Psalm 3: Despite Appearances Part 1—Context In The Psalter

We can probably imagine how different the perspective might be between a photograph taken by an ant and a photograph taken from space. Imagine an ant who happened to have an ant-sized camera and happened to be riding on the back of a whale. When that whale blows a stack of water out of his blowhole, the perspective in the ant’s photo would make that waterspout look like a massive cosmic-level event. On the other hand, a photograph taken of the whole globe from space would not even register that whale’s waterspout popping from the ocean surface.

Psalm 3 reflects upon turmoil in the world from the perspective of the ant’s photograph. In that way, it draws us into some of the most profound reflections the Psalter offers about our experience of hardship and its relation to God and his care for his people. To get our hands around Psalm 3, we need to consider how it fits into the growing point of the Psalter before we dive into the specifics of Psalm 3 itself.

Remember that the Psalms is a book about something, starting somewhere, going somewhere, and ending somewhere. So, how do we fit Psalm 3 into the Psalter’s developing point? Psalm 1 showed us that the book of Psalms as a whole aims to instruct us and help us delight in God’s law as those walking with him. Whereas Psalm 1 shows the Psalter is about the law, Psalm 2 shows us the Psalter is about the gospel, by revealing God’s king who will reign forever and who brings blessing to all who take refuge in him. Psalm 2 paints a vivid picture of nations raging throughout this whole age. While they plot against God and his anointed, God laughs from heaven at their plans precisely because he has appointed his eternal Son as king over his people. It is a certainty that his Son will claim the nations as his own through the preaching of the gospel.

In that framework, we return to the photos from the ant’s perspective and from space. Psalm 3 zooms in to provide the earthly perspective on the nations raging against God and his anointed king. King David wrote this in a time of greatest hardship as enemies welled up around him. He was crying out for help in this moment of urgent need. As part one in a series on Psalm 3, this article argues that Psalm 3 fits into the scope of the Psalter by leading us into the human experience amidst the nations raging against God’s king.

Psalm 3 in Its Nearest Contexts

Psalm 3 has a unique function in the Psalter as it kicks off the first stage of development in the story that the Psalms tell. As you may well know, the Psalter is composed of five books:

Book I: Psalms 1–41
Book II: Psalms 42–72
Book III: Psalms 73–89
Book IV: Psalms 90–106
Book V: Psalms 107–150

These book divisions remind us of the Spirit’s two layers of inspiration in giving us the Psalms. First, he inspired many writers—such as David, Asaph, and Moses—as they composed the individual psalms so that each psalm rightly stands on its own. Second, at some point during and/or after Israel’s exile under Babylon, he inspired an editor(s) to collect those standalone psalms and to arrange them into the order we have in the Psalter. Thus, the Spirit is behind the individual psalms and the shape of the Psalter.

Scholars have long wrestled with the structure of the Psalms, trying to understand the purpose and meaning behind its final arrangement.1 Recent research has aimed to show that each of the five books can be tied to a predominant theme. I find O. Palmer Robertson’s take on this issue helpful. He identifies each book as focusing on a particular phase of redemptive-historical development, from struggle to consummation.2

For our purposes, Psalm 3 fits in Book I. Within each book of the Psalter (Book I in our case), there are smaller groupings of psalms that hang together.3 Since Psalms 1–2 serve as the introduction to the whole Psalter, showing us that the Psalms instruct us about the law and the gospel, Psalm 3 is in a stricter sense the proper beginning of Book I. As a result, it establishes Book I’s distinct emphasis—namely, its focus on David in relation to the war of the nations against God’s king.4

Psalm 3 begins a thread of reflection in response to Psalm 2. Within Book I, Psalms 3–14 form a related group of songs about prayer in distress. This section repeats a pattern of five prayers (Ps 3–7; 9–13) followed by a reflection on the human condition (Ps 8, 14).5 These prayers of distress are a reaction to Psalm 2 in that, whereas Psalm 2 introduced the king as the one whom the nations rage against, Psalm 3 shows the king at prayer in the midst of that raging.6 That dynamic becomes a major theme of the Psalter, showing that the main figure in the Psalms really is the king, speaking as the king of Psalm 2 en route to the consummate victory foretold at the beginning of the Psalter.

