The central mass of this psalm describes the singer as suffering from two evils: sickness and treacherous friends. This situation naturally leads up to the prayer and confidence of the closing strophe (vv. 10-12). But its connection with the introductory verses (1-3) is less plain. A statement of the blessings ensured to the compassionate seems a singular introduction to the psalmist's pathetic exhibition of his sorrows. Cheyne thinks that the opening verses were added by the framer of the collection to adapt the poem to the use of the Church of his own time, and that "the original opening must have been different" ("Orig. of Psalt.," 246, n.). It is to be observed, however, that the two points of the psalmist's affliction are the two from which escape is assured to the compassionate, who shall not be "delivered to the desire of his enemies," and shall be supported and healed in sickness. Probably, therefore, the general promises of vv. 1-3 are silently applied by the psalmist to himself; and he is comforting his own sorrow with the assurance which in his humility he casts into impersonal form. He has been merciful, and believes, though things look dark, that he will obtain mercy. There is probably also an intentional contrast with the cruel exacerbation of his sufferings by uncompassionate companions, which has rubbed salt into his wounds. He has a double consciousness in these opening verses, inasmuch as he partly thinks of himself as the compassionate man and partly as the "weak" one who is compassionated.
The combination of sickness and treachery is remarkable, especially if the former is taken literally, as the strongly marked details seem to require. The sick man is visited by an insincere sympathiser, who is all eyes to note symptoms of increasing weakness, and all tongue, as soon as he gets out of the sick-room, to give the result, which is to his malice the better the worse it is. Such a picture looks as if drawn from life, and the sketch of the traitor friend seems to be a portrait of a real person. The supporters of the post-exilic date and national interpretation of the psalm have not succeeded in pointing out who the false friends of Israel were, who seemed to condole with, and really rejoiced over, its weakness, or who were the treacherous allies who failed it. The theory of the Davidic origin has in its favour the correspondence of Ahithophel's treason with the treachery of the trusted friend in the psalm; and, while it must be admitted that there is no mention of sickness in the narrative in 2 Samuel, the supposition that trouble of conscience had brought illness gains some countenance from Psalm xxxii., if it is Davidic, and would naturally explain David's singular passiveness whilst Absalom was hatching his plot.
The psalm may be divided into four strophes, of which, however, the two middle ones cohere very closely. Vv. 1-3 give the mercy requited to the merciful; vv. 4-6, after a brief prayer and confession begin the picture of the psalmist's sufferings, which is carried on through the next strophe (vv. 7-9), with the difference that in the former the scene is mainly the sick man's chamber, and in the latter the meeting-place of the secret conspirators. Vv. 10-12 build on this picture of distress a prayer for deliverance, and rise to serene confidence in its certain answer. The closing doxology is not part of the psalm, but is appended as the conclusion of the first book of the Psalter.
The principle that God's dealings with us correspond to our dealings with men, as clouds are moulded after the curves of the mountains which they touch, is no less characteristic of the New Testament than of the Old. The merciful obtain mercy; God forgives those who forgive their brethren. The absoluteness of statement in this psalm is, of course, open to misunderstanding; but the singer had not such a superficial view of his relations to God as to suppose that kindly sympathy was the sole condition of Divine compassion. That virtue, the absence of which added pangs to his pains, might well seem to a sufferer writhing under the bitterness of its opposite the Divinest of all excellencies, and worthiest of recompense. That its requital should be mainly considered as consisting in temporal deliverance and physical health is partly due to the characteristics of the Old Testament promises of blessedness, and partly to the psalmist's momentary needs. We have noted that these are reflected in the blessings promised in vv. 1-3. The "happy" of ver. 1 is caught up in the abruptly introduced "He shall be counted happy" of ver. 2, which may carry tacit reference to the malicious slanders that aggravated the psalmist's sufferings, and anticipates deliverance so perfect that all who see him shall think him fortunate. The next clause rises into direct address of Jehovah, and is shown by the form of the negative in the Hebrew to be petition, not assertion, thus strongly confirming the view that "me" lurks below "him" in this context. A similar transition from the third to the second person occurs in ver. 3, as if the psalmist drew closer to his God. There is also a change of tense in the verbs there: "Jehovah will sustain"; "Thou hast turned," the latter tense converting the general truth expressed in the former clause into a fact of experience. The precise meaning of this verse is questioned, some regarding both clauses as descriptive of tender nursing, which sustains the drooping head and smoothes the crumpled bedding, while others, noting that the word rendered "bed" (A.V. and R.V.) in the second clause means properly "lying down," take that clause as descriptive of turning sickness into convalescence. The latter meaning gives a more appropriate ending to the strophe, as it leaves the sick man healed, not tossing on a disordered bed, as the other explanation does. Jehovah does not half cure.
