Sometimes, everything goes wrong; it seems everyone is against us, or no one understands us. When you are afflicted, additional problems may come from all sides. In Psalm 3, David was facing overwhelming opposition. Tens of thousands of people wanted to remove him as king, even participate in killing him.
One way of approaching the psalms is called “form criticism”. The system can be over-emphasised but, in general, it is helpful. Form criticism would designate Psalm 3 as a lament psalm. A lament psalm is composed of a complaint, an expression of confidence in God, a petition, and either praise or a promise to praise. Psalm 3 has these elements.
The heading of the psalm announces the situation. Absalom was leading an army to defeat his father, David. 2 Samuel 15-18 describes how he did this. He enlisted fighters from the extreme north to the far south (from Dan to Beersheba) to chase David. All psalms cannot find their precise background in 1-2 Samuel, but this one can.
Psalm 3:1-2 then describe David’s plight: “O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying of my soul, there is no salvation for him in God.” Not just a few but many thousands of men were coming after him to kill him. They were so many that he said it three times in these two verses. It was alarming that so many people wanted him dead.
The vast superiority of their numbers made David’s pursuers so confident that they said God could not help him. An alternative explanation of their confidence is that Absalom was revolting because David had not dealt with his oldest son Amnon after he raped Absalom’s sister. David’s inaction, they may have believed, rendered him subject to punishment by God. In addition, the entire problem of warfare against David initially began because of his sins of adultery and murder. Surely God would not help such a criminal. Whichever explanation is correct — and different soldiers may have held either opinion — the adversaries were certain God would not aid the fleeing king.
The entire problem of warfare against David initially began because of his sins of adultery and murder. Surely God would not help such a criminal
In Psalm 3:3-6, David expressed his confidence in God for his help, contrary to the confidence of the insurrectionists: “But You, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. I cried aloud to the LORD, and He answered me from His holy hill. I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me. I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.”
God would shield him from defeat and death. To lift someone’s head sounds like it could mean either he would be decapitated or lifted to safety (cf. Genesis 40:13, 19 [the latter adds the words “from you”]). In the Psalms, it always means deliverance. The Lord would give him the glory of protection and victory.
David was sure of God’s help because he had cried out to the Lord and the Lord had heard him. The idea of God hearing him does not mean He was simply aware of David’s prayer, but that God had heeded him. If someone asks how David knew this, 2 Samuel indicates what had happened. David sent his friend Hushai into Jerusalem to pretend loyalty to Absalom (2 Samuel 15:34). David had a wise counselor, Ahithophel, who he was sure would side with Absalom. Ahithophel appears to have been Bathsheba’s grandfather (2 Samuel 11:3; 23:34) and was highly displeased with David’s adultery with her and murder of her husband. If Absalom followed Ahithophel’s advice, he would likely triumph over David (2 Samuel 16:23). Hushai was sent to persuade Absalom to follow a different course of action from whatever Ahithophel advised (2 Samuel 15:32-35). David had received the message that Hushai’s advice was taken instead of Ahithophel’s. Hushai had advised Absalom to raise an army from all over Israel. This made it look hopeless for David, but it also gave him time to get to safety (2 Samuel 17:15-22).
In the turn of events, David believed he saw the action of God on his behalf. He considered that God had begun to help him, and he had confidence He would complete what He began. God would finish what He started. Therefore, the hunted king slept peacefully, unafraid of the multitudes who wanted him dead.
The author continued in v. 7: “Arise, O LORD! Save me, O my God! For You strike all my enemies on the cheek; You break the teeth of the wicked.” This is David’s petition. The Lord had begun to help him, but deliverance was not yet fulfilled. In his petition, he said the Lord struck his enemies. This could be taken as a past event — God had already struck a blow against the enemies — as the report from Hushai showed. Or, it could be a gnomic idea, that is, that God normally did this for David, and David reminded the Lord of this as a motivation for Him to answer the petition.
Breaking the teeth of the ungodly at first seems violent, but it is figurative speech. The psalmist was regarding the ungodly as lions (cf. Psalm 58:6). Toothless lions were still dangerous, but significantly less formidable than those with all their teeth. David saw that the Lord had helped him in the past and, though this fight was not over, God was for him.
David saw that the Lord had helped him in the past and, though this fight was not over, God was for him
David praised, or exalted, the Lord in v. 8: “Salvation belongs to the LORD; Your blessing be on your people!” He concluded by rejoicing that God delivers and does good to His people — including himself. The Lord had delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt with a resounding victory, from oppressors throughout the period of Judges, and from the surrounding hostile people groups in his own experience. God is a deliverer for His people, and David was appreciative and joyful.
One of the lessons we learn from the lament psalms is that we may express our complaints to God. The Israelites in the wilderness in Exodus and Numbers complained, and were held accountable because they did not believe the Lord (cf. Numbers 14:11). The psalmists complained frequently, but their complaints were often about the difficult and desperate situations rather than about the Lord. There are times, however, that they did complain about why the Lord did not respond. In every case (except Psalm 88), they expressed confidence in the Lord, much differently than their ancestors in the wilderness. The psalmists complained from the perspective of faith in God, not unbelief.
That leads to a second lesson, that is, that we should do more than set forth our difficulties in our prayers. We should also have confidence in the Lord and declare it. God wants us to trust Him, and if we do, we should say so.
A lesson specifically from the lament in Psalm 3 is that we should pay attention when God has acted on our behalf — in the current distress and in past troubles. We need to remember that the Lord has helped us in the past and realise He will act for us in the present one. If He is for us, He will continue to be faithful to us.
Finally, we learn that a large number of problems or adversaries — or both — does not mean that God cannot or will not deliver us (cf. Judges 7:7; 8:10). In David’s case, the large number of adversaries was a step in the process of rescuing him. The Lord has a way of overcoming obstacles from a position of supposed weakness. The greatest example of this is when Christ died; He was winning the greatest victory of all time (cf. Colossians 2:14-15; Hebrews 2:14; Philippians 2:6-11).
When everything and everyone is against us, we would do well to remember David’s words in Psalm 3. If we are believers in Christ, God is for us and He will not abandon us (Romans 8:31-39).
A weekly brief of new resources and Scripture-based insights from our editorial team.