A psalm of thanksgiving is a worship song which expresses gratitude for what God has done. In this article, we will reflect on the psalm of thanksgiving we call “Psalm 18.” In addition to being the longest psalm of David, Psalm 18 (also found in 2 Samuel 22) is the longest psalm of thanksgiving. In the psalm, David recounts how God delivered him in desperate times. From Psalm 18, we learn to acknowledge God as our strength, thank him for delivering us, thank him for vindicating us, and recognize that, with his help, we can’t lose.
What is a Psalm of Thanksgiving?
What is a “psalm of thanksgiving”? Perhaps the most helpful answer is the simplest: A psalm of thanksgiving is a worship song which expresses gratitude for what God has done. It’s the kind of psalm which recounts the ways in which God brought blessings or deliverance, whether spiritual or physical. Notice the tone of gratitude for God’s acts from these examples of thanksgiving psalms:
- “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.” (Ps. 16:6)
- “Many, Lord my God, are the wonders you have done, the things you planned for us. None can compare with you; were I to speak and tell of your deeds, they would be too many to declare.” (Ps. 40:5)
- “Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.” (Ps. 107:6)
Psalm of Thanksgiving: “Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.”
When you’re studying the book of Psalms in the Bible, “psalms of thanksgiving” is just one of the categories you’ll run across. Other categories include psalms of lament, praise, remembrance, wisdom, etc. There are also other ways of categorizing psalms (such as by author or chronological order). The psalm we’ll look at in this article, Psalm 18, is seen as both a psalm of thanksgiving and a psalm of David.
A German Old Testament scholar named Hermann Gunkel (also the founder of form criticism) is credited with introducing this genre-based way of categorizing the psalms. Though other scholars have tweaked and added to his categorization, his original five categories are hymns, communal laments, individual laments, individual thanksgiving, and royal psalms.
What Makes Psalm 18 Unique?
Roughly half of the Psalms are attributed to David, including Psalm 18. Psalm 18 is the fourth longest psalm in the book of Psalms, and the longest psalm attributed to David himself. As such, it’s the longest quotation by David in the Bible (365 words in Hebrew). It’s a fascinating psalm in its own right (which we’ll get to below), but what makes it especially unique is that it is quoted (with slightly different wording) in 2 Samuel 22.
The final chapters of 2 Samuel (2 Samuel 21-24) are a reflection over David’s life and reign. Scholars have seen a chiastic structure in these chapters (e.g., an ABCBA literary pattern). As such, this psalm in 2 Samuel 22 helps form the center of the chiasm. The significance seems to be that this psalm is the ideal psalm for summarizing David’s life and reign, and that’s why it’s chosen for this important slot in these summary chapters at the end of 2 Samuel.
What is the Structure of Psalm 18?
Since it’s such a long psalm, it’s helpful to get some idea of its overall structure. Commentator Joyce Baldwin offers the following structure for this psalm of thanksgiving, as it reads in 2 Samuel 22:
- Proclamation (vv. 2–4)
- Summary (vv. 5–7)
- Flashback (vv. 8–31)
- Report (vv. 32–46)
- Vow (vv. 47–50)
- Praise (v. 51)
Others have pointed out that the psalm itself follows a chiastic structure (again, an ABCBA format). Notice the symmetrical elements in the chiasm that Robert Bergen suggests (along with a “D” postscript added at the end). Again, this is taken from the version of the psalm found in 2 Samuel 22:
A. Praise for the Lord (vv. 1–4)
B. The Lord’s deliverance of David (vv. 5–20)
C. Reasons for David’s deliverance (vv. 21–29)
B. The Lord’s deliverance of David (vv. 30–46)
A. Praise for the Lord (vv. 47–50)
D. Postscript: the Lord’s enduring support for the house of David (v. 51)
You can also see a chiasm of sorts within these central verses (see a fascinating explanation here), so that there’s literally a chiasm (within the central verses of the psalm) within a chiasm (the overall structure of the psalm) within a chiasm (the final chapters of 2 Samuel which summarize David’s life and reign).
What I See in This Psalm of Thanksgiving
I’m no scholar of the psalms, so here are some less-than-scholarly reflections from the psalm as it strikes me. There seem to be four dominant types of prayer David prays in Psalm 18. Here they are:
- God, you are my strength.
- Thank you for delivering me.
- My faithfulness in you has been vindicated.
- Thanks to you, I’m invincible.
Prayer #1 – God, you are my strength!
