Interpreting the Bible, and especially interpreting the Psalms, is sometimes like doing a jigsaw puzzle, because you’re trying to work out how one part of a passage fits with the other parts in the passage.
I’m sure you’ve all done jigsaw puzzles; and so you know that experience of picking up a piece and trying to see where it fits. Does it go here? No. So, does it go here? No, it still doesn’t fit. But what if I turn it around? Will it fit now? Yes, it will fit now. Well, interpreting the Bible, and interpreting the Psalms, can be like that. And certainly that’s been my experience this week as I’ve tried to understand Psalm 41. In particular, I’ve been puzzling over the first line of verse 1 and how it fits with the rest of the psalm.
The first line of verse 1 says:
Blessed is he who has regard for the weak.
Now, other English translations put the same line this way:
Blessed is he who has regard for the poor.
And so, if you read the commentaries, they take it that the psalmist is commending care for the poor and the needy. By pronouncing a blessing on the man who cares for the poor and the needy, the psalmist is teaching us that we ought to help the poor and the needy. And then they go on to explain that the reason we should care for the poor and the needy is because God promises to help those who help the poor and the needy.
And they get that idea from the second line of verse 1 and from verses 2 and 3. So, blessed is he who has regard for the poor and the needy, because the Lord will deliver the man who has regard for the poor and the needy when he himself faces times of trouble; and the Lord will protect such a man and preserve his life; and the Lord will bless him in the land and will not surrender him to the desire of his foes; and the Lord will sustain him on his sick-bed and will restore him from his bed of illness.
So, the lesson of the first part of this psalm, according to many commentators, is that we ought to help the poor and the needy, because only then can we expect help from the Lord for ourselves. And yet, he doesn’t say anything else about caring for the poor and the needy in the rest of the psalm. In the rest of the psalm, he describes his own time of trouble when he was ill and when his enemies spoke maliciously against him and even his close friend turned against him, but the Lord helped him. He doesn’t say anything in the rest of the psalm about caring for the poor and the needy. And so, I’ve been turning the first line of verse 1 around and around to set if there’s a better way to get it to fit with the rest of the psalm.
And fortunately, I listened to a sermon by an Old Testament scholar who got me to go back to John Calvin, the French reformer, and his commentary on the psalms. And Calvin helped me to put the first line of verse 1 in the right position so that it fits with the rest of the psalm. And I learned three lessons from John Calvin.
First of all, the psalmist is not referring to the poor and the needy, but to the weak. And so, the NIV’s translation of the last word in the first line is spot on. The Hebrew word David uses, which can be translated ‘poor’, really means ‘weak’; and it can refer to those who are weak and lowly because of the adversities and troubles they’ve suffered. This person is weak and needy and he’s helpless, because of what he’s suffered.
So, that’s the first thing. The second thing to notice is that the Hebrew word translated ‘has regard for’ doesn’t really mean ‘care for’. No, it’s a word which is associated with wisdom; and the psalmist is therefore pronouncing a blessing on the one who thinks wisely about the weak. As Calvin says, he’s blessing the one who forms a wise and prudent judgment concerning the afflictions of the weak. The foolish person assumes that God must be punishing the weak man who is suffering affliction and trouble. The foolish person therefore judges the weak man harshly and thinks the worst of him. The foolish person is like Job’s foolish friends. Do you remember Job’s foolish friends? When Job lost everything including his property and his children and his health, his foolish friends assumed that Job must have done something wrong and that God was punishing him for his wickedness. But we know that Job was a righteous man; and God was not punishing him. In fact, we know that the reason Job suffered as much as he did was because he was a righteous man and the Devil wanted to test his commitment to the Lord. Well, the foolish person will judge the weak man harshly. But blessed is one who think wisely about the afflictions of the weak man.
