Commentary on Psalm 17:1-9
Honesty is a core component of living in relationship with others.
Whether the good, the bad, the best, or the worst, telling the truth to ourselves and to those with whom we are closest establishes the foundation for the reciprocity that is necessary in any relationship of substance.
An Honest, Open Plea
In Psalm 17, we encounter David, the Psalmist, who is in a worrisome state. Psalm 17 is his earnest plea that, if nothing else, can be described as open, honest communication between himself and YHWH. In this plea, the Psalmist hides nothing. Rather, the Psalmist candidly describes the pressures and attacks coming from enemies who are actively threatening to destroy the Psalmist’s life (verse 9).
In verses one and two, with trembling lips, the Psalmist makes an adamant plea for YHWH to pay attention. The plea becomes even stronger in verses 6 through 9, when the Psalmist begs God, “the savior of all those who seek refuge from their adversaries” to act. The Psalmist wants God to do something, namely, to provide deliverance, protection, and vindication from the wicked ones who surround the Psalmist’s life.
The pleas of the Psalmist in verses 1-2 and 6-9 serve as bookends for the Psalmist’s strong declaration of faithfulness to the ways of YHWH (verse 3-5). In other words, in the midst of agony, the Psalmist asserts that he has not followed the ways of the wicked but has lived a life characterized by righteousness. So, YHWH is invited to take a look by fully inspecting the Psalmist’s life for evidence of transgressions. The Psalmist even gives YHWH permission to do this at night, in the dark, when one’s real thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors are perhaps most difficult to hide. The Psalmist is completely confident that YHWH will find nothing but positive evidence, specifically, an unwavering adherence to the paths and ways of the Lord.
An Active, Living Relationship
The tri-partite structure found in Psalm 17:1-9, then, is this: a petition for attention, a declaration of individual faithfulness, and a plea for YHWH to act.1 As a whole, the structure and the language of this Psalm suggest two things. First, that the relationship between the Psalmist and YHWH is an active, not a passive, relationship. The Psalmist asks YHWH to listen actively, provides evidence of personal action as demonstrated through faithfulness to YHWH, and finally, makes an appeal for YHWH to act on the Psalmist’s behalf. Implicitly, this structure outlines a mutual give and take relationship between the Psalmist and YHWH. Both parties expected, perhaps even required, a certain reciprocity any healthy relationship would possess in order for each person to faithfully live life together.
Second, the structure of the Psalm, but particularly the language, suggests the relationship between the Psalmist and YHWH is deeply rooted in vulnerability and honest communication between two living beings. This is first evident in the Psalmist’s honest complaint about his sitz em leben, which appears to be anything but fortunate. More noticeable, however, is the Psalmist’s vivid use of bodily imagery. In this Psalm, God’s ears are asked to hear a cry from the Psalmist’s lips (verse 1). God’s eyes are asked to look at the Psalmist’s heart. God’s lips are invited to request testimony from others regarding the paths the Psalmist’s feet has trod.
And, in perhaps the most intimate request of this passage, the Psalmist petitions God to provide protection as the “apple of the eye” and “in the shadow of your wings” (verse 9). This imagery repeats itself throughout all of Psalm 17, providing a subtle, albeit strong and consistent reminder that YHWH is not like false idols and gods made out of wood or stone. Rather, YHWH is a living God who remains actively involved in the world.
Following the Psalmist’s Example
With its earnest plea, Psalm 71 reminds us that we can bear our deepest burdens and worries to God with confidence, just as the Psalmist has done. And, like the Psalmist, we can ask God to protect us from those things that might harm.
Psalm 17 also reminds us that our relationship with God is intended to be mutual and substantive, not individualistic and trite. As the Psalmist has demonstrated, this relationship is best expressed not when we view God as a celestial Santa Claus to whom we turn for help when we are in trouble, but when we maintain our part of a mutual and familiar covenant: to claim God as our own and to walk in the ways of God whether we find ourselves in good, bad, better, or even the worst of situations.
Of course, we have no choice but to participate in this relationship confidently. Here, the Psalmist has provided yet another wonderful example. We voice our pleas and petitions to the God who will answer (verse 6) and who will show steadfast love (verse 7), as God has done, is doing, and will continue to do for all those who seek refuge in the arms of God.
1John Goldingay, “Psalm 17,” in Psalms, Volume 1: 1-41, ed. Tremper Longman, III, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 247.