This is one of five psalms identified as “prayers” (17, 86, 90, 102, 142). The title is also used in Habakkuk 3:1 and Psalm 72:20. Since most of the psalms contain prayers to the Lord, we wonder why these five were singled out for this special title. Except for 90, written by Moses, they describe the writer in dangerous situations and crying out to God for deliverance. Only 17, 86, and 142 are attributed to David, and they were probably written during the years when Saul pursued him. There are at least a dozen words for prayer in the Hebrew language, and this one (tepilla) can also mean “to intervene.” Perhaps the title also told the temple musicians what melody to use when using these psalms in public worship. Psalm 17 has definite connections with Psalm 16—“keep me” (16:1/17:8); the night (16:7/17:3); the use of El as the name for God (16:1/17:6); the hand (16:8/17:7, 14); God’s presence (16:11; 17:15); maintain or hold up (16:5/17:5). While there are suggestions of danger in Psalm 16 (vv. 1, 8, 10), the atmosphere is much more calm than what we find in 17. In this prayer, David deals with three pressing concerns and makes three major requests to the Lord. Each section opens with David addressing the Lord.
Vindication—“Examine Me” (vv. 1–5)
The psalm begins and ends with “righteousness” (vv. 1 and 15), because David wants God to examine him and vindicate him before his enemies. He saw God as a righteous judge who would give him a fair trial. King Saul and his leaders believed and circulated all kinds of lies about David, but the Lord and David knew the truth. David asked God to hear his plea, examine his life, and declare his integrity by giving him victory over the forces of Saul. Then everybody would know that God was with David, the man He has chosen to be Israel’s king. God knew that David’s prayer was sincere and that his life, though not sinless, was blameless. He was a man of integrity whose cause was a righteous one. During those years of exile, God had proved David’s heart, visited and examined him, and tested him the way gold and silver are tested and refined in the crucible (“tested by fire”). (See 26:2; 66:10; 81:7; 95:9; 139:23–24; also Job 23:10; Rev. 3:18.) No matter what Saul and his men had said about him, David was able to affirm to the Lord that he had not spoken evil of the king. In fact, on at least two occasions, David could have slain Saul, but he refused to lay hands on God’s chosen and anointed leader (1 Sam. 24, 26). Saul would have killed David (v. 9, “deadly enemies”), but David obeyed the Word of the Lord and kept himself from violence. Though he was a fugitive in the wilderness, David walked on the paths of the Lord and obeyed God’s law.
David’s declaration of righteousness was not evidence of pride or hypocrisy but of faithfulness to the Lord in difficult situations. You find similar language in 18:19–28, and see John 18:22–23 and Acts 23:1 and 24:16. David had a good conscience toward God.
Protection—“Keep Me” (vv. 6–12)
The enemy had surrounded him (vv. 9, 11; and see 1 Sam. 23:19–29), and though David was a masterful military tactician, he knew that without the Lord’s help, he could not escape. God was not only the righteous judge, but He was also the powerful defender who could shelter David and his men from the enemy. He used the Hebrew name El as he addressed the Lord, a name that emphasizes God’s great power, for He is “the Mighty God.” His request in verse 7 reminds us of the “Song of Moses” in Exodus 15:1–19. Jehovah is a God of marvels and wonders (Ex. 15:11) and great unfailing love (15:13), and His right hand works for His people (15:12). If God could deliver His people from Egypt, He could deliver David from the hand of Saul. (In Ps. 18, David will celebrate that victory.) David asked for “a marvelous demonstration of God’s love” in the defeat of his enemies.
In verse 8, David used two images—the eye and the wings—to remind God that he was precious to Him. The “apple” of the eye is the pupil, the most delicate part of the eye. The Hebrew says “the little man of the eye,” for when you look into someone’s eyes, you can see yourself. Just as we protect the eye from injury, so David wanted the Lord to protect him. David may have borrowed this image from Deuteronomy 32:10. The phrase “under the shadow of thy wings” sometimes pictures the mother hen protecting her young (Matt. 23:37), but often it refers to the wings of the cherubim in the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle (Ex. 25:18–20). David asked the Lord to make his hiding place into a Holy of Holies, the place of God’s throne and God’s glory, protected by the angels of God (see 36:7–8; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7; Ruth 2:12). Because of the heavenly intercession of Jesus Christ, God’s people today can enter into the Holy of Holies and fellowship with God (Heb. 10:1–25).
The enemy had arrogant mouths and hearts that were “enclosed in fat” (v. 10), that is, they had hearts that were callous from repeated disobedience to the Lord. In Scripture, “fatness” is sometimes associated with a selfish and worldly lifestyle (73:1–9; 119:70; Isa. 6:10). These people were morally and spiritually insensitive to what was right and weren’t upset when they did something wrong. Paul called this “a seared conscience” (1 Tim. 4:2), for a heart covered with fat would not be sensitive to the needs of others (1 John 3:17). David’s heart was sensitive to God’s will; he knew that God wanted him to have “a broken and a contrite heart” (51:17). David was a compassionate shepherd, but Saul was a ravenous beast (v. 12; see 57:3 and 2 Sam. 1:23). Twice Saul threw his spear at David (1 Sam. 18:11; 19:10), on four occasions he sent soldiers to capture him, and Saul went personally to lay hold of him (1 Sam. 19:11–23). Now, like a lion, Saul tracked his prey and waited for the right time to pounce; but the Lord protected David.
Salvation—“Rescue Me” (vv. 13–15)
David now sees the Lord as his gracious Redeemer, rescuing him and his men from the wicked hands of Saul. These verses contrast the “people of this world” to the “people of God” who live for that which is eternal. “Arise, O Jehovah” reminds us of 3:7, 7:6, 9:19 and 10:12, all of which go back to Numbers 10:35. He asks the Lord to confront Saul and his army, cast them down, and use His sword to defeat them. “Cast down” (v. 13) can be translated “make him crouch down like a lion that has been subdued.” (See v. 12.) Except for his son Jonathan, Saul and his leaders were not spiritually minded but thought only of the things of this fleeting world (39:5; 49:1; 89:47). As “men of the world,” they lived for time, not for eternity, and for their own pleasures, and not for the glory of God. (See Luke 16:8 and 25 and James 5:5.)
Verse 14 is difficult to translate, but the sense seems clear: God was storing up judgment for David’s enemies (Matt. 23:32; 1 Thess. 2:16), and their only reward would be in this life, not in the afterlife. They were full, they had many children who lacked nothing, and they would leave their wealth to their descendents. But the consequences of their sins would also be inherited by their descendents (Ex. 34:7; Num. 14:18). “May they have their punishment in full. May their children inherit more of the same, and may the judgment continue to their children’s children” (v. 14, NLT). But verse 15 describes David’s glorious future: seeing God’s face and sharing God’s likeness. This is one of the few texts in The Psalms that touches on the future life (see 16:11 and 73:23–26). “Awake” is a metaphor for the resurrection of the human body (2 Kings 4:31; Job 14:12, 14 and 14:19; Dan. 12:2; John 11:11; 1 Thess. 4:13–18). David seems to be saying, “Even when I die, the Lord won’t desert me; for I shall be awakened and given a glorified body. I shall see His face, and I shall be satisfied!”