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"You Have Relieved Me in My Distress" (Psalms 3-6) May 17-20

Psalm 3 begins a thematic grouping of 12 of David's psalms (3-14), as we will later see in conjunction with Psalm 8 and Psalm 14.

We read Psalm 3 earlier in the Bible Reading Program. It is the lament David composed when he fled from his son Absalom (see the Bible Reading Program comments on 2 Samuel 15:1-16:14 and Psalm 3). Driven by ambition to become king himself, Absalom turned the hearts of the people away from David. David despairs that so many have turned against him (verse 1). They no longer believe God is with him to help him (verse 2).

The phrase "lifts up my head" (verse 3) expresses David's belief that God will raise him up from the humiliation he suffers. In 2 Samuel 15:30 we read of the sad occasion of David being driven out of Jerusalem: "So David went up by the Ascent of the Mount of Olives, and wept as he went up and he had his head covered and went barefoot. And all the people who were with him covered their heads and went up, weeping as they went up."

In spite of intense enemy opposition, David is able to sleep without fear, "for the Lord sustained me" (verses 5-6). The KJV and NKJV translation of verse 7 says that God has come to David's defense before. However, the NIV translates verse 7 as a present request for God to "strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked." Even if the latter is correct, God has indeed intervened for David before and will certainly do so again—just as He will for all of us who place our trust in Him.

Psalm 4 is one of David's prayers for deliverance. It "is linked to Ps. 3 in mood and concept. Both speak of the possibility of finding such peace in God's presence that even when torn by physical and emotional pain, a person may still have restful sleep (3:5; 4:8)" (Nelson Study Bible, note on Psalm 4).

In the superscription, where the King James Version leaves a word untranslated, "on Neginoth," the New King James Version properly translates this as "With stringed instruments." (As noted in the Bible Reading Program introduction to Psalms, this may be the postscript for Psalm 3.)

Getting into the words of Psalm 4 itself, "O God of my righteousness" in verse 1 "can also be translated 'O my righteous God.' The phrase has two meanings: (1) Only God is righteous. (2) All of a person's righteousness is found in him alone" (note on verse 1).

David addresses those who are currently troubling him: "How long, O you sons of men, will you turn my glory to shame?" (verse 2). "That is, through slander rob David of the public honor he had enjoyed under the Lord's blessing and care (see 3:3...) and bring him into public disrepute" (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, note on 4:2).

David knows that God has set certain godly people "apart for Himself." David was such a person, set apart by God to be king over Israel (1 Samuel 16:12-13). For this reason, he is confident that God hears his prayers and intervenes to help him.

David calls on his enemies to search their hearts, saying, "In your anger [against me] do not sin" (verse 4, NIV). Since anger can lead to sin, his detractors need to quiet down, bring their requests and sacrifices to God and trust Him to resolve their complaints (verse 5). This is remarkable in that the wicked are offered a way to redemption rather than a pronouncement of doom. In the New Testament the apostle Paul quotes verse 4 about being angry and yet not sinning in a different context—to describe the proper exercise of righteous indignation (Ephesians 4:26).

In Psalm 4:6, David recognizes that many have become discouraged, asking, "Who can show us any good?" (NIV). David knows that only God can restore confidence in the nation and end the present crisis. "Lift up the light of your countenance upon us" (verse 6). The related priestly blessing in Numbers 6:26 adds an additional phrase: "The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace." With that in mind, it is interesting to note that David concludes with a determined focus on joy and peace. Again, he is able to sleep peacefully even in the present circumstances because God provides safety.

Psalm 5. The superscription (the first part of which may refer to Psalm 4, as the Bible Reading Program's introductory notes on Psalms explains) apparently describes accompaniment "with flutes," the latter word seeming to translate the Hebrew "Nehiloth" (KJV).

Psalm 5 is a morning prayer (verses 2-3) in which David seeks help for another day. Because the world is corrupt, God makes Himself a refuge and shield for the righteous (verses 11-12). Because the world is confused, He provides clear guidance if we will seek it: "Lead me, O Lord, in Your righteousness...make Your way straight before my face" (verse 8).

Only the righteous can come into God's presence and enjoy His blessings (verses 5, 11-12). David says in verse 5, "You hate all workers of iniquity." The Hebrew word for hate "is a strong term that speaks primarily of rejection" (Nelson, note on 11:4-6). We should understand this in terms of ultimate judgment, as the next verse continues: "You shall destroy those who speak falsehood; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man." What God really hates (what He rejects and wants to destroy) is what the wicked think and do—that is, the things that classify them as wicked. God in fact loves all humanity so much that He has provided an atonement for them through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (see John 3:16)—if they will repent and accept it. Yet ultimately, if they still reject God, then all that will constitute them are the things God hates—and He will in perfect justice utterly annihilate them (for their own good and the good of everyone else).

