George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 5

Psalm 141

1. Structure

A prayer for guidance and help in words and deeds...
... And in a time of strife.

2. Resemblances

Psalm 140

Psalm 141
Keep me from the wicked
God, the Lord (Adonai)
Snares, gins
The wicked suffers his own mischief
I cry unto the Lord

These similarities suggest that these adjoining psalms belong to the same time in David’s life.

3. A psalm of David

Like Psalm 140, there are here few specific intimations to identify clearly the historical occasion. Certain similarities of phrasing link this psalm with 140; and details in vv. 5-7 (which are admittedly some of the most difficult verses in the Psalms) suggest the troublous times of Absalom’s rebellion. But it is impossible to be sure.

Let me not eat of their dainties (“delicacies” — NIV; used only here, but derived from a root meaning “pleasant”). It was at a special religious feast at Hebron that Absalom solicited and received support, and proclaimed himself king (2 Sam. 15:7-12).
Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:6). “Rebuke a wise man, and he will love thee” (9:8; cp. generally 3:11,12; Heb. 12:5-11; Eccl. 4:13; Rev. 3:19). The outstanding example of this in David’s experience is the dramatic rebuke administered by Nathan the prophet (2 Sam. 12:7).

And let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil (Psa. 133:2). It was shortly after Nathan’s rebuke, which wrought its intended repentance and restitution, that “David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the Lord, and worshipped” (2 Sam. 12:20).

Which shall not break my head. Or, as NIV, “My head will not refuse it.”

For yet my prayer also shall be in their calamities. The RV has: “For even in this wilderness shall my prayer continue”; this suggests David’s flight from Jerusalem.
When their judges are overthrown in stony places. These are the leaders Absalom and Ahithophel, both overthrown (2 Sam. 15:4; 16:23); “stony places” is particularly appropriate to the death and burial of Absalom, in “a great pit (with) a very great heap of stones upon him” (2 Sam. 18:17; cp. Psa. 140:10).

Even more graphically, the NIV has: “Their rulers will be thrown down from the cliffs”. (The verb here is the same as in 2 Kings 9:33: “Throw her [Jezebel] down! — cp. Psa. 137:9; Hos. 10:14; 2 Chron. 25:12; Luke 4:29.) Did such a thing really happen to some of Absalom’s henchmen in the aftermath of the defeat of the revolution?

They shall hear my words; for they are sweet. The antecedent to “they” appears to be the “judges... overthrown”; but this makes no discernible sense. So “they” must refer to the nation returning to its former strong loyalty to David (2 Sam. 19:9,10,14).
Our bones are scattered at the grave’s mouth (cp. Psa. 79:1-3; Ezek. 37:1-14). “Our bones” is the only plural pronoun in the psalm; it probably includes, along with David, his loyal bodyguard (2 Sam. 15:15,18). The whole of this phrase is a hyperbole for ‘We are as good as dead’. When the rebellion was at its height, it must have seemed to David that there was hope for nothing but defeat and shameful death on the field of battle — without even the small solace of a decent burial. The words seem to be a reminiscence of a previous misery; what had befallen Saul (Psa. 53:5) was now, so it seemed, about to befall David.

However, the RSV and NEB follow some manuscripts of the LXX in reading “Their bones, etc.” — which would in such a case refer to the wicked judges of v. 6.

As when one cleaveth wood is a vivid figure of the wholesale slaughter of battle. But again (these verses are very difficult in the Hebrew) the NIV has the alternative: “As one plows and breaks up the earth” — referring to the casual scattering about of clods. (Plowing is a figure of affliction in Psa. 129:3 also.)
In thee is my trust. See David’s splendid words in 2 Samuel 16:10-12 (cp. v. 3 here).
Let the wicked fall into their own nets, whilst that I withal escape. This pictures David escaping from Absalom: “And all the country wept with a loud voice, and all the people passed over: the king also himself passed over the brook Kidron, and all the people passed over, toward the way of the wilderness” (2 Sam. 15:23).

4. Messiah

Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Jesus kneels in the evening shadows of Gethsemane; there he was “touched” by Gabriel at the time of the evening oblation (Dan. 9:21; Luke 22:43). And especially see the prayer of John 17.
Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the doors of my lips (cp. Mic. 7:5; Prov. 30:32). This, along with v. 1, is an intimation of a Christ under the strain of great temptation. Compare the circumstances of his trial in John 18:19-23; 19:10.
Incline not my heart to any evil thing. If the Son of God needed added strength from his Father, how much more so did his weaker brethren.

Let me not eat of their dainties. The attempts by Pharisees to ensnare Jesus by social invitations (e.g., Luke 14:1).
Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness. Peter’s well-intentioned though misguided rebuke of Jesus’ desire to go up to Jerusalem (Matt. 16:22)? Or Martha’s complaint about her sister Mary’s failure to help her in the kitchen (Luke 10:40)?
Their judges are overthrown. Here is the inevitable judgment against the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. The fulfillment of the Lord’s prophecy about this (Matt. 23, esp. vv. 29-38), while “bitter” in its actual experiencing, must have had an element of sweetness too for those who heard his words — the sweetness of a renewed assurance which the clear fulfillment of prophecy always brings.
Our bones are scattered could then be the bitter persecution meted out to the followers of Jesus, during the death-throes of Judah’s commonwealth.

If it is “their bones” which are scattered (see Par. 3) — i.e., the bones of God’s enemies — then the reference here may be to Judas Iscariot: “Falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out” (Acts 1:18).
Snares... gins. Compare Psa. 140:5, and see references, Psa. 140, Par. 4.
Let the wicked fall into their own nets (Psa. 140:9). Precisely what the rulers sought to avoid (John 11:48-50) came upon them.

Whilst I escape is, of course, the Resurrection of Jesus.

5. Other details

Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. For David fleeing from Jerusalem and for Jesus in Gethsemane, these literal offerings were not possible. But the lifting up of their hands in praise and supplication was (and still is, for others) equally acceptable. Hence also Lam. 3:41; Psa. 63:4; 86:4; and 1 Tim. 2:8. (See also the list, Psalms Studies, Psa. 28, Par. 5, v. 2.)

For the relationship between prayer and incense, see also Mal. 1:11; Rev. 5:8; 8:4. For the relationship among prayer, incense, daily sacrifices, and the morning and evening devotions of tabernacle and temple, see Psalms Studies, Psa. 3, Par. 1.
Let me not eat of their dainties. To share the close friendly “table” fellowship of certain sorts of men is to become, first by small degrees and then more and more by wholesale lots, like unto them. In certain social settings, the general standards of courtesy forbid men to express exception to what they see and hear, which at other times they would resolutely shun. And so, almost subconsciously, “bad company ruins good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33) — and the best of men, unless they are constantly on their guard, tend to turn into the sort of people which mere formality “compels” them to put up with. How dangerous such “polite” associations with worldly men can be!
Which shall not break my head. Contrast Gen. 3:15 — to which subtle allusion was also made in Psa. 140:3.
Sweet is from the same Hebrew root (nahemu) as was used for “dainties” in v. 4. The true “sweetness” is with the godly, and not with the wicked.
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