Theme: The Historical Setting
In this week’s lessons we consider different reasons for which David offers thanksgiving as he reflects on God’s grace and faithfulness towards him.
Scripture: Psalm 18:1-24
Psalm 18 is the first long psalm in the Psalter. There are others, of course. Psalm 119 is known for being long; it is the longest chapter in the Bible. But Psalm 18, with fifty verses, is the longest thus far. I will be taking it in two parts, a pattern I will follow more than once from this point forward.
Psalm 18 is a thanksgiving song.1 In this respect it follows naturally upon Psalm 17, which was a lament. Thanksgiving psalms often seem to follow laments. In his lament David described himself as being surrounded by callous enemies who were intent on his destruction. They were like lions “hungry for prey” (v. 12). He cried out for deliverance, and at the end of the psalm he is found confidently expecting that God will come to his aid. In Psalm 18 we find David looking back over a lifetime of such saving interventions by God and praising God for them.
At the same time, Psalm 18 is also what is called a kingship psalm. It is a rehearsal of God’s many blessings on the king and his kingdom, which means that it could have been sung, not only by David, but by anyone who had experienced the blessings of David’s rule or the rule of many who later followed him to the throne.
Some of the kingship psalms have elements which look beyond the earthly king to God’s promised Messiah. That is the case here. In fact, we have biblical justification for seeing the psalm this way, since in the letter to the Romans the Apostle Paul quotes verse 49 as the first of four prophecies to show that Christ came for the Gentiles as well as for the Jews (Rom. 15:9). Derek Kidner summarizes the situation well when he says, “Although every Davidic king might make this psalm his own, it belonged especially to David whose testimony it was, and to Christ who was his ‘offspring.’”2
There is another interesting feature of Psalm 18 which we see as soon as we turn to it: the title is unusually long. In fact, it is the second longest in the psalter, exceeded only by the title to Psalm 60. This is not just a quaint observation. It is an important one since it leads us to the book of 2 Samuel, which is the psalm’s historical setting, and when we go to 2 Samuel, surprisingly we find the psalm there. Psalm 18 is taken almost exactly from 2 Samuel 22. In fact, even the title is from that chapter (vv. 1, 2). No one is sure which of the two came first, whether an original, independent psalm was incorporated into 2 Samuel or whether a psalm originally written for the historical book was later extracted and made a separate composition. But it is certainly significant that in both settings the psalm is identified as a composition of King David, which seems to lend it special authenticity.
What is the setting in 2 Samuel? In that book, the psalm appears almost as David’s final words. Hence, it is a summary thanksgiving for God’s many deliverances of him through his long life of service. These deliverances fall into three categories.
First, and most dramatic, there were the deliverances of David from King Saul during the long years David had to hide from him in the wilderness. The second half of Samuel tells this story, beginning with Saul’s jealousy of David because of the way the people of Israel praised him. While David was still at court Saul tried to kill him on more than one occasion, and when he fled first to the land of the Philistines and later to the cave at Adullam and other wilderness fortresses, Saul pursued him and tried to kill him there. These years contain amazing accounts of how God more than once brought Saul to a place where David could have killed him and report that David did not do it. David spared Saul, and God spared David. Thus, at the end of 1 Samuel, Saul dies by his own hand after a disastrous battle with the Philistines, and at the start of 2 Samuel David becomes king first over the large southern tribe of Judah and then over all Israel.
Why is Psalm 18 considered a thanksgiving psalm? What other type of psalm also applies and why?
What is the historical setting for this psalm?
1In our study of Psalm 17 I discussed the various genres of psalms, listing hymn psalms, laments, thanksgiving psalms, psalms of confidence, psalms of remembrance, wisdom psalms and kingship psalms. See Tremper Longman III, How to Read the Psalms (Downers Grove, IL, and Leicester, England: Intervarsity, 1988), p 19-36.2Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: At Introduction and Commentary on Books I and II of the Psalms (Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity,1973), pp. 96, 97.