Open and honest – Psalm 17

Psalms of David

Psalms in Book 1 (Psalms 1 to 41) are mostly personal songs, so I will be looking at how they apply to us personally. Social and communal aspects of life and work do not come in until the later books of psalms.

The apple of your eye is a curious phrase. It is of English origin and does not appear in Hebrew or none English translations. The psalm is really saying to keep me in the dark part, that is the pupil. David is asking God to keep him in focus and keep him as the centre of attention. Apple of thine eye was first used in the Authorized Version of the Bible (and before that by Shakespeare) and is still used in 19 of 27 English translations I have checked.

“Keep me as the dark part of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings,” makes a lot more sense anyway because of the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, both parts of the verse depict dark places.

A red apple is depicted as the iris and pupil of an eye.
Picture from Wikimedia Commons

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.

A Prayer of David.

  • 17 Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to my cry!
        Give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit!
    From your presence let my vindication come!
        Let your eyes behold the right!
    • 3 You have tried my heart, you have visited me by night,
          you have tested me, and you will find nothing;
          I have purposed that my mouth will not transgress.
      With regard to the works of man, by the word of your lips
          I have avoided the ways of the violent.
      My steps have held fast to your paths;
          my feet have not slipped.
      I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;
          incline your ear to me; hear my words.
      • Wondrously show your steadfast love,
            O Saviour of those who seek refuge
            from their adversaries at your right hand.
        Keep me as the apple of your eye;
            hide me in the shadow of your wings,
        from the wicked who do me violence,
            my deadly enemies who surround me.
    • 10 They close their hearts to pity;
          with their mouths they speak arrogantly.
      11 They have now surrounded our steps;
          they set their eyes to cast us to the ground.
      12 He is like a lion eager to tear,
          as a young lion lurking in ambush.
      13 Arise, O Lord! Confront him, subdue him!
          Deliver my soul from the wicked by your sword,
      14 from men by your hand, O Lord,
          from men of the world whose portion is in this life.
      You fill their womb with treasure;
          they are satisfied with children,
          and they leave their abundance to their infants.
  • 15 As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
        when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.
Psalm 17 ESVUK – Indentations added to show the poetic structure

Apples and eyes apart, there is a lot to Psalm 17.

When we try to understand any poetry the poetic structure is as important as the words it contains. Psalm 17 is a song or poem in three parts with the first two parts repeated in the reverse order so it ends where it started on the first part in what is called a chiasm or chiastic structure. Most of the psalms have this structure to some degree or other, but this is one where it is important in that it points at the focus of the psalm in the third section, verses 7 to 9. This psalm is about God’s love.

An honest plea

David is in a pickle. He often is in his songs, it is in times of need that he calls to God for help or in lament. It teaches us that we can praise God even in our darkest times because God is in control even when we are not. But it is honest, David goes through a list of how he has behaved, showing there is no deceit in how he approaches God. In other psalms David owns up to how he has let God down, you can’t fool God, so don’t even try.

Living relationship

Look at the way David addresses God in the psalm. He starts by addressing God as YHWH, which is God’s personal intimate name. David knows God in a living relationship rather than the dry formality of religion. The three parts in Psalm 17:1-9 are a request for God to pay attention, a declaration of faithfulness and asking for God to act in love.

But there is a vulnerability in any good relationship, In being open and honest to God David makes himself vulnerable and because it is a relationship God makes himself vulnerable too. If you are thinking that God is strong, not vulnerable look at the example of Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.

Philippians 2:6-7

It is the vulnerability of Jesus on Earth, not the ruling in Heaven that we are asked to emulate on earth. There should never be authoritarian leadership in the Christian church. We have reached the important middle section of Psalm 17, but what of the rest of this psalm?

When we read of David’s concern that his enemies are insensitive and proud (Verses 10 – 14) rather than open, honest and vulnerable as David has referred to himself in the first part of the psalm we see what I see as a foreshadowing of Jesus, the king who will rule through openness and humility. The concern about those who close their hearts to pity and speak arrogantly comes within the context arrived at in the central section of the song, where David says, “Show your steadfast love.” It is not by showing power over people but by showing love for them that we are strong. We shall not win anyone over by shouting on the street corners that they are terrible people going to Hell, but by showing concern: Real concern, people are very good at spotting fakes.

Be open, be honest and be loving. But most importantly be real.

< Psalm 16 | Psalm 17 | Psalm 18 >
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