Psalm 35 — When Friends Become Foes

35 Plead my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me: fight against them that fight against me.

2 Take hold of shield and buckler, and stand up for mine help.

3 Draw out also the spear, and stop the way against them that persecute me: say unto my soul, I am thy salvation.

4 Let them be confounded and put to shame that seek after my soul: let them be turned back and brought to confusion that devise my hurt.

5 Let them be as chaff before the wind: and let the angel of the Lord chase them.

6 Let their way be dark and slippery: and let the angel of the Lord persecute them.

7 For without cause have they hid for me their net in a pit, which without cause they have digged for my soul.

8 Let destruction come upon him at unawares; and let his net that he hath hid catch himself: into that very destruction let him fall.

9 And my soul shall be joyful in the Lord: it shall rejoice in his salvation.

10 All my bones shall say, Lord, who is like unto thee, which deliverest the poor from him that is too strong for him, yea, the poor and the needy from him that spoileth him?

11 False witnesses did rise up; they laid to my charge things that I knew not.

12 They rewarded me evil for good to the spoiling of my soul.

13 But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into mine own bosom.

14 I behaved myself as though he had been my friend or brother: I bowed down heavily, as one that mourneth for his mother.

15 But in mine adversity they rejoiced, and gathered themselves together: yea, the abjects gathered themselves together against me, and I knew it not; they did tear me, and ceased not:

16 With hypocritical mockers in feasts, they gnashed upon me with their teeth.

17 Lord, how long wilt thou look on? rescue my soul from their destructions, my darling from the lions.

18 I will give thee thanks in the great congregation: I will praise thee among much people.

19 Let not them that are mine enemies wrongfully rejoice over me: neither let them wink with the eye that hate me without a cause.

20 For they speak not peace: but they devise deceitful matters against them that are quiet in the land.

21 Yea, they opened their mouth wide against me, and said, Aha, aha, our eye hath seen it.

22 This thou hast seen, O Lord: keep not silence: O Lord, be not far from me.

23 Stir up thyself, and awake to my judgment, even unto my cause, my God and my Lord.

24 Judge me, O Lord my God, according to thy righteousness; and let them not rejoice over me.

25 Let them not say in their hearts, Ah, so would we have it: let them not say, We have swallowed him up.

26 Let them be ashamed and brought to confusion together that rejoice at mine hurt: let them be clothed with shame and dishonour that magnify themselves against me.

27 Let them shout for joy, and be glad, that favour my righteous cause: yea, let them say continually, Let the Lord be magnified, which hath pleasure in the prosperity of his servant.

28 And my tongue shall speak of thy righteousness and of thy praise all the day long.

After three decades of disobedience, God’s anointing was taken from the house of Saul, “Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He has also rejected you from being king (1 Sam. 15:23, 26). Samuel left Saul, now plagued by evil spirits, and found David at Bethlehem. Samuel anointed David the new leader of Israel (1 Sam.16:13), and the Lord was with him (1 Sam. 16:18). Success was David’s at the killing of Goliath, the Philistine (1 Sam. 17). Paranoid, Saul made David a military leader and had him married to his daughter, Michal. He wanted to control the popular shepherd turned warrior. The whole dramatic conflict between Saul and David is recorded in 1 Samuel 13–31.

The house of Saul grabbed power, while losing YHWH’s favor; and the king’s obsession was for David’s ruin. David, therefore: lost his job, lost his home, lost his best friend, lost his wife, and lost his spiritual mentor. He was on the run. With Saul’s passion to destroy David, opportunists fueled Saul’s irrational fire against the young leader. This was when his friends became foes. David was chased into the wilderness and remained vulnerable for years because he refused to retaliate against the house of Saul. He did pray, however. Slander, promulgated by malicious witnesses, made David enemy number one in his own country; but not all the people were convinced. His good works were remembered by those who were quiet in the land. Still, Saul’s hired hands worked their treachery against YHWH’s choice for leader, but God would not allow them to touch David.

