Tehillim תְהִלִּים (Praises)
Psalm (Tehillah) 31
David composed this psalm while he was fleeing the wrath of Saul (Radak), who pursued him relentlessly. Although the psalm does not specify particular episodes, the commentators find in it allusions to various instances when David was in mortal danger at Saul’s hands.
Once while playing music to soothe Saul’s trouble spirit, David was the target of a spear hurled at him by the king. It missed him only by a hair’s-breadth (Sforno). The persecution forced David to flee from Eretz Yisrael. The prophet Gad called upon him to return to the Land (1 Samuel 22:5). Then, a divine message was sent to David to save the inhabitants of the town of Ke’ila from the invading Philistines. Afterward, the townspeople treacherously betrayed David to Saul and planned to lock him inside their fortified walls to prevent his flight. Divinely forewarned, David escaped this trap and hid in the desert of Ziph. Once again his whereabouts were betrayed to Saul (1 Samuel 23) this time by the inhabitants of this wilderness (Malbim).
David’s most precarious plight was when he was trapped by Saul’s army while on the rock of division (ibid) again Elohim intervened to save him.
In each of these episodes David sought aid and refuge in Elohim alone. In gratitude, he dedicated this psalm to Elohim, his Saviour.
See explanations in preceding psalms.
When I was trapped in Saul’s palace where he attempted to slay me, I sought no avenue of escape other than Your salvation (Sforno) for I trusted in Your word (Targum), i.e., the assurance You gave to see me safely to the royal throne.
Later, I was forced into exile. I could have assured my safety by indefinitely remaining in a foreign sanctuary. Yet, when You sent Gad the prophet to call me back to the Holy Land, I disregarded my personal security and hastened to return, seeking refuge only in Your merciful protection (Malbim).
“…let me not be shamed, ever.” By virtue of the confidence I have in Your word, spare me from humiliation and disappointment (Radak).
“In Your righteousness provide me escape.” The fact that I sought refuge only in You should make me worthy of Your salvation. But if I am still undeserving, then please let me be saved by virtue of Your righteousness (Metzudat David).
I pray that You hear my plea without delay and respond swiftly to my call, for I ask no harm for my pursuers – only that I be rescued from their murderous threat (Alshich).
“…become for me a mighty rock.” Reinforce my steadfast resolve to act properly in all my relations with Saul. Do not let anger or frustration overwhelm me lest I be roused to slay him (Alshich, Eretz Atcham).
“…a fortress to save me.” Alshich perceives the reference to ‘fortress’ as an allusion to David’s two-fold dilemma. He was threatened physically if he did nor kill Saul and he was endangered spiritually if he did kill Elohim’s anointed monarch. David asks for a fortress to protect him against both dangers.
Here David continues his plea of the previous verse. His reference to Elohim as ‘my rock,’ in the previous verse. My fortress corresponds to the acknowledgement that YHWH is the sole source of salvation to the exclusion of all other defenses (Ibn Ezra).
Alshich explains that there are two types of defenses. A soldier warding off a frontal assault may stand with his back against a rock to protect him against attack from behind. But the fortress, because it provides walled protection from all four sides, is superior to the rock.
“…for Your Name’s sake guide me and lead me.” Here David asks Elohim to guide him gently, but, if necessary, he hopes that Elohim will lead him forcefully to the proper destination.
When David composed this psalm, he was not yet ensnared in the traps of his foes, but the wicked people of Ziph gloated as if he had already fallen into their hands. Now he requests that these enemies be shown that he is far removed from their control (Radak).
I am not frightened by the nets they spread to capture me because I have entrusted my life to You for safekeeping and You will undoubtedly redeem me (Radak).
Often it happens that an object which is entrusted to another person, is accidentally exchanged for a different one. But with the Holy One, Blessed be He, this never happens. Does it ever occur that upon arising in the morning one finds that Elohim has exchanged his soul with someone else’s?
Rabbi Alexandri said: A man of flesh and blood is entrusted with a new article and he returns it later worn and tattered. But the Holy One, Blessed be He, is not so. The labourer toils all day and at night falls asleep and deposits his worn and weary soul with his Maker. In the morning his soul is retuned to his body refreshed as if newly created as it says, “They are renewed every morning, great is Your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:23).
