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Psalm 10 Commentary

In this Psalm 10 commentary I’d like to give you a demonstration of how I go about preparing a message in the psalms using Psalm 10 as an example. It’s a lesson on how to interpret Hebrew poetry. And the idea is that hopefully you’ll pick up on some of the advice I give and be able to apply it to your own time in the Bible. So, may the Lord grant that this be the result of today’s lesson.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Genre

To begin, what type of psalm are we looking at here? It’s a lament psalm. And in fact this is the last lament psalm I plan to cover for a while. So, as we move on to some other type of psalm next time – I want to gauge how well you can identify this kind of psalm. How do you know if a psalm is a lament psalm?

Well, what’s another name for a lament psalm? We can call them “complain psalms”. Why is that? It’s because the author of the psalm – the poet – is complaining about something in the psalm.

Not all psalms have complaints in them. I know it’s hard to believe that – since about 1/3 of the Psalter is lament psalms. But really, there are other kinds. Like praise psalms, nature psalms, worship psalms, etc.

So, really, the first question you need to ask yourself when you come across a psalm – if you really want to try to understand it better – is this: “is the psalmist complaining about something or someone?”

We’ve seen the psalmist complain about his adversaries increasing. He’s complained about a drought and the faithless reaction that some Israelites were having to that test of faith from the Lord. He’s complained of evil men slandering him. He’s even subtly – or not so subtly – complained that God seems to be aloof or asleep and in need of being roused!

So, what’s the first thing to note about a psalm when you start reading it? “Is there a complaint?” If there isn’t, then you simply have to wait until our next lesson when we start studying the next sub-genre of psalm. Or you can just read it and ask the Lord to illumine the message to you. That’s a better idea, actually.

And let’s just ask ourselves whether there’s a complaint in the psalm we’re looking at today – Psalm 10. Is David complaining about something?

Yes. I mean, from the very first line we have the psalmist complaining that God seems so aloof in times of trouble. And as we keep reading we see his lengthy complaint about wicked men and such. So, yes, in Psalm 10 we see a complaint. Therefore it’s a lament psalm. The psalmist is lamenting something here.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Structure

And so – if there is a complaint – then we start to look at the structure of the psalm. Because we know that there are how many basic parts of the structure of a lament psalm? 5!

Now, praise, nature, and worship psalms each have their own structure. Their structure is different from the structure of a lament psalm.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Lament

So, we try to find the elements that make up the structure of Psalm 10. And I’d recommend starting off by looking for the lament itself. The lament is usually a detailed focused running commentary on the problem that the psalmist is complaining about.

So, let’s try to find the lament. Is it in Psalm 10:1? Well, no. Certainly the feeling that God is hiding in your time of trouble is something to lament. But it’s not the main focus of this psalm. There’s something else happening that makes the psalmist feel as though God were hiding.

So, let’s look at Psalm 10:2. Ah, this is more promising. The psalmist directs his focus toward “evil men”. We find the psalmists often complaining about these men. Their actions and words are the things that seem to make God seem so distant from the psalmist. They act wickedly with impunity – they get away with it. And so, yes, Psalm 10:2 is in fact the beginning of the lament of Psalm 10. And this particular lament doesn’t end until Psalm 10:11. So, from Psalm 10:2-11 we have the main complaint of the psalm. So, you can mark that off your list of structural elements to look for. 1 of 5.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Petition

The next structural element that I’d suggest looking for is the petition.

Remember – these elements can come in any order. And they can actually appear a few times in one psalm.

The petition in Psalm 10 demonstrates that an element can appear more than once. Look at Psalm 10:12. That’s clearly a petition. The psalmist is asking God to arise.

But then he doesn’t ask for anything in Psalm 10:13-14.

And then he comes right back to petitioning in Psalm 10:15. He asks that the Lord break the arm of the wicked. And then we don’t hear another request from the psalmist again in this psalm.

So, then, what verses represent the petition of this psalm? I’d Psalm 10:12 and Psalm 10:15. It doesn’t necessarily include the verses between – since the psalmist isn’t asking for anything in them.

OK, so that’s the second of five elements of the structure of this psalm.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Confidence

Now – the author of a lament psalm doesn’t simply complain and make requests. He also is almost always sure to express confidence in the Lord. So, let’s look for the author’s statement of confidence.

Psalm 10:1 certainly can’t be classified as confidence. Then Psalm 10:2-12 and Psalm 10:15 are already subsumed under another element of the structure. So, that leaves us Psalm 10:13-14 and Psalm 10:16-18.

