Psalm 140 is an individual’s plea to God to save him from the enemy. It contains a harsh imprecation, an affirmation of confidence in God, and a description of anticipated praise.
The psalmist has harsh words for his enemies: “may coals of fire drop down upon them, and they be cast into pits, never to rise again.”
2. Invocation and petition
7-8. Invocation, “initial plea”
13. Affirmation of confidence
14. Anticipated praise
Psalm 140 contains the primary elements of the Complaint/Petition genre (a.k.a. as the “individual lament”): (a) invocation (v. 2), (b) petition (vv. 2, 5, 9), (c) complaint (vv. 3-4, 6), imprecation of enemies (vv. 10-12), affirmation of confidence (v. 13), and anticipated praise (v. 14). It is in many ways a paradigm of the genre; every section contains parallels to other complaint psalms.
The enemy is called adam ra’a “evil men,” ‘ish chamasim “lawless men,” and rasha’ “wicked.” These are relatively common appellations in the complaint genre, cf. Ps. 34:17, 18:49, 9:18, etc. The enemy is described as those “whose minds are full of evil schemes, who plot war every day. They sharpen their tongues like serpents; spiders’ poison is on their lips.” (vv. 3-4) They are also described as ‘ish lashon “slanderers” (v. 12). It seems that the psalmist was worried about verbal aggressiveness, possibly the type that involved black magic. For similar verses see Ps. 52:4-6 and 109:2-3.
The enemies are described in v. 6 with a trap metaphor: “Arrogant men laid traps (pach) with ropes for me; they spread out a net (reshet) along the way; they set snares (moqeshim) for me.” This metaphor is standard for the psalter, e.g. Ps. 31:5 “You free me from the net (reshet) laid for me” and Ps. 124:7 “We are like a bird escaped from the fowler’s trap (pach yoqeshim); the trap (hapach) broke and we escaped.”
The imprecation tries to counteract the evil powers by reverting them onto those who created them: “May the heads of those who beset me be covered with the mischief of their lips” (v. 10). This is a popular theme in the psalter, e.g. Ps. 7:16 “He has dug a pit and deepened it, and will fall into the trap he made,” Ps. 57:7 “They prepared a net for my feet to ensnare me; they dug a pit for me, but they fell into it,” and Ps. 109:17 “He loved to curse — may a curse come upon him! He would not bless — may blessing be far from him!”
One interesting point about Psalm 140 is vv. 7-8: “I said to the LORD: You are my God; give ear, O LORD, to my pleas for mercy. O GOD, my Lord, the strength of my deliverance, You protected my head on the day of battle.” These verses, which contain an elongated invocation and an initial plea, have a striking resemblance to the openings of other complaint psalms, e.g. Ps. 88:2-3 “O LORD, God of my deliverance, when I cry out in the night before You, let my prayer reach You; incline Your ear to my cry.” Based on this striking feature, some scholars suggest that Psalm 140 might actually be two smaller psalms that were connected to form one unit. Alternatively, the “new beginning” reflects an enigmatic liturgical use.
V. Important Verses
v. 4: They sharpen their tongues like serpents; spiders’ poison is on their lips. Selah.
v. 6: Arrogant men laid traps with ropes for me; they spread out a net along the way; they set snares for me. Selah.
v. 11: may coals of fire drop down upon them, and they be cast into pits, never to rise again.