1 I love you, Lord, my strength.
2 The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (Ps. 18:1–2, NIV)
Consider that rich list of metaphors! God is our rock, fortress, shield, and stronghold—all images describing God as our protector. There’s a single metaphor here which isn’t defensive: a bull’s “horn” could gore somebody to death (Ex. 21:28-32), and, as such, “horn” here is a picture of effectiveness in warfare.
Psalm of Thanksgiving: “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer.”
From this psalm, we learn to acknowledge God as our strength. As mighty of a warrior and king as David was, he was clear on the source of his strength. He didn’t call himself a rock or claim to be a great deliverer. God was his rock, fortress, and deliverer. God is ours as well, and, in our wise and honest moments, we’ll acknowledge it too.
Prayer #2 – Thank you for delivering me!
3 I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise,
and I have been saved from my enemies.
4 The cords of death entangled me;
the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
5 The cords of the grave coiled around me;
the snares of death confronted me.
6 In my distress I called to the Lord;
I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice;
my cry came before him, into his ears.
Psalm of Thanksgiving: “I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice.”
7 The earth trembled and quaked,
and the foundations of the mountains shook;
they trembled because he was angry.
8 Smoke rose from his nostrils;
consuming fire came from his mouth,
burning coals blazed out of it.
9 He parted the heavens and came down;
dark clouds were under his feet.
10 He mounted the cherubim and flew;
he soared on the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him—
the dark rain clouds of the sky.
12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced,
with hailstones and bolts of lightning.
13 The Lord thundered from heaven;
the voice of the Most High resounded.
14 He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy,
with great bolts of lightning he routed them.
15 The valleys of the sea were exposed
and the foundations of the earth laid bare
at your rebuke, Lord,
at the blast of breath from your nostrils.
16 He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
he drew me out of deep waters.
Psalm of Thanksgiving: “He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters.”
17 He rescued me from my powerful enemy,
from my foes, who were too strong for me.
18 They confronted me in the day of my disaster,
but the Lord was my support.
19 He brought me out into a spacious place;
he rescued me because he delighted in me. (Ps. 18:3–19, NIV)
From his youth onward, David’s life was one near-death experience after another. As a shepherd, he had protected his sheep from both a bear attack and a lion attack. He alone had been willing to meet the Philistine champion Goliath’s to-the-death challenge. He had fought thousands as King Saul’s righthand warrior, and then he had to run for his life from Saul when the king’s jealousy got the better of him. “He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me,” David reflects. David didn’t have to try to apply these truths mentally and hypothetically to his spiritual life. He lived them vividly.
The imagery used throughout the psalm helped connect David’s fellow Israelites to their wider heritage as the people whom God delivered from Egypt. Moses’ final song in Deuteronomy 32 (the “Song of Moses”) reflected on God’s deliverance throughout the time of the Exodus. In his song of thanksgiving, Moses too calls God their “rock” (Deut. 32:4; see Ps. 18:2) and describes how God spent his arrows on their enemies (Deut. 32:23; see Ps. 18:14) and made them able to stand on high places (Deut. 32:13; see Ps. 18:33). David’s psalm of thanksgiving reminded them that God had always been their deliverer.
Prayer #3 – Thank you for vindicating me!
20 The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me.
21 For I have kept the ways of the Lord;
I am not guilty of turning from my God.
22 All his laws are before me;
I have not turned away from his decrees.
23 I have been blameless before him
and have kept myself from sin.
24 The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.
Psalm of Thanksgiving: “The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.”
25 To the faithful you show yourself faithful,
to the blameless you show yourself blameless,
26 to the pure you show yourself pure,
but to the devious you show yourself shrewd.
27 You save the humble
but bring low those whose eyes are haughty. (Psalm 18:20–27, NIV)
I get nervous when I think of praying the prayers in this section. Do I really want God to deal with me according to my righteousness? Hardly. I’m much more accustomed to and comfortable with asking God to deal with me according to Jesus’ righteousness. Can we please leave my spotty record out of the equation?
And, if we’re being honest, we’re also thinking, “C’mon, David. You are totally exaggerating here. I know I’m not that great, but at least I never had a guy killed to cover up an affair I had with his wife.”
We’re thinking, “C’mon, David. You are totally exaggerating here.”
Now, to be fair, we don’t know when David penned this psalm. Although the writer of 2 Samuel placed it within his reflection over David’s whole life, I’m guessing it’s very possible, even likely, that David wrote it years before. It would seem to fit well in the glorious peacetime after he became king and before his affair with Bathsheba and the destruction that followed. Psalm 18 comes with a “superscription,” the explanatory note at the beginning of a psalm, as found in the earliest manuscripts, and here’s what it says:
“For the director of music. Of David the servant of the Lord. He sang to the Lord the words of this song when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.”
