by David E. West, England
Psalm 40 is the sixth of the so-called ‘Messianic Psalms’. It was probably written by David during the period of Absalom’s rebellion, or that of Adonijah. Certain expositors have suggested that the Spirit of God has used David to voice the language of David’s Lord and David’s Son and have attempted to apply the whole of the Psalm to Christ. However, the present writer considers that much of the Psalm applies personally to the Psalmist, whilst acknowledging that vv.6-8 are interpreted in Hebrews chapter 10 as a prediction of the Messiah.
The statement “Mine iniquities have taken hold upon me” Ps.40.12, constitutes one of the main objections, indeed the strongest objection, to the application of the whole Psalm to the Messiah. Then again, it is difficult to consider Christ using the words of vv.14,15, which are imprecatory in character.
The broad divisions of the Psalm are:
- Deliverance by Jehovah – vv.1-5
- Address to Jehovah – vv.6-10
- Petition to Jehovah – vv.11-17
William McBride’s suggested outline is most helpful1:
- Talking about the Lord – vv.1-4
- Talking to the Lord – v.5
- Listening to the Lord – vv.6-10
- Pleading with the Lord – vv.11-17
- 1. McBride, William. “Meditations in the Messianic Psalms”. Crimond House Publications, Newtownards, N. Ireland, 2017.
Verse 1: The Psalmist says, “I waited patiently for the LORD [Jehovah]”. The words rendered “waited” and “patiently” are the same in the original Hebrew; thus, literally, it would read ‘in waiting, I waited upon the LORD’, that is, he continued to wait; it was continuous and he persevered in it. This intimates that the relief did not come quickly; his prayer was answered after repeated requests.
“And He [the LORD] inclined unto me”: He bowed, He bent forward, leaned over “and heard my cry”, the cry which David made for help. How gracious of the Lord! It is a blessed thing to wait on the Lord; patient waiting upon God always brings its due reward. David’s words have been rendered, “I surely hoped [trusted] in the LORD”; could this have been the moment of David’s salvation?
Verse 2: “He brought me up also out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay.” The imagery describes David’s past hopeless and helpless situation. The word rendered “horrible” carries the thought of ‘noise’; J.N. Darby translates “a horrible pit” as “a pit of destruction”. David adds “out of the miry clay”; his distress is reminiscent of the actual experience of Jeremiah, “so Jeremiah sunk in the mire” Jer.38.6.
However, the Lord brought him up, lifted him from his dire circumstances and “set [his] feet upon a rock”: from no footing, David found a sure footing. The Hebrew word for “rock” here is sela, which means a ‘crag rock’ or ‘fortress’. When the children of Israel were thirsty in the wilderness, Moses smote the bed rock (Hebrew tsur); on a later occasion, when the people were thirsty, God instructed Moses to speak to the rock (crag rock, Hebrew sela). It has been suggested that “the bedrock speaks of Christ in humiliation, bearing the rod of Divine judgment for sin whereas the crag rock speaks of our Lord Jesus Christ exalted in glory”.2
- 2. Ibid
David goes further, and says that He “established my goings”, He directed my steps; his ways would now be ordered by the Lord Who lifted him up. The believer today finds himself on a firm footing with a new direction in his life. The gospel changes lives!
Verse 3: Experiences of Divine intervention leave deep impressions upon those who have had them. Firstly, David’s mouth was filled with a song of praise: “And He hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God”. This is the second of the seven references to “a new song” in the Old Testament (six in the Psalms: 33.3; 40.3; 96.1; 98.1; 144.9; 149.1; and one in Isaiah: 42.10). “New” has the meaning of ‘unheard before’. The words of the song are not given to us in this Psalm; we are simply told that it is “praise unto our God”; David was thus identifying himself with his people, expressing the idea that the new song of praise was appropriate to them as well as to himself. Remembrance of our salvation is always an occasion for a new song.
