John 13:18 records our Savior’s citation of Psalm 41:9 when He revealed at the Last Supper that He knew He would be betrayed by an intimate friend “that the scripture may be fulfilled.” Through the ages, believing commentators and preachers have been hard put to see how the whole psalm is applied to Christ. Verse 4, beginning the first person prayer from which our Lord’s citation in John is taken, is especially difficult: “I said, LORD, be merciful unto me: heal my soul; for I have sinned against thee.” Charles Spurgeon is most candid:
The immaculate Saviour could never have used such language as this unless there be here a reference to the sin which he took upon himself by imputation: and for our part we tremble to apply words so manifestly indicating personal rather than imputed sin.
Yes, because Jesus says it is (John 13:18). Not that David was aware of this, nor that everything he said here could have been said by Jesus; verse 4 obviously could not. But the general drift of the psalm, and verse 9 in particular, makes it a messianic prophecy….Such was the view of the apostolic church, based upon the teaching of Christ Himself.
While such statements are true, this understanding has led to Christian commentaries that consist of miscellaneous useful platitudes and principles while missing the main thrust and background of David in Psalm 41 and our Lord’s basis for His own trial through Judas foretold in it. In other words, it is good to proclaim Christ’s application of the Psalm, but it would be more helpful to explain how He could so understand the psalm. This would help us in knowing how also to understand and apply this psalm—and others—to our faith and lives.
The solution to the problem of interpreting Psalm 41 correctly and understanding our Lord’s application of it is to understand its background in the Davidic Covenant. While I have not read every commentary on Psalm 41, I have not found any that prominently recognize its Davidic Covenant background. Calvin is the closest in his comment on v. 13 (“Blessed be Jehovah, the God of Israel, for ever and ever.”). He writes,
By calling God expressly the God of Israel, he testifies that he cherished in his heart a deep and thorough impression of the covenant which God had made with the Fathers; because it was the source from which his deliverance proceeded.
Calvin’s excellent observation has been beset by two problems. First, most Christian commentators sever v. 13 from Psalm 41 to make it a benediction ending the so-called Book I of the Psalter, as Calvin’s translator, James Anderson, explains in a large note.
Consequently, the verse with Calvin’s insight carries no bearing on the direct interpretation of the psalm. Second, the insight of the unity and intertwining of all the covenants, so clear in Calvin, has been so fixed in Reformed thought through Dudley Fenner’s two covenant view adopted in our Westminster Confession of Faith that the distinct features of individual covenants—in this case, the Davidic—are often lost to commentators who so clearly see the whole development. It is the purpose of this paper to reemphasize the importance of the Davidic Covenant in David and Christ’s thought.
At the very end our course on the Old Testament in the New, Dr. Prutow presented Paul’s application of II Samuel 7:14 (“I will be his father, and he shall be my son”), the Davidic promise, to the Corinthian separatists in II Corinthians 6:18 (“‘And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters,’ saith the Lord Almighty”). How striking! Paul applies the Davidic covenant to Christian believers!
This is indeed very instructive, and we shall need to know how he does this as it has a bearing on why Psalm 41 is intended to be sung by all believers, if it is indeed based on David’s experience of the Davidic Covenant.
4. The remainder of Scripture is the gradual unfolding of the Covenant of Grace through a series of covenants, each developing a particular element of the one preceding it and preparing for a more complete accomplishment. The call of the elect people, ultimately to include all nations, to live by faith in obedience was set forth in successive covenants made with Abraham, the nation of Israel, and David.
SECTION VIII: In partial fulfillment of the terms of the Abrahamic covenant God established an everlasting covenant with David, the king, to provide out of his seed a theocratic king, the Christ, who would sit on David’s throne and rule over the elect nation forever in a new earth wherein dwells righteousness.
In response to David’s modest proposal to build a permanent ‘house’ for the ark of the covenant, Yahweh announces his startlingly generous intention of building a dynastic ‘house’ for David….As our chapter heading suggests, it is the so-called ‘dynastic oracle’ (vv.8-16) that takes pride of place, and such is its importance that 2 Samuel 7 is rightly regarded as an ‘ideological summit’, not only in the ‘Deuteronomistic History’ but also in the Old Testament as a whole.
Because of the overwhelming important of this covenant in the Old Testament and as a background of Psalm 41, a brief consideration of the covenant promises and related events in David’s life recorded in II Samuel must be reviewed.
After the Lord established David in peace as king so that he sat comfortably in his own house, he had to learn again the regulative principle of worship. He wanted to replace God’s tabernacle with a glorious Temple of cedar. Even the prophet Nathan approved and encouraged him; but while, as Calvin observed,
it was utterly condemned by God…(so) we are…admonished always to carry out our devotion according to the rule which he has given us. For while we should be aflame with an ardent zeal to dedicate ourselves to God, we must also be prudent enough to find out the right way to do it, so that we will do everything that comes into our head, like men who give themselves liberty to do what they have dreamed up, claiming that ‘their intentions are good’!
God must always take the initiative in worship, not pious men, even when their ideas can gain the approval of other highly-placed and pious men. In this case, catering to David’s short sight would have slowed an even greater vision, for God used this occasion to grant David the marvelous Davidic Covenant, the crowning glory of the Biblical covenants and “the matrix of biblical messianism.”