If David in Psalm 18 is primarily referring to those years before his major moral scandal, then these verses actually make a ton of sense. He’s not claiming to be perfect, but he is acknowledging that he’s glad he stayed faithful to God through the years it would have been easy to take a moral shortcut. As a youth, he had been anointed the future king of Israel by the prophet Samuel. And yet, he scraped through so many perils that, at the time, made that promise look impossible.
“He’s not claiming to be perfect, but he is acknowledging that he’s glad he stayed faithful to God through the years it would have been easy to take a moral shortcut.”
Through it all, he had never taken a shortcut to the throne. Even when given opportunities to kill Saul and become king (1 Samuel 24, 26)—and even when it looked like a morally permissible thing to do—David never seized the kingdom. He kept doing what was right, even when it was hard, because he trusted God’s promise. So in Psalm 18, here was David, after God had come through on an impossible promise, saying, “The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness.” He was expressing gratitude that his faithfulness in God was vindicated.
Prayer #4 – With your help, I can’t lose!
27 You save the humble
but bring low those whose eyes are haughty.
28 You, Lord, keep my lamp burning;
my God turns my darkness into light.
29 With your help I can advance against a troop;
with my God I can scale a wall.
30 As for God, his way is perfect:
The Lord’s word is flawless;
he shields all who take refuge in him.
31 For who is God besides the Lord?
And who is the Rock except our God?
32 It is God who arms me with strength
and keeps my way secure.
33 He makes my feet like the feet of a deer;
he causes me to stand on the heights.
Psalm of Thanksgiving: “He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he causes me to stand on the heights.”
34 He trains my hands for battle;
my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
35 You make your saving help my shield,
and your right hand sustains me;
your help has made me great.
36 You provide a broad path for my feet,
so that my ankles do not give way.
37 I pursued my enemies and overtook them;
I did not turn back till they were destroyed.
38 I crushed them so that they could not rise;
they fell beneath my feet.
39 You armed me with strength for battle;
you humbled my adversaries before me.
40 You made my enemies turn their backs in flight,
and I destroyed my foes.
41 They cried for help, but there was no one to save them—
to the Lord, but he did not answer.
42 I beat them as fine as windblown dust;
I trampled them like mud in the streets.
43 You have delivered me from the attacks of the people;
you have made me the head of nations.
People I did not know now serve me,
Psalm of Thanksgiving: “You have delivered me from the attacks of the people; you have made me the head of nations.”
44 foreigners cower before me;
as soon as they hear of me, they obey me.
45 They all lose heart;
they come trembling from their strongholds.
46 The Lord lives! Praise be to my Rock!
Exalted be God my Savior!
47 He is the God who avenges me,
who subdues nations under me,
48 who saves me from my enemies.
You exalted me above my foes;
from a violent man you rescued me.
49 Therefore I will praise you, Lord, among the nations;
I will sing the praises of your name.
50 He gives his king great victories;
he shows unfailing love to his anointed,
to David and to his descendants forever. (Ps. 18:27–50, NIV)
Now installed as king, with Israel’s enemies defeated on every side, David realized that, with God’s help, he was unstoppable: “I can advance against a troop!…I can scale a wall!…My arms can bend a bow of bronze!” Chapters 8-12 of 2 Samuel describe how King David defeated numerous neighboring kingdoms (Edom, Ammon, Moab, Damascus, etc.) and expanded the borders of Israel. As Psalm 18 expresses, “You have made me the head of nations. People I did not know now serve me” (18:43b). As this was the land God had promised David’s ancestors (Gen. 12:7), this was another impossible promise now fulfilled.
“As this was the land God had promised David’s ancestors, this was another impossible promise now fulfilled.”
As disciples of Jesus, there’s a very real sense in which we too can’t lose. So long as we stay faithful to Jesus, then whatever we face in this life will be used to grow Christlikeness in us, which is our ultimate good:
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” (Rom. 8:28–29a, NIV)
David’s combative confidence feels out of step for Christians who are taught to “love your enemies” (Matt. 5:43, NIV). Lines such as, “I crushed them so that they could not rise” and “I beat them as fine as windblown dust” make a lot of us uneasy in a psalm of worship. When Jesus came, however, he exposed our true enemies as sin, death, and the devil—and outed our worst human enemies as no less than estranged children God longs to reconcile with. Heartfelt worship invites former enemies to join in even as it makes our true enemies tremble.
