The Sword Of Judgment And The Shield Of Favor: A Series On Psalm 5 (Part 1)

Many of the psalms are about justice or mercy. Some discuss both; others focus on one or the other. Psalm 5, though it has an element of mercy to it, is primarily a psalm calling for justice—God’s justice.

Sometimes, psalms like this might instinctively offend our sensibilities. God is a God of love and mercy, is he not? Why, then, is there all this Scripture about law and justice and penalty, and praying that God would act severely towards certain people? That does not seem very loving.

To be sure, the grace of God is an extraordinarily glorious thing. That God would provide a way for the vilest offender to be reconciled to himself and to enjoy him forever—such a thing takes our breath away.

But the flip side of God’s grace is God’s justice. It is a two-edged sword. When a subject who has offended his king goes before his ruler to beg for mercy, there are only two avenues open before him: the way of the king’s mercy or the way of the king’s justice. He will receive one or the other—there is no third way.

That is what Psalm 5 is about. The question we must grapple with when we come to this psalm is: Would we want to worship a God who turns a blind eye to evil? Of course not.

Paraphrasing from memory, I once heard a pastor say in a sermon, “A holy and just God must be a God who abhors Auschwitz, and Stalin’s death camps, and the killing fields of Cambodia, men who batter their wives and sell drugs to inner-city children. His justice demands that he hate this wickedness.”

As you may notice, there is structure to David’s prayer in Psalm 5, which is broken into four sections. Each section begins with David directly addressing the Lord.

  • Verse 1: “Give ear to my words, O Lord.”
  • Verse 4: “For you are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness.”
  • Verse 8: “O Lord, lead me in your righteousness.”
  • Verse 11: “But let all who take refuge in you be glad” (NASB 1995).

We will consider Psalm 5 along these four thematic contours, with each new section opening with David’s address.

A Cry for God’s Help

As we find throughout the Psalter, this psalm provides marvelous guidance for our own prayer lives. We learn something here about the nature of prayer, as well as the nature of the one praying.

David was not merely going through a prayer routine. We see his urgency in verses 1–2: “Give ear . . . consider . . . heed” (NASB 1995). His fervent pleas reflect the seriousness with which he approached prayer. The language of Psalm 5, in many ways, is evocative of the later language of James, that “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (Jas 5:16, NIV).

This prayer is also persistent, as demonstrated by the repeated phrase—“in the morning” (v. 3, NASB 1995). Perhaps David is deep in prayer even as the morning sacrifice is burnt in the tabernacle. Just as smoke and fire would rise from the sacrifice, and incense and a fragrant aroma would go up from the altar before the Lord God, so too do David’s prayers rise to the Lord at that morning hour. While the Lord is being worshiped and the Lord’s mercy is being sought after, David persistently prays, seeks the face of God, and seeks his help.

His prayer is urgent, his prayer is persistent, but also notice that he prays with an expectant spirit. “I will . . . eagerly watch,” he says (v. 3, NASB 1995). We might legitimately translate the Hebrew as, “I will wait in expectation.” David is praying in faith because he expects God to answer. “Consider my groaning. Heed the sound of my cry for help” (vv. 1, 2, NASB 1995).

Does this not draw our minds to Romans 8? “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom 8:26, ESV). David is praying not only with words, but with unarticulated prayers—by sighing and cries and groaning.

David’s example is a good reminder for us who value sound and precise theology. We care about our biblical doctrine; we love having all of our theological ducks in a row—and so we should, for God is a God of order. But sometimes we are in such distress that our prayers are nothing more than desperate cries for God to help us. Sometimes we cannot find words adequate to express our feelings or to fully voice our need, yet such prayers are still prayers. And here is the encouraging thing: God hears all kinds of prayers. Praise him for it.

In addition, David’s prayer reminds us of the nature of our relationship with God which allows us to pray in expectation that he will hear. Notice that David calls God his “Lord” twice (vv. 1, 3). He calls him “my King” and “my God” (v. 2). This is a man in covenant relationship with his God. This is a man who knew the Lord to be a God of refuge and rescue (as is evident from the verses that follow) and knew him to be a God who loves to hear the prayers of His children.

Some attribute to Martin Luther a saying that goes something like this, “The sweetness of the gospel lies in the personal pronouns.” While the precise verbiage and source of the quote might be up for debate, the point is well taken. Notice the possessive pronouns David uses (“my King” and “my God”). This was genuine faith and not mere superstition. Why is this God going to bend down low and hear David’s cries, even his inarticulately expressed cries? He gives his ear because he is not just any God. He is the Lord of the nations and he is God the cosmos, but for David and for the Christian, he is also my King and my God. 

A Consideration of God’s Character

The second part of the psalm (vv. 4–7) begins that “hard” section about God’s righteous judgment and justice—the kind of stuff we might reflexively recoil against. David addresses the Lord: “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness” (v. 4, ESV). As he is writing the psalm, David is being harshly treated at the hands of wicked men—maybe by his son Absalom, maybe by Saul, maybe by others. It is not entirely certain. In any case, he is driven to cast himself upon the Lord in desperation.

In this section, he contrasts the character of God with the character of the wicked. It is almost as if David is refreshing himself by considering the good, holy, and eternal nature of his Lord, in contrast to the shortsighted, malicious, and foolish actions of his enemies.