In the first promise of the covenant, God, Who has always guarded David in his rise from shepherd to king and cut off all his enemies, reveals that He “will make (not “have made” AV) your name great, like the names of the greatest men of the earth” (II Sam. 7:9). His name will be on a covenant par with Abraham’s (Gen. 12:2), even as this covenant will always be linked to the Abrahamic and only understood in connection with it (Matthew 1:1). To perpetuate that name and the rest for Israel to be associated with it, The LORD “will make thee an house” (7: 11). “And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever” (v. 16) Now the significance of this promise for understanding Psalm 41 is that there David’s enemies long to know and purpose to hasten the day when God’s Covenant is defeated: “When shall he die, and his name perish?” (Ps. 41:5)
The second feature of the covenant that bears noting is the promise of a “seed” (offspring) to David: “…I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom” (7:12). Our understanding of “seed,” like David’s understanding, must be informed by the use of that same word in the Edenic (Gen. 3:15) and Abrahamic (Gen. 17:7) covenants. Like his honored forebearers, David would have to wait through death for the resurrection and salvation through his Son (v. 7). As to Psalm 41, we shall need to understand the Davidic seed concept to see how the psalm applies to Christ our Savior individually and to us corporately in Him.
A third concept of great importance in this covenant is its prominent fatherly chastisement provision: “I will be his father, and he shall be my son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men” (v. 14). It is strangely interesting how many like Augustine find this applicable to Christ (using Acts 9:4 “Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” as a proof).
We shall have to understand how it is tied to the covenant’s eternal mercy and how David perceived it as particularly applicable to himself in Psalm 41 (II Sam. 12:10-13: “…because thou hast despised me…I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house….The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die.”).
But My mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee. And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever. (vs. 15-16)
The reason David’s house and kingdom “shall be established” (“made sure”) is God’s never failing, ever faithful mercy. Gordon contends that “make sure (ne’man, 16) is arguably the keynote verb as far as the Davidic dynasty is concerned,” and he cites Abigail’s amazing early insight (I Sam. 25:28). Even more important is the gospel call of Isaiah: “Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David” (Isa. 55:3). The “sure mercies of David” or the “faithful lovingkindness” of this covenant is the rock-sure basis of salvation to all. After the Davidic promise and Isaiah’s powerful invitation, we all (every accepter) live in covenant relation with God on the foundation and surrounded by “the sure mercies of David.” Will this not explain the oft-noted strange plea of Psalm 41: 4 (“I said, LORD, be merciful unto me: heal my soul; for I have sinned against thee.”)?
Gordon Keddie has an absolutely important insight everyone should memorize and apply: “True prayer is always based on the covenant.” David’s prayer certainly was. II Samuel 7:18-29 is filled with humbled awe of God’s covenanted mercy to himself, his house, and Abraham’s Israel (“For thou hast confirmed to thyself thy people Israel to be a people unto thee forever: and thou, LORD, art become their God” [v.24, compare Gen. 17:7-8]). His exalted praise and focus on the covenant’s mercifully sure eternity is also crystal clear in Psalm 41 (not to mention Ethan’s Psalm 89). David never forgot this covenant in his prayers. David’s going in to “sit before the LORD” (v. 18) not only contrasts with his thoughts when he “sat in his house” (v. 1) but reminds us of his Lord—and ours—Who also sat down to pray (Psalm 110). By His prayer, we obtain “the sure mercies of David” in “the everlasting covenant” (Isa.55:3); and only in His prayers are ours acceptable. His purpose is to make us “as David” (Zech. 12:8), whose prayer psalms our God has given us to sing so that “the word of Christ” may “dwell in [us] richly in all wisdom” (Col. 3:16).
It is important to emphasize God’s summary evaluation of David’s kingship over Israel in II Sam. 8:15: “And David reigned over all Israel: and David executed judgment and justice unto all his people.” This report of the pre-exilic writer of II Samuel (Jeremiah, by Rabbinic judgment) was reinforced by repetition in I Chron. 18:14 by the Chronicler (Ezra, by Rabbinic judgment [Baba Bathra, 15:a]). This puts the lie to Absolom’s slander (II Sam. 15:3-4) and supports the foundation premise of Psalm 41 that David did “consider the poor” and structured his government to grant them justice.
In the administrative structure of David’s reign, his sons served as “chief rulers” (AV, cohenim, “priests,” II Sam 8:18). Since the days of Jethro’s advice to Moses, Israel was judged by a system of graded judges who administered justice to all under Moses (Ex. 18:24-26). Under David, this role was filled by his sons, especially those eldest sons who were in the line of succession for the throne (II Sam. 3:1-5). The use of the term “priests” in this connection must not throw us into thinking of his sons exercising some function in the religious ritual of Israel. The civil meaning intended is made clear by the Chroniclers “since they substitute here (I Chron. xviii.17) ‘chief about (literally, at the hand of ) the king.” My suggestion is that the key to understanding the civil function of David’s sons is to note the function of the priests Malachi emphasizes: “For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth…” (Mal. 2:7). The purpose was to “turn many away from iniquity” (Mal. 2:6). So also David’s sons functioned civilly as “priests” at the judicial gate of Jerusalem under him (II Sam. 15:2). They lived in intimate fellowship with their father, eating at the royal table (II Sam. 9:11, “he (Mephibosheth) shall eat at my table, as one of the king’s sons”). They could there gain his mind and direction in their work as trusted advisors and surrogates. [Note the connection to Psalm 41 where it is “mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me” (v. 9).] Because she is looking too closely for some kingly cultic function for the son-priests, the usually excellent commentator, Joyce Baldwin, will later find it “inconceivable that David did not know what Absalom was doing” when he won the hearts of the people by lying to them saying “there is no man deputed of the king to hear thee” (II Sam. 15:3). His lying whisper campaign was plausible and his activity plausibly covered from suspicion because he WAS David’s deputed surrogate, the very man who as eldest son and heir apparent to the throne was certainly the one to be looked to for justice.
