George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 1

Psalm 41

1. Structure

Verses 1-10 are almost narrative, describing vividly David’s personal experience. In verses 11-13, added later, he looks back with thankfulness.

This is a “Jehovah”, or “Yahweh”, psalm. Remarkably, Psalm 55, with the same historical background, is mainly an “Elohim” psalm.

Like 41 (v.13), Psalms 72 (v. 19) and 89 (v. 52) end with a double “Amen”. Psalm 106 (v. 48) has “Amen, Hallelujah”. The whole of Psalm 150 is one long “Hallelujah”. These psalms mark the endings of the five “Books” of the Psalms (see introductory Chapter 2).

To the chief Musician, the heading of Psalm 42, is really a subscription to Psalm 41. This seems to suggest that the division (or collection) of the psalms into five books was done at a relatively late date, when the meaning of the psalm titles had already been lost (see introductory Chapter 1).

2. Historical setting

There is almost no doubt that this psalm belongs to the time of Absalom’s rebellion. It is difficult to understand why nearly all the commentaries back away from expounding it with strict reference to that great national crisis. Here Paragraphs 3 and 4 will seek to explain the psalm twice over — with reference to David at the time of the rebellion, and with reference to Christ at the end of his ministry.

3. Absalom’s rebellion

Blessed is he that considereth the poor. Here, as in many places, the poor man is not one who is financially badly off, but instead one in dire straits who knows that his only help is in God (e.g. 82:3,4; Prov. 21:13; Isa. 11:4; etc.). Thus was David at this time. The word consider describes a man of affairs who gives his mind to a serious matter; as, for example, Hushai walking a tight-rope of diplomacy at Absalom’s court on David’s behalf: 2 Sam. 17:5-15.

The Lord will deliver him. Writing when the crisis is still unresolved, David put his faith into words.
The Lord....will keep him alive. The first of several intimations that David was now physically in poor straits.

Blessed upon the earth should read here: blessed in the Land — written at a time when David was in danger of being hunted right out of it! The future tenses in vv. 2,3 should perhaps be read as requests: May the Lord preserve not thou deliver him, etc.
Make all his bed in his sickness probably implies: In all his recurring sickness God is in constant attendance to comfort him. There was an earlier sickness in David’s life (see on Psa. 30). The first hint of this later prostration is in 2 Sam. 15:3,7, a period of four years (not forty, as in AV) during which the revolt was being carefully prepared. See also Psalms 6 and 38.
Heal my soul means ‘Give me back my health.’ And Be merciful unto me implies what is now said explicitly: I have sinned against thee (51:4; 2 Sam. 12:13), and this sickness is one of the penalties for that great lapse. J.J. Blunt (Undesigned Coincidences, pp. 157-161) traces very graphically how all this complex of troubles — including Ahithophel’s otherwise puzzling disloyalty — stemmed from David’s sin with Bathsheba.
Mine enemies speak evil of me, When shall he die? In his sickness David evidently had friends who kept him informed about the rising tide of disaffection. But without the king’s dominant personality to hold things together, they were powerless.

And his name perish: “And his line become extinct” (NEB). It may be surmised that Benjamites of the house of Saul (e.g. Shimei) saw in this rebellion an opportunity. They would help Absalom overthrow the authority of his father and would then, after some appropriate interval, throw out Absalom too so as to bring back the Benjamite kingship. Thus the name and dynasty of David would perish, in spite of the great promise that it was to last forever (2 Sam. 7:16).
And if he come. Note the change from “enemies” (v. 5) to a singular pronoun. This individual was doubtless Ahithophel, still nominally David’s chief adviser whilst already hand in glove with Absalom.

He speaketh vanity, i.e. feigning sympathy and commiseration with the sick man. This suggests a remarkable (inspired?) level of insight for the critically ill David.

His heart gathereth iniquity to itself. All through this sick visit the villain is eagerly studying the wretched patient for every symptom of weakness and approaching death — which in his deluded state he considers additional evidence of David’s “iniquity”.

When he goeth abroad (to a meeting of the chief conspirators), he telleth it.
All that hate me whisper together against me: against me do they devise my hurt. How galling for the suffering king to know that all this was going on and yet to feel utterly powerless to cope with the situation.
An evil disease. Literally, a thing of Belial. This was the abuse hurled at David by Shimei (2 Sam. 16:7), the implication being: He is paying now for his iniquity. A variety of guesses is available about this word Belial: (a) “no profit”, i.e. worthlessness. (b) “no yoke”, i.e. a son of Belial being one who thrusts aside all moral restraints. (c) “the Lord of Night”, compressed into one word. (This is supported by 2 Cor. 6:14,15: “light....darkness....Christ....Belial”. Also the alternative form Beliar — “Lord of Light” — is then seen as an obvious attempt at upgrading.)

He shall rise up no more, implying: ‘He won’t last long anyway; so the sooner the country has a new settled government the better.’
Mine own familiar friend is, undoubtedly, Ahithophel. See also what David says of him in 55:12-14, 20.

Which did eat of my bread. It is considered an act of great baseness among Eastern nations for a man to do an evil deed against him whose hospitality and table he has accepted (cp. Obad. 7).

