The emotional and poetic nature of the psalms both highlight the true meaning of a relationship with God and make them more difficult to interpret. This is especially true of psalms applied in some way to the Messiah while other portions of the psalm make it quite impossible to refer to Jesus completely. David’s reflection on God’s having come to his aid, recorded in Psalm 41, falls into this category. Jesus’ own quotation of Psalm 41:9 in John 13:18 demands a Messianic meaning, and yet clearly Psalm 41:4, “I said, ‘LORD, be merciful to me; Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You,’” does not apply to Jesus. So how are we to understand this beautiful psalm?
The Jews themselves recognized the close tie between David and the Messiah, so much so that they assumed the Messiah’s kingdom would be identical to David’s kingdom. However, in this they failed to appreciate the most important element of the relationship between that two that the Holy Spirit provided in scripture: the Messiah would be better than David—in every way. Jesus Himself pointed to a psalm of David to make this point to the Jewish leadership, “He said to them, ‘How can they say that the Christ is the Son of David? Now David himself said in the Book of Psalms: “The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool’”’ Therefore David calls Him “Lord”; how is He then his Son?’” (Luke 20:41-44). Therefore, while the life of the Messiah would have many parallels to David, both the highs and lows in David’s life were a mere shadow of what we find in Jesus.
Therefore, when David reflects on how God cares for those in trouble and preserves them alive, he referred to a deliverance that kept him from death, but in Jesus these are heightened to refer to victory over death (Psa. 41:1-3). David indeed had sinned and felt it in times when his enemies gathered against Him, but Jesus never sinned; nevertheless, He still had enemies who hated Him, wanted to hurt Him, and wished to end all memory of Him (Psa. 41:4-8). However, it is in verse nine where Jesus pulls the parallels together to highlight a place where David’s situation so mirrored His own: “Even my own familiar friend in whom I trusted, Who ate my bread, Has lifted up his heel against me” (Psa. 41:9). During the rebellion led by Absalom, David’s trusted advisor, Athithophel left David to give advice to his rebellious son (2 Sam. 15:12, 31). He knew what it was to be betrayed by a close associate, and in this Jesus found a parallel practically identical to His own situation.
Therefore, having drawn our attention to this psalm and having established Himself as greater than David, the fulfillment of the rest of the psalm promised greater things too. Jesus was indeed raised up, but in a very different manner than David (Psa. 41:10), and His enemy did not end up triumphing over Him (Psa. 41:11; Heb. 2:14-15). Instead, not only was it possible for Him to face God with integrity, but through His integrity He was able to be face to face with God once more (Psa. 41:12). This victory of the Messiah is thus the victory of the LORD, and the plan that made it possible is a reason to give Him thanks forever (Psa. 41:13).