Psalm 17 – Shelter Under the Shadow of His Wings
The title of this Psalm is simply, A Prayer of David. We can’t place it to a specific time in David’s life, because there are too many possible points where this connects with his general circumstances. This Psalm is remarkable for its trust in God, its lack of confidence in self, and in its glorious heavenly hope.
A. A plea to be heard in time of crisis.
1. (1-2) David presents his cause to the Lord.
Hear a just cause, O Lord,
Attend to my cry;
Give ear to my prayer which is not from deceitful lips.
Let my vindication come from Your presence;
Let Your eyes look on the things that are upright.
a. Hear a just cause, O Lord: As is common in the Psalms, David again prayed from a time of crisis. Here he began his appeal to God by declaring the justice of his cause. He believed God had every reason to attend to his cry because his cause was just.
i. It is entirely possible for someone to think that their cause is just when it is not; or for both parties in a fight to each be absolutely convinced that their own cause is just. We cannot automatically take these words of David to ourselves and immediately judge our cause as just.
ii. Yet we can look at our cause as impartially and dispassionately as possible, looking at it from the perspective of others to the best of our ability, and be more concerned with what is truly just than simply what favors us.
iii. “A cry is our earliest utterance, and in many ways the most natural of human sounds; if our prayer should like the infant’s cry be more natural than intelligent, and more earnest than elegant, it will be none the less eloquent with God. There is a mighty power in a child’s cry to prevail with a parent’s heart.” (Spurgeon)
b. Give ear to my prayer which is not from deceitful lips: Even as David was convinced regarding the justice of his cause, he was also careful to speak honestly about his problem. The idea is that David has not deceived so as to deserve his current problem, and that he was not withholding facts that would undermine his cause.
i. In Psalm 139:23-24 David prayed: Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. This wonderful prayer – to know one’s own heart and hidden motives and sins – is the kind of thing that David prayed before he prayed this Psalm. He comes to God in Psalm 17 with some confidence through a tested conscience.
ii. Deceitful lips: “They have Jacob’s voice, but Esau’s hands; they profess like saints, but practise like Satans; they have their long prayers, but short prayings.” (Bales, cited in Spurgeon)
c. Let my vindication come from Your presence: David did not want a vindication that came from himself. In his long struggle with King Saul, David had several opportunities to set things right himself, but he refused all waited until vindication came from the presence of God.
i. This was an important way that David left his problem to the Lord. “God, I refuse to take matters into my own hands. I will wait for vindication to come from Your presence; I want to know that this is Your work and not mine.”
d. Let Your eyes look on the things that are upright: David phrased his request in a way that put more emphasis upon God’s justice than on his own cause. He did believe that his cause was just; but he spoke in a manner that gave more importance to the things that are upright.
i. David’s idea was something like this: “Lord, I believe my cause is just and I have searched my own heart for deceit. Yet I wait for Your vindication, and I want You to do and to promote what is right. If I’m not on Your side, move me so that I am.”
ii. “I desire nothing that is unreasonable or unjust, but that thou wouldst judge righteously between me and mine enemies, and vindicate my own honour and faithfulness in making good thy promise to me.” (Poole)
2. (3-4) A plea from a tested heart.
You have tested my heart;
You have visited me in the night;
You have tried me and have found nothing;
I have purposed that my mouth shall not transgress.
Concerning the works of men,
By the word of Your lips,
I have kept away from the paths of the destroyer.
a. You have tested my heart: David invited the test in the previous verses; here he speaks having passed the test (You have tried me and have found nothing).
i. Clarke assumes (probably rightly) that this Psalm comes from the context of Saul hunting David. “Thou hast seen me in my most secret retirements, and knowest whether I have plotted mischief against him who now wishes to take away my life.” (Clarke)
ii. It takes some level of patience and maturity to let God test one’s heart in this manner. We must accept the fact that we might be wrong and that someone else may be right in the matter. We must be more interested in God’s justice and His standard of right and wrong than we are in winning our cause. We must come to God and His word with a heart ready to be convicted and corrected.
iii. It is a worthy question for all to ask: “Do I allow God to test my heart? Can I be corrected? Will I listen to others when they tell me that I may be wrong?”
iv. David did allow God to test his heart, and therefore he came with great confidence in prayer. “Open and unconfessed sin is a great prayer barrier. An upright life is a strong basis for appeals.” (Boice)
v. Boice suggests these questions for examining our heart before prayer:
· Are we being disobedient?
