Psalm 141 – No Compromise
This psalm has the title A Psalm of David. It shows David as a man of tender conscience, who asked God to deal with his own sin and weakness before addressing the wicked men who fought against him. It shows that David was even more concerned about evil inside himself than he was about evil from others.
“The colourful Hebrew of the middle verses is difficult, but the thrust of the psalm is plain: a prayer against insincerity and compromise, and a plea for survival under the savage attacks which such an attitude has invited.” (Derek Kidner)
According to John Trapp, the great preacher of the early church John Chrysostom said this psalm was used in his era (A.D. 349-407) as part of the evening liturgy in the Greek Church, due to the reference in verse 2 to the evening sacrifice.
A. The nature of David’s prayer.
1. (1-2) A prayer like incense.
LORD, I cry out to You;
Make haste to me!
Give ear to my voice when I cry out to You.
Let my prayer be set before You as incense,
The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.
a. LORD, I cry out to You; make haste to me: David’s need was urgent, so he directed his prayer to the true God (Yahweh, the LORD) and begged him to help with haste.
i. “I have cried unto thee, I still cry to thee, and I always mean to cry to thee. To whom else could I go? What else can I do? Others trust to themselves, but I cry unto thee.” (Spurgeon)
b. Give ear to my voice: When a child cries out to a parent, the parent hears not only the words but the voice of the cry. The LORD can hear the voice of His people when they cry out to Him, and it moves Him to action.
c. Let my prayer be set before You as incense: David used the smoke and smell of incense as a representation of his prayer to God. His posture of prayer (the lifting up of my hands) was a gift to God even as the evening sacrifice was a gift to God. Revelation 5:8 says that the prayers of God’s people are like incense, and Hebrews 13:15 describes praise as a sacrifice unto God.
· Prayer rises to heaven even as the smoke of incense rises upward.
· Prayer pleases God even as incense has a pleasing smell.
· Prayer needs some “fire” to be effective (James 5:16 speaks of “…the effective, fervent prayer”), and incense is activated with fire.
i. If David wrote this psalm while a fugitive from King Saul, then the ideas of incense and the evening sacrifice held special meaning, because he was not free to publically go to the tabernacle and share in these acts of worship. When necessity kept him from the tabernacle, prayer would replace the offering of incense and sacrifice.
ii. “Incense was offered every morning and evening before the Lord, on the golden altar, before the veil of the sanctuary. Exodus 29:39, and Numbers 28:4.” (Clarke)
iii. Incense connected with the tabernacle and temple rituals needed to be pure and it needed to be prepared. David intended to offer pure and prepared prayers unto God.
iv. “The raising up of one’s hands was symbolic of dependence on and praise of the Lord.” (VanGemeren)
2. (3-4) A prayer to be kept from evil.
Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth;
Keep watch over the door of my lips.
Do not incline my heart to any evil thing,
To practice wicked works
With men who work iniquity;
And do not let me eat of their delicacies.
a. Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth: David didn’t want the same mouth that prayed as if it were incense to be used for lies or any evil thing. He asked God to keep watch over the door of my lips, so that he would not say evil or foolish things.
i. Keep watch over the door of my lips: “That it move not creaking, and complaining, as on rusty hinges, for want of the oil of joy and gladness.” (Trapp)
ii. “If the house of God needed its guards and doorkeepers, how much more the man of God!” (Kidner)
iii. “Nature having made my lips to be a door to my words, let grace keep that door, that no word may be suffered to go out which may any way tend to the dishonour of God, or the hurt of others.” (Henry, cited in Spurgeon)
b. Do not incline my heart to any evil thing: David knew that it was more than his lips that needed protection; his heart could also be affected by some evil thing, resulting in wicked works. This was David’s way of praying what Jesus later taught, do not lead us into temptation (Matthew 6:13).