Here is a reminder of God’s character, of his holiness, and of how he must regard sin. And in reading this, barely a moment passes before we realize we take sin too lightly. David realizes this as he prays. First, he reviews different types of evildoers, moving from general terms to stronger and more descriptive terms: the wicked (v. 4), the “arrogant” (v. 5, NIV), “all who do wrong” (v. 5, NIV), “those who tell lies” (v. 6, NIV), “bloodthirsty and deceitful [men]” (v. 6, NIV). As he catalogs different kinds of evil, there is a kind of amplification, almost as if David is growing in his awareness of how sinful sin is even as he writes.

Then, David reminds himself of how God views sin, sparking his words to again grow in intensity. God does not take “pleasure in wickedness” (v. 4, NASB 1995). This turns into a more robust expression: “You hate all who do wrong” (v. 5, NIV). And then to even stronger words: “You destroy those who speak falsehood. The Lord abhors the man of bloodshed and deceit” (v. 6, NASB 1995).

David has been led to reflect on the sinfulness of sin and the fact that God will not hear the ungodly. David establishes a contrast between the wicked (whom the Lord abhors and with whom he will not dwell) and the godly, who do come before his presence (v. 7).

But this is no arrogant, self-righteous attitude that David pleads here. Rather, he pleads God’s mercy: “But as for me, by your abundant loving-kindness I will enter your house, At your holy temple I will bow in reverence for you” (v. 7, NASB 1995). We cannot emphasize enough how crucial this is, since it is by the mercy of God alone that any mortal may approach him.

Recall Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We do not pray like the Pharisee: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, robbers, evildoers, adulterers” (Luke 18:11, NIV). No, we pray like the tax collector: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13, NIV) This is the attitude of Psalm 5.

P. C. Craigie put it like this: “Though evil persons are excluded from God’s presence because of their sin, it does not follow that the psalmist was admitted by virtue of his own goodness. The Psalmist’s entrance into God’s house will be based only upon ‘the abundance of [God’s] loving-kindness. That is to say, it was only God’s grace and covenant love [hesed] toward his people which made entrance into his presence possible.”1

The supreme manifestation of God’s hesed is, of course, our Lord Jesus. How could a vile sinner possibly come before a holy and righteous God and enter his house (v. 7)? “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21, ESV).

Here is a psalm that serves as a warning. To all who will not take refuge in God’s Son and cling to him alone for cleansing and redemption—this is the justice that your sins earned, and this is the treatment that will befall you (vv. 5, 6, 10).

But this is also a reminder to Christians—we who have received the lavish treatment of God’s grace—that outside of Christ this is what we justly had coming to us. The abhorrence and the hatred against sin and evildoers that David waxes poetic about here, this is what you and I rightly deserve.

David realizes this. He realizes it so strongly that even in the middle of his prayer for God’s justice—as he is praying that God would crush the wicked—David interrupts his own prayer to praise God for his grace and to ask him for more grace to persevere!

As we come to the end of this second section of David’s plea, Psalm 5 teaches us that living the life of a disciple is ever an exercise in which we are dependent upon God’s grace and upon his Spirit.

So that brings us to the third aspect through which to study this passage, which we will take up in our next installment of the Saturday Psalm Series.


  1. P. C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word, 1983), 19:87.

©Sean Morris. All Rights Reserved.

You can find the whole series here. 


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  • Sean Morris
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    Sean was educated at Grove City College, Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), and the University of Glasgow (Scotland). He is an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, and serves as a minister at the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, TN. He also serves as the Academic Dean of the Blue Ridge Institute for Theological Education. He is currently pursuing his PhD in Historical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Sean lives in Oak Ridge with his wife, Sarah, along with their children and useless beagle.

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One comment

  1. Sean, thank you for writing this commentary on Psalm 5. It is useful because it is theologically sound. Do you believe that sound theology is Covenantal, Confessional, Christ-centered, Historic, Classic Reformed Theology? It appears to me that being brought to sound theology is by God’s Grace because through hearing, studying, meditating on sound doctrine piety and practice are formed..

    Dr. Clark, thank you for posting this very helpful prayer guide for Psalm 5.

    Studying and praying through Psalm 5 reminds me of the God’s Plan for His Son, who now sits at His Right Hand. Christ rules ‘The Inaugurated Kingdom of God’ in such a way as to allow His enemies to continue in their rebellion until He returns to consummate His Kingdom (Psalms 2 & 110). (S.M.Baugh, Majesty on High)

    Walking alongside friends in Christ – as they learn to see and trust God’s Will in the midst of the suffering in an environment of coercive domination – I have prayed through Psalm 5 for my friends and with them. God’s Mercy and Grace to me and my friends astonishes me because His Spirit in us uncovers the sin in our hearts so that we repent and turn from it. But the coercive dominators, though God faithfully displays His Mercy to each one, proceed from one punishing plot of deceit and terror to the next. The difference for me is that I see God’s Son administering progressive justice to the dominator, as Paul writes Romans 1:24, 26, 28, while protecting, guiding, and instructing His sheep by Grace through Faith to see and trust His Faithfulness and Steadfast Love. God’s Work and Will reveal His astonishing Wisdom.

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