What should we do when evil threatens? Should we flee from it, seeking refuge somewhere else? Should we stay and face it head on? What would the Lord have us do in that moment? These are the questions David wrestles with in this psalm. The psalm is divided into two main sections. Verses 1-3 present the main question, and verses 4-7 answer it.
[To the choirmaster.] Of David. In the LORD I take refuge. How can you say to my soul, Flee [to] your mountain [like] a bird?
For behold, the wicked bend the bow. They notch their arrow on the string to shoot in darkness at the upright in heart.
If the foundations are destroyed, the righteous, what can he do?
The psalm opens with a conversation. David, as happened frequently in his conflicts with Saul, is in danger. Saul threatened to kill him over and over, so the question in David’s mind is what he should do when threatened with death. This conversation has three possibilities. First, David may be talking to himself, carrying on an internal monologue about his next course of action. Second, some friends of David may be offering him advice, telling him to flee from Saul and seek refuge somewhere else. Third, some enemies of David may be taunting him, and verse 2-3 would be David’s response to them. Any of these options are valid, but I prefer the second and will continue in that vein.
David certainly used the mountains as a refuge from time to time (1 Samuel 23:24-29, for example). This was not new advice or an unprecedented course of action. Yet David on this occasion rejects this advice. The question at hand is not whether fleeing from danger is acceptable. The question is where one puts his trust. Are you trusting in the mountains to save you, like the wicked foolishly do on the day of judgment (Revelation 6:15-17)? Or is your trust in the Lord, who made heaven and earth? David’s friends seem to be trusting in the hills rather than in God, so David reproves them.
To flee like a bird is to attempt to get away from a larger predator, like a smaller bird flying away from a larger. The word translated “flee” can also be render as “flutter” or even “wander,” since it is the same word used to describe the punishment of Cain in Genesis 4. Cain would “wander” because he feared being pursued, just as David’s friends now fear.
The wicked seek to destroy David. Here, the imagery of an archer provides a colorful illustration. They bend the bow (literally “step on the bow,” since stringing a ancient recurve bow, like many today, involves using your legs to bend it), nock an arrow, and shoot at the upright. This could either be “in darkness,” which would mean while being hidden, or it could even be “into darkness,” meaning that there is no place for the righteous to hide.
But this danger is not merely a personal one. “Foundations” is a rare word, but it may be related as an idea to Ezekiel 30:4. The foundations of the whole society are at risk, David’s friends say. If David is dead, what will happen to Israel? In such a case, what can the righteous do?
The LORD [is] in his holy temple. The LORD, in the heavens his throne. His eyes behold, his eyelids test the sons of Adam/man.
The LORD tests the righteous, and the wicked and the lover of violence his soul hates.
Let him rain upon the wicked charcoals. Fire and brimstone and a whirlwind the portion of their cup.
For the LORD [is] righteous. Righteousness he loves. The upright behold his face.
David answers their fears with a clear profession. He will not flee to the mountains this time, because his salvation does not come from them. He will not run away from danger, because the Lord reigns as king over all things. God is in His holy temple (Habakkuk 2:20; Micah 1:2). This is likely in two ways: in heaven as the King of all creation and in His Church as the faithful God, who keeps His promises forever.
The word translated as “test” is instructive for understanding the second half of this psalm. It is used to describe testing metals, like a goldsmith who would test the purity of the gold before him. Such a test invariably involves fire, since the only way to prove metallic purity in those days is by melting it, a process called cupellation. The Lord tests men to prove their worth (Job 23:10).
Such a test will only refine the righteous, since it is in the fire of adversity that the Lord chastises his children. “He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord” (Malachi 3:3). The discipline of the Lord shows our status as sons, for were we not disciplined by our earthly fathers for our good (Hebrews 12:3-11)? David’s present distress is therefore not a cause for alarm, but a recognition that we must bear the crosses laid upon us. To run away from the cross is cowardly. To take it up, even at the cost of our life, is the way of Christ. Just as He was glorified, so we too will be glorified with Him in His suffering.
Fire, however, is also destructive. The fire of the Lord’s judgment will rain down upon the wicked (Amos 1-2). Sodom and Gomorrah and the other cities of the valley were destroyed in a rain of fire (Genesis 19:23-29). The “whirlwind” is a hot wind, a destructive wind like the storm which destroyed the ship carrying Paul (Acts 27:14). The wicked will receive the full measure of their sins on the day when the Lord sends fire in judgment. The “cup” is the cup of their judgment which they will have to drain down to the dregs (Psalm 75:8).
However, the Lord will not destroy the righteous, because He loves righteousness. Those who walk in His ways shall see His face (1 John 3:2; Revelation 22:4). Therefore, let us not put our trust in the things of the world. Whether it is time to flee from danger or whether it is time to bear the cross, put your trust in the Lord. He will sustain you. He will never let the righteous fall (Psalm 55:22).