Recently, I had the privilege to be in Namibia. It was a blessing in many ways, not the least of which was to hear Christians speak respectfully of their government officials—especially their president. Coming from a country whose presidential, cabinet and parliamentary leadership is characterised as largely unrighteous, and coming from a culture where even Christians think it a badge of honour to justify the personal demeaning of their leaders—who, like their detractors, are made in the image of God—such respectful speech about government leaders was a breath of fresh air.
These brothers and sisters told me that, when President Geingob was elected, one of the first things he did was to require all cabinet ministers to submit their CVs for his personal assessment of fitness for office. Furthermore, he required all of them to declare their assets and their financial affairs to stave off corruption. He led the way in this, declaring his income and its sources. In addition, the president and his wife, who are quite wealthy, publicly committed to giving twenty percent of their income to help the poor, and he encouraged his ministers to do the same.
There is relative order in Namibia and the prospects, though challenging in a nation of just over two million, are rather bright. Good governance, which seems to be concerned about justice at all levels, is making a difference to the nation.
King David knew this, and his conviction is expressed in this psalm. Martin Luther titled this psalm, “A Mirror for Magistrates,” and Leupold aptly titles it, “The Ideal Ruler.” Perhaps better, Derek Kidner calls it “A King’s Resolve.” David was resolved to have a clean administration, honest from the top down. Oh that we would see the same in our day! And we can. If we (as we should) turn this psalm into a prayer, then God may one day grant us such a leadership in our land.
It should be noted that the theme of the recent psalms has been the rule of Yahweh. “The LORD reigns” has been a common theme and thread through these songs. It is quite fitting, therefore, that the human king over God’s covenant people should be moved to emulate the sovereign and majestic King. This is expressed in Psalm 101.
We will study this psalm under four major headings (though it can be divided neatly in two broad sections: vv. 1–4 and vv. 5–8).
The Reason for the Resolve
First, in v. 1, we read the reason for the ruler’s resolve: “I will sing of mercy and justice; to You, O LORD, I will sing praises.”
The Setting of this Psalm
Establishing the historical occasion and circumstances of this psalm may prove helpful for our exposition.
Many of the psalms seem to have arisen from the occasion of the return of the ark to Jerusalem under the leadership of King David (2 Samuel 6). That was a huge event because to have the ark of God in one’s midst was deemed equal with having God in one’s midst. We can hardly overestimate the significance of God’s people have His presence in their midst. It is much like the importance of Pentecost when God presented Himself with His people by the indwelling of His Spirit. Just as this is a huge theme with both principle and practical significance in the new covenant, so was the presence of the ark of the covenant under the old covenant. Even Indiana Jones had at least some idea of its importance!
The reason for suggesting this was the background for Psalm 101 is because of the words of v. 2: “Oh, when will You come to me?” David desired the presence of the ark (2 Samuel 6:9) and so he prepared for its arrival.
Assuming that this is the historical setting of this psalm, David is here contemplating the kind of governance that he desires to exercise over the kingdom of which Yahweh is the ultimate ruler. He understands that, when God is present (when the ark arrives), his leadership will need to be holy; it will need to be different than the rule exercised by the surrounding nations. And so, in the midst of considering this, he longs for such governance to take place—to the glory of God—and therefore passionately cries out, “When will You arrive and be glorified by such a governance?” David was preparing to rule a nation that was uniquely chosen by God for the glory of God. He was passionate about this. He was excited about the Lord’s inauguration, if you will, and so, with great enthusiasm, he cried out, “Oh, please come! Preparations are being made! We wish to honour You! Let’s get going to Your glory!” In New Testament terminology: “Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven! Let’s do this!” He was setting his sails to experience the winds of God’s majestic presence moving the kingdom in history.
The Sovereign of the Psalm
Verse 1 establishes the reason for this psalm, the reason behind the king’s passion to be pure. The reason is the revelation of who the true King is: Yahweh.
We see this in the opening sentence, “I will sing of mercy and justice; to You, O LORD, I will sing praises.” It is the Lord’s character as merciful and just, it is His conduct as one who is covenantally faithful and righteous in His rule, that sets the pattern for how David desires to conduct Himself as a ruler of God’s people. He writes this in order to go on record before the Lord that he is resolved to emulate Yahweh’s example.
When he says, “To You, O LORD, I will sing praises,” his point is that he desires for his rule to be one that serves as praise to God, a rule through which God will be glorified. David’s intention is that this psalm describing the ideal ruler will be sung to the glory and the honour of God.
