I wanted to share some comments on Psalm 18. I have been studying the psalms lately and have been especially impressed by their rich theological content. I have been most specifically looking at the so-called “Royal Psalms”, which scholars have designated as such because of their association with Israelite kingship. Psalm 18 is one of these, being generally considered to be a song of thanksgiving sung by the Davidic king to thank Yahweh for saving him in his hour of need. The psalm gives a dramatic and powerful portrayal of the coming of Yahweh as the Divine Warrior to save his servant, the king. The king is given power to overcome his enemies, and is exalted above them as the vice-regent of God. For us, the psalm speaks of a God who hears and answers prayers, and who comes to deliver us individually as our personal Savior.
While my comments will draw from some of the studies I have done recently and commentaries read, the purpose of this post is not to give an in-depth or full commentary on the psalm, but to explore it just a bit and share what thoughts come to mind -- just some "musings."
First of all, this psalm seems to follow on a similar theme that we find in a large number of psalms — salvation from near death at the hands of a numerous and terrifying enemy. The previous psalm (Ps. 17), demonstrates this same theme.
Psalm 17:6-9 (RSV)
6 I call upon thee, for thou wilt answer me, O God; incline thy ear to me, hear my words. 7 Wondrously show thy steadfast love, O savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at thy right hand. 8 Keep me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of thy wings, 9 from the wicked who despoil me, my deadly enemies who surround me.
The psalmist calls to God, confident that he will be heard and that his Savior will keep him safe. While this is speculation on my part, it seems to me that the setting for this plea is in the Temple. The language of God giving refuge at his right hand, to me, is imagery of the Holy of Holies in the Temple — the ultimate place of refuge, and where the king was enthroned at Yahweh’s right hand (Ps. 110:1). I’m not sure what to make of the “apple of the eye” expression, besides what we use it for today, but it must have had some (perhaps similar) significance in that time. ”Hide me in the shadow of thy wings”, although it likely became a cliche, signifies to me again a setting in the Holy of Holies, where the Throne of God was overshadowed by the enormous wings of the larger cherubim that stood there. Anyone who sat near (or on) the throne in the Holy of Holies would have been overshadowed by those great wings. Of course this would have later taken on a more symbolic/metaphorical sense and would have been used without any explicit association with the holy sanctuary.
After a description of the terrible nature and intents of his enemies, the psalmist makes a more urgent plea for God’s intervention.
13 Arise, O LORD! confront them, overthrow them! Deliver my life from the wicked by thy sword, 14 from men by thy hand, O LORD, from men whose portion in life is of the world… 15 As for me, I shall behold thy face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with beholding thy form.
The speaker calls upon the Lord to “arise” and fight this overwhelming battle for him. Verse 15 is very interesting — the speaker appears to fully expect to see the face of the Lord in this process of deliverance. Apparently, he is planning to go to sleep and when he awakes, he will see the “form” of the Lord. It is hard for us to reconstruct what was going on here, but this imagery must have some relation to the known ancient practice of “dream incubation.” Dream incubation was a popular ancient practice of going into the sanctuary, praying for something needed (usually healing), and then sleeping there in the temple. The expected result of this practice is that during sleep, the god (whose temple the person was in) would appear to the person in a dream and grant their petition. If this is the case or not, the psalmist expects to somehow see God in this process.
In Psalm 18, we get a similar (if somewhat more dramatic) plea for aid to that of Ps. 17, but in this psalm we see the Lord’s response to the psalmist’s prayer. If these two psalms were not originally connected, it seems that a later editor noted the similar themes and placed them together. It almost seems that Psalm 18 is recording the thanksgiving of the psalmist for the Lord’s deliverance, explaining to us what it was that Yahweh did to answer his petition. Also, the end of this psalm makes it clear that the speaker of this psalm is a Davidic king, the Lord’s anointed.