i. “The way the heart inclines the life soon tends: evil things desired bring forth wicked things practised. Unless the fountain of life is kept pure the streams of life will soon be polluted.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “The psalmist is not suffering from the hostility of the workers of iniquity, but dreads becoming infected with their sin.” (Maclaren)
iii. “David is not too good for evil people; he is too much like them and therefore likely to be swept away by their wickedness if in their company.” (Boice)
c. Do not let me eat of their delicacies: David didn’t want to walk in the ways of men who work iniquity, so he didn’t want to eat at their table either. This may have been a literal situation for David, but the principle of not enjoying all the luxuries that the wicked partake of is always relevant to God’s people.
i. Men who work iniquity: “The word ‘men’…denotes men of land, rank, and status within the community. However, these members of the aristocracy were nevertheless ‘evildoers’ who practiced ‘wicked deeds’ (cf. Psalm 28:3)…. Removal of oneself from their influence and from the enjoyment of their material benefits was the second step away from temptation; dependency on the Lord was the first.” (VanGemeren)
ii. Sometimes there are many advantages in an evil, wicked way. The godly man or woman knows to avoid such advantages. “My afflictions are more desirable than such prosperity.” (Poole)
iii. “Instead of slander and violence, they are seeking to seduce him from his loyalty to truth and uprightness, The reference to ‘their dainties’ [delicacies] would seem to suggest that they were endeavouring to show him the advantages which he would enjoy if he would throw in his lot with theirs.” (Morgan)
iv. “A Christian living among the unbelievers and sensualists in the world, hath abundant reason to put up the same prayers, and to use the same precautions.” (Horne)
3. (5) A prayer to be corrected by the righteous.
Let the righteous strike me;
It shall be a kindness.
And let him rebuke me;
It shall be as excellent oil;
Let my head not refuse it.
a. Let the righteous strike me: David rejected the delicacies of the wicked, but embraced the correction that came from the righteous. He recognized that it would be a kindness (hesed) to him.
i. “In case I do offend in word or deed, let me never [lack] a faithful reprover, who may smite me as with a hammer (so the word signifieth), reprove me sharply.” (Trapp)
ii. “When the ungodly smile upon us their flattery is cruel; when the righteous smite us their faithfulness is kind.” (Spurgeon)
iii. “Depend upon it, the man who will tell you your faults is your best friend. It may not be a pleasant thing for him to do it, and he knows that he is running the risk of losing your friendship; but he is a true and sincere friend, therefore thank him for his reproof, and learn how you may improve by what he tells you.” (Spurgeon)
b. It shall be as excellent oil: The rebuke of a good man could be as healing and helpful to David as excellent oil upon his head. Like a kind anointing from a friend, he would not refuse such rebuke or correction – even if it were as severe as a strike upon him.
i. Excellent oil: “[In] Hebrew a head oil, such as they poured on their friends’ heads; and that was of the best.” (Trapp)
ii. You may want a fresh anointing, yet miss it because it comes to you as correction from a righteous man or woman. “The fresh anointing which you seek in the morning may come not in rapt emotional experiences, but in the straight dealing of some fellow-disciple. Whenever anything is said which finds fault with you and blames you, receive it humbly and tenderly, asking whether it may not contain a message from your Father.” (Meyer)
B. A prayer for preservation against the wicked.
1. (5b-7) The wicked and their work.
For still my prayer is against the deeds of the wicked.
Their judges are overthrown by the sides of the cliff,
And they hear my words, for they are sweet.
Our bones are scattered at the mouth of the grave,
As when one plows and breaks up the earth.
a. Still my prayer is against the deeds of the wicked: The previous lines described David as grateful for correction from the righteous. Still, he prayed for God’s work against the deeds of the wicked. For example, he wanted to see wicked judges be overthrown by the sides of the cliff – a severe but fitting judgment for those who improperly take sides, ignoring David’s righteous words (as he prayed for in verses 3-4).
i. This section of the psalm is a great challenge for the translator and the interpreter. Alexander Maclaren wrote of the phrase, still my prayer is against the deeds of the wicked: “But what is the meaning and bearing of the last clause of Psalm 141:5? No wholly satisfactory answer has been given.”