Psalm 35 is linked to Psalm 34 by key terms and phrases. Psalm 34 is a reflection by David after deliverance. Psalm 35 is a pressure packed, present tense lament. It has a clean structure: I. (vv. 1–10) A petition for protection; II. (vv.11–18) A lament to be heard; III. (vv.19–28) A petition for vindication. Each of the three sections is comprised of the same three elements: petition; lament; and praise. The Psalm is imprecatory because of David’s quest for YHWH’s justice (vv. 4–8, 25–26). Imprecations are prayers to curse covenant breakers. There are other imprecatory Psalms: 55; 59; 69; 79; 109; & 137. Where Psalm 34 is laden with nouns to describe the righteous, Psalm 35 is packed with participles exposing the evildoings of Saul and his men.

The subject of Psalm 35 is the preferred resolution in the conflict between the house of Saul and David. The message of the Psalm is that justice for David and Israel, following lament and petition, would result in songs of praise. The themes are militant (vv. 1–3) and legal (vv. 11–28). The literary devices drive the drama with metaphors galore, similes, rhetorical questions, and abundant direct quotations. David’s wishes are made known through ten jussives, represented by the English translations, “Let” or “May.” Our proposition is that Psalm 35 is a wonderful salve to the wounds of believers betrayed and subsequently persecuted by former family, friends, co-workers, or neighbors. It teaches those who delight in the law of the Lord to trust YHWH for protection, deliverance, and vindication.

David petitioned YHWH to confront and battle his adversaries (v. 1). There are endless possibilities in the marketplace of self-deliverance. When one reaches the end of himself, losing everything, failure again and again; then, he is prone to call on the Lord to contend and fight for him. The sooner we call on Jesus, the greater our faith is demonstrated.

David requested YHWH to arm Himself defensively and assist His servant (v. 2). The military theme reveals the depth of danger David faced from those who fight against me. The implements of war are those of a shield bearer. The Lord is my strength and shield, and He is present for my help.

David requested YHWH to arm Himself offensively to intercept the aggressors; while beckoning words of blessed assurance (v. 3). I need a hero. I’m holding on for a hero ’til the morning light. The spear and battle-axe are intimate weapons of war. Those who pursue me are in close proximity. The background of wilderness training is helpful. David trained the rag tag assembly of four hundred men that grew to six hundred. Later, they would become his mighty men and his governmental cabinet. He had known from the beginning of his days as a warrior that the battle belongs to the Lord. Christians, especially in the West, need to be reminded of our wartime status. We are born into the spiritual war, live through it, and die in it. Every believer melts when the Lord says, “I am your salvation.” Jesus is my Savior, my very present help.

David imprecated against those who wanted to humiliate and hurt him (v. 4). Here is the first wish of David for justice. Saul intended to kill David. Shamed and humiliated, David wished equivalent retribution for those who devise evil against me. The curses of dishonor and repulsion belong to the oppressors. David asked YHWH to grant them in the anticipation that evil shall slay the wicked (34:21). The wanderer in the wilderness refused to lay hands on Saul, but he sure prayed against him.

David imprecated for the angel of the Lord to blow his enemies away (v. 5). The simile of chaff, the waste product of winnowing, would drive them on before the wind. Jesus used similar imagery in the separation He anticipated at the Day of Judgment. The angel of Lord appears only here (vv. 5–6) and in 34:7 in the Psalms. He sometimes serves as a messenger from God and sometimes a warrior in texts outside of the Psalter. Usage in the Psalms definitely places him as protector of the righteous and pursuer of the wicked (35:6). Some commentators see the angel of the Lord as the pre-incarnate Christ.

David imprecated for difficult conditions of retreat for his adversaries (v. 6). Violent winds are accompanied by dark and slippery paths. The hunters become the hunted in divine vengeance. The heart of the righteous simply wants things set straight. Divine justice provides just punishment.

