David’s Double Narration of YHWH’s Salvation: Psalm 18
Psalm 18, with 51 verses, is the third-longest psalm in the Psalter, exceeded only by Psalm 119 (176 verses) and Psalm 78 (72 verses). The psalm’s long superscription diverges from the brief, usually stereotypical form common in other psalms and presents it as a song of Thanksgiving sung by David when he was on the run from King Saul:
תהלים יח:א לַמְנַצֵּחַ לְעֶבֶד יְ־הוָה לְדָוִד אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַי־הוָה אֶת דִּבְרֵי הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת בְּיוֹם הִצִּיל יְ־הוָה אוֹתוֹ מִכַּף כָּל אֹיְבָיו וּמִיַּד שָׁאוּל. 
Ps 18:1 To the leader. A Psalm of David the servant of YHWH, who addressed the words of this song to YHWH on the day when YHWH delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.
The superscription may have been revised after a nearly identical version of the psalm was incorporated into David’s story (2 Sam 22, read as the haftara for the seventh day of Passover). Psalm 18 describes the ideal interaction between God and King. The addition of this psalm to 2 Samuel 22 served to emphasize the theme of God’s action on behalf of and in support of David.
The structure of the psalm is typical of songs of thanksgiving, progressing from a description of a situation of crisis, to the psalmist’s cry for help, to YHWH’s positive response for which the psalmist gives thanks. Psalm 18 is unusual in that it narrates YHWH’s deliverance twice—first in a mythic and dramatic theophany (vv. 2–32) and second through the empowered human figure of the king, strengthened by YHWH to succeed against his foes (vv. 33–51).
Account 1 (vv. 2–32): YHWH, the Divine Warrior
The psalm opens with an expression of unexpected intimacy:
תהלים יח:ב וַיֹּאמַר אֶרְחָמְךָ יְ־הוָה חִזְקִי.
Ps 18:2 And he said: I love you, O YHWH, my strength.
The verb ר.ח.ם usually describes the love of a more powerful party for a weaker one. In the intensive piel form, it describes YHWH’s act of love and compassion towards Israel (e.g., Exod 33:19, 2 Kgs 13:23), and YHWH’s parental affection for Israel (e.g., Isa 49:15; Ps 103:13). While the piʿel contains connotations of compassion and mercy, as one might have for the weaker member in the relationship, the English word “compassion” would not be suitable to describe the affection of a weaker party, like the psalmist, towards a more powerful party, YHWH. Thus, the translation “love” is preferable.
The qal form of ר.ח.ם in this verse is unique in the Bible and is the only time it describes a human’s love for YHWH. It indicates the confidence that the psalmist feels in the relationship he enjoys with YHWH.
The next verse emphasizes how YHWH has acted specifically on behalf of the psalmist:
תהלים יח:ג יְ־הוָה סַלְעִי וּמְצוּדָתִי וּמְפַלְטִי אֵלִי צוּרִי אֶחֱסֶה בּוֹ מָגִנִּי וְקֶרֶן יִשְׁעִי מִשְׂגַּבִּי.
Ps 18:3 YHWH is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
The accumulation of terms for refuge and security describe the remarkable protection that YHWH has provided. In response, the psalmist declares:
תהלים יח:ד מְהֻלָּל אֶקְרָא יְ־הוָה וּמִן אֹיְבַי אִוָּשֵׁעַ.
Ps 18:4 I call upon YHWH, who is worthy to be praised, so I shall be saved from my enemies.
A Mythic Enemy
The psalmist expands upon the reason for his love and praise: an act of divine salvation. The psalmist begins by offering a retrospective on the enemy threat:
תהלים יח:ה אֲפָפוּנִי חֶבְלֵי מָוֶת וְנַחֲלֵי בְלִיַּעַל יְבַעֲתוּנִי. יח:ו חֶבְלֵי שְׁאוֹל סְבָבוּנִי קִדְּמוּנִי מוֹקְשֵׁי מָוֶת.
Ps 18:5 The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of perdition assailed me; 18:6 the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me.
Here, the imagery sets up the coming battle as one between YHWH and the forces of death, chaos, and the underworld, elevating the register of the psalm through mythical tropes. Similar figurative uses of a watery נַחַל, “torrent,” engulfing its victims appear elsewhere in biblical descriptions of overwhelming enemy forces (Jer 47:2; Ps 124:4–5).
The imagery also finds a parallel in other ancient Near Eastern myths. In the Mesopotamian myth Enuma Elish, the god Marduk defeats the sea goddess, Tiamat, at the creation of the world. And in the Canaanite Baʾal Epic, the storm-god Baʾal defeats both the god of death, Mot, and the sea god, Yam.