Hath lifted up his heel against me. Most simply, this is the figure of an animal kicking against its master (i.e. Acts 9:5). But as to its application to Gen. 3:15, see notes on Par. 4.
Be merciful unto me. How well David knew that he needed God’s forgiveness.

And raise me up. And God did! Psalm 71 and verses 11-13 here celebrate the fact.

That I may requite them. And, being raised up, David didn’t! The magnanimity in 2 Sam. 19:22 is superb: “Shall there any man be put to death this day in Israel?”
By this I know that thou favourest me: s.w. 2 Sam. 15:26 (“delight”).
Mine integrity is used of both Jacob and David in spite of their sins (s.w. Gen. 25:27: plain).

And settest me before thy face for ever. David’s firm belief in the promise of 2 Sam. 7:16.
This verse reads as a natural conclusion to the psalm (and cp. 1 Chron. 29:10), suggesting that Psalm 41 was inserted here as a fit ending to Book 1. On the other hand (see Par. 1), this verse reads equally well as a formal separate conclusion.

4. Messianic fulfillment

This is settled, if indeed evidence is needed, by the quotation of verse 9 by Jesus himself in John 13:18.

Blessed is he that considereth the poor. This refers to Jesus preeminently (Matt. 11:5; Luke 4:18). (Judas was the faithless “poor” — desperately in need of help, but by his own deliberate action removing himself from the one place where help could be obtained. And, in the end, all the ill-gotten gains of the one who “bare the bag” left him only the “poorer”!)
The Lord will....keep him alive could as readily mean make him alive, i.e. resurrection (s.w. Ezek. 37:10).

And thou wilt not deliver him to the will (nephesh = soul) of his enemies. This is apparently the precise opposite of Luke 23:25: Jesus was so delivered. But the further perspective of the resurrection alters this seeming contradiction: it was certainly not his enemies’ “will” that he be raised from the dead!
The Lord will strengthen him upon the bed. Should this be linked with the reclining (see John 13:23) at the Last Supper?

Sickness is s.w. “grief(s)” in Isa. 53:3,4.
For I have sinned against thee, in that there was the bearing of the sins of others, but also the feeling of all the natural propensities of an Adamic nature. Such a burden made him feel, understandably, unworthy of his Father’s care — though of course such a feeling was not correct!
Mine enemies speak evil of me, When shall he die? Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin: “It is expedient that one man should die for the people” (John 11:50). Not to mention all the earlier plots against his life (Mark 3:6; John 5:16,18; 7:1; etc.).

And his name perish suggests hostility to the very idea of a Messiah from the house of David — a hostility marvellously appropriate to the outlook of the Sadducean chief priests. Furthermore, Jesus died childless, and presumably without a “name” to be perpetuated to succeeding generations. But it was not true, for “he shall see his seed” (Isa. 53:10,11; Psa. 22:30,31).
If he come to see me, he speaketh vanity. Dissimulation must have been a constant feature of Judas’ relations with his Master throughout the last year or so of the ministry:

“Jesus answered them, Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil? He spake of Judas Iscariot the son of Simon: for he it was that should betray him, being one of the twelve” (John 6:70,71).

“The callousness of a ‘mouth-friend’ ” (N.P. Holt) is seen especially in his “Hail, master” and his kiss of betrayal.

His heart gathereth iniquity to itself. This expresses a growing conviction by Judas that Jesus was the wrong sort of Messiah, and this feeling finally led to his wicked betrayal. These words alone veto the popular notion that a well-intentioned Judas sought by pretended “betrayal” to force Jesus to assume then and there the role of King of the Jews.

When he goeth abroad, he telleth it. His secret meetings with the chief priests and their operatives (Matt. 26:14,15; John 13:30). The details may be easily imagined: ‘He is in a mood of deep pessimism, talking of failure and death. What better time for action? We must move quickly!’
They devise my hurt: Matt. 26:3,4.
A thing of Belial (mg.). The gospel equivalent: “He casteth out demons by Beelzebub the prince of demons” (Matt. 12:25-29; Mark 3:23-27; Luke 11:17-22).

The RSV reads: “A deadly thing has fastened upon him; he will rise not again from where he lies.” Consider the symbolism of Acts 28:3-5:

“And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand. And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among them-selves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live. And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm.”

In this “victory” over the deadly serpent, the apostle was plainly a pattern of Christ set forth before the eyes of man (cp. Gal. 3:1), as well as a fulfillment of Christ’s own words (Mark 16:18)!

He shall rise up no more: Matt. 26:62-66.
LXX: The man of my peace, in whom I set my hope. Compare Mark 14:10: “Judas, the one of the twelve” might mean the exceptional one, the traitor; or, the one of outstanding ability, who might have outshone Peter or John. But, “in whom I trusted” is not quoted by the Lord in John 13:18. Jesus “knew what was in man” (John 2:24,25), and so put real trust in no man.

Which did eat of my bread is even more pointed than John 13:18 in emphasizing that Judas did indeed share the memorial bread along with the others. What a heinous crime: to share fullest fellowship with the Master, and then to “betray” him! But every disciple should remember that such things are recorded for his admonition (1 Cor. 10:11,12).

