2 Samuel 22 is something of an excursion in the book. While the previous chapter described battles with the Philistines, Saul took his own life in 1 Samuel 31. Therefore, 2 Samuel 22:1 does not describe a particular point in time, since it speaks about “all [David’s] enemies” and Saul together. Further, 2 Samuel 23 records the “last words” of David, even though he dies in 1 Kings 2:10-12. The point, then, is that the wars of David are “over” in terms of the book, and the author felt it appropriate to include the last of the information which he had before him. 1 and 2 Kings are more explicit about referring to these other books, but the author refers to the now-lost book of Jashar in 2 Samuel 1:18. A final proof that this section is not strictly chronological is the reference to Uriah the Hittite in 2 Samuel 23:39, whom David murdered for the sake of Bathsheba near the beginning of the book.
2 Samuel 22 is also found in the Psalter as Psalm 18, though the two are not identical word-for-word. This is not unusual, since the Lord’s Prayer is found in two places, though not in identical wording (Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4). The Holy Spirit is not bound to our exacting standards, as shown by the numerous quotations Old Testament in the New which cite the idea more than the wording. It is, however, worth noting here that 2 Samuel 22:1 is nearly identical with the “title” of Psalm 18. These titles, which are often relegated to superscriptions in English Bibles (and on rare occasions excluded!), are actually part of the Psalm, and therefore part of God’s Word. They should not be ignored!
The psalm itself is martial in character, especially since the king speaks of his own accomplishments through it (note especially 2 Samuel 22:35-43). However, David makes it abundantly clear throughout the psalm that he would not have been able to do any of it had God not been with him through all of it. It is God who makes him excel in war, and it is God who wins the victory through him.
There may be six sections within the psalm: introductory praise (2 Samuel 22:2-4); plea (2 Samuel 22:5-7); theophany (2 Samuel 22:8-16, literally “appearance of God”); God’s mercy and goodness (2 Samuel 22:17-31); the unique God and his servant the king (2 Samuel 22:32-46); and concluding praise (2 Samuel 22:47-51). Such a division is, of course, debatable, but it helps to see the thought progression throughout the psalm. Recognizing the outline also helps in sermon preparation.
The psalm opens with praise to the Lord, “who is worthy to be praised” (2 Samuel 22:4). David does not boast of his own works in the sense that they mean anything apart from God. Only because God has acted first can he then say anything about what he has accomplished, because he is the instrument of God. The emphasis in the beginning here on stability and safety in the Lord is important to remember for the next section.
“Waves of death” and its related expressions can be understood in a general sense. However, in the context of the psalm, especially with its emphasis below on warfare, it seems more likely that this is not an existential crisis in the face of death, but rather the risk of death in battle. 2 Samuel 22:18 says that “he rescued me from my strong enemy, from those who hated me.” The previous verse in 2 Samuel 22:17 finds a parallel in Psalm 144:7, where “waters” is set in parallel with “foreigners.” Paul, of course, speaks in terms of spiritual warfare (2 Corinthians 10:3-6, for example), and therefore the psalm also applies to all Christians and not merely David. But this distress is not a fear of dying, but distress in the face of so many enemies.
But the Lord who hears is also the Fear of Israel. David describes his awesome power as a way of showing that the Lord can and will deliver him from his enemies. 2 Samuel 22:8-16 is a fearful image of God, but a comforting one, because if such a fearful and awesome God is on our side, who can be against us? “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me” (Psalm 118:6)? “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16). “The house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau stubble; they shall burn them and consume them, and there shall be no survivor for the house of Esau, for the Lord has spoken” (Obadiah 18).
The Lord therefore delivers David from his enemies “because He delighted in me” (2 Samuel 22:20). David says that “I have kept the ways of the Lord and have not wickedly departed from my God” (2 Samuel 22:22). He is not boasting of his own works making him righteous before God. After all, he makes clear again and again throughout the psalm that the Lord is the one who does all these things! Rather, there are two things at work here. The first is that one can be blameless with respect to the Law insofar as he has not flagrantly sinned against it. Paul’s claim that he was blameless under the law is not an empty or a false statement (Philippians 3:6). Rather, being “above reproach” as in 1 Timothy 3:2 means that there are no public faults. Second, God deals with His people differently from the rest of mankind. “You save a humble people, but your eyes are on the haughty to bring them down” (2 Samuel 22:28), because God exalts those who are His own and brings down those who are not. His desire is to save, of course, and humbling a man is meant to bring him back to God. However, God also will bring vengeance upon the enemies of His Church (Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19, and Hebrews 10:30). “With the merciful you show youself merciful” is therefore a recognition that God deals with His people differently than with the “crooked.”
Therefore, because the Lord is David’s God, the one who is merciful and a refuge, David is able to pursue his enemies and destroy them. The Lord “trains my hands for war” (2 Samuel 22:35) and “equipped me with strength for the battle” (2 Samuel 22:40). “You made my enemies turn their backs to me, those who hated me, and I destroyed them. They looked, but there was none to save; they cried to the Lord, but he did not answer them. I beat them fine as the dust of the earth; I crushed them and stamped them down like the mire of the streets” (2 Samuel 22:41-43). The enemies of the Church will be crushed underfoot. As Paul says, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20).