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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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Chapter 36
 
 
 
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PSALM 35

PRAYER FOR RESCUE FROM ENEMIES

This is one of the so-called imprecatory psalms, of which there are a number of others. Leupold cited Ps. 36; Ps. 39; Ps. 71; Ps. 109; Ps. 7; Ps. 22; Ps. 31; Ps. 54; Ps. 55; Ps. 56; Ps. 140, etc., "Which various interpreters have labeled as imprecatory psalms."F1

Halley gives us an excellent idea of what many of the scholars mean by this designation:

"These psalms breathe vengeance upon enemies. They are not God's pronouncements of his wrath upon the wicked; but they are the prayers of a man for vengeance upon his enemies. This is just the opposite of the teachings of Jesus Christ, who taught that we should love our enemies and pray for them that despitefully use us and persecute us."F2

We believe that such an evaluation of the imprecatory psalms is inaccurate and unjust.

When Christ taught us to pray for our enemies, what did he mean? Did he mean that we should pray for their success in their evil efforts? Did he mean that we should pray for them to receive God's blessing and with Divine favor to such an extent that they would simply forget or neglect their campaign against the faithful followers of God? To confront such questions is to know the answer.

This writer's opinion is exactly that of Dr. George DeHoff who wrote, "The imprecations of this Psalm are legitimate and proper. David is not here pleading for innocent people to be destroyed, but for wicked people to be punished for their evil deeds in order to bring them to repentance and ultimate salvation. Far from being `harsh and ugly,' as some thoughtless commentators allege, these prayers may be prayed by any child of God today."F3

What possible harm could be done in praying to Almighty God for protection against unprincipled, vicious, and treacherous enemies? Should we pray that God will be so good to such evildoers that they will receive everything they want, thereby, forgetting or neglecting their campaigns against the faithful? Could it possibly be a sin for a Christian to pray for justice, as David here did throughout the psalm, and especially in Ps. 35:23?

This study is being pursued during the days of the war between the United Nations and Iraq; and this writer heard a man praying for Saddam Hussein, as follows:

"Oh Lord, bless our enemy Saddam. Touch his evil heart with a ray of eternal truth; open his eyes to the horrible wickedness of his atrocious deeds against his neighbors in Kuwait. Frustrate and confound the counsels upon which he relies; restrain and prevent his purpose of destruction; and further Oh Lord, if it be thy will, purge his soul of unspeakable wickedness; and, when he has been converted to the Gospel of Christ, help us to receive him as a brother and a fellow-heir of eternal life, in the name of Christ. Amen!"

Yes, Jesus Christ prayed, even from the Cross, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." But the extenuating circumstance of their being "ignorant" of their deeds was a vastly different thing from the class of sins which, in our own times, by wicked sons of the devil, are perpetrated against helpless hostages.

Note also that Christ's prayer from the Cross did not specifically include the judicially hardened religious rulers of Israel, but seems rather to have been on behalf of the soldiers who were merely carrying out the orders of their superiors. And yet the mercy of God is abundantly clear in the fact that even the "den of thieves" who ran the religious establishment heard the gospel and were given the opportunity of obeying it.

Furthermore, Christ's prayer for those who nailed him to the Cross was answered, in the light of a legitimate deduction that may be made from Peter's sermon on Pentecost; and, that being true, is it not evident that what Christ prayed for was "the conversion" of those who crucified him?

Thus any prayer for vicious enemies that includes this supplication for their salvation partakes, absolutely, of the nature of the true spirit of Our Lord.

Therefore, in the light of these considerations, we shall refrain from all self-righteous judgments about how far the spirit of David fell short of that of the Christ; nor do we feel called upon to `justify' this psalm, as did Halley, on the basis, that, "God will not NOW excuse some things that he overlooked THEN."F4

This writer has failed to find anything here in this psalm that needs "to be excused."

The organization of Ps. 35 is simple. Leupold suggested this outline:

A. A prayer that God may arise on David's behalf and repay those who have wrongfully attacked him (Psalms 35:1-10).

B. His true sympathy for his foes in their previous sorrow is shamefully returned in the form of evil for good (Psalms 35:11-18).

