In a Sea of Trouble (Psalm 69:1–36)

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Derek Kidner says that this psalm “reveals a vulnerable man, one who could not shrug off slander, betrayal or self-accusation, as a hard or self-absorbed person might; and whose sense of justice had not been dulled.”1

As the content of these 36 verses make clear, this man is surrounded by problems. To use his own metaphor, he is in a sea of trouble. He is nearly drowning, and can barely keep his head above the waters. He also alludes to the picture of a man being swallowed in quicksand. He has no place to which he can turn as a foundation for his feet; he is not sure how much longer he can hold on. In fact, he apparently has been crying out loud for so long and with such intensity that his voice is about to give out completely.

He needs help. He needs it desperately. He has only one hope—but what a hope it is! His hope and his help is in the Lord.

It should be noted that this is one of the most quoted of the psalms by New Testament writers. Many of its verses are found in the New Testament, and in nearly every case these citations have direct reference to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is for this reason that Psalm 69 is often referred to as a Messianic Psalm. Though, of course, all Scripture points to Christ, a Messianic Psalm uniquely pictures the Lord, as this one does.

This concept is important, for it helps us to see not only David’s historical situation, but more importantly it shows us the sufferings as well as the faithful triumphs of Christ. And this gives us immense hope as we at times find ourselves in a sea of trouble.

You see, as helpful as it can be to relate to another person such as David, there is no comparison to the comfort that we derive from our Saviour, the God-Man, who suffered so on our behalf. His example is an inspired and perfect example of how to respond to difficulties. It is for this reason that we can derive much instruction, comfort and edification from this song of lament.

The Cause of the Troubles

Before getting into a brief exposition of the psalm, it will be helpful to understand the primary cause for the suffering recorded. The answer is found in v. 9. This verse was quoted by John in his Gospel (2:17). Leupold in fact titles this psalm, “The Prayer of a Man Suffering because of Zeal for the Lord’s House.”2 I concur.

Though the psalm contains many references to the varied sufferings of Christ, nevertheless the primary reason, when you drill down far enough, for the sufferings of Christ is because He had a zeal for His Father’s household. Jesus came to earth to die for those whom the Father had given to Him. He was to save them and to form them into a new house, into the new temple of God. We call this the church.

In fact, just two verses later in John’s record (2:19), the apostle records Jesus referencing Himself as the true house of God, the true temple.

The point is that Jesus went to the cross for the purpose of bringing honour to His Father’s name, and this would be fulfilled, and finally consummated one day, in the everlasting kingdom. He was zealous for His Father’s house while on earth, and ever since He ascended, He has been zealous in His Father’s house (John 14:1–6).

I want us to keep this in mind as we proceed: The sufferings here are not due to self-inflicted problems. Though no doubt there is hope for those who are in the sea of trouble of their own sinfulness, nevertheless the sufferings here are with respect to someone who is zealous for the name and for the fame of God. And this should be true for every Christian (see 1 Peter 4:12–19; 3:13–17; 2:18–25). As Leupold helpfully comments, “David becomes a typical example of the things that are experienced by all who are truly zealous for the Lord’s house.”3

The Cry of the Vulnerable

Verses 1–12 records the cry of the vulnerable.

For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing; I have come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is dry; my eyes fail while I wait for my God. Those who hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head; they are mighty who would destroy me, being my enemies wrongfully; though I have stolen nothing, I still must restore it.

O God, You know my foolishness; and my sins are not hidden from You. Let not those who wait for You, O Lord God of hosts, be ashamed because of me; Let not those who seek You be confounded because of me, O God of Israel. Because for Your sake I have borne reproach; shame has covered my face. I have become a stranger to my brothers, and an alien to my mother’s children; because zeal for Your house has eaten me up, and the reproaches of those who reproach You have fallen on me. When I wept and chastened my soul with fasting, that became my reproach. I also made sackcloth my garment; I became a byword to them. Those who sit in the gate speak against me, and I am the song of the drunkards.

