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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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PSALM 17

A PRAYER FOR PROTECTION AGAINST ENEMIES (A PRAYER OF DAVID)

The customary arguments among scholars as to the date and authorship of this psalm are of little interest and of no value at all. As Maclaren said of such discussions, "The deepest and most precious elements in the Psalms are very slightly affected by the answers to such questions."F1

However, we find no fault whatever with the ancient inscription here which ascribes the psalm to David. As to the particular time of David's life when such a psalm was written, it may very well have been during that time when he was hunted like a wild animal in the wilderness of Engedi by King Saul and his followers. The psalm has many intimations in it that harmonize with the opinion that it was written by David. We shall notice some of these in the text below. This psalm along with numbers 86 and 142 is, "Entitled `A Psalm of David' in the superscription."F2

Ps. 17:1-5

Hear the right, O Jehovah, attend unto my cry;

Give ear unto my prayer that goeth not out of feigned lips.

Let my sentence come forth from thy presence;

Let thine eyes look upon equity.

Thou hast proved my heart, thou hast visited me in the night;

Thou hast tried me, and findest nothing;

I am purposed that my mouth shall not transgress.

As for the works of men, by the word of thy lips

I have kept me from the ways of the violent.

My steps have held fast to thy paths,

My feet have not slipped."

In our paragraph divisions of this psalm, we have followed that of Rawlinson which he attributed to a Dr. Kay.F3

A glance at the different versions and translations of this psalm reveals some remarkable variations in what is actually the meaning of the text; and some scholars have registered rather bold claims of damaged or corrupt passages. "Ps. 17:4 is hopelessly corrupt,"F4 according to Addis; and Maclaren's comment on Ps. 17:3-5 was that:

"The general drift is clear, but the precise meaning and connection are extremely obscure. Probably the text is faulty. It has been twisted in all sorts of ways; the Masoretic accents have been discarded, the division of verses set aside; and still no proposed rendering of verses 3,4 is wholly satisfactory."F5

We like what Leupold said regarding this problem. "The difficulties of interpretation are numerous; but all of this does not warrant manifold textual changes as though the state of the text were quite corrupt. The compact utterances are part of the problem."F6

This writer claims no ability whatever to judge the questions regarding damaged or faulty texts; and we shall be content to interpret the passages as they stand in our version.

There are no less than five appeals to God in these two verses. Such repetitions suggest an unusual urgency in the psalmist's mind which prompted such vigorous appeals.

Christians cannot fail to be somewhat shocked by such bold assertions of the psalmist's innocence, purity, righteousness, and faithfulness in observing the will of God as we find in this paragraph. These claims of integrity are certainly unlike the petitions of most Christians today, which Maclaren described as follows:

"The modern type of religion recoils from such professions (of innocence and purity), and contents itself with always confessing sins which it has given up hope of overcoming, would be all the better for listening to the psalmist and aiming a little more vigorously and hopefully at being able to say, "I know nothing against myself" (1 Corinthians 4:4).F7

Leupold approvingly quoted this same passage by Maclaren,F8 adding that it was very true and appropriate for our times.

Regarding the claims made by David here regarding his truth, integrity, and righteousness, and even the claim that God himself had found no fault in him, we should remember that this psalm was very likely written in the early part of David's life, during his flight from the murderous vengeance of King Saul, and that it came from a period in David's life long before his shameful actions with regard to Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, sins which David tearfully repented of and openly confessed. We may not, therefore, find any fault with such vigorous protestations of innocence as we find here. Rhodes pointed out that, "These declarations are not what we would today call self-righteousness, but an oath of clearance as commanded in 1 Kings 8:31-32."F9


