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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 140

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



This, like the other psalms in this group, is from the pen of David, according to the superscription, which is as reliable as any other information that has come down to us concerning the authorship of the Psalms.

Barnes summed up the matter of authorship, writing, “This also is a psalm of David… It bears every mark of David’s style and spirit; and there can be no doubt that he was the author of it.”(F1)

The bitter conflict that marked David’s life with all kinds of vicious and unscrupulous enemies is reflected in every line of this composition.

As for the occasion, Delitzsch noted that, “It may be explained from the circumstances of the rebellion of Absalom.”(F2) The mention of “evil man” in the singular (Psalms 140:1) and the “head of those that compass me about” (Psalms 140:9) have led some to view the reference in those verses to king Saul and to the choice of David’s conflict with that monarch as the occasion. However, in the opinion of C. Short, “The speaker is a king in danger from crafty, violent and rebellious subjects,”(F3) which, if true, would rule out the occasion of David’s struggle against Saul.

Dahood writes that, “The archaic forms of the language point to an early date of composition,”(F4) thus strongly favoring Davidic authorship.

The thoughts and vocabulary of David as revealed in other psalms ascribed to him are found in practically every verse here. We shall mention these verse by verse in the notes below. We reject as unprovable the speculations that interpret these likenesses to David’s other psalms as mere, “Quotations and adaptations of earlier psalms,”(F5) strung together by some imitator. The psalm before us has every conceivable earmark of originality, intense personal feeling, and genuine concern for the danger of threatening, unscrupulous enemies.

A strong emotional surge is evident in the psalm itself. Whereas Psalms 140:1-9 are orderly and systematically put together, the three sections each ending with “Selah,” when the psalmist came to the imprecatory prayer against his enemies he poured it out like hot rocks from a volcano, ignoring the ordinary rules observed in the first nine verses. No imitator could possibly have done a thing like that!

Verses 1-3


“Deliver me, O Jehovah, from the evil man; Preserve me from the violent man: Who devise mischiefs in their heart; Continually do they gather themselves together for war. They have sharpened their tongue like a serpent; Adders’ poison is under their lips. (Selah)”

“From the evil man” Although this has been interpreted both as “the leader,’ of enemies and as “a collective” indicating many enemies, “More probably the singular form has a collective force.”(F6) Miller agreed with this. “`Evil men’ and `violent men’ (RSV) are singular forms in the Hebrew, but the plural verbs in Psalms 140:2-3 indicate that these singular forms are used in a collective sense.”(F7)

“Who devise mischiefs in their heart” “`Mischiefs’ is a very suggestive and comprehensive term. It always means scheming, underhanded plotting to do some evil thing. Only two other times in the whole Bible do we find the plural ’mischiefs’ as used here, i.e., in Deuteronomy 32:23 and in the Davidic Psalms 52:2.”(F8)

“They gather… together for war” These words do not fit the times of David’s conflict with Saul, referring rather to Absalom’s `war’ against his father David.

“They have sharpened their tongue” Like the word `mischiefs,’ this image of a `sharp tongue’ also appears in the Davidic Psalms 52:2, where we have, “tongue… like a sharp razor.” Still another Davidic Psalm (Psalms 57:4) mentions the `sharp tongue.’

“Adders’ poison is under their lips” Paul’s quotation of this as an evidence of human sinfulness (Romans 3:13) is, “The poison of asps is under their lips.” The switch from “adders” to “asps” came because Paul quoted from the LXX. Both serpents were poisonous.

As DeHoff commented on these verses, “God’s children who have felt the sharp tongues of the servants of Satan have no difficulty understanding this verse and knowing how David felt.”(F9)

Verses 4-5


“Keep me, O Jehovah, from the hands of the wicked; Preserve me from the violent man: Who have purposed to thrust aside my steps. The proud have hid a snare for me, and cords; They have spread a net by the wayside; They have set gins for me. (Selah)”

Here again, as in the first strophe, we have the singular nouns coupled with plural verbs, indicating the collective meaning of the nouns. “The wicked” and “violent man” are singular, but the verbs “have purposed,” “have hid” and “have set” are plural. The rendition in the RSV is correct.

Other Davidic psalms reflecting the same thoughts and terminology that we find here are Psalms 16:2; Psalms 10:2; and Psalms 25:19.

The devices of the wicked enemies trying to destroy David appear in this strophe under three metaphors: (1) the trap; (2) the cords; and (3) the net. “The trap was a snare as in KJV; the cords refer to a kind of noose hidden in the ground so as to catch the leg; and the net was used to catch birds or sea creatures.”(F10) The archaic word “gin” means a rather intricate trap.