In the face of this mortal threat, the psalmist cried out and YHWH heard him:
תהלים יח:ז בַּצַּר לִי אֶקְרָא יְ־הוָה וְאֶל אֱלֹהַי אֲשַׁוֵּעַ יִשְׁמַע מֵהֵיכָלוֹ קוֹלִי וְשַׁוְעָתִי לְפָנָיו תָּבוֹא בְאָזְנָיו.
Ps 18:7 In my distress I called upon YHWH; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.
The climactic moment of this account is the description of YHWH’s response to the psalmist’s plea. He responds with full martial force, smoke billowing from his nostrils:
תהלים יח:ח וַתִּגְעַשׁ וַתִּרְעַשׁ הָאָרֶץ וּמוֹסְדֵי הָרִים יִרְגָּזוּ וַיִּתְגָּעֲשׁוּ כִּי חָרָה לוֹ. יח:ט עָלָה עָשָׁן בְּאַפּוֹ וְאֵשׁ מִפִּיו תֹּאכֵל גֶּחָלִים בָּעֲרוּ מִמֶּנּוּ.
Ps 18:8 Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry. 18:9 Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him.
This imagery is common in ancient Near Eastern accounts of divine appearances in battle. One Egyptian hymn celebrates the god Mar by stating: “Mar, from your snorts all the earth perishes; like smoke Lord, from your breath.”
The depths to which the psalmist has descended contrast with the heights from which YHWH arrives to rescue:
תהלים יח:י וַיֵּט שָׁמַיִם וַיֵּרַד וַעֲרָפֶל תַּחַת רַגְלָיו. יח:יא וַיִּרְכַּב עַל כְּרוּב וַיָּעֹף וַיֵּדֶא עַל כַּנְפֵי רוּחַ.
Ps 18:10 He bowed the heavens, and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. 18:11 He rode on a cherub, and flew; he came swiftly upon the wings of the wind.
The phrase רכב עַל, “to ride upon” (v. 11), often interpreted as an image of YHWH in a cherub-drawn chariot, probably refers to YHWH riding on the cherub itself. A considerable range of images from the ancient Near Eastern world portrays deities riding on animals and mythological creatures. In Ezekiel’s opening vision, cherubim are fearsome, winged, four-faced beasts, liminal beasts, suitable for transporting YHWH between the spheres of heaven and earth.
YHWH’s arrival is marked by the two characteristic biblical signs of theophany, the earthquake (v. 8) and the thunderstorm:
תהלים יח:יב יָשֶׁת חֹשֶׁךְ סִתְרוֹ סְבִיבוֹתָיו סֻכָּתוֹ חֶשְׁכַת מַיִם עָבֵי שְׁחָקִים. יח:יג מִנֹּגַהּ נֶגְדּוֹ עָבָיו עָבְרוּ בָּרָד וְגַחֲלֵי אֵשׁ.
Ps 18:12 He made darkness his covering around him, his canopy thick clouds dark with water. 18:13 Out of the brightness before him there broke through his clouds, hailstones, and coals of fire.
The storm does not simply accompany YHWH; YHWH is the source of its thunder, lightning, and wind:
תהלים יח:יד וַיַּרְעֵם בַּשָּׁמַיִם יְ־הוָה וְעֶלְיוֹן יִתֵּן קֹלוֹ בָּרָד וְגַחֲלֵי אֵשׁ. יח:טו וַיִּשְׁלַח חִצָּיו וַיְפִיצֵם וּבְרָקִים רָב וַיְהֻמֵּם. יח:טז וַיֵּרָאוּ אֲפִיקֵי מַיִם וַיִּגָּלוּ מוֹסְדוֹת תֵּבֵל מִגַּעֲרָתְךָ יְ־הוָה מִנִּשְׁמַת רוּחַ אַפֶּךָ.
Ps 18:14 YHWH also thundered in the heavens, and the Most High uttered his voice. 18:15 And he sent out his arrows, and scattered them; he flashed forth lightnings, and routed them. 18:16 Then the channels of the sea were seen, and the foundations of the world were laid bare at your rebuke, O YHWH, at the blast of the breath of your nostrils.
Similarly, an Assyrian report narrates the aid given by the god Aššur to King Esarhaddon: “I (Aššur) heard your cry… I drove them up the mountain and rained stones and fire of heaven upon them.”
YHWH Delights in the Psalmist
Where the psalm opens with the psalmist’s love for YHWH (v. 2), it now reflects on the fact that YHWH’s rescue was motivated by YHWH’s delight (ח.פ.ץ) in the psalmist, an expression describing the joy that YHWH has in, and the favor that YHWH grants to, certain things and people (for example David and Solomon), particularly those who act rightly:
תהלים יח:כ וַיּוֹצִיאֵנִי לַמֶּרְחָב יְחַלְּצֵנִי כִּי חָפֵץ בִּי.
Ps 18:20 He brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me.
