The heading of the psalm indicates that David wrote it ‘when Saul sent men to watch his house in order to kill him’ (see 1 Samuel 19). David’s response was to compose this prayer, and his doing so gives insight into his ongoing confidence in the Lord, and how the psalmist used the situation to grow in grace. The psalmist’s reaction is an example for us when opponents work against us. Throughout the psalm we see David developing an increasing sense of confidence in God and a decreasing fear of his opponents.
In the first section (vv. 1-5), David prays for deliverance from his enemies. He asks for constant protection because he cannot even see them (they are in hiding waiting to ambush him, v. 3, and later in the psalm David says that they only come near him when it is dark). The psalmist is aware that their attack is unjustified because he has not done anything to cause the king to be against him. It is good to have a clear conscience at all times.
In turning to the Lord, David uses a very bold illustration when he asks the Lord to ‘awake’. Of course, David knew that God did not sleep. Yet he connected his prayers to what he felt and not just to his doctrinal knowledge. Sometimes doctrinal prayers can be passionless, and we have to remind ourselves that God desires ardent as well as accurate prayers. It is very difficult to cope with a situation in which God seems to be indifferent. When that happens, it is appropriate to address the Lord in the way that David prays here. It is almost as if he is saying to God, ‘Lord, come and pay attention to my situation.’
In an additional petition, which may sound strange to us given the circumstances, David suddenly jumps from his own situation and asks the Lord to punish all nations (v. 5). Perhaps he saw in the attack of Saul’s men an example of the universal opposition to God’s kingdom. The development of that kingdom was connected to David’s future position as king, so their attack was also an attack on God’s kingdom.
In the second section (vv. 6-13), David describes in more detail the attacks of his opponents. They are like howling and prowling wild dogs. The howls are expressions of self-confidence and pride. David observes that in fact they are impotent against God – he will treat them with contempt. In such a God David can take refuge and expect the necessary help that will give to him complete victory.
It is important to note that David does not want personal revenge. This section makes clear that his primary concern is not personal safety but the safety of God’s people. That is why he wants the Lord to remove completely those who are conspiring against his chosen king. And the psalmist wants the Lord to do this in such a way that will make it clear to the whole earth that God rules.
In the third section (vv. 14-17), David again likens the activities of his opponents to wild dogs. Nevertheless he says more about his relationship with God than about the actions of his enemies. This change of focus usually occurs when a believer thinks simultaneously about God and the opposition. Thinking about God in this way has led David to realise how powerful his God is, and that then leads him to sing about the Lord. It is a lot easier to sing about God after we have thought about him.
The enemies attack him each evening, but the psalmist knows that the evenings will pass safely because God is his fortress, and that when each morning comes he will praise God for deliverance. In a sense, David here is telling us to take one day at a time, and focus on God on a daily basis.