I.e., those who turn to worthless idols for salvation (Rashi), or, those who depend on astrology or divination to determine the most propitious time for going to war.
David said: When I fled from Saul my life was in constant uncertainty. Yet, never did I turn to the seers and astrologers to clarify the future and allay my doubts. Rather, I spurned these vain and worthless soothsayers and blindly placed my faith in Elohim, with no concern for the future (Radak).
[In this respect David’s conduct excelled Saul’s. When confronted by the Philistine army, Saul was so distraught that, in desperation, he sought out the witch of Ein Dor to communicate with the spirit of Samuel, in order to discover the future.]
Hirsh explains that exultation is the vocal expression of joy. It is a far more extensive emotion than gladness, which is related to growth, and connotes serenity, a feeling of continued inner maturity and blossoming. Usually a person is first overwhelmed by a wave of exultation, and later he settles down to a constant, quiet gladness.
“…in noting my affliction, You know the troubles of my soul…” You ordained my suffering for You determined it to be in my best interest. I accept Your concern for my welfare as a kindness over which I will exult and be glad (Kiflayim L’tushiah).
This is the translation according to Rashi, Radak, and Metzudaos. This refers to the people of Ziph, who betrayed David and revealed his whereabouts to Saul (Radak). However, Menachem renders You have not closed me up [an allusion to the incident at Ke’ila when he was locked in the fortress city].
“…but stood my feet expansively.” Not only have You released me from confinement, You have even widened my stride. I enjoyed complete freedom of movement and I traveled wherever my heart desired (Ibn Ezra).
But the freedom and mobility of the previous verse are now a thing of the past. Once again my enemies dog my footsteps and threaten to incarcerate me. Moreover, I am stricken with a debilitating disease (Ibn Ezra).
“…dimmed in anger are my eyes, my soul and my belly.” Radak translates the usage of dimmed as consumed as in rot and decay. The Hebrew noun of ‘consumed’ is also the name of a worm that eats garments as in “They will all be worn out like a garment, a worm will consume them” (Isaiah 50:9).
Radak explains that ‘my soul and my belly’ refers to the ‘spirit of desire’ in man which yearns to eat and drink. Many times while fleeing Saul, David had nothing to eat or to drink. The threat of starvation was so great that Achimelech of Nob was compelled to give David the sacred show-bread, in order to save David’s life (1 Samuel 21:7).
From the moment that I killed Goliath and the women came out to sing: Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands (1 Samuel 18:7), Saul’s jealousy was kindled and my life became an endless succession of agony and grief (Radak).
“…because of my iniquity…” I deserve these afflictions to atone for my sins, otherwise Elohim would not have allowed them to befall me (Radak). Rabbi Tanchuma bar Chiya said that four things rob a person of his strength: sin, travel, fasting, and exile.
My neighbours, more than anyone else, witness the humiliation and insults that I suffer at the hands of my tormentors (Ibn Ezra).
“…those who see me outside flee from me.” They run away from me as from the plague (Metzudat David).
My acquaintances are so afraid for me (v. 12) that they have given up hope that I will survive Saul’s persecution (Radak).
The Talmud (Berachos 58b) observes: Rav said: The deceased are forgotten only after twelve months have elapsed from the date of death; as it says, “I became as forgotten as the dead from the heart, I became like a lost vessel.” [An owner usually gives up hope and forgets about his lost vessel after twelve months; as it is taught (Bava Metzia 28a): Whoever finds a lost vessel or any other article must announce this publically during the course of the three festivals which cover the period of an entire year. Afterwards, he can terminate his efforts, for the owner is assumed to have given up hope of recovering his property, thereby relinquishing his ownership (Rashi).]
The translation follows Rashi who renders the word ‘participation’ as advice, i.e., the results of the council to discus plans to deal with a problem.
Metzudat Zion, however, renders ‘participation’ as an evil report, by which a person slanders his foe as in, ‘and Joseph brought their evil report to his father’ (Genesis 37:2).
“…terror all around…”The danger does not appear from one direction, it rises against me from all sides (Radak).
“…when they consult together against me…” Consultation is likened to the foundation, of a building because all future action is based on the original plan (Metzudat Zion).
