While all the psalms are messianic, this fortieth psalm is a great and glorious messianic psalm. The New Testament plainly declares it to have been fulfilled in Christ, and, given this, we learn a great deal about what Jesus came to accomplish.
“I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry . . .”
There are three sections in this psalm. The first is a rejoicing testimony to the delivering power of God’s goodness (vv. 1-3). The second is a meditation on the present goodness of God (vv. 4-10). The third is a prayer for deliverance in the future (vv. 11-17). God has been good in the past, He is good now, and the psalmist turns to Him for salvation in the future. The New Testament fixes this psalm for us as an explicitly messianic psalm through how it is quoted and applied in Hebrews:
“Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me: In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure. Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God. Above when he said, Sacrifice and offering and burnt offerings and offering for sin thou wouldest not, neither hadst pleasure therein; which are offered by the law; Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second. By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (10:5-10).
Before proceeding further, we need to clear up one trouble. In the Hebrew text of Psalm 40, verse 6 reads, “mine ears thou opened.” This could be rendered as “my ears you have pierced,” which appears to reflect the law in Exodus 21: 6.
“Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.”
But the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT, which is the version quoted in Hebrews) renders this as a “body hast thou prepared me.” This is most likely an idiomatic rendering of the Hebrew—the piercing of the ear meant total “consecration,” and a body prepared by God amounts to the same thing. This is a figure of speech called synecdoche, where the whole is spoken of in terms of the part. E.g. “all hands on deck.” A pieced ear is the part representing the whole, a body fully dedicated to the service of God. There have been some other explanations, some of them quite ingenious, but this appears to be the simplest explanation.
The fact that this psalm is clearly about the Messiah does not mean that it is not about David. But the meaning of the psalm would vary according to how we were reading it. The messianic meaning does not displace the Davidic meaning. We can see the need for such distinctions clearly in verse 12, where he says “mine iniquities have taken hold upon me.” We read this differently, depending upon whether we are talking about David or David’s great son. But more about this shortly. When sinful men typify the sinless Christ, there must be adjustments in understanding made, but they must not be adjustments that simply set the point aside. We see this with Adam, with Joseph, with David, with Solomon, and so on.
The deliverance from the pit was preceded with patience (v. 1). Again, godly patience is not stoicism. “Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared” (Heb. 5:7). God delivered Jesus from a horrible pit, set Him on a rock and established His goings (v. 2). Hades would certainly qualify as the ultimate of horrible pits, and God did not abandon Christ there. Having raised Him from the dead, God placed a new song in the mouth of Christ, even praise to God. The result is that many will see it, and will trust in the Lord. Christ’s faith is the model for our faith.
Blessed is the man who trusts God, and not the proud or those who veer off after lies (v. 4). We cannot count all the wonderful works that God has done for us (v. 5). There is no way to reckon the kindness of God. God did not desire mere conformity to ritual; He also wanted true obedience (v. 6). More about this in a moment. The Christ came to fulfill what was written in the book (v. 7). When He came, coming to earth to die, He said, “I delight to do thy will” (v. 8). Christ, the one who came, was and is a great preacher (v. 9), and He was a preacher of righteousness. Do not reduce this to “a preacher of morality.” We can see this in that He did not hide righteousness away, but rather declared God’s faithfulness and salvation (v. 10). Righteousness is equated to faithfulness and salvation. As a preacher, Christ did not conceal God’s loving-kindness or truth from the great congregation.
The assignment of a proper place to sacrifices is not a New Testament novelty at all. “And Samuel said, Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22). “Hear the word of the LORD . . . To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD . . .” (Is. 1:10-17; cf. Jer. 7:21-26). “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6; cf. Micah 6:6-8).
Because God is faithful, there is shame for those who taunt. Let Your loving-kindness preserve me forever (v. 11). Another wave of evils has surrounded the psalmist (v. 12), and his iniquities have seized him. They are more than the hairs of his head (v. 12). “God, hurry up” (v. 13). Defeat those who come against him (v. 14). Let those who taunt be shamed (v. 15; cf. 35:21; 70:3). Let all those who love God’s salvation praise the Lord constantly (v. 16). The psalmist is poor and needy, and he asks God not to tarry (v. 17).
Christ never sinned. So how are we to understand the reference in verse 12 to iniquities? Obviously, as it applies to David, we take it the same way we have taken it in other instances. But in this passage, is there a way to apply it to Christ also? Yes. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:20). Jesus Christ became a curse for us while hanging on the cross. The one who was never a sinner became (through God’s imputation) completely identified with sin, our sin. He was completely identified with an innumerable host of sins, took them all upon Himself, closed His arms upon them in an obedient embrace, and died. That is why there is no condemnation.