I’m going to contend that Psalm 10:13-14 and Psalm 10:16 are all the psalmist’s statement of confidence in the Lord. And that makes for an interesting pattern. Psalm 10:12 is petition. Psalm 10:13-14 – confidence – the wicked think they’re getting away with murder, but we know better. God will defend the defenseless. Then Psalm 10:15 – petition again. Psalm 10:16 – confidence – the Lord is king! So, the psalmist alternates between requests and confidence in the God to whom he’s making those requests.

Alright, so that’s the third of five structural elements in this psalm. The last two aren’t too difficult – because they’re the bookends of this psalm – Psalm 10:1 and Psalm 10:17-18.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Invocation

I would consider Psalm 10:1 to be the invocation, where the psalmist calls out to the Lord.

And in this case it sounds almost like the psalmist is accusing God. He’s getting into Job territory here. And again that leads me to think of how patient and merciful the Lord is to his small, puny, needy creatures. He mercifully bears with his people as the perplexities of life lead us to wonder if God is even listening.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Praise

But what a change we experience in this psalm. We start with the psalmist wondering why God seems to be hiding himself in Psalm 10:1. And we end with the praise section in Psalm 10:17-18.

And that makes a lot of sense. Because lament psalms are ultimately the psalmist working toward mastering some crisis in his life.

Then it should come as no surprise that Psalm 10 goes from perplexity at God’s felt-absence … to praise for God helping the author through his crisis.

So, those are the last two elements of the structure of a lament psalm – invocation and praise.

And now we’ve just worked through the structure of this psalm. Do you think you can do something similar in your personal time in the Scripture? You don’t need to. But it would probably help you understand what the psalm is saying.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Underlying Situation

OK, so, with the structure of the psalm determined we move on to the underlying situation of the psalm.

Keep in mind that there’s a reason for each psalm. The author was moved to write his psalm by some situation or thought in his life.

So, how do you figure out the underlying situation of a psalm?

First, you look to see if there’s a superscription. And in this psalm there is none. So, we need to inspect the rest of the psalm and look for clues.

And if you take the time to read through the psalm, I think what emerges is a picture of oppression. Wicked, powerful men are oppressing and persecuting the poor, needy, humble, innocent people in the psalmist’s culture. These wicked men have absolutely no fear of God. They oppress the poor and get away with it. And because they keep getting away with their injustices, they come to have a great amount of confidence in their belief that God isn’t aware of what they’re doing. They’ve actually convinced themselves that God won’t punish them for their evil.

And meanwhile, the psalmist – whomever he may be: it might be David or someone else – he looks on in bewilderment. He knows that God is just. And yet God is allowing this injustice to continue. Why isn’t he responding? Why isn’t he judging the wicked and delivering the innocent?

So, these are the concerns on the psalmist’s heart that led him to write Psalm 10. Wicked men oppressing the innocent. And God’s seeming inaction in light of this reality.

See? You could probably come up with something like that.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Topic

So, after we get the underlying situation of the psalm, we try to summarize it. Is there a single word that summarizes the realities expressed by the psalmist? We call this the psalm’s “topic”.

So, what is the psalmist musing on in this psalm? I would say it’s “oppression.” And you can test this by relating the topic to each of the five elements of the structure of this psalm.

So, in the 1) lament, the psalmist mulls over the oppression that he’s seeing all around him. His 2) petition is for the Lord to end the oppression of the wicked. His 3) confidence is that God will end this oppression. The 4) invocation at the beginning expresses the psalmist’s grave concern at what he perceived to be God’s initial reticence to end the oppression. And 5) the praise at the end of the psalm actually ends with these words – “that the man of the earth may no more [what?…] oppress.” Do you see how this topic of oppression relates to each of the five structural elements? So, that’s the topic of Psalm 10.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Theme

Next, we consider the theme of the psalm. The theme is what the psalmist says about the topic of the psalm.

And the topic of Psalm 10 is “oppression.” So, what does the psalmist say about oppression? Well, a few things.

The wicked practice oppression without fear. The innocent are the unhappy recipients of it. And ultimately God will end it.

So, to boil that down, we could say that the theme is: God will end the oppression of the wicked against the innocent. Or – to be more terse – God Will End Oppression.

So, by now we’ve discovered the genre of this psalm. We’ve delineated its structure. We’ve dug into the reason why it was written – the psalm’s underlying situation. And we’ve found the psalm’s topic and theme.

Psalm 10 Commentary

The only thing left to do is to take note of the poetic devices in the psalm. And actually, that might be the most time-consuming task there is. So, let’s get into the details of this psalm.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Verse 1

Let’s look at the invocation again in Psalm 10:1.

