This psalm is titled To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David. The theme is similar to many of David’s other psalms, in which he cried out to God in a time of trouble. This trouble seems to be slander against him, perhaps when he was a fugitive escaping from Saul’s court.
The Chief Musician is thought by some to be the LORD God Himself, and others suppose him to be a leader of choirs or musicians in David’s time, such as Heman the singer or Asaph (1 Chronicles 6:33, 16:4-7, and 25:6). Charles Spurgeon remarked, “The writer wished this experimental hymn to be under the care of the chief master of song, that it might neither be left unsung, nor chanted in a slovenly manner.”
A. Evil men, their evil words, the evil plots.
1. (1-3) Praying for deliverance.
Deliver me, O LORD, from evil men;
Preserve me from violent men,
Who plan evil things in their hearts;
They continually gather together for war.
They sharpen their tongues like a serpent;
The poison of asps is under their lips. Selah
a. Deliver me, O LORD, from evil men: Many times in David’s life, he suffered under the presence and pressure of evil and violent men. This desperate song came from such a time, and shows its urgency by having no prelude of praise or contemplation. David went straight to his plea.
i. “The singer was being slandered by evil and violent men, who were prepared if occasion offered to add actual violence to their lying speech.” (Morgan)
ii. “Slander and calumny must always precede and accompany persecution, because malice itself cannot excite people against a good man, as such; to do this, he must first be represented as a bad man.” (Horne)
iii. “The persecuted man turns to God in prayer; he could not do a wiser thing. Who can meet the evil man and defeat him save Jehovah himself, whose infinite goodness is more than a match for all the evil in the universe?” (Spurgeon)
b. Who plan evil things in their hearts: Those evil men were known by the evil things in their hearts. Their evil actions were not accidents disconnected from their true nature, as shown in that they were always ready for conflict and war.
i. Evil things in their hearts: “It is an awful thing to have such a heart-disease as this. When the imagination gloats over doing harm to others, it is a sure sign that the entire nature is far gone in wickedness.” (Spurgeon)
ii. They continually gather together for war: John Trapp noted that the Hebrew is “…they gather wars, as serpents gather poison to vomit out at others.” (Trapp)
c. They sharpen their tongues like a serpent: The desire for war and evil things is often expressed in sharp and poisonous words. David felt both the sting and the poison of such men and their words.
i. “Like a serpent; either whetting their tongues, as serpents are said to whet theirs when they are about to bite; or rather, using words as sharp and piercing as the sting of a serpent.” (Poole)
ii. “It was a common notion that serpents inserted their poison by their tongues, and the poets used the idea as a poetical expression, although it is certain that the serpent wounds by his fangs and not by his tongue. We are not to suppose that all authors who used such language were mistaken in their natural history any more than a writer can be charged with ignorance of astronomy because he speaks of the sun’s travelling from east to west.” (Spurgeon)
iii. Asps: “The word rendered ‘adder’ [asps], achsub, occurs here only; and it is perhaps impossible to determine what species is intended. As the word, in its proper signification, seems to express coiling, or bending back – an act common to most serpents.” (Kitto, cited in Spurgeon)
iv. Paul quoted Psalm 140:3 in Romans 3:13 as part of his description of man’s deep sinfulness. In principle, Paul expanded the idea beyond David’s original sense and applied the concept to all humanity in its fallen condition.
d. Selah: This word indicates some kind of pause, either for a musical expression or for careful thought and meditation – or both. Selah is repeated three times in this psalm, and here indicates that the deep sinfulness of man is worthy of our careful consideration. We often think too little of God’s greatness and too little of man’s sinfulness.
i. “What emerges clearly from this passage is the evil that can arise, not from any pressure of circumstances but from a love of violence, cruelty and intrigue for their own sake.” (Kidner)
ii. “We meet with Selah here for the first time since Psalm 89. From Psalm 90 to Psalm 140 no Selah occurs. Why omitted in these fifty we cannot tell any more than why so often recurring in others. However, there are only about forty psalms in all in which it is used.” (Bonar, cited in Spurgeon)
2. (4-5) Praying for preservation.
Keep me, O LORD, from the hands of the wicked;
Preserve me from violent men,
Who have purposed to make my steps stumble.
