Expositor's Bible Commentary
A Psalm of David. Hear my prayer, O LORD, give ear to my supplications: in thy faithfulness answer me, and in thy righteousness.Psalm 143:1-12THIS psalm’s depth of sadness and contrition, blended with yearning trust, recalls the earlier psalms attributed to David. Probably this general resemblance in inwardness and mood is all that is meant by the superscription in calling it "a psalm of David." Its copious use of quotations and allusions indicate a late date. But there is no warrant for taking the speaker to be the personified Israel. It is clearly divided into two equal halves, as indicated by the Selah, which is not found in Books 4 and 5, except here, and in Psalm 140:1-13. The former half (Psalm 143:1-6) is complaint; the latter (Psalm 143:7-12), petition. Each part may again be regarded as falling into two equal portions, so that the complaint branches out into a plaintive description of the psalmist’s peril (Psalm 143:1-3), and a melancholy disclosure of his feelings (Psalm 143:4-6); while the prayer is similarly parted into cries for deliverance (Psalm 143:7-9), and for inward enlightenment and help (Psalm 143:10-12). But we are not reading a logical treatise, but listening to the cry of a tried spirit, and so need not wonder if the discernible sequence of thought is here and there broken.
The psalmist knows that his affliction is deserved. His enemy could not have hunted and crushed him (Psalm 143:3) unless God had been thereby punishing him. His peril has forced home the penitent conviction of his sin, and therefore he must first have matters set right between him and God by Divine forgiveness. His cry for help is not based upon any claims of his own, nor even on his extremity of need, but solely on God’s character, and especially on the twin attributes of Faithfulness and Righteousness. By the latter is not meant the retributive righteousness which gives according to desert, but that by which He maintains the order of salvation established by His holy love. The prayer anticipates St. John’s declaration that God is "faithful and just to forgive us our sins." That answer in righteousness is as eagerly desired as God’s dealing on the footing of retributive justice is shrunk from. "Enter not into judgment with Thy servant" is not a prayer referring to a future appearance before the Judge of all, but the judgment deprecated is plainly the enmity of men, which, as the next verse complains, is crushing the psalmist’s life out of him. His cry is for deliverance from it, but he feels that a more precious gift must precede outward deliverance and God’s forgiveness must first be sealed on his soul. The conviction that, when the light of God’s face is turned on the purest life, it reveals dark stains which retributive justice cannot but condemn, is not. in the psalmist’s mouth, a palliation of his guilt. Rather, it drives him to take his place among the multitude of offenders, and from that lowly position to cry for pardon to the very Judge whose judgment he cannot meet. The blessedness of contrite trust is that it nestles the closer to God, the more it feels its unworthiness. The child hides its face on the mother’s bosom when it has done wrong. God is our refuge from God. A little beam of light steals into the penitent’s darkness, while he calls himself God’s servant, and ventures to plead that relation, though he has done what was unworthy of it, as a reason for pardon. The significant "For" beginning Psalm 143:3 shows that the enemy’s acts were, to the contrite psalmist, those of God’s stern justice. Psalm 143:3 a, b, are moulded on Psalm 7:5, and c is verbally identical with Lamentations 3:6. "The dead of long ago" is by some rendered dead forever; but the translation adopted above adds force to the psalmist’s sad description of himself, by likening him to those forgotten ones away back in the mists of bygone ages.
In Psalm 143:4-6 the record of the emotions caused by his peril follows. They begin with the natural gloom. As in Psalm 142:3 (with which this has many points of resemblance, possibly indicating identity of author), he describes his "spirit" as swathed in dark robes of melancholy. His heart, too, the centre of personality, was stunned or benumbed, so that it almost ceased to beat. What should a "servant" of Jehovah’s, brought to such a pass, do? If he is truly God’s, he will do precisely what this man did. He will compel his thoughts to take another direction, and call Memory in to fight Despair and feed Hope. His own past and God’s past are arguments enough to cheer the most gloom-wrapped sufferer. "A sorrow’s crown of sorrow" may be "remembering happier things," but the remembrance will be better used to discrown a sorrow which threatens to lord it over a life. Psalm 77:5-6; Psalm 77:11-12, has shaped the expressions here. Both the contrast of present misery with past mercy, and the assurances of present help given by that past mercy, move the psalmist to appeal to God, stretching out his hands in entreaty. Psalm 63:1 echoes in Psalm 143:6 b, the pathos and beauty of which need no elucidation. The very cracks in parched ground are like mouths opened for the delaying rains; so the singer’s soul was gaping wide in trouble for God’s coming, which would refresh and fertilise. Blessed is that weariness which is directed to Him; it ever brings the showers of grace for which it longs. The construction of Psalm 143:6 b is doubtful, and the supplement "thirsteth" (A.V. and R.V.) is possibly better than the "is" given above.
