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the Week of Proper 9 / Ordinary 14
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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 56

Barnes' Notes on the Whole BibleBarnes' Notes


This purports to be a psalm of David, and there is no sufficient reason for doubting the correctness of its being thus attributed to him. DeWette indeed thinks that the contents of the psalm do not well agree with the circumstances of David’s life, and especially with that period of his life referred to in the title, and supposes that it was composed by some Hebrew in exile in the time of the captivity. But this is evidently mere conjecture. There “were” times in the life of David to which all that is said in this psalm would be applicable; and it is not difficult to explain all the allusions in it with reference to the circumstances specified in the title.

On the words “To the chief Musician,” see Introduction to Psalms 4:1-8. In the expression in the title “upon Jonath-elem-rechokim,” the first word - “Jonath” - means a “dove,” a favorite emblem of suffering innocence; and the second - אלם 'êlem - means “silence,” dumbness, sometimes put for uncomplaining submission; and the third - רחוקים râchôqiym - means “distant” or “remote,” agreeing here with places or persons, probably the latter, in which sense it is applicable to the Philistines, as aliens in blood and religion from the Hebrews. Thus understood, the whole title is an enigmatical description of David as an innocent and uncomplaining sufferer among strangers. See Prof. Alexander. DeWette, however, renders it, “The dove of the far-off terebinth trees.” The Septuagint and the Vulgate render it, “for the people who are made remote from their sanctuary.” The common rendering of the phrase is, “Upon, or respecting the dove of silence, in remote plaaes,” or “far-off from its nest,” or “in distant groves.”

Gesenius (Lexicon) renders it, “the silent dove among strangers,” and applies it to the people of Israel in the time of the exile, as an uncomplaining, unmurmuring people. This explanation of the “words,” “the silent dove among strangers,” is probably the true one; but it is applicable here, not to the people of Israel, as Gesenius, the Septuagint, and the Vulgate, render it, but to David, as an exile and a wanderer - one who was driven away from country and home, as a dove wandering from its nest. Whether it was the title of a “tune” or a piece of music already known, or whether it was music that was composed for this occasion, and with reference to this very psalm, it is not practicable now to determine. It is very “possible” that there was already a piece of music in existence, and in common use, to which this beautiful title of “A silent dove among strangers,” or “A patient dove driven from her nest into remote p aces,” was given - plaintive, tender, pensive music, and therefore especially appropriate for a psalm composed to describe the feelings of David when driven from home, and compelled to seek a place of safety in a remote region, like a dove driven from its nest.

On the meaning of the word “Michtam,” see the notes at the introduction to Psalms 16:1-11. The portion of the title “When the Philistines took him in Gath,” evidently refers to the event recorded in 1 Samuel 21:10 ff when David, fleeing from Saul, took refuge in the country of Achish, king of Gath, and when the “servants” of the king of Gath made him known to Achish, whose fears they so aroused as to lead him to drive the stranger away. The words “took him in Gath,” refer not to their “apprehending” him, or “seizing” him, but to their following him, or overtaking him, to wit, by their calumnies and reproaches, so that he found no safety there. He was persecuted by Saul; he was also persecuted by the Philistines, among whom he sought refuge and safety.

The psalm embraces the following points:

I. An earnest prayer for the divine interposition in behalf of the author of the psalm, Psalms 56:1-2.

II. An expression of his trust in God in times of danger, Psalms 56:3-4.

III. A description of his enemies: of their wresting his words; of their evil thoughts against him; of their gathering together; of their watching his steps; of their lying in wait for his life, Psalms 56:5-6.

IV. His confident belief that they would not escape by their iniquity; that God knew all his wanderings; that God remembered his tears, as if He put them in His bottle; and that his enemies would know that God was with him, Psalms 56:7-9.

V. His entire trust in God, and his firm assurance that he would yet be kept from falling, and would walk before God in the light of the living. Psalms 56:10-13.

The general “subject” of the psalm, therefore, is “confidence or trust in God in the time of danger.”

Verse 1

Be merciful unto me, O God - See the notes at Psalms 51:1.

For man would swallow me up - The word used here means properly to breathe hard; to pant; to blow hard; and then, to pant after, to yawn after with open mouth. The idea is, that people came upon him everywhere with open mouth, as if they would swallow him down whole. He found no friend in man - in any man. Everywhere his life was sought. There was no “man,” wherever he might go, on whom he could rely, or whom he could trust; and his only refuge, therefore, was in God.

He fighting daily - Constantly; without intermission. That is, all people seemed to be at war with him, and to pursue him always.

