<To the leader. A Psalm of David the servant of the LORD, who addressed the words of this song to the LORD on the day when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul. He said:>
1 I love you, O LORD, my strength.
2 The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
3 I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, so I shall be saved from my enemies.
4 The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of perdition assailed me;
5 the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me.
6 In my distress I called upon the LORD; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.
7 Then the earth reeled and rocked;
the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry.
8 Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth;
glowing coals flamed forth from him.
9 He bowed the heavens, and came down; thick darkness was under his feet.
10 He rode on a cherub, and flew; he came swiftly upon the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering around him, his canopy thick clouds dark with water.
12 Out of the brightness before him there broke through his clouds hailstones and coals of fire.
13 The LORD also thundered in the heavens, and the Most High uttered his voice.
14 And he sent out his arrows, and scattered them; he flashed forth lightnings, and routed them.
15 Then the channels of the sea were seen, and the foundations of the world were laid bare at your rebuke, O LORD, at the blast of the breath of your nostrils.
16 He reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters.
17 He delivered me from my strong enemy, and from those who hated me; for they were too mighty for me.
18 They confronted me in the day of my calamity; but the LORD was my support.
19 He brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me.
20 The LORD rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he recompensed me.
21 For I have kept the ways of the LORD, and have not wickedly departed from my God.
22 For all his ordinances were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me.
23 I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from guilt.
24 Therefore the LORD has recompensed me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.
25 With the loyal you show yourself loyal; with the blameless you show yourself blameless;
26 with the pure you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you show yourself perverse.
27 For you deliver a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down.
28 It is you who light my lamp; the LORD, my God, lights up my darkness.
29 By you I can crush a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall.
30 This God– his way is perfect; the promise of the LORD proves true; he is a shield for all who take refuge in him.
31 For who is God except the LORD? And who is a rock besides our God?–
32 the God who girded me with strength, and made my way safe.
33 He made my feet like the feet of a deer, and set me secure on the heights.
34 He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
35 You have given me the shield of your salvation, and your right hand has supported me; your help has made me great.
36 You gave me a wide place for my steps under me, and my feet did not slip.
37 I pursued my enemies and overtook them; and did not turn back until they were consumed.
38 I struck them down, so that they were not able to rise; they fell under my feet.
39 For you girded me with strength for the battle; you made my assailants sink under me.
40 You made my enemies turn their backs to me, and those who hated me I destroyed.
41 They cried for help, but there was no one to save them; they cried to the LORD, but he did not answer them.
42 I beat them fine, like dust before the wind; I cast them out like the mire of the streets.
43 You delivered me from strife with the peoples; you made me head of the nations; people whom I had not known served me.
44 As soon as they heard of me they obeyed me; foreigners came cringing to me.
45 Foreigners lost heart, and came trembling out of their strongholds.
46 The LORD lives! Blessed be my rock, and exalted be the God of my salvation,
47 the God who gave me vengeance and subdued peoples under me;
48 who delivered me from my enemies; indeed, you exalted me above my adversaries; you delivered me from the violent.
49 For this I will extol you, O LORD, among the nations, and sing praises to your name.
50 Great triumphs he gives to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his descendants forever.
Psalm 18 is nearly identical to 2 Samuel 22 and both probably share a common source. The narrative superscription of Psalm 18 also makes sense when linked to the ending of the story of David (1 Samuel 22 is directly before the last words of David in the books of Samuel). It is a Psalm that looks backwards at the ways in which the LORD has been present in the midst of a life of faith and now at the end of the journey the Psalmist is thankful. Even though the great commandment of Deuteronomy states that a person is to love the LORD their God with all their heart, soul and strength it is unusual for the Psalms to speak of a person loving God and Psalm 18 unique to use loving the LORD as an opening for the words of praise. Most often, throughout the Psalms it is the LORD’s love that is lifted up but now in response to all of the actions reflected upon throughout the Psalm, the singer gushes about the way that the LORD, having protected and cared for them, having rescued them from death and hearing their distress, is now the object of the Psalmist’s love. Like St. Augustine could state in Confessions, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rest in Thee.” If David is the author of this Psalm then perhaps this is an illustration of what it means to consider David ‘a man after God’s own heart.’