C. Prayer for justice on David's behalf against false friends who became his enemies (Psalms 35:19-28).F5

Delitzsch also pointed out that each of these three sections, "Opens with a cry for deliverance and closes, in the certain assumption that it will take place, with a vow of thanksgiving."F6

Ps. 35:1-10

Strive thou, O Jehovah, with them that strive with me:

Fight thou against them that fight against me.

Take hold of shield and buckler,

And stand up for my help.

Draw out also the spear, and stop the way against them that pursue me:

Say unto my soul, I am thy salvation.

Let them be put to shame and brought to dishonor that seek after my soul:

Let them turn back and be confounded that devise my hurt.

Let them be chaff before the wind,

And the angel of Jehovah driving them on.

Let their way be dark and slippery,

And the angel of Jehovah pursuing them.

For without cause have they hid for me their net in a pit;

For without cause have they digged a pit for my soul.

Let destruction come upon him unawares;

And let his net that he hath hid catch himself:

With destruction let him fall therein.

And my soul shall be joyful in Jehovah;

It shall rejoice in his salvation.

All my bones shall say, Jehovah, who is like unto thee,

Who deliverest the poor from him that is too strong for him,

Yea, the poor and the needy from him that robbeth him."

David's life was the issue in these verses. His enemies were determined to kill him, in spite of the fact that David had done none of them any wrong whatsoever.

There is a remarkable restraint in the prayer. He did not pray for the "chaff" to be burned up, which was the usual way of disposing of it, but that it be "driven away." He did not pray that his enemies would be killed but that they would fall into the net in a pit they had prepared for him.


 
Verses 1-10
Strive thou, O Jehovah, with them that strive with me: Fight thou against them that fight against me. Take hold of shield and buckler, And stand up for my help. Draw out also the spear, and stop the way against them that pursue me: Say unto my soul, I am thy salvation. Let them be put to shame and brought to dishonor that seek after my soul: Let them be turned back and confounded that devise my hurt. Let them be as chaff before the wind, And the angel of Jehovah driving [them] on. Let their way be dark and slippery, And the angel of Jehovah pursuing them. For without cause have they hid for me their net [in] a pit; Without cause have they digged [a pit] for my soul. Let destruction come upon him unawares; And let his net that he hath hid catch himself: With destruction let him fall therein. And my soul shall be joyful in Jehovah: It shall rejoice in his salvation. All my bones shall say, Jehovah, who is like unto thee, Who deliverest the poor from him that is too strong for him, Yea, the poor and the needy from him that robbeth him?
(Psalms 35:8) is not a reference to the destruction of his enemies, but to the destruction of their purpose of killing David. Note that it is the destruction `with,' not `of' them. There is no prayer here for the slaughter of his foes, but for God to stop the way of them. The self-righteous souls that find so much fault with this prayer are an unqualified mystery to this writer.

John the Baptist referred to certain evil enemies of the Lord in Matt. 3, calling them, "a generation of vipers." We find no commandment in God's Word that requires us to pray for the benefit of the `rattlesnakes' that threaten our lives.

The circumstances under which this psalm seems to have been written appear to be those described in 1 Sam. 24:15ff. Some scholars suggest the times of Absalom's rebellion; but the turning against the psalmist of former friends would seem to fit the situation of his flight before Saul far better.

"This prayer for judgment against his foes has no expression of secret malice against Saul; for he had spared Saul's life. It is a plea for the visible demonstration of essential righteousness."F7

The mention of the angel of Jehovah in Ps. 35:5-6 is of interest because "Only here and in the preceding Ps. 34,"F8 is this mighty being mentioned in the entire catalogue of the Psalms.

My soul shall be joyful. my bones shall say ..…
(Psalms 35:9-10). `My soul,' and `my bones,' are two emphatic ways of saying, `I,' or `myself,' as in Ps. 6:2. It is like our own expression, `I know it in my bones.'F9

Unrighteous witnesses rise up;

They ask me of things that I know not.

They reward me evil for good,

To the bereaving of my soul.

But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth:

I afflicted my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into my own bosom.

I behaved myself as though it had been my friend or brother:

I bowed down mourning, as one that bewaileth his mother.

But in mine adversity they rejoiced, and gathered themselves together:

The abjects gathered themselves together against me, and I knew it not;

They did tear me, and ceased not:

Like the profane mockers in feasts,

They gnashed upon me with their teeth.

