Examine me, Lord — A Study of Psalm 26

By Wayne Jackson

Psalm 26 is a brief (twelve verses) but delightful psalm (i.e., in poetic form) in which the author petitions his God for protection from some threatening, deadly force. Hence, he will argue his case to the Lord in the hope of a favorable response to his prayer. There are two considerations we will give to this study: First, is there any evidence as to the poem’s authorship? Second, what is the flow of the petitioner’s argument to his Creator?

The Author

The superscription (or “title”) of the composition is attributed to David. Liberal expositors have argued that that this psalm could not have been written by David. (a) It is contended that one so sinfully blemished as David would not have made such an adamant affirmation of integrity, as the writer did (vv. 1-2). (b) There is a reference to the Lord’s “altar” (v. 6) and “house” (v. 8); this, it is alleged, refers to the “temple,” which was not built until after David’s death. But is there a more balanced viewpoint?

First, the time of the psalm’s composition is unknown. It may have been written before David’s horrible sin with Bathsheba. The Lord himself referred to David as one of “integrity of heart” (1 Kings 9:4). But David was never perfect; the affirmation may be a general statement of his loyalty to God (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22).

Second, George Rawlinson (1812-1902) declared that Psalm 26 “has all the notes of David’s style, is full of his thoughts and imagery, and is allowed to be his by almost all critics” (1950, 192). He argued that the psalm belongs to the time when the ark was at Mount Zion. There is certainly nothing in the psalm to suggest otherwise.

The Oxford scholar contended that a literal rendition of v. 8b is “the place of the tabernacling of your glory” (cf. ASV footnote). In the wilderness, the place of God’s “glory” was in the tabernacle’s “holy of holies” (Exodus 40:34; Numbers 14:10).

J. A. Alexander, the highly respected Princeton scholar, thought this passage possibly referred to the “migratory movements” of the ark of the covenant (1853, 217). The temple was never designated as a “tabernacle” (a movable tent). Professor Alexander also declared that the “style” of Psalm 26 is strikingly similar to several other psalms in which the “authorship” of David is “undisputed” (214).

In logic, the law of rationality suggests that one should draw only such conclusions as the evidence warrants. In this instance, the evidence does not demand that David be excluded as the author. While it cannot be said for certain that Psalm 26 was composed by the king (as in the case of those psalms attributed to him by inspired New Testament writers, e.g., Matthew 22:43; Acts 1:16), a strong circumstantial case can be made for David’s authorship.

British scholar, J. T. Motyer, has argued that while the liberal trend has been to date many of the psalms in the post-captivity era, such is unnecessary. A great deal of evidence now counters that view. Prominent British commentator, Derek Kidner, calls many of the liberal arguments “arbitrary and simplistic” (1973, 34).

The ancient Jewish scholars who added the superscriptions (which predate even the LXX [third century B.C.]) certainly were in a better position to assess the authorship of the material than modern writers twenty-two centuries later, who rely only on their subjective views regarding when the documents were generated. Some conservative scholars forcefully have argued that the superscriptions were appended a considerable period of time before the LXX—perhaps even shortly after the psalms’ initial compositions. These “titles,” therefore, though not inspired, deserve to be treated with respect.

Anthony Ash, of Abilene Christian University, has shown the effect radical criticism has had on the modern interpretation of the psalms (1980, 13ff). Unfortunately, he has been heavily influenced by liberalism himself. He even contends that the New Testament testimony regarding David’s authorship of certain psalms is not to be pressed literally (18-19). But as the late J. Barton Payne observed: “[W]hen the NT speaks, its words are of necessity decisive, for those at least who are committed to its plenary authority” (1975, 926).

There is nothing in Psalm 26 that mandates the song to be identified with the post-temple period. There is no justification for making a dogmatic assertion that the psalm was not written by David. Such reflects the influence of liberal criticism which operates along evolutionary lines, with the unfounded assumption that the sophisticated literature of the Psalms could hardly have existed a thousand years before Christ.

