Psalm 143 begins with the speaker telling God about his distressful state. The speaker then petitions God to save him, guide him, and to destroy his enemies.
The psalmist is in a distressful state: “My foe hounded me; he crushed me to the ground; he made me dwell in darkness like those long dead.” The picture depicts darkness from the perspective of one who is knocked to the ground.
1b-2. Invocation, initial plea, implicit confession
5-6. Account of praying
7-11. Petitions/Affirmations of confidence
12c. Affirmation of confidence
Like the three psalms before it, Psalm 143 belongs to the Complaint/Petition genre (a.k.a. the “individual lament”): it contains (a) an invocation (v. 1), an initial plea (vv. 1-2), a confession of guilt (v. 2), a complaint (vv. 3-4), petitions (vv. 7-11), affirmations of confidence (vv. 7-11, 12c), and an imprecation (v. 12). Like the psalms before it, it begins with a Davidic superscription and contains an “initial plea” in the middle of the psalm (vv. 7-8).
The psalm, which begins like many others (cf. 49:2, 55:2-3, etc.), contains an implicit confession of guilt in v. 2, “Do not enter into judgment with Your servant, for before You no creature is in the right.” This phrase, which is found in wisdom literature, seems to have been adapted as a prayer (cf. Job 9:2, 15:14). Confessions are normal in petitions: see, for example, Ps. 38:19 “I acknowledge my iniquity; I am fearful over my sin,” and Ps. 51:5 “for I recognize my transgressions, and am ever conscious of my sin.”
There is a recounting of a prayer and its setting in vv. 5-6: “Then I thought of the days of old; I rehearsed all Your deeds, recounted the work of Your hands. I stretched out my hands to You, longing for You like thirsty earth. Selah.” (cf. the similar message of Ps. 77:4-6) Gerstenberger writes that telling God “of one’s own efforts to establish contact, including description of bodily posture, time of the day or night, emotional investment, pitch of voice, etc. is not idle talk but necessary ceremony” (p. 423). See, for example, Ps. 5:4 “Hear my voice, O LORD, at daybreak; at daybreak I plead before You, and wait,” and 28:2 “Listen to my plea for mercy when I cry out to You, when I lift my hands toward Your inner sanctuary.”
Like many complaints, Psalm 143 does not describe who the enemies are. All we know is that “My foe hounded me; he crushed me to the ground; he made me dwell in darkness like those long dead” (v. 3). Yet, the petition is not merely a request to be saved from the enemy. Like the “Torah Psalms” such as Ps. 119, Psalm 143 asks God for religious guidance: “Let me learn of Your faithfulness by daybreak, for in You I trust; let me know the road I must take, for on You I have set my hope… Teach me to do Your will, for You are my God. Let Your gracious spirit lead me on level ground” (vv. 8,10).
The psalm ends with a harsh imprecation followed by another affirmation of confidence: “As You are faithful, put an end to my foes; destroy all my mortal enemies, for I am Your servant.”
V. Important Verses
v. 2: Do not enter into judgment with Your servant, for before You no creature is in the right.
v. 3-4: My foe hounded me; he crushed me to the ground; he made me dwell in darkness like those long dead. My spirit failed within me; my mind was numbed with horror.
v. 8: Let me learn of Your faithfulness by daybreak, for in You I trust; let me know the road I must take, for on You I have set my hope.