In the first half of Psalm 141 David has sought God’s help for the corruption within him. In the second half he seeks God’s help with the corruption around him:
But my prayer is ever against the evil actions of men.
David is anything but aloof to the evil of this world; here is no disinterested “tolerance,” no passive “live and let live.” But nor is there a frenetic, anxious activism, a self-righteous scheming. Rather, David’s awareness of the evil actions of others leads him first to pray: David wants God to take action first–radical and decisive action to be sure. He calls for God to act with both punitive and restorative justice:
[Vv. 6-7 are difficult to translate, since the Hebrew is a somewhat uncertain.]
When their leaders are thrown down from the cliffs,
then they will give heed to my words, for they are pleasant.
David graphically describes a future event of divine punitive judgment against the leaders of evil men–i.e., against those who are brazenly aware of their wickedness and who mislead others into their evil ways. Such leaders are the “trend setters,” those who make disobedience plausible, normal, even necessary. With great sobriety David calls for God to mete out justice against such instigators. (To be thrown from a cliff suggests not only a dramatic death but a dishonorable death: one’s corpse would be exposed, left to rot or to serve as food for predators; hence, there would be no proper burial, a matter of nearly unparalleled dishonor in the ancient world, since the manner of one’s burial was a community’s, or nation’s, collective evaluation of a person, one that was presumed to be right, for how could so many be so wrong?)
But the goal of this punitive justice for these “leaders” is the awakening of their misled “followers”: they will begin to give heed to David’s leadership, to his pronouncements and judgments, all of which bring life and blessing–why?–because they come from a mouth guarded by God (v. 3) and from a heart that is accountable to the righteous (v. 5). Ruling in wisdom, King David’s judgments will bring delight to those who formerly followed the ways of wicked leaders (see Prov. 2.10, where wisdom is said to be wisdom and knowledge are “pleasant to your soul”). David, then, hopes for a restorative justice for such persons.
Having expressed his prayer “against the actions of evil men,” David, it seems (v. 7 could be read in different ways), turns to consider his own plight, which includes the plight of his own followers:
Just as when one plows and clears a field,
so our bones have been scattered at the mouth of Sheol.
David and his followers endured much opposition and persecution. He provides us with vivid agricultural imagery of land being cleared: David and his men have been treated like the unwanted natural vegetation that must be uprooted and removed before the desired crop can be cultivated.
In short, David and his followers have come to be regarded as the problem people.
The phrase “our bones” probably refers to the very essence or core identity of David and his followers (we can use bone this way in English: his harsh words cut her to the bone or he is a Texan to his bones). David says, “We have been completely discarded without concern, placed on death’s doorstep.” In sum, David and his followers have been utterly rejected and humiliated, regarded as enemies of the state and a danger to the public good.
So David’s prayer is “ever against the evil actions of men” even as he is being rejected by them.
How does he deal with this rejection? He continues:
But my eyes are upon you, LORD God;
in you have I taken refuge–do not leave me vulnerable.
Guard me from the traps they have set for me,
from the snares of those who practice iniquity.
May the wicked together fall into their own nets,
while I pass on by.
In the face of rejection David’s strategy is astonishing, simple, and passive. He will focus upon his God: he centers himself upon the central Actor, upon the One who Redeemer and Judge and looks exclusively to Him for protection.
David actually believes that his God has the power to foil the plans of the wicked. David’s enemies are ever scheming against him; they are ever setting traps and snares for him. And yet David trusts God to completely thwart and subvert these schemes and even to leverage them to bring about their own destruction.
But such passivity does not imply inactivity. David is passive with respect to his enemies in that he does not let them set the agenda; he will not react to them or allow his time and energy to be consumed by them. But the metaphor evoked by “traps” and “snares” and “nets” is that of a journey on foot: David has a definite destination in mind, a specific divine mission to accomplish, and he continues down the path utterly persuaded that he can leave the wicked and their machinations to his God.
What could be more agenda-clarifying and God-exalting?
To summarize David’s engagement with a world that is deeply marred by evil and injustice: whatever the resources and connections at his disposal, he is first and foremost a man of prayer, asking for God to execute justice both on the hardened leaders who must be destroyed and dishonored and upon the deceived followers who must be shaken from their stupor and enticed to David’s own authority, one that will prove to be most “pleasant.” In the face of rejection and public humiliation, David refuses to let them set the agenda but continues his mission, with his eyes fixed upon a God whose power and faithfulness will protect him from the schemes of his adversaries, “while I pass on by.”