David’s sin is very well known. His private lust for and adultery with Bathsheba has become an extremely effective classic example for all of the effects of sin and mercy in the Covenant. After Nathan’s carefully constructed parabolic story of the rich shepherd’s rapacious usurpation and festive consumption of the poverty-stricken father’s dearly bought and deeply cherished life-giving little ewe, David’s angry death sentence is turned on himself: “Thou art the man” (II Sam. 12:7). He is himself worthy of death for arranging Uriah’s murder, secretly committing adultery with his wife, and giving great occasion to the Lord’s enemies to blaspheme His name. For the first two crimes, the significant sentence is
This sentence of judgment is extremely significant when viewed in connection with the Lord’s covenant with David. The covenant had promised that “if he (David’s seed) commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men” (II Sam. 7:14). Now, David was finding that, although the covenant had been made with him, he was not the lord of it. He was in it in the same capacity as his seed. In other words, like Adam and Abraham before him, David would have to look forward in the Covenant to his Seed for salvation (Gen. 3:15; Gen. 17:7). David would come to see that he had a Lord in His Seed: “The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool” (Ps. 110:1). This is the covenantal answer to our Lord’s masterful question, “If David then called him Lord; how is he his son?” (Mt. 22:41-45).
Significantly, David now learned the enormous consequences of this his personal sin. His whole life, spared in mercy, would be colored by this judgment. Whenever he saw the rod of enemies applied to him, especially out of his house, he would know that it stemmed directly from this judgment. So, in our Psalm 41, seeing his busy, outwardly solicitous, but secretively subversive enemies, he immediately cries, “I said, LORD, be merciful unto me: heal my soul; for I have sinned against thee.” (Ps. 41: 4) If Luther’s first thesis reminds us that the Christian life is one of continual repentance; David’s life can be viewed as one of continual repentance for this one sin. No wonder the commentators find themselves tracking so many of his Psalms back to the consequences of this one great sin.
How high and vast is the spread of his troubles with the sword in his “house,” among those most closely related to him, those he trusted and confided in most, those with whom he regularly shared his table. As Psalm 41 put it, “Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me” (v. 9). These included the king’s sons, just as he said of Mephibosheth, “he shall eat at my table, as one of the king’s sons” (II Sam. 9:11). Chapter 13 will immediately show the relentless plodding plotting iniquities of those expecting to succeed David on the throne. The incestuous Amnon, “his firstborn” (II Sam. 3:1), and the revengeful Absalom, his next in line, are both significantly introduced as “the son of David” (II Sam. 13:1)—obviously part of his house. And should we not include the notoriously legendary wise man, Ahithophel, “the king’s counselor” (I Chron. 27:33), who joined the conspiracy of Absalom (II Sam 15:12 and 31) and is usually identified as the trusted traitor of Psalm 41:9? Ahithophel is thought to be Bathsheba’s grandfather on the basis of the shared name, Eliam, of his son and her father (II Samuel 23:34 and 11:3).
If God considered David’s sin of humiliating Bathsheba as an act that “despised Me” (II Sam. 12:10), would not her grandfather also feel despised by and alienated in heart from David without the covenanted mercies of the Divine to counter those feelings in his heart? Did not both sides of the family that should have been united by the marriage contribute to the sword “because thou hast despised me, and hast taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be thy wife” (II Sam. 12:10)?
Still, the “sure mercies of David,” “an everlasting covenant” (Isa. 55:3), is immediately there for David. No sooner than Nathan had explained the lasting judgment than David said, “I have sinned against the LORD” and Nathan replied, “the LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die” (II Sam. 12:13). God’s covenant makes such mercy possible and certain (II Sam. 7:15). David may expect it and plead for it as certain whenever he finds he has sinned. Hence, what some consider the strange logic of Psalm 41:4: “I said, LORD, be merciful unto me: heal my soul; for I have sinned against you.”
He knew there was no Levitical sacrifice for murder or adultery (“Thou desireth not sacrifice, else would I give it.” Ps. 51:16). Still he expected to be purged with hyssop and washed whiter than snow (Ps. 51:7), and he was.
Indeed, the gracious mercy of the covenant is “everlasting” and never to be given up on, even in the face of God’s clear and specific declarations of judgment. When Nathan declared that the child from his adultery with Bathsheba would die, David nonetheless besought the Lord to spare his life with fasting and tears up until he perceived that the child was dead. Even then he rightly expected the mercy of God in the next world: “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me” (II Sam. 12:23). Covenant mercy is everlasting.
The judgment from the family intrigues pronounced through Nathan begin when Amnon, the heir apparent to the Davidic throne, is encouraged by his paternal cousin, Jonadab, to manipulate David into innocently arranging the incestuous rape of his daughter, Absalom’s sister Tamar. David hears of it and is “very wroth” (II Sam. 13:21), but he does nothing to the heir-apparent. He is usually thought to be paralyzed by the guilty example of his own lustful sin. Perhaps, he also acted out of a sense of misplaced mercy, remembering God’s own mercy to himself and the covenant promise of mercy to the seed. Absalom bides his time and then takes revenge by his servants’ swords and flees. By eliminating Amnon, he had also positioned himself as the new heir apparent to the throne, and David’s merciful heart longs after his exiled son, his heir apparent to the covenanted throne . (II Sam. 13:38). Helped by another politically astute cousin, the trusted military commander Joab, who played on David’s heightened sense of justice, Absalom regains his status in David’s love and favor in Jerusalem (II Sam. 14:33).
