The designation mizmór (psalm) means “song.” This psalm, like the others, is really a prayer in the form of a sacred melody. Its superscription identifies David as the composer.
Through courageous military operations, King David had extended the boundaries of Israel to their God-ordained limits and secured the borders of the nation against aggression from surrounding peoples. His subjects enjoyed a level of prosperity that was unknown prior to his reign. Despite his failings, he had faithfully conducted the affairs of state and had remained loyal to the Supreme Sovereign.
Nevertheless, on account of the shrewd political maneuvering of his son Absalom, David found himself ruling over a nation in revolt. In ever-increasing numbers, Israelites aligned themselves against him and supported his son Absalom, who was determined to seize the throne. By presenting himself as a man genuinely concerned for the welfare of the people and feigning much affection for them, Absalom succeeded in capturing the support of the majority. For part of the period during which Absalom plotted to usurp the kingship, David appears to have been so sick that rumors circulated that he would soon die. Possibly because David’s illness prevented him from carrying out his royal duties, Absalom found it even easier to undermine the judicial arrangement then in place. Eventually, even David’s trusted counselor Ahithophel turned traitor, siding with Absalom. In view of Absalom’s overwhelming success in gaining popular backing, David, despite his recovery from illness, concluded that his only option was to leave the palace, fleeing from the capital city with his outnumbered supporters. (2 Samuel 15:1-31; Psalm 41:7-9) These distressing circumstances provided the occasion for the composition of the third psalm.
For David, the Almighty was a personal God, the only one to whom he could turn for dependable help. From past experience, he had come to know YHWH as the protector and savior of his devoted servants. Therefore, David must have appreciated YHWH as the unchangeable One who was deserving of unqualified trust. (Regarding the divine name [YHWH], see Psalm 1.)
The Hebrew word mah is usually translated “how” and has been understood as introducing an exclamation of amazement or lament. In the Septuagint, however, mah is rendered tí, meaning “why?” The question thus introduced would reflect bewilderment. It may well be that David was expressing both grief and perplexity, being distressed that so many had turned against him and finding this development impossible to comprehend. In the Septuagint, the Hebrew word for “foe” or “adversary” (tsar) is rendered as a form of thlíbo, designating persons who cause affliction or distress. Paralleling the expression “many foes” are the words “many rising against me”—descriptive of persons in a state of revolt.
One of the basic senses of the Hebrew néphesh, when referring to humans, is the whole person. Hence, the expression “my soul” means “me.” In view of David’s greatly diminished support and the overwhelming backing being given to Absalom, many Israelites concluded that not even God could save David.
The exact significance of “selah” is unknown. In the Septuagint, the word is rendered diápsalma, which has been understood to denote “pause” or “musical interlude.” (The expression appears in verses 2), 4 and 8.)
Despite what many were saying, David did not waver in faith. He looked to YHWH as the One who would protect him, serving as his shield during this time of danger. When David fled, he did so in a state of disgrace—barefoot, weeping, and with his head covered as an indication of mourning. (2 Samuel 15:30) By reason of his relationship to YHWH, however, he was confident that the period of humiliation would end. The Most High was David’s glory, that is, the One who would again bestow glory, dignity or honor on him. Whereas his head had been bowed low in humiliation, David looked to the time when, through help from the Almighty, he would again be able to hold his head erect. Thus, YHWH would be the raiser or lifter of his head.
Convinced that YHWH is a hearer of prayer, David unhesitatingly cried out for help in his time of need. He had no doubt that his appeal would receive a favorable response.
By reason of its being the location for the sacred ark of the covenant, Mount Zion was the holy mountain. Initially, when David and his supporters fled, Zadok and a company of Levites also left the city, carrying the ark. David, however, directed that it be returned to its location. (2 Samuel 15:24, 25) Since the ark (situated in a tent on Mount Zion) represented the divine presence, David spoke of YHWH’s answering him from his holy mountain. Thus, he recognized that the answer to his prayer was not dependent upon his being in close proximity to the ark.
Having committed his concerns to YHWH, David apparently experienced an inner calm. Therefore, he spoke of lying down and sleeping. This suggests that he was freed from disturbing fears (such as of a surprise attack) that would not have permitted him to sleep upon lying down to rest. Liberated from disquieting apprehension, David felt confident that he would again wake up. The basis for this assurance was his recognition that YHWH sustained, upheld, or supported him.
Absalom’s following numbered into the tens of thousands. Indicative of the numerous throng arrayed against David is the fact that 20,000 Israelites reportedly perished on the day of Absalom’s defeat. (2 Samuel 18:7) Although surrounded by many thousands who opposed him, David was not afraid. Again, this was on account of his confidence in divine aid.
David’s appeal for YHWH to arise was a plea for the Almighty to take action, as if rising from a seated position in order to perform his saving deed. In view of the danger, David prayed to be saved, delivered or rescued from the situation that could have led to his death. Indicative of his personal relationship to YHWH, he used the expression “my God.”
For a predator to be struck on the jaw so as to break it and knock out teeth would mean that the animal could no longer tear its prey apart. Accordingly, YHWH’s striking David’s enemies on the jaw and breaking the teeth of the wicked would denote destroying their power to inflict harm. The “striking on the jaw” parallels the “breaking of the teeth.”
David recognized that salvation or deliverance could only come from YHWH. Though many of his subjects had proved to be disloyal, he reflected a forgiving spirit and acknowledged the whole nation as God’s people. David’s prayer was that YHWH’s blessing be upon Israel as a whole.
Note: Regarding the divine name (YHWH), see Psalm 1.