Principles from Psalm 35 for overcoming betrayal from those closest to you
Nothing hurts as much as being betrayed—but when the betrayer is close to you, you’ve just compounded the situation. David knew all about this type of close betrayal. In fact, his experience of healing as outlined in Psalm 35 mirrors the process abuse victims may also follow for restoration because they are often betrayed by people close to them. To help victims of abuse re-establish trust and adjust their theology to the Scriptures, pastors and biblical counselors should encourage them with David’s example of biblical change outlined in Psalm 35.
Recognize the Protector (Address)
David, when victimized, [2. The setting of this psalm is unknown. Attempts to draw parallels between this psalm and specific events in David’s life have proven fruitless.] immediately turns to the Lord (vv. 1, 22, 23, 24). His use of the imperative verb and jussives (“let” or “may”) in verses 1-4 with the vocative subject Yahweh demonstrates that David wasn’t afraid to ask God for help. Clearly, David knew God was the only One who could help. Abuse victims should also follow David’s example—have they cried out to God, recognizing Him as ultimate protector?
Recount the Abuse (Lament)
David doesn’t just ask for protection, nor does he pretend his pain doesn’t exist. Instead, he recounts everything he experiences to God. David’s lament recounts how hurt he was by his friends’ betrayal. Often, the closer victims are to their abusers, the more the betrayal is aggravated. David’s relationship to his abusers was so close that he described them as a “friend” or “brother” (v. 14) and saw them as he “went about” daily life (v. 14). [3. All translations in this article are the author’s.] When they were sick, David humbly and sincerely fasted and prayed for them (v. 13). Such devotion was natural for David before the abuse because he trusted them. In verse 15, David notes that “the attackers gathered together against me, and I did not know it.” Their attack caught him so off guard that he didn’t recognize them. [4. Willem A. Van Gemeren, "Psalms," in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1991), 5:289.] David later says his friends attacked him deceptively and without reason (cf. v. 19). Yet when David’s trust in his friends—demonstrated by his love and sacrifice—is shattered, he recounts his surprise and dismay to God.
David also describes his attackers’ selfishness and greed—typical characteristics of abusers who overpower and take advantage of others. The difficult expression in verse 16, “like godless mocking ones (after) a cake,” shows that the attackers were as greedy as a starving man groping for a few crumbs of bread.
David’s lament includes telling God how the attack happened—it was deliberate and premeditated. His attackers were “plotting” (meaning “inventing,” “planning,” or “devising”) evil against him (v. 4). These actions were the result of their scheming and premeditation—they “have set up secretly” and “have dug” (v. 7).
Abuse may take different forms—physical, emotional, or verbal—in the life of a victim. That was the experience of David, who uses martial imagery in verses 1-3—”fighting,” “shields,” and “spear”—to tell God about the physical assaults against him. David adds that his attackers are “pursuing” him—a word that expresses a predatory tone (v. 3). [5. Ibid., 287.]
The psalmist alludes to the depth of his emotional suffering when he refers to the “bereavement to [his] soul” (v. 12). In fact, David experiences a full range of abuse emotions (see verses 4-6, 8, 12, 13-17, and 19-21), including utter hopelessness and entrapment. He uses the images of hunting—a “net” and “pit” (v. 7)—to define these feelings. In verse 15, David mentions twice that the attackers “gathered together” against him. Verses 15-17 paint a predatory image by using the words “attackers,” “tore” (v. 15), “gnashing with teeth” (v. 16), and “lions” (v. 17). One can envision the attackers completely surrounding the psalmist, entrapping him for their attack.
Victims often think that God is either inattentive or inactive, and David expresses these feelings to God too—once in a lament (written as a question) and twice in a petition (written as a statement). In verse 17, he asks Adonai, “How long will you look on?” The statement questions God’s seeming indifference or passivity to the individual’s suffering. [6. J. W. Rogerson, J. W. McKay, Psalms (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 164.] The psalmist is lamenting the level of suffering and the duration. David writes in verse 22, “do not keep silent.” Here his perception is that God has chosen not to communicate about the crisis, prompting the request to rescue him. His perception about God being far from him moves him to request a change and urge God to action.
Requests for deliverance actually help change the victim.
In addition to physical and emotional abuse, David also tells God about the verbal abuse he has experienced. In verse 11 the “ruthless witnesses” keep “asking things which [they do] not know.” Craigie remarks that the word “asking” has the tone of coercion or interrogation. [7. Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, ed. David A. Hubbard and John D. W. Watts (Waco: Word Books, 1983), 19:287.] David also speaks of “mocking ones” in verse 16 and attackers who are not “speaking peace” but who are “planning deceitful words” in verse 20. Their false accusations are pictured in verse 21 when David says they “open wide their mouth against me” and think their eyes “have seen it,” meaning, they are quick and willing to judge him. They rejoice in the destruction of the psalmist: “Aha our soul’s desire . . . we have swallowed him up” (v. 25).
