Psalms - Chapter 17
(The following material is compiled predominantly from an anthology of Orthodox Jewish commentary, written and arranged by Rabbi Avroham Chaim Feuer from the Artscroll Tanach Series Tehillim Volume 1. Additional insights from a Nazarene Israelite perspective have been added by Jason Jordan. Additional Tehillim translation by Rabbi Hillel Danziger)
King David composed this Psalms after commanding Yoav to bring about the death of Uraih, the husband of Bath Sheba. The army was then in the land of Ammon, besieging the capital, Rabbat (2 Samuel Ch. 11).
At this moment, when Israel’s military security hung in the balance, David, the humble penitent feared that the army might be struck by catastrophe because of his personal sins. In the event of such a calamity, David knew that the evil neighbours of Israel – the Philistines, Moab, Edom, all would swiftly seize the opportunity to pounce on the crippled nation, and so he prayed fervently.
Mahari Yaavets HaDoresh explains the connection between this Psalm and the preceding one. In Psalms 16, David speaks in ecstasy of his assured portion in the World to Come and he looks forward to the delights of ‘the fullness of joys in Elohim’s presence’ and the delights at YHWH’s right hand forever’ (verse 11). But after he sinned, doubts about his spiritual hereafter started to crop up in his mind. In this Psalm which he composed after he repented his sin, David pleads for a return to full grace and affection before YHWH.
He ends with great confidence that his intimacy with YHWH has been restored and his hereafter is secure: ‘In righteousness I shall behold Your face, upon awakening I will be made satisfied by Your form’ (verse 15).
Verse 1; “A prayer of David: Hear, YHWH, what is righteous, attend to my cry. Give ear to my prayer from lips without deceit.”
Hear (my cry, my raised voice, my shout!) for my words are righteous and I know You will not listen to falsehood (Ibna Ezra).
Attend to my cry, to my shouted declaration or wailing aloud (Radak).
“…from lips without deceit.” [lit. From lips which convey the true feelings of my heart (Radak)].
Verse 2; “May my judgment be dismissed from before You; Your eyes behold uprightness”
May my judgment go away from You. David requests that YHWH not bring the incident with Beth Sheba up before His tribunal for judgment, but should dismiss it instead (Radak).
May Your eyes see (only) my upright deeds and may You give me a lenient acquittal (Radak).
Verse 3; “You have examined my heart, been mindful by night, have tested me without success. May my scheming no more cross my lips.
You have already tested and examined my heart and found it lacking, therefore, I know that if you will try my case in Your tribunal of justice I will be condemned because of my sins (Radak).
At night, You inspected me through the incident with Beth Sheba as it says: “And it came to pass at evening time and David arose from his bed and walked upon the roof of the kings house and from the roof he saw a woman bathing, and the woman was very beautiful to look upon” (2 Samuel 11:2) (Radak).
The night is the ideal time to inspect the true, undisturbed feelings of the heart for then it is free from the external interference of daily cares (Radak; Metzudat David).
Verse 4; “That human deeds accord with the word of Your lips, I warily guarded lawbreakers’ paths.”
According to Rashi David watched his own actions carefully. Proverbs 1:7; “The fear of YHWH is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” However, Radak explains this to mean that he supervised the deeds of others to prevent them from erring.
Ibn Ezra adds that this was spurred by David’s great love of YHWH which made it unbearable for him to witness others treading upon YHWH’s commands. When one nurtures and cultivates his fear of YHWH he detests evil and cannot abide it wherever it appears. Proverbs 8:13; “To fear YHWH is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behaviour and perverse speech.
Although I once broke the law myself in regard to the commandment ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ from then on I have taken care not to stray (Rashi).
Proverbs 7:25-8:1; “Do not let your heart turn to her ways or stray into her paths. Many are the victims she has brought down; her slain are a mighty throng. Her house is a highway to the grave, leading down to the chambers of death. Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice?”
Proverbs 24:16; “…for though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again, but the wicked are brought down by calamity.”
1 Corinthians 3:18; “Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must first become a fool, so that he may become truly wise.”
Verse 5; “Let my steps be steadfast in You circuits, so that my feet will not falter.”
A circuit is a circular path circumscribing our acts to prevent us from leaving the bounds of YHWH’s Torah (Hirsch).
Malbim explains that although a person should always strive to keep to the straight path, there are times when an emergency demands that a round-about path be taken. For example the proper and straight path is mercy and humility. However, there are times when one must employ force, pride, and audacity in combating the terrible menace of the wicked, especially when repelling those who viciously mock and ridicule the Torah. Acts 23:2-3; “At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Sha’ul to strike him on the mouth. Then Sha’ul said to him, "Elohim will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the Torah, yet you yourself violate the Torah by commanding that I be struck!" We shouldn’t dare think for a minute that Yahshua’s teaching to turn the other cheek is a blanket response to every situation. Did Yahshua turn the other check when he was struck in the face? Not always. To his Roman captors he was a whipping post, but in another situation he rebuked his assailant. John 18:22-23; “When Yahshua said this, one of the officials nearby struck him in the face. ‘Is this the way you answer the high priest?’ he demanded. ‘If I said something wrong,’ Yahshua replied, "testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?"
