The Hebrew alphabet, with an occasional irregularity, supplies the framework of the psalm, in which the pressure of enemies, the need of guidance and the burden of guilt take turns to be the dominant concern. The tone is subdued, and the singer’s trust is shown in patient waiting rather than the outburst of joy that sometimes marks the climax of such a psalm. Right outside the alphabetic scheme, the final verse claims for Israel what David has petitioned for himself, so making of a personal plea a hymn for the whole congregation.
Enemies, seldom absent from a Davidic psalm, are implied to be ideologically as well as personally opposed to David. Their victory would discredit not only him (2) but what he stood for: that is, the conviction that a man must live by the help of God, not by his wits (3). Verses 20, 21 return to this and clarify it by looking to integrity and uprightness as his defense (which his enemies would despise as naïve), confessing that but for God these would be no match for the worldly weapons of treachery (3; cf. the net, 15) and hatred (19). So the enemy has failed to dictate to David the terms of battle. Those who sing the psalm profess the same attitude as his.
This is a major theme. The first plea is for instruction in the general will of God: note the plurals, to know thy ways … thy paths (4). This is free of the self-interest that may motivate requests for special guidance, and it lays the foundation for right decisions, a foundation of ‘faculties trained … to distinguish good from evil’ (Heb. 5:14). The other marks of this prayer are, first, persistence—a patient alertness for ‘the first signal of his hand,’ seen in verses 5c, 15 (cf. 123:2); second, penitence—recognizing that one is no apt or deserving pupil but a sinner (8), with a sinner’s bias and guilt; third, obedience—the biddable attitude implied in the word humble or meek (pl. of ‘ānāw, 9, the second word discussed at 18:27); and fourth, reverence (fear; 12, 14)—the simple piety which God honours with his friendship (14).‘Friendship’ is the Hebrew word sôd, meaning both ‘council’ and ‘counsel’: both the circle of one’s close associates and the matters that are discussed with them (cf. ‘council’, Jer. 23:18, 22; ‘secret’, Amos 3:7). This whole approach to divine guidance is personal and mature, unlike the basically pagan search for irrational pointers and omens (cf. Isa. 47:13).
The references to this are brief but earnest and recurrent. Its solvent is not time but divine grace (7), pledged by the covenant (see on ‘goodness and mercy’, 23:6). God’s ‘remembering’ is active and certain (see on 8:4); the alternative forms which it can take are well put as remember … sins or remember me (7). But there is no glibness in the appeal to covenant love, as if it merely averted punishment. God instructs sinners not only out of goodness and mercy (cf. 7) but as being himself good and upright (8), and therefore concerned to reproduce these qualities in others. David, for his part, mourns his guilt (11), sensitive to the estrangement (cf. Turn … to me, 16; forgive, 18) which is the deepest trouble of verses 16–18.
The word itself is used at the outset (2), but the attitude also comes through in the statements about God (e.g. 5b, 8–10, 14f.) and in the emphasis on waiting for him (3, 5, 21; indirectly, 15). To wait is to accept his time and therefore his wisdom; it marked the difference between David’s and Saul’s attitudes to God (1 Sam. 26:10f.; 13:8–14), and between Isaiah’s and Israel’s (Isa. 30:15–18). The word for it in the psalm suggests a certain tenseness: the trust is eager, waiting in hope rather than resignation. This hope is unfulfilled at the close, but the waiting continues. Perhaps the psalm is thereby all the more relevant to those who are not granted the radiant assurance that breaks out in, e.g., 6:8ff.; 20:6ff.; etc. Cf. the quiet encouragement of Isaiah 30:18; 64:4.