For the music director; by David.

This is a psalm of trust (see also Psa 11; 16; 23; 27; 62; 63; 91; 121; 125; 131).

‘This psalm comes straight from a crisis’ (Kidner).

It may be seen as a response to Psa 10, ‘which portrays the wicked man in his prosperity mocking God’s justice. “The wicked man is so arrogant he always thinks, ‘God won’t hold me accountable; he doesn’t care.’ He is secure at all times. He has no regard for your commands; he disdains all his enemies. He says to himself, ‘I will never be upended, because I experience no calamity’ ” (Ps 10:4–6, NET).’ (Fudge, The Fire that Consumes, p53)

‘Psalm 11 witnesses to the faith of a devout Israelite, weathering the collapse of the nation’s leaders and the betrayal of personal friends.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

It has been suggested (NBC) that a background such as 1 Sam 18:8-19:7 (when David’s life was in constant danger) fits this psalm well.

The thought of Psa 73 is anticipated in this psalm.

11:1 In the LORD I have taken shelter.
How can you say to me,
“Flee to a mountain like a bird!

In the Lord I have taken shelter – This, according to Mays, is the overall theme of the psalm.

On God as a refuge, see also Psa 7:1; 46:1; 2 Sam. 22:3; Isa. 25:4; Jer. 16:19; Heb. 6:18.

This seems to be have been a settled resolution even before the temptation to ‘flee’ came to him.  We do well to arm ourselves against adversity before it happens: there may not be opportunity to think or pray it through in the heat of crisis.

The crisis that prompted this psalm is not described.

‘Great is the power of hope in the Lord, invincible citadel, unassailable rampart, insuperable reinforcement, tranquil haven, impregnable tower, irresistible weapon, unconquerable power capable of discovering a refuge where none seems possible.’ (Chrysostom, in ACCS)

‘Here is David’s anchor. He at any rate is not at sea. The ‘foundations’ may be torn down but this foundation remains.’ (Davis)

How can you say to me, “Flee to a mountain like a bird!” – The psalmist is responding to some ‘demoralising advice’ (Kidner).  Perhaps is was well-meaning, such as the three friends’ advice to Job, or Peter’s advice to Jesus, Mt 16:22.  Alternatively, it may have been insincere, like the advice of the Pharisees to Jesus, Lk 13:31f (see also Neh 6:10-13).

‘That which grieved him in this motion was not that to flee now would savour of cowardice, and ill become a soldier, but that it would savour of unbelief and would ill become a saint who had so often said, In the Lord put I my trust.’ (MHC)

‘The quotation as a whole poses an option for conduct in troubled and anarchistic times: to desert public space and abandon social action responsible to the rules of righteousness.’ (Mays)

The advice may or not be sincere; but it is certainly dispiriting.  Who can argue against these fact?  The temptation to ‘flee’ is supported by a sense of immediate danger, v2, and a suggestion that David’s world is being undermined, and that he is powerless to do anything about it.

Wilcock: ‘David’s advisers are not malicious. Flight to the hill-country means safety, as he and they know from experience. They are not schemers, like Shemaiah plotting Nehemiah’s downfall, but well-meaning friends, like Peter trying to protect Jesus.’

Chrysostom: ‘I have the Lord of the universe as my ally. The one who without difficulty created everything everywhere is my leader and support, and you would send me to the wilderness and provide for my safety in the desert? After all, surely the help from the desert does not surpass the one capable of anything with complete ease?’ (in ACCS)

David is resolved that he will take refuge in the Lord, not by making a quick escape to a mountain.  He will not flee, but stay and trust.

Psychologists talk about ‘approach’ and ‘avoid’ mentalities.  Such a choice is very much in David’s mind here.

