Psalm 17 Commentary

Psalm 17 Commentary

Turn to Psalm 17.

Psalm 17 Commentary: Superscription

As you can see from the superscription of this psalm, it’s a “prayer” of David. And this is a rare designation for a psalm. It’s more common for the superscription to tell us that what’s to follow is a “psalm”. We’ve seen other terms being used as well. But there are only a few times when a psalm is declared to be a prayer. Psalm 86 is another psalm that’s designated as “a prayer of David” in its superscription. Psalm 90 is “a prayer of Moses the man of God”. Psalm 102 is “a prayer of the afflicted”. And the last time we see a psalm being designated as a prayer is in Psalm 142 – which is said to be “a prayer when [David] was in a cave”. So then, this is one of only 5 psalms in the psalter designated as a “prayer”.

Psalm 17 Commentary: Theme

And in this prayer, David is expressing this emotion — Confidence that God Will Protect the Innocent Man from His Deadly Enemies. And we’ll attempt to discover that message now.

Psalm 17 Commentary: David’s Innocence

Now, before we go into detail explaining this psalm, I would point to something that sets this psalm apart from others. Throughout Psalm 17 we notice David’s emphasis on his own personal innocence.

And some people take this to mean that this was written before his adultery with Bathsheba and his commissioning the murder of her husband Uriah. And I guess their thinking is that David couldn’t have been so bold in asserting his own innocence after he committed such horrible sin. But I don’t think it’s necessary to place this psalm chronologically before David’s great sin.

David isn’t saying in Psalm 17 that he never sinned. That’s not what he’s getting at when he speaks of his own personal innocence. But what he is saying throughout this psalm is that he doesn’t deserve to be hounded by these enemies of his. They are out to destroy him. But there’s no justification on their part to be doing this to David. And David is confident that if God were to set up court and put David in the defendant’s chair and his enemies in the plaintiff’s chair – David would be found innocent. The enemies would have no justification for their harsh treatment of him.

Psalm 17 Commentary: Invocation

And this innocence of his is something that he emphasizes even in the invocation in the first two verses of Psalm 17. He says…

Hear the right, O LORD,
attend unto my cry,
give ear unto my prayer,
that goeth not out of feigned lips.
2 Let my sentence come forth from thy presence;
let thine eyes behold the things that are equal.

So, David poetically brings this situation into a law court. And in this court, David wants God the Judge to, “hear the right”. He wants God to hear what is just – David’s just cause. And that’s what David’s referring to when he speaks of his “cry” and his prayer” that he wants God to “attend unto” and “give ear unto”. David has a just cause that he needs God to hear and be sympathetic with.

And notice how David ends verse 1. This cry – this prayer – David’s just cause isn’t coming from “feigned lips” – or “lips of deceit”. Again, David is maintaining his personal innocence. This request of his is just and righteous. It doesn’t come out of deceitful lips. He’s not lying. He’s telling the truth. He’s innocent.

David continues with the law court theme in verse 2. He wants his “sentence” or his “justice” to come from God’s presence. David wants God to behold “the things that are equal” or “even things” – “upright things.” As God examines David, David is convinced that God will see that David has been involved in upright things – certainly not the kinds of activities that would warrant the threats that he’s experiencing from his deadly enemies. And therefore, God will pass judgment in David’s favor – giving David the justice that he needs against those deadly enemies of his.

So, that’s David’s invocation to God. He addresses God as the only one who can protect him – an innocent man – from his deadly enemies.

Psalm 17 Commentary: Confidence

Next, in verses 3 through 5, David expresses his confidence. And listen carefully to this part. It’s a little different than we’ve seen in any other lament psalm thus far. So, let’s read verses 3 through 5.

3 Thou hast proved mine heart;
thou hast visited me in the night;
thou hast tried me, and shalt find nothing;
I am purposed that my mouth shall not transgress.
4 Concerning the works of men,
by the word of thy lips I have kept me from the paths of the destroyer.
5 Hold up my goings in thy paths,
that my footsteps slip not.

The emphasis of David’s confidence – as I said – is a little unusual I think. Usually David expresses confidence primarily in God and in God’s character. The confidence in Psalm 17 – in contrast – is in the fact that David is innocent. He’s not saying a whole lot about God and his character.

David says in verse 3 that God has proved his heart. He’s tested David’s heart like one would test metal with fire. And the implication is that God has found David’s heart – the center of his emotions and morals – to be genuine and blameless.