We’re looking for poetic devices. Things like metaphor, simile would be most likely to find in the psalms. Anthropomorphism is also pretty common. That’s where the psalmist attributes to God human qualities.

So, notice Psalm 10:1 – the psalmist asks God why he stands at a distance. First of all, does God physically stand? God the Father – the being who has no physical form: he’s a spirit – does he physically stand? No, he doesn’t. That’s an anthropomorphism.

And later in the verse – does God really hide himself? Physically literally does he hide himself? Is there a rock that’s big enough for him to hide behind, for example? No. God doesn’t literally physically hide.

If you try to read Psalm 10:1 here as if you were reading a narrative in the Bible you’re left with a very strange picture. And that’s the clue that it’s not meant to be taken literally. But – and pay attention to this – that doesn’t mean that what’s being said isn’t true. The statements being made may not be literal. But they are communicating real meaning. So, what are these pictures communicating?

Imagine that there’s some sort of trouble. You need help and so do those around you. And now imagine someone standing afar off from you – someone who has the power to help you. And this person ought to draw near and help. But instead, in your imagination, this man is actually hiding himself from you.

What kind of emotions does that elicit from you? Fear? Helplessness? Frustration? Anger? I think those are the emotions the psalmist is trying to communicate. He’s afraid. He feels helpless, forsaken. “Why is God not answering?” Where is he? Why won’t he come to our aid?

OK? Do you follow? When we come across something in poetry that doesn’t make literal sense, we need to recognize what it’s actually communicating. And this doesn’t just throw the door open to all sorts of strange interpretations. I mean, I’m not going to be able to say that these pictures the psalmist uses in Psalm 10:1 mean that God is a purple dragon. I wouldn’t be able to say that this anthropomorphism communicates that God likes pizza. The images themselves carry specific meanings. And it’s our job to interpret those meanings and then apply them to God. And that’s what we just did.

Now, one more thing in Psalm 10:1. One unmistakable feature of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. There are two lines in Psalm 10:1. And in this case they both basically communicate the same point. So, we’d call that synonymous parallelism. Standing afar off and hiding oneself are two ways of saying the same thing. Why did the Hebrew poet use parallelism? Well, one benefit of the practice is that it forces you to stop and meditate on what he’s communicating. Since the Scripture places some level of importance on meditation, it makes sense that the authors use repetition like this to kind of slow you down and make you stop and really think about what he’s saying.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Verses 2-11

Alright, let’s move on to Psalm 10:2-11 and try to find some other poetic devices and try to unwrap and understand them.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Verse 2

In Psalm 10:2 we have another form of parallelism. Only this time it’s not synonymous. The two lines aren’t communicating the same idea. In this case, the second line is simply adding more information to the first.

But other than that, Psalm 10:2 seems to be pretty literal. The wicked really do persecute the poor. Not too much interpretation to do there.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Verse 3

Psalm 10:3 – the wicked boast of the things his heart desires. He blesses covetous people – the very people whom the Lord hates. Again, nothing that stands out as metaphorical.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Verse 4

Psalm 10:4 – God’s not in his thoughts. He is too proud to seek after God.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Verses 5-6

Then Psalm 10:5. His ways are always grievous. Do you suppose the wicked ever did a good thing? Or I can ask it like this. Do evil people always do everything they do as wickedly as possible? Whenever we talk about the depravity of man, we always find ourselves needing to explain that even though man is totally depraved, that doesn’t mean he can’t do any good. Wicked men go to work. They provide for their family. They pay taxes. At the very least, every time they pass by a baby in a stroller, they don’t sneer at him. When they’re walking down the road and a dog passes by, they don’t always in every instance take the time to kick the dog.

What’s my point? My point is that literally it may well be the case that every single way of the wicked is not necessarily grievous. And yet, that doesn’t nullify the truth communicated in Psalm 10:5. The lament section of lament psalms is often exaggerated. Why? Because it’s not necessarily conveying literal physical facts. The psalmist is communicating emotional truth to us. He wants us to feel how evil the wicked truly are. He’s not lying to us. He wants you and me to feel the very grave evil that these men embody. And so he sometimes will use hyperbole – emotional truth – that if it were taken as literal facts would not be true.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Verse 7

Now, look at Psalm 10:7. Is mischief and vanity really literally physically under his tongue? I’m sounding like a broken record. But I’m just trying to demonstrate the very thoughts I need to work through as I prepare a message from these psalms for my church every week.