David continues, “Many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the LORD”. We do well to bear in mind that words such as “all Israel shall hear, and fear”, for example, Deut.13.11, are used several times of the effect produced by the capital punishment of a high-handed transgressor of the Law. However, here David was acutely aware that the deliverance which gave rise to this new song would be a testimony to others to show reverential fear and place their trust in the Lord.
The verb (v.3) and noun (v.4) forms of the important Hebrew word “trust” imply a faith of confident commitment. On our part, there should be a holy, reverential fear of God that serves as the foundation of our hope in Him.
Verse 4: “Blessed is [‘O, the happiness of’] that man that maketh the LORD his trust.” Here is one of the beatitudes of the Psalms. Thus, the Psalmist invites others to make the Lord their hope, as he did, v.3, by pronouncing those to be happy that do so. The Hebrew word haggever means ‘strong man’; however, true human strength lies not in depending upon one’s self, but rather in complete trust in and dependence upon God. The man of faith in God’s sight is ‘strong’, although in the eyes of the men of the world he may seem quite insignificant.
Verse 5: “Many, O LORD my God, are Thy wonderful works which Thou hast done.” David revels in the wonder of all that the Lord has done. What a precious title of God Himself: “Jehovah my God”; notice “my God”, for David has come to know this wonderful God in a very personal way. The Lord Himself speaks of “all My wonders which I will do in the midst thereof [that is, in Egypt]” Ex.3.20. Just as God intervened to deliver Israel from Egypt’s bondage through wonderful works, the same God has delivered David personally from bondage and set his feet on the rock.
“And Thy thoughts which are to us-ward.” All His wonderful works are the product of His thoughts toward us: “thoughts of peace, and not of evil” Jer.29.11. His thoughts toward His people are equally great. The expression may be rendered ‘Thy thoughtfulness for us’. His consideration and His providential care deserve praise and thanks, equally as do His wondrous acts. God’s thoughtfulness for ‘us’ is individualised in verse 17 of the Psalm: “the Lord thinketh upon me”.
“They cannot be reckoned up in order unto Thee”: as the Psalmist considers placing God’s thoughts in some order or arrangement, he concludes that such an exercise is completely impossible; “If I would declare and speak of them”: note that the words “if” and “of them” are in italics in the Authorised Version, indicating that they are not expressed in the original Hebrew. David is, in fact, declaring and speaking forth a wonderful truth: “they [God’s thoughts] are more than can be numbered [or ‘rehearsed’]”. They can neither be counted, nor estimated, nor valued, nor set in order by the human mind. We may attempt to count our blessings, but we shall not succeed!
Verse 6: Verses 6-8 of the Psalm are quoted in Heb.10.5-9 (the writer to the Hebrews quotes from the Septuagint version, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew), thus confirming that Psalm 40 is a Messianic Psalm. These verses, together with vv.9, 10, apply only to the Lord Jesus, and not to David.
However, David hears the Lord speaking of His first advent, vv.6-8, and also of the future great congregation, vv.9,10. These two sections are written in the past tense; sometimes events that are yet future are presented in this way, for example “Yet have I set My king upon My holy hill of Zion” Ps.2.6; in the eyes of eternity, these events are as real as if they have already taken place.
“Sacrifice and offering Thou didst not desire.” Four kinds of offerings are mentioned in this verse. “Sacrifice” is the rendering of the Hebrew word zebach, which is a general term for all sacrifices of thanksgiving (principally the peace offering), which could be presented as a thanksgiving, or at the making of a vow, or sometimes just as a voluntary offering. It was a fellowship offering and was shared by the altar and the priesthood, as well as by the one making the offering. We never read of ‘a sacrifice of burnt offering’, or ‘a sacrifice of sin offering’, or ‘a sacrifice of trespass offering’; we only read of ‘‘a sacrifice of peace offering’’ Lev.3.1. “Offering” is the Hebrew word mincha and describes the meal offering, with which is associated the drink offering; this was the gift to the altar of the fruits of the earth.
