Bible Commentary: Psalm 141

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Psalm 141

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Psalm 141 is the second in the sequence of five psalms of David seeking deliverance from the wicked. David also prays here that he be kept from taking part with them in their evildoings.

He begins with an urgent call for God to hear his plea (verse 1) and declares his intention to present his prayer, with hands raised toward heaven, as incense and as the evening sacrifice, desiring that God accept it as such (verse 2).

Incense was burned on the golden altar within the tabernacle—later the temple—every morning and evening to infuse the sanctuary with a sweet smell (see Exodus 30:1-10). Furthermore, frankincense was included with burnt offerings (see Exodus 30:1-10, 34-38; Leviticus 2:2)—adding fragrance to the savor of the sacrificial meat being cooked. Later in Scripture, the burning of incense is said to represent the prayers of God's people ascending to Him (Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:3-4).

The evening sacrifice was a regular daily burnt offering "for a sweet aroma" (Numbers 28:3-8), symbolizing, along with the morning sacrifice, regular and ongoing devotion to God. In considering the analogy, realize that "the evening sacrifice took time, it took care, it took preparation, it was extremely costly, every action in it was clearly thought out and performed in logical sequence" (George Knight, Psalms, comments on Psalm 141:1-10 ).

David's specification of the evening sacrifice rather than the morning one or both may indicate that he spoke or composed this prayer in the evening—perhaps at the time of the evening sacrifice. It could even be that David routinely gave this or a like prayer as part of his reflection at the end of the day over an extended period of time—that is, it may have become his own personal evening sacrifice. It is worth noting that "both Ezra (Ezra 9) and Daniel (Daniel 9) prayed at the time of the evening offering. After the second temple was built, this psalm was read when the evening sacrifices were offered and the lamps were lit in the holy place" (Warren Wiersbe, Be Exultant: Psalms 90-150, note on Psalm 141:1-2).

Before praying for God to deal with the wicked and to rescue him from them, David first turns to the issue of his own human proclivities, asking God to help him avoid any deviation toward wickedness in his own character. This includes safeguarding his speech (verse 3)—for control over one's tongue through God's help is a huge part of godly character (compare James 3). It also means not eating of the wicked's "delicacies" (Psalm 141:4) or "dainties" (KJV). David is likely saying one of two things here. Either he does not want to get drawn into enjoying the "finer things" that come as a product of living the evil lifestyle common among the rich and powerful. Or he does not want to be someone who is welcomed as a guest among such people—dining in their homes and enjoying their hospitality.

If he starts leaning this way at all, David prays that the "righteous"—either a godly person or the righteous One, God—will as a kindness "strike" him (knock some sense into him) through rebuke. This will be like fine oil on the head, a gesture of rich hospitality that he will not refuse (verse 5)—in contrast to the fineries of the wicked that he intends to refuse.

The Hebrew text then becomes somewhat difficult to understand—from the end of verse 5 through verse 7. Translators have rendered this section in various ways over the centuries. The primary controversy centers on to whom these verses are referring.

Many believe the last line of verse 5 refers to the righteous—that David is praying for them "in their calamities" (KJV). However, the plural "their" more likely seems to refer back to the workers of iniquity in verse 4 (since the "righteous...him" in verse 5 is singular). And the KJV "in their calamities" is reinterpreted as "in [the face of] their evils." This is the sense followed in most modern versions.

If that is correct, then verse 6 (which some take to refer to the sufferings of the righteous) would, as seems more likely, also refer to the wicked: "When their judges [the leaders of the wicked] are overthrown in stony places, they [the wicked] shall hear my words; for they [my words] are sweet" (KJV). The word translated "sweet" can also mean "pleasing" or "agreeable." Some take this to mean that the general populace of the wicked will actually be willing to listen to David after their rulers fall. Others believe the meaning is that the wicked are going to be forced by the fall of their leaders to see that David's words were "well spoken" (NIV)—whether that's agreeable to them or not.

Moving on to verse 7, there is again scholarly disagreement. Whose bones are scattered at the mouth of the grave? David mentions "our bones," though many prefer to have him say "their bones"—that is, those of the wicked. The NIV adds to the beginning of this statement the words "They will say" and interprets verse 7 as quoting the wicked—the description here seeming to fit the wicked rulers cast down in verse 6. Then again, others see no evidence for any quotation in verse 7 and understand David to be referring figuratively to the devastated state of himself and others of the righteous who are persecuted by the wicked (compare Psalm 143:3, Psalm 143:7)—giving the basis for the stated judgment on the wicked in the previous verse (Psalm 141:6) and the reason for his call for deliverance and justice in the next verses (8-10).

In these concluding verses, David turns his eyes to God, his only refuge from the intrigues of the wicked (verses 8-9). Similar to the previous psalm, he asks that the wicked be caught up in their own plotting (verse 10; compare Psalm 140:5, Psalm 140:9-10)—while he is set free into safety.