David interrupted his imprecation with a lament (v. 7). The son of Jesse was not perfect, but he was dealing with a house plagued with demons. Saul’s household pursued David’s demise without just cause. The men he formerly fought the Philistines with — side by side — now conspired against him. No doubt some of them had aspirations to take David’s position and authority. Some were just vindictive and bloodthirsty. The net and the pit require planning and strategic placement. Secret meetings were likely held when they began gunning for him, but their rage only intensified after David departed for the wilderness. Those who hate the righteous will be condemned (34:21), but the house of Saul was unmoved in their singular obsession.

David imprecated sudden self-destruction for his foes (v. 8). Paul uses this passage to describe his fellow countrymen who operated in disobedience and unbelief (Romans 11:7–10). Again, no hand was laid upon them by David. Justice is done when the wicked fall into the pit they prepared for someone else’s destruction. Christianity gets diluted and soft because it follows liberal practices like the 1980 Church of England prayer/song book, which invited its users to disregard the imprecatory Psalms. The passionate petition for justice against wickedness is a privileged prayer offered by the believer. We should pray against evildoers and expose their evil (Eph. 5:11).

David shifted from petition to praise in closing out our first section (v. 9). My soul, on the precipice of the pit (v. 7) and longing for blessed assurance (v. 3), now rejoices and exults in His salvation. The verbs are future tense. David is promising to praise YHWH. How many times have you said, “Lord Jesus, if you get me out of this mess, I will…” David is a man after our own hearts, too.

David, still in praise, posed three rhetorical questions (v. 10). It is all my bones who query, “who is like You?” The reference to bones is a connector back to Psalm 34:20, where no bones are broken by the enemy. The rhetorical question is pure praise. The answer, of course, is absolutely no one! David continued questioning and praising, “who delivers the afflicted?” The enemy is too strong for God’s people. David was always outnumbered by Saul’s men. This warrants our trust, our cries, and our pleas for help because the afflicted and needy are robbed by him who is too strong for us. We are frequently outnumbered by oppressors, and of course, the children of the world are easily more cunning than the children of light (Lk. 16:8). Getting rid of God’s man was easy, but getting rid of God is never going to happen.

David moved his case from the battlefield to the courtroom, and his petitions became laments (v. 11). YHWH is judge (35:24). Malicious witnesses are coached and brought into the room. They ask me of things that I do not know. “David, does Saul have a mental illness?” “Hmmm, judging by the javelin in the wall next to my head, I would say ‘I don’t know’; but it just might be an evil spirit from the Lord!” Trapping David in his words was one strategy employed. Good wisdom suggests you always let your yes, be yes and your no, be no.

David continued his lament against the way he was treated in Saul’s house (v. 12). They repay me evil for good, no doubt, increased with Saul’s lunacy and the insetting groupthink. The classic case of serving good to fools and receiving evil was Nabal’s disregard of David’s ministry of protection against evil men. John the Baptist cried out at the approach of the religious leaders, “You brood of vipers,” to warn the people. Nabal had a good number of sheep. David’s pastoral team watched over Nabal’s shepherds and sheep. Nabal (his name means “fool”) refused to pay tribute. David raged in anger against his mistreatment to the bereavement of my soul, and he took four hundred men to murder Nabal. The overkill was assuaged by the wise and beautiful interceder, Abigail. She honored God’s anointed with due homage and alleviated his bitter anger by simply doing the right thing. Nabal died of a stroke soon after he sobered to the news of his near demise. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord, “I will repay.”

David contrasted his ministry to Saul and his household with their mistreatment of him (v. 13). When they were sick David’s tokens of mourning appeared: sackcloth, prayers, and fasting. When Saul stumbled, David humbled himself. Even a guilty conscience plagued David after he cut off Saul’s robe in the Cave of Adullam. David knew it was suicide to touch the Lord’s anointed, but Saul’s confused conscience wavered between a passion to destroy God’s anointed and remorse for dealing with David so treacherously. At some point Saul and his house believed the lies and slander they contrived and promoted against David. We are inclined to follow David’s advice, regardless of the circumstances, “Depart from evil and do good; seek peace, and pursue it (34:14).” Saul’s house had no interest in negotiating with David.