Finally, abuse often happens repeatedly, and David uses a number of present active participles such as “striving,” “fighting” (v. 1), “pursuing” (v. 3), “seeking my soul,” and “plotting” (v. 4), “robbing” (v. 10), “gnashing” (v. 16), and “hating” (v. 19) [8. The active participle expresses action that is continual, "prolonged," unbroken (in contrast to the imperfect).] to tell God that the abuse is continual and damaging. David’s attackers know the damage they are inflicting. When they tear him apart, they do not stop or “keep still” (v. 15).
David, the betrayed victim, first cries out to God, his protector, for help, and then he tells God exactly who betrayed him and how he was betrayed—in detail. This frank and open look into the life of David allows victims of abuse to relate not only to the nature of the abuse, but also to the feelings of betrayal the abuse elicits.
Request Deliverance (Petition)
After recounting his pain to God, David requests deliverance. Of the twenty-eight verses in this psalm, fifteen contain petitions or commands (there are twenty-one jussives and eight imperatives in this passage) for God to act in a way that would change the circumstances.
Included in David’s requests for change is his desire for God to produce change in him, not just in his circumstances—”Judge me, O LORD my God, according to thy righteousness” (v. 24). The juxtaposition of praise with lament at the end of the strophe indicates that David did not desire to remain in a condition of anger and bitterness. Even though David is “bereaved” (v. 12), he wants his soul to “shout for joy” (v. 9); David wants to be changed. Victims of abuse should praise God and ask Him to change them personally.
David asks God to intervene directly in circumstances—in fact, he opens the psalm abruptly with an imperative verb, pleading with God to intervene on his behalf. During the course of the psalm, David asks God to “come against” his attackers (v. 3), to “strive” (v. 1), to “rescue [his] soul from their ruin” (v. 17), to “stir up” and to “be active” about giving the psalmist justice. [9. See J. Carl Laney, "A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms," Bibliotheca Sacra 138 (January-March 1981), 41; W. H. Bellinger, Reading and Studying the Book of Psalms (Peabody, MA.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1990), 54; Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), 182; and Walter Kaiser, Toward O.T. Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 294-5.] In addition to requesting physical action, David asks God to become active “to [his] justice” and his “legal case” (v. 23).
Next, David asks for an assurance of God’s protection. In verse three he calls for God to take the spear and to cut off the way of the attackers; he also asks God to take hold of the “small” and “large shield,”portraying absolute protection of the whole body in verse two. [10. C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Psalms. Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 5, trans. Francis Bolton (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), 268.] Victims, therefore, should not only view God’s protection as sufficient but seek personal reassurance of God’s protection.
Believers should not hesitate to ask God for deliverance or reassurance of His protection. In fact, these requests for deliverance actually help change the victim.
Acknowledge Dependence (Confession of Trust)
David’s petitions for God to intervene prove he is relinquishing his own ability to solve the situation. David knows that only God can help because only He is able to meet the needs of the victim (v. 10); only He knows the truth (v. 22); and only He is righteous to judge correctly (v. 24). David didn’t get to this place of dependence overnight, though.
Between verses 3 and 10, David changes his wording from a deliverance request to a marvelous confession of who God is. For example, in verse three, David writes, “say unto my soul, ‘I am thy salvation’”—but by verse 10, he has the assurance and proclaims: “You are one who is rescuing the unfortunate.” What changed David?
Asking God for deliverance actually helps David to trust God again (compare verses 17 and 22, which demonstrate that David was struggling with his own understanding of God’s presence and attentiveness.) Contrary to his own feelings, David resolves to trust God, and his request for deliverance helps him recognize the truth about God.
The active participle in his confession (v. 10) shows that he viewed this action as durative. [11. Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Conner, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake, IN.: Eisebrauns, 1990), 613.] His complete confession is pictured by the unusual expression, “All my bones shall say.” “Bones” is synecdochical (a part used to represent a whole) and probably means that the whole of David’s body and being expresses, “Yahweh, who is just like you?” By the end of verse 10, David has replaced his feelings of abandonment with a confident trust that God is going to work in his behalf. The confession of trust is not the only expression of trust; coupled with the vow of praise, this psalm establishes an overall theme of trust.
Anticipate Deliverance (Vow of Praise)
The confession is the overt statement of trust while the praise is the evidence that the individual, through trust, is anticipating an answer. David expresses his vow of praise at the end of each strophe. The vow (vv. 9-10) begins with the disjunctive waw and contrasts the pain of his “soul” in verses 3, 4, and 7 (translated “life”) with praise of his soul in verse 9. [12. Ibid., 129.] The praise is the result of God’s deliverance David requests in verse 8, even before the deliverance has been accomplished! [13. Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, trans. Keith R. Crim and Richard N. Soulen (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1965), 79-80.] Abuse victims must acknowledge their dependence on God and trust in Him. Have they made a confession of trust and vow of praise, proving their confession?
When abuse is close to home—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—the initial betrayal is often compounded by continued distrust in relationships. If victims are ever to become survivors, they must move beyond the abuse to a position of restored trust in God and friends. This is possible when they follow David’s example of recognizing the protector (God), recounting the abuse to God, requesting deliverance, acknowledging dependence, and then anticipating deliverance. As victims submit to biblical principles, they can begin to pick up the pieces and reassemble them into a life that, through biblical change, can help others and glorify God.
Originally published Summer/Fall 2006