The commandment to offer sacrifices is not negated by the phrase “Thou didst not desire”. These offerings were Divinely prescribed and required, but they were not desired, for in themselves they brought no delight or joy to God; He was not completely satisfied with the sacrifice.
We now read “Mine ears hast Thou opened [or ‘digged’]”, the verb being derived from a word meaning ‘opening by digging or boring’. The generally accepted interpretation is that the expression alludes to the law and custom of binding servants to serve for ever by boring through their ear to the doorpost, Ex.21.6, although the word for “digged” here is different from the verb “bore … through”. There perpetual service is denoted; here in Psalm 40 it is more a question of perfect service. However, the phrase may look forward to the One Who daily enjoyed communion with Jehovah and Whose ear was open to hear the will of God: “He wakeneth morning by morning, He wakeneth Mine ear to hear as the learned [‘the instructed ones’]” Isa.50.4. If this be so, then both perpetual and perfect service are realised in Christ. “He wakeneth morning by morning” Isa.50.4: perpetual service; “The Lord God hath opened Mine ear, and I was not rebellious” Isa.50.5: perfect service. It should be added that the present writer is given to understand that the literal rendering of the phrase is ‘two ears hast Thou dug for Me’; this would picture both obedience and dedication.
The Psalmist continues, “Burnt offering and sin offering hast Thou not required”. The burnt offering (Hebrew olah) was a sweet savour offering, wholly for God, Leviticus chapter 1, offered in its entirety (apart from the skin) upon the altar, typifying the utter devotion of Christ, even unto death. The sin offering (Hebrew chatath) was a non-sweet savour offering; this dealt with the question of sin or the removal of ceremonial defilement, Leviticus chapters 4 and 5. The trespass offering is not mentioned in Psalm 40. However, God did not accept the offerings for their own sake: “hast Thou not required”.
Verse 7: Remember that David is hearing the Lord speak of His first advent. “Then said I, ‘Lo, I come’”; “Then” – immediately, at once, without any delay; this betokens a ready response – “said I, ‘Lo’”. “Lo” is prefixed to the sentence as a note of attention; “I come”: He Himself and not another. The Revised Version has “I am come”; it is therefore to be referred not only to the assumption of His manhood, but also to the time after it; the truth concerning the Incarnation of Christ is of the utmost moment and importance.
The verse continues, “in the volume of the book [scroll] it is written of Me”: the reference is to the inspired scroll, the Holy Scriptures. This alludes to the manner of writing in a past day: when what was written was completed, it was rolled about a stick in the manner of a cylinder. At the time of the writing of the Psalm, only the Pentateuch had been composed, but when Christ spoke these words, it would embrace all of the Old Testament Scriptures: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings, for they all attest to Him; “it is written [prescribed] of [for] Me”: His coming had been promised.
Verse 8: “I delight to do Thy will [‘good pleasure’], O My God.” We do well to note the delight of Jehovah in Messiah: “Behold My servant, whom I uphold: Mine elect, in whom My soul delighteth” Isa.42.1, and the delight of the Father in the Son: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased [‘I have found My delight’ J.N.D.]” Matt.3.17. Christ alone could do the will of God perfectly and He alone could delight in it. The will of God in our present verse is not defined in detail; however, the Spirit of God in Heb.10.10 tells us specifically which aspect of God’s will is in view: “By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all”.
The verse goes on, “Yea, Thy law is within My heart”, that is, ‘in My inmost parts’, literally, ‘in the midst of My bowels’. The “bowels” are used metaphorically in Scripture to describe the seat of emotions within a person. Messiah delighted both to meditate upon it (“in His law doth he meditate day and night” Ps.1.2) and to yield obedience to it. What delights Christ should be the delight of His servants.