 
Verses 1-5
Hear the right, O Jehovah, attend unto my cry; Give ear unto my prayer, that goeth not out of feigned lips. Let my sentence come forth from thy presence; Let thine eyes look upon equity. Thou hast proved my heart; Thou hast visited me in the night; Thou hast tried me, and findest nothing; I am purposed that my mouth shall not transgress. As for the works of men, by the word of thy lips I have kept me from the ways of the violent. My steps have held fast to thy paths, My feet have not slipped.
(Psalms 17:4). David here identified the source of his strength, namely, God's Word; and, as Ash said: God's revelation implies grace, so he is not suggesting his merit alone as the ground of his pleading.F10 A remarkable example of how David was restrained from evil by a timely remembrance of God's Word brought to him by Abigail was recorded in 1 Sam. 25:25-42; and Kidner thought that, David could have had that in mind here.F11

As for the works of men
(Psalms 17:4). The literal words here are `the works of Adam,' i.e., the works of the natural man.F12 This is primarily a reference to deeds of vengeful violence, of the very kind that David contemplated, but did not do, in the event mentioned above. (1 Samuel 25:22).

Barnes stated that, "No prayer could be more appropriate."F13 When we are hated and pursued by cruel and powerful enemies, against whom we have done no wrong, when our most violent passions are aroused and we are sorely tempted to take bloody vengeance against them, then nothing can be more proper than to lift our hearts to God in prayer, entreating him to keep us from evil and enable us to restrain our passions.

I have called upon thee, for thou wilt answer me, O God:

Incline thine ear unto me, and hear my speech.

Show thy marvelous lovingkindness,

O thou that savest by thy right hand them that take refuge in thee

From those that rise up against them.

Keep me as the apple of the eye;

Hide me under the shadow of thy wings,

From the wicked that oppress me,

My deadly enemies that compass me about."

In these verses, David mentioned the fact that God would hear him, a truth established by countless times when God had indeed heard him (Psalms 17:6), and he also mentioned God's lovingkindness (Psalms 17:7), indicating here that David's appeal is premised and grounded, "Upon the Covenant Love of God who has time and again revealed himself as the Saviour of those who take refuge in him from their adversaries."F14


 
Verses 6-9
I have called upon thee, for thou wilt answer me, O God: Incline thine ear unto me, [and] hear my speech. Show thy marvellous lovingkindness, O thou that savest by thy right hand them that take refuge [in thee] From those that rise up [against them]. Keep me as the apple of the eye; Hide me under the shadow of thy wings, From the wicked that oppress me, My deadly enemies, that compass me about.
These figures appear in Deut. 32:10-12; and Christ himself said, How often would I have gathered thee unto myself as a hen gathereth her brood under her wings (Luke 13:34). There is an unsurpassed beauty and tenderness in such expressions.

My deadly enemies
(Psalms 17:9). David's enemies sought nothing less than the absolute destruction and death of the psalmist. God had called David to lead Israel, the Chosen People, in those times following the apostasy of King Saul; and David was fully conscious of the responsibility that rested upon him, feeding his confidence that God would indeed hear and protect him.

They are enclosed in their own fat:

With their mouth they speak proudly.

They have compassed us in our steps;

They have set their eyes to cast me down to the earth.

He is like a lion that is greedy of his prey,

And as it were a young lion lurking in secret places."


 
Verses 10-12
They are inclosed in their own fat: With their mouth they speak proudly. They have now compassed us in our steps; They set their eyes to cast [us] down to the earth. He is like a lion that is greedy of his prey, And as it were a young lion lurking in secret places.
(Psalms 17:10). Dummelow said this means that, They have shut up their hearts, a figure of arrogance.F15 Their fat may also refer to their plenty of this worlds' goods. The people in view here were concerned only with this world and their possession of as much as possible of it. They had been successful, and from that their proud and arrogant speech was produced.

They have compassed us in our steps
(Psalms 17:11). Jamieson pointed out that this means, They pursue us as hunters tracking a wild beast.F16

They set their eyes. etc…
(Psalms 17:11). This is a reference to the demeanor of a lion about to spring upon the prey. He fixes his eyes intently upon the object of his kill. Who would have known something like this any better than David? He had protected his father's sheep from wild beasts; and upon one occasion he had actually seized a lion by the beard and killed him (1 Samuel 17:34-37). This, of course, is one of the many things in this psalm that support the opinion that David wrote it.