(Psalm 69:1–12)

It is clear that the author, David—the anointed of God—is in a very vulnerable position. He is the victim of slander and injustice (v. 4); he has been the victim of cruel and unjust punishment (vv. 7, 9); he is rejected by the rulers of his community (v. 12); the drunkards taunt him (v. 12) and even his own family it would appear have abandoned him (v .8). He is, humanly speaking, all alone.

He is therefore feeling very vulnerable. For example consider that “in the foreground we see the psalmist praying to God, whereas in the background the mockers and drunkards are singing their songs of mockery and revelry.”4 And what makes this so difficult is that the cause is his commitment to the Lord.

Let’s look more closely at this.

The Cry of a Grievous Trial

The passage opens with a cry, with a lament for deliverance.

For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing; I have come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is dry; my eyes fail while I wait for my God. Those who hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head; they are mighty who would destroy me, being my enemies wrongfully; though I have stolen nothing, I still must restore it.

(Psalm 69:1–4)

We do not know the particulars of David’s situation, but from what he records things were clearly pretty bad. He was drowning in difficulties.

He cries out until he is hoarse: “Save me!” “The psalmist is ‘worn out’ from repeatedly calling, ‘Save me.’ … Though he is in deep water, his inner being is ablaze.”5

Have you ever been there? Let me say this compassionately: We should have been. Yes, if we love the Lord, and if we are therefore committed to His purposes and to the pursuit of His holiness, we will find ourselves at times suffering at the hands of those who are not so committed (2 Timothy 3:12). And it can be painful almost beyond description; yet, thankfully, not painful beyond relief.

Because of your love for His truth, others will slander you. A friend recently asked me to pray for him because there is, he says, a “whispering campaign” against him in his church. It feels terrible when you are a victims of such a thing, but it is to be expected if you love Christ and His truth.

The Concern for a Godly Testimony

In vv. 5–12, we see the honesty and humility of a man after God’s own heart.

O God, You know my foolishness; and my sins are not hidden from You. Let not those who wait for You, O Lord God of hosts, be ashamed because of me; Let not those who seek You be confounded because of me, O God of Israel. Because for Your sake I have borne reproach; shame has covered my face. I have become a stranger to my brothers, and an alien to my mother’s children; because zeal for Your house has eaten me up, and the reproaches of those who reproach You have fallen on me. When I wept and chastened my soul with fasting, that became my reproach. I also made sackcloth my garment; I became a byword to them. Those who sit in the gate speak against me, and I am the song of the drunkards.

(Psalm 69:5–12)

Davis is concerned primarily about how he responds to the difficulties as far as it effects God and the godly. He is drowning, yet his primary concern is that God is not defamed or His people discouraged or disillusioned.

We have noted that this is a Messianic Psalm, but this does not eliminate the personal element of it. This is most notable in v. 5, for this could only apply to David and never to Jesus.

His Confession

David’s confession is one of remarkable humility. This is characteristic of the truly godly. There is nothing self-righteous about this. Yes, he is sure that he is undeserving of this treatment by his enemies. Yet he also is honest enough to confess that he knows he is not perfect. He is, as it were, asking the Lord to search him, know him and see if there is any wicked way in him (Psalm 139:23–24). Boice comments, “It is the kind of thing we learn to expect from the godly. As much as they can, they live without blame before other men and women. But they nevertheless know their lack of wisdom and acknowledge their deep guilt before God.”6

There is a lesson to be learned here: Listen to your enemies and seek to detect any truth in their accusations. Grow in the grief; don’t merely grumble in it.

His Concern

There are two possible ways to interpret these words.

First, David may be asking, “Don’t let me mishandle this.” He may be asking for grace to empower him to handle this trial in such a way that others are ashamed of him. In other words, it may be a plea for grace to respond righteously. He is concerned for the fame of God’s name.

Second, David may be praying, “Don’t let me misrepresent you.” This is related to the above, but a bit different. Perhaps David’s concern is that other Christians might view what is happening to him and then draw wrong conclusions, not about David but rather about God.

Sometimes, Christians—weak and immature ones—see suffering in the life of another believer (particularly in the life of one noted for faithfulness) and are tempted to conclude that God is not good. They therefore stumble into unbelief. Perhaps this is what David was concerned about.