· Are we being selfish?
· Are we neglecting some important duty?
· Is there a wrong we should first make right?
· Are our priorities in order?
b. I have purposed that my mouth shall not transgress: David was careful to not speak in a sinful way about his crisis. He could speak in a way that might deceive others or himself, and promote his own cause at the expense of God’s justice; yet David purposed that it would not be so.
i. “The strong professions of heart-cleanness and outward obedience which follows are not so much denials of any sin as avowals of sincere devotion and honest submission of life to God’s law.” (Maclaren)
c. By the word of Your lips, I have kept away from the paths of the destroyer: This was one reason why David was good at this kind of strong self-analysis. He lived by the words of God’s lips; he knew and loved and lived God’s word.
i. It was this word that tried David and found nothing. It was this word that gave David the wisdom and the strength to keep away from the paths of the destroyer. The idea is not so much a path where David would destroy, but a path where David would become a destroyer.
ii. David learned and displayed this lesson over and over again during his long crisis with King Saul. David had to protect himself, his family, and his men from Saul without becoming himself a twisted, self-interested destroyer like Saul.
B. A plea for protection.
1. (5) Hold up my steps.
Uphold my steps in Your paths,
That my footsteps may not slip.
a. Uphold my steps: David felt that he was in danger of falling or slipping into disaster; he needed God to hold up his steps, so that his footsteps may not slip.
i. “The word of God affords us direction, but the grace of God must enable us to follow its direction, and that grace must be obtained by prayer.” (Horne)
ii. “What! Slip in God’s ways? Yes, the road is good, but our feet are evil, and therefore slip, even on the King’s highway.” (Spurgeon)
b. In Your paths: This again shows the significant humility of David’s prayer. He wants to be upheld, but only on God’spaths. Included in this is the unspoken prayer, “Lord, if I am not on Your path, please put me there. I want to be in Your paths, not my own.”
2. (6-9) Keep me safe by Your power.
I have called upon You, for You will hear me, O God;
Incline Your ear to me, and hear my speech.
Show Your marvelous lovingkindness by Your right hand,
O You who save those who trust in You
From those who rise up against them.
Keep me as the apple of Your eye;
Hide me under the shadow of Your wings,
From the wicked who oppress me,
From my deadly enemies who surround me.
a. I have called upon You, for You will hear me: David’s calm confidence in the midst of his crisis is encouraging. Though his problems were not gone yet, he still was confident that God would hear when he called.
i. Boice explained how this Psalm is a great pattern of prayer. “It models prayer by the way the psalmist uses arguments to make his appeal to God. He does not merely ask for what he wants or needs. He argues his case, explaining to God what God should answer.”
ii. We don’t make such arguments in prayer because we can, through brilliant or persuasive arguments, convince God to do something that He doesn’t really want to do. Instead, it is “because arguments force us to carefully think through what we are asking and to sharpen our requests.” (Boice)
b. Show Your marvelous lovingkindness by Your right hand: This is the first appearance in the Psalms of the wonderful word, lovingkindness. David asked that this special love be shown to him by the special power of God (Your right hand).
i. Kidner on lovingkindness: “Steadfast love, or ‘true love’ (neb) is that faithfulness to a covenant, to which marital devotion gives some analogy. It is the word which older versions translated ‘lovingkindness’, before its connection with covenanting and its strong element of fidelity were fully appreciated.”
ii. “This is the love by which he enters into a favorable relationship with his people, promising to be their God.” (Boice)
iii. Yet David spoke of more than lovingkindness here; he spoke of marvelous lovingkindness, and that by Your right hand. “The wonder of extraordinary love is that God should make it such an ordinary thing, that he should give to us ‘marvellous lovingkindness,’ and yet should give it so often that it becomes a daily blessing, and yet remains marvellous still.” (Spurgeon)
iv. Many of us ask for or only expect God’s moderate lovingkindness. We make our prayers, our faith, and our expectations small. David here shows us a pattern to expect and ask from God marvelous lovingkindness.
