This article is part 2 in a series on salvation in the Old Testament.
Salvation in the Psalms:
Deliverance from Today’s Troubles
Do believers need saving? According to the Psalms the answer is a resounding Yes. Doing so reveals a dependence on God.
In this article we will consider the uses of the words save (sōzō) and salvation (sōtēria) in the Psalms.1
As we would expect, the Psalms are filled with wonderful word pictures. The poetry of the Psalms extends to the use of the words salvation and save. We miss the point if we read the word salvation in the Psalms as though it dealt with individual salvation from hell.
Deliverance from Enemies
This is the single most common use of the words salvation and save in the Psalms (as in the rest of the Old Testament). Repeatedly the contexts in which these words occur indicate that the salvation in view is deliverance from one’s enemies. Most often this concerns the deliverance of the nation of Israel from her enemies. On occasion it refers to deliverance of the individual from his enemies.
For example, in Psalm 78 the psalmist recalls the history of Israel.2 In verse 22 he speaks of Kadesh Barnea, where the ten spies convinced the new nation not to take the Promised Land, but instead to shrink back. The result was, “The Lord heard this and was furious; so a fire was kindled against Jacob, and anger also came up against Israel” (verse 21). Why? The Psalmist says, “Because they did not believe in God, and did not trust in His salvation.” The nation did not believe God would deliver her from the pagan nations which inhabited the Promised Land and which God had promised to dispossess. The men of the land were so gigantic (“we are grasshoppers in their sight”) that the nation rejected God’s promise.
“The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My God my strength, in whom I will trust; my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised; so shall I be saved from my enemies” (Ps 18:2-3, italics added). This is a popular chorus sung in many churches. And it illustrates the most common use of salvation in the Psalms: deliverance from my enemies.
Similarly David wrote, “The One who gives salvation to kings, who delivers David His servant from the deadly sword” (Ps 144:10, italics added). God delivered David, and many of the kings of Israel and Judah, from the deadly sword of her enemies. And again David wrote, “O God the Lord, the strength of my salvation, You have covered my head in the day of battle” (Ps 140:7, italics added).3
Deliverance from the Wicked (Nations and Individuals)
The nations that were Israel’s enemies were notoriously wicked. Thus deliverance from the wicked is a closely related and often synonymous idea to deliverance from enemies. David lamented, “Do not take me away with the wicked and with the workers of iniquity, who speak peace to their neighbors, but evil in their hearts. Give them according to their deeds, and according to the wickedness of their endeavors; give them according to the work of their hands; render to them what they deserve” (Ps 28:3-4). It is in this context that David then says of God, “He is the saving refuge of His anointed. Save Your people, and bless Your inheritance” (Ps 28:8-9, italics added; see also Ps 9:14, compare verses 15-16; Ps 37:40; 62:1, 7; 145:19).
Deliverance from Trouble
The second most frequent type of salvation in the Psalms is deliverance from troubles in this life. For example, in Ps 50:22-23 we read, “Now consider this, you who forget God, lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver: Whoever offers praise glorifies Me; and to him who orders his conduct aright I will show the salvation of God.” The salvation or deliverance is spelled out earlier in the context: “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me” (v 15). God provides salvation in the day of the trouble.
Similar wording is found in Ps 91:15-16, “He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him, and show him my salvation.” God saves from troubles in this life those who call upon Him.
“May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble…May He grant you according to your heart’s desire, and fulfill all your purpose. We will rejoice in your salvation, and in the name of our God we will set up our banners! May the Lord fulfill all your petitions” (Ps 20:1, 4-5). Salvation from troubles is a common theme in the Psalms.4
Deliverance of the Poor and Needy from Their Afflictions
This is a special type of salvation from troubles. Specifically, on some occasions, the psalmist speaks of the salvation of the poor and needy from their afflictions.
“‘For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now I will arise,’ says the Lord; ‘I will set him in the safety [salvation] for which he yearns’” (Ps 12:5).
“Let all those who seek You rejoice and be glad in You; let such as love Your salvation say continually, ‘The Lord be magnified!’ But I am poor and needy; Yet the Lord thinks upon me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God” (Ps 40:16-17). Of course, if David, the author of Psalm 40 can call himself “poor and needy,” then surely we all are poor and needy. We all need deliverance from our afflictions. This is a principle we see elsewhere in Scripture. God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (Prov 3:34; Jas 4:6).5
Deliverance of Israel from Captivity
God not only sent Israel into captivity for its disobedience, He also returned Israel from that captivity. That returning of Israel from captivity is called salvation in Ps 14:7 and Ps 53:6. “Oh, that the salvation of Israel would come out of Zion! When the Lord brings back the captivity of His people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad” (14:7; 53:6).
David was writing prophetically here. When he wrote, Israel was not in captivity and hadn’t been since leaving Egypt four hundred years before. Was he speaking of the return which took place starting in 538 BC? Or was he speaking about the ultimate salvation of Israel from captivity, when the Messiah returns Israel once and for all to the Promised Land?
