Help in a Heap of Trouble


David’s deep sense of the immediate presence of God manifests itself throughout the Psalms in a great diversity of expressions. He is exultant in the evidence of God’s presence in creation (Psalm 8, Psalm 19), in providence (Psalm 9, Psalm 18, Psalm 31), by the execution of his decree (Psalm 37), and in the times of danger (Psalm 13, Psalm 35). Several of the Psalms were written in situations of dire and virtually immediate crisis. From the end of Psalm 139 (19-24) through Psalm 143 there seems to be a high pitch of crisis in the pleas of David.

I. David Needs Quick Relief (Verses 1, 2) Compare Psalm 70 [cf. 143:7] This Psalm was written at some point in his flight from Saul. He is in immediate danger. He has been falsely set up as the enemy of the king, and now his case seems hopeless.

A. Many occasions in 1 Samuel 21-31 could have prompted this Psalm as David fled from Saul, lived among the Gathites where he feigned insanity, spared Saul on two occasions, went back to Gath to serve, ostensibly, under Achish the king. In 2 Samuel, a lengthy Psalm of David is recorded that recounts his praise for divine deliverance on several occasions. Verse 6 and 7 of that chapter give a scene of very similar emotional state. “The sorrows of Sheol surrounded me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress, I called upon the Lord, and cried out to my God; He heard my voice from his temple, and my cry entered his ears.”

B. Psalm 143:7 says, “Answer me quickly, O Lord! My spirit fails.” Some of our requests require immediate aid and we know with clarity that none but the Lord can deliver us and answer our request. In fact, we always should go to the Lord in all situations and give expression to our conviction that ultimately we depend on him for all.

C. David knew clearly that the ceremonial aspects of Israel’s worship always pointed beyond the mere external performance prescribed by the ceremonial law. They pointed first to their completion in the coming Messiah and at the same time called for a heartfelt faith. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O Lord, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17). In this dire circumstance, removed from the center of the ceremonial worship in Jerusalem, he looks at his prayer as constituting the sacrifice of incense and at his deeply expressed dependence upon God as the evening offering.


II. David has Intense pressure from evil all around him (Verse 3, 4) and he could easily fall into a self-serving vengeance against Saul.

A. He perhaps could justify it in the framework of justice and self-defense. He desires, however, to be kept from such an unholy vengeful spirit, that would cause him to execute what only God should bring to pass. He has been kept from one such act by the intervention of Abigail in 1 Samuel 25:32-34. Of how much greater importance is it that he should not avenge himself, or speak evil of, the King of Israel. When Abishai, the brother of Joab, encouraged David to permit him to “strike him at once with the spear, right to the earth,” David responded, “Do not destroy him; for who can stretch out his hand against the Lord’s anointed, and be guiltless?”

B. This was a matter that must come to pass in God’s own time and by divine providence. “As the Lord lives, “David said on this occasion, “the Lord shall strike him, or his day shall come to die, or he shall go to battle and perish. The Lord forbid that I should stretch out my hand against the Lord’s anointed.”

C. “Do not incline my heart to any evil thing.” Jesus instructed us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” James 1:13, 14 says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” Revelation 17:16, 17 says, “These will hate the harlot, make her desolate and naked, eat her flesh and burn her with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to fulfill His purpose, to be of one mind, and to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled.” The relationship of a perfectly holy, yet all-controlling God, to the existence and continuance of evil including its final disposal according to his will is a complex issue and cannot be treated lightly. I give a few propositions in accordance with which a more sustained synthesis should be developed.

  1. God is holy; By definition, therefore, God does not sin, and is never the personal perpetrator of any act that is positively sinful in and of itself.
  2. Sin is defined in terms, first of all, as transgression of the Law of God and the commission of any act inconsistent with the glory of God, or that assumes to one’s self the prerogatives of God. None of these is a possibility for God.
  3. God is not obligated to grant either preventive grace or sustaining grace to us in our fallen condition. He may permit us to be led away by the remnant of indwelling sin so that we will recognize our dependence on him for grace.
  4. We pray for God to preserve us from the subtle shiftiness of those who intend evil and take advantage of our own darkness to accomplish their evil ends. Should God abandon us to the cleverness of others and let us sort out these things according to our own wisdom, we would be destroyed.
  5. God often directs fallen creatures by providence to act out their internal corruptions in ways that will advance his glory and show the justice of his judgment. Even so we see his providence at work in the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 2:23; 4:27, 28) and the destruction of evil (Revelation 17:17). God put a direction to their intrinsic evil determinations to highlight his redemptive truth, prerogatives of judgment, and to give some present manifestation of his unique power, his pure sovereignty, and how his holy purpose may employ all things according to the counsel of his will. I must not try to go further, for I am wordless as to what further to write on this mysterious subject.


III. David Desperately needs radical guidance from some source of righteousness (Verse 5).

A. When under such sore trials and with temptation for self-vindication so powerful and seemingly just, we need the counsel, even the rebuke of godly thinkers. Their blows at our unsound ideas will be like an anointing of oil to the head, for such words are a preservative for health and strength of spirit. Though we do not relish correction and rebuke, we must pray along with David, “Do not let my head refuse it.”

B. “For still my prayer is against their wicked deeds.” While we learn to receive advice and rebuke designed to keep us from personal vengeance and God-defying responses, we do not lose our moral perspective concerning the intentions, attitudes, and actions that gave rise to the prayer for deliverance. Still, therefore, we pray. We take our case before God, and make vengeance that is due solely his. In that way, retribution will be perfectly proportioned in accord with his justice, and also under the guidance of his purposes of grace. An example of a response fully informed by the example of Christ is found in Acts 4:18-31. Under threat for an act of healing and the subsequent preaching of Jesus as the Christ, Peter and John went to the church and prayed with a joyous and full submission to the decreed sovereignty of God and included the request, “Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to your servants that with all boldness they may speak your word.”