David continues this emphasis on being tested by God and being found genuine through verse 3. David says that God has “visited” him in the night. God “called him to account” or “examined” him in the night. Next, David says that God has “tried” him. That word is used of refining or smelting metals. Again, the emphasis is on God examining the genuineness and sincereity and innocence of David. And the result? David says that God “shalt find nothing”. God won’t find impurities. David is confident that he is innocent.

And so, David has been speaking of his innocence in vague, general terms thus far. But starting at the end of verse 3 and on into verse 4, David gives specific areas where he’s innocent.

David says that he’s purposed that his “mouth shall not transgress”. His mouth won’t overstep the boundaries which God has placed upon it. David has made it his mission to not speak out of line with what God expects and requires of him.

So, David’s SPEECH is innocent. Next, he says that his WORKS are also innocent. That’s verse 4. Because of what God has commanded – “by the words of thy lips” – David has kept himself from the “paths of the destroyer” or “the ways of the violent ones or viscious ones”. David has taken heed to God’s commands and as a result he’s not one to emulate violent and viscious men.

No, in contrast to following the paths of the violent destroyer, David’s steps have held fast to God’s paths. And because that’s been the case, David’s feet have not slipped. God’s paths are firm and safe. And this has been where David has kept to – God’s paths.

So, David is generally innocent. He’s also innocent in regard to his speech. And he’s innocent in regard to his actions. And therefore, David is confident in his innocence.

And yet, David isn’t being self-righteous or self-sufficient. But he is stating that he’s innocent and certainly not worthy of the persecution that he’s facing from his deadly enemies. And because this is the case, David feels confident that God will protect him from those enemies.

Psalm 17 Commentary: Petition

Now, David follows up his statement of confidence in his own innocence with some requests to God in verses 6 through 8. Particularly, David asks for protection – based on God’s loyal covenant love. Read Psalm 17 8 Meaning for the details.

Psalm 17 Commentary: Lament

So, we’ve just heard the innocent man’s pleas to God for protection from his deadly enemies. And next in verses 9 through 12 we have the innocent man’s perspective on these deadly enemies of his – in what we know of as the psalm’s “lament” or “complaint” section. Verses 9 through 12.

9 [Protect me from…] From the wicked that oppress me,
from my deadly enemies, who compass me about.
10 They are inclosed in their own fat:
with their mouth they speak proudly.
11 They have now compassed us in our steps:
they have set their eyes bowing down to the earth;
12 Like as a lion that is greedy of his prey,
and as it were a young lion lurking in secret places.

So, in verse 9 we have the relationship between these deadly enemies and the innocent man. The enemies oppress the innocent. They attack him, is another way to say that. These deadly enemies compass the innocent about. They surround him. They’re deadly. They attack. They surround. This doesn’t sound good.

In verse 10 the innocent man focuses in on what these enemies are like. They’re “inclosed in their own fat”. This makes it sound like these enemies are all really fat. But what it’s saying is that they close off their fat. This can mean that they’ve closed up their hearts. They are unfeeling in that sense. They’re attacking the innocent without any sort of remorse. It’s one thing to do wrong and feel bad about it. But these guys aren’t like that. They’re sinning and have no care in the world about it.

And next line of verse 10 – these enemies speak proudly with their mouths. Their mouth speaks arrogance. These enemies are unfeeling, cold, and proud.

Verse 11 returns to the enemies’ relation to the innocent. And this time David has not only himself in view as an innocent man. But now he has other innocent people in view. The enemies have “now compassed US in our steps”. The enemies are surrounding David and his fellow innocents.

The next phrase is a little difficult as we have it here. The enemies “have set their eyes bowing down to the earth”. What that’s saying is that the enemies have their eyes set with this purpose – IN ORDER TO bow the INNOCENT to the ground. To throw the innocent down to the ground. That’s what the deadly enemies have purposed with their eyes. Their eyes are focused on that one goal.

And verse 12 – the enemies do this – they set their eyes on throwing the innocent to the ground – in the same way that a lion would to his prey. These men are lurking and waiting for the right time to destroy David and his fellow innocents.

Psalm 17 Commentary: More Petitions

And so in light of these really troubling realities, David has a second round of requests for the Lord in verses 13 and 14. Let’s read that.

13 Arise, O LORD,
disappoint him,
cast him down:
deliver my soul from the wicked, which is [with] thy sword:
14 From men which are [with] thy hand, O LORD,
from men of the world, which have their portion in this life,
and whose belly thou fillest with thy hid treasure:
they are full of children,
and leave the rest of their substance to their babes.

And so, David has two requests for the Lord. And they prove to be two sides of the same coin. First, David wants God to take action against the enemies. He says “arise, Lord!” And when he arises, David wants God to “disappoint” his enemies. He wants God to “confront” his enemies. And the result of that confrontation will be that the Lord casts the enemies down. The Lord will confront the enemy and bring him to his knees.