The psalmist describes his past righteousness in a chiastic series that highlights how he has kept YHWH’s ordinances and statutes before him. The language he uses mirrors Deuteronomy’s law of the king (17:19–20):
תהלים יח:כא יִגְמְלֵנִי יְ־הוָה כְּצִדְקִי כְּבֹר יָדַי יָשִׁיב לִי.
Ps 18:21 YHWH rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he recompensed me.
תהלים יח:כב כִּי שָׁמַרְתִּי דַּרְכֵי יְ־הוָה וְלֹא רָשַׁעְתִּי מֵאֱלֹהָי.
Ps 18:22 For I have kept the ways of YHWH, and have not wickedly departed from my God.
תהלים יח:כג כִּי כָל מִשְׁפָּטָיו לְנֶגְדִּי וְחֻקֹּתָיו לֹא אָסִיר מֶנִּי.
Ps 18:23 For all his ordinances were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me.
תהלים יח:כד וָאֱהִי תָמִים עִמּוֹ וָאֶשְׁתַּמֵּר מֵעֲוֹנִי.
Ps 18:24 I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from guilt.
תהלים יח:כה וַיָּשֶׁב יְ־הוָה לִי כְצִדְקִי כְּבֹר יָדַי לְנֶגֶד עֵינָיו.
Ps 18:25 Therefore YHWH has recompensed me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.
Elsewhere in the Bible we also find that YHWH delights in those who fear him (Ps 147:11) and who follow his ways (Jer 9:24), whether king (1 Kgs 10:9), or eunuch (Isa 56:4).
The psalm continues with additional reflections on the qualities of those who receive YHWH’s aid:
תהלים יח:כו עִם חָסִיד תִּתְחַסָּד עִם גְּבַר תָּמִים תִּתַּמָּם. יח:כז עִם נָבָר תִּתְבָּרָר וְעִם עִקֵּשׁ תִּתְפַּתָּל.
Ps 18:26 With the loyal you show yourself loyal; with the blameless you show yourself blameless 18:27 with the pure you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you show yourself shrewd.
It closes with renewed praise for the rightness of YHWH’s works:
תהלים יח:לא הָאֵל תָּמִים דַּרְכּוֹ אִמְרַת יְ־הוָה צְרוּפָה מָגֵן הוּא לְכֹל הַחֹסִים בּוֹ. יח:לב כִּי מִי אֱלוֹהַּ מִבַּלְעֲדֵי יְ־הוָה וּמִי צוּר זוּלָתִי אֱלֹהֵינוּ.
Ps 18:31 This God—his way is perfect; the promise of YHWH proves true; he is a shield for all who take refuge in him. 18:32 For who is God except YHWH? And who is a rock besides our God?
These verses not only conclude this account of YHWH’s divine acts on behalf of the psalmist, but also transition to the second salvation account, in which YHWH empowers the king. The rhetorical question posed in verse 32—“who is God except YHWH?”—thus both underscores the magnificence of the previous account of God’s actions in verses 4–30 and introduces the second account in verses 33–51.
Account 2 (vv. 33–51): The Mighty Human Warrior
Up until this point in the psalm, it is YHWH who directly fights the enemy. Now, however, the psalm shifts to an account of YHWH empowering the king to fight for himself:
תהלים יח:לג הָאֵל הַמְאַזְּרֵנִי חָיִל וַיִּתֵּן תָּמִים דַּרְכִּי. יח:לד מְשַׁוֶּה רַגְלַי כָּאַיָּלוֹת וְעַל בָּמֹתַי יַעֲמִידֵנִי.
Ps 18:33 The God who girded me with strength, and made my way safe. 18:34 He made my feet like the feet of a deer, and set me secure on the heights.
YHWH even trains the speaker for battle:
תהלים יח:לה מְלַמֵּד יָדַי לַמִּלְחָמָה וְנִחֲתָה קֶשֶׁת נְחוּשָׁה זְרוֹעֹתָי. יח:לו וַתִּתֶּן לִי מָגֵן יִשְׁעֶךָ וִימִינְךָ תִסְעָדֵנִי וְעַנְוַתְךָ תַרְבֵּנִי. יח:לז תַּרְחִיב צַעֲדִי תַחְתָּי וְלֹא מָעֲדוּ קַרְסֻלָּי.
Ps 18:35 He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze. 18:36 You have given me the shield of your salvation, and your right hand has supported me; your help has made me great. 18:37 You gave me a wide place for my steps under me, and my feet did not slip.
The psalmist is thus able to defeat his enemies:
תהלים יח:לח אֶרְדּוֹף אוֹיְבַי וְאַשִּׂיגֵם וְלֹא אָשׁוּב עַד כַּלּוֹתָם. יח:לט אֶמְחָצֵם וְלֹא יֻכְלוּ קוּם יִפְּלוּ תַּחַת רַגְלָי.
