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Psalm 140

The God who rescues the afflicted

How can God care about justice in a world rife with domestic abuse, religious violence, and war crimes? Though unjustly attacked, David knows the God of covenant faithfulness cares deeply about injustice.

To the music director. A David Psalm.

Deliver me, Yahveh, from malicious men.
Save me from violent men
2 who plot evil in their hearts
and are always bent on war—
3 whose darting tongues are sharp as serpents’
while viper venom stains their lips. Selah
4 Keep me, Yahveh
from the grasp of the wicked
from violent men intent on my downfall.
5 The arrogant have set a trap for me
spreading their nets out to catch me
laying snares beside my path. Selah. 

6 I pledge my allegiance, Yahveh:
“You alone are my God.”
Listen, Yahveh, to you I cry for mercy.
7 Yahveh my Lord, my saving strength
you covered my head on the day of battle.

8 Do not, Yahveh
grant the desires of the malicious—
don’t let their evil scheme succeed
lest they be exalted. Selah
9 May the mischief their own lips caused
cover the heads of those who surround me.
10 Rain down burning coals on them
and send them sprawling into gaping pits
never to rise again.
11 Let no slanderer make headway in the land:
let evil hunt violent men down relentlessly.

12 I know Yahveh will advocate for the afflicted
and execute justice for the downtrodden.
13 Then God-seekers will praise your name
and God-pleasers will live in your presence.

David writes in crisis, with Saul’s elite or some other powerful gang surrounding him. Intent on killing him, they’re ready to start a fight over the least little offense. Like the serpent of old, their words—though doubtless frank- and friendly-sounding—are vicious and violent underneath.

The psalm’s focal point is David’s urgent plea for covenant protection, sandwiched between his pledge of allegiance and his grateful testimony to God’s faithfulness.[1] Refusing to turn to other gods in desperation, David puts all his hope in Yahveh, the one who faithfully shielded him from violence before.

Urging God to judge the scoundrels bent on killing him, David asks only that they fall prey to their own evil plots, reap what they’ve sown, and be put out of business once and for all. He thus effectively pledges to leave vengeance to God, his very prayer an act of nonviolence.

David ends with hope: he’s convinced Yahveh will come through for him, vindicate him, fill him with praise, and restore him to God’s temple. Later Jews who returned from exile only to endure slanderous attacks by vicious enemies must have found David’s prayer very encouraging. With him, we can be confident that God will vindicate his people, renew us, and fill us with joy.

Enduring slander and vicious plots, Jesus, you fought for evil’s victims and yet pleaded for mercy for your attackers, seeing me in both. Since you’re so totally on my side, help me to trust you, no matter what. Grant me grace to believe you’ll come through for me and I’ll yet praise you. Amen.

During your free moments today, meditate on these words:

I know Yahveh will advocate for the afflicted
and execute justice for the downtrodden.

[1] This psalm’s first eleven verses are structured chiastically, covering the following topics: violent men (1-2), lips (3), scoundrels’ plots (4-5), confession of mutual loyalty in covenant with Israel’s sovereign God (6-7), scoundrels’ plots (8), lips (9-10), violent men (11).

Why Yahveh?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and occasionally transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Modern translations, likewise, either translate or transliterate it. While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it is more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. I’ve chosen to transliterate it to root it more firmly in the biblical story as the name—meaning the “self-existent One”—that God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. This name set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it in order better to hallow it. In transliterating it, I follow the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard. He advocated transliterating it as Yahveh—pronounced yah·vay—arguing that following the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish than Yahweh.
May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Robert Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.