Note Peter’s reply to Jesus: “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (Jn 6:68)

When to flee

‘It’s right for us to flee from temptation (2 Tim. 2:22) as Joseph did (Gen. 39:11–13), but it’s wrong to flee from the place of duty, as Nehemiah was invited to do (Neh. 6:10–11). The leader who flees needlessly from the crisis is only a hireling and not a faithful shepherd (John 10:12–13). Beware of listening to unwise counsel. Put your faith in the Lord, and He will protect you and direct your paths.’ (Wiersbe)

11:2 For look, the wicked prepare their bows,
they put their arrows on the strings,
to shoot in the darkness at the morally upright.

The wicked prepare their bows – These bows and arrows may be literal or metaphorical.

Or, as we might say today: ‘They’ve put a gun to your head.’

To shoot in the darkness – or ‘from the shadows’.  ‘In the modern world, on the global scale, terrorism strikes from the shadows at targets which (like its motives, though in a different sense) are indefensible.’ (Wilcock)

The danger expressed in this verse is sufficiently great as to make the advice to ‘flee’ difficult to ignore.

11:3 When the foundations are destroyed,
what can the godly accomplish?”

Some translations limit the quotation to v1c, others inclue v2, and still others (including NIV, NET, ESV, TEV, NASB) include v3.

The foundations are being destroyed – The ‘ground rules’ which form that basis of a stable society (NBC).  Saul’s fickleness meant that the rules were changing all the time, and no-one knew where they stood.

‘The word “foundations,” here, refers to those things on which society rests, or by which social order is sustained—the great principles of truth and righteousness that uphold society, as the foundations on which an edifice rests uphold the building. The reference is to a destruction of those things in a community, when truth is no longer respected; when justice is no longer practised; when fraud and violence have taken the place of honesty and honour; when error prevails; when a character for integrity and virtue affords no longer any security.’ (Barnes)

‘All the underpinnings of life are obliterated.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

An orderly society was established by God at creation.  After the fall, the best we can often hope is a ‘decent’ society (Carnell).  When even this falls apart, the results are deeply disorientating.

A disorientating experience, suggestive of the disintegration of a society where justice and the rule of law have been replaced by anarchy and corruption.  Many subsequent generations have felt (rightly or wrongly) such despair.

But see also the confidence of Psa 75:3 – ‘When the earth and all its people quake, it is I who hold its pillars firm.’

What can the godly accomplish? – ‘When there is no generally accepted ethos at the foundation of a society, violence and injustice prevail (v. 5), and those who seek to be faithful to the ways of shalom are helpless.’ (Mays)

Matthew Henry paraphrases: ‘If you destroy the foundations, if you take good people off from their hope in God, if you can persuade them that their religion is a cheat and a jest and can banter them out of that, you ruin them, and break their hearts indeed, and make them of all men the most miserable.’

‘What shall we do when the laws are not upheld, when morality is undermined and evil sweeps on unchecked? What shall we do when the Bible is undermined and its teachings disregarded—when even churchmen seem to support the rising tide of secularism? What shall we do when family values are crumbling and the tide of frequent divorce sweeps forward with increasing damage to children, parents, and society alike? What can we do when everything around us seems to be giving way? Some counsel hiding, that is, running away from what is happening. David’s response was to take refuge in the Lord.’ (Boice)

‘In times of stable government or strong faith, the righteous appeal to the country’s law or to established standards of faith or morality. But in bad times these do not exist. “What shall I do?” becomes a pressing and overwhelmingly important question.’ (Boice)

‘What an inestimable blessing is a good government, established and conducted on true, just and uniform principles.  If those, who complain of ordinary burdens in a good government, were placed even for a short time under the terrors of misrule or anarchy, they would find a state of things, which would probably make them thankful for a return to any form of regular and free government.’ (Plumer)

Discernment needed

‘Verses 1c–3 is not the advice of the wicked or a hypocrite or of an agnostic seeking to destroy you but of a Christian friend seeking to help. Yet for all that, it is basically opposed to faith. That’s the problem with the counsel of verses 1c–3—it is pious, sincere, caring, concerned, and therefore, plausible. How this calls for the believer’s discernment!’ (Davis)

Wiersbe suggests that the answer to the question is, ‘Lay the foundations again!’  ‘Samuel laid again the foundations of the covenant (1 Sam. 12), and Ezra laid again the foundations of the temple (Ezra 3).’

