Fifth Decade of Psalms
The 43rd Psalm is very similar to the one before it, and in a handful of manuscripts it is even included together with it. But rather than consider it as a detached portion of the 42nd Psalm, it is a simpler explanation to consider this as a supplement, composed with the previous psalm in mind, expanding on the same themes.
“Judge me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation . . .” (Psalm 43:1-5).
Summary of the Text
The psalmist cries out to God for judgment (v. 1). He is being attacked by an “ungodly nation,” and he seeks God’s vindication. Deliverance, when it comes, would be from the deceitful and unjust man (v. 1). God is the God of David’s strength, and David finds it inexplicable that God has cast him off (v. 2). Why does David have to go mourning because of the enemy’s oppression? He then prays that God would send out His light and His truth in order to lead David home, back to the worship of the true God (v. 3). When light and truth have done this, then David will approach the altar of God, unto God Himself as his joy, and David will not be able to contain the music (v. 4). The psalm concludes with David chiding himself, just as he had done in the previous psalm (v. 5). He then ends with the triumph of faith, knowing that he will in fact praise God, who is the health of his countenance and his God (v. 5).
We have commented before on the striking differences that arise when we compare the mentality of the psalmist with the mentality of many modern Christians. One of those differences is the eagerness with which the psalmist frequently seeks out and is hungry for God to judge him. The Christian who understands that all his righteousness is filthy rags is reluctant to say this, and quite understandably. But this kind of isolated judgment is not the only kind of judgment there is. And if it were, the psalmist knew as well as we do that we would all be in serious trouble. “If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” (Ps. 130:3).
But there is another sense of judgment in Scripture—vindication, deliverance, justification. This cannot be understood apart from a distinction made between absolute righteousness (Godward), which no one has, and covenant righteousness (toward God and man), which all believers are called to display. When we cry out to God, asking Him to judge our cause, vindicating us “because of our righteousness,” this is what we are doing. Think of it as the difference between “being righteous” and “being in the right.”
As C.S. Lewis notes, “The difference is that the Christian pictures the case to be tried as a criminal case with himself in the dock; the Jew pictures it as a civil case with himself as the plaintiff” (p. 15). The Psalms are full of pleadings from plaintiffs, and this is something we must recover. This does not erase our awareness of our justification in that great criminal case, in which we were the guilty accused, but rather should heighten it.
Remember your great forgiveness in that criminal trial every time you enter a civil complaint—do not be like the wicked servant who was forgiven 10 million and then choked his fellow servant over a quarter—but do not remember your acquittal in such a way as renders you incapable of taking up your own cause ever. One definition of a liberal is one who is incapable of taking up his own side in a dispute. Don’t be like that. But neither should you be the kind of person that cannot conceive of ever having been at fault in any way. There are at least two senses of justification, and we must remember them both.
David needs to be delivered from the deceitful and unjust man (v. 1). Those two characteristics are twin vipers. Because he is unjust, he has no standard of justice to operate by other than his own self-interest, whatever that might happen to be. And because that is the case, and because lies are frequently a good way to get your way on the cheap, he is also deceitful. This makes every conflict lopsided. One disputant is constrained by a sense of justice and fair play, and the other is not. An amateur Olympic boxer has to fight in this way, and he is up against someone fighting by ultimate cage fighting standards. And because of this, the psalmist cries out to God, who is the one who will ultimately put all things to rights.
God of My Strength
God will certainly do this, even though it appears that He is uninterested in doing it now. God, You are my strength. Where did You go? This the same theme as the previous psalm, and it has the same resolution. David chides himself, talking to himself. “Why are you disquieted?” But again, the same as before, he turns to God in confidence—”for I shall yet praise him.” In the midst of great troubles, remember that you are the servant of a far greater God. And the greatness of God surpasses the greatness of your troubles in a way that overcomes the apparent distance of this great God.
Bring Me to the Altar
Just as in the previous psalm David longed to be in the great multitude, worshipping God in a very public way, so here he desires to come to God’s holy hill, His tabernacles. He wants to approach the altar of God, which is simply a way of saying he wants to approach God Himself, the God who is his exceeding joy (v. 4).
Great Deliverance is the Mother of Great Music
After David is brought to the altar of God, after he is successfully brought to God his exceeding joy, the result is music. “Upon the harp will I praise thee, O God my God” (v. 4). The one who is forgiven little loves little (Luke 7:47). The one who is complacent has little to sing about. The one who is lethargic has little reason to break into song. God often brings us through great trials because it is the only way to produce magnificent music. He doesn’t want to bring us to heaven in such a way that we can only stand around and hum. For the wine to be made, the grapes must be crushed. For the songs of deliverance to come forth, the people must be afflicted first.
It is therefore no coincidence that periods of reformation and revival are periods marked by musical explosiveness. Paul tells the Colossians that the word of Christ should dwell in the them richly, and that they should then overflow in psalm, hymns and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16). The richness of the dwelling should line up with the richness of the fruit, and if the fruit is poor, then the spiritual experience producing it is poor. And that often happens because we are lukewarm, and have no intention of every getting into the kind of trouble that David used to get into.