The most interesting part of this psalm is the second section (vv. 2-5) in which David relates to those who are harming him. They are wrong. He is right. He is asking God to help him. Nevertheless, although slandered and injured by them, David speaks of his enemies kindly and tries to win them from their errors. And there is this: in trying to help them, he unintentionally but inevitably helps himself.
We see how this works in verse 3. In this verse David reminds his enemies of a truth that is very important, namely, that “the Lord has set apart the godly for himself.” This is something the enemies of the righteous do not want to hear. It refers to election, which they hate. In David’s case, the statement was a reminder that he had become king by the sovereign choice of God, not by man’s authority. Therefore, he could not be attacked with impunity. His enemies would have resented that a great deal. In our case, the statement is a reminder that we have been brought into the company of God’s people by God’s choice and action, not our own. That too is a doctrine widely hated. But it is nevertheless true. And it follows from the truth of election that, if God “has set apart the godly for himself,” he will obviously not abandon them. He will stick by them, for “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). The ungodly need to be reminded of this, because it means that their attacks upon God’s people will not ultimately be successful.
How does that help David? In this way: As soon as he reminds his enemies that the Lord protects his people, David must have realized afresh that what he was telling his enemies applied to him. He was one of God’s people. God had set him apart and would not abandon him. Therefore, as he says in the second half of the very same verse, “the Lord will hear when I call to him.”
Do you see how it is working? David began with a cry of real anguish (v. 1). Now, having reminded his enemies that God cares for his own, what began as a prayer turns into a statement of confidence: “the Lord will hear when I call to him” (v. 3).
Are you confused by attacks upon you? Go through David’s procedure. In your mind remind your enemies that God will take care of you, and you will find that the very act of reminding them will strengthen your own confidence. You will quiet your distress by this exercise. This same thing occurs again in the psalm’s second half. It grows out of David’s advice to them in verses 4 and 5.
Verse 4 is a bit of a problem, however. It is because there are two ways the words “in your anger do not sin” can be taken. The first is the meaning given to the words in the Septuagint or Greek version of the Old Testament and then apparently picked up by the Apostle Paul and quoted in Ephesians 4:26. It is: “Be angry, but do not let your anger carry over into sinful acts.” Paul seems to mean this, because the next verse in Ephesians says, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,” that is, deal with your problem in the anger stage.
However, the verb “be angry” can also mean “tremble,” which is the way H. C. Leupold takes it. Tremble in what way? Well, it could mean tremble in anger, which is why most versions use the word “anger” to translate it. But it could also mean tremble before God, which is what Leupold thinks it means. That is, “stand in awe of God, and because you are in awe of him cease sinning as you have been doing.” This makes good sense in the psalm, for the thought would then be: “The evil you are planning should be abandoned, because God is against you in it. You should be able to see this when you are upon your beds searching your hearts silently.”7
I do not know which is the right answer, but I incline to the second view because of what comes next. Verse 5 says, “Offer right sacrifices and trust in the Lord.” These sacrifices must be sacrifices for sin. So verse 4 probably does not mean, “deal with your anger and do not sin,” but rather, “tremble before God and cease from the sin you are committing.” It would follow from the latter that, having recognized the sin as sin, the enemies of the psalmist would then offer the proper sacrifices of atonement for it. The final step would be for them then to live as those who “trust in the Lord” rather than in their own devices (v. 5).
7H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), p. 69.