Psalm 40


Sermon delivered Sunday 3 April 2011 at Roslyn Baptist Church


Psalm 40 can be viewed as a multi-layered masterpiece or a stained glass window in which each layer is a work of art in itself but together they carry far greater meaning. In this psalm I see two layers of truth overlaid with a layer of human frailty.

The first layer is the words of David, his situation, his thanksgiving and his prayer.  Yet there are elements in the psalm which don’t really fit if all we consider is the man, David son of Jesse. Even as David king of Israel, verse 7 is a bit odd:

Then I said, “Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me:
(Psalm 40:7 ESV)

The next layer of the psalm is prophecy, speaking of Christ the son of David. In the case of Jesus, it is clear that he knew himself to be the One spoken of in scripture (Luke 4:17–21, Luke 24:44-45). The New Testament confirms that Christ is the subject of this psalm in  Hebrews 10:5–10.

Then we reach a layer of ordinary Christians such as you and I, trusting in Christ and seeing our own experiences reflected in the words of David. This is how I come to Psalm 40, from the muck of the world, a sinner myself, attempting to live a sanctified life. I am surrounded by  sinners – some of whom would like to push me back down into the mire. Although we tend to approach the psalm from the perspective of how it relates to where we are at today, we need to see the other two layers in order for it to speak meaningfully.

David’s situation

Nobody knows what historical situation David was in when he wrote Psalm 40. Keep in mind that not every event of his life is documented in the Bible – it is unwise to force each Davidic psalm into a specific biblical situation. However, there are some historical events which do appear to have some influence:

  • David would have been well aware of the events of 1 Samuel 13 and 1 Samuel 15, along with Samuel’s comment which is recorded in 1 Samuel 15:22–23.
  • He surely also had ingrained in his heart the words of Deuteronomy 17:18–19.
  • David must have also known of God’s word to Samuel when he was annointed king (1 Samuel 16:7).
  • Then there is Samuel’s words to Saul (1 Samuel 13:14)
  • The ‘new song’ of  Psalm 40:3 echoes the new song of Moses after crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1–2).

Outward obedience covering inward rebellion is rejected by David, he delights to do God’s will and joyfully tells of God’s deliverance from troubles. He is confident of God’s mercy toward him.

But David is only a man, a sinful man. He may love to obey God but does not always have the ability to follow through. As one who delights in the law of God and walking in obedience he is acutely aware of how he fails to do so. David names sin for the evil it is, recognizing that his sins pile up beyond number.

While he is crushed by the burden of sin, David’s enemies plot his fall. He knows God is merciful but asks Him to judge his enemies.

As the psalm began- with expectant waiting – so too it finishes. Confident in God’s deliverance, waiting yet for it to arrive.

Jesus in Psalm 40

Viewing this as a song of David  about expectantly trusting in God for deliverance is richly rewarding. However, we cannot ignore the dissonance of verses 6-8 in the mouth of David, especially verse 7:

Then I said, “Behold, I have come;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me:
I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.”
(Psalm 40:7-8 ESV)

If we scroll forward through the Old Testament we see clearly that:

  • God was not at all impressed with the sacrifices and offerings of the Israelites coming from hearts that were distant from Him (Isaiah 1:13 and Isaiah 1:16–17).
  • A new covenant is coming in which God will remove the stony hearts and replace them with hearts inclined to do His will (Ezekiel 11:19–20).
  • God would do this through His Servant who opened his ear to God and was obedient, giving his back to those who strike and not hiding his face from disgrace and spitting.

From our vantage point we can see that Jesus fits the picture of one who was predicted in the scriptures, delighted to do God’s will (John 4:34) and achieved in full what animal sacrifices could only symbolise – the cleansing of sin and guilt from human hearts.

And then we have the glory of Hebrews 10, where we have it made plain that the blood of bulls and goats can never take away sins, they were a graphic reminder of God’s holiness and human sinfulness but to actually take away sin a better sacrifice is necessary (Hebrews 10:1-4). It then explicitly quotes verses 6-8 of Psalm 40 as being fulfilled in Jesus.

So we can certainly read Psalm 40 as applying to Jesus and obviously he is the perfection of what David spoke. He waited with perfect patience, as a man he needed God to bend down to hear his cry, as we do. Christ’s pit of destruction was infinitely more horrifying than David’s, yet he is now seated at the right hand of God. Saying that many will see and fear and put their trust in God as a result of the deliverance of Jesus from the pit seems something of an understatement.

Psalm 40:4 reminds me of the temptation of Jesus be Satan which he resisted perfectly (Luke 4:1-13). The Jesus himself multiplied the wonderful deeds of God and manifested God’s thoughts towards us. He did proclaim God’s deeds and tell of them.

Psalm 40:6 looks different:

In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required.
(Psalm 40:6 ESV)

Than in Hebrews 10:15

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body have you prepared for me;
(Hebrews 10:5 ESV)

The quotation in Hebrews is from the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament. One proposed explanation of this difference is that through ears being opened the whole person is prepared to do the will of God and perhaps this interpretation influenced the  ancient translators.

When we look at  Psalm 40:9-10, the telling of the glad news began with Jesus and continues to this day (and beyond) through his Church. We are part of the great congregation who have been told of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.

As for you, O LORD, you will not restrain
your mercy from me;
your steadfast love and your faithfulness will
ever preserve me!
For evils have encompassed me
beyond number;
my iniquities have overtaken me,
and I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head;
my heart fails me.
(Psalm 40:11-12 ESV)

In verses 11–12 we encounter statements that do not appear to fully apply to Jesus – God did withhold mercy from Jesus on the cross, because of this we know that His mercy has not been withheld from us. Jesus had no sin, so he could not say “my iniquities have overtaken me“. However, our sins were totally placed upon him and so on the cross it indeed became his sin, Jesus was killed for sin that he owned and accepted as his own. Yet these were sins I committed (2 Corinthians 5:21, Isaiah 53:6). Jesus has taken full ownership of all my sins and has borne the wrath and fury of God for it.

Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me!
O LORD, make haste to help me!
(Psalm 40:13 ESV)

As David pleaded with God to hurry and save him, so Jesus on the cross cried out to God and committed his spirit into God’s hands (Luke 23:46).

Let those be put to shame and disappointed altogether
who seek to snatch away my life;
let those be turned back and brought to dishonor
who delight in my hurt!
Let those be appalled because of their shame
who say to me, “Aha, Aha!”
(Psalm 40:14-15 ESV)

The fulfillment of verses 14 and 15 is astonishing: the shame and dishonour of those who condemned and crucified Jesus has been magnified with each generation for the last 2,000 years!

But may all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
say continually, “Great is the LORD!”
As for me, I am poor and needy,
but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God!
(Psalm 40:16-17 ESV)

Jesus became the very way for us to seek God, because of his obedience we do say, “great is the Lord!”

Now read through Psalm 40 yourself, consider yourself and your own situation with the depth of what this psalm contains as the foundation under it.


Image of stained glass window: iStockphoto