So, David is referring to a weak man who is suffering because of adversities and afflictions and not to a poor man. And he’s not pronouncing a blessing on those who care for the weak man, but he’s pronouncing a blessing on those who think wisely about the weak man and his afflictions. And then, the third lesson I learned from John Calvin, is that in the rest of verse 1 and in verses 2 and 3, David is not saying that the Lord will deliver those who think wisely about the weak man from his trouble. No, David is saying that God will deliver the weak man from his trouble. He’s saying that the Lord will protect the weak man and will preserve his life. And the Lord will bless the weak man in the land and will not surrender him to the desires of his foes. And the Lord will sustain the weak man on his sick-bed and will restore him from his bed of illness. So, David is not saying: ‘Blessed is he who has regard for the poor and the needy, because the Lord will deliver the man who has regard for the poor and the needy when he himself faces times of trouble’. He’s not saying that. But David is saying: ‘Blessed is he who thinks wisely about the afflictions of the weak man, because the Lord will deliver the weak man from all his troubles.’
So, John Calvin helped me to turn the verses around like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle so that they fit together properly. But here’s the next piece of the puzzle: Who is the weak man? The psalm begins: Blessed is he who thinks wisely about the afflictions of the weak man. But who is the weak man? Well, on one level, the weak man is David himself. Though he was a king, he had many enemies and he suffered many afflictions, didn’t he? All you have to do is read the story of David in the Old Testament and you get a flavour there of the things he suffered. For instance, when he was only a young man, he had to face Goliath, who was his enemy and who threatened to kill him. But do you remember at the same time how David’s oldest brother burned with anger against him and spoke harshly to him? And then later, King Saul turned against David and tried to kill him. And after David became king, his own son turned against him and plotted against him. And throughout his life, he had to fight against the Philistines and other enemy nations. And what we read in the Bible is only a brief account of David’s life; and no doubt he suffered affliction and trouble in many other ways. Though he was a king, he was weak and he suffered adversity and affliction many times.
So, on one level, the weak man in this psalm is David. And in the main body of the psalm — verses 4 to 9 — he describes a time when he suffered an illness and when his enemies spoke maliciously against him and even a close friends turned against him. But on a higher level, this psalm is about the Lord Jesus. Why do I say that? Well, all the psalms — indeed the whole of the Bible — is about the Lord Jesus in one way or another. As the Lord Jesus said in John 5, the Scriptures bear witness to him. And this psalm bears witness to him in a very direct way, because the Lord Jesus quoted verse 9 of the psalm in John 13. In verse 9 of the psalm, the psalmist refers to his close friend, whom he trusted, with whom he shared his bread. However, for whatever reason, this close friend has now lifted up his heel against the psalmist. The expression ‘to lift up the heel’ signifies an act of treachery. So, his close friend has betrayed him. They used to eat together as friends, but now his friend has turned against him and betrayed him. And in John 13, the Lord and his disciples were preparing to eat the Passover meal. And in verse 18 of John 13, the Lord quotes that verse of the psalm to refer to Judas Iscariot, who was one of the Lord’s disciples. In other words, Judas was one of his close friends, with whom he shared the Passover meal and many other meals, but who had agreed to betray the Lord Jesus to his enemies.
And so, when David wrote this psalm, he wrote as a prophet under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to foretell the sorrow and suffering of the Saviour, who came into the world as one of us; and though he is mighty God, he made himself weak and he suffered and he was afflicted for us and for our salvation. And so, while on one level this psalm is about David, who was weak, and who suffered all kind of adversities and afflictions, on a higher level, this psalm is about the Lord Jesus who became weak and who suffered all kinds of adversities and afflictions, including death on the cross, in order to save his people from the coming wrath and to give them eternal life in the glory to come. And so, bearing that in mind, let’s turn to the psalm.
