It’s difficult to determine the historical background of this psalm. David was often in danger, whether in the court of Saul (1 Sam. 19:1), in the wilderness being chased by Saul, or during the rebellion of Absalom, his son. David did flee from Saul’s court and hide in the wilderness for perhaps ten years, and he did abandon Jerusalem to Absalom and take refuge over the Jordan, both of which proved to be wise moves. But during the crisis described in this psalm, David did not flee his post but remained on duty, trusting the Lord to protect him, and He did. Whatever the crisis, the psalm teaches us that we must choose between fear (walking by sight) or trust (walking by faith), listening to human counsel or obeying the wisdom that comes from the Lord (James 1:5).
What David Should Do (v. 1)
When the crisis arose, David’s counselors immediately told him to leave Jerusalem and head for the safety of the mountains. They didn’t seem to have faith that the Lord could see him through (see 3:2 and 4:6). David used the imagery of the bird in 55:6–7. But David didn’t need wings like a dove; he needed wings like an eagle (Isa. 40:31) so he could rise above the storm by faith and defeat his enemies. The verb “flee” is in the plural and refers to David and his court. It’s right for us to flee from temptation (2 Tim. 2:22) as Joseph did (Gen. 39:11–13), but it’s wrong to flee from the place of duty, as Nehemiah was invited to do (Neh. 6:10–11). The leader who flees needlessly from the crisis is only a hireling and not a faithful shepherd (John 10:12–13). Beware of listening to unwise counsel. Put your faith in the Lord, and He will protect you and direct your paths.
What the Enemy Does (v. 2)
“For, look” (NIV) suggests that these counselors are walking by sight and evaluating the situation from the human perspective. (See 2 Kings 6:8–23.) It’s good to know the facts, but it’s better to look at those facts in the light of the presence and promises of God. There was a secret plot afoot, not unusual in an eastern palace. The bows and arrows may have been literal, but it’s more likely they are metaphors for deceptive and destructive words (57:4; 64:3–4; Prov. 26:18–19; Jer. 9:3, 8; 18:18). Perhaps this psalm was written during the early days of Absalom’s campaign (2 Sam. 15:1–6). David was upright before God (v. 2) and righteous (vv. 3, 5), and he knew that the Lord was righteous and would do the right thing (v. 7).
What Can the Righteous Do? (v. 3)
David was God’s appointed king, so anything that attacked him personally would shake the very foundations of the nation. God had abandoned Saul as king, and Absalom had never been chosen king, and both men weakened the foundations of divine government. (See 75:3 and 82:5.) Society is built on truth, and when truth is questioned or denied, the foundations shake (Isa. 59:11–15). The question “What can the righteous do?” has also been translated, “What is the Righteous One doing?” God sometimes “shakes things” so that His people will work on building the church and not focus on maintaining the scaffolding (Heb. 12:25–29; Hag. 2:6). But the traditional translation is accurate, and the answer to the question is, “Lay the foundations again!” Each new generation must see to it that the foundations of truth and justice are solid. Samuel laid again the foundations of the covenant (1 Sam. 12), and Ezra laid again the foundations of the temple (Ezra 3). In spite of all his trials, David lived to make preparations for the building of the temple and the organization of the temple worship. During the checkered history of Judah, godly kings cleansed the land of idolatry and brought the people back to the true worship of the Lord. Christ’s messages to the churches in Revelation 2–3 make it clear that local churches need constant examination to see if they’re faithful to the Lord, and we need to pray for a constant reviving work of the Spirit.
What God Will Do (vv. 4–7)
When you look around, you see the problems, but when you look up to the Lord by faith, you see the answer to the problems. When the outlook is grim, try the uplook! “In the Lord I put my trust,” said David, for he knew that God was on the throne in His holy temple in heaven (Hab. 2:20; Isa. 6) and that He saw everything the enemy was doing. The word “try” or “test” in verse 4 carries the idea of “testing metals by fire,” as in Jeremiah 11:20 and 17:10. God’s eyes penetrate into our hearts and minds (Heb. 4:12; Rev. 2:23). The Lord tests the righteous to bring out the best in them, but Satan tempts them to bring out the worst. When we trust the Lord in the difficulties of life, our trials work for us and not against us (2 Cor. 4:7–18).
David uses three images to describe the judgment that God has prepared for the wicked. First, he saw fire and brimstone descend on them, such as the Lord sent on Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 6a; Gen. 19:24; see also Isa. 30:33; Rev. 9:17). Then he beheld a terrible storm destroying the enemy, a “scorching wind” such as often blew from the desert (v. 6b). David used the image of the storm in his song about his deliverance from his enemies and King Saul (18:4–19). The third image is that of a poisonous potion in a cup (6c, KJV and NASB). “Drinking the cup” is often a picture of judgment from the Lord (75:8; Isa. 51:17, 22; Jer. 25:15–17; Ezek. 38:22; Rev. 14:10; 16:19; 18:6). On the Lord’s hatred of evil and violent people, see 5:5.
What does God have planned for His own people? “The upright will behold His face” (v. 7, NASB; see 17:15 and 1 John 3:1–3.) To “see the face” means to have access to a person, such as “to see the king’s face” (2 Sam. 14:24). For God to turn His face away is to reject us, but for Him to look upon us with delight means He is going to bless us (Num. 6:22–27). When Jesus returns, those who have rejected Him will be cast “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:8–10; Matt. 7:21–23), while His own children will be welcomed into His presence (Matt. 25:34).