Psalm 17 begins with the psalmist crying out to the Lord to hear his plea and to listen to his cry and to give ear to his prayer. This threefold petition to hear to listen and to give ear conveys a sense of urgency. He is pleading with the Lord for help.
Notice that he refers to his plea as ‘a righteous plea’; and at the end of verse 1 he says that his prayer does not rise from ‘deceitful lips’. So, he’s not an unrighteous man and he’s not a deceiver; but he’s an honest and upright man, a man who does what is right in the sight of the Lord. And, of course, he’s appealing to the LORD. LORD in capital letters is God’s covenant name. And so, the psalmist has turned to the God of the covenant, to the God who has bound himself to his people with a promise to be their God and to take care of them. And so, the psalmist knows that he can count on this God, whose steadfast love never ceases and whose mercy never comes to an end.
And according to verse 2, he’s trusting the Lord to vindicate him and to see that his cause is right and true. In other words, he wants the Lord to make clear that he is right and true, and not unrighteous and false.
This is a psalm of David, God’s Anointed King. And David once again was writing as a prophet; and he wrote about God’s true Anointed King, the Lord Jesus Christ. What we read here in this psalm fits so well with what we know of the Lord Jesus. And we can perhaps imagine the Lord Jesus praying something like in the Garden of Gethsemane as he waited for the soldiers to arrest him; or we can imagine him praying something like this as he waited to be tried by the Sanhedrin or by Pontius Pilate; or even as he hung on the cross.
Verses 3 to 5
In verses 3 to 5, he speaks of his innocence. If God was to probe his heart and examine him at night and if God was to test him, he would find nothing. That is, God would find nothing blameworthy in him. He would find nothing wrong in him.
No one could say that about us, could they? Our actions are so often wrong and not right; and our hearts can be a house of horrors, full of monstrous thought and desires and inclinations. But the Lord Jesus was truly perfect and there was nothing blameworthy in him.
In verse 3 he goes on to say that he resolved that his mouth would not sin. Well, we all sin by the things we say; and as James says in his New Testament letter, the human tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. But the Lord Jesus was blameless in this as well and he never said anything which was wrong.
In verse 4, he says that he has kept himself from the deeds of men and from the ways of the violent. And he has done this ‘by the word of your lips’. In other words, the word of God has been his guide. And so, according to verse 5, he has kept firmly to the paths of the Lord and he has walked in the ways of the Lord, without slipping from them.
And so, he declares to the Lord his God that he is an innocent and righteous man. And certainly, when the Lord stood before Pilate, Pilate judged that he had done nothing to deserve the death penalty. Pilate’s wife declared him to be a righteous man. And the writer to the Hebrews tells us that he was tempted like us in every respect, yet he was without sin. We give in to temptation far too easily, but the Lord Jesus resisted it always.
Verses 6 to 9
Having professed his innocence, he goes on in verses 6 to 9 to pray for protection. So, he says that he calls on the Lord and he asks the Lord to give ear to him and to hear his prayer. God, of course, does not have an ear, but the psalmist is asking God to listen very closely to his plea. And he not only wants God to hear, but to act. And so, in verse 7 he asks the Lord to show the wonder of his great love. And he describes God as the one who saves by his right hand those who take refuge in him from their foes. That’s the God he’s praying to and that’s who God is: he’s the one who saves all those who trust in him. Keep me as the apple of your eye, he prays. The expression ‘apple of the eye’ refers to the pupil. And, of course, if you go up close to someone and look into their eyes, what do you see? Well, you see — in the pupil of their eye — your own reflection. And so, the psalmist is asking the Lord to look on him continually. We might say: Don’t let me out of your sight.
And he then asks the Lord to hide him in the shadow of his wing. So, we’re to imagine a mother bird gathering her chicks under her wing in order to keep them safe. The psalmist is therefore asking the Lord to protect him. We find the same two images in Moses’s song in Deuteronomy 32. Moses used those images to describe how the Lord guarded the Israelites as the apple of his eye and as an eagle spreads its wings over its young. And so, the psalmist is asking God to protect him like that. And he needs God’s protection from the wicked men who were assailing him and from his enemies who surrounded him.