Discussion of the Quotation in Hebrews Chapter 10
It would seem to be appropriate to consider at this point the verses quoted in Heb.10.5-9. In verse 4 of that chapter the writer states, “It is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins”. Animal sacrifices had no efficacy to deal with sins; there was no power or virtue in the blood of bulls and goats to remove sins. The assertion of v.4 is then confirmed by a citation of Ps.40.6-8. This citation appears twice here in Hebrews chapter 10: vv.5-7 are the quotation itself, whilst vv.8,9 are a comment upon the quotation. “Wherefore” – the writer continues the argument to its conclusion – “when He cometh into the world, He saith”, so we are privileged to hear what Christ, when coming into the world, said to God. His language teaches us that He existed before His Incarnation.
“Sacrifice” – this refers to any of the animal sacrifices – “and offering” – this covers the meal offering and the drink offering – “Thou wouldest not”: they did not in themselves express God’s will. But how could it be said that God did not will them, if He commanded them? The answer is that God ordained them and ordered them that He might be enabled, in righteousness, to go along with a sinning people. The verse continues, “but a body hast Thou prepared Me”. We have seen that the Hebrew version of Psalm 40 has “ears hast Thou digged for Me”; however, the Septuagint has “a body didst Thou prepare for Me”. The body prepared (furnished completely) by God for the Son was the instrument of His self-surrender and His entire and devoted submission to the Father’s will.
The quotation continues, “In burnt offerings [that is, whole burnt offerings, those which were entirely consumed upon the altar] and sacrifices for sin” – the broader reference to these offerings here embraces two kinds, sweet savour and non-sweet savour – “Thou hast had no pleasure”, thus these sacrifices, in themselves, neither expressed God’s will, v.5, nor gave Him pleasure.
The writer adds, “Then said I, Lo, I come [or ‘I am come’]” – He, and only He, was entitled to say these words as He was entering into this world – “in the volume of the book it is written of Me”. “Book” is used here of the whole of the Old Testament, the Holy Scriptures; this book cannot be Psalm 40 because, of course, these words are found there as well; “to do Thy will, O God”: He alone could truly say, “I delight to do Thy will, O My God” Ps.40.8. What did bring pleasure to God was Christ’s willingness to do His will; at last there was such a life as would bring pleasure to God.
The quotation from Psalm 40 is now repeated in a way that illustrates further a principle of God’s dealings. The writer will now go into more detail regarding the sacrifices of which he has spoken. “Above when He said”: the reference is to verse 5 of Hebrews chapter 10. Four distinct words are used here:
- “Sacrifice” may be used in a general sense, more particularly to indicate the peace offering (a fellowship offering);
- “Offering”: again, this may be employed in a general sense; however, it appears here that we are being directed to the meal offering;
- “Burnt offerings”, which were wholly consumed upon the altar;
- “Offering for sin”: guilt offerings were of two kinds:
- Sin offering, for sins which had been committed in ignorance;
- Trespass offering, for sins committed knowingly and wilfully.
The emphasis is upon God’s lack of pleasure in the sacrifices offered by the Law.
The writer to the Hebrews continues, “Then said He” – immediately after declaring God’s displeasure with the old economy – “Lo, I come to do Thy will, O God”: Christ stepped forward, although, of course, this was written in Psalm 40 before He came. This is a most sublime and majestic utterance, carrying with it the certainty of the accomplishment of His will. In having quoted from Ps.40.7, the writer now draws his conclusion: “He taketh away the first, that He may establish the second”. The old order of sacrifices is thus taken away, and the sacrifice of Christ is established.
Returning to Psalm 40:
Verse 9: Verses 9 and 10 are written in the past tense. However, as we have already observed, sometimes events that are yet future are presented in this way, as having already been accomplished. So, we read, “I have preached righteousness in the great congregation”. David makes reference to “the congregation” in Psalm 22: “I will declare Thy name unto My brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise Thee” v.22. The writer to the Hebrews takes up the Psalmist’s language and applies it to the Church: “in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto Thee” Heb.2.12.
However, our present verse makes reference to “the great congregation”. Is this a term to describe the redeemed of all ages?
