Psalm 18 – Warrior King and God: Relationships
TEXT (Hebrew text appears at end)
1. For the leader - of David, the servant of the LORD who addressed the words of this song to the LORD after the LORD had saved him from the grip of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul,
2. and he said: I adore You, O LORD, my strength,
3. O LORD, my crag, my fortress, my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, the source1 of my rescue, my haven.
4. Praised I called the LORD and was rescued from my enemies.
5.2-Ropes of death encompassed me; torrents of Belial terrified me;
6. ropes of Sheol encircled me; snares of death confronted me.-2
7. In my distress I call on the LORD, to my God I cry out; from His temple He hears my voice; my cry to Him reaches His ears.
8. The earth rocked and quaked; the foundations of the mountains shook, they were rocked by His indignation;
9. smoke went up from His nostrils, consuming fire from His mouth; coals blazed forth from Him.
10. He bent the heavens and came down, thick cloud beneath His feet.
11. He mounted a cherub and flew, soaring on the wings of the wind.
12. He makes darkness His screen; encircling Him, His pavilion—dark water masses, sky-high clouds.
13. Out of the brilliance before Him, His clouds passed, hail and fiery coals.
14. The LORD thundered from heaven, the Most High gave forth His voice—hail and fiery coals.
15. He sent forth His arrows and scattered them; He discharged lightning and routed them.
16. The watercourses were exposed; the foundations of the world were laid bare by Your mighty roaring, O LORD, at the blast of the wind from Your nostrils.
17. He sends down from on high, He takes me; He draws me out of the mighty waters;
18. He saves me from my fierce enemy, from foes too strong for me.
19. They confront me on the day of my calamity, but the LORD is my support.
20. He brings me out to freedom; He rescues me because He is pleased with me.
21 The LORD rewards me according to my righteousness; He requites the cleanness of my hands;
22. for I have kept to the ways of the LORD and have not been guilty before my God;
23. for all of His rules are before me; His laws I do not disregard.
24. I have been blameless toward Him, and have kept myself from sinning;
25. and the LORD has requited me according to my righteousness, the cleanness of my hands in His eyes.
26. With the loyal, You deal loyally; with the blameless man, You are blameless.
27. With the pure, You act purely, and with the perverse, You are wily.
28. It is You who rescue lowly people, but haughty eyes You humble.
29. It is You who light my lamp; the LORD, my God, lights up my darkness.
30. It is with You that I can rush a barrier; with my God I can vault a wall.
31. God—His way is pure; the word of the LORD is perfect; He is a shield to all who seek refuge in Him.
32. Truly, who is a god except the LORD, who is a rock but our God,
33. the God who girds me with might, who makes my way blameless;
34. who makes my feet like a deer’s, and makes me stand on the heights;
35. who trained my hands for battle, having made my arms bend a bow of bronze?
36. You have given me the shield of Your rescue, Your right hand sustains me, Your care makes me great.
37. You free my stride beneath me; my feet have not slipped.
38. I pursue my enemies and overtake them; I do not turn back until they are destroyed.
39. I smash them, and they can rise no more; they lay beneath my feet.
40. You have girded me with strength for battle, making those who rise against me bow beneath me,
41. and my enemies You made turn tail before me. My foes I wiped out.
42. They cry out―there is none to rescue; to the LORD―He did not answer them.
43. I grind them fine as windswept dust; as dirt of the streets I tread them flat.
44. You rescue me from the strife of people; You set me at the head of nations; a people I knew not serve me.
45. As soon as an ear hears, they listen to me; foreigners cower before me;
46. foreigners lose courage, and come trembling out of their strongholds.
47. The LORD lives! Blessed is my rock! Exalted be God, my rescuer,
48. the God who has vindicated me and made peoples subject beneath me,
49. who delivers me from my enemies, who exalts me above those who rise against me, saving me from a violent man.
50. For this I sing Your praise among the nations, LORD, and offer hymns to Your name:
51. He accords great rescues to His king, keeps faith with His anointed, with David and his offspring forever.
1. Literally, "horn"
2. Terms in verses 5 and 6 refer to the netherworld
The longest poem in the first two books of psalms, Psalm 18 reads smoothly and clearly. It is an individual psalm, of the warrior-king, the group absent (except by implication). Transitions flow from one section to another logically, and the text circles from initial praise back to final praise. Nevertheless, there is much food for thought in the metaphors, in the combination of subjects, in the unity, and in the divisions. As ever, form helps clarify and support content, and I first look at aspects of form and then proceed to content.