One can easily stray if he is not wary. Therefore David pleads for special support on these circuits, so that his steps remain straight and so that his feet should not falter.
Psalms 119:105-106; “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. I have taken an oath and confirmed it, that I will follow your righteous laws.”
Verse 6; “I have called out to You, because You will answer me, O Elohim; Bend Your ear to me, hear my sayings.”
Because I trust in Your willingness and ability to respond (Radak). David said to the Holy One, Blessed be He: ‘If not for Your support, “I could not have stood up in this world!” To what can this be likened to? – To a very tall [and shaky] ladder which has a precious crown at its top. The king proclaimed, ‘Whoever can climb up to the top shall have the crown!” The first man to make the attempt climbed only two rungs and slipped down. The second man met the same fate – and so did the third. Along came a wise man. When he got to the second rung, he began to fall, but cried out, ‘My king, my master, please hasten to my aid!’ The king responded, ‘Had I offered such help to the first man, they would not have fallen and died!’ ‘The difference is this,’ the wise man explained. ‘The others did not call out to you, but I do. Please come to my aid and save me!’ Similarly, the Evil Inclination is like a ladder. The generation of the flood came – and they were swept away; the generation of the dispersion came – and they were swept away. The people of Sodom came – and they too were swept away. David came, after the incident with Bath Sheba, and his Evil Inclination sought to overwhelm him. He therefore pleaded that Elohim should come to his aid. ‘Had I assisted the previous generations,’ YHWH explained, ‘they, too, would not have been swept away.’ Said David” ‘They did not call out to You for aid, but as for me, I have called out to You for You will answer me, O Elohim, bend your ear to me, hear my saying (17:6). David thus declared, ‘YHWH, had You not grasped my hand, I could not have stood my ground!’ (Yalkut Machiri, citing Tanchuma).
Verse 7; “Withdraw Your kindness, O saviour of those who seek refuge, from those who rise up against Your right hand.”
Withdraw Your kindness from the wicked who do not deserve it (Radak). Because the wicked don’t even call out to You.
Verse 8; “Guard me as the apple of Your eye, in the shadow of Your wings hide me.”
The apple of the eye refers to the dark part of the eye which controls vision because light enters through it. Because the eyes are fragile and sensitive, YHWH provides eyelids and lashes to cover them regularly. Thus David asks to be protected in the same fashion (Rashi).
Verse 9; “From the wicked who have plundered me. The enemies who threaten my soul surround me.”
The goal of the wicked is no less than to take my life. In a person, the enemy is the Evil Inclination, which is natural desires for pride, pleasure, and other lusts which fill the heart and soul. These are indeed the enemy from within which threatens man more than any of his external enemies of flesh and blood.
Verse 10; “They are enclosed in their own fat, with their mouths they have spoken proudly.”
Their excessive corpulence has closed up their hearts and their eyes preventing them from beholding Your acts and from fearing You (Rashi). An excessive preoccupation with materialism is called ‘fat.’
Verse 11; “They now encircle our footsteps, they fix their gaze to spread over the land.”
From this verse Rashi derives his view that David composed this Psalm when threatened by enemies all around. He feared that he might fall into their hands as a punishment for the episode of Bath Sheba.
The enemies of the righteous watch their movements carefully (Radak).
Verse 12; “His likeness is that of a lion yearning to tear asunder, like a young lion lurking in hiding.”
Hirsch suggests that ‘likeness’ is the outer appearance of a person with an inflated self-image as in Ezekiel 31:2; “To whom do you liken yourself in your greatness.” This man proudly compares himself to a powerful, rapacious lion and tries to live up to his imagined role.
Verse 13; “Rise up YHWH, confront him and bring him to his knees; rescue my soul from the wicked – You sword.”
Get my enemy before he gets me (Radak).
YHWH empowers the wicked to mete out punishment to the guilty. Thus the wicked become YHWH’s weapon and sword (Rashi).
Verse 14; “Better for those whose death is by Your hand, YHWH, from those who die of old age, Whose portion is eternal life, and whose innards You fill with Your concealed treasure, who are satisfied with sons, and who bequeath their abundance to their babes.”
David [facing death at this moment as a result of his sins] explains that he wishes to die not at the hands of the wicked, but by YHWH’s own hand (Rashi; Radak; Ibn Ezra).
Long life is a prize that YHWH rewards to the righteous. Proverbs 16:31; “Grey hair is a crown of splendour: it is attained by a righteous life.” But the greater prize is in the hereafter, which contains exquisite treasures for the man who has lived long or been martyred for the faith and had his life cut short.
Don’t be like the pagans who desire the good things of this world and do not desire the good things of the World to Come. The higher goal of seeking eternal life demands a higher standard of conduct and discipline, but the reward is so astronomical it is unlawful to reveal its full details to a mortal mind.
Verse 15; “In righteousness I shall behold Your face, upon awakening I will be satisfied by You form.”
David said: I am not like the wicked who have no desire for the World to Come. My desire is the behold Your presence there accompanied by the righteousness, which I have performed in this world (Radak). This righteousness was not David’s doing, but YHWH’s doing through him. David’s merit was his willingness to let YHWH work through him to accumulate works of righteousness, because a person’s best efforts to attain righteousness alone are filthy rags.