This is the first time we find the word psalm in the book. The Hebrew word is mizmor and means "to pluck strings." This is also the first prayer in the Psalms, and the first psalm attributed to David. All the psalms in Book I (Pss. 1–41) are attributed to David except 1, 10, and 33. (Ps. 2 is assigned to him in Acts 4:25.) Psalm 3 is categorized as a "personal lament," and there are many of these in the collection (Pss. 3–7, 13, 17, 22, 25–28, 35, 38–40, 42–43, 51, 54–57, 59, 61, 63–64, 69–71, 86, 88, 102, 109, 120, 130, 140–143). David wrote the psalm after he had fled Jerusalem when his son Absalom took over the throne (2 Sam. 15–18). The king and his attendants had crossed the Jordan River and camped at Mahanaim. This is a morning psalm (v. 5); Psalm 4 was written during the same events and is an evening psalm (4:8). It’s possible that Psalm 5 also fits into the same time period, as well as 42, 43, 61, 62, 63, 143. (See 5:3, 8–10.)
Conflict: He Admits His Troubles (vv. 1–2)
The prayer begins very abruptly with "Lord." Like Peter sinking into the sea (Matt. 14:30), David didn’t have time to go through a long liturgy, for his own life was at stake and so was the future of the kingdom. David knew that God is a "very present help in trouble" (46:1). Absalom had taken a long time to build up his support for taking over the kingdom and the number increased day by day (2 Sam. 15:12–13; 16:7–8; 17:11; 18:7). Absalom was handsome, smooth-spoken, and a gifted liar who knew how to please the people and steal their hearts (2 Sam. 15:1–6). British statesman James Callaghan said, "A lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on." There’s something in the heart of mankind that enjoys feeding on lies.
Not only were David’s enemies increasing but the news was getting worse. People were saying, "The king is beyond help." (See 31:13; 38:19; 41:4–9; 55:18; 56:2; 69:4 and 71:10–11.) The word "help" in the Hebrew (yeshua) is translated "save" in verse 7 and "salvation" in verse 8 and gives us the names "Jesus" (Matt. 1:21) and "Joshua." It’s used 136 times in the Psalms.
Why had God permitted this dangerous and disgraceful uprising? It was part of David’s chastening because of his sins of adultery and murder (2 Sam. 12:1–12). God in his grace forgave David when he confessed his sins (2 Sam. 12:13–14; Pss. 32 and 51), but God in his government allowed David to reap the bitter consequences of those sins. He experienced painful family problems (2 Sam. 12–14), including the death of the son Bathsheba bore him, the rape of his daughter Tamar, and the slaying of his sons Amnon, Absalom, and Adonijah.
This is the first use of "Selah" in Scripture (vv. 2, 4, 8); it is used seventy-one times in the Psalms and three times in Habakkuk 3. Hebraists aren’t agreed whether it comes from words meaning "to lift up" or "to be silent." If the first, then it might be a signal for louder voices or the lifting and blowing the trumpets, perhaps even the lifting of hands to the Lord. If the second, it could signal a pause, a moment of silence and meditation.
Confidence: He Affirms His Trust in the Lord (vv. 3–4)
But David wasn’t a man easily beaten. Without ignoring his problems, he lifted his eyes from the threatening situation around him and looked by faith to the Lord. David knew he was in danger, but God was his shield (see Gen. 15:1). Israel’s king was referred to as a "shield" because he protected the nation (84:9; 89:18), but David depended on God as his shield (7:10; 18:2; 47:9; 59:11; 84:11; Deut. 33:29). David was in disgrace because of his own sins and his son’s treachery, but God was the source of David’s glory. Absalom turned his father’s "glory into shame" (4:2), but one day that glory would be restored. The situation was discouraging, but the king knew that God would lift up his head and restore him to his throne (27:6; 2 Sam. 15:30). His faith was in the promises God had made to him in the covenant recorded in 2 Samuel 7, and he knew God would not forsake him.
The temple had not yet been built on the "holy hill of Zion," but the ark was there (see 2 Sam. 15:25) and that was God’s throne (80:1, nasb). David may have been forced off his throne, but Jehovah was still on the throne and in control, and Absalom had attacked God’s anointed king (2:2). That was a dangerous thing to do. David kept crying out to God in prayer, knowing that God had not forsaken him in the past and would not forsake him now. "This poor man cried out, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles" (Ps. 34:6).
Celebration: He Anticipates the Victory (vv. 5–8)
When David awakened the next morning, his first thought was of the Lord and how He had protected him and his attendants during night. This was a sign to him that the Lord was with them and would see them through the crisis. It reminds us of Jesus asleep in the storm (Mark 4:39) and Peter asleep in the prison (Acts 12). If we trust Him and seek to do His will, God works on our behalf even while we’re asleep (121:3–4; 127:2). David affirmed that he would not be afraid if tens of thousands of people were set in battle array against him, for God would give him victory (Deut. 32:30).
The morning was the most important time of day for David, as it should be for us today.
It was in the morning that he met with the Lord and worshiped Him. It was his time to pray (5:3), to sing (57:7–8; 59:16) and to be satisfied by God’s mercy (90:14). "For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for life; weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning" (30:5, nkjv). Abraham arose early in the morning (Gen. 19:27; 21:14; 22:3), and so did Moses (Ex. 24:4; 34:4), Joshua (Josh. 3:1; 6:12; 7:16; 8:10), Samuel (1 Sam. 15:12), Job (Job 1:5), and our Lord (Mark 1:35).
God not only rested David but He also rescued him. David’s prayer in verse 7—"Arise, O Lord"—takes us back to the years when Israel was in the wilderness, as David was at that time. When the guiding cloud of glory began to move and the camp set out, Moses would say (or sing): "Rise up. O Lord! Let Your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate You flee before You" (Num. 10:35, nkjv). David had sent the ark back to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 15:24–29), but he knew that the presence of a piece of sacred furniture was no guarantee of the presence of the Lord (see 1 Sam. 4). David had no access to the tabernacle or the ministry of the priests, but he was spiritual enough to know that the love and obedience of His heart was what God wanted. He didn’t have the ark of God, but he had the God of the ark! He couldn’t offer animal sacrifices or incense, but he could lift his hand to worship God (141:2). The glory of God was with him (v. 3) and so was the blessing of God (v. 8). Let the enemy arise! (v. 1). God will also arise and give victory!
Some translations render the verbs in verse 7 as past tense (kjv, amp, nasb), indicating that David was looking back at the many past victories God had given him. "You saved my life many times in the past, so why would you abandon me now?" The New International Version sees this as a prayer for present and future victories. Either way, David had the faith to trust God to go before him and defeat the army of Absalom, and God did. Striking the enemy on the cheek—a "slap in the face"—was an act of humiliation. David saw the rebellious army as a pack of animals that needed their teeth broken (7:2; 22:12–13, 16, 20–21; 10:9; 17:12; 35:17; 57:4; 58:6).
Jonah quoted verse 8 when he was in the great fish (Jonah 2:9) and then experienced that salvation. Though he had used brilliant strategy in opposing Absalom’s plans, David refused to take the credit. It was the Lord who alone would receive the glory. David also refused to carry a grudge against his people, but asked the Lord to bless them. This reminds us of our Lord’s prayer on the cross (Luke 23:34) and Stephen’s prayer as he was being stoned to death (Acts 7:60). God restored David to his throne and enabled him to prepare Solomon to succeed him. David was also able to bring together his wealth so that Solomon would have what he needed to build the temple. (See 1 Chron. 22–29.)