Psalm 11: Don’t be a Runner

By James M. Rochford

Unless otherwise stated, all citations are taken from the New International Version (NIV).

This is a psalm of lament. It might have taken place when Saul scoured the mountains to seek and destroy David (1 Sam. 26:20). While this historical connection is uncertain, it would fit well with this time period.

David’s enemies try to intimidate him

(11:1) In the LORD I take refuge. How then can you say to me: “Flee like a bird to your mountain.”

“In the LORD I take refuge.” David opens this psalm by trusting in God and focusing on him—not his terrible circumstances. This is the starting place for all faith: concentrating on God before all else.

Are the counselors friends or foes? They could be “fearful and despairing friends”[1] who are “perhaps well-meaning,”[2] but lacking faith. However, it’s more likely that they are “sarcastically attempting to undermine the psalmist’s confidence.”[3] This explains why they only focus on the terrors of the enemy and running away, rather than mentioning any aspect of trusting God. It sounds like an intimidating taunt. Regardless, these people represent the thinking of unbelief. Whether friends or foes, they need to be refuted.

“Flee like a bird to your mountain.” Wilson develops a grammatical argument that this is a “sarcastic remark.” The upshot is that David’s counselors are effectively saying, “Fly away to the mountains, [little] birdie!”[4] A literal rendering would be, “Wander [to] your hill [or, mountain], bird.”[5] Indeed, leaving Israel would be tantamount to homelessness—like a bird roaming in the wilderness (Ps. 102:6-7; Prov. 27:8). This fits with how Saul hunted David “as one hunts a partridge in the mountains” (1 Sam. 26:20).

(11:2) “For look, the wicked bend their bows; they set their arrows against the strings to shoot from the shadows at the upright in heart.” (NIV)

“For, behold, the wicked bend the bow, they make ready their arrow upon the string to shoot in darkness at the upright in heart.” (NASB)

“The wicked bend their bows.” Danger is imminent! The enemies have their arrows aimed, and they are ready to fire.

“From the shadows… shoot in darkness.” These enemies hide in the shadows. This means that you wouldn’t see the arrows coming until you’re hit. Just imagine the terror of knowing that many soldiers had their arrows pointed at you. How many archers are in the shadows? Two? Ten? One hundred? This military feint would leave you wondering just how powerful the enemy really is. This statement would make you think that evil is in control. This is exactly what Satan would want us to believe: there’s no use trying if you believe that darkness is going to win in the end.

(11:3) “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

“Foundations.” This rare word is difficult to translate. There is a similar word in Ugaritic that “is used of the ‘bottom’ or ‘base’ of a cliff or mountain.” In postbiblical Hebrew, the word means “foundation.’”[6] It could refer to “the very foundations of society.”[7]

In other words, the enemies are ready to fire their arrows. The city is falling apart. David has nothing to fall back on. So, David’s counselors urge him to flee. After all, what else could they do but flee?

“What can the righteous do?” Wilson paraphrases, “How little you are! How little (almost nothing) you can do! Take care of yourself first!”[8]

Everything that these counselors say is true. David could run away to safety (v.1), and the dangers of the enemy are quite real (vv.2-3). However, they have one major problem in their analysis: They don’t factor God into the situation! David, however, says that he’s going to take a stand, trusting in the Lord.

Bringing God into the equation

Do you view your thoughts through the grid of your feelings? Or do you view your feelings through the grid of your thoughts? David experienced tremendous fear from his enemies. But he fought his fear by bringing God into the picture.

(11:4-5) The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD is on his heavenly throne. He observes everyone on earth; his eyes examine them. 5 The LORD examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion.

“Temple… throne.” This could emphasize the immanence of God in the “temple,” as well as the transcendence of God as he sits on his heavenly “throne.” God is with David, and he watches over David.

The enemies surround David in the darkness, but who is sitting on the throne? David doesn’t ignore the enemies or their abilities, but he looks past them to the Lord instead. He chooses to focus on God, and God is still on his throne.

“He observes everyone on earth; his eyes examine them.” The wicked deny that God is watching (Ps. 10:11). The enemies lurk in the darkness (v.2), but God has expert night vision! He sees exactly where they are at all times. God is not remote, sitting on his throne. He’s surveying the entire situation.

“The wicked… he hates with a passion.” God is not emotionally disengaged. Instead, he hates what he sees. If God didn’t hate evil, he wouldn’t be loving. If God looked lovingly at evil, that would make him indifferent at best or evil at worst (cf. Ps. 5:4-6). Wilson writes, “God is always on the side of the oppressed faithful and against the violent wicked. That is his nature; to expect differently would be to unweave the fabric of creation and to let in a chaos infinitely greater than that brought about by rebellious human violence.”[9]

(11:6) On the wicked he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot.

“Fiery coals and burning sulfur.” The fiery coals and brimstone harken back to God’s destruction at Sodom and Gomorrah—an instantaneous judgment (Gen. 19:24). Kidner comments, “The phrase is significant and pointed, for Sodom stands in the Bible as a perpetual reminder of sudden and final judgment.”[10]

“Scorching wind.” This is well known in Israel today as a sirocco. This is a “devastating wind” that “withers crops and dries up fragile water sources necessary for both animal and human consumption.”[11] VanGemeren writes, “Its effects are devastating, as the beauty of vegetation changes over night into parched, withered plants (cf. Isa 21:1; 40:7-8; Jer 4:11). The wicked will be like the flowers of the field, which are here today and gone tomorrow.”[12]

(11:7) For the LORD is righteous, he loves justice; the upright will see his face.

“The LORD is righteous, he loves justice.” Earlier, David asked, “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (v.3). The foundation is not destroyed. The foundation is in God’s righteous and just nature.

“The upright will see his face.” David’s counselors didn’t look to God. But David says that the righteous will see God in the end.

Questions for Reflection

Read verses 1-3. Are these “counselors” friends of David who are weak in their faith? Or are these enemies taunting him?

Read verse 3. What is David being tempted to do?

Read verses 4-7. In this section, what changes to give David hope?

Read verse 1. What imagery does the simile “flee like a bird” conjure in your mind? What are different ways that you might flee from your problems?

Paraphrase of Psalm 11

“You should take your security in Me. Your wise counselors will tell you to run and hide. They will tell you that the enemies are sovereign—not me. They will tell you that your whole society is falling apart. Perhaps. But they don’t have a word to say about Me! I am sitting on My heavenly throne, and I can see the wicked hiding in the darkness. In fact, I see everything and everyone. I hate these enemies who come to kill, terrorize, and destroy. I love justice and righteousness. In the end, I am going to fight for you, and you will see me! For now, take your security from Me.”

[1] Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), 33.

[2] Rolf A. Jacobson and Beth Tanner, “Book One of the Psalter: Psalms 1-41,” in The Book of Psalms, ed. E. J. Young, R. K. Harrison, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 147.

[3] Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms, vol. 1, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 249.

[4] Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms, vol. 1, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 250.

[5] Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), 32.

[6] See NET note.

[7] Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms, vol. 1, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 251.

[8] Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms, vol. 1, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 251.

[9] Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms, vol. 1, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 253.

[10] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 15, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 91.

[11] Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms, vol. 1, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 254.

[12] Willem A. VanGemeren, “Psalms,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991), 133.