Psalm 140: Deliverance from Evil Men

Deliver me, O Lord, from evil men;
preserve me from violent men,
who plan evil things in their heart
and stir up wars continually.

–Psalm 140:1, 2 (ESV)

It’s been suggested that the order of the selections in the Psalter could be more significant than we might think, and considering Psalm 140 in the context of its neighbors seems to give credence to this claim.

By itself, this psalm is simply an individual lament in which David calls upon the Lord for deliverance from his enemies.  He expresses righteous hatred for the slander and violence of the wicked, while declaring his own complete trust in God.

To grasp the broader picture, we need to back up and consider the progression from Psalm 138 to Psalm 140.  All three of these songs were composed by David, possibly at the same time and probably under similar circumstances.  Psalm 138 is a song of thanksgiving and confidence: “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and your right hand delivers me” (v. 7).  The personal plea of its last verse (“Do not forsake the work of your hands”) is expanded in Psalm 139, which extols the Lord for his omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence, as we considered a few weeks ago.  But Psalm 139 also contains a transitional passage which helps us understand Psalm 140 more clearly:

Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
O men of blood, depart from me!
They speak against you with malicious intent;
your enemies take your name in vain!
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with complete hatred;
I count them my enemies.

–vv. 19-22

Looking at Psalm 140 from this larger perspective, we can see in it echoes of the confidence of Psalm 138 and the personal assurance of Psalm 139.  “I say to the Lord, You are my God; give ear to the voice of my pleas for mercy, O Lord!” (v. 6).  Although the psalmist is grieved by the arrogance and cunning of his godless enemies, his eyes remain fixed on his own Protector.  At the end of Psalm 140, David declares:

I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted,
and will execute justice for the needy.
Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name;
the upright shall dwell in your presence.

–vv. 12, 13

291, “Deliver Me from Evil”

Turning to consider the Psalter Hymnal’s single versification of Psalm 140, I find myself sadly disappointed.  “Deliver Me from Evil” contains only a weak and wobbly imitation of David’s declarations and prayers.  As with many of these settings, the sense of righteous imprecation is almost totally lost.  Even the very first line is softened—“Deliver me, O Lord, from evil men” becomes simply “Deliver me from evil.”  Much of the content of this psalm setting needs beefing up in order to merit inclusion in any new psalter.

One asset number 291 does possess is the beautiful German tune MUNICH, commonly sung with the hymn “O Word of God Incarnate” and utilized in Mendelssohn’s Elijah to the words of Psalm 55:22, “Cast thy burden upon the Lord…”  It’s a simple yet moving melody which colors the theme of this psalm perfectly.

Psalm 140 is much more than a lament; it is a much-needed reminder that even when “our sworn enemies—the devil, the world, and our own flesh—never stop attacking us” (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 52, Q&A 127), we have a Deliverer in heaven who will cover our head in the day of battle.

Let evil smite the evil,
And cause their overthrow;
The needy and afflicted
The Lord will help, I know;
Thy saints, redeemed from evil,
Their thanks to Thee shall give;
The righteous and the upright
Shall in Thy presence live.

–MRK

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