And second, David wants God to deliver him from these enemies. So, negatively – destroy them, God. Positively, deliver me, God. Deliver me from the wicked – end of verse 13 and from these men – start of verse 14. By the Lord’s sword and by the Lord’s hand is David’s deliverance pictured as coming.

And then into verse 14 David almost seems to take up another lament against these enemies. And what he reveals about them makes them all the guiltier. Look at how God treats these enemies – these men of the world – worldly, earthly men, who don’t have a future in heaven. These guys have their portion in this life because they have none in the life to come. And you know what – their portion is very generous. Yes, it’s all they have. But it’s really good. Look – God fills the bellies of these people with hid treasure. God feeds the wicked, these deadly enemies.

And no only that – God fills them with children. They have an abundance of children. This would have been viewed as one of the richest blessings an agricultural people could want – more children – more laborers in the fields – more hands to help at home – more influence in your city gate – more power.

God gives these deadly enemies all the children they want. He gives them all the food they want. And you know – sometimes having a lot of children and a lot of food – one wins out over the other. You know? All those children eat all the food. So, sometimes you either have a lot of food or goods without kids to eat it up. Or you have a lot of kids and the food and other goods kind of get used up rather quickly. But God is so good to these wicked men that they have lots of goods and lots of kids, but they have enough left to leave some to their babes. They have such an abundance that they can leave some to their kids. God is good even to the wicked.

And isn’t this like God? He causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust. He’s good and kind and generous indiscriminately. And yet, this goodness and kindness leaves these wicked men all the more culpable. They take what God so generously and kindly gives them and they squander it. They take the resources that they didn’t pay for and they spend it on oppressing the innocent people of the God who gives all these gifts to them.

And this might remind you of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man had all sorts of material blessings and Lazarus had nothing but pain and misery. They both died. Lazarus went to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man went to hell. And when the rich man wanted mercy – this is Abraham’s response to him. “Child, you had your good things during your lifetime and Lazarus had his bad things. But now Lazarus is being comforted and YOU are in agony.” Folks, receiving good things in this life is no sign that God approves of you. For men like these wicked and deadly enemies in this psalm – it actually makes them even guiltier in God’s eyes.

Psalm 17 Commentary: Praise

So, these deadly enemies are just showered with blessings from God in this life. And that’s what they focus on. But what’s David’s focus? Let’s look at the last verse of Psalm 17 where we see David praising God for the antitipation of seeing and being satisfied with God. Verse 15.

15 As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness:
I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.

“As for me” he says. In opposition to those who set their minds on things of this earth – whose only portion will be what they have in this life – David is more interested in beholding God’s face. Are you? Are you honestly more interested in seeing God and being with him forever than you are in what you can gain in this life? David was.

And what made David confident that he was going to see God? It’s the very thing that he’s been emphasizing throughout this entire psalm – his innocence, his righteousness. Because of David’s rghteousness, he would behold God’s face.

Now, we know from what David says elsewhere and even from what the New Testament says of David that this is not self-righteousness or a righteousness based on the Law. But it’s the righteousness of one to whom sin is not imputed, whose transgressions the Lord forgives. That righteousness based on faith in God’s promises will allow David to see God’s face.

So, the enemies are satisfied with food and children. But David will be satisfied with the Lord’s presence when he wakes – as it were – from this short fleeting life.

So, that’s Psalm 17 – Confidence that God Will Protect the Innocent Man from His Deadly Enemies.


  1. Ron says:

    “Are you honestly more interested in seeing God and being with him forever than you are in what you can gain in this life?”

    I had to stop and really think, ponder on that statement a while. As I thought about it the answer was yes but my question was why didn’t “yes” just immediately pop into my mind. I guess it was the fear of the unknown. Like what happens when you die, how do you get to heaven? And there are some good things on this earth or in this world that have been satisfying. But in the end I agree yes, I am more interested in being with God and in heaven forever than being in this world. My question. Am I wrong that I didn’t immediately or couldn’t immediately answer yes to that question? Thank you!


    1. Paul says:

      Ron – I’m glad and encouraged that you are asking this question. Do you know how to get to heaven?


      1. Ron Hunter says:

        yes I do….Jesus is my Lord and Savior.


      2. Paul says:

        That’s good to hear, Ron. So, I would say this is a positive development for you. You have had to weigh the value of being with the Lord against the value of the stuff you have in this world and you have determined that the Lord is worth so much more. You’ve made the right choice.


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