Verses 10 to 12
And so, in verses 10 to 12 he describes his enemies. ‘They close up their calloused hearts’, he says. Literally, he says that ‘their fat they shut’. The NIV takes it that fat has surrounded their hearts to make them hard. And so, the image conveys the idea that they have become indifferent and hard-hearted. Other interpreters take the psalmist’s words to mean they have become prosperous. Fatness implied prosperity and success. And so, the psalmist’s enemies are well-off in the eyes of the world. Therefore, as we read in the second half of verse 10, they speak with arrogant words. They’re able to boast about themselves. And they have tracked the psalmist down and they have surrounded him. In fact, the Hebrews says they have surrounded ‘his steps’, which suggests that wherever he goes, they are around him and he can’t get away from them ever. And they’re looking at him with eyes alert, waiting for the right moment to throw him down to the ground. And then he compares his enemies to a lion hungry for its prey and like a great lion crouching in cover, ready to pounce on its victim in order to tear it apart for food.
We can think of the Lord Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, waiting for the soldiers to track him down and to arrest him. We can think of him standing before the Sanhedrin, with all its members surrounding him, and attacking him from all sides with their accusations. We can thinking of the crowds outside Pilate’s palace, shouting for him to be crucified. We can think of the religious leaders, surrounding the cross, mocking him and watching him die. David foretold the suffering of the Lord Jesus, whose enemies surrounded him like a lion hungry for its prey. Like the psalmist, the Lord Jesus was innocent and had done nothing wrong. But he was faced with fierce enemies who wanted to destroy him.
Verses 13 to 15
Once again, the psalmist prays to the Lord, asking him in verse 13 to rise up and to confront his enemies and to bring them down. He pleads with the Lord to use his sword — a symbol for God’s power — in order to rescue him from the wicked. By your hand, he prays, save me from such men. And look how he describes his enemies at the end of verse 14. They are ‘men of this world whose reward is in this life.’ Is that interesting? His enemies are successful and prosperous people, people who were able to speak arrogantly and who presumably could make great boasts, because they were so successful. Think of the people who rose up against the Lord Jesus: all the religious leaders in Israel who were men of standing in the community. And then there was Pilate and the Roman soldiers, who were powerful people in the world. Christ’s enemies were people of success, but their success was in this life only. In the eyes of the world, Christ’s enemies were important people. But the day would come when their life in this world would be over.
The second half of verse 14 is difficult to interpret. The word translated ‘you cherish’ is actually ‘treasure’. The psalmist could be referring to God’s people as his treasure. That is, they are his cherished people. In that case, the psalmist is saying that God will provide for the needs of his people; and he will ensure that they and their children have all that they need. Alternatively, the word ‘treasure’ could refer to what what has been stored up for the wicked. In that case, the psalmist is saying that God has stored up judgment for the wicked, because in the end, what they have amassed for themselves will be given to their children when they die.
As I say, it’s difficult to interpret. But the fate of the wicked — who prospers in this life only — is very different to the fate of the psalmist, because in the end, he will shall God’s face, which means he will one day come into the presence of the Lord. And when he awakes, he will be satisfied with seeing God’s likeness.
The word ‘awake’ speaks to us of the resurrection, because the Lord Jesus — who died on the cross, and whose dead body was laid in the tomb — in a sense ‘awoke’ from the dead three days later and was raised up to new life. And having been exalted to heaven, he is now in the presence of his Heavenly Father, where he rules over all things.
And his resurrection from the dead was his vindication, which is what he prayed for at the beginning of this psalm. The world did not believe he was the Christ, God’s Anointed King, who would deliver God’s people from their sin and misery. And so, the world condemned him as a wicked man. But by raising Jesus from the dead, God demonstrated that he was indeed his Anointed King and the only Saviour of the world. Whereas his enemies did not believe in him, and condemned him to die, God vindicated him by raising him from the dead and by bringing him into his presence in glory. His enemies believed he was unrighteous and false, but by raising him from the dead, God made clear that he was right and true.
And by believing in Christ the Saviour, you too are declared right with God, so that though you sin against him continually, he regards you as if you have done everything right, because of the perfect righteousness of Christ which becomes yours through faith. And by believing in Christ the Saviour, you too are given the hope of the resurrection and everlasting life in the presence of God. So, though in this life, the wicked may prosper, while you may have to suffer many troubles and trials, nevertheless, we know that the prosperity of the wicked is for this life only, whereas you and all who believe in Christ will live forever and forever in glory, where you will have fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore. So, though an unbelieving world despises you and condemns you for what you believe, the Lord will raise you up to resurrection life in the world to come; and by raising you like that, he will vindicate you and will make clear that you were right to believe in Christ the Saviour, who is only Saviour of the world.