Verses 6-8


“I said unto Jehovah, Thou art my God: Give ear unto the voice of my supplications, O Jehovah. O Jehovah the Lord, the strength of my salvation, Thou hast covered my head in the day of battle. Grant not, O Jehovah, the desires of the wicked; Further not his evil device, lest they exalt themselves. (Selah)”

The mention of “war” in Psalms 140:2, and the mention of victory in the day of “battle” are clearly not the words of a man fleeing from King Saul. The speaker here is a king against whom a war is planned and who here thanks God for victory in a previous battle.

Here again the terminology and thought-patterns correspond exactly with other Davidic psalms. See Psalms 16:2; Psalms 28:4; and Psalms 112:10.

“Further not his evil device” “The Hebrew phrase from which this comes is, `Do not let issue successfully his evil device.’(F11)

The RSV closes the strophe here, placing the “Selah” at the end of this clause. We are not able to judge if this is an improvement or not. It appears to us that the meaning is not greatly affected by the change.

Verses 9-11


“As for the head of those that compass me about, Let the mischief of their own lips cover them. Let burning coals fall upon them: Let them be cast into the fire, Into deep pits, whence they shall not rise. An evil speaker shall not be established in the earth: Evil shall hunt the violent man to overthrow him.”

This writer does not share in the usual depreciation that one so frequently finds in the commentaries concerning imprecations of this type. Sure, they do not measure up to the attitudes required of the followers of Christ; but the psalmist lived in a different age from our own. The enabling sacrifice of the Christ upon Calvary had not then been made; and the law under which the Old Testament saints lived was that which is called the lex talionis, which means, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” As Miller said, “It means, `Let like for like’ be administered.”(F12)

The Jewish conception of the ideal fulfillment of this law was: (1) that of the hanging of Haman on the gallows he had built for Mordecai; or (2) the retribution in kind executed upon Adonibezek whose thumbs were cut off and who was compelled to grovel for his food beneath the table of his captors, exactly as he had mutilated and humiliated many kings whom he had conquered (Judges 1:6-7).

Brutal and terrible as such a system appears to us, it was a vast improvement over the customary cruelties that preceded. Prior to God’s restraining law, the rule was: (1) If you should kill my child, I will kill you and your whole generation. (2) If you knock out a tooth of mine, I’ll pull out all of yours. (3) If you blind me in one eye, I will retaliate by totally blinding you and your whole family! Thus, the lex talionis was a restraint upon prior barbarism.

As Leupold noted, “It is not fair to deal with this psalm as if it were only a cry for vengeance. There is no hint here of a purely personal desire for retaliation against cruel enemies; all is left in the hands of God.”(F13)

These verses, like all the others in this psalm, are loaded with terminology and patterns of thought which are undeniably Davidic, as witnessed by Psalms 7:16; Psalms 31:9; Psalms 36:12.

“As for the head of those that compass me about” It must be admitted, of course, that the principles of this psalm have a much wider application than that of the original context. However, we find it impossible to believe that “the head” mentioned here is a prophetic reference to the “man of sin” (2 Thessalonians 2:3); he will be the one heading up the seed of the serpent, who will be manifested when God’s purpose during this present age is fulfilled.(F14)

The reality of the ultimate manifestation of the “man of sin” is freely accepted, as the Scriptures surely teach, but finding any supplemental information about that eventuality in this psalm we believe to be contra-indicated.

“Let their own lips cover them” The law of lex talionis, “Required that evil-doers be done in by the same means they used to harm others, hence the psalmist prays that the poison beneath their lips (Psalms 140:4) submerge them. In Psalms 140:11, he asks that Death hunt down his adversaries just as they had hunted him with snares and lures (Psalms 140:6). Psalms 59:13 expresses the same sentiment.”(F15)

“Let burning coals fall upon them” This is a prayer for the same judgment to fall upon David’s enemies as that which fell upon Sodom and Gomorrah.

“Let them be cast into the fire” What is this? Hell, of course. As Dahood said, “The psalmist first requests that God punish his enemies with glorying embers, after the manner of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and then he requests that they be hurled into hellfire.!(F16)

Verses 12-13


“I know that Jehovah will maintain the cause of the afflicted, And justice for the needy. Surely the righteous shall give thanks unto thy name: The upright shall dwell in thy presence.”

A number of other Davidic psalms carry the same thoughts in very similar words, as seen in Psalms 9:4; Psalms 9:10; Psalms 11:7; Psalms 17:15 and Psalms 18:27.

“Justice for the needy” There seems to be in many Old Testament passages a presumption regarding the wicked rich and the righteous poor; but Barnes’ discerning words on this seem to be correct, “There is no reason why a wicked poor man should enjoy God’s favor… It is neither poverty nor riches that commend men to God; it is faith, holiness, love and obedience of God’s word, in whatever condition of life it may be our lot to live, whether in a cottage or a palace.”(F17)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalms 140". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/psalms-140.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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