Ps 18:38 I pursued my enemies and overtook them; and did not turn back until they were consumed. 18:39 I struck them down, so that they were not able to rise; they fell under my feet.
Mirroring the opening verses (vv. 33–34), the psalmist reiterates how YHWH has girded him:
תהלים יח:מ וַתְּאַזְּרֵנִי חַיִל לַמִּלְחָמָה תַּכְרִיעַ קָמַי תַּחְתָּי.
Ps 18:40 For you girded me with strength for the battle; you made my assailants sink under me.
The idea of the divine warrior empowering the human king is also represented frequently in imagery in the ancient world. One such image, which captures the profound engagement of the deity with the king, depicts the deity as standing alongside the king, holding the arm that holds the bow and pulling back the bowstring with the king’s arm.
In subsequent verses, the psalmist acknowledges YHWH for not answering the psalmist’s enemies when they cried out to him:
תהלים יח:מא וְאֹיְבַי נָתַתָּה לִּי עֹרֶף וּמְשַׂנְאַי אַצְמִיתֵם. יח:מב יְשַׁוְּעוּ וְאֵין מוֹשִׁיעַ עַל יְ־הוָה וְלֹא עָנָם.
Ps 18:41 You made my enemies turn their backs to me, and those who hated me I destroyed. 18:42 They cried for help, but there was no one to save them; they cried to YHWH, but he did not answer them.
Not only does YHWH save the king, but he also makes him ruler over all the nations:
תהלים יח:מד תְּפַלְּטֵנִי מֵרִיבֵי עָם תְּשִׂימֵנִי לְרֹאשׁ גּוֹיִם עַם לֹא יָדַעְתִּי יַעַבְדוּנִי.
Ps 18:44 You delivered me from strife with the peoples; you made me head of the nations; people whom I had not known served me.
The final stanza of this account opens with a declaration that, in the Psalms, occurs only here—that YHWH is alive:
תהלים יח:מז חַי יְ־הוָה וּבָרוּךְ צוּרִי וְיָרוּם אֱלוֹהֵי יִשְׁעִי.
Ps 18:47 YHWH lives! Blessed be my rock, and exalted be the God of my salvation.
The phrase חַי יְ־הוָה often appears as an oath-formula—“as YHWH lives”—but here it clearly functions as a description of YHWH himself. YHWH is engaged in the world and intervenes on behalf of his people.
This second account concludes with a statement of praise that includes the only explicit reference to David in the song itself:
תהלים יח:נ עַל כֵּן אוֹדְךָ בַגּוֹיִם יְ־הוָה וּלְשִׁמְךָ אֲזַמֵּרָה. יח:נא מַגְדִּל יְשׁוּעוֹת מַלְכּוֹ וְעֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לִמְשִׁיחוֹ לְדָוִד וּלְזַרְעוֹ עַד עוֹלָם.
Ps 18:50 For this I will extol you, O YHWH, among the nations, and sing praises to your name. 18:51 Great triumphs he gives to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his descendants forever.
YHWH is not far away but near, not passive but active, and, most importantly, YHWH is acting on behalf of the psalmist.
The Sum of the Two Accounts is Greater Than the Parts
The different themes between the two accounts in Psalm 18 are marked enough that some scholars suggest that the text might be a product of two originally separate psalms. If so, then the combination was likely made relatively early, since the entirety of this psalm, with only a few variants, is extant in both the Psalter and in 2 Samuel 22. Regardless of its compositional history, it is in the unification of these two halves that the profundity of the psalm’s message can be discerned.
The psalm celebrates the intimate relationship between the king and YHWH, working both on a cosmic scale and through personally empowering the king. It presents a profound celebration of YHWH’s incomparable power, ongoing and interactive care, and the mysterious complexity of YHWH’s involvement in human affairs.
Double Narration in Other Biblical Texts
The phenomenon of double narration, in which a story of YHWH’s acts in the world is narrated from two perspectives—the human and the mythic—is not unique to this psalm. It also appears in two other well-known instances.
The Splitting of the Sea – Exodus 14, the narrative of salvation at the Red Sea, is told as a story of YHWH’s working through Moses as he stretches out and pulls back his hand as the waters cover the Egyptians, while Exodus 15, the Song of the Sea, ignores the role of Moses entirely and focuses on the mighty power of YHWH.
The Song of Deborah – Judges 4 narrates the victory of Deborah and Barak over Sisera, once describing YHWH’s presence with Barak as a warrior, while the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 retells the tale in terms suitable for a divine theophany, in which YHWH himself marches through the earth as the mountains quake and the earth trembles.
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Dr. Aubrey E. Buster is Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College (IL). She received her Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Emory University. She is the author of Remembering the Story of Israel: Historical Summaries and Memory Formation in Second Temple Judaism (Cambridge University Press, 2022), and she is currently completing the volume on the book of Daniel for the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT) series with Dr. John H. Walton.
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