Now he hatches the conspiracy to which Psalm 41 refers, an attempt to attain the throne for himself. BUT, if he should succeed, he would frustrate God’s covenant with David; and all he could accomplish would be to glorify himself for a time, not God. No wonder Scripture records the horrendous grief of David and his servants when the mistaken report came that “Absalom hath slain all the king’s sons, and there is not one of them left” (II Sam. 13:30-31). Slaying every possible royal rival was not an uncommon practice to establish a new regime in the Middle East. Also, Absalom himself, despite having had three sons (II Sam. 14:27), could not carry on the Messianic seed, even if he so desired for
Evidently, all his sons had died; and, as John the Baptist later asserted, “[Only] God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” (Matt. 3:9). In Psalm 41, David will lay the attempt to end his seed as a covenant consideration before the Lord, saying, “Mine enemies speak evil of me, When shall he die, and his name perish?” (Ps. 41:5), that is, his line of succession end. Absalom’s conspiracy, if successful under Satan, would have destroyed God’s Covenant with David. It was very serious, on a level with Herod’s later attempt to destroy our Lord while helpless at the time of His birth (Matt. 2:16).
Absalom, having received his father’s public kiss of acceptance (II Sam. 14:33), began to exalt himself and advance the public acceptance of his status as heir apparent by organizing a grandeous entourage of horse-drawn chariots and 50 running guards. Although not an accomplished warrior like his father, he sought to imply as much to the public mind in violation of Moses clear command in Deuteronomy 17:16. This was in the same spirit as that in which he later complied with Ahithophel’s counsel to lie publicly with David’s concubines (II Sam. 16:20-23). That action simultaneously fulfilled God’s pronounced judgment on David (II Sam. 12:11-12) and flaunted Moses prohibition (Duet. 17:17). He was all for splendid public show, but he lacked the heart substance of his father.
He also slandered his father with a private whisper campaign of lies as Ps. 41 clearly says. Although we have seen God’s evaluation that “David executed judgment and justice unto all his people” (II Sam. 8:15) and have also seen his spirited, passionate sessions of public judgment turned against him by Nathan (II Sam. 12:1-7) and Joab (II Sam. 14:1-23—for Absalom’s benefit!), Absalom boldly affirms that his father has made no provision for any Israelite to receive justice when he wished to appeal to the king (II Sam. 15:3). But the truth was that he himself, as the heir apparent, was the chief of David’s sons commissioned as “priests” to assist in granting such judgment and justice (II Sam. 8: 18)! “And on this [despicable] manner did Absalom to all Israel that came to the king for judgment: so Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel” (II Sam. 15:6).
Having won a base in the affections of many in Israel, Absalom engineered his usurpation from Hebron, his own home town and the seat of David’s Judean rule. He deceived 200 men out of Jerusalem into appearing to support him. Then he called for Ahithophel, “David’s counselor” (II Sam. 15:12), the very best, to join him. “And the counsel of Ahithophel, which he counseled in those days, was as if a man had enquired at the oracle of God: so was all the counsel of Ahithophel both with David and with Absalom” (II Sam. 16:23). So intense and focused was Ahithophel’s hatred for David, the death deserving violator of his granddaughter Bathsheba and murderer of her husband, that he eagerly advised Absalom step by wicked step. He even advised and personally volunteered to lead twelve thousand soldiers on a forced night’s march [like Judas later seeking Christ] to achieve just one objective: “I will smite the king only” (II Sam. 17:2). Behind him was the same devil “having great wrath” that will again spew out water from his mouth to flood the fleeing woman of Revelation 12. No wonder a shocked and fearful David complained to God, “Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me” (Ps. 41:9). Only the mercy of God is greater than such wisdom and single-minded, dogged determination (Ps. 41:10).
It is very clear that the promised kingdom and everlasting mercy of the Davidic Covenant and the history of the judgment on David’s sin with Bathsheba, particularly as seen in Absalom’s rebellion, so fully detailed in II Samuel, form the historical background against which Psalm 41 is to be understood.
To deal adequately with Psalm 41, it seems necessary to me to establish the integrity of the Psalm by rejecting the very much ingrained idea of book divisions in the Psalter, at least the Book II designation which affects this Psalm. The 5 book view of the Psalter leads most commentators to simply rip verse 13 from the Psalm by calling it a doxology added to end the first book of the Psalter. I will later argue how well it fits the character of David’s lifelong response to the Covenant (II Sam. 7) and caps the Davidic Covenant approach to this psalm that I am advocating. Here I wish to offer
Much of significance regarding the superscripts and subscripts of the Psalms was lost during the long years of the Babylonian Captivity while the inspired Temple liturgy was not conducted. Uninspired Rabbinic scholars and other commentators have tried to recreate or preserve word meanings and structural ideas for the people of God. Some are clearly wrong, such as the division Psalm 42-43 into two Psalms in our immediate context. Of the five book view, Sarna has suggested from the Midrash:
The insertion of that theory into the text of the Psalter has led in Psalm 41 to the dislocation of the subscript, “To the chief Musician,” from the Psalm. It is attached it erroneously to the title of Psalm 42-43. A like pattern is then applied throughout the Psalter. On the other hand, Thirtle’s observation of the structure of the independent psalm in Habakkuk 3 found certain elements that constituted superscript psalm titles and others, musical commitments like “To the chief Musician,” that constituted subscripts. Applying this pattern from Habakkuk to Psalm 41 reveals that the designation “Book II” is inserted into the text ripping off the subscript and making it part of the superscript of the next Psalm. This is clearly a mistake, and the consequence is that all those scholars are wrong who make Psalm 41:13 an end of book doxology rather than interpreting it as part of the Psalm.
Without accepting more than Bullinger’s structuring of the Psalm, I would also like to argue that, once the Davidic Covenant basis of the Psalm is accepted, the end verses and benediction fit perfectly David’s response to that covenant mercy and hope.
