Psalm 40 — Faith and Faithfulness

Defining the Gospel, Pt 2

In the previous article, we started our search for a biblical answer to the question: What is the gospel? Through our study in the Historical Books, we were already able to form a robust definition of a general euaggelion: it’s good news about the king, to be proclaimed to his people, often involving victory over their enemies. In the next articles, we will look at the occurences of the euaggelion word group in the Psalms (Ps 40:10; 68:12; 96:3).

The Psalms consist of five books, structured along the storyline of Israel and its Davidic king:

  • Book 1–2 — The reign of David as God’s anointed amidst opposition (Psalm 1–41 and 42–72);
  • Book 3 — From the reign of Solomon to the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile (Psalm 73–89);
  • Book 4 — In exile, longing for God’s future salvation (Psalm 90–107);
  • Book 5 — Praise for God’s accomplished salvation (Psalm 108–150).

First up, we’re going to look at Psalm 40. This Psalm is situated near the end of Book 1, relating to the rule of David and his struggle with enemies of the throne.

God’s Salvation (vv. 1–5)

The Psalm begins with recounting God’s salvation. It alludes to two previous instances of God’s salvation: Joseph from the pit, and Israel from Egypt (see table 1).

Table 1 — Connections with the story of Joseph and of Israel

Both the pit [1] and Egypt represented the realm of death (Hebr.: Sheol), and especially Israel’s exodus and passing through the Red Sea was regarded as resurrection. [2] So, David wants to communicate to his readers that God saved him in a resurrection-like act of salvation. Just as in the past, God’s people were in distress, but, just as in the past, God brought salvation in an act of covenant faithfulness.

Furthermore, David speaks of, what the ESV translates as, the “pit of destruction,” but it literally says something like, “the pit of roaring [waters].” [3] Throughout the Psalms, David uses this image of waters nearly drowning him to denote his distress. These waters are a metaphor for the pagan nations surrounding Israel and threatening David’s kingdom (cf. Ps 18:3–4, 15–7; 65:7; 74:23). So, God delivered him from his pagan, military enemies.[4]

Just as in the past, God’s people were in distress, but, just as in the past, God brought salvation in an act of covenant faithfulness.

Moreover, God “secured” or “established” David’s steps. In the book of the Psalms, this expression is used multiple times for God keeping the righteous from sinning or for the righteous remaining steadfastness in following God’s commandments (e.g., Psa 7:9; 37:23; 119:5, 133). So, it is possible that David wants to say that God prevented him from sinning in the midst of his distress and made him steadfast in keeping God’s law.

All this is reason to praise God for his wondrous deeds (v. 3). His purposes for his people exceed their thoughts, his deeds are too numerous to be expressed (cf. Ps 139:17–8). Their King is like no other; “none can compare with you!” (v. 5). [5]

Faith and Faithfulness (vv. 6–8)

In verse 4, David emphasized the importance of trust in God: “Blessed is the man who makes YHWH his trust.” David trusted God, and God did not put him to shame. David had faith, and God was faithful. Indeed, salvation is from faith to faith. [6]

Furthermore, God’s faithfulness is meant to lead to faithfulness on the part of his people. God made David understand that he ultimately does not require sacrifices, probably referring to sacrifices of thanksgiving here in response to God’s faithfulness. Although God does command and express desire for such sacrifices in his law, what truly matters is the posture of those who sacrifice.

Therefore, David expresses his commitment to do God’s will from the heart: “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart” (v. 8). David patterns his kingship on the Deuteronomic passage about the faithful king (Deut 17:14–20). [7] Thus David can say: “Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me” (v. 7).

Proclaiming the Good News (vv. 9–10)

Then we come to our euaggelion. These verses are parallel (see table 2):

Table 2 — The LXX of vv. 9–10, rearranged to shed light on the parallels.

The manner of David’s proclamation is evident. The audience might be less clear from our perspective. Whom did David address? The most helpful parallel is Psalm 22, where the same word (Heb.: qahel; Gr.: ekklesia,) occurs twice: “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: you who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! (…) From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him” (vv. 22–3, 5; cf. Ps 35:18). So, the ekklesia which David is talking about is the assembly of Israel, the faithful people of God.

