This week’s Psalm is the first psalm that has a heading (extra information at the beginning). It’s the first of many psalms attributed to David. It’s the first psalm that has an event tied to it. It’s the first psalm in the lament category. And it’s the first psalm that uses the term Selah. All of those things deserve some mention and explanation.
HEADINGS: Headings are attached to most of the Psalms but not all. Basically they are comments about the Psalm. In the first three books, it is common for the heading to say, “A psalm of David.” This may mean mean that David wrote it. But the preposition is ambiguous and may mean something like, “in the style of” or that it was authorized by David. Psalm 3 also has an historical note: “When he fled from his son Absalom.” This note points us to the narrative in 2 Samuel 15-18 where Absalom conspired against David and took his throne for a time. David fled but eventually took back the kingdom. It gives a setting for the things said in the psalm. However, we should not allow the description of the historical event to keep us from praying the psalm ourselves. Just because we aren’t running away from our son who has conspired against us, does not mean the psalm doesn’t have meaning for us. And finally the headings often include musical notes, but not here in Psalm 3.
LAMENT: Lament is one of the big three genres in psalms. I wrote a blog post about lament towards the beginning of our COVID lockdown. Lament is where we pour out our hearts to God, hurt, sorrow, anger, and cry for his help. They are songs of suffering. They are honest. But they almost always include hope that has its foundation in God. If you want a more thorough explanation, check out “Loss and Lament“.
SELAH: This word appears 3 times in Psalm 3, but over seventy times in the book. It’s meaning is unclear. It is often described as a musical term, perhaps referring to a pause or an interlude. It might be used to a cue for a response of some sort from the congregation. One author described it as a connection between two thoughts. Some translations like the NIV2011 leave the word out entirely. Others, try to translate it; so in the New Living Translation you read “Interlude” where Selah appears in the King James and other translations. Though the meaning is unclear, I am confident that the word served a purpose to those who spoke ancient Hebrew and sung the Psalms in a corporate setting, and I would encourage you to pay attention to it. Pause in your reading. Meditate on the words. Psalms is a book that involves emotion, so pay attention to your emotions. Spend a moment speaking with God about what you are reading and feeling. It is called the prayer book of Scripture after all.
1O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me;
2many are saying of my soul, “There is no salvation for him in God.” Selah
It’s one against many here at the beginning of Psalm 3. The first verse contains two synonymous lines that create a picture of a battlefield with one lone soldier against an army. The word translated foes here is slightly unusual. It can also be translated oppressor. The psalmist is caught in a tight place. The foes are taunting the psalmist encouraging him to doubt not only God’s salvation, but also His ability to save. It’s a scary place. Selah.
3But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory and the lifter of my head.
4I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah.
But the psalmist holds firm to his confidence in God. He uses God’s personal name here rather than a distant generic term for God. (Yahweh versus Elohim.) He uses the metaphor of a shield to describe God’s protection. A shield is a defensive tool in battle that usually protects the front of a person, but here it is around or about the psalmist. And though I’m sure this isn’t what the psalmist was thinking, since it surrounds him, I picture a clear bubble of protection that the psalmist is inside. The kind of bubble that can’t be popped, and is big enough that you can’t push in to get to what’s inside.
The Lord isn’t only his shield, but his glory. Glory here means something like reputation. The king’s glory, his reputation, is dependent on God. If God does not save him, the king’s reputation will be ruined. But the people know that the king was anointed by God. So if God does not save him, God’s reputation will be damaged as well. So their reputations are tied together. Not only that, but God is the lifter of the king’s head. When we have hope, we look up. When we are discouraged, we look down. Here God gives the king hope and thus he lifts his head. The king cries aloud to God and God answers. The God of the universe cares about him and answers his call. Wow! Selah.
5I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.
6I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.
When we sleep we are at our most vulnerable. When we are in danger, it is hard to sleep soundly unless you know that someone is on guard. In military situations, someone stays on watch while others sleep. They take turns so that everyone can get some rest. But here, the psalmist, the king seems to be alone against his foes, yet he lays down and sleeps. How? Because God is his shield. Because God is on guard. Not only that, but he wakes again. God protects him and he awakes. Awakening in the morning is because of God’s mercy whether we are surrounded by foes or sleeping in our homes. The Lord sustains us. The Lord sustains the king. He gives him peace. He says, “I will not be afraid….” He chooses to live without fear of the thousands who are against him, who surround him (vs. 1). He chooses that because of his confidence in God.
7Arise, O Lord! Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.
The psalmist vocalizes his cry to the Lord here. He doesn’t just cry aloud and get an answer like in verse 5, but his words are here: “Arise! Save me!” Compare this to the first two verses. There many foes are rising, but here the king calls on God to rise. At the beginning, the foes say that God can’t save him, but here he calls on God to do just that.
It is the second half of verse 7 that we don’t like. We read things like this in the psalms (and there are much worse statements to come) and we recoil. I think part of our issue with these words is that Jesus said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who hate you.” Well striking them and breaking their teeth isn’t showing a lot of love. And though the psalmist is praying here, I don’t think that’s the kind of prayer Jesus meant. So we read this and it makes us uncomfortable. It can’t be right to pray that. So first I want to remind you that Psalms is an honest book. We try to cover our true feelings with actions of what we are supposed to do, politeness, and platitudes. This book is here in the Bible, and one of the reasons people love it is that it gives words to emotions that can’t be expressed. Secondly, let’s remember that poetry is often drawing on metaphors and images. So while the psalmist may actually want the teeth of his enemies broken, what else could that image mean? Striking on the cheek would be a humiliating act. We see that happen to Jesus in John 18:22. The psalmist wants his enemies to be humiliated. He also wants their power to be broken. If an animal like a lion has a sheep in its mouth, the only way to free the sheep is to break the lion’s teeth. Job speaks of this in his poetry: “I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth.” (Job 29:17). This is an image of salvation and of justice. And if you pair that with the idea that foes can also be translated as oppressors, the psalmist calling for humiliation of his enemies, salvation from his enemies, and justice for his enemies is a pretty complete picture.
8Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be on your people! Selah
And as with most laments, the psalmist ends on a note of hope. Salvation belongs to the Lord. His foes say that there is no salvation in God, but he knows that God is the only one who can save. Selah.
This psalm talks about being surrounded by enemies, and you may not feel that applies to you today. But the fact that salvation belongs to the Lord certainly does. I have recently read Reading While Black by Esau McCauley, and I believe he would read this from a perspective far different from my white suburban one. If I were enslaved, if I experienced injustice because of the color of my skin, I would probably want my enemies teeth to be broken and their power to be destroyed. In the news today is another example of abuse against women by a Christian leader, and the victims of that abuse would probably read this with great passion as they call for justice on their abusers. For me personally, phrases in this psalm helped me get through my first time since last March of being back at church on Sunday. So whatever challenge you are facing, I pray that God will shield you and that he will be the lifter of your head today. I pray that you will be able to sleep in peace because God sustains you because salvation is from Him alone.
May you be blessed by God’s word today. (And welcome to those of you who found me through Jon Swanson’s 300wordsaday.com.)