The proud have hidden a snare for me, and cords;
They have spread a net by the wayside;
They have set traps for me. Selah
a. Keep me, O LORD, from the hands of the wicked: In the first portion of this psalm, David acknowledged the presence of wicked and violent men. With such a realistic view, he then requested of God, “Preserve me from violent men.”
i. “Thus David was hunted as a rebel, Christ was crucified as a blasphemer, and the primitive Christians were tortured as guilty of incest and murder.” (Horne)
ii. “The ‘wicked’ may arrogantly desire, plan, and execute; but the Master of the universe cannot tolerate anarchy for long. To this end the plea changes into an imprecatory prayer.” (VanGemeren)
b. The proud have hidden a snare for me: They hoped to make David trip over a series of hidden snares, cords, nets, and traps, many of which were expressed in their poisonous words (verse 3). David was not blind to the traps, but he had hope in God’s help.
i. “They hunted David as they would a dangerous wild beast: one while striving to pierce him with the spear; another to entangle him in their snares, so as to take and sacrifice him before the people, on pretense of his being an enemy to the state.” (Clarke)
ii. “David’s enemies wished to snare him in his path of service, the usual way of his life. Saul laid many snares for David, but the Lord preserved him.” (Spurgeon)
iii. “How are ‘the snares, the nets’…placed for us by that cunning and experienced artist, who takes care that nothing should appear in view, but the alluring baits of honour, pleasure, and profit, while of the toils we have no notice, till we find ourselves entangled and caught in them!” (Horne)
iv. “If a godly man can be cajoled, or bribed, or cowed, or made angry, the wicked will make the attempt. Ready are they to twist his words, misread his intentions, and misdirect his efforts; ready to fawn, and lie, and make themselves mean to the last degree so that they may accomplish their abominable purpose.” (Spurgeon)
c. Selah: When David considered the danger coming from those who opposed him, it prompted a thoughtful pause.
B. Seeking God’s help.
1. (6-8) Praying to the God of strength and salvation.
I said to the LORD: “You are my God;
Hear the voice of my supplications, O LORD.
O GOD the Lord, the strength of my salvation,
You have covered my head in the day of battle.
Do not grant, O LORD, the desires of the wicked;
Do not further his wicked scheme,
Lest they be exalted. Selah
a. You are my God: David would worship no other god; his allegiance was to Yahweh alone. This devotion gave him confidence that God would hear the voice of his supplications. God doesn’t just hear the words of the cry, but the voice of the cry. It is distinctive and meaningful to Him.
i. “‘Thou art my God,’ in opposition to the gods of the heathen. They may worship Baal and Asherah, but ‘ thou art my God.’ I count other gods to be idols, the works of men’s hands, and I despise them.” (Spurgeon)
b. O GOD the Lord, the strength of my salvation: David cried out to Yahweh (GOD) his Master (Lord, adonai), recognizing Him as the Lord of his life, and no other god. The true God could actually help David, being the strength of his salvation.
i. “To himself, and to all others, his escape has been marvelous. How could it be accounted for, except that an unseen shield had been around him, covering his head in the day of battle.” (Meyer)
c. You have covered my head in the day of battle: David knew many literal battles, but he also lived through many battles with lying and slanderous men. David testified that God had been his protection, his shield, his armor in those battles. According to Meyer (cited in Spurgeon), day of battle is better translated, “day of armor.”
i. “That is to say, God had been David’s Armour-bearer. The Lord had borne a shield before him; instead of the harness in which warriors put their confidence, God had covered David with a coat of mail [armor] through which no sword of the enemy could possibly cut its way.” (Spurgeon)
d. Do not grant, O LORD, the desires of the wicked: In recognizing the supremacy of Yahweh, David realized that if God were to help the wicked, then they would be exalted. He prayed for God to work for His people and against the desires of the wicked.
e. Selah: When David considered the need for the wicked to be stopped in their evil plotting, it prompted a thoughtful pause.
2. (9-11) David’s prayer regarding the wicked.
“As for the head of those who surround me,
Let the evil of their lips cover them;
Let burning coals fall upon them;
Let them be cast into the fire,
Into deep pits, that they rise not up again.