As I have sought to highlight in previous studies, Romans 13 makes very clear that this matter of ruling in the fear of God to the glory of God is the responsibility of human rulers. David got this; our leaders need to get this. And those of us who are in authority over others also need to get this.
It is worth noting that God’s rule balances mercy and justice. As Boice instructs, “Mercy and justice operate as checks on one another. Justice checks love that might otherwise be wrongly indulgent and therefore harmful. Love checks judgment that might otherwise be unduly harsh and therefore also harmful.”1 These are the kind of rulers that make for a kind and just society.
Martin Luther, commenting on this verse, writes,
What the psalm calls “mercy and justice” is said not of the mercy and justice of God but of the mercy and justice which a prince practices toward his servants and his subjects…. A prince and lord must use both of these. If there is only mercy and the prince lets everyone milk him and kick him in the teeth and does not punish or become angry, then not only the court but the land, too, will be filled with wicked rascals; all discipline and honor will come to an end. On the other hand, if there is only anger and punishment or too much of it, then tyranny will result, and the pious will be breathless in their daily fear and anxiety.2
The Resolutions of the Resolve
Verses 2–7 highlight the specifics of David’s resolve:
I will behave wisely in a perfect way. Oh, when will You come to me? I will walk within my house with a perfect heart. I will set nothing wicked before my eyes; I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me. A perverse heart shall depart from me; I will not know wickedness. Whoever secretly slanders his neighbour, Him I will destroy; the one who has a haughty look and a proud heart, him I will not endure. My eyes shall be on the faithful of the land, that they may dwell with me; He who walks in a perfect way, he shall serve me. He who works deceit shall not dwell within my house; he who tells lies shall not continue in my presence.
In this section David reveals the specifics concerning His resolve to rule in a godly way. He understands the need to be blameless in heart and in life if he will lead in a godly and God-honouring way. As noted earlier, “by purity of purpose and integrity of heart David is resolved to prepare for Jehovah’s coming to dwell with him.”3 And what he says in these verses are very specific goals concerning his character and conduct, as well as the cabinet that will rule with him. But it also has much to say to each of us.
By the way, there is close similarity with Psalms 15 and 24, both which were written by David in connection with the return of the ark of the covenant.
David’s first resolve has to do with his character. We see two aspects of this here.
First, David speaks of his integrity: “I will behave wisely in a perfect way…. I will walk within my house with a perfect heart” (v. 2).
The word “perfect” speaks of uprightness, wholeness or integrity. This is the walk and the way of wisdom.
It should be noted that David’s concern was not merely for integrity as a political persona. Rather, even in (especially?) in the privacy of his home he sought to be pure. He understood that what a man is in private will affect how he leads in public. The Bible recognises this principle throughout. It is, for instance, why the requirements for elders and deacons in 1 Timothy 3 are more about what a man is than what he does.
This principle is vital for rulers to understand. Walking the walk and talking the talk is essential at all times. When we do so, our lives are characterised as wise because they are characterised as godly (as in God-like).
Before moving on, let it be observed that such a resolve, though a very high one, nevertheless is to be the pursuit of every ruler—and of every Christian. Shoot for the moon and you will rise higher than if you shoot for nothing.
David was further resolved to be a ruler of self-control: “I will set nothing wicked before my eyes; I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me” (v. 3).
Assuming Hebrew parallelism, I take these statements as describing the same sin that David is resolved to avoid, namely the sin of idolatry.
“I will set nothing wicked before my eyes” has wide application but a primary meaning. The word “wicked” is translated as “worthless” in the ESV. Both are fair translations. The word literally means “without value.” Something that is “worthless” in the sense of being “wicked” is that which is unprofitable, destructive and useless. But what may help us to more fully understand the word is to be aware that the primary way this word is translated (in the KJV at least) is “Belial.” This word was used to describe people like Nabal (1 Samuel 25:25), who were scoundrels. The term later came to be identified with the devil.
David is therefore saying that he is resolved to avoid anything in his life that is useless, worthless or devilish. He had seen enough of life to know the outcome of those who senselessly, though sensually, pursued things of no value. He saw them “fall away,” he saw them turn away from the true God as they embraced the various cultural but ultimately worthless idols. He was therefore determined that none of this would “cling to” him.
Those who are resolved to lead in the fear of the Lord are aware of their need to exercise self-control to avoid entanglements with the worthless things of the world (2 Timothy 2:3–4). They are therefore careful to avoid focusing (“set … before my eyes”) on that which dishonours God. They are on guard against the idols of their age.
