Both a plea and a praisesong, Song 40 describes a relationship between the singer and God based upon God’s compassion; the singer is, accordingly, renewed in strength and dedicates himself to sharing God’s teachings with his fellows. Nonetheless, he remembers the evils that surround him –he attributes their presence to both his own crimes and his enemies’ hatred of him– and pleads with God to rescue him from his troubles.
The first four verses celebrate the renewal of both body and spirit that the singer praises God for bestowing upon him:
He bent down toward me and heard my voice. (v. 2)
The image is of tenderness; God bends toward the singer as a parent does toward his or her child. Though no illness is mentioned, verse 3 makes clear that the singer had been in a state of such despair and hopelessness that he likens it to the “roiling pit”, ‘the thickest mire”. It is God, not his own will or capacities, Who draws him out of this abyss, setting him firmly “on a crag”, his “steps firm” (v. 3). The image of the solidity of the crag and of the strength of the singer’s feet upon it is the vivid antithesis of the image of a descent so precarious and depthless as to allow no ascent to the hapless.
In contrast to the noise issuing out of the pit (the shrieks of the helpless? the torrent of the muddy waters?) is the singer’s “new song”, one of “praise to our God”, the song we now hear: in the remaining stanza of verse 4 as the singer voices his hope that “many” might “see and fear and trust in Adonai”; in verse 5 as he proclaims how “happy” are the ones who do so. He adds a stipulation that jars with the portrayal of the happiness of those who serve God –that such persons do “not turn to the sea monster gods and to false idols” (v. 5). Presumably then, these are the gods of the mire and the pit. The singer puts forth God’s “wonders” and “plans for us” as the opposite of the false and monstrous idols (v. 6).
The next six verses recall the singer’s own experiences; though God’s bounty shows itself in ways “too numerous to recount” (v. 6), still he can, in verses 7 through 12, describe his experiences and can proclaim his praise of God in his inspired new song: in verse 7 he asserts that it is not “sacrifice and grain-offering” that God desires, not “burnt-offering and offense-offering” . His certainty of what God desires comes directly from what he perceives as God’s having “opened ears for me” (v. 7). Just as he has pictured God’s rescue of him in physical images, so too does he imagine God’s will as radiating through his senses.
In place of sacrifices and offerings, the singer brings to God “the scroll of the book written for me” (v. 8). That is, he replaces the physical offering –and, moreso, that which has had life taken from it– with the spiritual –with the word of God that gives life to the inanimate scroll, the Torah. He believes in its teachings so profoundly that he is able to claim, out of the depth of his inspiration, that they are written for himself. Those teachings he will preach to “the great assembly”; to those gathered to listen, he will herald God’s justice and faithfulness (v. 10 and 11) and God’s “steadfast truth” (v. 11 and 12), and declare God’s rescue of his own self as his heart’s certain knowledge (v. 11). He closes his words to the assembly by addressing God, stating that God “will not hold back [God’s] mercies from me” but will “always*guard me” (v. 12). His repetition of “steadfast truth” (v. 11 and 12) connects his words to the assembly with his words to God –all his declarations are prompted by his sure belief in that truth he so acknowledges.
The remainder of the song seems almost another and separate song, added on to the 12 verses. But, actually, it consists of the singer’s turning once more to his own plight. Although the song begins with his recounting of God’s rescue of him, he is not yet free of dangers, as verse 13 makes clear:
For evils drew round me
My crimes overtook me
and I could not see —
more numerous than the hairs of my head–
and my heart forsook me.
The image of the hairs on his head, too numerous to count, echo his description in verse 6, of God’s wonders, “too numerous to recount”. Thus he gives added force to his plea to God to “show favour”, to “save” him, to “hasten” to his “help” (v. 14) — God’s bounties will be of such magnitude as to extend mercy to the singer despite his seemingly innumerable offenses. Verses 15 and 16 ask that, in contrast, his enemies be dealt only shame and abasement; in juxtaposition, verse 17 immediately portrays the exultation and rejoicing of “all who seek You”, of all “those who love Your rescue”. Once again returning to his own state of being, the singer closes his praisesong by pleading with God to hasten his deliverance from need. His hope is that his humility will spur God’s rescue:
As for me, I am lowly and needy.
May the Master account it for me.
My help, He Who frees me You are.
My God, do not delay. (v. 18)
* In Hebrew, the word for “always” (תמיד) is the same as the word for the daily sacrifice (morning and evening) offered in the Temple, the offering that ensured the order and stability of the natural world: tamid ( תמיד). Thus the singer implicitly and prophetically (the Temple was not built in David’s time) connects God’s guardianship of His people with the very essence of creation. Moreover, the Hebrew words for the verbs “to guard” and “to create” share the same root (י.צ.ר.). Thus, in declaring that God’s truth will always guard him, the singer is acknowledging that not only is it
God’s truth that has physically created him –as it has all creation– but that it continues to do so. To guide, that is, his very being.