Although my enemies taunt me and say that You have forgotten me, my trust in You remains steadfast and I say, ‘You are my Elohim’ (Ibn Ezra).
Only You have control over my destiny (Radak).
“…In Your control are my times…” The different periods of danger which I have undergone were all pre-ordained by Your order and decree (Rashi).
Ibn Ezra notes that David makes this statement in defiance of those who heed the advice of the vain and worthless astrologers (v. 7) who consult their horoscopes to find propitious time to harm him. ‘As for me,’ David declares, ‘all of my times are in Elohim’s hands and, so, whatever time He chooses for my salvation is acceptable to me.’
Gevul Binyomin calls our attention to the Midrash (Va’eschanan 2:10) which says that different types of prayers are answered at different times. Some prayers are answered only after forty days, some after twenty, some after three, some after a full day, some after half a day. Some prayers are answered even before a person utters them.
Therefore David says to Elohim: You know the acceptable time for my prayer, but I do not. Therefore, I rely upon You to answer it at whatever You deem to be the most favourable time.
“…rescue me from the control of my foes and my pursuers.” The Vilna Gaon says that the Hebrew word for pursuers is superfluous, as it would suffice to say from my foes. The extra word has the numerical value of fourteen, which is the same numerical value of David’s name. What is the relevance here? David is symbolized by the moon which, becomes full after fourteen days. Furthermore, there were fourteen generations from Abraham until David, who culminated the ascent to greatness which began with Abraham. Thus David represents a climactic perfection in Israel’s relationship with YHWH, like the full moon. So too, like the duration it takes for the moon to wane, it took fourteen generations for Israel to completely fall, causing the Temple to be destroyed.
There are twenty-eight periods of life enumerated in Koheles (Ecclesiastes 3:2-8). These contain fourteen negative, descendent times, corresponding to the waxing and waning of the moon. David’s life too, consisted of fourteen periods of bleakness and agony. This verse contains exactly twenty-eight letters corresponding the twenty-eight time periods (Tehilla L’David). [Cf. Rabbeinu Bachya to Genesis 38:30]
Danger and fear shroud me in gloom. Save me and light up my life (Ibn Ezra).
Show me Your favour by accepting my petition out of kindness, even if I am unworthy of Your grace (Sforno).
Tehillos Hashem cites the Talmud (Bava Kama 93a) which states that he who invokes heavenly judgment, against his fellow is himself punished first, as in the case of Sarah who invoked heavenly judgment upon Abraham and, as a result, predeceased him. For it was taught: punishment is meted out first to the one against whom justice is invoked.
Rashi (Rosh Hashanah 16b) explains that the Heavenly Court, on being invoked, declares: Let us consider whether this accuser is worthy that his neighbour be punished on his account.
David, who now invokes heavenly judgment, anticipates the negative reaction which his charges may elicit. Therefore he begs that he not be shamed by his own invocation because he demands justice sincerely, for the sake of Elohim, and not for his own honour, as he cries out in the next verse, Let them be silenced – those lying lips, those which speak malicious falsehood of the righteous.
David said: I have heard the collusion of the multitude (v.14), now I ask that their treacherous words be silenced (Ibn Ezra).
Radak explains that David was especially eager to silence the liars who accused him to Saul of boasting that he had already become king.
Romans 11:22; “Behold then the kindness and severity of Elohim; to those who fell, severity, but to you, Elohim's kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.”
The abundance which Elohim will bestow upon the righteous is beyond the power of mortal man to describe. The Psalmist can but exclaim” How abundant!
Rambam emphasizes that in this finite, materiel world we cannot conceive of the infinite spiritual rewards stored in the Hereafter. Just as the blind man has no conception of colours nor the deaf man an idea of sound, similarly, our limited senses have no way of sensing this spiritual bliss as long as we are enclosed in the body which restricts our soul. This is why Rabbi Shaul says, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)
[Interestingly, the Torah never makes promises of spiritual rewards for obeying its commandments, for they are indescribable] (Commentary Mishnah, Sanhedrin 11:1).
I know that abundant good is treasured for the reverent ones in the World to Come, but I ask You to provide them with security even in This World where Your presence is concealed and the wicked surround the righteous from all sides (Rashi).
Save the devout from the conspiracies of the wicked who join together to harm them (Rashi).