David immediately balances his reference to God's just hatred of evil by referring to "the multitude of Your mercy" (verse 7). "Mercy here is hesed, a term also translated as 'love,' 'covenant love [or loyalty],' and 'loving-kindness.' Hesed reminds us that God is totally committed to humankind. The love we see in Calvary's ultimate sacrifice draws us, as God's mercy drew David, to worship and serve the Lord" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on verse 7). Relying on God's mercy, David expresses his intent to worship God and asks for help in following Him—to provide no basis for his enemies' accusations—as he knows he would not succeed in obedience on his own (verses 7-8).

It is interesting that David says he will worship toward God's holy temple (verse 7) when there was as yet no temple in Jerusalem. Perhaps David was speaking of God's temple in heaven (compare Hebrews 9:23-24; Revelation 15:5-16:1). Or perhaps during his preparations for the building of the physical temple late in his life, David wrote this psalm (or modified an earlier one) to be sung when the temple was standing. Note that the psalm's superscription (or alternatively the postscript at the beginning of Psalm 6) is addressed "To the Chief Musician." For us today, the temple of God, in a spiritual sense, can also refer to the body of believers with God's Holy Spirit—the Church of God (Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Corinthians 3:17).

David asks God to pass sentence on his enemies because they have "no faithfulness in their mouth" (Psalm 5:9). They boast, flatter, lie and curse. "Not a word from their mouth can be trusted; their heart is filled with destruction" (same verse, NIV). "Their throat is an open tomb; they flatter [deceivingly] with their tongue." Paul used these words to argue for the depravity of all humanity (Romans 3:13). Jesus stated that a man is defiled by what comes out of his heart: "Those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man" (Matthew 15:18-29). The sins of the wicked (verses 4-5, 9-10)—which means everyone until they repent—spring from rebellion against God: "Banish them for their many sins, for they have rebelled against you" (verse 10, NIV). As mentioned above, ultimately the wicked will be cast out: "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matthew 7:19).

But God surrounds the righteous—those who repent and seek His will—with protection and favor, making Himself their refuge and shield (Psalm 5:11-12). Of course, this does not mean that God will allow no calamity to overtake His people, as we saw in the book of Job. But everything happens within His oversight, as He directs all things to a positive outcome for those who faithfully serve Him (see Romans 8:28). And in general, He does maintain a protective defense around His people, and He provides them with constant blessings.

Psalm 6. Where the King James Version gives the superscription (perhaps the postscript of Psalm 5) as "on Neginoth upon Sheminith," the New King James gives the likely translation "On an eight-stringed harp."

In Psalm 6, David is distressed by an illness that he senses God has sent as a punishment for his own sinfulness (verse 1). He suffers intense pain—"my bones are troubled" (verse 2)—with no remission in sight: "My soul is in anguish. How long, O Lord, how long?" (verse 3). He believes the illness to be mortal (verse 5).

We do not know when this situation occurred. David wrote a number of psalms associated with serious illness that may concern the same time. Some have speculated that this came on him after the episode of taking a census of Israel, which focused more on national strength than the need for God's help (see 2 Samuel 24; 1 Chronicles 21). God sent a plague on the people, who were likely complicit in self-sufficient thinking. Yet David, who had ordered the census despite Joab's warning, took responsibility. As 2 Samuel 24:17 says: "Then David spoke to the Lord when he saw the angel who was striking the people, and said, 'Surely I have sinned, and I have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? Let Your hand, I pray, be against me and against my father's house.'" Perhaps his concluding words here came to pass when the plague on the nation was halted, though we cannot know for sure.

Whatever sin it was that apparently brought on his illness, David calls on God's mercy—His unfailing love (Psalm 6:4). As in Psalm 5, the word here again is hesed. Says The Nelson Study Bible: "Perhaps the most significant single term in the Hebrew text regarding the character of God is the word rendered mercies here. The Hebrew word describes what some prefer to call the loyal love of God. The translations vary because the word has much depth. Aside from the personal name of God (Yahweh), it may be the single most important term describing Him as the object of praise in the Book of Psalms" (note on 6:4).

David warns his enemies in verses 8-10 that he is confident in God's healing and that they will be ashamed, dismayed, and suddenly disgraced for reviling him and, in so doing, dishonoring God, who declared David His servant.

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