In the spirit of this psalm, we must know how to recognise the idols of our age and avoid them. These include things like the rampant sexualisation of our culture, the materialism that bombards us on every side, the overriding selfishness of our society, and the godless philosophies and competing religions of our age. Those who are resolved to live godly in this present age will be careful to avoid the mediums of such messages. They will be careful of what they read, what they listen to, what they watch, who they spend time with and who they choose to have influence in their lives. One might think here of a man like President Richard Nixon, infamous for his fall in the Watergate scandal. Someone who was close to Nixon’s advisors once said that he had never met more self-centred men in his life.
In summary, those resolved to live righteously will reject those who are not so resolved (see Psalms 15:4a; 139:19–22).
Second, in vv. 4–7, David is resolved to have righteous companions:
A perverse heart shall depart from me; I will not know wickedness. Whoever secretly slanders his neighbour, him I will destroy; the one who has a haughty look and a proud heart, him I will not endure. My eyes shall be on the faithful of the land, that they may dwell with me; he who walks in a perfect way, he shall serve me. He who works deceit shall not dwell within my house; he who tells lies shall not continue in my presence.
Because David was concerned about guarding his character, he was careful in selecting his companions. Perhaps specifically he has in mind those who would serve alongside him in his cabinet.
David understood the truth of Proverbs 13:20: “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but a companion of fools will be destroyed.” He would have added a hearty amen to Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “Evil company corrupts good habits” (1 Corinthians 15:33). David understood that who he walked with would have some bearing on how he walked (v. 2). Therefore, David resolved to avoid bad influences.
When it comes to good governance, as well as to living a life pleasing to the Lord, we can agree with Leupold: “Disavowal of evil men is as important as are the acceptance and acknowledgement of those who are true and upright. If wicked men have played an important part in governmental affairs they must be publicly disavowed. That is what the psalmist does here.”4
David mentions several specific types of people he is resolved to avoid.
First, David is resolved to avoid the perverse: “A perverse heart shall depart from me; I will not know wickedness” (v. 4).
This word translated “perverse” connotes an enemy, a foe. It speaks of “a twisted mind and will which hate the plain truth and the straight path.”5 The connection with v. 3 is assumed. David resolved to avoid intimacy (“know”) with those who were characterised as ungodly (“wicked”).
What a difference it would make in our nation if this kind of vetting process was enacted by voters as well as by those who are chosen to lead. The corrupt would be shown the door and windows of opportunity would open for our country and its peoples.
Second, David was resolved to avoid slanderers: “Whoever secretly slanders his neighbour, him I will destroy; the one who has a haughty look and a proud heart, him I will not endure” (v. 5).
If a ruler will lead well, to the glory of God, he needs honourable advisors. And those who slander are not honourable! In fact, those who slander will tempt the leader to bad judgements and to partiality. There is no justice in that. This goes for the arrogant as well.
One of the presidential candidates in the United States is Ben Carson. A recent article about him was titled, “Ben Carson: The Power of Humility.” This is a good quality for those who lead others. For this reason, David resolved to avoid companionship with those who had “a haughty look and a proud heart.” In fact, he could not stomach (“endure”) them.
The two go hand in hand. Those who are full of themselves see others as mere objects to be castigated, vilified and slandered at will. The godly leader will have none of it.
It is interesting that church leaders are disqualified if they or their wives are slanderous (1 Timothy 3:8, 11). Those who are proud and vicious with their tongues are not to be trusted. Those who lead are to reflect the Lord, who is characterised by truthfulness.
The third type of people that David was resolved to avoid were the unfaithful: “My eyes shall be on the faithful of the land, that they may dwell with me; he who walks in a perfect way, he shall serve me. He who works deceit shall not dwell within my house; he who tells lies shall not continue in my presence” (vv. 6–7).
These verses provide a contrast between those whom David will choose as his companions/cabinet (v. 6) and those whom he will not (v. 7). The issue is that of faithfulness (including truthfulness). “He will not tolerate falsehood and pride and injustice around him, but will seek to fill his courts with faithful ministers.”6 David resolved to be on the lookout for those who were faithful and loyal.
Those who are faithless are those who fail to keep the faith, who break agreements.7 David would avoid those as he looked for those who kept their word, who were faithful and loyal to the Lord (“walks in a perfect way”) and then to him as king.