He is like a lion. etc…
(Psalms 17:12). The significance of this lies in the use of the singular number. Whereas the psalmist has been speaking of enemies, pursuers and adversaries, here he compares his foe to a lion. This would fit the fact of King Saul's being David's real enemy, his soldiers, retainers, and supporters also being David's adversaries.

Arise, O Jehovah, confront him, cast him down:

Deliver my soul from the wicked by thy sword

From men by thy hand, O Jehovah,

From men of the world, whose portion is in this life,

And whose belly thou fillest with thy treasure:

They are satisfied with children,

And leave the rest of their substance to their babes.

As for me, I shall behold thy face in righteousness;

I shall be satisfied when I awake, with beholding thy form."

With a fervent prayer like this from the very heart of David, hunted and tracked like a beast of prey in the wilderness by King Saul, there was no way that Saul would be able to prevail against him. God would indeed answer David's prayer to confront Saul, cast him down, and deliver David out of his murderous hands.

Ash has pointed out the difficulties of determining the exact meaning here. (1) One way of understanding it is that the wicked indeed have many precious blessings but not the ultimate blessing of Ps. 17:15. (2) Another interpretation refers God's "filling the belly of the wicked" with his treasures to God's punishing judgment upon the wicked.F17 The context would seem to favor the latter view. Kidner paraphrased the more likely meaning thus: "They are men ... of the world, give them their fill of it."F18


 
Verses 13-15
Arise, O Jehovah, Confront him, cast him down: Deliver my soul from the wicked by thy sword; From men by thy hand, O Jehovah, From men of the world, whose portion is in [this] life, And whose belly thou fillest with thy treasure: They are satisfied with children, And leave the rest of their substance to their babes. As for me, I shall behold thy face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with [beholding] thy form.
(Psalms 17:15). Ps. 17:15, as Kyle Yates noted, May refer to the next morning after this experience or to a vision of God beyond the sleep of death.F19 To us, the only possible understanding of the place is that of seeing God after the sleep of death. This is certainly not too much to expect of one who had just prophesied the death, resurrection, and ascension of the Son of God to the right hand of the throne of God in heaven.

Furthermore, the application of the verse to waking up after a night's sleep would have, by no stretch of imagination resulted in the psalmist's seeing the "face of God," or "beholding the form of God." To accept such an interpretation, it appears to us, would be to abuse the very principle of conveying thought by the use of words.


Footnotes for Psalms 17
1: Alexander Maclaren, Psalms, Vol. 1 (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1893), The Preface.
2: Leslie S. McCaw, The New Bible Commentary, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing House, 1970), p. 460.
3: G. Rawlinson, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 8 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing House, 1950), p. 106.
4: W. E. Addis, Peake's Commentary on the Bible (Edinburgh: T. C. and E. C. Jack, Ltd., 1924), p. 376.
5: Alexander Maclaren, op. cit., p. 153.
6: H. C. Leupold, The Psalms (Baker Book House, 1959), p. 154.
7: Alexander Maclaren, op. cit., 154.
8: H. C. Leupold, op. cit., p. 155.
9: Arnold B. Rhodes, The Layman's Bible Commentary, Vol. 9 (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1960), p. 44.
10: Anthony L. Ash, Psalms (Austin: Sweet Publishing Company, 1980), p. 77.
11: Derek Kidner, Psalms 1--72 (London: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 87.
12: G. Rawlinson, op. cit., p. 106.
13: Albert Barnes, Psalms, Vol. 1 (Baker Book House, 1953), p. 137.
14: Arnold B. Rhodes, op. cit., p. 44.
15: J. R. Dummelow, The Whole Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 335.
16: Robert Jamieson, Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown's Commentary (Zondervan Publishing House), p. 351.
17: Anthony L. Ash, op. cit., p. 78.
18: Derek Kidner, op. cit., p. 89.
19: Kyle Yates, Wycliffe Old Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962), p. 502.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalm 17". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=ps&chapter=017>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  

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