So, no, these abstract things – mischief, vanity – they’re not literally under the tongue of the wicked. But what Psalm 10:7 communicates to us is the extreme degree to which these men use their words to do harm. It’s as if they have mouths that are so full with fraud and cursing that it’s just spilling out of them.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Verse 8

Then Psalm 10:8. The wicked is pictured as a dangerous wild beast that lurks for its prey.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Verse 9

Psalm 10:9 – he’s like a lion who drags his prey away. End of Psalm 10:9 – the wicked now is likened to a human hunter who catches his prey in his net.

What does this communicate? It communicates the strength and subtlety and cunning of the wicked. It communicates the helplessness and weakness and vulnerability of the innocent victims whom he’s oppressing.

Let me point out one other feature in this lament.

Notice what the wicked is pictured as saying in Psalm 10:6. And this is a picture – because the psalmist tells us that this is something said only in the heart of the wicked – he says “I won’t be moved. I’ll never see adversity.”

Psalm 10 Commentary
Verses 10-11

And then look down to Psalm 10:11. Someone again is saying something in his heart. Who is it this time? Some think the wicked. But I think it could be a reference back to the poor in Psalm 10:10. The poor are now saying “God’s not paying attention to this evil. He’s hiding. He won’t see.” When wicked men are allowed to have their way this is what happens – the wicked themselves feel like they’re literally getting away with murder. And the oppressed ones feel like God doesn’t care. In both cases, both parties are feeling less and less like God is how he declares himself to be – the one who has eyes that go to and fro throughout the earth beholding the evil and the good.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Verses 12-16

Let’s move on past the lament of this psalm and on to the repeated petition and confidence in Psalm 10:12-16.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Verse 12

Again, in Psalm 10:12, we see anthropomorphism. God is requested to arise and if he’s sitting down and inactive. And he’s asked to lift his hand as if he has a physical body like you and me. In both cases, the psalmist is simply asking the Lord to act. Stand up. Raise your hand to strike the wicked. Then he’s asked to not forget the humble – as if God can ever forget anything.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Verse 13

Psalm 10:13 is an example of where the poetic device of parallelism can help understand a text. Do you know what “contemn” means? I can safely say that I’ve never used that word. So, what does it mean?

Look at the second line in Psalm 10:13. This is what it looks like for the wicked to do this thing to God. He speaks to God in a condescending tone and says basically “you’re not going to punish me.” So then – and you could have looked this up in a dictionary I guess – but contemn means something like “think little of” or “to not be concerned about”. Basically, “Eh, God? Big deal. He’s going to punish me? Psh – I haven’t experienced that yet from him.”

Psalm 10 Commentary
Verse 14

But he doesn’t know the truth of Psalm 10:14. The Lord has seen it. He’s going to pay back the wicked and take vengeance for the most vulnerable in society who are being mistreated. It’s not only the poor and fatherless that receive God’s help. It’s just that they’re representative of the most vulnerable and helpless in society. And it’s those kind of folks that the Lord helps.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Verse 15

Psalm 10:15 – the psalmist asks the Lord to break people’s arm. Wow! Again, is that what he’s literally asking the Lord to do – to physically break one of the arms of every wicked person who oppresses the innocent? And if not, then what is he communicating? The arm is a symbol of strength. So then, the psalmist is asking the Lord to undo the strength that the wicked have which they’re using to oppress the innocent.

The end of Psalm 10:15 is interesting. I don’t know if you’d call it a play on words or just a recurring theme. But here the psalmist asks the Lord to SEEK OUT the wickedness of the wicked. Back in Psalm 10:13, the wicked literally says “you (Lord) will not SEEK”. And back in Psalm 10:4, the wicked will not SEEK God.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Verse 16

Then there’s a metaphor in Psalm 10:16. The Lord is king. He has power. He has authority. He will banish evil men from his domain – just like a real physical king could.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Verse 17

Psalm 10:17 says that God’s ear will hear. Does God have an ear? It doesn’t matter in poetry. God hears even without a literal physical ear.

And the result of God’s actions? End of the psalm – that the man of the earth – the earthly puny weak little man – which is what the wicked ultimately are anyway – that they may no more oppress.

Psalm 10 Commentary
Summary

So, there’s a lesson in interpreting a lament psalm. And along the way I hope we were all encouraged that God Will End Oppression. So take these tools home. Practice with them. And let me know how they work for you.

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Psalm 10 Commentary
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Psalm 10 Commentary
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I'd like to give you a demonstration of how I go about preparing a message in the psalms using Psalm 10 as an example. It’s a lesson on how to ....
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