Let not a slanderer be established in the earth;
Let evil hunt the violent man to overthrow him.”
a. As for the head of those who surround me: Since we don’t know the exact occasion in David’s life for this prayer, we don’t know who he meant by the head. It could have been Saul, who was David’s long and persistent enemy. It could have been Doeg, who was an evil, violent man who bore a false report against David (1 Samuel 21-22).
i. If this prayer is about Saul, it is another significant example of how David would not violently strike against Saul even when he had the opportunity (1 Samuel 24:1-7, 1 Samuel 26:7-11). David would not touch Saul; for all his sins and faults, Saul was God’s anointed king. When David was attacked by Saul, he would pour out his heart in prayer to the LORD, entrusting Saul’s punishment to God in heaven, rather than taking it in his own hands.
b. Let the evil of their lips cover them: David prayed for simple justice in regard to his enemies. He prayed they would be covered with the same evil they had spoken against others. Under the New Covenant, we are told not to return evil for evil (Romans 12:17), but we sympathize with David’s cry for justice.
i. “Their lips, which uttered mischief against others, shall be the means of covering themselves with confusion, when out of their own mouths they shall be judged. Those tongues, which have contributed to set the world on fire, shall be tormented with the hot burning coals of eternal vengeance.” (Horne)
c. Let burning coals fall upon them: David prayed that the same fire that wicked men poured out on others would be poured out on them. He prayed that this would destroy the wicked, and that they would be hunted by evil until they were overthrown.
i. “The burning coals and pits are probably metaphorical, the former for the searing words which they have loved to use…the latter for the traps and pitfalls they have made for others.” (Kidner)
ii. “The Psalmist doubtless had before his mind’s eye the picture of Sodom, where burning coals fell on the guilty cities, and where men stumbled into the fire, and when they tried to escape, fell into the deep slime pits, and perished.” (Spurgeon)
d. Let evil hunt the violent man: These evil men hunted David (Psalm 140:4-6). David prayed that the same would be returned to them – that the hunters would be hunted by their very evil.
i. “God’s judgments against sinners are feathered from themselves, as a fowl shot with an arrow feathered from her own body.” (Trapp)
ii. “Evil speakers and false accusers shall gain no lasting establishment, but punishment shall hunt sin through all its doubles, and seize it at last as its legal prey.” (Horne)
3. (12-13) Confidence in God’s victory.
I know that the LORD will maintain
The cause of the afflicted,
And justice for the poor.
Surely the righteous shall give thanks to Your name;
The upright shall dwell in Your presence.
a. I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted: David remained confident that God would defend His afflicted people. This would mean justice for the poor and others who suffer from the words and works of wicked men.
i. VanGemeren remarked that the verb form of I know is “…expressive of a present condition…a victory cry.”
ii. “I know, both by God’s word, which hath promised it, and by my own experience of it in the course of God’s providence.” (Poole)
iii. “The final movement (vv. Psalm 140:11-13) is an affirmation of faith. The singer is confident that in the government of Jehovah evil men cannot continue. The afflicted will be delivered, and the righteous and upright will be perfectly vindicated.” (Morgan)
iv. “That unjust and oppressive men shall, in the end, suffer proportionably…we are assured from this consideration, namely, that the Almighty is the patron of the injured and oppressed.” (Horne)
v. “Many talk as if the poor had no rights worth noticing, but they will sooner or later find out their mistake when the judge of all the earth begins to plead with them.” (Spurgeon)
vi. “Every person who is persecuted for righteousness’ sake has God for his peculiar help and refuge; and the persecutor has the same God for his especial enemy.” (Clarke)
b. Surely the righteous shall give thanks to Your name: This psalm ends on a note of confidence. Though assaulted by the wicked, David put his trust in the Lord, and gave all his desire for retribution unto Him. David believed that in the end, the righteous would be thankful and the upright would dwell in Your presence – the best reward of all.
i. “At the time of the intervention and vindication, ‘the righteous’…will alter their prayers for deliverance…to songs of triumph.” (VanGemeren)
ii. “The last line is wholly positive. His heart is free to find its true home, and his last words match the climax to which the whole of Scripture moves: ‘His servants shall serve him: and they shall see his face’ (Rev. 22:3f.).” (Kidner)
iii. G. Campbell Morgan noted that Psalm 140 begins in great trouble and sorrow, but ends in praise and triumph. “If sorrow is a certainty, so also is the action of Jehovah…. Sorrow and darkness come to all men, but only those who know God and are sure of Him, make suffering, and the night, occasions of triumphant psalmody.”
(c) 2020 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org