The psalm starts off in the general tone of Ps. 17, but this seems to be in the aftermath — the king is recounting how the Lord heard him and what he did to deliver him from his enemies. This retelling of the story is done with great relief, thanksgiving, and glorifying. He begins by telling of the terrible situation he was in — so drastic that he felt as if he were being brought down to the very depths of the Underworld.
4 The cords of death encompassed me, the torrents of perdition assailed me; 5 the cords of Sheol entangled me, the snares of death confronted me. 6 In my distress I called upon the LORD; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.
The water imagery (torrents) is related to Hell/Sheol because the ancient world believed that the realm of the dead was below the great sea — so in death one would be dragged down through the waters that were around and under the earth to the pit of Sheol down below.
The king cries to the Lord for help, for deliverance from Death and Hell and informs us that indeed Yahweh hears him from his temple. The account that follows of the incomparable power of God’s salvation is one of the most poignant in all of Scripture. Yahweh is presented as the Divine Warrior coming in his wrath to save his humble servant, using his absolute power over the forces of nature to vanquish all foes of the king and restore him to health and safety. It really is impressive!
7 Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry. 8 Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him. 9 He bowed the heavens, and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. 10 He rode on a cherub, and flew; he came swiftly upon the wings of the wind. 11 He made darkness his covering around him, his canopy thick clouds dark with water. 12 Out of the brightness before him there broke through his clouds hailstones and coals of fire. 13 The LORD also thundered in the heavens, and the Most High uttered his voice, hailstones and coals of fire. 14 And he sent out his arrows, and scattered them; he flashed forth lightnings, and routed them. 15 Then the channels of the sea were seen, and the foundations of the world were laid bare, at thy rebuke, O LORD, at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils. 16 He reached from on high, he took me, he drew me out of many waters. 17 He delivered me from my strong enemy, and from those who hated me; for they were too mighty for me.
One could write a whole post on just these verses alone! The imagery is just incredible. These are very ancient themes (the anthropomorphisms, Yahweh riding on the cherub/clouds, wielding lightning, etc.) that are generally not a part of the theology of Biblical books that were composed at later dates.
We note that the king by this point has basically descended to the Underworld, as the “channels of the sea” and the “foundations of the world” were already visible. Yahweh reaches down from on high and pulls the king up out of the chaotic waters and up to safety. It appears that the king was nearly killed at the hands of a “strong enemy” that he could not defeat alone.
19 He brought me forth into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me. 20 The LORD rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he recompensed me. 21 For I have kept the ways of the LORD, and have not wickedly departed from my God. 22 For all his ordinances were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me. 23 I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from guilt. 24 Therefore the LORD has recompensed me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.
The king was saved from (near?) death and brought forth into a “broad place.” I can’t be sure, but this seems to refer to the temple, or at least the temple grounds. It is important to note that the king humbly recognizes that it is the Lord who saved him, and it was because of his faith and loyalty to the Lord. Because the king was obedient and followed God’s commandments, he was deemed worthy of this salvation.
Although the king had nearly lost his life to them in battle, after the Lord came to deliver him the king was miraculously strengthened and given the power to overcome his previously insurmountable enemies. The king rejoices in God as he recounts this remarkable change of events. The king’s new-found vitality includes enormous power, as if he had been endowed with God’s own strength.
28 Yea, thou dost light my lamp; the LORD my God lightens my darkness. 29 Yea, by thee I can crush a troop; and by my God I can leap over a wall. 30 This God — his way is perfect; the promise of the LORD proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him. 31 For who is God, but the LORD? And who is a rock, except our God? — 32 the God who girded me with strength, and made my way safe. 33 He made my feet like hinds’ feet, and set me secure on the heights. 34 He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze. 35 Thou hast given me the shield of thy salvation, and thy right hand supported me, and thy help made me great. 36 Thou didst give a wide place for my steps under me, and my feet did not slip. 37 I pursued my enemies and overtook them; and did not turn back till they were consumed. 38 I thrust them through, so that they were not able to rise; they fell under my feet. 39 For thou didst gird me with strength for the battle; thou didst make my assailants sink under me. 40 Thou didst make my enemies turn their backs to me, and those who hated me I destroyed.