ii. The meaning of their judges are overthrown by the sides of the cliff is difficult to understand from the original Hebrew. George Horne said of verse 6, “Of this verse, as it stands in our translation, I know not what can be made.” Perhaps David meant King Saul, his chief enemy, yet would not name him out of a desire to avoid attacking God’s chosen king.
iii. “The psalmist prays that they may die a cruel death, being thrown down the cliffs (cf. 2 Chronicles 25:12; Luke 4:29). The shock of God’s judgment on their despotic regime will affect their followers and may bring them to their senses.” (VanGemeren)
iv. They hear my words, for they are sweet: “And so they did: the death of Saul made all the best of the nation look to the son of Jesse as the Lord’s anointed; his words became sweet to them.” (Spurgeon)
b. Our bones are scattered at the mouth of the grave: This is another phrase difficult to understand from the original. Perhaps David used this word picture to describe how ruined he felt he and his righteous companions were at the deeds of the wicked. Those so ruined could only cry out to God for help.
i. “Our case is almost as hopeless as of those who are dead, and whose bones are scattered in several places.” (Poole)
ii. “The point of the figure lies in the resemblance of the bones strewn at the mouth of Sheol to broken clods turned up by a plough. Sheol seems here to waver between the meanings of the unseen world of souls and the grave.” (Maclaren)
iii. “To the Jews such a spectacle must have been very dreadful, as the want of burial was esteemed one of the greatest calamities which could befall them.” (Burder, cited in Spurgeon)
2. (8-10) A prayer to find safety in the LORD.
But my eyes are upon You, O GOD the Lord;
In You I take refuge;
Do not leave my soul destitute.
Keep me from the snares they have laid for me,
And from the traps of the workers of iniquity.
Let the wicked fall into their own nets,
While I escape safely.
a. But my eyes are upon You: Even in such a terrible condition (described in the previous lines), David deliberately set his eyes upon the Lord. Because God Himself was his refuge, David prayed do not leave my soul destitute. Without God’s protection, he was at the mercy of his wicked enemies.
i. But my eyes are upon You: “In all times, in all places, on all occasions, I will cleave unto the Lord, and put my whole confidence in him.” (Clarke)
ii. “That he is able to say, ‘Mine eyes are unto Thee, O God the Lord,’ is a revelation of the fact that his anchor still holds, not only against the fierce onslaught of enemies, but also against the insidious temptation to turn aside from the path of rectitude in order to escape the vindictive opposition of his enemies.” (Morgan)
iii. Remember what David said to Saul in 1 Samuel 26:19: If the LORD has stirred you up against me, let Him accept an offering. But if it is the children of men, may they be cursed before the LORD, for they have driven me out this day from sharing in the inheritance of the LORD, saying, “Go, serve other gods.” This shows that David knew that many others lied about him to Saul, hoping to slay him with their slander. It also shows that when David was a fugitive, his enemies hoped to entice him to idolatry saying, Go, serve other gods. David would not; in the LORD alone he took refuge.
b. Keep me from the snares they have laid for me: The enemies of David were determined to destroy him, and so they set many snares, traps, and nets for him. David’s prayer was that they would fall into their own nets, even as he would escape safely. David’s trust in God was repeatedly vindicated as those who sought to destroy him were themselves destroyed.
i. Keep me from the snares: “It is hard to keep out of snares which you cannot see, and to escape [snares] which you cannot discover. Well might the much-hunted Psalmist cry, ‘Keep me.’” (Spurgeon)
ii. While I escape safely: “The last line (‘while, as for me – I pass right on!’) has a buoyancy worthy of the man who has slipped through many a net with the help of God, and is sure that his journey is by no means over.” (Kidner)
iii. “What is uppermost in the psalmist’s mind is, in any case, not the destruction of his enemies, but their being made powerless to prevent his “passing by” their snares uncaptured.” (Maclaren)
iv. This prayer was answered. “From the sequel of the history we find that the hope and assurance here expressed by the Psalmist were not vain. He escaped all the snares that were laid for him on every side.” (Horne)
(c) 2020 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org