“Treasure them in an abode from the quarreling of tongues.” [There was no reason for two righteous men such as David and Saul to quarrel. It was only the slanderous tongues of quarrelsome men who fanned the flames of dissension.]
The Vilna Gaon observes that each letter of the word ‘abode’ (or ‘hut’) involves one of four main areas of verbal pronouncement.
ס, Samech, represents the hissing sounds controlled by the teeth.
ו, Vav, represents the sounds formed by the lips.
כּ, Kaf, is sounded by the tongue and the upper palet.
ה, Hey is a guttural sound emanating from the throat.
All of these vocal passageways control and modify the articulation of the tongue. Therefore, the Sages say that the mitzvah of Tabernacles is a powerful agent in controlling the inclination to speak evil. This idea is alluded to here: You YHWH treasure the tongue, in the letters of the succah, in order to control the quarreling of tongues.
The Midrash relates that Elohim onced saved David’s life with the most fragile of shelters. It happened that David asked Elohim, ‘Of what value is the spider? It spins and weaves its web all year, yet it never wears the fruit of its loom?’
Said the Holy One, Blessed be He, ‘By your life, the day will come when you yourself will need the services of a cobweb!’
When David and his men hid in a cave while fleeing from Saul and his armies [as a result of a quarreling tongue] Elohim summoned a spider to quickly weave a web over the mouth of a cave. Saul saw the web and said to himself: ‘Certainly David cannot be here for he would have broken the fragile web upon entering. Thus Elohim demonstrated to David that no part of creation is superfluous, for David’s own life had been saved by the insect he reviled.
David thanks YHWH for the wondrous kindness shown him when he was trapped inside the walls of Ke’ila (Rashi).
When he and his men were locked in Ke’ila, David asked two questions of Elohim through the breastplate of the High Priest, ‘Will the people of Ke’ila betray me to him? Will Saul come [to attack me]? (1 Samuel 23:11).
The Yerushalmi (Yoma 7:3) says that ordinarily only one question at a time may be asked of the Urim and Tumim. If two inquiries are made, together, some hold that one will be answered while others say neither will be answered. However, concludes Yerushalmi, both questions posed by David were answered because he pleaded for extraordinary divine kindness, as it says ‘YHWH, my Elohim please inform Your servant’ [1 Samuel 23:11] (Divrei Shlomo).
This verse refers to the time when David was on the mountain, surrounded on all sides by Saul’s men. Scripture says of the incident: And David was hurrying to depart because of Saul [1 Samuel 23:26] (Metzudat David).
[See Midrash Shocker Tov partially quoted in footnote to Psalms 18:3. When Saul had him surrounded, David’s plight was so hopeless that he cried out: ‘It was for naught that Samuel anointed me to be king! How will his promise be fulfilled now?’ Where do we find an allusion to this statement? From the verse, I said in my haste, ‘all men are deceitful’ (Psalms 116:11).]
“But in truth, You heard the sound of my pleas when I cried to You.” [The doubt which I cast upon Samuel’s prophecy was the result of panic and confusion. In truth, O Elohim, You heard my pleas and saved me through a messenger angel (1 Samuel 23:27).
David says: when you witness all the wonders which Elohim performed for me, it becomes incumbent upon you to intensify your love for Elohim (Radak).
Rabbi Akiva Eiger observed:
In the portion of Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) the Torah commands: And you shall love YHWH, your Elohim. This precept is difficult to comprehend because love is an emotional response which cannot be forced by a command.
We must understand this commandment in a different light. When a person realizes that he is the object of another person’s affection and concern, it is only natural and instinctive that this will evoke from his heart a reciprocal feeling of tenderness and love. Thus, we are obligated to discover the countless ways whereby Elohim demonstrates His boundless love for us, for this will strike a responsive chord in our hearts which, in turn, will be filled naturally with adoration for Elohim.
[David concludes by saying that the example of his danger-filled life should serve as an inspiration to others.]
The Sefer Ha’Lkkarim observes: when a person puts all of his hope in Elohim, his heart is fortified with courage and strength; as David says, Place confidence in YHWH, strengthen yourself and He will give you courage; and place confidence in YHWH (27:24). And the prophet Isaiah says: Those who place confidence in YWHW shall renew their strength (Isaiah 40:31).