We should learn from this. When we are suffering, others are watching. We are not called to pretend that all is well as we plaster on a fake smile. But we are to give thanks in everything. In fact, we will see this response later in the psalm.

Leupold summarises well:

His prayer is that these sins of his may not in one way or another be allowed to do harm to those who trust in the Lord and seek Him…. Rare humility and insight are to be felt in this petition. Men pray thus when they have the burden of the welfare of souls on their heart.7

Do you?

The Call for Vindication

Second, in vv. 13–29 we read a call for vindication:

O God, in the multitude of Your mercy, hear me in the truth of Your salvation. Deliver me out of the mire, and let me not sink; let me be delivered from those who hate me, and out of the deep waters. Let not the floodwater overflow me, nor let the deep swallow me up; and let not the pit shut its mouth on me. Hear me, O Lord, for Your lovingkindness is good; turn to me according to the multitude of Your tender mercies.

And do not hide Your face from Your servant, for I am in trouble; hear me speedily. Draw near to my soul, and redeem it; deliver me because of my enemies. You know my reproach, my shame, and my dishonour; my adversaries are all before You. Reproach has broken my heart, and I am full of heaviness; I looked for someone to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none. They also gave me gall for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

Let their table become a snare before them, and their well-being a trap. Let their eyes be darkened, so that they do not see; and make their loins shake continually. Pour out Your indignation upon them, and let Your wrathful anger take hold of them. Let their dwelling place be desolate; let no one live in their tents. For they persecute the ones You have struck, and talk of the grief of those You have wounded. Add iniquity to their iniquity, and let them not come into Your righteousness. Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous. But I am poor and sorrowful; let Your salvation, O God, set me up on high.

(Psalm 69:13–29)

After David’s lament he then manifest a wonderful and honest confidence in the Lord. He does two things. First, he prays for deliverance (vv. 13–21) and he prays for justice (vv. 22–29).

God-Focused Prayer for Help

We can see two elements about David’s prayer for deliverance.

It is a Hopeful Prayer

First, it is a hopeful prayer.

O God, in the multitude of Your mercy, hear me in the truth of Your salvation. Deliver me out of the mire, and let me not sink; let me be delivered from those who hate me, and out of the deep waters. Let not the floodwater overflow me, nor let the deep swallow me up; and let not the pit shut its mouth on me. Hear me, O Lord, for Your lovingkindness is good; turn to me according to the multitude of Your tender mercies.

(Psalm 69:13–16)

David realises that it is an acceptable time to pray. Like Peter, when you are drowning, it is acceptable to pray! And perhaps we would do well to realise that, in reality, we are always surrounded by a sea of trouble.

David’s hope was clearly grounded in the character of God. Knowing the character of God is vital for our prayer life. The gospel gives us insight into God’s character. Learn it!

It is an Honest Prayer

Second, it is an honest prayer.

And do not hide Your face from Your servant, for I am in trouble; hear me speedily. Draw near to my soul, and redeem it; deliver me because of my enemies. You know my reproach, my shame, and my dishonour; my adversaries are all before You. Reproach has broken my heart, and I am full of heaviness; I looked for someone to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none. They also gave me gall for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

(Psalm 69:17–21)

In this section, David revisits his calamitous situation mentioned at the beginning. Though he is praying, his problems have not immediately disappeared. In fact, it seems that the more that he prays the more real and ever-present his troubles are.

Prayer is not a panacea that causes all of our troubles to flee. Rather prayer—proper prayer—causes us to face the difficulties honestly yet more. Prayer—proper prayer—gives us perspective not only about how serious our trials are but also concerning the greatness of our God who alone can deliver us. Let me put it this way: Prayer—proper prayer—will result in human hopelessness, which then opens the door for the hope that we need—in the Lord.

This is especially apparent in v. 20: “I looked for someone to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.” But in prayer he is reminded that, in fact, there is one. And He is the only one David really needs.

In v. 21, David laments that, when he was in need, the response of his enemies was only mockery: “They also gave me gall [bitterness] for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” “When I hoped for refreshment or some relaxation, they intensified their cruel treatment.”8

Yet, in prayer, David found God to be his meat and drink—like His Saviour (see John 19:28­–29).

