Reading Scripture with Lifted Eyes: Psalm 17

Following on last week’s theme of “reading Scripture with lifted eyes” to see Christ, I want to attempt to lift our gaze to Christ through Psalm 17. On Monday, during my devotions, I was especially moved by this psalm. Although I had read it numerous times, I had never read it as I did that morning, as a psalm of resurrection. Then, on Tuesday, I learned that my great uncle had died. I reflected on our last conversation, in which he had confessed a new-found openness to the Lord and told me that he had begun to pray regularly. I shared the gospel with him and trust that our merciful God saved my uncle from eternal death. In the wake of my uncle’s physical death, the resurrection psalm I had read the previous day became even more precious to me. But how is Psalm 17 a psalm of resurrection?

There are a number of psalms early in the psalter that say something like this: “You have tried my heart… you have tested me, and you will find nothing; I have purposed that my mouth will not transgress” (v. 3). David is calling upon the Lord to vindicate him and defend him against his enemies on account of his own righteousness (cf. Ps 18:23-24). How do we pray such a psalm? Can we really call upon God to test us and expect that he will find no unrighteousness in us? The consistent teaching of Scripture, even the witness of David’s own life, suggests not, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).

To resolve this tension, we must first read this psalm as a prayer offered to God by Jesus Christ, “the righteous one” (1 Jn 2:1). Such a perspective is warranted given that David is a type of Christ. He is the representative of Israel, her great king and prophet and the man after God’s own heart. Reading the psalm as Christ’s prayer, we can see that it is perfectly appropriate on his lips. No truer thing can be said than that his lips are “free of deceit” (v. 1; cf. 1 Pet 2:22), that he has “avoided the ways of the violent” (v. 4), and that his “steps have held fast to [God’s] paths” (v. 5; cf. Heb 4:15). Jesus, as the beloved Son of the Father (Jn 3:16), is “the apple of [God’s] eye” (v. 8).

After verse 8, the focus of the psalm turns to Christ’s “deadly enemies,” “the wicked who do me violence” (v. 9). Who are Christ’s enemies? Verses 9 through 14 give numerous clues. First, the enemies “set their eyes to cast us to the ground” (v. 11). We may infer that Christ’s enemies are those who crucified him. Second, the band of enemies arrayed against Christ are reduced to one: “he is like a lion eager to tear” (v. 12) and Jesus calls upon God to “confront him, subdue him” (v. 13). So, informed by the story of Scripture, we may conclude that Christ’s chief enemy is Satan, whose children oppose Christ by crucifying him (cf. Jn 8:44ff.). Third, and rounding out our picture of Christ’s enemies, is the end to which the Evil One and his children want to bring Jesus: to death. Putting all of the pieces together leaves us with the impression that Christ prays for deliverance from his enemies, chiefly Satan and Death.

How did God answer the prayer of his Son? From the witness of the rest of Scripture, we know that God did not stop Jesus’ enemies from physically killing him. (In fact, God had predestined that Jesus should die, according to Acts 4:28 and numerous other passages.) But, God did answer his Son’s prayer by raising him from the dead. In fact, through Jesus’ death, his enemies were conquered. For “we know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom 6:9).

But what does the psalm itself teach us? In a veiled way, it gestures toward the glory of the resurrection. First, Jesus’ enemies are said to have their “portion… in this life” (v. 14). The implicit contrast is with Jesus himself, whose portion – that is, consummate happiness – is not found in this world, not even in having children, granting them an inheritance, and leaving a legacy after he has died (see the rest of v. 14). His portion is in another world.

Second, the implicit contrast of verse 14 becomes explicit in verse 15: “as for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.” Given the pressure of the psalm to be read as a prayer of Christ against his enemies Satan and Death, what else could this refer to than the resurrection itself, when Christ awoke from the grave? And, of course, when Christ was raised, his soul was ravished by the restoration of his perfect fellowship with his Father.

Third, we return to one of the first petitions of the psalm: “from your presence let my vindication come” (v. 2). Jesus prays for vindication from the Father – for a definitive declaration that he is the divine Son of God who assumed our nature for us. What is this vindication? It is none other than his resurrection: he “was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:3-4; cf. 1 Tim 3:16).

Psalm 17 proclaims the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the defeat of sin, death, and the Devil. Having established this much, we can ask, what does the psalm mean for us? Four thoughts to conclude this article:

  1. Although the psalm is about Jesus and his victory over sin and death, we who believe can genuinely pray it ourselves because we are united to Christ (Rom 6:3; Gal 3:27; Eph 3:17). Just as King David represented Israel before God, and Israel received God’s favor on David’s account (see, e.g., Isa 37:35), so we who are in Christ Jesus receive every benefit of God’s grace through him (1 Cor 1:30-31). Our lives, as one hymn puts it, are “wholly bound to His.” This magnificent blessing leads to the following:
  2. Because our lives are wholly bound to Christ’s, we receive our vindication (or, justification) in him (v. 2). Christ has become to us righteousness (1 Cor 1:30) and therefore, when the Lord tries our hearts and tests us (v. 3), he finds the righteousness of Jesus Christ. There is no condemnation for the believer in Christ (Rom 8:1). Praise be to God!
  3. Because our lives are wholly bound to Christ’s, our portion is not with things that perish and decay. We are not like those “men of the world whose portion is in this life” (v. 14). Rather, we have “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for [us]” (1 Pet 1:4). We will be “heirs of God” (Rom 8:17) because of our older brother Jesus Christ and our union with him. Praise be to God!
  4. Because our lives are wholly bound to Christ’s, our destiny is wrapped up with his. Though he died, yet he lives in the light and love of his Father in heaven. Likewise, although we will perish, our deaths will be but a “falling asleep” (Paul’s term, e.g., 1 Cor 15:20). Even in death, we belong to Christ our Savior. And on the last day, when we are raised bodily, we “shall behold [his] face in righteousness” and “shall be satisfied with [his] likeness” (v. 15). Praise be to God, and may that great day come soon!
Matt Gilleskie Youth Minister Chapel Hill Bible Church