Lord, how long wilt thou look on?

Rescue my soul from their destructions,

My darling from the lions.

I will give thee thanks in the great assembly:

I will praise thee among much people."

"In this Part 2 of the psalm, persons whom the psalmist had befriended in their sickness, turn against him bearing false witness against him."F10


 
Verses 11-18
Unrighteous witnesses rise up; They ask me of things that I know not. They reward me evil for good, [To] the bereaving of my soul. But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I afflicted my soul with fasting; And my prayer returned into mine own bosom. I behaved myself as though it had been my friend or my brother: I bowed down mourning, as one that bewaileth his mother. But in mine adversity they rejoiced, and gathered themselves together: The abjects gathered themselves together against me, and I knew [it] not; They did tear me, and ceased not: Like the profane mockers in feasts, They gnashed upon me with their teeth. Lord, how long wilt thou look on? Rescue my soul from their destructions, My darling from the lions. I will give thee thanks in the great assembly: I will praise thee among much people.
(Psalms 35:11). These former friends, now false witnesses against David, Were claiming to be witnesses of violent deeds that David was supposed to have done; and they kept raising questions as if he had done those deeds, but of which David had no knowledge whatever.F11

They reward me evil for good
(Psalms 35:12). What David complains of in 12a, we hear Saul confess in 1 Sam. 24:18; thus David's charges of ingratitude are here well founded.F12

My prayer returned into my own bosom
(Psalms 35:13). Translators have had difficulty knowing exactly what this means. Beginning with Martin Luther, some have rendered it, prayed most earnestly;F13 and others have taken it to mean that, The prayer would return unanswered to him or as a blessing upon himself as in Matt. 10:13.F14 The latter understanding seems better to us.

The abjects gathered themselves together against me
(Psalms 35:15). The dictionary defines `abjects' as `sunk to a low degree,' `mean,' or `despicable.' Dummelow, on the basis of Job 30:1,6, described these people as, the most worthless outcasts.F15 As Rawlinson said, It is a matter of common knowledge that when men of high position fall into misfortunes, the base and vulgar crowd always turns against them with scoffing, jeers and every sort of contumely.F16

I will give thee thanks in the great assembly
(Psalms 35:18). As in all three sections of this psalm, the conclusion again promises praise and thanksgiving to God for the deliverance which the psalmist is sure he shall receive.

Let not them that are mine enemies wrongfully rejoice over me;

Neither let them wink with the eye that hate me without a cause.

For they speak not peace;

But they devise deceitful words against them that are quiet in the land.

Yea, they opened their mouth wide against me;

They said, Aha, aha, our eye hath seen it.

Thou hast seen it, O Jehovah; keep not silence:

O Lord, be not far from me.

Stir up thyself, and awake to the justice due unto me,

Even unto my cause, My God and my Lord.

Judge me, O Jehovah my God, according to thy righteousness;

And let them not rejoice over me.

Let them not say in their heart,

Aha, so would we have it:

Let them not say, We have swallowed him up.

Let them be put to shame and confounded together that rejoice at my hurt:

Let them be clothed with shame and dishonor that magnify themselves against me.

Let them shout for joy, and be glad, that favor my righteous cause:

Yea, let them say continually, Jehovah be magnified,

Who hath pleasure in the prosperity of his servant.

And my tongue shall talk of thy righteousness

And of thy praise all the day long."

David's relentless enemies in the court of King Saul were not content with having driven him out of Jerusalem and having caused him to flee like a hunted animal into the cave of Adullum; they were determined to kill him. "They stirred up the jealousy and hatred of King Saul by false, lying charges, causing him to be `hunted upon the mountains' (1 Samuel 26:20)."F17


