Psalm 35 is another psalm of lamentation where the psalmist calls out to the Lord for help because of the trouble he’s in. And in this psalm, the psalmist is calling on the Lord to contend with his enemies and to fight against those who fight against him. The psalmist is faced with enemies who hate him without cause and who have made false accusations against him and who are maliciously mocking him. And he therefore cries to the Lord for help. However, unlike the other lamentations which we’re already come across in the psalter, this lamentation includes curses. The psalmist is appealing to the Lord to curse and afflict his enemies. May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame. May they be turned back in dismay. May they be like chaff before the wind. May their path be dark and slippery. May ruin overtake them by surprise. May the net they hid entangle them. Not only does the psalmist complain to the Lord because of his enemies and call out to the Lord for help because of them, but the psalmist is appealing to the Lord to curse his enemies and to bring affliction down on them.
Therefore many Christians are uncomfortable with this psalm and with similar psalms. After all, doesn’t the Lord command us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute you? Doesn’t he instruct us to do good to all, just as our Father in heaven does good to all? Doesn’t Paul the Apostle tell us to bless those who persecute us and not to curse them? And doesn’t Paul tell us not to repay anyone evil for evil?
So, what are we meant to do with a psalm like this one in which the psalmist appeals to the Lord to curse his enemies? Well, it’s important to note that this psalm was written by David. And David was God’s Anointed King at that time and he points to the Lord Jesus Christ who is God’s True Anointed King. And the sorrow and suffering of David therefore points to the sorrow and suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was persecuted without cause, but who was vindicated by his Father in heaven when he was raised from the dead. In fact, the Lord Jesus quotes verse 19 of this psalm and applies it to himself in John’s gospel. Let me read to you from John 15. John 15 forms part of the Lord’s final words to his disciples before he was arrested; and this is part of what he said to them:
If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also…. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me…. Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’
There’s the Lord Jesus explaining to his disciples that the unbelieving world hates God the Father; and the unbelieving world hates the Lord Jesus; and the unbelieving world will hate his people. And he’s telling his disciples that the unbelieving world’s hatred towards him is the fulfilment of Psalm 35 which tells us how God’s Anointed King will be hated without cause by his enemies.
And we know that in the end, if Christ’s enemies will not turn in repentance from their sin and unbelief and ask God for mercy, they will indeed suffer the wrath and curse of God for all that they have done wrong. In that case, the curses we read in this psalm are not because of David’s desire for personal revenge, but they anticipate the punishment that will come on all who do not repent and believe the good news of salvation.
And so, this psalm speaks to us about the suffering of Christ our Saviour who was hated without cause; and it speaks to us as well of the coming judgment on the world, because all the curses in this psalm speak to us of the great day of judgment to come. But this psalm also speaks to us of Christ’s vindication when he was raised from the dead to live for ever. And as we’ll see, it also speaks to us of the vindication of God’s people who will live with him forever.
So, let’s turn to the psalm now which can be divided into three parts. Firstly, there’s verses 1 to 10. Secondly, there’s verses 11 to 18. And thirdly, there’s verses 19 to 28.
Verses 1 to 10
So, let’s turn to verses 1 to 10. And this part of the psalm can be divided into three smaller parts. Firstly, the psalmist calls on the Lord for help; and then he calls down curses on his enemies; and then he vows to praise the Lord. And so, it begins with the psalmist calling on the Lord for help. He says: contend with those who contend with me and to fight against those who fight against me. Some of the commentators suggest that the word he uses which is translated ‘contend’ is a legal term. In that case, we’re to imagine a court case and he’s asking the Lord to come and to act as his lawyer and to prosecute the case against his enemies. However, in the following lines he uses military terms and he depicts the Lord as a mighty warrior; and he’s summoning the Lord to put on his armour and to come and fight for him against his persecutors. Take up, he says, your shield and your buckler, which is another kind of shield, and brandish your spear and javelin against those who pursue me. And he asks the Lord to give him the words of assurance that the Lord will save him. So, in those first three verses, he’s calling on the Lord to come and help him and to save him from his enemies who are pursuing him.