11:4 The LORD is in his holy temple;
the LORD’s throne is in heaven.
His eyes watch;
his eyes examine all people.

David’s situation has seemed overwhelming.  But it is ‘dwarfed’ (Kidner) by a consideration of the Lord, who is enthroned over all, the righteous and all-seeing judge.

The Lord is in his holy temple – or ‘palace’ (the word can mean either). ‘Where, though he is out of our sight, we are not out of his.’ (MHC)

Craigie and some others think that the reference to God’s ‘holy temple’ is suggestive of his immanence, whereas the mention of his heavenly throne is indicative of his transcendance.  However, for various reasons (there was, for example, no earthly temple in the time of David) we think, however that both expressions speaks of divine transcendence.

Hab 2:20 (which may actually quote v4a) underscores the majesty: ‘the LORD is in his majestic palace. The whole earth is speechless in his presence!’

This language may seem to suggest a God who is distant, uninvolved.  But ‘[David’s] picture does not imply Yahweh is removed but that he rules (throne); that throne is not the place of inactivity but of supremacy; it does not suggest distance but dominion. Yahweh’s exaltedness or ‘transcendence’ doesn’t indicate distance or indifference but activity (gaze, test), which leads to judgment.’

Matthew Henry offers an alternative, ‘Christianised’, reading: ‘Or, He is in his holy temple, that is, in his church; he is a God in covenant and communion with his people, through a Mediator, of whom the temple was a type. We need not say, “Who shall go up to heaven, to fetch us thence a God to trust to?” No, the word is nigh us, and God in the word; his Spirit is in his saints, those living temples, and the Lord is that Spirit.’

The Lord’s throne is in heaven – ‘Let us by faith see God on this throne, on his throne of glory, infinitely transcending the splendour and majesty of earthly princes—on his throne of government, giving law, giving motion, and giving aim, to all the creatures—on his throne of judgment, rendering to every man according to his works—and on his throne of grace, to which his people may come boldly for mercy and grace; we shall then see no reason to be discouraged by the pride and power of oppressors, or any of the afflictions that attend the righteous.’ (MHC)

As Davis remarks, this emphasis on God’s throne explains Rev 4.  ‘Why does John pummel us with 12 references to a throne (in the singular) except that he wants to steel his readers with the steadfastness they’ll need in the chaos to come?’

His eyes watch, his eyes examine all people – with patience, not inertia.  The attitudes and actions of both the righteous and the wicked will examined, and the Lord will act decisively against the latter.

‘This God perfectly knows every man’s true character:…He not only sees them, but he sees through them, not only knows all they say and do, but knows what they think, what they design, and how they really stand affected, whatever they pretend. We may know what men seem to be, but he knows what they are, as the refiner knows what the value of the gold is when he has tried it…He knows men, not as earthly princes know men, by report and representation, but by his own strict inspection, which cannot err nor be imposed upon.’ (MHC)

‘God is presented sitting in heaven as a temple, for their encouragement, I conceive, in such a desperate state of affairs, to direct their prayers thither for deliverance. And certainly this hath been the engine that hath been instrumental, above any, to restore this poor nation again, and set it upon the foundation of that lawful government from which it had so dangerously departed.’ (Gurnall)

Boice suggests that David’s upward look to God suggests to him three things:

  • God observes all that people do, v4b
  • God rewards the godly, v5a, 7
  • God judges the wicked, v5b, 6

Alternatively, we may say that David appeals to:

  • God’s sovereignty, v4
  • God’s knowledge, v5
  • God’s justice, v6f
11:5 The LORD approves of the godly,
but he hates the wicked and those who love to do violence.

