I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;
incline your ear to me; hear my words.
Wondrously show your steadfast love,
O Savior of those who seek refuge
from their adversaries at your right hand.
Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings,
from the wicked who do me violence,
my deadly enemies who surround me.
(Psalm 17: 6-9, ESV)
Psalm 17 is one of David’s pleas to YHWH for deliverance from those who detest Israel’s Lord and His covenant people. Unlike various other of his songs (Psalms 3, 7, 18, 34 and 51, for instance), its superscription doesn’t outline the circumstances which prompted its composition. No worries, though: the lack of historic specificity makes it easier for believers across the millennia to appropriate his words as the concrete situations they experience call for them. David is lamenting the fierce opposition gathering around him, his opponents who “close their hearts to pity” (v. 10) and seek Israel’s annihilation in general (v. 11) and David’s in particular (vv. 9 and 13). David cries out to YHWH because unlike the idols men waste their worship upon, He is a god who listens and answers (v. 6), a god who defends His children from the enemy (v. 7).
David knows that is it this god, and this god alone, who pities human beings, who is mindful of them at all. He knows this from Israel’s very particular history of redemption, from the confessional narrative preserved by the nation’s faithful ones, from his own experiences of this god’s saving power. Knowing these very particular characteristics of this very particular god, he cries out: “Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to my cry! Give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit! From your presence let my vindication come!” (vv. 1-2).
That’s why the central plea of Psalm 17 is so fascinating. Verse 7 is a hinge that swivels the direction of the song by seeking a counterintuitive brand of vindication. There’s no prayer for the enemies’ might to be shattered or for their families to be made widows and orphans; instead, David begs to be marked out in a unique way by YHWH’s covenant love. The ESV notes that verse 7a can also be translated, “Distinguish me by your steadfast love”, a fascinating request to be made in the midst of scorn and tribulation. Eugene Peterson magnificently renders verse 7 this way in The Message:
Paint grace-graffiti on the fences;
take in your frightened children who
are running from the neighborhood bullies
straight to you.
There’s nothing dramatic or triumphalistic about David’s request at all. On the face of it, it might even appear pretty ho-hum. Begging to be distinguished by belonging to this god? A god who is here characterized as the refuge of the weak? Who asks for something as mediocre as that? Why set your sights so low? Why not aim for something tangible, more easily flaunted to the rest of the world, something more grandiose to mark you out as noteworthy? David doesn’t want any of those marks of distinction the world would recognize as significant, however; what he desires is the public recognition that YHWH loves him in a way He doesn’t love others. YHWH’s love isn’t distinguished by the gifts of power or fame or riches, or even in being protected from all harm. Instead it’s marked by a peculiar preserving power which causes His children to persevere through tribulation by protecting them from bitterness and despair.
Sure, David prays for his adversaries to be subdued (v. 13) but stops short of seeking their utter subjugation; he’s content instead with the assurance of eternally available respite from his enemies’ ferocity. This promise refreshes and rejuvenates him for the fights he knows are yet to be fought and protects him from exhaustion and despair. This promise reassures him that he will endure the onslaught of the world’s hatred. Taking shelter under the Lord’s wings isn’t a force field that keeps out every encroachment of the darkness- there is shade beneath those wings, after all- but it is a visible sign of the darkness’ impotence. Taking refuge in the Lord doesn’t extract one from the world- it just changes the rules. Rather than guaranteeing absolute invulnerability from harm it guarantees that all the pain and anguish that will inevitably come won’t have the final word. Though the world will rage against the saints with all its fury, YHWH will undermine each and every strategy it puts into play. Thus, David can turn up his nose at the apparent gain of the heathen in verse 14, the “men of the world whose portion is in this life”:
You fill their womb with treasure;
they are satisfied with children,
and they leave their abundance to their infants.
All the riches and prestige they accumulate and put so much pride in gets inherited by someone else when they perish- to collect dust as meaningless trophies. They die apart from YHWH, presumably forgotten by him as well as by this next generation. Everything they’ve worked all their lives to build up ends up as toddlers’ toys as they die and curse in vain. They’ll scarf up all the glory this world has to offer and choke on it. Jesus’ parable in Luke 12:16-21 illustrates the same thing:
“The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ [Ed. aside: What a problem to have!] And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
“They have received their reward,” Jesus soberly diagnoses (Matthew 6:5, 12). David gets the last laugh. Not by some smug, self-righteous satisfaction in “having lived well”, for he dies too. No, the hope that anchors and comforts him is that final, eschatological vindication he knows awaits him: “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness” (v. 15). The counterintuitive glory of being distinguished in the way this Psalm describes is 180 degress out of phase from the wisdom of the world. It isn’t that YHWH plucks the believer out of every evil that could come her way, or lobotomizes her and turns her into an impossibly optimistic idiot; God’s grace overrides the world’s evil intentions and breathes life into all the sadness and death it inflicts. YHWH shames the Enemy by sabotaging his hateful, murderous devices and causing them to work for the believer’s good. David’s satisfaction will blossom with his enemies’ prosperity because he understands that the relative peace they enjoy is the only peace they will ever have for themselves. It’s this and this alone that can make sense of Paul’s assertion in 1 Corinthians 3:21-23:
So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future- all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
Apart from this topsy-turvy upheaval of grace, that statement is just so much pie in the sky stupidity. With it, however, against all odds, even death is made our servant. Here in Psalm 17 is the substance of the promise in Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” The “good” in this promise isn’t wealth or any other worldly sense of prosperity but something so much better: similarity to Jesus. And “all things” are rewired to effect that similarity!
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This defiant, transformative grace-graffiti is what distinguishes the believer from the rest of the world; though we are marked out for exclusion, abuse, and even extermination, the worst the world can hurl at us backfires and contributes to our good. The saints undergo anguish and affliction but aren’t crushed or destroyed. Their suffering isn’t the mark of being forsaken but the sign of the surpassing power of God at work in them; in this “the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 5:7-11). And this grace really is grafitti: it’s an obnoxious eyesore to the outside world, carrying a disreputable connotation wherever it’s seen. No one would ever describe it as beautiful except those who identify themselves by it. But we who are being saved cling to it and revel in God’s comforting, distinguishing love.