But what does he precisely proclaim? The Septuagint uses four different words to describe this: [8]

  • Righteousness (dikaiosune) — God is the king of Israel, indeed of the whole world. In the ancient context, kingship also involved being the judge and the law-giver. As king, God is righteous, that is, he is faithful to his covenant with his people. This faithfulness is grounded in his character and finds expression, on the one hand, in the protection of the weak who trust in him and are faithful to his commands, and, on the other hand, the defeat of the proud who rebel against him and oppress the weak.
  • Truth (aletheia) — The Hebrew could also be translated as ‘faithfulness’ and is closely related to his righteousness. It refers to his unwavering commitment to fulfil his covenant promises for his people. God is fundamentally reliable, honest, in other words, truthful, as opposed to the proud and liars. Therefore the people can rely on and trust in him to deliver them (v. 3–4).
  • Mercy (eleos) — God is moved by the needy and the weak and inclined to help them. Just as his righteousness and truthfulness, his mercy is grounded in who God is: “The Lord, the Lord God is compassionate and merciful (eleēmōn), patient and very merciful (polyeleos) and truthful (alethinos) and preserving righteousness (dikaiosune) and doing mercy (eleos) for thousands” (Exo 34:6–7 LXX).
  • Deliverance (soterios) — God’s righteousness and truth find expression in his delivering actions, which we already discussed. God delivered David, firstly, from (being killed by) his pagan enemies. This is the primary reference: David was in danger, he called upon God, and God saved him. Secondly, although that is more prominent in the second part of the psalm, God rescued David from his sins. That is to say, he upheld David when he could have fallen into sin.

These are the things that David proclaimed to the nation of Israel. Just as David didn’t restrain his lips from praise, so God did not restrain his mercy, love, and faithfulness from David (v. 11).

Prayer for Salvation (vv. 12–17)

In the rest of the psalm, David turns again to God for deliverance, both from his enemies (“those who seek to snatch away my life,” “those who delight in my hurt,” “those who say to me, ‘Aha!’”) and from sinning (“my iniquities have overtaken me … they are more than the hairs of my head”). David is confident that God will save him — again, since God remains the same.

New Testament Reception

In Hebrews 10, verses 6–8 are cited to explain the work of Jesus the Messiah, the great Son of David. The author argues that the sacrificial system of Israel could ultimately not atone for the sins of the people. They were a reminder of sin, but it was impossible for them to truly atone (vv. 1–4). A greater sacrifice was needed. Then the author quotes the words of Ps 40:6–8, not from the mouth of David but of the Messiah! When he came to earth, Jesus said to God, “I will do your will.” Jesus embodied true obedience from the heart. He was the faithful king Israel needed. The author connects this with the previous verse about sacrifices: as the righteous one who did God’s will, Jesus offered himself once and for all for the sins of his people to provide true atonement.

Furthermore, the reference to euaggelion in verse 9 is part of the Old Testament background of ‘gospel’ which was surely in the back of Paul’s mind, maybe especially so in Romans 1. There we see a similar juxtaposition of euaggelion, soteria, and dikaiosune in, maybe, one of the most famous gospel texts, Romans 1: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation (…). For in it the righteousness of God is revealed…” (vv. 16–7).

Conclusion

In this discussion, we came across some concepts which will be important later on: the faithfulness and righteousness of God, trust in God, and God’s deliverance from enemies. These together form the gospel which David proclaims to the people of Israel. The gospel in this case is good news about the King, in contrast to previous uses of euaggelion which referred to human kings. With this gospel David stirs the people up to praise YHWH, their King, the one who can be compared to no other.

Next up: Psalm 68.

Endnotes

[1] Bor is used recurrently by the Psalmist to denote the realm of the dead: Psa 28:1; 30:3; 88:4, 6; 143:7. Furthermore, Jacob, assuming Joseph’s death, says, “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (Gen 37:35).

[2] See L. Michael Morales, Exodus Old and New: A Biblical Theology of Redemption, and the treatment of the exodus-theme in G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New.

[3] This is reminiscent of creation imagery from the story of Adam, flood imagery from the story of Noah, and Red Sea imagery from the story of Israel, which may strengthen the resurrection imagery.

[4] See Psa 69:1–2, 14–5 for the juxtaposition of the same images: “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. (…) Deliver me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. Let not the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the pit close its mouth over me.”

[5] This also hearkens back to the Song of Moses in Exo 15, e.g., v. 11: “Who is like you, O YHWH, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” For God’s ‘thoughts’, compare Isa 55:8–9.

[6] This is a reference, of course, to Rom 1:17. It must be noted that the LXX of Psalm 40 does not use the pistis word group (‘faith’) but instead uses elpis (‘hope’).

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