I have just completed a reading of The Revelation and have begun a new series which will look at the Psalms, or at least the first book of them, that is Psalms 1-41. I am even less of an expert in Hebrew than I am in Greek, but I will study the Hebrew and usually give the reader my own translation of the Psalm for the day. The Psalms collected in the Hebrew bible were written over a period of perhaps 800 years, and are difficult to date. Probably none of them were written by King David and their true authors are unknown. They were used in the worship of the second temple in Jerusalem and have been used in most traditions of Christian worship, including that of the Church of Scotland, in which they were versified into such international favourites as “The Lord’s my shepherd” and “All people that on earth do dwell”. They are poetic songs and should be appreciated as such. They are also not free of prejudice, (they hardly mention women) and inappropriate emotions (they ask God to smash the faces of enemies). In other words, they speak my sinful language.
Psalm 3 A psalm of David when he fled from his son Absalom
Lord, my enemies are numerous;
Many rise up against me;
Many say of my life,
“No divine rescue for him!”
But you, Lord, are a shield around me
My glory, who lifts up my head!
I cried openly to the Lord;
He answered me from his holy mountain.
Then I lay down and slept;
I got up, for the Lord sustains me.
I will not be afraid of ten thousand people
Who press upon me from all sides.
Up Lord! Rescue me my God!
Ah, now you have smacked all my enemies on the face;
You have broken the teeth of the wicked.
Rescue comes from the Lord,
Your blessing on your people.
The title of the psalm is probably not factual, but rather a way of indicating how it can be interpreted by using the story in 2 Samuel 15-19 as background. There the reader will find the terrible story of Absalom rebellion against his father, David’s abject flight from Jerusalem, his cunning use of Hushai the counsellor to disrupt his enemies’ plans; the battle against Absalom where his commander disobeys him and kills his son; his bitter grief at Absalom’s death and his humiliating rebuke from his commander. It’s not a story of great joy at any point, nothing to celebrate. Yet the author of the psalm or maybe its editor, saw fit to set this psalm of trust in the context of that story. The reader or singer is encouraged to see that even in the midst of very bad times, it’s possible to trust Yahweh, the God of Israel.
We should see the speaker both as individual person and as Israel.
The first four lines set out what we’ll come to recognise as a familiar situation in the psalms. There are many enemies and they are confident enough to mock the psalmist’s trust in God. Their taunt says, “No rescue!” (Hebrew Ayin y’shu’athah).
Then follows the first counter- statement of trust, beginning with the words “But you….” In dark times, when bad things are happening to us, we can use this expression to contradict our doubts, “But you….” I’ve translated God’s name as Lord following the custom of the Hebrew editors, but probably when the Psalm was written the holy name Yahweh would have been spoken. God is the psalmist’s glory, who lifts up his head”. Glory is the shining of a person’s nature; in this case God shines out on behalf of the person to give him confidence. ( I am reminded of Irenaeus’ great phrase, “The glory of God is the living person”); God is the one who lifts up his head to face his enemies. Both “shield” and “glory” are used in the Torah as titles of God.
The severe distress of the psalmist is shown by his open (“with my voice”) crying to God, which is answered from the Holy Mountain, namely Zion with its temple, which did not exist in David’s Day, but would be an image of reassurance to any Israelite. The nature of God’s answer is not immediately stated, but the fact of his answering is enough to allow the psalmist to sleep trustingly and to awake refreshed, able to declare a new courage against the odds.
But then we are given the content of the psalmist’s open cry, calling on God to be active and to rescue him. This time God’s answer is noted. As his enemies’ offence has been their bitter taunt so now God silences them by smacking their faces and breaking their teeth.(It is like the Glaswegian incident invented by Billy Connolly, “‘Shut your face!’ they said. And his face was shut.”) Although there are violent words here, the meaning is that the Lord’s gift of courage to the psalmist is what silences his enemies. So we are thrown back on the assertion that God has answered the psalmist from his holy hill. What was this answer? It is all that is celebrated in the temple, the whole story of God and his people, including the memory of King David who had no temple. This profound narrative is God’s answer to the person in need, and can be summed up in a few words, “Rescue ( Hebrew:ha y’shuah) comes from the Lord.” From “no rescue” the psalm brings us to the rescuing God.
The psalm encourages the reader to contradict the events that threaten to overwhelm her by seizing on God who will shine out as her glory and lift up her head. Her cry to God will be answered by a reminder of God’s story which gives courage and silences her enemies. She will be strong as long as she remembers that “rescue comes from the Lord.” Christian interpreters have always insisted that the main speaker in the psalms is Messiah Jesus, in which case we might say that its reassurance is enhanced if the holy hill is Calvary.