Last week I heard a sermon that referenced this particular psalm, which is an obscure one and not often recognized. In the course of reading over it as a whole, I realized the psalm had a great deal of interest, not only because it is one of three psalms of David that references the book of Job, and the second to reference a specific verse within Job (“What is man that you are mindful of him”) , but because it is a psalm whose contents I have prayed in my own life and in my own situation and for my own nation without being aware that such a psalm had been written. Therefore this psalm is a personal one to me, in that I know its sentiments well and pray it on behalf of my own broken people and not only myself, for this song is about covenant blessings that are clearly missing in our land. Let us therefore examine this psalm a bit.
Within the context of the Psalms as a whole, Psalm 144 is the first psalm of the closing selection of Hillel songs (Psalms 144-150) that finish the book of Psalms. Structurally, Psalm 144 is similar to the end of Deuteronomy in the Torah (given its location toward the end of the fifth book of the Psalms), where Moses has called on all of Israel to commit themselves to obedience to the Torah and the blessings that would follow from obedience. Of course, Christians are called to a better covenant with better (spiritual) promises, but all the same our nations receive lesser blessings based on a lower standard of obedience than that called for redeemed Christians. And included in those blessings are happiness and peace and well-being that we simply do not find now that these blessings are being steadily removed as a result of our own societal rejection of the ways of God.
And yet even though this psalm deals with collective blessings, it is also an intensely personal psalm. This was because David wrote the psalm on behalf of his people as a loyal and godly king. A ruler or leader whose heart is right with God can serve the priestly function of interceding with God on behalf of His people, reminding God (as it were) to be loyal and faithful to His promises by showing his own loyalty and faithfulness to the covenants between God and man. Loyalty is a two way street, because the covenants of God provide conditional blessings based on obedience and walking in the ways of God. It is only when we do our part that God promises to provide His blessings. A failure to meet our obligations amounts to treachery against our oaths of obedience to God and will lead to a lack of rewards, or even the presence of covenantal curses for flagrant individual and collective disobedience to God’s ways. Both leaders and peoples must therefore take special heed to avoid corruption, because God is faithful to both negative as well as positive promises. We must also therefore be faithful to His ways.
Like many psalms, Psalm 144 has a chiastic design, which begins and ends by talking about the blessedness first of God and then of God’s people when they are obedient to Him. The second and second-to-last sections briefly ask and answer the question of who man is and why man matters to God. The middle sections make a request of God to bring deliverance from lying foreigners who seek our harm, a concern I know all too well personally. Together these songs praise God, show covenantal loyalty, give a brief and powerful picture of what a righteous society looks like, and remind us all how our own civilization has fallen far short of any kind of covenantal blessings that are reserved for the righteous and the obedient. If only our leaders could speak as David does, with loyal hearts towards God and genuine concern for the well-being of their people.
Psalm 144:1-2 reads as follows: “Blessed be the Eternal my Rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle–my lovingkindness and my fortress, my high tower and my deliverer, my shield and the One in whom I take refuge, who subdues the peoples under me.” Here we see that God is not only our protection and refuge, but He trains His people for battle against the heathen and the wicked. Though we all long for a time when people will not learn war anymore, in a wicked and disobedient and rebellious world, God trains our hands for spiritual battle against the forces of evil, against demonic hosts and against those people who rebel against God, whose rhetorical towers we are commanded to throw down for their presumption to stand against God’s ways. What these verses indicate is that a devotion to God’s ways is a commitment to spiritual warfare against evil, a warfare we must take deadly seriously, given the stakes. We must therefore be committed to a hatred of evil and a hostility towards those who further it through their own corruption and their own rebellious rejection of the ways of God.
Psalm 144:3-4 repeats a question found earlier in Psalm 8: “Eternal, what is man, that You take knowledge of him? Or the son of man, that You are mindful of him? Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow.” Much like his son, David thought of mankind’s life as vanity and futility, like the grass that is taken up to be burned, or a breath on a cold day that quickly vanishes into the air, leaving no trace of its ever having existed. David, like many of us, wondered what is so important about mankind to God given the fact that we die so quickly and that our deeds are not remembered and our names are quickly forgotten. Clearly, our value to God does not consist in our present longevity, nor are most of us people of great wisdom or heroism who might expect on those grounds to be remembered by anyone aside from our close friends and family. And yet we are created in the image and likeness of the Eternal Himself, and so clearly God is mindful of us, even though we do not deserve that grace.