Verses 1 to 3
I’ve already referred to verses 1 to 3, so I won’t say much more about them, except to point out the psalmist’s confidence that the Lord will deliver the weak man from his trouble and the Lord will sustain him on his sick bed and will restore him from his bed of illness. Presumably David is referring to an occasion when he was ill and when the Lord raised him up from his sick bed. However, since this psalm is really about the Lord Jesus, then these words refer to the way God the Father raised his Son from the grave. After he was crucified, his dead body was laid in the tomb and he lay under the power of death for a time, until God the Father raised him from death and from the grave by the power of the Holy Spirit. And so, this psalm is not only about the suffering of the Lord Jesus, but it’s about his resurrection as well.
Verses 4 to 9
In verses 4 to 9 the psalmist describes a time when he was in trouble. At that time, he prayed to the Lord for mercy. He asked too for healing, which tells us that he was suffering because of an illness. And he also refers to his sin, which implies that the Lord was disciplining him for some unconfessed sin.
As well as suffering from an illness, he suffered because of his enemies who spoke maliciously against him. ‘When will he die?’ they wanted to know. His enemies hated him and hoped that this illness would lead to death. And they hated him so much, that not only did they want to see him die, but they wanted his name and every memory of him to perish too. And in verse 6 he describes how one of his enemies would come to see him. When he came, he pretended to be concerned for the psalmist’s health and to wish him well. But his kind words were false words, because he was only gathering information which he could use against the psalmist. ‘All my enemies whisper together against me’, he says in verse 7. This conveys how they’re plotting against him and they’re devising wicked schemes against him. And they imagine the worst for him, because they tell one another about the vile disease he’s suffering and they’re sure he will never recover from it.
So, he’s suffering from a deadly disease. And his enemies are still plotting against him. But perhaps the hardest thing to accept is what is recorded for us in verse 9 and the news that his close friend, whom he once trusted, and with whom he once shared meals, has betrayed him. Have you ever been betrayed by someone close to you? Someone you loved has turned against you and they’ve gone away and slandered your name to others and they’ve harmed you. It’s a terrible experience and it happened to the psalmist, this weak man who was beset by adversities and afflictions.
However, David was writing as a prophet to foretell the sorrow and suffering of our Saviour, who came to earth as a weak man to suffer all kinds of troubles and afflictions. Though he was not on a sick bed, as the psalmist was, nevertheless he suffered in many other ways while he was on the earth.
Unlike the psalmist, the Lord Jesus never sinned. He never did anything wrong. But though he was without sin, he became sin for us and he bore the punishment we deserve for our sins when he suffered and died on the cross. Though he never transgressed God’s law, he was pierced for our transgressions. Though he never sinned, he was crushed for our iniquities. Though he never did anything wrong, he suffered the wages of sin which is death. And so, for us and for our salvation, he was regarded as a sinner and he was punished for our sins.
And before he died, his enemies spoke maliciously about him when they made all kinds of false accusations about him. They whispered together about him, plotting against him and devising wicked schemes to kill him. They came to him, pretending to honour him, but really they were looking for ways to accuse him.
And, as I’ve already said, even one of his close friends, one of his disciples, whom he trusted and with whom he shared a meal, even one of his close friends betrayed him, because Judas Iscariot agreed to hand him over to his enemies; and for thirty pieces of silver, Judas betrayed him with a kiss which was a sign of friendship.
And so, his enemies plotted against him and one of his close friends betrayed him. And the Lord Jesus was taken away and beaten and crucified; and he died and was buried. David was writing as a prophet to foretell the sorrow and suffering of the Saviour and all that we read here is fulfilled by Christ.
And blessed is the one who thinks wisely about the afflictions of the Lord Jesus, because the reason he suffered like this was to reconcile God and sinners and to make a lasting peace between them. By nature, we are God’s enemies, because we’re sinners by birth; and every day we break his laws and we disobey his commandments and we dishonour the name of God who make us. We are sinners by birth and we sin against him continually; and all of us deserve to be condemned by God and punished by him in this life and forever. By nature we are his enemies. But the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s one and only Son, came to earth as the weak man of the psalm to take the blame for what we have done wrong and to suffer on the cross the punishment we deserve. He suffered for us throughout all of his life on earth; but on the cross he suffered the full force of God’s wrath against us for our sins. And by believing in him, the only Saviour of the world, we are pardoned by God and accepted as righteous in his sight. Blessed is the one who thinks wisely about the afflictions of the Lord Jesus, because the reason the Son of God suffered and died was to deliver you from your sin and misery and to give you everlasting life in the presence of God in glory.