There are large numbers of repetitions in Psalm 18, but there is no dominant word or phrase, that is, no guide-word that carries the meaning of the poem on its back. In fifty-one verses, the most frequent repetitions are enemy (6), the root “rescue” (6), and shield (4), and even these are best explained not as a guide-word, but in one of two other ways. The repetitions serve as:
a. Anadiplosis – This literary technique repeats a term or root from a nearby clause or sentence. When used throughout a section, it binds the section together like links of a chain. Found in several psalms and other biblical texts, it is rarely “pure” (sentence 1 containing phrase a; sentence 2, a and b; sentence 3, b and c; etc.). In Psalm 18, I count at least forty-two instances (which are reflected in this translation). This belies the contention that this psalm “is not an authored composition but an edited one.”
b. Inclusio (a framing, the use of identical words, phrases, or roots to “enclose” the psalm or section) – Here there are two sets of inclusion. Opening and closing the psalm in the Hebrew, besides “David” and the acts of praise, are the terms “enemies,” “my deliverer,” “save,” “rescue,” “rock,” “LORD,” and “God.” Certainly, this implies a unity. Interestingly, there is a second inclusion—the opening verse echoed in the middle by three terms: “shield” (31), “refuge” (31), and “rock” (32). The poet thus draws our attention to these verses as a central point of change.
I also note the poet’s appreciation of word plays, using sounding echoes in proximity. Examples include ashave’a – avashe’a (4, 7: I was rescued, I call); vatigash – vatirash (8: rocked and quaked); avav – avar (13: His clouds passed), am-ani – aynayim (28: lowly people, eyes). Combined with many of the repetitions that use different constructs of one root, this imparts a pleasing rhythmic unity to the work.
Side by side with repetitions, the poet also uses many different but similar terms to indicate a sectional concentration. Examples include synonyms for God’s protection (3), terms of sound (7, 8), a plethora of metaphors of God appearing through a storm (8–16), terms for salvation (17–20), descriptions of innocence (21–25), limbs of the body (34–37), and various names for the enemy (38–46).
The variety of terms and the occasional sharp change from subject to subject invite close inspection of each separate section, independent of the whole. The scope of the present work precludes full exploration here, but I choose two points for discussion.
a. The Storm (7–16) – The appearance of God in response to the call of the speaker is extremely dramatic. In response to hearing the king’s cry (7), God is “heard,” and radically so, as four verbs describe the shaking and trembling of the world because He is indignant (8). Fire, smoke, thick cloud, blazing coals, et al. mix into a fearful picture. Recalling thunderstorms and/or earthquakes, the text goes beyond them, in an encompassing terror of hail and fiery coals together (14). Fire joins water; light joins the dark. The general description (though not the specific terms) invites recollection of the Exodus or the theophany at Sinai, which some commentators cite. (See verse 16, the "watercourses,” i.e., the ocean bed exposed, and see more below.) Others call it an “aerial attack.” One should note, however, that the immediate subsequent re-entry of the speaker into the picture evokes a new calm (17–21). The speaker is removed to safety, as the relationship is again emphasized. (In the Hebrew, “me” and “my” dominate these new verses.)
b. The Ideology – The speaker is markedly immodest, atypically so in the biblical landscape, which emphasizes the humility of its leaders (e.g., compare Gen. 32:10 or David himself in II Sam. 7:18). Hacham suggests that this is necessary in order to make a basic ideological point, namely, that God does good to and for those who do good. The poet makes the same point through repetition (verses 26–27: “With the loyal, You deal loyally; with the blameless man, You are blameless; with the pure, You act purely….”) Righteous living leads to reward. Victory, the text implies, is recompense for a blameless life, not the result of physical prowess. This assertion is set in the middle of the psalm and is its anchor. This is perhaps an obvious contention to those who believe that all psalmists were undoubting believers in such reward-and-punishment. In the more complex world we have encountered in our study of psalms, however, this is either a controversial contention or an attempt at didactics (or both). In any case, it presents a particularly pleasing picture precisely because the speaker is the warrior king.