David revealed how close his present rivals had been to him (v. 14). His ministry included eating at the same table, camping with them on mountain tops and in desert places, and warring against the enemies of Israel with them. These were his friends. These were his brothers. They were now his foes without just cause. He mourned and sorrowed like never before. Sweet fellowship had become sour discord, leading to his displacement.

David again contrasted their treatment of him after they drove him into the wilderness (v. 15). But at my stumbling is a paradox. The Lord was with David from the time of his anointing. Saul was the old guard, and David was the new man. Saul clung to his position and power despite years of miserable disobedience. The old guard included everyone who had a vested interest in governing the kingdom of Israel. When David “stumbled” they gathered together, pounced like lions on his vulnerability, They slandered me without ceasing. Following a coup d’etat, meetings abound. New ideas, new strategies, and of course, new people in power were required because David’s position needed to be filled. David referred to the new leadership team as “smiters.” They were the new “strike” team I did not know who gathered against me. People he thought he knew, David now confessed, he did not know. Jesus will say on the day of judgment, “Depart from me, I never knew you.”

David observed his opponent’s behavior from afar and described them with a simile (v. 16). Godless jesters at a feast, who gnashed their teeth at me, is very rich imagery. Jesters make fun of people. David was the laughing stock of Israel. His name was a joke to them at their high feast holidays. They had forgotten that David was God’s anointed leader for them simply demonstrated their godlessness. Saul’s house did not fear God. They refused the words of Samuel the prophet. Samuel left them. The Word of God was a mere side concern. Years after the glory of the Lord departed from his house, at the point when Saul finally realized his godless plight, he consulted Samuel through the witch of Endor. Samuel’s spirit told Saul that he and his household were dead men. Gnashing their teeth was quite right, but they were doing it for the wrong reasons.

David interrupted his lament with a petition (v. 17). Lord, how long will you look on? YHWH is omnipresent and omniscient. YHWH is our rescuer because he says, “I am your salvation.” David called Him on it, “Rescue me!” The ravages of lions is a metaphor going back to Psalm 34, where David could hear the young lions roar with hunger for blood from his wilderness cave (34:10). They could smell him, and if they could have found him…desert buffet!

David again offered praise to close our second section (v. 18). The shepherd of Israel is not alone with his vision of the future. The great congregation, a mighty throng, is gathered to give thanks and praise. David’s lament and petition have been heard and answered in the future. That is faith. He was convinced, for he was holding a hope of things not yet seen. David knew he was called to be the leader of Israel. His calling did not go away. David knew he had been anointed as the shepherd of Israel. His anointing did not go away. David knew YHWH was still on the throne. Wrongs would be made right. He kept faith! The question was, “how long?”

David sought vindication from YHWH (v. 19). God alone can bring good from evil. Joseph knew it. Moses knew it. David knew his faith belonged in the One who alone justifies. Malicious witnesses verify their collusion with malicious winks, “We are all in agreement, right?” They rejoiced at being those who are wrongfully my enemies, who hate me without a cause. David was the problem, a threat to the house of Saul. His leadership meant a changing from the old guard. Many would need to stand down, but they were not going anywhere. They were confused on just about everything; but on the issue of David, they could agree.

David exposed their advertising campaign (v. 20). The house of Saul needed to win popular support from those who are quiet in Israel. Most people don’t say too much. They watch politics, but they just want to live in peace. Power players do not speak peace. They devise deceitful words. David’s reputation in Israel was worse than a Philistine’s. “Watch out!” “Beware of David!” “You cannot trust someone so ambitious and full of pride.” “We are not even sure he is a Jew!” “Did you hear he stole a sword and lied to Ahimelech, the priest?“ “Saul has issued a report on David, have you read it?” Gossip…even the name has a hiss to it!