So, think of what he suffered; and consider how he suffered these things to save his people from condemnation and to give them everlasting life. Consider how he suffered; and make sure you trust in him and in him alone, because there is no other way to be saved from the wrath of God than by believing in his Son.
Verses 10 to 12
Of course, the psalm doesn’t finish at verse 9. In verse 10, the psalmist prays again for God to be merciful to him and to raise him up so that he might repay his enemies for what they have done. ‘I know that you are pleased with me’, the psalmist writes, ‘for my enemy does not triumph over me.’ ‘In my integrity you uphold me and set me in your presence for ever.’ David is recording how the Lord heard his prayers for mercy and the Lord delivered him from the hands of his enemies. But David was writing as a prophet about the Lord Jesus who was raised up, not from a sick bed, but from death and the grave. And his resurrection from the dead was his vindication. While he remained under the power of death, his enemies would be able to say that they were right to oppose him. They said he was a blasphemer and a sinner who deserved to die and to be condemned by God. And so long as he remained in the grave, it seemed that they were right. But by raising him from the dead, and by restoring him to life, God the Father made clear that he was pleased with his Son. Because of his integrity and his perfect obedience, God the Father upheld him even in death and raised him from the dead and brought him into his presence in glory to sit with him at God’s right hand as king over all.
And, of course, these verses contain a warning, don’t they? According to verse 10, he was raised up so that he might repay his enemies. The day is coming when the Lord Jesus will come again with glory and power. He won’t come in weakness, but with power to punish his enemies who refuse to believe in him or to yield their lives to him. He will come with glory and power to crush his enemies and to send them away to be punished forever. And since this is true, then we all need to turn from our sin and turn to God, asking him for mercy and asking him to forgive us our sins for the sake of Christ who died for sinners. We all need to believe in Christ and to trust in him for forgiveness, because he is coming to judge the living and the dead and to punish his enemies forever. And so, you need to trust in him and you need to keep trusting in him, because whoever believes in him will never be condemned; but whoever does not believe, will be condemned when he comes again, because they did not believe in the only Saviour of the world.
The psalm ends with verse 13 which is not only the end of the psalm, but it’s the end of the first book of the psalms. The psalms are divided into five books and there’s a doxology at the end of each of the five books. In fact, the fifth book of the psalms ends with five psalms of praise to God. So, praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. The Lord our God deserves our praise both now and forver more. He deserves our praise, because he sent his one and only Son to save us from the condemnation we deserve and to give us the hope of everlasting life.
But here’s the final thing to say before I finish. The weak person in the psalm is David, who suffered all kinds of adversities and afflictions during his life. And the weak person in the psalm is the Lord Jesus, who suffered all kinds of adversities and afflictions during his life on earth. And the weak person in the psalm is also you, because in this life, you will face adversities and afflictions and troubles and trials: sickness and enemies and betrayal and persecution for the sake of Christ and all kinds of other trials in this troubled life. But the good news is that through faith in Christ the Saviour you have peace with God. God is no longer your enemy, but your friend who has bound himself with a promise to be your God and to help you. And so, you can count on him to deliver you from times of trouble. You can count on him to protect you and to preserve your life. You can count on him to bless you and not to surrender you to your enemies. You can count on him to sustain you on your sick bed and to restore you from your bed of illness, because even if you become ill and you die because of your illness, he will not leave you in the grave, because he has promised to raise you from the grave and to give you everlasting life and everlasting joy in his presence forever.