Content: The Relationship between the King and God
Following the attribution, the poem’s subject is announced through a long series of verbs expressing the connection of the LORD to “me,” the speaker. It is a poem of relationship between the king and God. I reflect on three aspects thereof:
a. The basic framework is praise offered by the king. This is not exactly liturgy, for unlike other psalms, the circumstances here are so limited to the warrior-king that others could not say the prayer as their own, even as metaphor. The psalm remains religious poetry of praise, beginning and end. Praise is the obverse side of the coin of God’s salvation, the framework that complements God’s saving acts, which are detailed in the middle. Thus, the poet forms one whole of the two basic elements of the relationship.
b. This becomes particularly meaningful in terms of the framing term, (King) David. Mentioned in almost all titles of the first book of Psalms, in this poem alone, David is again cited at the end. (See more below on the ascription to David.) This raises the stakes. David is the founding and greatest king of the dynasty, who eventually becomes the symbol of the monarchy that will some day be restored. Thus to have him voice this ethos of kingship elevates the approach to official ideology.
c. All these points, in turn, form the background for the theological stance of the poem, too often overlooked. The middle inclusio, in verses 31–32, is a gentle transition, wherein both verses can be read with what precedes and with what follows. Comparing the two sections, one notes several changes. The address to God in the second person, only partially present in the first half, dominates from verse 36 on. The speaker, primarily the beneficiary of God’s help in the first half (apart from his detailed righteousness, 22–25) becomes the principal protagonist in the second half. In fact, the content of the second half presents a different picture. Here God empowers the warrior-king, and it is the latter who acts. God’s intervention is through man! Sensing this change, too many commentators create a division that is not there. They suggest that the first half reflects David’s early political defensive battles and the second his battles of conquest. The terms that are repeated across the halves, however, lead to the opposite conclusion, that is, that these are the same battles. We have here, in the words of the warrior-king, an expression of the classical biblical paradox: the same act is attributed to God and to man-as-empowered-by-God. This allows the speaker of the poem to return, at the end, to attribution of his delivery to the LORD. This poem of relationship thus becomes much more complex than an articulation of salvation and acknowledgment. The speaker is central not only through the pursuit of righteousness, but also in bringing about the very reward he receives! God’s actions and human actions meld, as God acts through human hands.
* * * * * * * * *
Three Additional Notes
To an unusual degree, traditional and modern commentaries alike are willing to consider positively the possibility that Psalm 18 actually was penned by David. I have not approached that subject above. The last line, referring to David’s offspring, implies (though it does not require) a later date for that line, though both the first and last lines could be by an original author penning the poem "for" David, as an act of literary imagination. Even if the references to David postdate him, it is of no small fascination that at the point either of later composition or of inclusion in the Book of Psalms, this was and/or became the image of the ideal king.
Psalm 18 appears, with variations, in II Samuel 22. Some commentators go to great lengths to determine the “original” (either as a whole or part by part). Some see the variations as mistakes, others as alterations to befit the context (history or prayer). (Above I have clarified that the poem in any case seems inappropriate as shared liturgy.) The existence of two texts is among the many pieces of information that must make one cautious in interpretation, which is so dependent on exact wording. I add that I believe all that I have written above would be appropriate for either text. I do not here try to determine which, if either, is earlier.
As the storm description reminds many of the Exodus period, so too verse 17 seems based on the character of Moses, as Hacham has pointed out. “Sends down… and takes” reflects Exodus 2:5 (Pharaoh’s daughter “sent” her handmaid to “take” the child from the river), while “drew me out of the water” is used elsewhere in the Bible only of Moses (Ex. 2:10, the verse that gives him his name!). The title also places David in unique company: other than David, only Moses and Joshua are called “the servant of the LORD” in the Bible. Moreover, note again the ocean bed being exposed (verse 16, as in Exodus). In many ways, David’s kingship sought and succeeded in adopting and adapting earlier symbols. This psalm seems to be part of that tradition, as it draws David close to Moses.
The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at email@example.com.
HEBREW TEXT -
א לַמְנַצֵּחַ לְעֶבֶד יְהוָה לְדָוִד:
אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַיהוָה אֶת-דִּבְרֵי הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת
בְּיוֹם הִצִּיל-יְהוָה אוֹתוֹ מִכַּף כָּל-אֹיְבָיו וּמִיַּד שָׁאוּל.