David contrasted YHWH’s silence with his challengers’ verbosity (v. 21). They opened their mouths wide suggests there is voluminous content gushing forth. When a feeble protest arose from the quiet ones, in favor of David’s character and work, it was denounced, “Aha, Aha…” The case against the anointed one was made over and over again. Consider the trials of Jesus. The evidence was suspect. The witnesses needed to collaborate better than they did. No one wanted to take responsibility. His trials were covert so the people would not hear about it until He was a goner. In the end, it did not matter. “Are you the Messiah? Did God choose you to be our leader?” was the elders’ inquisition. It was met with the sublime, “You said it, brother.” Because they all knew it! Still, the cost of relinquishing their position and power is life and death for religious leaders. They will say whatever it takes to throw their brother under the bus, “our eyes have seen it!

David returned to petition in order to counter the malicious witnesses (v. 22). You have seen it, O Lord is the plea for a true witness. David needed God to vindicate with his voice, “do not be silent.” Saul’s army was closing in on David in the wilderness, so he prayed, “do not be far from me.” The Lord is near and the Lord is good, and David knew whose name to call on.

David prompted and prodded YHWH to defend him (v. 23). My Lord and my God is a precious utterance. Powerful covenant Keeper of promises, come to the bench and judge my right cause. David was not saying he was perfect or sinless. He was arguing that a covenant had been made, and YHWH needed to act out the curses against the covenant breakers.

David requested a trial before God (v. 24). Judge me is an uncomfortable utterance for those outside the covenant or for those who have broken the covenant. The righteousness of God is the merit David claimed. It was not his own. David was saying, “Look, Lord…You called me. You appointed me. You anointed me. Take a look at me out here in the wilderness. Is this right?”

David imprecated against the superior attitude of the covenant breakers (v. 25). Do not let them have their way, Lord! Their desire was to swallow him up and be rid of him. If David left Israel, they intended to ruin him. If David stayed in Israel, they intended to ruin him. With YHWH as his protector and provider, manna in the wilderness sustained David and his little flock of distressed malcontents. All David could do was hide and wait. He discipled his men and ministered a bit in Keilah, Maon, Carmel, and Ziklag. Grace and faith kept him going…for years…in the wilderness.

David imprecated retribution against his troublers (v. 26). Shame, humiliation, deviant joy, dishonor, and denigration were gifts from the house of Saul to David during his years on the run. David simply asked YHWH to return the favor.

David asked for a blessing for those who supported him (v. 27). Let them shout for joy and rejoice, who favor my vindication is a good wish. David’s vindication allows the people to shout, “The Lord be magnified.” Each faithful soul of the great and mighty congregation in heaven joins the angels in a never-ending chorus of praise. The Son of David has been vindicated. He, too, suffered in the wilderness. He, too, was despised and rejected by men. He, too, was slandered, misunderstood, and mistreated. The enemies of David are the enemies of Christ, and the enemies of Christ are the enemies of God. Blessed is the man who can say, “I am a friend of Jesus Christ, nay, a brother, who delights in the prosperity of His servant.” It is and will always be shalom for the house of David, for even in the wilderness He says, “I will give you rest.”

David vowed to praise YHWH all day for His righteousness (v. 28). The One who is slow to anger and slow to wrath will not let the unjust go unpunished. David proclaimed the Faithful covenant Keeper, even before all the promises were fulfilled. Praise Him for His righteousness!

In sum, David delighted in the Law of the Lord, but Saul leaned on his own understanding. By faith, David trusted the Lord to deliver him, but Saul disobeyed God. In the world, both Saul and David had trouble, but the Son of David overcame the world and brought many sons to glory. The railings and reviling remain for those who follow in the footsteps of David and of Jesus. They will cast you out of the synagogues on my account, but lo I am with you, in the wilderness, even to the end of the age. You, too, will sit on thrones of glory judging the angels. Hang in there little wilderness camper!

David Norczyk

Spokane Valley, Washington

June 24, 2021


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David Norczyk

Some random theologian out West somewhere, Christian writer, preacher