And in verses 4 to 8 we have the curses. So, may those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame. May those who plot my ruin be turned back in dismay. May they be like chaff before the wind. Well, when the farmer was winnowing the wheat, he would crush it and then toss it into the air. While the grain would fall to the ground, the wind would carry the chaff away, which was light and worthless. So, just as chaff is blown away by the wind, so Lord drive away my enemies. And may their path be dark and slippery, so that they will stumble and fall before the angel of the Lord who is pursuing them. And look at verses 7 and 8 where the psalmist makes clear his innocence. His enemies have hid a net for him without cause. He has done nothing to deserve this treatment from them. But unprovoked, they have set a trap for him and have a dug a pit for him. Presumably he’s speaking metaphorically, using hunting imagery to convey to us how his enemies are seeking his destruction. And though he’s calling down curses on his enemies, he is in fact asking for justice, because he’s asking the Lord to do to them what they have tried to do to him and to repay them for what they have done.
And having prayed to the Lord to repay them, he vows in verses 9 and 10 to praise to the Lord. He says:
Then my soul will rejoice in the Lord and delight in his salvation. My whole being will exclaim: ‘Who is like you, O Lord?’
He will rejoice and praise the Lord, because the Lord is the one who rescues the poor from those who are too strong for them. When God saves his people, his people respond to his salvation with thanks and praise, which, of course, is why we want to meet together for worship, so that we can give thanks to the Lord and praise him for all that he has done to save us from our sin and misery and to give us everlasting life in his presence.
Verses 11 to 18
So, in verses 1 to 10, the psalmist called on the Lord for help; then he called down curses on his enemies; and they he vowed to praise the Lord. In verses 11 to 18 he tells us more about his persecutors and what they have done to him. In verse 11 he calls them ‘ruthless witnesses’ who come forward to question him about things he knows nothing about. So, he has no idea what they’re talking about. It’s as if he’s baffled by their accusations. We can imagine him saying: ‘I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.’ And look, they repay him evil for good. So, he has only ever be good and kind to them. When they were ill, he put on sackcloth and humbled himself with fasting. So, he prayed for them when they were sick. And he didn’t just pray a quick prayer, but he put on the clothes of mourning and he fasted on their behalf. And when his prayers for them went unanswered, and presumably that means their illness was prolonged, he went about mourning for them as if they were his friend or brother. He was as concerned for them as he would have been for his brother. In fact, he wept for them as though he were weeping for his mother. He was as concerned for them and their well-being as he would be for his own mother.
And yet, when he stumbled, they gathered in glee. He put on sack and he fasted when they will were, but his misfortune only made them happy. We can imagine them celebrating together because the psalmist was ill. And attackers gathered against him when he was unaware. When he wasn’t expecting it, they made a surprise attack on him. And they slandered him without ceasing, but again and again and again and again, they slandered his name and they maliciously mocked him and the gnashed their teeth at him. So, he depicts them as fierce animals, gnashing their teeth and snarling at him.
And so, the psalmist asks:
O Lord, how long will you look on?
In other words: ‘How long will you stand back and do nothing to rescue me? How long must I put up with this?’
And he asks the Lord to rescue his life from his enemies who are like fierce lions, attacking him.
And so, he calls on the Lord for help. And just as he did in verses 9 and 10, so in verse 18 he vows to praise the Lord. He says:
I will give thanks in the great assembly; among throngs of people I will praise you.
David is saying that he will join the assembly of worshippers in the temple in Jerusalem in order to give thanks to the Lord and to praise his name.
Verses 19 to 28
And so, we come to the final part of the psalm, verses 19 to 28. And he once again calls on the Lord for help. Don’t let them gloat over me, he says. In other words, don’t let them triumph over me. Don’t let them maliciously wink the eye. Those who wink the eye maliciously are people who are plotting evil. So, don’t let them succeed in their evil plans. And look: they are his enemies without cause and they hate him without reason. He has done nothing to deserve this treatment and they are in no way justified in what they have done to him. And look at verse 20: instead of speaking peaceably, they devise false accusations against those who live quietly in the land. The psalmist just wants to live in peace and quiet, but they’re coming against him with all kinds of false accusations, saying:
With our own eyes we have seen it.
They’re going to the judge perhaps and they’re claiming to have witnessed the psalmist breaking the law. But none of it is true.