C. Under the pressure of dire circumstances we are more prone to justify solutions that compromise the truth, employ deceit, coddle our prejudices, or fulfill our pleasures rather than listen to the voice of righteousness. So, we must pray that God will preserve us, send the righteous to guide and rebuke us, and deal with the adversary according to his wise decree.


IV. Both his Prayer and his speech are offered in this setting of desperation (verses 6-7). In this light, David sees continued conflict between his desire for righteousness and his being treated as an enemy worthy of death. He looks toward the intervention of God and at the same time recognizes the helplessness, from a human standpoint of his situation.

A. When God intervenes, those who are supposed to protect and advise his enemy are rendered useless. They are “thrown down by the side of the rock” much as one would dispose of an apple peel or cherry pits. God’s undertaking the case makes all human powers irrelevant. David asked Saul, “Why do you listen to the words of men who say, ‘Indeed David seeks your harm’?” On the second sparing of Saul’s life, David showed the uselessness of Abner when God intervened. “Are you not a man? And who is like you in all Israel? Why then have you not guarded your lord the king? For one of the people came in to destroy your lord the king. This thing that you have done is not good. As the Lord lives, you deserve to die, because you have not guarded your master, the Lord’s anointed” (1 Samuel 26:15, 16).

B. “And they hear my words for they are pleasant.” His words on such an occasion were confrontive considering the injustice of the situation, but sweet in their continued submission to Saul. “There is neither evil nor rebellion in my hand, and I have not sinned against you. . . . But my hand shall not be against you. As the proverb of the ancients says, ‘Wickedness proceeds from the wicked.’ But my hand shall not be against you.” (1 Samuel 24:12, 13).

C. In his situation, nevertheless, from the standpoint of the enemy that pursues him, reckless abandon for destruction seems to be their intent.

  1. He reflects on what happened to the eighty-five priests that were slain by Doeg. This act of irrational vengeance unprovoked in any sense by the victims will be his lot should the aggressor have his way. Also all their wives and children, even “nursing infants,” were put to the edge of the sword. (1 Samuel 22:16-19). David knew that in the end, should the enemy have his way, even his life and the lives of those who followed him would be just as dispensable.
  2. He used the analogy of a man plowing a field who has no regard for the integrity of the terrain. His plow carries him through a graveyard, but he does not stop. He unearths the bones and lets them lie, broken, shattered, exposed and the edge of their former grave. [I think that sheol in this case refers to the physical grave in which persons were buried.] As such irreverent and regardless action disposed of Nob and the eighty-five priests, so the potential for such slaughter was aimed at him.


V. He wants divine intervention that includes a reversal of intended outcomes (Verse 8-10).

A. “For my eyes are toward you, O God, the Lord;” He can find no alliance nor sympathy from men of authority, and it is a good thing. He has been driven to the source of all good, all blessing, all safety. He looks to the Lord God who made the heavens and the earth, who later said to Israel, “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak O Israel; ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my just claim is passed over by my God’?” “He brings the princes to nothing,” the Lord had declared; “He makes the judges of the earth useless” (Isaiah 40:27, 23)

B. He takes refuge in the Lord. Psalm 2:12 points to the Lord as the one in whom refuge is found even in the day of the manifestation of his wrath. If one finds refuge from divine wrath in the Lord, then how much more from the wrath of man.

C. He asks, not only for protection from the conniving plans and the lying accusations made by those who seek to destroy him, (verse 9), He asks that they be confounded completely. While he passes safely by, may their plans backfire on them, may the trap they have set for him entangle them.

  1. Psalm 7:15 pictures a wicked man who “made a pit and dug it out, and has fallen into the ditch which he made.” His trouble returned on his own head.
  2. In Psalm 31:4 David made a similar request; “Pull me out of the net which they have secretly laid for me.”
  3. In Psalm 35, David pleads for the help of the Lord against those who seek his life: “Let destruction come upon him unexpectedly, and let his net that he has hidden catch himself; Into that very destruction let him fall” (Psalm 35:8).
  4. Perhaps on the same occasion in which Psalm 141 was written, David composed Psalm 57 and wrote, “They have prepared a net for my steps; My soul is bowed down; They have dug a pit before me; into the midst of it they themselves have fallen.”
  5. The stirring words of just such a turn of deadly intent we read in Esther 7:10, ”So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the king’s wrath subsided.”


VII. How do we embrace the intensity of the situation in this Psalm?

A. The Lord draws us to see that our well-being, both situationally and spiritually, always depends on his gracious intervention and sustaining power.

B. The Lord designs such situations that we might learn to desire righteousness and holiness above personal vengeance.

C. We must see that God in requiring us to be peacemakers does not ignore the moral reality in any situation, but will himself, in his own time, when the iniquitous intent is full, execute full justice for his own glory and for the good of his people. In Revelation 6:10 we see martyrs appearing before god to inquire, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

D. All unrepentant evil-doers will see the perfect equity involved in the final disposition of divine justice and all beings in heaven and on earth will look upon the thrice-holy God with the wonder of praise or the unending cries of hopeless, yet still hateful, resignation to the execution of undiluted wrath.

E. The principles of conduct, trust, prayer, submission, and hope set forth in this Psalm reached their perfect fulfillment in Christ, who, in turn becomes the example of righteous suffering and humble dependence for the Christian. “But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps; Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in his mouth; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:20-23)

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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