Commentary on Psalm 17:1-9
In Psalm 17, the author finds himself in a dire situation.
Verses 1-9 are a plea from an innocent to be vindicated in a world that seeks the psalmist’s demise. In the midst of this plea for deliverance the author has a sensory experience.
The psalmist is meticulous in his depiction of the drama. He begins with a fervent plea for God not simply to hear his cry but, more importantly, to attend to his cries. The verb is qsb. In the simple active form (Hebrew qal) it means, “to listen,” but in verse 1 we see a form of the verb that is the declarative (hiphil) which translates, “to attend.”
Such a distinction is reminiscent of the kind of womanist mother wit of my childhood. The elders would always say, “I know you hear me but are you listening to me?” Many grammarians—and the sages of communities—understand hearing to be sensory activation. Hearing, while an active verb, is a passive reality. If we have the bodily resources to hear, we don’t necessarily have control of that which we hear. In contrast, listening requires our attention, our engagement, and our thought processes. So, the psalmist urgently implores God to engage in his cries; to pay attention to the substance of his request and to take ownership of the outcome.
The author makes such a bold, deliberate request of God because of his initial articulation that this situation is a “just/righteous cause.” The psalmist maintains the integrity of his sensory plea by compelling God to “give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit” (Psalm 17:1).
In Psalm 17:2 the psalmist implores God to “let your eyes see the right.” In the most basic sense, this imperative begs God to justly adjudicate the situation in which the author finds himself. It is important that the author asks God to “hear a just cause” and not to hear a just person. We often misinterpret righteousness with perfection. The psalmist may not proclaim the all-encompassing purity or perfection in life, but instead may be able to own in this moment some innocence and righteousness.
As a bookend to this request the author petitions God to “guard me as the apple of the eye” in Psalm 17:8. This phrase may point back to Deuteronomy 32:10, where the author explains that God sustained Jacob in the wilderness and “guarded him as the apple of his eye.” It is interesting that at the beginning of the psalm the author proclaims innocence and righteousness, and then at the end he frames himself in the context of Jacob—the younger of two twin brothers who steals his brother’s birthright and then flees from his family to live with the Arameans in the desert.
While Jacob was far from perfect, and he had a less than righteous beginning, his journey was filled with loss, reconciliation, and a continued desire to struggle with God in difficult situations. As such, in this simple reference, the author may provide some balance to his earlier articulations that “my mouth does not transgress” and “my steps have held fast to your paths” (Psalm 17:3).
The psalmists final petition in this section of Psalm 17 is for protection. His supplication is for God to “hide me in the shadow of your wings” (17:8b). Wings, in the Hebrew Bible are a signification of refuge. In Ruth 2:12 Boaz’s prayer for Ruth is, “May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” Here, Boaz attempts to provide Ruth assurance that her faithfulness to Israel and to YHWH have secured her some harbor after the tumultuous period of lack that she has just experienced.
In Exodus 19:4 wings are God’s articulation of deliverance from pharaoh and Egypt as well as a reminder of God’s ability and willingness to shelter the Israelites in the wilderness. These words are couched in a narrative in which God not only reminds the people of God’s previous actions but also prepares Israel for the covenant that God is entering into with them. The wings are a sign of deliverance not only from empire but also from forces of nature—all of which God has dominion over.
In Isaiah there are six texts that mention wings as a sign of protection (Isaiah 6:2; 8:8; 10:14; 11:12; 18:1; 24:16). In Isaiah 6:2 there are six wings on the mythical seraphim, who are attending to the Lord—two that cover the face, two that cover the feet, and two that allow them to fly. The prophet, Ezekiel, has twenty-three references to wings. The prophets conjure wings in both natural and fantastic, supernatural contexts to signify God’s presence and provision in the midst of chaotic circumstances.
And so, in Psalm 17, the author understands God’s capacity to provide shelter to those who have seen trauma, been displaced by the overreach of humanity and empire, and serve as deliverance in seemingly insurmountable situations. The psalmist is in need of a similar manifestation of God’s presence in the midst of his circumstance, and thus understands to long and deep shadow of God’s wing to be solace.
This psalm gives us as readers the freedom to understand that we need not be perfect to proclaim our innocence to God. Here, we understand that we can embody righteousness in moments, and that our transgressions do not paint the whole picture of our story. And so, we have license to go to God with some boldness to request deliverance from a world that is often unyielding, particularly to those who are seeking refuge.