The Lord declares prophetically to this “great congregation” that He has “preached righteousness”. The Hebrew word rendered “preached” means ‘declared as glad tidings’ and is the precursor of the New Testament terminology for the “gospel” and “preaching the gospel”. What is preached is “righteousness”; this is identified as God’s righteousness, “Thy righteousness” v.10. Christ loved righteousness: “Thou hast loved righteousness and hated iniquity [‘lawlessness’]” Heb.1.9, and when He was here in this world, He lived it; it was the manner of His life.
“Lo, I have not refrained My lips”: He will preach without restraint or restriction, freely and openly. Verses 9 and 10 envisage a day when no aspect of truth shall be hidden from the people of God; all shall be revealed by the Lord Jesus. “O LORD, Thou knowest”: He will conceal nothing and this will be known by Jehovah. In this present day, we do well to love what the Lord Jesus loves (righteousness) and to hate what He hates (lawlessness).
Verse 10: We continue to hear the words of Messiah to “the great congregation”. “I have not hid Thy righteousness within My heart”: He is still emphasising the righteousness of God in dealing with men. God’s unfailing faithfulness to His promises and His salvation would be proclaimed: “I have declared Thy faithfulness and Thy salvation”. The lovingkindness and truth of God would not be hidden: “I have not concealed Thy lovingkindness and Thy truth from the great congregation”. The Lord Jesus formally preached for about three and a half years whilst here on earth; He fully told His disciples of the Father and of Himself.
Verse 11: It should be noted that verses 11-17 of the Psalm are repeated in Psalm 70, following the Messianic Psalm 69. David continues, “Withhold not Thou Thy tender mercies from me, O LORD”; the Psalmist speaks personally: “me”. This is the supplicatory section of the Psalm, although as to this opening phrase, it is not so much a plea as an expression of confidence, “Thou, O Jehovah, wilt not restrain Thy tender mercies from me”.3
- 3. Flanigan, J.M. “What the Bible Teaches – Psalms”. John Ritchie Ltd., Kilmarnock, 2001.
Could some of the sentiments mentioned in vv.9,10 be the past experience of David himself? If so, he prays, “Let Thy lovingkindness and Thy truth continually preserve [or ‘guard’] me”. It is therefore fitting that the Lord should not withhold His lovingkindness and truth from the Psalmist. We, as believers today, may be assured that the Lord’s lovingkindness and truth are not withheld from ourselves when we seek them.
Verse 12: Troubles still abounded for David. “For innumerable evils [‘calamities’ or ‘afflictions’] have compassed me about”; they had surrounded him, they had beset him on every side; “mine iniquities have taken hold upon me”: these troubles appear to be the consequences of his iniquities. The statement “mine iniquities have taken hold upon me” constitutes one of the main objections, indeed the strongest objection, to the application of the whole of this Psalm to the Messiah. We further read, “so that I am not able to look up”: these words appear to suggest that David was bowed down under the remembrance of his iniquities. However, this is apparently not the exact idea expressed in the original Hebrew. It is rather “so that I am not able to see” and refers to the dimness or failure of sight caused by distress or weakness.
“They are more than the hairs of mine head”: the reference is to the sorrows that came upon David as a result of his iniquities themselves, the idea being that they could not be counted; “therefore my heart faileth [the marginal reading is ‘forsaketh’] me”. He sank under these sufferings; he could not endure them.
Verse 13: Although the Psalmist has experienced a great deliverance, v.2, his life is threatened by his enemies, v.14, he is still scoffed at and flouted, v.15, so David cries, “Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me: O LORD, make haste to help me”. Twice in one sentence he pleads the Divine name, “O LORD”. “Be pleased” may be rendered ‘be accepting’; in this present verse, the Psalmist does not specify that of which he desires the Lord to be accepting; he is, however, confident in the ability of the Lord to deliver him on the basis of that acceptance. There is a sense of urgency: “make haste to help me”; delay would prove dangerous.
Verse 14: This verse is almost a repetition of Ps.35.4, where we read, “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.” Then verse 26 of that same Psalm expresses a similar desire: “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.”