v. “Do you not see that you have been a marvellous sinner? Marvellously ungrateful have you been; marvellously have you aggravated your sins; marvellously did you kick against a mother’s tears; marvellously did you defy a father’s counsels; marvellously have you laughed at death; marvellously have you made a covenant with death and a league with hell. . . . ‘Oh!’ saith he, ‘God will never have mercy on me; it is too great a thing to hope, too great a wonder to expect!’ Young man, here is a new prayer for you, ‘Show thy marvellous loving-kindness.’” (Spurgeon)
c. Keep me as the apple of Your eye: The phrase “apple of Your eye” was used to describe something precious, easily injured and demanding protection. David wanted to be kept by God as if he were something valuable and even fragile.
i. “No part of the body more precious, more tender, and more carefully guarded than the eye; and of the eye, no portion more peculiarly to be protected than the central apple, the pupil, or as the Hebrew calls it, ‘the daughter of the eye.’ The all wise Creator has placed the eye in a well protected position; it stands surrounded by projecting bones like Jerusalem encircled by mountains. Moreover, its great Author has surrounded it with many tunics of inward covering, besides the hedge of the eyebrows, the curtain of the eyelids, and the fence of the eyelashes; and, in addition to this, he has given to every man so high a value for his eyes, and so quick an apprehension of danger, that no member of the body is more faithfully cared for than the organ of sight.” (Spurgeon)
ii. This figure of speech is also used in Deuteronomy 32:10, Proverbs 7:2, and Zechariah 2:8. To be kept as the apple of the eye means:
· To be kept with many guards and protections
· To always be kept safe
· To be kept from the small things, like dust and grit
· To always be kept sensitive and tender
· To be kept clear and unobstructed
· To be kept as something beautiful and eminently useful
d. Hide me under the shadow of Your wings: This is another powerful figure of speech. The idea is of how a mother bird shields her young chicks from predators, from the elements, and from dangers by gathering them under her wings.
i. This figure of speech is also used in three other Psalms (Psalms 36:7, 57:1, and 63:7). Jesus used this same word picture to show his love and desired care for Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37.
ii. “Even as the parent bird completely shields her brood from evil, and meanwhile cherishes them with the warmth of her own heart, by covering them with her wings, so do thou with me, most condescending God, for I am thine offspring, and thou hast a parent’s love in perfection.” (Spurgeon)
iii. Taken together, these two phrases are powerful pictures of God’s care for His people. “He who has so fenced and guarded that precious and tender part, the pupil of the eye, and who has provided for the security of a young and helpless brood under the wings of their dam, is here entreated to extend the same providential care and parental love to the souls of his elect.” (Horne)
e. From the wicked who oppress me, from my deadly enemies who surround me: The threat in David’s life was real. He faced not only oppression that made his life difficult, but also deadly enemies who wanted to end his life.
i. In the midst of these real threats, David did the right thing: he prayed. “Fears that have become prayers are already more than half conquered.” (Maclaren)
ii. Boice quotes a Bible teacher who had the habit of praying a certain prayer when he felt he was under attack: “Lord, your property is in danger.”
3. (10-14) Defeat my proud and arrogant enemies.
They have closed up their fat hearts;
With their mouths they speak proudly.
They have now surrounded us in our steps;
They have set their eyes, crouching down to the earth,
As a lion is eager to tear his prey,
And like a young lion lurking in secret places.
Arise, O Lord,
Confront him, cast him down;
Deliver my life from the wicked with Your sword,
With Your hand from men, O Lord,
From men of the world who have their portion in this life,
And whose belly You fill with Your hidden treasure.