 
Verses 19-28
Let not them that are mine enemies wrongfully rejoice over me; Neither let them wink with the eye that hate me without a cause. For they speak not peace; But they devise deceitful words against them that are quiet in the land. Yea, they opened their mouth wide against me; They said, Aha, aha, our eye hath seen it. Thou hast seen it, O Jehovah; Keep not silence: O Lord, be not far from me. Stir up thyself, and awake to the justice [due] unto me, [Even] unto my cause, my God and my Lord. Judge me, O Jehovah my God, according to thy righteousness; And let them not rejoice over me. Let them not say in their heart, Aha, so would we have it: Let them not say, We have swallowed him up. Let them be put to shame and confounded together that rejoice at my hurt: Let them be clothed with shame and dishonor that magnify themselves against me. Let them shout for joy, and be glad, that favor my righteous cause: Yea, let them say continually, Jehovah be magnified, Who hath pleasure in the prosperity of his servant. And my tongue shall talk of thy righteousness [And] of thy praise all the day long.
(Psalms 35:21) ... Thou hast seen it, O Jehovah (Psalms 35:22). What a remarkable contrast is this! The lying tongues of the enemies are claiming that they had seen David's terrible deeds; and David's answer is, God, you did indeed really see, and know the falsity of the charges.'.. Thou hast seen,' is a perfect foil to the claim of enemies that, `our eye hath seen it.'F18

The justice due unto me
(Psalms 35:23). Here David appeals to God for justice to be done. What could possibly be wrong with such a plea? Oh yes, he pleaded for his enemies to be put to shame, but not for their death. But what else could he have done? In the situation in which David found himself someone was most certainly doomed to be put to shame. The only thing David pleaded for here is that it would not be himself, but his lying enemies who would be the ones thus dishonored.

This writer can find nothing wrong with this prayer. It would really be interesting to hear the prayers of some of the critics of this psalm if they were confronted with the same kind of life or death situation that faced David.

Judge me, O Jehovah my God, according to thy righteousness
(Psalms 35:24). Rawlinson gave the meaning of this appeal thus: Let thy law of righteousness be the rule by which I am judged, and mine enemies also.F19 This clearly indicates that David was not requesting anything against his enemies that was, in any sense, contrary to God's justice.

Let them not say, Aha, so would we have it
(Psalms 35:25). Another more colloquial rendering of these words would be, `Aha, this is what we wanted.'F20

Let them shout for joy. that favor my righteous cause
(Psalms 35:27). It is important to remember that David's prayer here is not for himself alone. If Saul had captured David when he `hunted him upon the mountains,' David and all of his followers would have been put to death or exiled.F21

In that situation, a plea on David's part that God would not allow his enemies to rejoice over his defeat and downfall, was automatically a plea that all of his friends and followers should rejoice and praise Jehovah. There was absolutely no `middle ground' in this unhappy circumstance.

Ps. 35:28, like Ps. 35:9-10,18, marks the close of this third section with the same promise of thanksgiving to God that marked the close of the first two sections.

One other word shall close our discussion of this psalm. Back in verse 8, the prayer has these words, "Let destruction come upon him unawares." Rawlinson's comment on this was, "Them is always something in David's imprecations from which Christians shrink; and this is particularly the case here where he asks for the `destruction' of his enemies."F22

We do not believe that it was David's meaning here that God would `kill' his enemies; but that he would accomplish the destruction of their purposes. The clothing of his enemies in "dishonor" in Ps. 35:26 is a request that does not imply the death of enemies but their defeat; and we believe that this is the meaning of Ps. 35:8 also.


Footnotes for Psalms 35
1: H. C. Leupold, p. 284.
2: Henry H. Halley's Bible Handbook (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House), p. 239.
3: George DeHoff's Commentary, Vol. III, p. 135.
4: Henry H. Halley's Bible Handbook (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House), p. 239.
5: H. C. Leupold, p. 285.
6: F. Delitzsch, Vol. V, p. 417.
7: The New Bible Commentary, Revised, p. 472.
8: H. C. Leupold, p. 287.
9: Derek Kidner, Vol. 1, p. 143.
10: The Layman's Bible Commentary, Vol. 9, p. 67.
11: H. C. Leupold, p. 288.
12: F. Delitzsch, Vol. V, p. 424.
13: H. C. Leupold, p. 291.
14: Derek Kidner, Vol. 1. p. 143.
15: J. R. Dummelow's Commentary, p. 343.
16: The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 8, 267.
17: Ibid., p. 268.
18: Derek Kidner, Vol. 1, p. 144.
19: The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 8, p. 268.
20: H. C. Leupold, p. 291.
21: The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 8, p. 268.
22: Ibid.

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 35". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=ps&chapter=035>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  

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