Hath lifted up his heel. A direct allusion to Gen. 3:15, but with a peculiar twist: Jesus is represented as the serpent and Judas as the Saviour, lifting up his heel to crush a dangerous “serpent” underfoot! This means, then, that Judas saw his Master as the potential destroyer of Israel — thus the need for his own drastic action. Did the decision that Jesus be crucified, with a large Roman nail in the heel, all at once switch Judas’ perspective so that he now saw himself as the serpent? And hence his end, in a garden suspended from a tree — his fate the same as his Old Testament counterpart Ahithophel (2 Sam. 17:23; Matt. 27:5). The climax was that the “serpent” was indeed crushed in the death of Jesus, but certainly not in the way the leaders of Israel (and Judas) expected. (As to “heel”, see Par. 5.)
Raise me up. LXX uses the word for resurrection.

That I may requite them, not out of personal vindictiveness, but as God’s appointed Judge. It was (and always has been) the duty of a king in Israel to administer justice and punish rebellion against God. Although Jesus always yearned to save his enemies (John 5:34,40; Matt. 23:36,37; Luke 13:6,9; etc.), he could in no case (nor would he desire to) disregard God’s righteous requirements. Any theology that does not find a place for Jesus the righteous Judge of all mankind is not worth the name!
Mine enemy doth not triumph over me. “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26).
For innumerable evils have compassed me about: mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of mine head: therefore my heart faileth me. How very appropriate these words are to the one who bears the burden of sin on behalf of all mankind!
Like 72:19, highly appropriate to the theme and outcome of the psalm.

5. “Heel”: a thematic study

The allusion to “heel” in v. 9, coupled with Gen. 3:15, suggests an interesting word study.

Aqeb, or “heel”, appears for the first time in Gen. 3:15. Aqeb is the root word in the name Yaacov, or “Jacob” — the reason being that Jacob took his brother by the heel when they were born (Gen. 25:26; Hos. 12:3). Figuratively, then, to take by the heel means to trip up and to supplant — which, of course, Jacob did to his older brother Esau (Gen. 27:36) in appropriating the blessing and birthright.

The antitype is Jesus, the “last Adam”, who has supplanted the first Adam in receiving the blessing and dominion which he lost (Gen. 1:26,28). (Notice that Esau’s other name is Edom — virtually equivalent to “Adam”!)

The other Bible occurrences of aqeb are not numerous, but some are quite suggestive:

Genesis 49:17: In Jacob’s prophecy, Dan (which signifies “judgment”) is called a serpent that bites the horse heels, causing its rider to fall backward. Perhaps Dan is given the serpent role because this tribe sponsored the introduction of idolatry among the twelve tribes (Judg. 18:30) — the reason, perhaps, also for Dan’s omission from Revelation 7. The “idolatrous” influences (of a different sort!) in Israel at the time of Christ caused his bruising in the heel.
Genesis 49:19: “Gad, a troop shall overcome him, but he shall overcome at the last (literally, at the heel).” This is certainly typical of Jesus, overcome by a mighty “troop” in his death, yet finally himself overcoming his enemies “at the heel” — an obvious allusion back to Gen. 3:15.
Joshua 8:13: In order to conquer the Canaanite city of Ai, Joshua set “liers in wait” nearby (literally, “at the heels” of the city). By serpent-like subtlety, he drew the men out of the city, which was then captured by those who waited “at the heels”, and the power of Ai was broken.
Job 18:9: Bildad pictures, among the calamities that would befall the “wicked” Job, that “the gin (trap) shall take him by the heel (aqeb).” But the “gin” of God’s judgment that took Job by the heel finally proved out to his vindication, and to Bildad’s condemnation! The enemies of Christ set a snare for his heels also; but in the climax they found they had tripped up themselves (Prov. 1:16-18)!
Psalm 49:5: “Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil, when the iniquity of my heels shall compass me about?” But consider this alternative translation as suggestive of Christ:

“Why should I fear in the days of evil, when my wicked supplanters (or those wicked ones who would trip up my heels) shall compass me about?”

Jesus had nothing to fear from such men, for he knew that even when they “tripped him up” in death, God would “lift him up” out of the grave to vindication and glory.
Psalm 56:5,6: “Every day they wrest my words: all their thoughts are against me for evil. They gather themselves together, they hide themselves, they mark my steps (aqeb), when they wait for my soul.” But....“in God have I put my trust: I will not be afraid what man can do unto me....Wilt not thou deliver my feet from falling?” (vv. 11,13).
Psalm 89:50,51: “Remember, Lord, the reproach of thy servants; how I do bear in my bosom the reproach of all the mighty people; wherewith thine enemies have... reproached the footsteps (aqeb) of thy Messiah.”
Song of Songs 1:8: When the Shullamite inquires where her beloved is to be found, she is counselled to follow the footsteps (aqeb) of his flock. If we would follow in Christ’s “heels”, we will of course do as best we can what he did: that is, use our “heels” to crush the head of the “serpent” Sin!

Next Next Next