ב וַיֹּאמַר אֶרְחָמְךָ יְהוָה חִזְקִי.
ג יְהוָה סַלְעִי וּמְצוּדָתִי וּמְפַלְטִי:
אֵלִי צוּרִי אֶחֱסֶה-בּוֹ מָגִנִּי וְקֶרֶן-יִשְׁעִי מִשְׂגַּבִּי.
ד מְהֻלָּל אֶקְרָא יְהוָה וּמִן-אֹיְבַי אִוָּשֵׁעַ.
ה אֲפָפוּנִי חֶבְלֵי-מָוֶת וְנַחֲלֵי בְלִיַּעַל יְבַעֲתוּנִי.
ו חֶבְלֵי שְׁאוֹל סְבָבוּנִי קִדְּמוּנִי מוֹקְשֵׁי מָוֶת.
ז בַּצַּר-לִי אֶקְרָא יְהוָה וְאֶל-אֱלֹהַי אֲשַׁוֵּעַ:
יִשְׁמַע מֵהֵיכָלוֹ קוֹלִי וְשַׁוְעָתִי לְפָנָיו תָּבוֹא בְאָזְנָיו.
ח וַתִּגְעַשׁ וַתִּרְעַשׁ הָאָרֶץ וּמוֹסְדֵי הָרִים יִרְגָּזוּ;
וַיִּתְגָּעֲשׁו כִּי-חָרָה לוֹ.
ט עָלָה עָשָׁן בְּאַפּו וְאֵשׁ-מִפִּיו תֹּאכֵל;
גֶּחָלִים בָּעֲרוּ מִמֶּנּוּ.
י וַיֵּט שָׁמַיִם וַיֵּרַד וַעֲרָפֶל תַּחַת רַגְלָיו.
יא וַיִּרְכַּב עַל-כְּרוּב וַיָּעֹף וַיֵּדֶא עַל-כַּנְפֵי-רוּחַ.
יב יָשֶׁת חֹשֶׁךְ סִתְרו סְבִיבוֹתָיו סֻכָּתוֹ;
חֶשְׁכַת-מַיִם עָבֵי שְׁחָקִים.
יג מִנֹּגַהּ נֶגְדּו עָבָיו עָבְרוּ בָּרָד וְגַחֲלֵי-אֵשׁ.
יד וַיַּרְעֵם בַּשָּׁמַיִם יְהוָה וְעֶלְיוֹן יִתֵּן קֹלוֹ בָּרָד וְגַחֲלֵי-אֵשׁ.
טו וַיִּשְׁלַח חִצָּיו וַיְפִיצֵם וּבְרָקִים רָב וַיְהֻמֵּם.
טז וַיֵּרָאוּ אֲפִיקֵי מַיִם וַיִּגָּלוּ מוֹסְדוֹת תֵּבֵל:
מִגַּעֲרָתְךָ יְהוָה מִנִּשְׁמַת רוּחַ אַפֶּךָ.
יז יִשְׁלַח מִמָּרוֹם יִקָּחֵנִי יַמְשֵׁנִי מִמַּיִם רַבִּים.
יח יַצִּילֵנִי מֵאֹיְבִי עָז וּמִשֹּׂנְאַי כִּי-אָמְצוּ מִמֶּנִּי.
יט יְקַדְּמוּנִי בְיוֹם-אֵידִי וַיְהִי-יְהוָה לְמִשְׁעָן לִי.
כ וַיּוֹצִיאֵנִי לַמֶּרְחָב יְחַלְּצֵנִי כִּי חָפֵץ בִּי.
כא יִגְמְלֵנִי יְהוָה כְּצִדְקִי כְּבֹר יָדַי יָשִׁיב לִי.
כב כִּי-שָׁמַרְתִּי דַּרְכֵי יְהוָה וְלֹא-רָשַׁעְתִּי מֵאֱלֹהָי.
כג כִּי כָל-מִשְׁפָּטָיו לְנֶגְדִּי וְחֻקֹּתָיו לֹא-אָסִיר מֶנִּי.
כד וָאֱהִי תָמִים עִמּו וָאֶשְׁתַּמֵּר מֵעֲוֹנִי.
כה וַיָּשֶׁב-יְהוָה לִי כְצִדְקִי כְּבֹר יָדַי לְנֶגֶד עֵינָיו.