The superscription, “A Psalm by David,” clearly identifies this as a separate psalm, a work sung to musical accompaniment. It is therefore to be interpreted within itself and, as much as possible—and in this case much is possible—in the light of King David’s life and circumstances.
The Psalm begins with a recognized beatitude: “Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the LORD will deliver him in time of trouble.” It is usually explained and expounded as a general truth, applicable to all men, probably being the scriptural background for our Lord’s beatitude in His Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt. 5:7). It is usually then applied to our Lord as Savior. So Charles Spurgeon writes,
Augustine and John Gill cleverly turn the tables to make our Lord the poor One to be contemplated for our blessing in salvation, transforming the Psalm with an evangelical application., and Hengstenberg finds an ideal, exemplary man (“the righteous as suffering”), not a real individual; but few will follow them.
I want to assert that this beatitude has not only a general reference to all, but a special reference to kings and to David. In Proverbs 31, King Lemuel records the words of the wisdom prophecy his mother taught him. Among them he records,
Kings especially must be the administrators and enforcers of justice for the weak and afflicted, for everyone under them who has seen justice perverted. This is the essence of kingship; and hence, it is the essence of what is required of kings in the Davidic Covenant. Now we have seen that “David reigned over all Israel: and David executed judgment and justice unto all his people” (II Sam. 8:15). He also made his sons “priests” or “chief rulers” (II Sam. 8:18) to extend his own judicial capacity as Moses had done at Jethro’s suggestion (Ex. 18). His own emotion-infused compassion is seen in what Hengstenberg regards as the “fundamental passage” for this psalm:
It is also seen in his whole-hearted administration of judicial justice, upon which Nathan and Joab depended. It is also this very point upon which Absalom personally depended and yet slanderously denied in his whisper campaign against David.
In this psalm, David, under the Spirit of God, wants to establish the principle that, whatever men rationalize or devise, God will, under His covenant, greatly honor the king that conscientiously shows compassion. Or, to put it in our Lord’s more covenantal terms, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt. 5:7). The word David uses for “blessed” is found often in wisdom literature as a motivational word. It focuses on the joyful happiness that comes when a man does something God directs. My old Hebrew professor in seminary taught us to translate it “Oh, the happiness of.” It fits with our catechism view that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”
Davidic kings desire happiness. They may attain it under God by considering the poor, that is, anyone in a physically ill, afflicted or depressed condition. David knew this because God’s covenanted mercy had been extend to him and had deliver him “in a time of trouble” raised by Absalom. “The LORD [did] preserve him and [kept] him alive, and he [was] blessed upon earth: and thou [did] not deliver him unto the will of his enemies” (Ps. 41:2). Indeed, he was “blessed with abundant, enviable happiness” upon earth. All his seed should be so blessed.
In verse three, David extends his assurance of the Lord’s preservation, based on the royal covenanted “sure” mercy and the everlasting certainty that his promised house would reign forever, to the special case of the helplessly, hopelessly sick. “The Lord will strengthen him upon the bed of languishing: thou wilt make all his bed in his sickness” (v. 3). Many commentators posit that this was David’s experience during Absalom’s rebellion. They feel that this debilitating illness, unmentioned in II Samuel, explains Absalom’s selection of a time to rebel in his father’s weakness and possible death. As well, it is used to explain David’s choosing to flee instead of mounting a defense in Jerusalem. This may all be correct. If so, David is still holding up his own experience to encourage his descendants. If, instead, it is, as other think, just a figure drawn of the Lord’s nursing care, then it certainly encouraged his son Hezekiah when he was “sick unto death” and told by Isaiah to set his house in order. He besought the LORD with serious weeping and pleas for life based on his upright walk before the Lord Who “in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of corruption: for thou has cast all my sins behind thy back” (Isaiah 38:17). Preserved from the pit of corruption (compare, Ps. 16:10), he also composed a hymn of praise in thanksgiving. If David did not personally experience such nursing care, certainly his covenant seed did.
In the Hebrew construction of verse 4 (Heb. v. 5), David adds a pronoun “I” to the verb that also carries the first person singular ending. This construction makes it absolutely clear that David is speaking of his own experience, prayer and answer in these verses: “As for me, I said, LORD, be merciful unto me: heal my soul; for I have sinned against thee.” These are the words that trip up many commentators who want to apply this psalm to Christ. C. H. Spurgeon, for example, says,
But the words need not and should not be applied to the Savior, for David made clear that they are his words, not another’s. In his case, he knew, when he heard of the sword of Absalom, that this was the judgment sword that would never depart from his house in his lifetime because of his sin with Bathsheba (II Sam. 12:10). He looked at the punishment, immediately again confessed his sin and sought the covenant’s everlasting mercy in the face of just judgment. This is David’s life-long struggle: hiding from the consequences of his sin under covenant mercy. As Spurgeon says, “Applying the petition to David and other sinful believers, how strangely evangelical is the argument: heal me, not for I am innocent, but “I have sinned.” David knew that the Covenant’s mercy ( II Sam. 7:15) would always be available to his sons (Is. 38:17) and placed his own example before them to be taught in psalm and followed in life.
As Hezekiah after him (Is. 38), David felt the need to detail the “trouble” into which he had fallen. In verse 5 (“Mine enemies speak evil of me, When shall he die, and his name perish?”), he clearly ties all their hatred to his sin and their opposition to the covenant. While Ahithophel probably was motivated by seeking revenge for the shame of David’s sin against his granddaughter (“I will smite the king only,” II Sam. 17:2), Absalom wanted the end of the covenanted seed (“his name perish,” Ps. 41:5). Although he was the heir-apparent, restored for the purpose of preserving the “inheritance of God” (II Sam. 14:16), like Esau, he despised the covenant and wanted to take the kingdom on his own terms and for his own merely temporal ends. He was a dead end for the covenant seed (“I have no son to keep my name in remembrance,” II Sam. 18:18) with only a memorial rock pillar to preserve his own name in Israel. He wanted his father in the same covenant-ending fate. Covenantally, David would die, but his covenanted house, his seed, God’s “son” could not left to erode away as a pillar of stone (II Sam. 7:12-13). So David reminds God of his enemies’ malicious purpose.