A God-Focused Plea for Justice

In vv. 22–29 we find a God-centred plea for justice.

Let their table become a snare before them, and their well-being a trap. Let their eyes be darkened, so that they do not see; and make their loins shake continually. Pour out Your indignation upon them, and let Your wrathful anger take hold of them. Let their dwelling place be desolate; let no one live in their tents. For they persecute the ones You have struck, and talk of the grief of those You have wounded. Add iniquity to their iniquity, and let them not come into Your righteousness. Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous. But I am poor and sorrowful; let Your salvation, O God, set me up on high.

(Psalm 69:22–29)

This is one of those often “uncomfortable” imprecatory portions of Scripture. David uses strong language here as he calls down divine judgement on his enemies. Note the language.

He prays for their “table” to “become a snare.” (These verses are quoted in Romans 11:9–10, in the context of Israel’s apostasy.) David is praying for their blessings to become curses on them. As they have sought to feed him poison (v. 21), may this be their portion.

He prays further for physical calamity: blindness and perhaps even sickness or disease (v. 23). He prays for God’s wrath to be meted out on them (v. 24). He prays for the desolation and destruction of their homes (v. 25; cf. Matthew 23:38; Acts 1:20). He prays for their sins to compound, which, of course, will result in even more righteous wrath from God (v. 27). Finally, he prays for what is either their physical death or perhaps even their eternal judgement in the second death (v. 28).

These are strong words. So how do we explain this? Was David just having a really bad day? Was he sinning when he prayed this? Was he simply ignorant of his own sinfulness? Was he ignorant of the gospel?

Many have answered yes to such suggestions. But I think they are wrong.

David writes as the anointed of the Lord and therefore he writes under inspiration (see 2 Samuel 23:1ff). It is therefore not possible that he would write something “unworthy” of a Christian. But more importantly, he writes representing the Lord, and therefore these are words of Jesus.

Boice helpfully writes,

Although David is calling for God’s swift vengeance on his enemies, it is significant that he is asking God to render judgment and not proposing or even wanting to take vengeance himself…. It is David, the anointed one of God, who is speaking. Therefore, his enemies are God’s enemies. David’s calls for vindication are therefore never merely an individual matter.9

I would concur that these words are not best suited for you and me to pray, for the simple reason that we are so tainted with sin that personal vengeance will creep in. And personal vengeance is never justifiable (see Romans 12:17–21).

Nevertheless we can take comfort from this passage knowing that one day the enemies of the Lord, who remain enemies of the Lord, will be brought to book for their evil treatment of the Lord by their evil contempt for His people.

In the meantime, we should pray and long for the conversion of the church’s enemies, knowing that one day the Lord will be fully vindicated, one way or the other. So, let us pray with what Calvin calls “a holy zeal for the divine glory.”10

Verse 29 offers a concluding contrast. The passage closes with a contrast between the writer and his enemies. David acknowledges that he is “poor and sorrowful” at the hands of his enemies and prays that he will be vindicated “on high.”

The Lord Jesus was a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief and, in the end, He indeed was set on high, where He rules and reigns today. Because He has been vindicated, we know that we will be as well.

We should note that true prayer will lead to such imprecations. As we focus on the Lord in prayer we will become increasingly concerned with His honour and our passion for justice will grow. And such praying will encourage us that one day we, like our Lord, will be vindicated as His followers. Let me conclude by once again quoting Boice: “But just because we are not to take judgment into our own hands does not mean that we should not want justice to be done or that God will not punish sin eventually.”

The Confidence of the Victorious

The final phrase of v. 29 leads quite naturally to this closing passage, which has a celebratory note to it.

I will praise the name of God with a song, and will magnify Him with thanksgiving. This also shall please the Lord better than an ox or bull, which has horns and hooves. The humble shall see this and be glad; and you who seek God, your hearts shall live. For the Lord hears the poor, and does not despise His prisoners.

Let heaven and earth praise Him, the seas and everything that moves in them. For God will save Zion and build the cities of Judah, that they may dwell there and possess it. Also, the descendants of His servants shall inherit it, and those who love His name shall dwell in it.