The Lord approves of the godly – This may have the sense of ‘testing’ ‘trying’, or ‘proving’, as with a precious metal that has been refined in the fire.

‘Though honest good people may be run down and trampled upon, yet God does and will own them, and favour them, and smile upon them, and that is the reason why God will severely reckon with persecutors and oppressors, because those whom they oppress and persecute are dear to him.’ (MHC)

He hates the wicked and those who love to do violence – As Davis remarks, we may need to revise our cliche about god hating the sin but loving the sinner!

11:6 May the LORD rain down burning coals and brimstone on the wicked!
A whirlwind is what they deserve!

Fiery coals and burning sulphur – recalling the destruction of Sodom, Gen 19:24.  Kidner remarks that ‘Sodom stands in the Bible as a perpetual reminder of sudden and final judgment.’  See Lk 17:28–32; 2 Pet 2:6–9; Rev 14:10; 20:10; 21:8.

This verse ‘bursts with the Lord’s fierce anger against the wicked, recalling the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:23–24).’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

What they deserve – lit. ‘portion of their cup’.  ‘This term reminds one of the head of a household who gives each member a cupful to drink at a meal. Thus God gives the wicked a “cupful” of his wrath (cf. Isa 51:17, 22; Eze 23:31–33; cf. Mt 26:39; Rev 14:10; 16:19; 18:6).’ (EBC)

11:7 Certainly the LORD is just;
he rewards godly deeds;
the upright will experience his favor.

The Lord is just – And this is very good news for the believer. ‘This justice is our only solid comfort and hope. If the righteous (as David & Co. in this psalm) are to be delivered the wicked must be judged (and that will only happen if God is actively just). That’s why God’s judgment is such good news for God’s people; only when God comes and puts everything right can there be a universe party (Ps. 96:10–13) and only then can the Lord’s people have rest (2 Thess. 1:6–9).’ (Davis)

‘If the first line of the psalm showed where the believer’s safety lies, the last line shows where his heart should be.  God as ‘refuge’ may be sought from motives that are all too self-regarding; but to behold his face is a goal in which only love has any interest.’ (Kidner)

The Lord is just; he rewards godly deeds – ‘God delights first in himself; and next in that which comes nearest to him, and most resembles him, as holiness doth, the actings of which in good works are but the beaming-out of his image in the soul; and it is not strange that God should delight in his own image. Beside that, good works are God’s works; they not only resemble him, but come from him; and then well may he delight in them; and that he may show how much he doth so, he bountifully rewards them.’ (Edward Veal, Puritan Sermons, Vol 6, Sermon 13)

To experience his favour is lit. ‘to see his face’ (cf. Rev 22:4).  They will enjoy the safety, and intimacy, of God’s blessed presence.

Boice thinks that there is a hint of the believer’s ultimate reward and bliss.  ‘Why? He has just spoken of a future judgment on the wicked: “On the wicked he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur” (v. 6). What is called for now is a parallel statement of what the same all-seeing and just God will do for those who are righteous.’

‘To “see the face” means to have access to a person, such as “to see the king’s face” (2 Sam. 14:24). For God to turn His face away is to reject us, but for Him to look upon us with delight means He is going to bless us (Num. 6:22–27). When Jesus returns, those who have rejected Him will be cast “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:8–10; Matt. 7:21–23), while His own children will be welcomed into His presence (Matt. 25:34).’ (Wiersbe)

‘The wicked have everything to fear; the righteous, nothing. The one is never safe; the other, always. The one will be delivered out of all his troubles; the end of the other can be only ruin.’ (Barnes)