Verse 6 turns from the general anti-covenant intention of the group to focus on the deceitful activity of the ringleader, Absalom. “And whenever (NIV) he came to see me his heart was speaking falsely. His heart was gathering slander to itself. Then when he would go away, he would continue speaking about it.” (verse 6) This was his regular mode of operation. As one of the king’s sons and especially as the heir-apparent, he had a regular seat and standing invitation to eat at the king’s table (II Sam. 9:11). From that high and honored place, he regularly flattered and pretended deference to his father, bowing himself “on his face to the ground before the king” and accepting his father’s kiss of welcome and intimate favor (II Sam. 14:33). In all the familiar banter and pleasant conversation, his heart was gathering tidbits of slander, items that he could twist in his private conversations outside to his own patricidal purpose as he for years “stole the hearts of the men of Israel” (II Sam. 15:6).
The plurals in verses 7 and 8 return to show the general agreement of the many rebellious leaders, the many elders of Israel, before verse 9 again highlights the deceitfulness of the major architect of the strategy of David’s destruction, Ahithophel.
The seventh and eighth verses seem to hone in on the deadly counsel David knew that Ahithophel, whose counsel rivaled that of an “Oracle of God” (II Sam. 16:23), would certainly supply and for which purpose he had urged Hushai to remain behind and counter. Hence, to properly interpret the verses, it is necessary to read them along with II Samuel 17:1-4.
“All that hate me whisper together against me: against me do they devise my hurt” (verse 7). This refers to the private, nighttime (“this night,” II Sam. 17:1) counsel of war in which Ahithophel and Absalom were the main participants; but in which all the main conspiratorial leaders were present since Scripture records that Ahithophel’s “saying pleased Absalom well, and all the elders of Israel” (II Sam. 17:4).
Unfortunately, the nature of the counsel is obscured by many translators who use the translation “an evil disease” as David’s dire trouble since they have imagined that he was beset by a deadly disease that threatened to take his life. There seems little to concretely support this hypothesis of a natural deadly disease. Instead, a clearer alternative should be sought based on the historic night war council recorded in II Samuel. The Hebrew term is literally “a thing of Belial.” This is a general term for something extremely bad. I would translate it “A terribly bad situation has gripped him: and now that he is decked by it he shall not rise again” (verse 8). This bad situation is what Ahithophel refers to in the council. David, with a sizeable entourage of unorganized friends, family and soldiers had fled in haste at the report of Absalom’s strength, like Israel had fled from Egypt, but with far less warning or preparation. The flight left David “weary and weak of hand” (II Sam. 17:2). As the night engulfed him, he would have fallen down exhausted and too weary to mount any kind of a spirited defense. Ahithophel suggested that an organized mass of 12,000 chosen, well-armed and disciplined troops would cause the rag-tag, worn-out people with him to flee in fear and panic leaving the overspent David to face the army alone (II Sam. 17:2). He would never be able to resist “and now that he lieth he shall rise up no more” (verse 8). It was a perfect read. David was in a “situation of Belial” whose grip he could not escape. Ahithophel’s analysis and counsel was brilliant. David lay exhausted in an easily identifiable place. He could be easily dispatched. The confident Ahithophel himself would lead the troops. David was a goner.
Now David zooms in on this notorious traitor. While the whole body of conspiratorial leaders approved the plan (Ps. 41:7; II Sam. 17:3), one man stood out, and the gam, at the beginning of verse 9 expresses David’s painful stress on the presence of this conspirator. He had been “the man of my peace (shalom, welfare).” The best note on the meaning is probably the old Dutch Calvinist Herman Venema’s: “he who, on visiting me, continually saluted me with the kiss of love and veneration, and the usual address: peace be to thee.” And Hengstenberg, who quote Venema adds “The expression, ‘he said, Hail Rabbi, and kissed him,’ Matt. xxvi. 49, may fitly be compared here.” Ahithophel was that man to whose advice David committed his life and welfare with as much confident trust (“in whom I trusted—in him”) as he placed in the Urim and Thummim or the prophets of God (II Sam. 16:23). He was also a constantly welcome and admitted guest at David’s table (“an eater of my food”) along with his sons. No doubt David wished that they would look to him and imbibe his wisdom for use in their office as “priests” judging the people and preparing for future leadership of God’s people. Absalom, for one, was certainly so impressed.
One might have thought that the marriage tie between them through his granddaughter Bathsheba would have sealed the relationship forever, but the prophesied sword arising from David’s house seemed to have extended to the wronged and unforgiving grandfather. “He lifted against me his heel.” It seems to me that the best understanding of this sentence harkens back to the picture of the bitter conflict of Genesis 3:15 where Christ, the woman’s seed is seen crushing with His heel the serpent’s head while it attempts to fatally crush His heel. Ahithophel was looking with singularly focused vision for one fatal blow to crush and grind out David’s life completely. God had in mercy spared David; but Ahithophel would treat him, lying exhausted from his flight, as a snake in the grass.
But God’s covenant mercy, David knows, is everlasting: “but My mercy shall not depart away from him” (II Sam. 7:15). So, he asks for it: “But thou, O LORD, be merciful unto me, and raise me up, that I may requite them” (v. 10). His enemies think he will never rise again (v.8), but he here asks God to raise him up. And this he asks expectantly, knowing the past favor of God Who has always been with him and has “cut off all his enemies in the past (II Sam. 7:9). So this will be another demonstration of God’s favor (v. 11).