כו עִם-חָסִיד תִּתְחַסָּד עִם-גְּבַר תָּמִים תִּתַּמָּם.
כז עִם-נָבָר תִּתְבָּרָר וְעִם-עִקֵּשׁ תִּתְפַּתָּל.
כח כִּי-אַתָּה עַם-עָנִי תוֹשִׁיעַ וְעֵינַיִם רָמוֹת תַּשְׁפִּיל.
כט כִּי-אַתָּה תָּאִיר נֵרִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהַי יַגִּיהַּ חָשְׁכִּי.
ל כִּי-בְךָ אָרֻץ גְּדוּד וּבֵאלֹהַי אֲדַלֶּג-שׁוּר.
לא הָאֵל תָּמִים דַּרְכּוֹ
אִמְרַת-יְהוָה צְרוּפָה מָגֵן הוּא לְכֹל הַחֹסִים בּוֹ.
לב כִּי מִי אֱלוֹהַּ מִבַּלְעֲדֵי יְהוָה וּמִי צוּר זוּלָתִי אֱלֹהֵינוּ.
לג הָאֵל הַמְאַזְּרֵנִי חָיִל וַיִּתֵּן תָּמִים דַּרְכִּי.
לד מְשַׁוֶּה רַגְלַי כָּאַיָּלוֹת וְעַל בָּמֹתַי יַעֲמִידֵנִי.
לה מְלַמֵּד יָדַי לַמִּלְחָמָה וְנִחֲתָה קֶשֶׁת-נְחוּשָׁה זְרוֹעֹתָי.
לו וַתִּתֶּן-לִי מָגֵן יִשְׁעֶךָ וִימִינְךָ תִסְעָדֵנִי וְעַנְוַתְךָ תַרְבֵּנִי.
לז תַּרְחִיב צַעֲדִי תַחְתָּי וְלֹא מָעֲדוּ קַרְסֻלָּי.
לח אֶרְדּוֹף אוֹיְבַי וְאַשִּׂיגֵם וְלֹא-אָשׁוּב עַד-כַּלּוֹתָם.
לט אֶמְחָצֵם וְלֹא-יֻכְלוּ קוּם יִפְּלוּ תַּחַת רַגְלָי.
מ וַתְּאַזְּרֵנִי חַיִל לַמִּלְחָמָה תַּכְרִיעַ קָמַי תַּחְתָּי.
מא וְאֹיְבַי נָתַתָּה לִּי עֹרֶף וּמְשַׂנְאַי אַצְמִיתֵם.
מב יְשַׁוְּעוּ וְאֵין-מוֹשִׁיעַ עַל-יְהוָה וְלֹא עָנָם.
מג וְאֶשְׁחָקֵם כְּעָפָר עַל-פְּנֵי-רוּחַ כְּטִיט חוּצוֹת אֲרִיקֵם.
מד תְּפַלְּטֵנִי מֵרִיבֵי-עָם תְּשִׂימֵנִי לְרֹאשׁ גּוֹיִם עַם לֹא-יָדַעְתִּי יַעַבְדוּנִי.
מה לְשֵׁמַע אֹזֶן יִשָּׁמְעוּ לִי בְּנֵי-נֵכָר יְכַחֲשׁוּ-לִי.
מו בְּנֵי-נֵכָר יִבֹּלוּ וְיַחְרְגוּ מִמִּסְגְּרוֹתֵיהֶם.
מז חַי-יְהוָה וּבָרוּךְ צוּרִי וְיָרוּם אֱלוֹהֵי יִשְׁעִי.
מח הָאֵל הַנּוֹתֵן נְקָמוֹת לִי וַיַּדְבֵּר עַמִּים תַּחְתָּי.
מט מְפַלְּטִי מֵאֹיְבָי אַף מִן-קָמַי תְּרוֹמְמֵנִי מֵאִישׁ חָמָס תַּצִּילֵנִי.
נ עַל-כֵּן אוֹדְךָ בַגּוֹיִם יְהוָה וּלְשִׁמְךָ אֲזַמֵּרָה.
נא מַגְדִּל יְשׁוּעוֹת מַלְכּוֹ
וְעֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לִמְשִׁיחוֹ לְדָוִד וּלְזַרְעוֹ עַד-עוֹלָם.