extricate him from them, with particular reference to former deliverances of the same kind. Its place in the collection does not seem to be fortuitous or arbitrary. It was probably among the first of David’s lyrical compositions, the two which now precede it having been afterwards prefixed to the collection. In these three psalms there is a sensible gradation or progressive development of one great idea. The general contrast, which the first exhibits, of the righteous and the wicked, is reproduced, in the second, as a war against the Lord and his Anointed. In the third it is still further individualized as a conflict between David, the great historical type of the Messiah, and his enemies. At the same time, the expressions are so chosen as to make the psalm appropriate to its main design, that of furnishing a vehicle of pious feeling to the church at large, and to its individual members in their own emergencies. The structure of the psalm is regular, consisting of four double verses, besides the title.
A Psalm of David, literally (belonging) to David, i.e. as the author. This is not a mere inscription, but a part of the text and inseparable from it, so far as we can trace its history. It was an ancient usage, both among classical and oriental writers, for the author to introduce his own name into the first sentence of his composition. The titles of the psalms ought, therefore, not to have been printed in a different type, or as something added to the text, which has led some editors to omit them altogether. In all Hebrew manuscripts they bear the same relation to the body of the psalm, that the inscriptions in the prophet’s or in Paul’s epistles bear to the substance of the composition. In the case before us, as in every other, the inscription is in perfect keeping with the psalm itself, as well as with the parallel history. Besides the author’s name, it here states the historical occasion of the composition. A Psalm of David, in his fleeing, when he fled, from the face, from the presence, or before, Absalom, his son (see 2 Sam. 15:14, 17, 30). Such a psalm might well be conceived, and even composed, if not actually written, in the midst of the dangers and distresses which occasioned it. There is no need therefore of supposing the reference to be merely retrospective. That the terms used are so general, is because the psalm, though first suggested by the writer’s personal experience, was intended for more general use.
(1). O Lord, Jehovah, the name of God as self-existent and eternal, and also as the covenant God of Israel, how many, or how multiplied, are my foes, my oppressors or tormentors! This is not a question, but an exclamation of surprise and grief. Many rising up against me. The sentence may either be completed thus: many (are they) that rise up against me; or the construction of the other clause may be continued. (How) many (are there) rising up against me! The same periphrasis for enemies is used by Moses, Deut. 28:7. What is here said of the multitude of enemies agrees well with the historical statement in 2 Sam. 15:13, 16:18.
(2). (There are) many saying, or, (how) many (are there) saying to my soul, i.e. so as to affect my heart, though really said of him, not directly addressed to him. (Compare Ps. 35:3; Isa. 51:23.) There is no salvation, deliverance from evil, whether temporal, spiritual, or eternal. There is no salvation for him, the sufferer, and primarily the psalmist himself, in God, i.e. in his power, or his purpose, implying either that God does not concern himself about such things, Ps. 10:11, or that he has cast the sufferer off, Ps. 42:4, 11 (3, 10), 71:11, 22:8, 9 (7, 8); Matt. 27:43. This is the language, not of despondent friends, but of malignant enemies, and is really the worst that even such could say of him. For, as Luther well says, all the temptations in the world, and in hell too, melted together into one, are nothing when compared with the temptation to despair of God’s mercy. The first stanza, or double verse, closes, like the second and fourth, with the word Selah. This term occurs seventy-three times in the psalms, and three times in the prophecy of Habakkuk. It corresponds to rest, either as a noun or verb, and like it is properly a musical term, but generally indicates a pause in the sense as well as the performance. See below, on Ps. 9:17 (16). Like the titles, it invariably forms part of the text, and its omission by some editors and translators is a mutilation of the word of God. In the case before us, it serves as a kind of pious ejaculation to express the writer’s feelings, and, at the same time, warns the reader to reflect on what he reads, just as our Savior was accustomed to say: He that hath ears to hear let him hear.
(3). From his earthly enemies and dangers he looks up to God, the source of his honors and his tried protector. The connection is similar to that between the fifth and sixth verses of the second psalm. The and (not but) has reference to a tacit comparison or contrast. This is my treatment at the hands of men, and thou, on the other hand, O Lord, Jehovah, (art) a shield about me, or around me, i.e. covering my whole body, not merely a part of it, as ordinary shields do. This is a favorite metaphor with David; see Ps. 7:11 (10), 18:3 (2), 28:7. It occurs, however, more than once in the Pentateuch; see Gen. 15:1; Deut. 33:29. My honor, i.e. the source of the honors I enjoy, with particular reference, no doubt, to his royal dignity, not as a secular distinction merely, but in connection with the honor put upon him as a type and representative of Christ. The honor thus bestowed by God he might well be expected to protect. My honor, and the (one) raising my head, i.e. making me look up from my despondency. The whole verse is an appeal to the psalmist’s previous experience of God’s goodness as a ground for the confidence afterwards expressed.