Many commentators, taking this psalm as just a generalized wisdom psalm have felt that David’s stated purpose for asking to be raised up—to be able to requite his enemies—is contrary to the New Testament ethic expressed by Paul: “dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves…” (Rom. 12:19). It may even be seen as contrary to David’s personal demonstrations of mercy (to Shimei [II Sam. 16:5-13] and even Absalom [II Sam. 18:5, 32]. Most conservative commentators correctly resolve the contradiction by recalling David’s kingly office with its charge to maintain justice for the nation. This should be all the more clearly seen as the correct interpretation by those who view the psalm within the context of the Davidic Covenant.
“And as for me, Thou upholdest me in mine integrity” (v. 13). In the deliverance of His servant and in the judgment on Absalom, the Lord vindicated David from the vile, seductive lies of Absalom. David had not failed to make provision for justice to all Israel. He had done so, and God demonstrated His approval of David’s performance by not letting His people fall under the self-aggrandizing, immoral, cut throat “justice” that Absalom would certainly have continued long after he made reality of the flattering advice Hushai used to deceived him: “and of [David] and of all the men that are with him there shall not be left so much as one” (II Sam. 17:12).
David also had covenanted confidence in the Lord that “Thou setteth me before thy face forever” (v. 13). Note how David in his prayer response to the original covenant announcement cannot get away from using this very word: “forever” (II Sam. 7: 24-29). Israel has been chosen, and the Lord will be their God “forever.” Of God’s word concerning David and his house he confidently asks “establish it forever, and do as thou hast said.” This will “let Thy name be magnified forever….” “And with Thy blessing let the house of thy servant be blessed forever.” In Psalm 41:13, David seems to even look far past the present covenanted deliverance, past the time “when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers” (II Sam. 7:12) to an eternity with his Lord (Ps. 110:1) amidst the “fullness of joy” that is “in Thy presence” “for evermore” (Ps. 16:11).
David then concludes his psalm with “Blessed be the LORD God of Israel from everlasting and to everlasting. Amen, and Amen” (v.13). We have before argued that this is not an end of book I doxology but rather the proper end of Psalm 41. Indeed, it may be added here that this is characteristically Davidic. It is the same ending David gave to the first psalm he delivered to Asaph and his brethren (I Chron. 16:7): “Blessed be the LORD God of Israel forever and ever. And all the people said, Amen, and praised the LORD” (v.36). David never tired of blessing the covenant-giving God of Israel. The word used here, baruk, is not the same word for blessing used in verse 1. This blessing of God is the highest act a creature can perform. It is more than any of us can imagine or merit doing, since “without contradiction the less is blessed of the better” (Heb. 7:7). I can add just a few thoughts from Thomas Goodwin on the subject:
This is the same word rejoicing in God’s blessing of his house that David uses repeatedly in his covenant prayer response in II Sam. 7:29. Here he adds a double Amen for he wishes to assert the covenant’s absolute certainty, just as our Lord does when He wants it abundantly clear that He is speaking absolute truth (John 3:3).
Our Lord Jesus clearly knew that He was the “Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Mt. 1:1). The entire gospel of Matthew establishes this. As such, He thought more deeply about the Davidic Covenant and its meaning for interpreting the Psalms He sang than any other man. His interchanges at Jerusalem during the last Passover establish this.
He understood the psalms covenantally. So, our first point in understanding His understanding of Psalm 41 is that He would interpret it and apply it to himself as a son of David, indeed “The Seed of David,” in light of the Davidic Covenant. He lived out the conscientious kingly care for the poor and afflicted advocated in the opening beatitude throughout His entire life and ministry. He showed Himself kinder and more considerate than has ever been found in His most dedicated disciples (Mt. 14:15-21). He would expect and experience all the happiness promised (“I that speak unto thee am He” and “I have meat to eat that ye know not of,” John 4:26 and 32). As the Davidic “Son” of God (II Sam. 7:14), He would expect and experience the preserving and keeping promised (Ps. 41:2): “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit” (Lk. 23:46). Everything expressed through and modeled by his father David in this psalm He followed and perfected.
Second, He knew Himself and understood that there were parts of David’s personal experience He would not experience. Most notably, to borrow Hebrews’ phrasing, “we have not [a Davidic King] which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).
Since He had no sin—and had not committed the adultery that lay behind all David’s temporal sufferings—it is clear that David’s personal confession in verse 4 (so clearly applied by David to himself: “I said”) could not in any sense be applied by Him to Himself. The “if” of the covenant (“If he commit iniquity,” II Sam. 7:14) always remained an “if” for Him. It never became a “when.” So, when He sang this psalm, He was “touched with the feeling of [David’s] infirmities” but never a participant in them.
It is on this unavoidable stumbling rock of sin that I think the constructed concept of men’s lives being types of Christ breaks down. It is better to leave the idea of theological types to the objects, rituals and Levitical offices of scripture and adopt the covenantal view in applying teachings about men’s lives. They should be seen as “ensamples” (I Cor. 10:11), not types.
Third, our Lord knew that He would suffer and die for David’s great sin. David certainly suffered the judgment Psalm 41 recalls for his sin, but he knew that “the LORD hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die” (II Sam. 12:13). Instead, the real suffering and death of his sin would be Christ’s. He “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). “The LORD laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:6).
His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time His righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25-26).
Thus, without personal sin, He knew that He would to atone for David’s sin. The unjustified conspiracy of the leaders of Israel against His Davidic kingship would therefore be expected on the basis of a parallel experience to David’s in this psalm.
