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This psalm begins in a disastrous period in Israel’s history, and ends with disaster for her enemies and foes. It begins with Israel drinking the wine of astonishment at her peril and impending calamity, and ends with Moab and Edom thrown down. It begins with Israel facing potential disaster, and ends with her enemies facing actual disaster.
To the chief Musician upon Shushaneduth, Michtama of David, to teach; when he strove with Aramnaharaim and with Aramzobah, when Joab returned, and smote of Edom in the valley of salt twelve thousand.
“O God, thou hast cast us off, thou hast scattered us, thou hast been displeased; O turn thyself to us again . . .” (Ps. 60:1-12).
Background to the Text
The inscription to this psalm identifies it with the occasion when Joab defeated Edom in the valley of salt. This would appear to be the battle mentioned in 1 Chron. 18:12, although there the slain were numbered 18,000. The discrepancy may be accounted for by reckoning 12,000 to Joab, and 6,000 to his brother Abishai. David came to a (divided) throne in 1 Chron. 11), and was immediately in the midst of hard fighting—first with the Philistines, and then later with Edom and Moab. Remember that when David assumed the throne, the priests of God had been murdered by the king, the kingdom was still divided, contemptible men were in office, and Israel’s military power had been scattered. David says that God had cast Israel away, and the word indicates the way you would cast away a loathsome object.
Summary of the Text
This psalm progresses through three phases. The first reflects the terrible situation that Israel was in when David came to the throne (vv. 1-3). The reign of Saul was ended by the military disaster at Gilboa. When David came to power the Philistines were in the ascendancy, and the Israelites were divided between David and Ishbosheth. Threats were potent in every direction, but David cites the real problem. God had cast them off (v. 1). God was the one making Israel lean precipitously, ready to go clean over (v. 2). God had given Israel the gift of hard times. He had showed them hard things, and had given them the wine of astonishment (v. 3). The second section (vv. 4-8) begins with those capable of learning from the first three verses—“those who fear thee.” God gave them a banner to fly (v. 4). David’s name means beloved, and he is a proxy for all God’s beloved (v. 5). God has given the word, and David will triumph (v. 6). He will divide the spoils in Shechem (v. 6). Gilead and Manasseh, loyal to Ishbosheth, will come to David (v. 7). Ephraim, the largest tribe, will be David’s strength, and Judah will be the seat of law (v. 7). Moab becomes a pot for David to wash his feet in (v. 8), Edom will have to clean his boots (v. 8), and Philistia is taunted with the irony of David’s victories (v. 8). We see this exultation is all by faith because the third section presents a petition to God that concerns the coming conquest of Edom (v. 9). The entry to Edom was Petra, and the access to that was a two-mile long canyon, with places only wide enough for two horses side by side. God, who formerly had abandoned Israel, is asked to return to them (v. 10), and what man cannot do, God most certainly can (v. 11). Through God we will do valiantly—and that is the only way we will do valiantly (v. 12).
We always want to deal with a wound by dabbing around the edges of it. We want to spin our way out of a hard diagnosis. We don’t want the hard truth. But when David comes to the throne, he conducts a frank and completely honest inventory. He concludes that Israel makes God sick. All the horizontal difficulties (and there were many) were functions of God’s great displeasure. And so David begins by asking for a true restoration (v. 1), which will only happen if God turns back to Israel. Israel was tipping over, and at the point of utter collapse (v. 2).
The straight way out of any disaster is complete honesty in confession. How do we know that help is near? When God shows us hard things. When God gives us wine that makes us stagger.
Broken and Restored
But there are two elements to this. The first, just mentioned, is honesty about the sin. The second is honesty about your Savior. Those who fear God, David says, are given a banner. Where does a banner belong? On the end of a pole, up in the sky, with that pole in the hands of the bravest man in the regiment. God gives a banner to those who fear Him (v. 4), so that it might be displayed because of the truth (v. 4), in order that God’s beloved might be delivered by Him (v. 5). Salvation must be declared. The Savior’s name must be honored. The banner of Christ’s sacrificial lordship over all, a blood-red banner, must be unfurled. And when it is, no matter how grim the circumstance before, God will arise and by His might, put all His enemies to flight.
God Hath Spoken
David’s confidence is not suspended in mid-air. God had promised the land to the patriarchs, and so David’s confidence was based on a recognition that God will complete what God has begun. If God has declared that something will come to pass, then he is no fool who counts on it coming to pass, and who labors toward that end.
Vain is the Help of Man
David began by noting that God needed to be the one who reversed Israel’s misfortune. He ends on the same note. He asks God for help from trouble, and he says that vain is the help of man. At the same time, he says “through God we shall do valiantly.” We work out what God works in. Work out your salvation, Paul says, with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you to will and to do for His good pleasure. A strong confidence in the ultimate and complete authority of God does not lead to a passive quietism. It does not lead to the true believer schlumped on the sofa. We shall do, and we shall do valiantly. Atheist observers will deny that God had anything to do with it —but we know better.