The present verse reads, “Let them be ashamed and confounded together that seek after my soul to destroy it”. David prays for the confounding of his enemies; they were seeking his destruction. There appears to be an air of confident expectation; it implies the certainty that they would be dealt with thus. The second half of the verse expresses the same desire in different words, characteristically of Hebrew poetry: “let them be driven backward and put to shame that wish me evil”, that is, turned backward, as they are unsuccessful in the execution of their plan, or defeated.
In this present age, we do not offer imprecatory prayers in respect of men who may set themselves against us, but nevertheless such words may encourage us to look for victory over our spiritual enemies who seek to destroy our souls.
Verse 15: Verses 15 and 16 can be found in phrases gathered from part of the same Psalm (Psalm 35). David cries, “Let them be desolate for a reward of their shame that say unto me, ‘Aha, aha’”. The Hebrew word for “desolate” employed here means ‘to be astonished’ or ‘amazed’; it then came to suggest ‘laid waste’ or ‘made desolate’. The word used here and rendered “for a reward” means ‘the end’, the last of anything, then the ‘recompense’, as being the result or the outcome of a certain course of action. The desolation that David prayed for would be the appropriate recompense for their purpose or for what they said. To their shame, his enemies said, as they looked upon him, “Aha, aha”: this was an exclamation of malicious pleasure at his misfortune. This expression is found twice in Psalm 35: “Yea, they opened their mouth wide against me, and said, ‘Aha, aha, our eye hath seen it’” v.21, and “Let them not say in their hearts, ‘Ah, so would we have it’” v.25.
Verse 16: Having been concerned in verses14 and 15 with those who were his enemies, David now turns to think of those who loved the Lord as he did: “Let all those that seek Thee rejoice and be glad in Thee”. All those who seek the Lord with their whole heart are exhorted in the first place to “rejoice and be glad in Thee”. Horatius Bonar has taken up these words in the following hymn:
- Rejoice and be glad, for the blood has been shed,
- Redemption is finished, the price has been paid!
The Lord Jesus is concerned for the joy of His people; addressing His disciples He says, “These things have I spoken unto you, that My joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full” Jn.15.11. In the Epistle to the Philippians, where there is a theme of joy, albeit written from prison, Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice” Phil.4.4.
David continues, “Let such as love Thy salvation say continually, ‘The LORD be magnified’.” We love God’s salvation because therein we see His character so wonderfully displayed; He is the author of this salvation. Those in David’s day were to constantly desire that Jehovah should be magnified. Similar expressions are found in the Psalm already alluded to: “Let them shout for joy, and be glad, that favour my righteous cause: yea, let them say continually, ‘Let the LORD be magnified’” Ps.35.27. These words of the Psalmist should encourage all who seek God and love His salvation to rejoice in Him and praise Him.
Verse 17: The context of the reflection expressed in this closing verse is the Psalmist’s sense of the pressures of evil round him. “But [or ‘though’] I am poor [or ‘afflicted’] and needy; yet the Lord thinketh upon me.” The language describes the condition of one who was afflicted and who was, at the same time, poor. David had no resource but in the Lord, and was passing through times of poverty and distress. There were undoubtedly times in the life of David when such language would be applicable. “Yet”, he says, “the Lord thinketh upon me”; He has not forgotten me; He cares for me.
In this present age, we too are the objects of the thoughts of God. What an encouragement to know that He has us in mind; we are constantly in His remembrance. Says Peter, “Casting all your care upon Him; for He careth for you” 1Pet.5.7: the reference is to His care of forethought and interest: ‘It matters to Him about you’.
We further read, “Thou art my help and my deliverer”: David has the highest confidence in the One to Whom he makes his final appeal; “make no tarrying” – the need is urgent – “O my God [Elohim]”. We would do well to make the latter half of this closing verse our own today. We hear the Lord Jesus saying, “Surely I come quickly”. We respond, “Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus” Rev.22.20: “make no tarrying”!