He would rightly expect that some close friend of His extended family would betray Him as part of the substitute judgment He would bear for His human father and servant, David. Just how close a relative Judas was, I do not know. Scripture identifies the traitor into whom Satan entered as “Iscariot” and “one of the twelve.” Iscariot means ‘man of Kerioth,” a city of Judah. Hence he may well have been of the same tribe as our Lord and possibly a relative like His cousins John and James. He was certainly one of the disciples whom Jesus identified as “My brethren” (Mt. 12:49). He would also qualify as “a man of my peace (or, welfare)” (Ps. 41:9), not only because he regularly greeted our Lord with a kiss and the customary “Peace be unto you,” as Venema and Hengstenberg have noted, but he also held the bag as treasurer for the Lord and His band of disciples (Jn. 13:29). He regularly bought their daily provisions and seems to have been entrusted with carrying out the charitable giving of the group after consultation with our Lord. This surely qualified him as a man of whom the Lord could think “in whom I trusted” (v. 9). Contrary to the many commentators who, like Kostenberger, believe that John wants to protect Jesus’ omniscience from any suggestion that He “was taken by surprise by Judas’ betrayal” and so omits Ps. 41:9’s “even my close friend in whom I trusted,” I think John simply uses economy of wordiness in omitting the words. Judas certainly was in a position of trust in regard to Jesus. Although he was later recognized by John as a thief (John 12:6) and Jesus surely by the time of the Last Supper had perceived his uncleanness (Jn. 13:10) and betrayal (Jn. 13:21), still a sin-prone nature would have beset any man placed in that position of trust. It would only be by Christ’s prayer that Judas, like Peter (Lk. 22:31), could escape being sifted like wheat by Satan. Judas was trusted. He betrayed that trust.
As to the rest of verse 9, John records that our Lord at supper said, “…but that the scripture may be fulfilled, HE THAT EATETH BREAD WITH ME HATH LIFTED UP HIS HEEL AGAINST ME” (Jn. 13:18). Judas regular presence at His table, like Ahithophel’s at David’s table, put him in close personal fellowship with Jesus and gave him a seat in the most privileged training sessions in righteousness ever conducted for the benefit of human beings. It also gave him a forum to express his opinion and advice on every matter that came before Jesus and His closest disciples (Jn. 12: 4-8). Even in that privileged capacity he raised hypocritical criticisms as a supper guest that questioned Jesus’ care of the poor. He spoke in seemingly pious, but hypocritical, terms that sounded just like Absalom’s whispered self-serving criticisms of David designed to steal the affections of God’s people for himself. Satan may have entered Judas as the defining final force causing his determined move to betrayal, but Judas own lust for a little graft prepared him to betray “innocent blood” (Mt. 27:3-4) and bring judgment on all Israel and the end of the beneficial Davidic rule (Deut. 19: 10-13; Jer. 22:3-4, 16-19; 26:15).
John 13:18’s observation regarding Ps. 41:9 “that the scripture may be fulfilled” must be seen to mean that the existence of David’s suffering an unjust betrayal by his alienated but highly trusted and deeply loved close advisor—a situation theologically justified as a temporal, but not eternal, judgment for his lifelong, overshadowing great sin with Bathsheba—required a parallel, but personally unprovoked, suffering of judgment by David’s perfectly perpetually personally pure and innocent Lord and Savior, his son and God’s, Jesus Christ. It in no way means that Ps. 41 is a direct prophecy of the words of Jesus. It is a stated, covenantal fulfillment necessitated by Christ’s substitutionary atonement for David that is in view, not some situation-based, typological theory of similarity.
Fourth, our Lord knew that He would share the benefits of the covenant with His father-servant, David. As He sang David’s psalm, He too knew that the Lord would “raise me up” (v. 10). In His case this would be His resurrection. He would know thereby “that Thou favourest Me because mine enemy doth not triumph over me” (v. 11). He too would be upheld in His integrity and set before God’s face forever because (1) the beatitude promised preservation and keeping (v. 2) and “because He had done no violence, neither was any deceit in His mouth” (Is. 53:9); (2) He too would “see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hands” (Is. 53:10). Thus the Lord would also “set [Him] before [His] face forever” (Ps. 41:12). He will say “Thou wilt shew Me the path of life: in Thy presence is fullness of joy; at Thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16:11).
And finally, He would know that His fulfillment of all the work His Father had given Him to do would result in the greatest blessing of the LORD God of Israel (v. 13), not by a lesser creature but this time by at least an Equal. Amen and Amen.
David sent this psalm for Davidic kings “to the chief Musician,” thus placing it in the domain of the public worship to be used to glorify God by all Israel. It is most fitting as an encouraging instructional psalm for all Christians because it so clearly for Davidic kings, who are established as such by the Davidic Covenant. Being in Christ, Christians are also covenanted sons of David as surely as being in Christ has made them covenanted sons of Abraham and heirs of that covenant (Gal. 3:29). So Paul applies all the blessings of the Davidic Covenant to them picturing God as saying, “I will receive you and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be My sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty” (II Cor. 6:17-18; II Sam. 7:14). “Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world” (I Cor. 6:2) as Davidic kings in Christ? In such a position, Psalm 41 offers Christians all the instruction and comfort David intended for all his other seed that God chose to reign forever as his house.
When understood and interpreted in its natural meaning as a composition of David based upon the Davidic Covenant of II Samuel 7 and his experience and hope under it, Psalm 41 is seen to have been properly understood and applied by our Lord in John 13:8. Commentators should abandon their doubts and imagined problems and contradictions and, instead, develop a greater regard for the covenants of scripture God gave to regulate His relationships to His saints and His world.