Psalm 144 – “Royal Prayer (Praise/Petition)”


Hebrew-English Text
I. Summary
Psalm 144 seems to be a king’s prayer. The speaker blesses God, asks for His protection, and vows to sing His praise. He ends with a description of a community blessed by God.

II. Photo
The psalmist vows to praise God in v. 9: “O God, I will sing You a new song, sing a hymn to You with a ten-stringed harp.”
III. Outline
1a. Superscription
1b-2. Blessing/praise/thanks
3a. Invocation
3b-4. Wisdom saying: humility
5-8. Hymnic petition
9. Vow to praise
10-11. Petition
12-14. Description of Blessing
15. Beatitude

IV. Comment
Psalm 144 is a curious mixture of form elements: it contains a blessing (vv. 1-2), a wisdom saying (vv. 3-4), a grandiose petition (vv. 5-6), normal petitions (vv. 7-8, 10-11), a vow (v. 9), a beatitude (v. 15), and an enigmatic description of blessing (vv. 12-14). The speaker’s mention of battle (v. 1), people being subjected under him (v. 2), kings (v. 10), and David (v. 10) make it seem as if Psalm 144 was said by – or on behalf of – a king. Another indicator that Psalm 144 is a “royal psalm” is its strong connection to psalm 18 (which is classified as a royal thanksgiving psalm). Since the two psalms are so intertwined, Psalm 144 will now be explained while comparing it to Psalm 18.

Psalm 144 begins with a blessing, “Blessed is the LORD, my rock (tzuri), who trains my hands for battle (melamed yaday laqerav), my fingers for warfare.” The same vocabulary can be found in Ps. 18:3, 35: “O LORD… my rock (tzuri) in whom I seek refuge… who trained my hands for battle (melamed yaday lemilchama)…” V. 2 of our psalm describes God as “my faithful one, my fortress, my haven and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take shelter, who makes peoples subject to me.” Both the long list of affirmations and the mention of “subjugated people” have parallels in Psalm 18: “O LORD, my crag, my fortress, my rescuer, my God, my rock in whom I seek refuge, my shield, my mighty champion, my haven… the God who has vindicated me and made peoples subject to me.” (18:3, 48)

The next section of the psalm (vv. 3-4), which seems to be a piece of sapiential wisdom adapted for prayer, is a declaration of humility: “O LORD, what is man that You should care about him, mortal man, that You should think of him? Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow.” This teaching has parallels in the book of Job, e.g. Job 7:17 “What is man, that You make much of him, That You fix Your attention upon him?” and Job 15:14 “What is man that he can be cleared of guilt, One born of woman, that he be in the right?” Yet, it is interesting that the clearest parallel to our verse is Ps. 8:5 “what is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him?” Our verse, which is a rhetorical way of saying “man is absolutely nothing compared to You,” has the opposite meaning of 8:5 which continues by elevating man: “You have made him master over Your handiwork, laying the world at his feet, sheep and oxen, all of them, and wild beasts, too; he birds of the heavens, the fish of the sea, whatever travels the paths of the seas.”

Psalm 144 continues with two sections of petition (vv. 5-8, 9-11), both of which begin with an invocation and end with the phrase “Rescue me, save me… from the hands of foreigners, whose mouths speak lies, and whose oaths are false.” Vv. 5-6 seem to be a universal, if not grandiose petition: “O LORD, bend Your sky and come down (hat shamekha watered); touch the mountains and they will smoke. Make lightning flash and scatter them (utefitzeim); shoot Your arrows and rout them (shelach chitzekha utehumeim).” As one might expect, there are parallels to Ps. 18: 18:10 says “He bent the sky and came down (wayet shamayim wayered), thick cloud beneath His feet,” and 18:15 says “He let fly His shafts (wayishlack chitzav) and scattered them (wayafitzeim); He discharged lightning and routed them (wayehumeim).” Yet, in terms of meaning, the closest parallel is the grandiose petition of Isa. 63:19b-64:1: “If You would but tear open the heavens and come down, So that mountains would quake before You — As when fire kindles brushwood, And fire makes water boil — To make Your name known to Your adversaries So that nations will tremble at Your Presence.”

The petition of v. 7 asks God to “Reach Your hand down from on high; rescue me, save me from the mighty waters, from the hands of foreigners.” All parts have parallels in Ps. 18: v. 17 says “He reached down from on high, He took me; He drew me out of the mighty waters” and v. 45 mentions the beney nekhar “foreign peoples.” 

The next section of the psalm is the vow of v. 9: “O God, I will sing You a new song, sing a hymn to You with a ten-stringed harp!” While the “new song” is usally reserved for communal worship (cf. Isa. 42:10, Ps. 33:3, 96:1, 149:1), here it is used by an individual. Allen believes that this vow indicates that the psalm is thanksgiving.

Like the verses before it, v. 10 has a strong affinity to Psalm 18. V. 10 describes God as “You who give victory to kings, who rescue His servant David from the deadly sword,” and Ps. 18:51 describes God by saying “He accords great victories to His king, keeps faith with His anointed, with David and his offspring forever.” Both verse mention great victory to kings, and David.

The last section of the psalm is unique for the Psalter. It begins with the enigmatic word “’asher” and proceeds to describe a blessing of sons, daughters, stored goods, sheep, and cattle, i.e. the main assets of an ancient Near Eastern family. While there are no direct parallels to this section, there are other lists of blessing in Tanakh (cf. Deut. 28:3-6, Gen. 30:43, Ex. 20:1, Job 42:12-13). The psalm ends with a beatitude, much like that of Ps. 33:12 “Happy the nation whose God is the LORD, the people He has chosen to be His own.”

Scholars are not unified in their dating of Psalm 144 (see Allen who views vv. 1-11 as preexilic and vv. 12-15 as a later edition). Yet, no matter its date, it is clear that the psalm is strongly tied to Psalm 18.

V. Important Verses
v. 4: Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow. 
v. 9: O God, I will sing You a new song, sing a hymn to You with a ten-stringed harp
v. 15: Happy are the people who have it so; happy the people whose God is the LORD.