In several of the preceding Psalms the petitioner has asked God to see and to hear, and now looking backwards they reflect upon the ways that God saw, heard and acted. In that time of crisis, the place where it seems like God may not be listening, it is often hard to perceive the ways in which God may already be at work. Yet, in hindsight the poet can see the movements of God as earth shatteringly powerful. The poet takes up the colorful language of mountains trembling and pulling the rescued one from the cords of Sheol (not hell but the place of the dead-concepts of heaven and hell as dwelling places for the dead are not a part of the early Hebrew expectations). God is the rock, deliverer, fortress, shield, horn of salvation, the warrior who comes with smoking nostrils and devouring fire, who bends the heavens and brings darkness to the earth, and who can ride upon the cherubs (not the chubby little baby angels we imagine, but creatures that are both terrifying and whose few mentions in the scriptures seem to defy easy definition but they are definitely not human and are used for example to guard the tree of life in the garden of Eden in Genesis 3).
I have written about the image of God as the Divine Warrior in other places (here, here, and here). And while this is an image which can be abused and twisted to any number of negative expressions of religion (especially when that religion is linked to the power of the state and the state becomes enforcer of Orthodoxy) it can also become a potent image for liberation. If we were to look at the story of David, the period where his life is threatened by King Saul or the numerous points in his reign where he was under threat from external or internal forces, the belief that God sustained and watched over him and was able to act in ways against his enemies was a powerful one. This imagery has often been used in positive ways by the righteous in times of persecution. In a world where many people assume God is benign or unconcerned (the opposite view of the Psalmist) the belief that God sees, hears and can act powerfully is a beacon of hope for the faithful.
Much of the language of the Psalms is hyperbolic (exaggerated language which is common in poetry- the mountains, for example, didn’t literally have to shake) and that language can also extend to the Psalmists own righteousness. If we take the story of David, even though he did seek after the LORD, he was far from perfect and his reign was far from always righteous. Yet, the language does echo the desire for what a king should be in Deuteronomy 17: 14-20. The Psalms will wrestle with the language of righteousness and unrighteousness and here the Psalmist feels they are in a state of peace with God. God has watched over their estate and prospered them. Perhaps it is an idealization of the difficult past but the trust is that God has viewed the writer as one who is worth saving and worth lifting up.
With the Psalms harkening back to David we need to remember that the poet is not a person who is distanced from the conflicts that were a part of the life of ancient Israel, but rather David and the other Psalmists were likely warrior poets. David was a warrior king, from early in his life he was not only the boy who slew Goliath of Gath but quickly became the leader of King Saul’s army and his exploits earned him both praise and the envy of his king at that point. In 1 Samuel 18: 7 the women can sing as they meet King Saul:
“Saul has killed his thousands; and David his ten thousands.”
Or as Deuteronomy 20 can discuss the expectation is that the people will be going forth to war and that God will act on their behalf. Psalms like Psalm 144 and Psalm 149 exult in the language of the warrior whose military prowess has been enhance by God. The triumphal language may make us uncomfortable in a context where we thankfully have known peace at home for several generations but this was not the ancient world.
The Psalmist’s faith is a faith that has endured in the midst of trial, conflict and hardship. In the midst of all of the challenges that their life has faced their belief and trust is that God has watched over and preserved them in the midst of all their challenges. Sometimes God has provided them the strength to conquer their enemies and enact vengeance (again even the vengeance is proclaimed in hyperbolic language- beating them fine as dust for example). Sometimes God rescues them in a condition of mortal peril. In all these things their experience is that the LORD is faithful. As St. Paul could say a millennium later:
31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8: 31-39