Psalm 41: Good Friends

Blessed are those who have regard for the weak;
    the Lord delivers them in times of trouble.
The Lord protects and preserves them –
    they are counted among the blessed in the land –
    he does not give them over to the desire of their foes.
The Lord sustains them on their sick-bed
    and restores them from their bed of illness.

I said, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord;
    heal me, for I have sinned against you.’
My enemies say of me in malice,
    ‘When will he die and his name perish?’
When one of them comes to see me,
    he speaks falsely, while his heart gathers slander;
    then he goes out and spreads it around.

All my enemies whisper together against me;
    they imagine the worst for me, saying,
‘A vile disease has afflicted him;
    he will never get up from the place where he lies.’
Even my close friend,
    someone I trusted,
one who shared my bread,
    has turned[b] against me.

10 But may you have mercy on me, Lord;
    raise me up, that I may repay them.
11 I know that you are pleased with me,
    for my enemy does not triumph over me.
12 Because of my integrity you uphold me
    and set me in your presence for ever.

13 Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
    from everlasting to everlasting.
Amen and Amen.

– Psalm 41

It becomes pretty clear early on that the ‘poor’ or ‘weak’ man that David has in mind in verse 1 is not some general category of the ‘destitute’ or the ‘puny’ but simply someone who isn’t very well. Of course, for those who aren’t as affluent as the king, poor health and material poverty have often gone hand in hand, and sadly they still do.

Verse 4 is a plea for healing. It is a reminder that the God we worship is not unconcerned with our physical bodies. God wants us to flourish and that should not be over-spiritualised. The body is important in Christian thought – God created it and he created it good and God will transform our lowly bodies (Philippians 3:21) along with the whole of his creation (2 Peter 3:13). Our hope is not that our soul will be sprung from bodily captivity but that our bodies will share in the glory of Jesus’ resurrection.

To make matters worse, not only is David very unwell, (more than a touch of man flu is envisaged here) but his illness has become an opportunity for his enemies to launch a whispering campaign against him (vv. 5–8).  None of that should be a surprise to us: previous Psalms have spoken of hostile opposition to the king. But what is shocking is the revelation that even David’s closest friend has turned against him (v. 9).

We don’t know the exact circumstances of this Psalm, but we do know that we’re not always at our best when we’re unwell and it might just be that David is thinking the worst of someone. Sometimes when we’re ill we can be like that. Alternatively, we can take David’s words at face value. We do know, for instance, that his relationship with his wife, Michal, became very strained later on (2 Samuel 6:16) and that his son Absalom launched an unsuccessful bid for his throne which plunged the whole country into civil war (2 Samuel 15).

Good friends are a blessing from God. Cultivate them, thank God for them (be a good friend yourself!) but, like David, we know from painful experience that even close friends can let us down. In this Psalm, as in all the others he wrote, the one who David could always turn to is his God, our God. Although David had sinned against God (v. 4) he still knows that he will receive abundant mercy from God (v. 10), even more than from the friend who he had helped in the past (v. 9). David prays, ‘raise me up (from my sickbed) that I may repay them’ (v. 10), Jesus shows us a better way and said, ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful’ (Luke 6:36).