They are satisfied with children,
And leave the rest of their possession for their babes.
a. They have closed up their fat hearts: David here begins to describe the deadly enemies who oppressed him so. They were insensitive (fat hearts), and spoke proudly.
i. “The meaning plainly is, that pride is the child of plenty, begotten by self-indulgence, which hardens the hearts of men against the fear of God, and the love of their neighbours. . . . Let every man take care, that, by pampering the flesh, he do not raise up an enemy of this stamp against himself.” (Horne)
b. Surrounded us in our steps . . . set their eyes . . . crouching down to the earth, as a lion: David described the dangerous, wild, beast-like actions of his enemies. They would destroy him as a lion destroys its prey.
c. Arise, O Lord, confront him, cast him down: David declared his dependence on God to protect him. It wasn’t because David was afraid of such lion-like enemies; as a young boy David had bested both the bear and the lion (1 Samuel 17:33-37). It was because David needed to see his enemy defeated by the hand of God, not the hand of David.
i. Confront him: “Hebrew, prevent his face, i.e., go forth against him, and meet and face him in battle, as enemies use to do.” (Poole)
ii. This Psalm has no firm connection to any particular recorded event in David’s life, but it is not hard to see it belonging to the long period when Saul hunted David. During that time David refused to strike out against Saul when he had the opportunity, because he knew that God must strike against Saul, and not David himself.
d. Deliver my life from the wicked . . . from men of the world who have their portion in this life: David recognized that one characteristic of his enemies was that they looked much more to this life than they did to eternity.
i. And, they may very well have some satisfactions in this life: whose belly You fill . . . they are satisfied with children, and leave the rest of their possession for their babes. Spurgeon explained it like this: “Their sensual appetite gets the gain which it craved for. God gives to these swine the husks which they hunger for. A generous man does not deny dogs their bones; and our generous God gives even his enemies enough to fill them, if they were not so unreasonable as never to be content.”
4. (15) The settled confidence of prayer.
As for me, I will see Your face in righteousness;
I shall be satisfied when I awake in Your likeness.
a. As for me: David here set himself in contrast to his enemies, who looked only to this life and not to eternity.
i. “This superb verse soars straight up from the prosperous lowlands of verse 14, where all was earthbound.” (Kidner)
ii. “I do not envy this their felicity, but my hopes and happiness are of another nature. I do not place my portion in earthly and temporal treasures, as they do, but in beholding God’s face.” (Poole)
iii. “The smell of the furnace is upon the present psalm, but there is evidence in the last verse that he who wrote it came unharmed out of the flame.” (Spurgeon)
b. I will see Your face: David was confident not only of life after death, but that he would one day see the face of God. The idea is not merely of contact with God, but of unhindered fellowship with God.
c. See Your face in righteousness: The idea is that David would have a righteousness that would enable him to see the face of God; to have this unhindered relationship with Him.
i. From a New Covenant perspective, we can say that this righteousness is the gift of God, granted to those who receive the person and work of Jesus by faith.
d. I shall be satisfied when I awake: David knew that the transition from this life to the next was like waking. He knew that the world beyond was more real and less dreamlike than our own.
i. We tend to think of heaven and its realities as an uncertain, cloudy dream world. In truth it is more real than our present environment, which by contrast will seem uncertain and cloudy when we awake in God’s presence.
ii. “The moment is at hand when we shall awake and start up and declare ourselves fools for having counted dreams as realities, whilst we were oblivious to the eternal realities.” (Meyer)
iii. Though David’s focus was on eternity, this verse does not ignore the present day. There is a real sense in which these realities – closer fellowship with God, His righteousness in our life, a life truly awake, a life more and more conformed to His image – can in greater and greater measure be ours in this life. We should remember that eternal life begins now.
e. When I awake in Your likeness: David did not have a sophisticated understanding of heaven; one might say that no one in the Old Testament really did. Yet he did know that when he saw God’s face, when he received His righteousness, when he awoke in heaven’s reality, that he would be in God’s likeness.
i. David seemed to anticipate what Paul would write some 1,000 years later: For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). The destiny of God’s people is to be conformed into the image of God, as perfectly displayed in Jesus Christ His Son.
ii. This – and perhaps only this – would make David satisfied. The implication is that he would never be satisfied until:
· He saw God’s face, enjoying unhindered relationship with Him.
· He received God’s righteousness.
· He awoke to and lived in heaven’s reality.
· He was conformed into God’s likeness.
iii. “The mind will be satisfied with his truth, the heart with his love, the will with his authority. We shall need nothing else.” (Meyer)
© 2008 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission