Psalm 17
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
The title of our homily on this psalm is in some respects similar to that on the seventh psalm. There, however, the psalm is an appeal to the great Vindicator of one unjustly accused; here, it is the appeal of one beset with persecutors to the great Judge of all. Whenever or by whomsoever the words of this psalm were penned, it may not be easy to say. The probability is that it is one of David's. If so, there is an abundance of incident in the record of his career by which it may be illustrated and explained. And, indeed, the surest (perhaps the only) way of interpreting such psalms as this is to read them by the light of the Books of Samuel. Anyway, however, it is an infinite mercy that we have preserved to us, not only psalms to be enjoyed at all times,(such as the twenty-third and the forty-sixth), but others adapted for special times. For very often the saints of God have been so impeached, slandered, worried, beset, and persecuted, that the words of this psalm have exactly fitted their ease. And in all such instances, the people of God may find sweet repose in reading the words before us; showing us, as they do,

(1) that however greatly we may be wronged on earth, there is a Righteous One to whom we may make our final appeal;

(2) that he who sitteth on the throne is not only just, but is also One of "marvellous loving-kindness;"

(3) that therefore we may pour out our heart before him, and tell him our case - the whole of it, exactly as it is; so that, though we are by no means obliged to adopt as our own every word in psalms like this, yet we may learn from them to present our case before God as minutely and exactly as the psalmists did theirs, - as varied as are the cases, so varied may be the words.

I. HERE IS A REMARKABLE CASE LAID BEFORE GOD. There are in it six features.

1. The writer is sorely and grievously persecuted. (Vers. 9-12.) It has been well said, "Where would David's psalms have been, if he had not been persecuted?" The experiences through which he passed may be studied in the records to which we have referred above. In fact, one of our most skilled expositors said to the writer that his own study of the Books of Samuel had thrown floods of light on the Psalms, had cleared up many phrases that before were unintelligible, and had shown the reason of many others that seemed unjustifiable. And since David was withal the poet of the sanctuary, be could and did put these hard experiences of his life in such words as should be helpful to the troubled and ill-treated saint in all future time. (For the exact significance of detailed expressions, seethe Exposition.) Let believers follow David here, and whatever their cares and worries may be, let them tell them out, one by one, to their God, who will never misunderstand them, and, even if some expressions of emotion are unwise and faulty, will cover the faults with the mantle of his forgiving love, and fulfil the desires according to his own perfect wisdom. Oh, the infinite relief of having a Friend to whom we may safely tell every thing!

2. David is conscious of his own integrity. (Vers. 1 4.) This is by no means to be understood as a piece of self-righteousness (see Psalm 143:2). It is quite consistent with the deepest humiliation before a holy and heart-searching God, that an upright man should avow his innocence of the guilt that false accusers may charge upon him. In fact, we ought, while penitent before our God for innumerable heart-sins, to be able to look our fellow-men in the face with the dignity of conscious honesty and purity.

3. David knows there is a Judge on the Throne, a Judge of perfect righteousness - and One who will listen to his cry (ver. 7). He knows God as One who saves the trusting ones from their foes by his own omnipotent hand.

4. Hence to him David makes his appeal. (Ver. 2.) Note: Only one who is at peace with God, and who is among the upright in heart, could possibly make such an appeal as this, - for sentence to come forth from God's presence must be a terror to the rebel, for that sentence could only be one of condemnation. But souls in harmony with God can lovingly look to God as their Redeemer, their Goel, their Vindicator; they will say, with Job, "I know that my Redeemer liveth;" or with Cromwell, "I know that God is above all ill reports; and that he will in his own time vindicate me." Yea, they can call on God to do this, leaving in his hands the time and the way of doing it (cf. 1 John 3:21, 22).

5. With the appeal, David joins fervent supplication.

(1) With regard to his enemies. That God would arise, i.e. interpose in the way of providential aid; that he would cast down the wicked from their high pretensions, and disappoint them, i.e. prevent them - be beforehand with them, and frustrate their evil designs ere they attempt to carry them out.

(2) With regard to himself.

(a) That God would deliver him out of their hand.

(b) That God would hold up his goings in the right way.

(c) That God would keep him

(α) as the apple of the eye (literally," the little man," "the daughter of the eye") - an exquisitely beautiful figure, admirably adapted to be the basis of an address to the young on God's care in the structure of the eye; (β) as a hen gathereth her brood under her wings - another figure of marvellous tenderness (Psalm 36:7; Psalm 57:1; Psalm 61:4; Psalm 91:4; Matthew 23:37). Nor let it be unnoticed that for all this, David uttered a "piercing cry' (for so the word in the first verse signifies).

6. David remembers that, after all, he has no reason to envy his persecutors; that, after all, it is far better to know God as his God, and to have him as a Refuge, than to have all the ease, comfort, and wealth which this world can give. And this brings us to note -

II. THAT, REMARKABLE AS THE PSALMIST'S CASE IS, IT PRESENTS TO US A STILL MORE REMARKABLE CONTRAST. (Ver. 14.) How much force is there in the expression, "As for me" (cf. Psalm 4:16)! Note: Amid all the confusion, strife, and whirl of earth, each man has a distinctive individuality, which is all his own, and is never confounded with another's (Galatians 6:5; Isaiah 40:27). No one has a right to think he is lost in the crowd (2 Timothy 2:19; Revelation 2:17; Isaiah 43:1; Luke 12:6, 7). Each one has a relation to God entirely his own. The bad may mingle with the good, but are never confounded with them. Not one grain of wheat is by mistake cast into the fire, nor yet one of the tares gathered into the garner. All that is momentous in hope, character, relation, security, destiny, gathers round the individual. Each one has an "As for me." In the psalm before us there are indications of six points of difference between David and his enemies; so vital are they, that not all the distress which he suffers from them could make him desire to change places with them.

1. He is right; they are in the wrong. (Ver. 1.) As we have before said, the writer by no means claims to be perfect, but he knows that he has chosen the side of righteousness, and is sincerely anxious to walk according thereto; he walks in his integrity, though he may be conscious of coming far short of his own ideal. But as for his enemies, to be in the right is no concern of theirs! Their's is might against right. Note: Happy is the man who sees infinite honour in being right, however much it may cost him!

2. God is to him a Defender; to them he is a Judge - to condemn them and put them to shame. This is the ground-tone of the psalm. The throne of the great Eternal is to the psalmist one of grace, mercy, and love; but to his enemies, it appears to shoot forth devouring flame. Note: God will seem to us according to our state before him (see Psalm 18:25, 26).

3. The psalmist addresses God in confident hope; they resist God, in proud defiance. The whole attitude of David's enemies was one of proud self-confidence: "Our tongues are our own: who is Lord over us?" Hence:

4. The throne of righteousness, which was the safety of David, was the peril of his persecutors. His joy was their dread. Wicked men are afraid of God; and it is saddening to reflect that the guilt of an uneasy conscience projects its own dark shadow on the face of infinite love!

5. David had an eternal portion in his God; they lived only for this life. He calls them (ver. 14) "men of the world" (cf. Hebrew original). David could say, "Thou art my Portion, O God;" but with them their all was laid up here. When they depart hence, they will leave behind them all their treasures; but David would go, at death, to the enjoyment of his. Hence:

6. The outlook of the psalmist was full of gladness; theirs, full of gloom. How blissful the anticipation in the one case!

(1) A glorious vision. "I shall behold thy face in righteousness." Whether the writer thought of a bodily vision of Jehovah's form, or of a spiritual vision of the invisible glory, we cannot say. At any rate, knowing even now the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, we can forecast the ecstatic rapture which we shall feel when he shall be manifested, and we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is!

(2) A glorious transformation. "When I awake, with thy likeness," i.e. with possessing it (otherwise the phrase would be a tautology). As Watts beautifully puts it -

"I shall behold thy blissful face,
And stand complete in righteousness."

(3) Entire satisfaction therein; i.e. both with the vision and with the conformation. Yes! There will be full and complete realization of the glory which now we see only "as through a glass darkly." And this will be in the awakening (cf. Psalm 49:14, "The upright... in the morning). The state after death has been viewed in three aspects.

(a) As a slumbrous state in the under-world, from which there was no awaking. This was the pagan view.

(b) As a slumbrous state in the underworld, but with the hope of an awaking in the morning." This was the Hebrew conception.

(c) To the Christian, however, the state after death is - "Absent from the body, at home with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:8, Revised Version). The glory, however, will be completed at the resurrection (Colossians 3:4, Revised Version). But how different the outlook of the wicked! (Matthew 7:13, 14; Philippians 3:19; Luke 16:22, 23; Luke 12:21; Luke 13:28). Well may preachers plead agonizingly with their hearers to choose life rather than death (Hebrews 11:25, 26)! Little will the godly think of past sorrow when they Gave their recompense in heaven! Small comfort, will earth's wealth give to those who miss heaven! - C.

It is a common saying that "the pillow is a good counsellor;" and there is much truth in this. In the quietness and retirement of night we are able to collect our thoughts and to commune with our own hearts, as to the past, the present, and the future. And if we do this in the spirit of the psalmist, realizing God's presence and relying upon him for counsel and guidance, it will be well. Whether this psalm was written at night or not, we cannot tell; but it contains truths fitted to soothe and comfort the soul in the night of trouble, and that mark the progress of the light from sunrise to the perfect day.

I. THAT GOD WILL HEAR THE RIGHT. This faith accords with the intuitions of the heart. We are sure that God must be on the side of right, for we feel that it is only when we are for the right that we are on the side of God. If we are true, much more must God be true. If we are just, much more must God be just. And this confidence is confirmed by God's words and deeds (vers. 4, 5). If it were otherwise, how could we trust God? and how could God govern and judge the world?

II. THAT GOD WILL DEFEND THE FAITHFUL. Perfect righteousness no man can claim. But as regards spirit and intention, and even as to actual conduct, some can plead integrity. Job could say, "Behold, my witness is in heaven" (Job 16:19). Samuel could appeal to Israel as to his uprightness, "Behold, here I am, witness against me before the Lord,... whom have I defrauded, or whom have I oppressed?" (1 Samuel 12:3). So David called Saul to witness to his innocence. "Moreover, my father, know thou and see that there is neither evil nor transgression in mine hand, and I have not sinned against thee" (1 Samuel 24:11). It is a great matter if we can thus approach God with a good conscience (1 John 3:21). But our integrity, after all, is nothing to boast of. Before men, we may be innocent, but not before God. Our trust must therefore be, not in our own merits, but in God's mercy. God's lovingkindness will shine forth in giving .protection and deliverance (vers. 6-12) to those who love him and hope in his mercy. He will be their Refuge and Defence against every foe. With tender care and never-failing prayer, he will keep them from the evil.

II. THAT GOD WILL DISAPPOINT THE PERSECUTOR, WHILE HE WILL ABUNDANTLY SATISFY THE DESIRES OF THE HUMBLE. (Vers. 13-15.) When David was pursued by the forces of Saul, and in sore straits in the wilderness of Maon, God in a wonderful way brought him deliverance (1 Samuel 23:25). So we may expect that God will meet the enemies of his people, front to front, and cast them down. There are marvellous deliverances wrought by God in behalf of his children (2 Peter 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10). But God does far more than deliver - he satisfies. The heart is ever yearning after some unattained possession and enjoyment. "Man never is, but always to be blessed." The children of this world have their desires, and, though they may so far be successful, though they may gain wealth, and have sons to bear their name and inherit their possessions, yet for all this they are not satisfied. Their blessings, through their own perversity, are turned to curses. But in bright contrast with these men of carnal minds, is the man who loveth God and worketh righteousness. "I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness." - W.F.

In this psalm a servant of God, conscious of his own uprightness, and surrounded by enemies, prays to be kept from the evil world and from the evil men who persecute him, and then from the dark present looks forward with joy to the bright future. The first five verses are as the porch to the temple - the introduction to the main prayer of the psalm. The psalmist pleads with God -

I. FOR THE RIGHTEOUS CAUSE. (Vers. 1, 2.) God is righteous, therefore he must be on the side of justice and right. When we pray that liberty may prevail against slavery of mind or body, that justice may triumph over all injustice, that truth may overcome falsehood, that the spirit may be stronger than the flesh, and that religion may conquer all irreligion, we may be sure that we are praying according to the will of God, and may expect him to answer us.

II. IS A RIGHTEOUS SPIRIT. The prayer is offered by "lips without deceit," in all sincerity, without any hypocritical pretence. The truthfulness, righteousness, of his spirit are here pleaded as a ground for his being heard. "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me." Integrity of mind is necessary to all true and successful prayer. He is in earnest about the righteous cause, and not making a pretence to it.


1. God had subjected him to close scrutiny in the night. He had been divinely tested. 4, In the night," when good and evil thoughts spring up in greatest force, because of our freedom from outward occupation, and when the native bias discovers itself unchecked. Then God tries him, and does not find that his thoughts are dross, but gold. This is a bold statement, when put by the side of other statements, "If thou, Lord, shouldst mark iniquity," etc.

2. He keeps evil thoughts in subjection, even when they do arise. They do not pass his mouth, do not find expression, but are held back from utterance. We cannot help evil thoughts, but we can help the utterance of them.

IV. HE PLEADS ALSO RIGHTEOUS CONDUCT. (Vers. 4, 5.) He has kept himself from the common doings of men, from the ways of the oppressor and destroyer. This is the negative side of his conduct; but it is a great virtue to resist the mass and run against the stream. The positive is that he had held fast in his doings to the Divine paths, and been steadfast in the right course. He has been constant, and steered by the heavenly pole-star. - S.

The psalmist seems to have been one of the children of Israel scattered abroad. From the midst of a strange country he looks with a wistful eye towards the far-off land of his youth. Tried and persecuted by the worldly and profane, he takes refuge under the sheltering wings of Jehovah, his father's God. If he was not David, he has the spirit of David. There are foreshadowings and foregleams of gospel times, in the ideas as to "the world," the "loving-kindness," and saving power of the Lord; and the blessed hope of satisfaction in God. This verse leads us to consider the visits of God in the night.

I. REFRESHMENT. The divisions of time have to do with man (Genesis 1:5; Psalm 104:20).

"God has set labour and rest,
As day and night to men successive,
And the timely dew of sleep." When night comes, it brings, not only relief from toil, but needed rest in sleep. In this we see the mercy of God. Like the sunshine and the rain, sleep is a common gift from God to men. Sleep also often brings return of health. How often is it said of some beloved one, with trembling hope, "If he sleep, he shall do well" (John 11:12)!

II. PROTECTION. We associate the day with safety (John 11:9). On the other hand, night is the season when not only wild beasts, but lawless men, seek their prey (Psalm cir. 20, 21; Job 24:14-17; 1 Thessalonians 3:7). There may be dangers unseen and unknown (Psalm 91:5, 6). Besides, there are perils from evil thoughts and the wiles of the wicked one. But come what will, God is our sure Defence. He visits us in love and mercy. He watches over us with untiring vigilance (Psalm 121:3). The angel of judgment may be abroad, but under the shelter of the blood of the covenant we are safe. Even though God should say, "This night thy soul shall be required of thee," it will be in love, and not in wrath. Even should we be taken away in our sleep, it will be to light, and not to darkness. Hence we may say, "I will lay me down in peace, and sleep; for thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety" (Psalm 4:8).

III. INSTRUCTION. God has access to us at all times. He speaks to us continually by day, when our ears are open; but he also speaks to us, as he sees cause, by night, in dreams and visions, and when he holds our souls waking. Of this we have many examples in the Bible, and who is there who has not had some knowledge of this in his own experience? Dreams and visions are, for the most part, vain things; but there are even dreams and visions that have been found to be visits of God and turning-points in life. But it is when we have hours of sleeplessness that precious opportunities occur of communing in our hearts with God. Then there is not only quietness, but solitude. We are alone with God, and if we recognize his presence and hearken to his Word, we shall have cause to say, with thankfulness, "Thou hast visited me in the night." Sleeplessness, if prolonged, if it becomes a habit, is a sore evil; but sleepless hours may be turned to great profit. We have then the opportunity for quiet thought, for self-examination, for converse with God. Perhaps the past, with its joys and sorrows, rises before us, or we are troubled about the present or the future; but God is ever near, to counsel and to comfort us. "He giveth songs in the night" (Job 35:10). "One practical lesson at least may be remembered as bearing on this subject - the duty of storing the mind, while we are yet comparatively young and strong, with that which, in the hours of sleeplessness and pain, will enable us to rise up to God. A mind well stored with Holy Scripture, with good prayers and hymns, need never feel that the waking hours of the night are lost. We may do more, for the soul's true sanctification and peace, than many others in their own brief earthly pilgrimage" (Canon Liddon). - W.F.