The Best Part of This Psalm of Thanksgiving
There are some powerful lines in Psalm 18. Consider, for example, the end of verse 35: “Your help has made me great” (NIV). The Hebrew word translated “help” in the NIV (anwat) usually means “gentleness,” so that the ESV translates verse 35 as, “Your gentleness made me great,” and the NASB as, “Your gentleness makes me great.” A parent’s persistent gentleness, where there could have been harshness and ridicule, certainly helps kids turn out well. In the same way, God’s gentleness and patience toward us helps us learn in steps rather than give up after the first few failures. Indeed, it’s God’s gentleness that makes us great.
“It’s God’s gentleness that makes us great.”
Another memorable line: “The Lord lives! Praise be to the Rock! Exalted be God my Savior!” (Ps. 18:46). I’m probably drawn to that verse because the KJV translation features prominently in an early “praise chorus” from the 80’s (a song called “I Will Call Upon the Lord”). The Christian rock band Petra, definitely my favorite band “back in the day,” played this song in their first “Petra Praise” album, an album which basically kicked off an entire genre. This verse summarizes the psalm nicely and circles back to the “rock” theme in the early verses (reminding us that the psalm follows a chiastic pattern).
But I’m going to suggest that the best part of Psalm is actually its final verse:
“He gives his king great victories;
he shows unfailing love to his anointed,
to David and to his descendants forever.” (Ps. 18:50)
Truth be told, I started off only sort-of liking this psalm. My first time reading it, it felt like it was placing a lot of confidence in the wrong place. Sure, I appreciated how David cried out to God in his desperation and God delivered him. But the resulting exultation placed a lot of focus on David’s righteousness and his wins on the battlefield.
“Truth be told, I started off only sort-of liking this psalm.”
The psalm ends with David sitting in comfort and feeling great about his conquests. But what came after God gave him peace on all sides? That’s when David has an affair, gets the woman pregnant, and has her husband killed to cover it up. His early desperation for God had slacked into comfortable self-sufficiency. His earlier deliverance from God gave way to disaster after disaster, this time of his own making. He would go from celebrating his vindication to reeling from shame. His onetime invincibility would fragment into utter weakness, as David would become powerless even to govern his own kids. One son from one marriage will end up raping a daughter from a different marriage. When David responds passively, another son will kill the rapist son and then go on to stage a coup against David.
David may have “slain his ten thousands” (1 Sam. 18:7), but, when it came to lust, he was a weakling.
Which brings us to the end of the psalm. David is still remarking on how God gives the king “great victories,” but we know that David will go on to suffer self-inflicted losses from which he will never quite recover. Verse 50 continues, “He shows unfailing love to his anointed, to David and to his descendants forever.” “Forever” is significant here. This is because, although David’s line of kings will come to an end with the Babylonian invasion in the 500s BC, the prophet Nathan has promised that God will establish the throne of his kingdom “forever” (2 Sam. 7:12–15). Another impossible promise that God would see through. (Hint: In Matthew 1:1, the New Testament begins with the words, “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David…”)
“Another impossible promise that God would see through.”
“Anointed” is also huge here (“He shows unfailing love to his anointed”). In context, David is referring to himself, as God’s anointed king over Israel. But the Hebrew word (“Mashiach”) points far beyond David. The Hebrew “Mashiach,” meaning one who is anointed, is the source of our Latin-based word “Messiah.” Throughout the Old Testament, kings, priests, and prophets are all anointed for their tasks. But the Old Testament also points beyond itself to a coming Mashiach, a descendant of David, who will be the ultimate “Anointed One” humanity has been waiting for since Genesis 3. As the New Testament describes, the Mashiach indeed came fulfilling all three roles of prophet, priest, and king.
And it’s because this Messiah came and defeated our deepest enemies—sin, death, and the devil—that we can pray Psalm 18 with unrestrained confidence. Jesus is—and has over and over proven himself to be—our rock, our fortress, and our deliverer in whom we take refuge.
Can you think of an impossible promise God has seen through? Or more than one? Someday, we’ll stand before God and say, “I knew it! He promised he’d come through, and he did!” We’ll stand in tearful gratitude that he delivered us from our sins, rescued us from death, and vindicated our imperfect but genuine faithfulness to him. Let’s rehearse that day by singing psalms of thanksgiving now.
 Joyce G. Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 8 of Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 307.
 Robert D. Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, ed. E. Ray Clendenen and Kenneth A. Mathews, vol. 7 of The New American Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 451.