As we will consider further below, Psalm 3 depicts the king’s perspective from the earthly plane as he watches the nations rage around him. Psalm 2 shows the heavenly perspective where God acts in light of his divine decree, announcing the surety of final victory in the gospel of this messianic king. Psalm 3 begins reflection on the king’s experience of the journey toward that victory while he faces down the raging nations. In reference to the ant and the space pictures, Psalms 3–7 cry out for help, then Psalm 8 reflects upon creatures as being so much lower that the Creator from the heavenly perspective. Psalms 3–7 are David’s prayers for God to establish his kingdom despite the intense opposition.7 In other words, this group of songs confirms that the heavenly perspective means God’s people have no reason to fear, since God’s king will ultimately win.

The Experiential Instruction of Psalm 3 in the Context of the Whole Psalter

God has given us his inspired songbook to teach us many things. It teaches us about Christ as the ultimate king and the true substance of the Psalms, even as it depicts the experiential reality of the covenant of grace. It teaches us how to pray in various contexts. It teaches us that we ought to pray in every situation. One summary takeaway is that the Psalms instruct us about the godly response to the full spectrum of experience and emotion that we encounter in the Christian life.

The placement of Psalm 3 in the Psalter’s developing scope teaches us that, in light of God’s sovereign commitment to his people, we must hold hope side by side with a real reckoning of the complexity and hardship that endure in the Christian life. God’s decree to use all things for our good does not remove the reality of our experiential distress as we endure challenges in the Christian life.

Psalm 3 provides reflection on our experience of distress even while we know what end God has ordained. It shows us what distress feels like from the earthly perspective. It also teaches us how to pray through distress in light of God’s certain victory and the attendant blessings for those who belong to his kingdom as illustrated in Psalm 2.

The zoomed-in perspective of Psalm 3—the viewpoint of the ant looking up at a cosmic spewing waterspout—does not negate the wider perspective wherein these events are ultimately small. In Psalm 3, David as God’s king reflects upon his turmoil from the earthly perspective in which he is personally and experientially overwhelmed. That close-up perspective does not blot out the heavenly perspective in Psalm 2 where God knows how to defeat this hardship and laughs at those who challenge his king.8

Still, from the earthly perspective, we must reckon with the experience of the nations raging against our king. Psalm 3 shows that the promises of Psalm 2 do not unfold without first facing real difficulty. Much opposes the ultimate Davidic king, but those obstacles only underscore the beauty of Christ’s certain victory.

From these considerations, we find Psalm 3’s purpose for our instruction. It teaches us the acceptable way to pray in the midst of great anguish. As David closes his prayer about his own personal trials with a plea for blessing to come to God’s people, we are taught that our prayers for our individual wellbeing should never be divorced from our concern for the wellbeing of our brothers and sisters.9 This canonical framework sets up the next installments on Psalm 3 in answer to those three questions that lead us to a full interpretation of a psalm: Why did the original author write it? How does it apply to me? How does it take us to Christ?

Notes

  1. See the discussions in Bruce K. Waltke and James M. Houston with Erika Moore, The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 21–24, 100–12; Bruce K. Waltke and Fred G. Zaspel, How to Read and Understand the Psalms (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2023), 477–97, 519–38; O. Palmer Robertson, The Flow of the Psalms (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015), 8–22.
  2. Robertson, Flow of the Psalms, 52.
  3. Waltke, Houston, and Moore, Psalms as Christian Worship, 101.
  4. Robertson, 61–62.
  5. Waltke, Houston, and Moore, Psalms as Christian Worship, 47, 193.
  6. Waltke, Houston, and Moore, Psalms as Christian Worship, 103.
  7. Waltke, Houston, and Moore, Psalms as Christian Worship, 161, 193–94; Bruce K. Waltke and Fred G. Zaspel, Psalms, 480–81.
  8. Waltke, Houston, and Moore, Psalms as Christian Worship, 194.
  9. Robertson, Flow of the Psalms, 65.

© Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.

You can find this whole series here.


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One comment

  1. I read and listen to the Psalms a lot. This will be very helpful to me, especially considering perspective. What looks big and out of control to us is but a blip if that to God in who, we trust.

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