2 Pet 2:9 – ‘The Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment.’

‘Derek Kidner has said it well: ‘If the first line of the psalm showed where the believer’s safety lies, the last line shows where his heart should be. God as “refuge” may be sought from motives that are too self-regarding; but to behold his face [RSV] is a goal in which only love has any interest.’ There are many who are interested in safety, but only saints care about fellowship. The genuine disciple doesn’t want only protection from God but communion with God. And such full and final communion is David’s assurance here. But, of course, even post-cross and post-empty tomb believers do not enjoy this hope yet. Peter catches our position in his striking description of Christians: ‘though you have not seen him, you love him’ (1 Peter 1:8).’ (Davis)

The destinies of the wicked and the righteous

‘All the evils, which in this life come on the ungodly, are but the beginning of their sorrows, but the righteous has all his evil things before he reaches eternity.’ (Plumer)

God is our refuge

Jacobson refers to William Ernest Henley’s ode ‘Invictus’:

It matters not how strait the gate,
how charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

But, writes Jacobson, this attitude of self-determination is utterly rejected in this psalm.  I am not the master of my fate: God is.  When there is no earthly recourse for the injustices of this life, there is always a heavenly recourse.  We may be homeless exiles here, but God is our eternal dwelling place, ‘a refuge, shelter, and home to which we can flee in the day of trouble.’

Our hope, however, does not look entirely to the more distant future.  God sees and reaches into the present moment, for the new creation has already broken into the here and now.

Finding refuge in God

Finding refuge in God does not mean turning our backs on reality, escaping difficulties, or abandoning our responsibilities.  Examples: Jesus himself (who could still cry out, “My God, my God”, while sensing dreadful forsakenness), Stephen (who caught a vision of Christ while being stoned to death), Paul (who, while being wrongly imprisoned, witnessed to his guards.  In modern times: Corrie ten Boom (who did not flee, but remained in order to hide Jewish people, even though it led to imprisonment for her and loss of family members to the concentration camps), Bonhoeffer (whose writings testify to the refuge he found in God even while he was imprisoned and ultimately executed).  To flee is to lose our life while seeking to save it; to take refuge in God is to lose our life for him and in him and so to find it (see Luke 9:24).  (See Wilson’s discussion)

Pointing to Christ and his gospel

An awareness of God’s transcendence (v4) forms the starting-point of David’s conviction that, despite all appearances, his is safe in the arms of the Holy One.

‘Jesus came to reveal this kind of God, so he calls his people to pray to the “Father” who is “in heaven,” but whose will is done “on earth” (Matt. 6:9–10). Wielding his power to care for his children, the Father brings all enemies under Christ’s and his followers’ feet (Rom. 16:20; 1 Thess. 5:2–5). Though the billows of suffering come against his life, the believer will not be shaken if he is built on Christ as his foundation (Ps. 11:3; Matt. 7:25–27). But Christ is also a just King (Ps. 11:5–7; Matt. 12:18). God’s omniscience reassures the lonely disciple that his righteous deeds are not only noticed but are loved by the Lord (Ps. 11:4, 7; Rev. 19:8). And to keep the persecuted follower from growing disheartened, the Lord threatens Sodom-like judgment against the violent (Ps. 11:5–6; cf. 2 Thess. 1:5–9). Vindication at the end of the world is promised for the “upright,” who will “behold [God’s] face” (Ps. 11:7). Implicitly, that right standing is offered to any who receive by faith the righteousness earned by the one who drank the “cup” of God’s wrath (v. 6; John 18:11)—namely, Jesus, in whose face we see the very glory of God (John 14:9; 2 Cor. 4:6).’ (Gospel Transformation Bible)

In conclusion

‘So what is Psalm 11 saying to us? It is saying that faith needs discernment to filter out counsels of despair and fear; faith needs vision to see the just and reigning God; and faith needs hope that anticipates awaking and gazing on his face.’ (Davis)

‘In singing this psalm we must encourage and engage ourselves to trust in God at all times, must depend upon him to protect our innocence and make us happy, must dread his frowns as worse than death and desire his favour as better than life.’ (MHC)