Psalm 144:5-8, the core of Psalm 144, marks David’s specific request from God for deliverance, a prayer I have myself uttered against my own enemies: “Bow down Your heavens, O Eternal, and come down; touch the mountains, and they shall smoke. Flash forth lightning and scatter them; shoot out Your arrows and destroy them. Stretch out Your hand from above; rescue me and deliver me out of great waters, from the hand of foreigners, whose mouth speaks lying words, and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood.” This passage has a lot to offer to those who study it deeply. For one, it makes several powerful references to the establishment of the national covenant between God and physical Israel at Mount Sinai, where God came down and touched Mount Horeb, making the mountain smoke and flashing lighting in the cloud of His shekeniah glory. Those who broke the covenant restriction and touched the mountain were to be killed by arrows. Israel had just been delivered from the waters of the Red Sea a few weeks before, from the armies of the heathen and oppressive Egyptians who sought to keep them as slaves rather then let them be the free people of the Eternal God. But the fight against the corrupt ways of the wicked and heathen is not a one-time matter. Throughout its history, over and over again, Israel had to deal with oppression from the corrupt heathen. Corrupt and wicked rulers have always sought to punish truth and protect themselves through falsehood. Whether it is government propaganda or the airbrushed annals of ancient kings, evil rulers have always trusted in lies to protect their reputation because the truth would show them to be less mighty and less virtuous than they would like their people to believe. Things have not changed a bit in the 3000 years since David’s time, as the same thing is true of the corrupt leaders of the present world, who traffic in lies and propaganda because they cannot handle the truth or bear it to be spoken by others. Those leaders whose heart is loyal to God are honest and candid, and accept whatever rebuke the truth brings–and integrity is one of the main ways we can recognize between godly and ungodly leaders.
David continues the thought of the section section on the importance of mankind to God in Psalm 144:9-10: “I will sing a new son to You, O God; on a harp of ten strings I will sing praises to you, the One who gives salvation to kings, who delivers David His servant from the deadly sword.” It is lamentable that kings and leaders often trust in the size and strength of their own armies to protect them from defeat or judgment, to save their thrones and offices from popular discontent, and to show their own supposed majesty and power. But David knew that it was not his army that was his defense but God Himself. And it was that recognition of his dependence on God’s protection that led David to offer his praise to God, to write a new song (Psalm 144) to show his appreciation for the lovingkindness of God towards him, for the undeserved grace of God to David as a “new covenant” believer who had found salvation as a king, rather than the condemnation that has fallen upon the vast majority of human kings and presidents for their own wickedness and corruption. Oh, that more leaders were like David, humble in their awareness of their dependence on God for their safety and security and appreciative of God’s grace, showing themselves as humble shepherd kings rather than corrupt oppressors who seek only their own well-being for themselves and their cronies.
Psalm 144 ends with a lengthy commentary on the blessed and happy state of a nation that belongs to God. Psalm 144:11-15 reads: “Rescue me and deliver me from the hand of foreigners, whose mouth speaks lying words, and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood–that our sons may be as plants grown up in their youth; that our daughters may be as pillars, sculpted in palace style; that our barns may be full, supplying all kinds of produce; that our sheep may bring forth thousands and ten thousands in our fields; that our oxen may be well laden; that there be no breaking in or going out; that there be no outcry in our streets. Happy are the people who are in such a state; happy are the people whose God is the eternal!” This is an intriguing set of blessings that resembles Psalms 127 and 128 in many ways . David compares young men to plants grown up in the earth, solid in their roots and not like some of us in this present evil age whose lives have been nomadic and unfruitful. David wishes for the young ladies of his people to be sculpted as pillars in palace style, virtuous and elegant, capable of supporting loving and godly families rather than full of shameful conduct. David then makes plenty of comments about the fertility of animals and the land (demographic and agricultural strength as a sign of divine blessing) and blessings of food and material prosperity for a virtuous people. Interestingly enough, he also comments that a godly people will not have uprisings in the street, will not be full of theft, and will not be cursed with constant warfare–three of the most notable facets of our lives in this present world, and signs of how we have departed from God’s ways. In large and happy families, material blessings, and safety for lives and possessions, a people who is loyal to the covenants of God is a happy people indeed. Oh, that we could be such a happy people ourselves, if we would repent of our sins and seek God’s mercy while it may yet be found.
I hope it is obvious how Psalm 144 reflects prayers that I have made for myself (though I am an obscure man and no ruler of nations) and for my own people. In my own life I have faced the lying words of foreigners who sought my life, have longed for a stable place for myself, for a virtuous wife and a loving family, for material blessings and safety and security and peace. If we long for these things we therefore ought to examine and meditate upon Psalm 144 and seek God’s favor for ourselves and for our people. Let us no longer be hard-headed and stubborn Israelites, rebellious to God’s ways even as we proclaim ourselves to be a special people. Let us instead be a model of virtue and concern and obedience, so that we may be a light to the world around us, an example of how to live in a godly way, and so that we may truly be a happy people whose God is the Eternal, rather than a broken people longing for the good old days that will never return again.