And so, once again, he appeals to the Lord for help. He says to the Lord: You have seen what’s happening. So, don’t be silent. And don’t be far from me. Awake. Rise up. And come to my defence! Contend for me, my God and my Lord. And so, he asks the Lord to vindicate him. In other words, he asks the Lord to make his innocence clear and to keep his enemies from gloating over him in triumph. And he asks the Lord once again to repay them for what they have done to him. So, may those who gloat over me be put to shame; and may those who exalt themselves over me be disgraced.
And just as he did in verses 9 and 10, and just as he did in verse 18, so in verses 27 and 28 he vows to praise the Lord. But this time, the king is calling on his people — those who are on his side — to shout for joy and gladness. May they always say:
The Lord be exalted, who delights in the well-being of his servant.
And so, the psalmist promises that his tongue will speak of God’s righteousness and he will praise the Lord all day long.
And so, that’s the psalm. It’s a psalm of lamentation, because the psalmist is calling on the Lord for help because of the trouble he’s in. He’s in trouble, because malicious enemies are persecuting him and are hating him without cause. And he asks the Lord to help him and to vindicate him. And he also asks the Lord to curse his enemies and to repay them for what they have done to him.
I said at the beginning that the Lord Jesus quoted from verse 19 of this psalm in John 15; and he made clear that this psalm foretells what would happen to him. So, just as David was hated without cause, so the Lord Jesus was hated without cause. While he was on the earth, the Pharisees and teachers of the law hated him and they tried to trap him with their questions. And they plotted against him and they made all kinds of accusations against him. And yet he did nothing to deserve it, because he never did anything wrong, and he loved and served the people around him; and indeed the reason he came into the world was to save his people from their sins, but they hated him. Even Pontius Pilate declared that he was innocent and had done nothing to deserve the death penalty, but they brought false witnesses to accuse him. And after he was beaten and nailed to the cross, his enemies gathered around him with glee and they gloated over him.
David wrote this psalm as a prophet to foretell the suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ, the servant of the Lord, who was hated without cause. However, David not only foretold the suffering of the Saviour, but he also foretold the Lord’s vindication. David asked the Lord to vindicate him; and, trusting the Lord to hear him, he promised that he would one day praise the Lord. And God the Father vindicated his Son by raising him from the grave. Isn’t that how Paul puts it in 1 Timothy 3, where he says that the Lord Jesus appeared in the flesh, but he was vindicated by the Spirit? Whereas his enemies accused him of being a blasphemer and a sinner, who deserve to be condemned, his Father demonstrated his righteousness and innocence when he raised him from the dead and exalted him to heaven by the power of the Holy Spirit, far above his enemies and all those who hated him. His resurrection from the dead was God’s declaration that the Lord Jesus is blameless.
So, this psalm foretells his suffering and his glory. But do you remember? When the Lord Jesus quoted this psalm in John 15 he not only spoke about how the unbelieving world hated him, but he also said that the unbelieving world will hate his people. It hates us because we belong to the Father and to the Son, whom they also hate, because an unbelieving world will not yield to God the Father or to God the Son; and they do not want God to rule over them. And so, because they hate the Father and because they hate the Son, then they will hate his people as well, because they are his people who belong to them. And so, we shouldn’t be surprised if an unbelieving world despises us or mocks us or criticises us or disregards us.
But though an unbelieving world hates and despises the Lord’s people, in the end the Lord’s people will be vindicated, when we too are raised from the dead to live forever and forever in glory. Those who continue in their unbelief and who refuse to turn from their sin and to turn to God for mercy will one day suffer the wrath and curse of God forever and forever. The God who is able to afflict the whole world with a virus will one day afflict all who refuse to repent with eternal punishments. But those who give up their unbelief and who turn from their sin and who turn to God for mercy will be raised from the dead and they will be blessed by God with eternal life in his presence where they will enjoy perfect peace and rest in the new and better world to come. And so, I say to you that you must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ who is the only Saviour of the world. You must believe in him and turn to God, asking him to be merciful to you and to bless you with eternal life in his presence. And in the glory to come, all who have believed in Christ and who turned to God for mercy will gather in the great assembly comprising men and women and boys and girls from every nation to give thanks to God forever and forever.