The second half of the psalm is purely petition. Psalm 143:7-9 ask especially for outward deliverance. They abound with reminiscences of earlier psalms. "Make haste, answer me" recalls Psalm 69:17; "my spirit faints" is like Psalm 84:2; "Hide not Thy face from me" is a standing petition, as in Psalm 27:9; Psalm 102:2, etc., "Lest I become like those who descend into the pit" is exactly reproduced from Psalm 28:1. The prayer for the manifestation of God’s lovingkindness in the morning is paralleled in Psalm 90:14, and that for illumination as to the way to walk in is like Exodus 33:13 Psalm 25:4. The plea "To Thee do I lift my soul" is found in Psalm 25:1; Psalm 86:4.
The plea appended to the petition in Psalm 143:9 b is difficult. Literally, the words run, "To Thee have I covered [myself]," which can best be explained as a pregnant construction, equivalent to "I have fled to Thee and hid myself in Thee." Much divergence exists in the renderings of the clause. But a slight emendation, adopted by Hupfeld and Cheyne from an ancient Jewish commentator, reads the familiar expression, "I have fled for refuge." Baethgen prefers to read "have waited," which also requires but a trivial alteration; while Graetz reaches substantially the same result by another way, and would render "I have hope."
A glance at these three verses of petition as a whole brings out the sequence of the prayers and of their pleas. The deepest longing of the devout soul is for the shining of God’s face, the consciousness of His loving regard, and that not only because it scatters fears and foes, but because it is good to bathe in that sunshine. The next longing is for the dawning of a glad morning, which will bring to a waiting heart sweet whispers of God’s lovingkindness, as shown by outward deliverances. The night of fear has been dark and tearful, but joy comes with the morning. The next need is for guidance in the way in which a man should go, which here must be taken in the lower sense of practical direction, rather than in any higher meaning. That higher meaning follows in Psalm 143:10-12; but in Psalm 143:8 the suppliant asks to be shown the path by which he can secure deliverance from his foes. That deliverance is the last of his petitions. His pleas are beautiful as examples of the logic of supplication. He begins with his great need. His spirit faints, and he is on the edge of the black pit into which so much brightness and strength have gone down. The margin is slippery and crumbling; his feet are feeble. One Helper alone can hold him up. But his own exceeding need is not all that he pleads. He urges his trust, his fixing of his desires, hopes, and whole self, by a dead lift of faith, on God. That is a reason for Divine help. Anything is possible rather than that such hope should be disappointed. It cannot be that any man, who has fled for sanctuary to the asylum of God’s heart, should be dragged thence and slain before the God whose altar he has vainly clasped.
The last part (Psalm 143:10-12) puts foremost the prayer for conformity of will with God’s and, though it closes with recurring prayer for outward deliverance, yet breathes desires for more inward blessings. As in the preceding verses, there are, in these closing ones, many echoes of other psalms. The sequence of petitions and pleas is instructive. To do, not merely to know, God’s will is the condition of all blessedness, and will be the deepest desire of every man who is truly God’s servant. But that obedience of heart and hand must be taught by God, and He regards our taking Him for our God as establishing a claim on Him to give all illumination of heart and all bending of will and all skill of hand which are necessary to make us doers of His will. His teaching is no mere outward communication of knowledge, but an in-breathing of power to discern, and of disposition and ability to perform, what is His will. Psalm 143:10 b is best taken as a continuous sentence, embodying a prayer for guidance. The plea on which it rests remains the same, though the statement of it as a separate clause is not adopted in our translation. For the fact that God’s spirit is "good"-i.e., beneficently self-communicative-heartens us to ask, and binds Him to give, all such direction as is needed. This is not a mere repetition of the prayer in Psalm 143:8, but transcends it. "A level land" (or, according to a possible suggested emendation, path) is one in which the psalmist can freely walk, unhindered in doing God’s will. His next petition goes deepest of the three, inasmuch as it asks for that new Divine life to be imparted, without which no teaching to do God’s will can be assimilated, and no circumstances, however favourable, will conduce to doing it. He may not have known all the depth which his prayer sounded; but no man who has real desires to conform heart and life to the supreme will of God but must have felt his need of a purer life to be poured into his spirit. As this prayer is deep, so its plea is high. "For Thy name’s sake" nothing can be pleaded of such force as that. God supremely desires the glory of His name; and, for the sake of men whose blessedness depends on their knowing and loving it, will do nothing that can dim its lustre. His name is the record of His past acts, the disclosure of that in Him which is knowable. That name contains the principles of all His future acts. He will be what He has been. He will magnify His name and the humblest, most tormented soul that can say, "Thou art my God," may be sure that Divinely given life will throb in it, and that even its lowliness may contribute to the honour of the name.
The hunted psalmist cannot but come back, in the close of his psalm, to his actual circumstances, for earthly needs do clog the soul’s wings. He unites righteousness and lovingkindness as cooperating powers, as in Psalm 143:1 he had united faithfulness and righteousness. And as in the first verses he had blended pleas drawn from God’s character with those drawn from his relation to God, so he ends his petitions with pleading that he is God’s servant, and, as such, a fit object of God’s protection.