Oppresseth me - Presses hard upon me; so presses on me as always to endanger my life, and so that I feel no security anywhere.

Verse 2

Mine enemies - Margin, “mine observers.” The Hebrew word here used means properly to twist, to twist totogether; then, to be firm, hard, tough; then, “to press together,” as a rope that is twisted - and hence, the idea of oppressing, or pressing hard on one, as an enemy. See Psalms 27:11; Psalms 54:5. In the former verse the psalmist spoke of an enemy, or of “one” that would swallow him up (in the singular number), or of “man” as an enemy to him anywhere. Here he uses the plural number, implying that there were “many” who were enlisted against him. He was surrounded by enemies. He met them wherever he went. He had an enemy in Saul; he had enemies in the followers of Saul; he had enemies among the Philistines, and now when he had fled to Achish, king of Gath, and had hoped to find a refuge and a friend there, he found only bitter foes.

Would daily swallow me up - Constantly; their efforts to do it are unceasing. A new day brings no relief to me, but every day I am called to meet some new form of opposition.

For they be many that fight against me - His own followers and friends were few; his foes were many. Saul had numerous followers, and David encountered foes wherever he went. “O thou Most High.” The word used here - מרום mârôm - means properly height, altitude, elevation; then, a high place, especially heaven, Psalms 18:16; Isaiah 24:18, Isaiah 24:21; then it is applied to anything high or inaccessible, as a fortress, Isaiah 26:5. It is supposed by Gesenius (Lexicon), and some others, to mean here “elation of mind, pride,” - implying that his enemies fought against him with elated minds, or proudly. So the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and Luther render it; and so DeWette understands it. Yet it seems most probable that our translators have given the correct rendering, and that the passage is a solemn appeal to God as more exalted than his foes, and as one, therefore, in whom he could put entire confidence. Compare Psalms 92:8; Psalms 93:4,; Micah 6:6.

Verse 3

What time I am afraid - literally, “the day I am afraid.” David did not hesitate to admit that there were times when he was afraid. He saw himself to be in danger, and he had apprehensions as to the result. There is a natural fear of danger and of death; a fear implanted in us:

(a) to make us cautious, and

(b) to induce us to put our trust in God as a Preserver and Friend.

Our very nature - our physical constitution - is full of arrangements most skillfully adjusted, and most wisely planted there, to lead us to God as our Protector. Fear is one of these things, designed to make us feel that we “need” a God, and to lead us to him when we realize that we have no power to save ourselves from impending dangers.

I will trust in thee - As one that is able to save, and one that will order all things as they should be ordered. It is only this that can make the mind calm in the midst of danger:

(a) the feeling that God can protect us and save us from danger, and that he “will” protect us if he sees fit;

(b) the feeling that whatever may be the result, whether life or death, it will be such as God sees to be best - if “life,” that we may be useful, and glorify his name yet upon the earth; if “death,” that it will occur not because he had not “power” to interpose and save, but because there were good and sufficient reasons why he should “not” put forth his power on that occasion and rescue us.

Of this we may be, however, assured, that God has “power” to deliver us always, and that if not delivered from calamity it is not because he is inattentive, or has not power. And of this higher truth also we may be assured always, that he has power to save us from that which we have most occasion to fear - a dreadful hell. It is a good maxim with which to go into a world of danger; a good maxim to go to sea with; a good maxim in a storm; a good maxim when in danger on the land; a good maxim when we are sick; a good maxim when we think of death and the judgment - “What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee.”

Verse 4

In God I will praise his word - The meaning of this seems to be, “In reference to God - or, in my trust on God - I will especially have respect to his “word” - his gracious promise; I will make that the special object of my praise. In dwelling in my own mind on the divine perfections; in finding there materials for praise, I will have special respect to his revealed truth - to what he has “spoken” as an encouragement to me. I will be thankful that he “has” spoken, and that he has given me assurances on which I may rely in the times of danger.” The idea is, that he would “always” find in God that which was the ground or foundation for praise; and that that which called for special praise in meditating on the divine character, was the word or promise which God had made to his people.

I will not fear what flesh can do unto me - What man can do to me. Compare the notes at Matthew 10:28 (notes); Romans 8:31-34 (notes); Hebrews 13:6 (notes).

Verse 5

Every day they wrest my words - The word here rendered “wrest,” means literally to give pain, to grieve, to afflict; and it is used here in the sense of “wresting,” as if force were applied to words; that is, they are “tortured,” twisted, perverted. We have the same use of the word “torture” in our language. This they did by affixing a meaning to his words which he never intended, so as to injure him.