The Israelite king’s new power is so great that he subdues all nations and foreign peoples come to him in submission because of their great fear of Israel’s king and God.
43 Thou didst deliver me from strife with the peoples; thou didst make me the head of the nations; people whom I had not known served me. 44 As soon as they heard of me they obeyed me; foreigners came cringing to me. 45 Foreigners lost heart, and came trembling out of their fastnesses. 46 The LORD lives; and blessed be my rock, and exalted be the God of my salvation, 47 the God who gave me vengeance and subdued peoples under me; 48 who delivered me from my enemies; yea, thou didst exalt me above my adversaries; thou didst deliver me from men of violence. 49 For this I will extol thee, O LORD, among the nations, and sing praises to thy name. 50 Great triumphs he gives to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his descendants for ever.
These images are very powerful, and, frankly, they end up being unbelievable. What Israelite king was ever the “head of the nations” and ruled over foreigners that he “had not known”? Perhaps this could refer to Solomon in the days of his glory, but his kingdom was never quite large enough to fully merit this type of talk. In some psalms (see esp. 72:11, 17), it is specified that all nations should bow before the king of Israel! It should be noted that this was common talk in the ancient world for kings — in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and elsewhere — the king was seen as the ruler of the whole Earth. The language presented in the Hebrew psalter is no different. But I believe that there was a reason for this. There was an ideology for the office of kingship that was greater than the man himself. The king was the Lord’s anointed — the Messiah — and was understood to be the beloved son of God (Pss. 2; 108:6; 2 Sam. 7:14). As we read in this psalm, the king counts himself as “blameless” before God and “free of guilt.” However, the kings were definitely mortal men — not sinless and virtually omnipotent as portrayed. I believe that we should see this very idealistic picture of kingship not as the arrogance of the king, but as an ideal. The kings were playing a role here — there was an ideal King (and not just God in Heaven, but an ideal earthly King) who they expected to fulfill this imagery to its fullest extent.
In fact, despite the heading of this psalm declaring that the historical setting of this psalm is the day of David’s victory over Saul, many scholars have concluded that the most likely “life setting” of this psalm was that of a ritual performed at the enthronement festival of the king. If this psalm were describing any real battle, it is quite clear that the author idealized the battle beyond recognition!
Commenting on Psalm 18, British scholar John Eaton affirms:
To sum up: the psalm is best taken to describe a liturgical (ritual) salvation, if other psalms also indicate the existence of such rites. The psalm expresses the confirmation of the king as Yahweh’s vice-regent and so was probably connected with the enthronement or renewal rites. There is evidence also of its integration in the annual liturgy asserting the Creator-kingship of Yahweh.
(John H. Eaton, Kingship and the Psalms, (London: SCM Press, 1976), p. 116)
Aubrey R. Johnson, in his book Sacral Kingship in Ancient Israel, makes this psalm part of his reconstruction of a series of rituals that involved the king at the annual New Year Festival. In a ritualized battle (played by actors), the king is almost defeated by the forces of evil until, at dawn, Yahweh intervenes to save the king in answer to his pleas. The humiliation/defeat of the king may have involved his being lowered into the waters of Gihon (symbolizing the Waters of Chaos leading to Death) in a baptismal-like ritual. The king emerges from the waters and is anointed — resulting in new life and power from God. He defeats his enemies and is carried triumphant up the sacred hill to the temple, where he is (re)enthroned in glory, ruler over all nations.
It is my opinion that this ritual served to remember both the primordial victory and enthronement of Yahweh, establish the authority of the current Davidic king as God’s anointed, and look forward to a future Davidic King who would be the beloved Son of God (and Yahweh incarnated on Earth) and who would fulfill the grandeur of all this ideology. It emphasized the idea of the “Suffering Servant” that we read about in Isaiah, one who would suffer, be humiliated, and even die — but then be raised from death by God. He would then be seated on the Throne of God to rule over the whole Earth.
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