Professor Payne confidently declared that “no significant evidence exists for denying the authenticity of the psalm titles within the text of the OT” (925), though there is some elasticity in the manner by which the titles may be translated, e.g., “by David,” “concerning David,” “for David,” etc. (Yates 1962, 491).

The Text

Psalm 26 likely was written in a time of crisis in the singer’s life. Various possibilities have been suggested—Saul’s persecution of him, Absalom’s rebellion, some political crisis, etc. Nothing can be determined for certain. Some suggest it is the prayer of a forgiven sinner who has been treated wrongfully.

The psalm can be described as a “prayer for divine examination” (cf. v. 2) in view of the danger. The narrative falls into three natural divisions: First, there is a proclamation of the author’s integrity (vv. 1-2). Second, evidence to support his claim is introduced (vv. 3-8). Third, there is a plea for Jehovah’s mercy (vv. 9-12). As noted above, the superscription attributes the composition to David. In fact, seventy-three of the one hundred fifty psalms are, in one way or another, connected to Israel’s finest king. Let us consider each of these segments.

Affirmation of Integrity (vv. 1-2)

The psalmist calls upon Jehovah to “judge” him, particularly as he stands in contrast to certain wicked men who are deserving of divine wrath. He does not claim perfection, but does contend that he has “walked in integrity.” He contrasts his life with those who are oppressing him, not by the absolute holiness of God (Kirkpatrick 1906, 137). The original word rendered “integrity” suggests the idea of completeness. He professes to have had a sincere heart in serving his Maker, and a love for the Lord always has been within the fabric of his soul.

David affirms that he has “trusted” in Jehovah “without wavering.” He may suggest he had remained relatively steadfast; or it could indicate his conviction that as long as he maintains confidence in the Lord, his course in life would remain stable (v. 1).

But the psalmist is not arrogant in that he feels he could never have been weak or involved in sin. Hence, with an honest heart, he pleads for God to “examine” him; put him under the divine microscope, so to speak. “Prove me,” i.e., put me to the test; for example perhaps, as you did Abraham (Genesis 22:1), and the nation of Israel (Deuteronomy 8:2, 16). He does not ask that the Lord “cut him any slack.”

He implores Jehovah to “try” his heart (“reins,” KJV). “Reins” literally is a reference to one’s kidneys; the Hebrews metaphorically employed these body organs to represent one’s affections (cf. Revelation 2:23). The term “mind” would reference the reasoning faculty. David believes he will pass the test, both emotionally and intellectually (v. 2).

Evidence Introduced (vv. 3-8)

Much as Job once did, David will attempt to buttress the case for his integrity with evidence. First, there is the affirmation that God will do right by him, for the writer has observed many examples of his Creator’s “lovingkindness.” Jehovah is not a monstrous fiend, ever seeking to condemn. He genuinely loves those who have been fashioned in his image (Genesis 1:26-27). The demonstration of that ultimately will be gloriously revealed in the gift of his Son as a sacrifice for sin (Romans 5:8).

He affirms he has “walked” (i.e., pursued as a way of life) in the Lord’s “truth” (v. 3; cf. 3 John 4). Unlike those today who disdain truth, or contend it is elusive, David believed in an objective body of truth to which men are accountable (cf. John 8:32; 17:17). He had not been the companion of liars and hypocrites (v. 4; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:33). In fact, he abhors those who assemble to plan wickedness; he will not fraternize with such rebels (v. 5).

As the Levitical priests ceremonially washed before serving at Jehovah’s sacred altar (Exodus 30:17-21), even so David symbolically washes his hands in “innocency,” i.e., he will devote himself to purity and encircle (perhaps embrace) the “altar” of God. The use of “altar” probably reflects a resolution to worship Almighty God. He has described two sides of the same coin—repudiating evil, and embracing truth (v. 6). He desires to worship his God genuinely (cf. John 4:23-24).