From the first to the fifth verse the prayer bases his confidence in God on four pleas.

1. He prays for the righteous cause.

2. In a righteous spirit.

3. On the ground of a righteous character.

4. On the ground of righteous conduct.

Now we come to other grounds upon which he urges God to save him.

I. THE COMPASSION OF GOD for THOSE WHO URGENTLY CRY TO HIM. (Vers. 6, 7.) He calls, because God answers him; and now he calls for a special exercise of mercy, because God saves those who find their refuge or safety in him. He was pleading according to the law of God's nature, and had, therefore, a Divine warrant for his prayer: "If we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us."

II. HIS IMMINENT DANGER. (Vers. 7, 9, 11, 12.) His enemies were the enemies of God (ver. 7). They would destroy him (ver. 9). They haunted his footsteps everywhere (ver. 11). He prays, therefore, to be protected as the pupil of the eye is protected, as if he could not be kept secure enough; and to be hidden under the shadow of the Divine wings, where no danger could reach him (Deuteronomy 32:10, 11).


1. Their want of sympathy and their hard pride. (Ver. 10.) "Enclosed in fat" is equivalent to "have become gross and unfeeling."

2. They were bent on the ruin of others as well as themselves. (Ver. 11.)

3. They were fierce and furious in their wicked efforts. (Ver. 12.) Like a greedy lion, like a young vigorous lion lurking in his lair.


1. They were satisfied with the treasures of this world. With children and worldly substance, and were not worthy, therefore, to triumph over the righteous cause and the righteous persons. Deliver me from such worldlings.

2. He was seeking after the highest good. (Ver. 15.) "In righteousness let me behold thy face; let me be satisfied, when I awake, with thine image." An echo of the eleventh verse of the previous psalm, which reveals his trust in a future life. "There is an allusion probably to such a manifestation of God as that made to Moses (Numbers 12:8), where God declares that with Moses he will speak "mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches, and the similitude [rather, 'form,' the same word as here] of Jehovah shall he behold." - S.

The Bible is a book of contrasts. Here we have a contrast between the man of God and "the men of the world." We may bring out something of its force and significance by considering the three awakings here suggested.

I. THE AWAKING FROM SLEEP. The psalmist says (ver. 3), "Thou hast visited me in the night." The sense of God's presence abides. When he awakes, it is not, like the worldling, to a life of selfish pleasure, but to a life of holy service. His first thought is not of self, but of God. His highest joy is in fellowship with God and in doing his work. His prayer is -

"Guard my first springs of thought and will,
And with thyself my spirit fill."

II. THE AWAKING FROM THE NIGHT OF TROUBLE. Darkness is the image of gloom; light, of joy. "The men of the world" have few troubles, but they have fewer comforts. Their hope is in the things that perish. The godly man may be sorely tried (vers. 7-9), but he has "strong consolation." And even if gloom settles down upon him, it is but for a little, and when he awakes, thoughts that troubled him pass away as the visions of the night, and he rejoices in God's favour as in the light. Joy comes with the morning.

III. THE AWAKING FROM THE SLEEP OF DEATH. "Here we see right into the heart of the Old Testament faith." In life and death, God is all. Thus the soul rises to the hope of immortality. "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living."

1. This awaking holds good of the whole being. The spirit is first, but the body next.

2. This awaking opens up a glorious vision. There will be many and wondrous sights, but the first and chief of all will be God. "Thy face." So Moses (Numbers 12:8); so believers (2 Corinthians 3:18). But here in a far higher way.

3. This awaking will bring complete satisfaction. Here we are never satisfied. This awaking into glory will first of all, and in the fullest sense of the word, bring satisfaction. "Thy likeness." Nothing less will satisfy. This is the hope of all our hoping. The joy of joys. "The rest that remaineth for the people of God." How grand must that possession be that will satisfy the soul, awakened to the highest life and the noblest aspirings! Not only will the redeemed be satisfied, but the Redeemer also. "He shall see of the travail of his soul, and be satisfied." Study the awful contrast (Daniel 12:2; Luke 16:25; John 5:28, 29). - W.F.

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