Psalm 3: Despite Appearances Part 2—Historical and Exegetical Considerations

Suffering is unfortunately part of our experience in this age. Until Christ returns, not all things will be right. Perhaps most things will not be right. The stark reality of life under the rainbow is that we live with provisional blessing, always knowing that aspects of our enjoyment of creational goods are fragile.

In many ways, the modern age has sanitized our experience of the world. Generally, people used to die at home, but now we have tucked away our deathbed experiences into the sterilized linens of hospital beds.1 Tragedies across the world are reported so as to leverage them for clicks and ratings, which reshapes heart-rending events into politicized entertainment—often used to demonize others across the partisan aisle. Perhaps most significantly, this whitewashing of the culture comes home in the church as preaching and shepherding focus more on practical self-help, faddish cultural issues, or downright boorish entertainment.

I was reflecting on that last instance not long ago as I thought through a home visit I made after a terribly tragic funeral. I began wondering if the megachurch pastors, even those in the reformed-ish purview, ever preached funerals for their congregation members. It could be that they do. I just have not seen the recordings of the funeral sermons from the parachurch superstars. Maybe that is because they do not exist. On the other hand, maybe that is because they do not grab the clicks and the ratings. The point comes home either way—arguably the church has taken too large a gulp of the cultural waters in veering our efforts toward entertainment and away from helping people walk through the gritty aspects of the Christian life, including what it means to face the world’s hard realities.

Is it then any wonder that our cultural milieu has little place for the Psalter? The Psalms are not pop-music ready. They have no catchy choruses that can help us drone into emotional euphoria. They do, however, wrestle with the raw experiences we face in this age.

One purpose of the Psalter is to instruct us in the godly response to the full spectrum of experiences and emotions that we encounter in the Christian life. Sometimes, that comes through simply seeing the words that the psalmists brought before God, which give us insight into what they were feeling as they took their situation to the Lord. On rare occasion, we have opportunity to situate those prayers in their real historical setting. Such is the case with Psalm 3.

As we think about the three questions that bring us to a full understanding of a psalm, Psalm 3 gives unique insight into the first step. As a result, this essay asks what caused the psalmist to pen these words? To answer this, we will reflect on the historical setting and the outline of Psalm 3.

A Stunningly Tragic Reason for Distress

Unlike many psalms, we do know the historical background to Psalm 3. The heading tells us David wrote it when he fled from his son Absalom. 2 Samuel 11 recounts David’s heinous sin concerning Bathsheba and Uriah, where he committed adultery with her and then had her husband Uriah murdered to cover up how David had impregnated his wife. In 2 Samuel 12, Nathan the prophet rebuked David for his sin of adultery and murder. In that rebuke, God swore, “Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house” (2 Sam 12:11, emphasis added). God put David on notice that calamity would come upon him from within his household because of his sin.

In 2 Samuel 15, that comes to pass when Absalom, David’s own son, rises up against David to steal the throne of Israel. As part of his scheme, Absalom would go to the city gates and inform everyone seeking the king’s counsel that, basically, they had not followed the proper bureaucratic procedures to get an audience with his majesty. It was like how you often sit for hours in that prison-colored waiting room at the DMV, only to be told at the desk that you filled out the form slightly wrong and will have to come back. Of course, Absalom lamented this trouble to those he turned away. He claimed that if only he were king, things would be different. Through these lies, Absalom stole the hearts of the people and developed a conspiracy to overthrow David as king.

As Absalom had captured the hearts of the people, he had plans to kill David to take his throne. As 2 Samuel 15 progresses, David learned of Absalom’s plot and strategized an escape to regroup. As David fled, he wrote Psalm 3 about his distress over his son’s betrayal and how his whole nation was turning against him.

The historical context should alert us to how distressing David’s situation was. It is hard to imagine a more agonizing plight than your own son turning against you to steal your position. I cannot even fathom how I would feel if my little boy grew up one day to try to murder me to take my job. In many ways, I think I would need a firm conviction in my calling to perform its duties, because the pain of being betrayed so deeply by my own child might leave me wishing for death.

In this most agonizing moment, David cried out to God. Psalm 3 records how he brought his anguish to the Lord to find divine help. In its instructional nature, the psalm teaches us how we ought to bring our distress to the Lord to find his help as well.

The Outline of Psalm 3

As always, the structure of a psalm is key to understanding its main point. Psalm 3 has three parts: verses 1–2 state the problem, verses 3–6 outline David’s response, and verses 7–8 contain his cry for the Lord to act. In that first section, we see how dire David’s straits felt:

O Lord, how many are my foes!

Many are rising against me;

many are saying of my soul,

“There is no salvation for him in God.”

Overwhelming numbers turned against David. As the nation aligned itself with Absalom, David’s enemies grew ever more. The situation was so bad for him that they claimed not even God could rescue him.

The second part (vv. 3–6) shows how David responded to his feelings of distress. The shocking feature is how upbeat David truly sounded despite his setting.

But you, O Lord, are a shield about me,

my glory, and the lifter of my head.

I cried aloud to the Lord,

and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah

I lay down and slept;

I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.

I will not be afraid of many thousands of people

who have set themselves against me all around.

David had every reason to be afraid, to give up hope, and to just quit. But he had not lost confidence that God was able to defend him and would ultimately come through for him.

The last section in verses 7–8 records David’s plea. The previous two parts were essentially David talking to the Lord about what was going on. His approach to prayer ought to tell us that we are supposed to bring everything to God, even when we understand that he already knows it all. We are meant to bring it to him so that we wrestle with him about it. Then, we are supposed to seek him for our deliverance, as David shows:

Arise, O Lord!

Save me, O my God!

For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;

you break the teeth of the wicked.

Salvation belongs to the Lord;

your blessing be on your people!

David calls for God to throw down his enemies and restore him. Notably, David kept his eye on the fact that his wellbeing was connected to the blessing of God’s people. In our prayers of distress, we too should learn to pray with consideration for what our prayers mean for the help of others. Even as the fortunes of the Davidic king had more direct bearing upon the rest of God’s people under his leadership, which shapes why David would pray this way, we still ought to learn that our prayers should never lose sight of the whole church’s wellbeing.

When we consider the three parts of the psalm working together, we see that the real issue is how the seemingly insurmountable problems in David’s situation contrast with his confident response in the Lord’s provision. His own son was devising plots to kill him. Many were telling him that not even God could provide him a hope of deliverance. Yet, David still knew better. He cried to God for help and got an answer. He was so sure of God’s help that he went to sleep, trusting that he would wake up in the morning.

The closing stanza shows what David’s confidence looks like in prayer. Even though his own son had turned against him, he believed that God could overturn this situation. Even though his kingdom had rebelled, he believed that God would deliver him. This psalm arises from David’s clear knowledge of his own need and a clear conviction that God would stand by him. Trust—trust in God and his faithfulness—is at the heart of the godly response to distress. Although the next and final installment in this series on Psalm 3 focuses on how we see the gospel from David’s prayer of repentance, our main takeaway in this second exploration is learning to pray in our own seasons of distress.


  1. Guy Prentiss Waters, Facing the Last Enemy: Death and the Christian (Sanford, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 2023), 3–12.

© Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.

You can find this whole series here.


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