Actually the Hebrew which is translated “bring back the captivity” can also be rendered, “turn the fortunes” (Kirkpatrick, Psalms, p. 304) or “restore the fortunes” (A. A. Anderson, Psalms, I: 135). Thus it may not refer specifically to restoration from captivity. However, regardless of the translation, it seems likely that David is thinking here of Israel’s ultimate restoration when at the end of the Tribulation the Messiah returns and delivers Israel from all of her enemies.6
Deliverance of One’s “Countenance”
It should not be surprising that in the beautiful poetry of the Psalms we find reference to the salvation of one’s countenance. God can change a sad face into a happy one by saving the person from his or her troubles.
The Masoretic Text of Ps 42:5 reads, “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall yet praise Him, for the help [salvation] of His countenance.” There is a textual problem here, however. Some Hebrew manuscripts, as well as the LXX, read “I shall yet praise Him, for the help of my countenance, my God.” Psalm 43:5 essentially has this latter reading.
Thus while the Masoretic Text suggests salvation from troubles as a result of God smiling on a person, the LXX suggests that it is the person’s countenance that is delivered by God. The latter is more likely the intention here.
Worldwide Deliverance of All Nations from Trouble
Psalm 67:1-2 speaks of worldwide salvation: “God be merciful to us and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us, that Your way may be known on earth, Your salvation among all nations.” These verses show that this Psalm is a prayer for God’s blessings upon the entire world. The following verses confirm this, asking for gladness, fair judgment, and guidance for the nations (verse 4), and for bountiful harvests (verse 6). The psalmist longs for a time of worldwide peace and prosperity. That time we know from other Psalms will occur with the reign of the Messiah (cf. Psalm 2, 8, 110).
This salvation is thus deliverance from injustice, famine, war, and the like. It is a prayer for the kingdom to come. From other Scriptures we know that there will be many in the Millennial Kingdom who do not believe in Christ (cf. Rev 20:7-15). Since the time for which the psalmist longs includes the Millennium, we cannot say that the salvation in view primarily concerns individual regeneration. Rather, it concerns international peace and prosperity. (Of course, for anyone who dies prior to the Rapture, faith in Christ is a requirement to take part in this salvation. Compare Acts 28:28, which may allude to Ps 67:2.)
There are no clear examples in the Psalms of the words save or salvation referring specifically to individual salvation from eternal condemnation. The person who understands the salvation in the Psalms as deliverance from eternal condemnation completely misses the applications that God intends.
Salvation in the Psalms concerns deliverance from enemies, the wicked, trouble, afflictions, captivity, a sad countenance, etc.
Admittedly many of the resulting misunderstandings would seemingly be of little practical importance. That is because in many places the context doesn’t indicate what must be done to get the salvation. However, I would argue it is always practical to understand properly what God is saying, even if it doesn’t create some major doctrinal problem. In addition, confusion does create a major doctrinal problem in places where some condition other than faith is given. For example, in Psalm 28 the salvation for which David pleads is not based on faith alone. It is based on Israel being more righteous than the surrounding nations (compare verses 3-5, 6-9). And it is conditioned upon prayer and faith, not simply faith. Similarly, in Psalm 20 David asks God to save Israel because of her “offerings” and “burnt sacrifices” (cf. verses 1-3, 4-9).
The Psalms are obviously not merely for Old Testament believers. They are for believers of all ages. As Dr. Earl Radmacher likes to say, we believers all need saving every day. We face enemies, the wicked, trouble, afflictions, and sadness. We would do well to learn from the psalmist to cry out to God for deliverance. We cannot live the Christian life by self-effort and determination. We must live it by faith. And that faith-walk leads us to call upon God as our Savior from all of our difficulties, now and forever.
1We will also examine the related adjective sōtērios, since it is often used as a noun and since it occurs slightly more often in the Psalms than sōtēria. (We will not, however, focus on which of these three words is being used in each case as that would be too cumbersome for a short article.) There are 37 uses of sōtērion, 33 of sōtēria and 66 of sōzō, for a total of 136 uses.
2The Septaugint (Greek Old Testament = LXX) is typically one chapter off in numbering from the English version of the Psalms. In this paper I indicate the English version locations, without repeatedly indicating the LXX location.
3See also Ps 3:2, 7-8; 6:4; 7:1, 10; 12:1, 5; 17:7; 18:3, 27, 35, 41, 46, 50; 21:1, 5; 31:16; 33:16-17; 35:3, 9; 38:22; 44:3-4, 6-7; 54:1; 59:2; 69:1, 14; 70:4; 71:2, 15; 74:12; 80:2, 3, 7, 19; 106:4, 8, 10; 118: 14, 15.
4See also Ps 13:5; 20:5; 22:8, 21; 40:10; 85:4, 7, 9; 96:2; 98:2-3; 107:13, 19; 116:13; 119:41, 81, 123, 166, 174; 138:7.
55See also Ps 34:6, 18; 72:4, 13; 109:26, 31; 116:6.