(4). (With) my voice to the Lord, Jehovah, I will call, or cry. The future form of the verb is probably intended to express continued or habitual action, as in Ps. 1:2. I cry and will cry still. And he hears me, or, then he hears me, i.e. when I call. The original construction shews, in a peculiar manner, the dependence of the last verb on the first, which can hardly be conveyed by an exact translation. The second verb is not the usual verb to hear, but one especially appropriated to the gracious hearing or answering of prayer. And he hears (or answers) me from his hill of holiness, or holy hill. This, as we learn from Ps. 2:6, is Zion, the seat and center of the old theocracy, the place where God visibly dwelt among his people. This designation of a certain spot as the earthly residence of God, was superseded by the incarnation of his Son, whose person thenceforth took the place of the old sanctuary. It was, therefore, no play upon words or fanciful allusion, when our Savior "spake of the temple of his body" (John 2:21), but a disclosure of the true sense of the sanctuary under the old system, as designed to teach the doctrine of God’s dwelling with his people. The same confidence with which the Christian now looks to God in Christ the old believer felt towards the holy hill of Zion. Here again the strophe ends with a devout and meditative pause, denoted as before by Selah.
(5). I, even I, whose case you regarded as so desperate, have lain down, and slept, (and) awaked, notwithstanding all these dangers, for the Lord, Jehovah, will sustain me, and I therefore have no fears to rob me of my sleep. This last clause is not a reason for the safety he enjoys, which would require the past tense, but for his freedom from anxiety, in reference to which the future is entirely appropriate. This construction, the only one which gives the Hebrew words their strict and full sense, forbids the supposition that the psalm before us was an evening song, composed on the night of David’s flight from Jerusalem. If any such distinctions be admissible or necessary, it may be regarded as a morning rather than an evening hymn.
(6). The fearlessness implied in the preceding verse is here expressed. I will not be afraid of myriads, or multitudes, the Hebrew word being used both in a definite and vague sense. It also contains an allusion to the first verb in ver. 2 (1), of which it is a derivative. I will not be afraid of myriads of people, either in the sense of persons, men, or by a poetic license for the people, i.e. Israel, the great mass of whom had now revolted. Whom they, my enemies, have set, or posted, round about against me. This is a simpler and more accurate construction than the reflexive one, who have set (themselves) against me round about, although the essential meaning still remains the same. The sum of the whole verse is, that the same courage which enabled him to sleep without disturbance in the midst of enemies and dangers, still sustained him when those enemies and dangers were presented to his waking senses.
(7). That this courage was not founded upon self-reliance, he now shews by asking God for that which he before expressed his sure hope of obtaining. Arise, O Lord, Jehovah! This is a common scriptural mode of calling upon God to manifest his presence and his power, either in wrath or favor. By a natural anthropomorphism, it describes the intervals of such manifestations as periods of inaction or of slumber, out of which he is besought to rouse himself. Save me, even me, of whom they say there is no help for him in God. See above, ver. 3 (2). Save me, O my God, mine by covenant and mutual engagement, to whom I therefore have a right to look for deliverance and protection. This confidence is warranted, moreover, by experience. For thou hast, in former exigencies, smitten all my enemies, without exception, (on the) cheek or jaw, an act at once violent and insulting. See 1 Kings 22:24; Micah 4:14; 5:1; Lam. 3:30. The teeth of the wicked, here identified with his enemies, because he was the champion and representative of God’s cause, thou hast broken, and thus rendered harmless. The image present to his mind seems to be that of wild beasts eager to devour him, under which form his enemies are represented in Ps. 27:2.
(8). To the Lord, Jehovah, the salvation, which I need and hope for, is or belongs, as to its only author and dispenser. To him, therefore, he appeals for the bestowment of it, not on himself alone, but on the church of which he was the visible and temporary head. On thy people (be) thy blessing! This earnest and disinterested intercession for God’s people forms a noble close or winding up of the whole psalm, and is therefore preferable to the version, on thy people (is) thy blessing, which, though equally grammatical, is less significant, and indeed little more than a repetition of the fact asserted in the first clause, whereas this is really an importunate petition founded on it. The whole closes, like the first and second stanzas, with a solemn and devout pause. Selah.
Alexander, J. A. (1864). The Psalms Translated and Explained. Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot; James Thin. (Public Domain)