People in our day scoff at the concept of loyalty to leaders—perhaps because of a lack of trust, but also perhaps because of a lack of character of the one who is called to loyalty. Loyalty, however, is a hallmark of the godly—not a blind loyalty but a faithful loyalty. It is the kind of loyalty that refuses to gossip and slander, the kind of loyalty that does not sit in meetings, nodding in agreement, only to leave and undermine what was agreed to. But it is also the kind of loyalty that the prophet Nathan one day showed to both the king and to the King when he looked at David and said, “You are the man. You, my king, are guilty.”
Sadly, there came a time when one of those whom David reached out to, his rebellious son Absalom, was one who worked “deceit.” In a very literal sense, Absalom dwelt within his house, and David paid a grave price for this. God eventually took him from David’s presence.
The leader should look for those “in the land” who are best qualified to serve with him. Faithfulness of character, rather than political payback, should be criteria. If government leaders would practice this, and if they used God’s standard by which they would assess true faithfulness, what a different land we would inhabit!
The same goes for church leaders. The church must be very careful whom it affirms and appoints to lead. Test the men and women before putting them into their respective ministries.
Elders have a huge responsibility here, and that is why they sometimes cause upset. But leading God’s people is too important to bypass consideration of character and competency. It is too important to compromise on the altar of friendships. Faithfulness, rather than friendship, is the issue.
The Resolve of the Resolve
Finally, in v. 8, we see the vision of David’s resolve: “Early I will destroy all the wicked of the land, that I may cut off all the evildoers from the city of the LORD.”
The psalm closes with David’s stated resolve to “early … destroy all the wicked of the land.” Or, as the ESV has it, “morning by morning I will destroy all the wicked in the land.” The meaning is that David resolved to work hard—daily—at righteously ruling God’s land. He aimed to lead rightly “each time [he] conducts court trials.”8
David aimed to bring biblical justice to the land in his quest that the city of the Lord would be free of evildoers. He desired for God’s kingdom to come and was committed to working—and to leading—towards this vision.
What a glorious vision—the vision of a nation under the good governance of God through the means of godly governors!
For many years, David made progress towards this vision. In the major years of his reign, much of Psalm 101 was not merely song but was, more significantly, practiced.
The New Testament is not silent about such a vision and this too should be a song sung by the new covenant church. Of course, things look dismal, but look up to the one who has all power to change things (Ephesians 1:19–23). Preach the gospel and pray for its progress.
But further, we would all agree that the governance we have examined here is what we desire. But let me turn the tables a bit and challenge us to be the right kind of people to be governed. In other words, the resolve that David had as a leader should equally be our resolve as those who are called to follow. If it is true that a nation receives the kind of leaders it deserves, then let us resolve to be a nation worthy of godly governance.
Of course, in the end, we know that human government, as well as the governed, will fall short. In fact, we know the long-term end of the kingdom of Israel. We remember David’s ignominious fall and how all seemed to go to pieces.
Under Solomon, things improved, but then he failed and the kingdom split and, like Humpty Dumpty, no human king could ever put it back together again. Thankfully, however, Psalm 101 finds its ultimate fulfilment in the Lord Jesus Christ. And so let’s finish our study by reflecting on Him.
The Realisation of the Resolve
Kidner comments, “Happily the last word is not with David nor with his faithful historians, but with his Son. There, there is no shadow.”9 The Lord Jesus Christ is the only one who could ever live up to such a resolve. Thankfully of course He did.
Jesus resolved to come to earth to “behave wisely in a perfect way.” He walked with a perfect heart, with innocent hands and with a faultless tongue. He resisted all temptation to evil as His life manifested mercy and justice.
The fullest revelation of mercy and justice was on the cross. In His lovingkindness, He laid down His life for sinners. And He satisfied God’s justice by becoming sin for us. Because of this, His righteousness is now the possession of all who repent and believe on Him.
When this happens we begin the rest of eternity as subjects to this perfect Ruler. And one day He will return to establish perfect justice on earth. We call this the new heaven and earth (Revelation 21:1). But what about the meantime?
In the meantime, Jesus is ruling and reigning and is resolved to bring His kingdom in its fullness to earth. He is resolved to answer our prayers for this. And, yes, He is resolved to exercise mercy and justice in space-time history. So, let us believe Him, let us worship Him, let us obey Him, and let us sing praises to the one who is establishing the city of the Lord.
Even so, come and do your thing Lord Jesus!
- James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 2:819. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 2:819. ↩
- A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Cambridge: Scripture Truth, n.d.), 590. ↩
- H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 821. ↩
- Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 359. ↩
- Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 592. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 821. ↩
- H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 705. ↩
- Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 2:359. ↩