What is man? — Psalm 144

Psalms of David

“What is man?” asks David in Psalm 8. There he was looking at the magnificence of the night sky and wondering how humans could be important to God when we are so small in relation to the size of the universe and concluded that human greatness can only come from God. Here in Psalm 144 the term “What is man?” is used by David the king and military commander looking at his enemies and thinking what are these people compared to the God we serve.

A battle tank of the Russian Army taking part in in a military drill. February 2022.

The books of Psalms are roughly themed like this:

Book 1: Psalms 1 – 41: God is beside us.
Book 2: Psalms 42 – 72: God goes before us
Book 3: Psalms 73 – 89: God is all around us.
Book 4: Psalms 90 – 106: God is above us.
Book 5: Psalms 107 – 150: God is among us.

Of David.

144 Blessed be the Lord, my rock,
    who trains my hands for war,
    and my fingers for battle;
he is my steadfast love and my fortress,
    my stronghold and my deliverer,
my shield and he in whom I take refuge,
    who subdues peoples[a] under me.
O Lord, what is man that you regard him,
    or the son of man that you think of him?
Man is like a breath;
    his days are like a passing shadow.
Bow your heavens, O Lord, and come down!
    Touch the mountains so that they smoke!
Flash forth the lightning and scatter them;
    send out your arrows and rout them!
Stretch out your hand from on high;
    rescue me and deliver me from the many waters,
    from the hand of foreigners,
whose mouths speak lies
    and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood.
I will sing a new song to you, O God;
    upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you,
10 who gives victory to kings,
    who rescues David his servant from the cruel sword.
11 Rescue me and deliver me
    from the hand of foreigners,
whose mouths speak lies
    and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood.
12 May our sons in their youth
    be like plants full grown,
our daughters like corner pillars
    cut for the structure of a palace;
13 may our granaries be full,
    providing all kinds of produce;
may our sheep bring forth thousands
    and ten thousands in our fields;
14 may our cattle be heavy with young,
    suffering no mishap or failure in bearing;[b]
may there be no cry of distress in our streets!
15 Blessed are the people to whom such blessings fall!
    Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord!

Psalm 144 ESV UK

We live in a violent world. Diplomacy is underway at the time of writing as the Russian military use the large presence of troops on the borders of Russia and Ukraine and Belarus and Ukraine in a threatening way. There is some sign of a partial withdrawal, but the situation is still unsure. When we look at military threats it is easy to lose sight of who is in control, It is neither Vladimir Putin nor NATO military commanders.

3000 years ago David had a dilemma. The Jewish army was still in the bronze age, but the armies of the surrounding countries had iron chariots. The word iron is the significant one. The armies of the Assyrians and Philistines were living in the iron age, for those days the cutting edge of technology. David and his army were not only outgunned but they were outgunned with superior weapons.

Yet this is an optimistic psalm. David looks at the enemy armies and he looks to God and concludes that with God lies the victory. We are not blessed by the size of our armies but because of the God we serve. We can have confidence beyond what looks feasible not because we have a great army but because we have a great God.


I keep going on about looking at Jewish sources when looking at Old Testament as a Christian as they have had these scriptures longer than we have. I have found that there are many different opinions, but also a real conversation in Jewish circles, which is friendlier than similar conversations in Christian circles. I may have been lucky and just found the better websites, I hope not, I would like to think people can be more civilised than some of us.

But I have found one commenting on this psalm, which I cannot see how it works. But I’m putting it here so that you can make your own minds up. It concerns verse 14. A Jewish translation says:

“Our leaders (alufeinu) are burdened. There is no breach nor rumors going out, and no outcry in our streets.” (Psalms 144:14)

The word alufeinu is not clear, some Jewish commentators translate it as “our cattle” to mean our livestock are healthy but the Talmud translates alufeinu as leaders and teachers and take it to mean that our leaders have a great responsibility, which is not a bad thing, this is a psalm of David who knew the responsibility of being king. I prefer the cattle reading because of the context of granaries being full and sheep bringing forth thousands. But both readings tell of blessings, it’s up to you to pray the psalm and make your own decision.

Whichever yo chose that does not diminish this as a song of confidence in God when going through difficult times.

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