The second and third strophes (vv. 4-9) are closely connected. In them the psalmist recounts his sorrows and pains, but first breathes a prayer for mercy, and bases it no longer on his mercifulness, but on his sin. Only a shallow experience will find contradiction here to either the former words, or to the later profession of "integrity" (ver. 12). The petition for soul-healing does not prove that sickness in the following verses is figurative, but results from the belief that sorrow is the effect of sin, a view which belongs to the psalmist's stage of revelation, and is not to be held by Christians in the same absolute fashion. If the Davidic origin of the psalm is recognised, the connection of the king's great sin with all his after-sorrows is patent. However he had been merciful and compassionate in general, his own verdict on the man in Nathan's parable was that he "showed no pity," and that sin bore bitter fruit in all his life. It was the parent of all the sensual outrages in his own house; it underlay Ahithophel's treachery; it had much to do in making his reign abhorred; it brought the fuel which Absalom fired, and if our supposition is right as to the origin of the sickness spoken of in this psalm, that sin and the remorse that followed it gnawed at the roots of bodily health. So the psalmist, if he is indeed the royal sinner, had need to pray for soul-healing first, even though he was conscious of much compassion and hoped for its recompense. While he speaks thus to Jehovah, his enemies speak in a different tone. The "evil" which they utter is not calumny, but malediction. Their hatred is impatient for his death. The time seems long till they can hear of it. One of them comes on a hypocritical visit of solicitude ("see" is used for visiting the sick in 2 Kings viii. 29), and speaks lying condolence, while he greedily collects encouraging symptoms that the disease is hopeless. Then he hurries back to tell how much worse he had found the patient; and that ignoble crew delight in the good news, and send it flying. This very special detail goes strongly in favour of the view that we have in this whole description a transcript of literal, personal experience. There were plenty of concealed enemies round David in the early stages of Absalom's conspiracy, who would look eagerly for signs of his approaching death, which might save the need of open revolt and plunge the kingdom into welcome confusion. The second strophe ends with the exit of the false friend.
The third (vv. 7-9) carries him to the meeting-place of the plotters, who eagerly receive and retail the good news that the sick man is worse. They feed their ignoble hate by picturing further ill as laying hold of him. Their wish is parent to their thought, which is confirmed by the report of their emissary. "A thing of Belial is poured out on him," or "is fastened upon him," say they. That unusual expression may refer either to moral or physical evil. In the former sense it would here mean the sufferer's sin, in the latter a fatal disease. The connection makes the physical reference the more likely. This incurable disease is conceived of as "poured out," or perhaps as "molten on him," so that it cannot be separated from him. Therefore he will never rise from his sick-bed. But even this murderous glee is not the psalmist's sharpest pang. "The man of my peace," trusted, honoured, admitted to the privileges, and therefore bound by the obligations, of hospitality so sacred in the old world, has kicked the prostrate sufferer, as the ass in the fable did the sick lion. The treachery of Ahithophel at once occurs to mind. No doubt many treacherous friends have wounded many trustful hearts, but the correspondence of David's history with this detail is not to be got rid of by the observation that treachery is common. Still less is it sufficient to quote Obad. 7, where substantially the same language is employed in reference to the enemies of Edom, as supporting the national reference of the present passage. No one denies that false allies may be described by such a figure, or that nations may be personified; but is there any event in the post-exilic history which shows Israel deceived and spurned by trusted allies? The Davidic authorship and the personal reference of the psalm are separable. But if the latter is adopted, it will be hard to find any circumstances answering so fully to the details of the psalm as the Absalomic rebellion and Ahithophel's treason. Our Lord's quotation of part of ver. 9, with the significant omission of "in whom I trusted," does not imply the Messianic character of the psalm, but is an instance of an event and a saying which were not meant as prophetic, finding fuller realisation in the life of the perfect type of suffering godliness than in the original sufferer.
The last strophe (vv. 10-12) recurs to prayer, and soars to confidence born of communion. A hand stretched out in need and trust soon comes back filled with blessings. Therefore here the moment of true petition is the moment of realised answer. The prayer traverses the malicious hopes of enemies. They had said, "He will rise no more"; it prays, "Raise me up." It touches a note which sounds discordant in the desire "that I may requite them"; and it is far more truly reverential and appreciative of the progress of revelation to recognise the relative inferiority of the psalmist's wish to render quid pro quo than to put violence on his words, in order to harmonise them with Christian ethics, or to slur over the distinction between the Law, of which the keynote was retribution, and the Gospel, of which it is forgiveness.
But the last words of the psalm are sunny with the assurance of present favour and with boundless hope. The man is still lying on his sick-bed, ringed by whispering foes. There is no change without, but this change has passed: that he has tightened his hold of God, and therefore can feel that his enemies' whispers will never rise or swell into a shout of victory over him. He can speak of the future deliverance as if present; and he can look ahead over an indefinite stretch of sunlit country, scarcely knowing whether the furthest point is earth or no. His integrity is not sinless, nor does he plead it as a reason for Jehovah's upholding, but hopes for it as the consequence of His sustaining hand. He knows that he will have close approach to Jehovah; and though, no doubt, "for ever" on his lips meant less than it does on ours, his assurance of continuous communion with God reached, if not to actual, clear consciousness of immortality, at all events to assurance of a future so indefinitely extended, and so brightened by the sunlight of God's face, that it wanted but little additional extension or brightening to be the full assurance of life immortal.