The “sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1) recognizes a truth of which many today are oblivious, namely that there is a relationship between one’s desire to be “innocent” before God, and whether or not he will listen to the “voice of thanksgiving.” It is a tragedy of unbelievable magnitude that so many people see no connection between their worship and the way they live on a regular basis! The modern phrase “Sunday religion” was not coined in a vacuum! One has no credibility in proclaiming all the Lord’s “wondrous works” if his jaded life reflects a diabolical agenda (v. 7).

The Lord’s wondrous works (v. 7b) would encompass the mysteries of the initial creation as reflected in the magnificent Cosmos (that which is ordered, designed; cf. Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20), the workings of divine providence in the lives of his people (Genesis 45:5ff; 50:20), and the redemption provided for those submissive to his will (Hebrews 5:8-9).

In a burst of praise, David proclaims that he loves the habitation wherein the glory of God abides (v. 8)—an obvious allusion to the holy of holies in the tabernacle (Exodus 25:8-9). Kirkpatrick observes that the Ark of the Covenant was an outward sign of Jehovah’s presence (139; cf. Exodus 25:21-22). Ultimately, the Lord’s glory would be manifested in the “tabernacle” of his Son’s body (cf. John 1:14 ASVfn).

Help me Lord! (vv. 9-12)

This remarkable psalm concludes with a prayer. David begs that when the “gathering” (figuratively, the harvest) time comes, i.e., the appointment of judgment—either in death, or that ultimate judgment (cf. Matthew 13:30, 40; Hebrews 9:27), may his soul (or life) be not gathered in the same company with the wicked (v. 9). The evil prophet Balaam once pathetically petitioned: “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his” (Numbers 23:10). How stupid is the modern skeptic who boasts that he will “split hell wide open” and love every moment of it! The shepherd poet was deadly serious about wanting to be in the company of the righteous, not the wicked.

Those estranged from God will have earned their tortured destiny (cf. Romans 6:23). They are violent and corrupt. Their hands drip blood, and bulge with wickedness. Their “right hand,” clutching bribes, had become a “wrong” hand (v. 10). Just as this poem had initially affirmed that its author had “walked in integrity,” even so he promises that he will continue “to walk” (live) a life of consecration. And the Lord, on his part, will “redeem” him, and extend mercy to him (v. 11). The term “redeem” is a request to be delivered from the fate of the ungodly who are characterized in the previous verse.

With a beautiful metaphor, David resolutely declares that his “foot” stands firm, on level ground. He is not perched on the treacherous terrain of the ungodly that leads to the abyss of separation from God and the anguish of the doomed (Matthew 25:30, 41; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9). In the assemblies of the righteous he will continue to bless Jehovah (v. 12).

Conclusion

This delightful composition thrillingly reveals the quality of the state of mind that should characterize every child of God. It reflects the humble, yet confident, peace that resides within the honest soul who is seriously attempting to walk with his Redeemer (Philippians 4:7). The devout are open to divine examination so that integrity of conscience will flavor each day. This disposition despises evil and embraces godliness. It worships Jehovah and happily anticipates a closer “walk” with the Lord at the consummation of earthly affairs. This song, in principle, spans the ages, instructing and blessing the people of God.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Alexander, J. A. 1853. The Psalms. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Charles Scribner.
  • Ash, Anthony and Clyde Miller. 1980. The Psalms, Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing.
  • Kidner, Derek. 1973. The Psalms 1-72. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.
  • Kirkpatrick, A. F. 1906. The Book of Psalms. Cambridge, England: University Press.
  • Motyer, J. A. 1994. New Bible Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.
  • Payne, J. Barton. 1975. The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Rawlinson, George. 1950. The Pulpit Commentary. Vol. 8. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Yates, Kyle, Jr. 1962. Wycliffe Bible Commentary. Chicago, IL: Moody.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.