(Psalm 69:30–36)

Arno Gaebelein once wrote of this psalm: “What a precious psalm it is! It begins with the cry of the one who bore our sins in his body, who suffered for our sake. It ends with the glorious results of his atoning work.”11

A God-Centred Thanksgiving

David utters a God-centred thanksgiving.

I will praise the name of God with a song, and will magnify Him with thanksgiving. This also shall please the Lord better than an ox or bull, which has horns and hooves. The humble shall see this and be glad; and you who seek God, your hearts shall live. For the Lord hears the poor, and does not despise His prisoners.

(Psalm 69:30–33)

What I find amazing about this passage, in which David commits to praising and thanking the Lord, is that he is meanwhile almost drowning! Yet, in spite of his current predicament, David is so hopeful that he is already planning the party! He expects God to deliver him, and he anticipates other beleaguered saints to take heart and to find great gladness in God’s work of deliverance.

There is a lesson here for us. We are to be a people of faith, and faith-filled people are thanks-filled people; they are grateful that they will one day have every reason to be grateful. God is at work and therefore we can be thankful in the sea of trouble (1 Thessalonians 5:17–18).

This is the kind of faith Hebrews exhorts us to. It is the a faith that emanates from knowing that Jesus has been set on high and therefore, as we look to Him, we are encouraged to run the race set before us. When you “consider Jesus,” you have every reason to be grateful because you have every reason to be hopeful.

A God-Caused Triumph

In the closing verses we read of a God-caused triumph.

Let heaven and earth praise Him, the seas and everything that moves in them. For God will save Zion and build the cities of Judah, that they may dwell there and possess it. Also, the descendants of His servants shall inherit it, and those who love His name shall dwell in it.

(Psalm 69:33–36)

There is much discussion as to whether these verses were penned by David or added later by an editor after the exile. I don’t know. They would be appropriate in either case. David would be anticipating the future glory of Zion (humanly under Solomon) while those from the exile would anticipate a rebuilding of the glory as declared by Haggai and other prophets.

But for the Christian, we can rejoice in the promise of triumph of God’s purposes in Christ. There is a great illustration of this in Revelation 18–19. Revelation 18 pictures the destruction of Jerusalem, symbolically portrayed as Babylon. Jerusalem was once the city of God, but now it had become “a dwelling place of demons” (v. 2). But then we see the church, New Jerusalem, in chapter 19.

The ultimate Mount Zion, the city of God, is coming and will one day fully come out of heaven and God’s name will be hallowed; His kingdom will have fully come and His revealed will fully obeyed on earth as it is in heaven. In other words, God will cause heaven to come to the glorified earth. “The hope of the godly must always focus on the full restoration of all things, when the Lord will establish his righteous salvation to his people on this earth (cf. 2 Peter 3:13).”12

The Bible tells us that there is coming a day when there will be “no more sea” (Revelation 21:1). That is not a prophecy of a day when there will be no more ocean. The “sea” in Scripture is generally symbolic of chaos. It often pictures the Gentile nations out of control in their opposition to God. But one day this will come to an end. One day, Jesus Christ will return to earth and His people will once and for all be delivered from their sea of trouble. And that will quite literally be glory!

But, until then, we can live victoriously in our sea of trouble. In fact, in v. 34 we are told to expect the very seas that cause us so much turmoil to bow to God’s sovereignty.

As you face the vulnerability in your sea of trouble, know that the Lord is control. As Jesus demonstrated, He can calm the troubled sea. So look to Him, pray for His vindication and look forward to the victory that He purchased on the cross. “It is finished” was His triumphant cry (John 19:30). And because of that, our seas will not have the last word. He will finish them off one day. They will never finish us.

Kidner’s words are a fitting conclusion: “The psalm is yet another reminder that the most desperate of prayers can end, and rightly so, in doxology.”13

Show 13 footnotes

  1. Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 1:245.
  2. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 500.
  3. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 501.
  4. Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:457.
  5. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5:455.
  6. James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 5:271.
  7. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 502–3.
  8. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 505–6.
  9. Boice, Psalms, 2:579.
  10. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5:460.
  11. Boice, Psalms, 2:569.
  12. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5:462.
  13. Kidner, Psalms, 1:249.