All their thoughts are against me for evil - All their plans, devices, purposes. They never seek my good, but always seek to do me harm.

Verse 6

They gather themselves together - That is, they do not attack me singly, but they unite their forces; they combine against me.

They hide themselves - They lurk in ambush. They do not come upon me openly, but they conceal themselves in places where they cannot be seen, that they may spring upon me suddenly.

They mark my steps - They watch me whatever I do. They keep a spy upon me, so that I can never be sure that I am not observed.

When they wait for my soul - As they watch for my life; or, as they watch for opportunities to take away my life. I am never secure; I know not at what time, or in what manner, they may spring upon me. This would apply to David when he fled to Achish, king of Gath; when he was driven away by him; and when he was watched and pursued by Saul and his followers as he fled into the wilderness. 1 Samuel 21:1-15; 1 Samuel 22:0.

Verse 7

Shall they escape by iniquity? - This expression in the original is very obscure. There is in the Hebrew no mark of interrogation; and a literal rendering would be, “By iniquity (there is) escape to them;” and, according to this, the sense would be, that they contrived to escape from just punishment by their sins; by the boldness of their crimes; by their wicked arts. The Septuagint renders it, “As I have suffered this for my life, thou wilt on no account save them.” Luther, “What they have done evil, that is already forgiven.” DeWette reads it, as in our translation, as a question: “Shall their deliverance be in wickedness?” Probably this is the true idea. The psalmist asks with earnestness and amazement whether, under the divine administration, people “can” find safety in mere wickedness; whether great crimes constitute an evidence of security; whether his enemies owed their apparent safety to the fact that they were so eminently wicked. He prays, therefore, that God would interfere, and show that this was not, and could not be so.

In thine anger cast down the people, O God - That is, show by thine own interposition - by the infliction of justice - by preventing the success of their plans - by discomfiting them - that under the divine administration wickedness does not constitute security; in other words, that thou art a just God, and that wickedness is not a passport to thy favor.

Verse 8

Thou tellest my wanderings - Thou dost “number” or “recount” them; that is, in thy own mind. Thou dost keep an account of them; thou dost notice me as I am driven from one place to another to find safety. “My wanderings,” to Gath, 1 Samuel 21:10; to the cave of Adullam, 1 Samuel 22:1; to Mizpeh, in Moab, 1 Samuel 22:3; to the forest of Hareth, 1 Samuel 22:5; to Keilah, 1 Samuel 23:5; to the wilderness of Ziph, 1 Samuel 23:14; to the wilderness of Maon, 1 Samuel 23:25; to En-gedi, 1 Samuel 24:1-2.

Put thou my tears into thy bottle - The tears which I shed in my wanderings. Let them not fall to the ground and be forgotten. Let them be remembered by thee as if they were gathered up and placed in a bottle - “a lachrymatory” - that they may be brought to remembrance hereafter. The word here rendered “bottle” means properly a bottle made of skin, such as was used in the East; but it may be employed to denote a bottle of any kind. It is possible, and, indeed, it seems probable, that there is an allusion here to the custom of collecting tears shed in a time of calamity and sorrow, and preserving them in a small bottle or “lachrymatory,” as a memorial of the grief. The Romans had a custom, that in a time of mourning - on a funeral occasion - a friend went to one in sorrow, and wiped away the tears from the eyes with a piece of cloth, and squeezed the tears into a small bottle of glass or earth, which was carefully preserved as a memorial of friendship and sorrow.

Many of these lachrymatories have been found in the ancient Roman tombs. I myself saw a large quantity of them in the “Columbaria” at Rome, and in the Capitol, among the relics and curiosities of the place. The above engraving will illustrate the form of these lachrymatories. The annexed remarks of Dr. Thomson (“land and the Book,” vol. i. p. 147), will show that the same custom prevailed in the East, and will describe the forms of the “tear-bottles” that were used there. “These lachrymatories are still found in great numbers on opening ancient tombs. A sepulchre lately discovered in one of the gardens of our city had scores of them in it. They are made of thin glass, or more generally of simple pottery, often not even baked or glazed, with a slender body, a broad bottom, and a funnel-shaped top. They have nothing in them but “dust” at present. If the friends were expected to contribute their share of tears for these bottles, they would very much need cunning women to cause their eyelids to gush out with water. These forms of ostentatious sorrow have ever been offensive to sensible people. Thus Tacitus says, ‘At my funeral let no tokens of sorrow be seen, no pompous mockery of woe. Crown me with chaplets, strew flowers on my grave, and let my friends erect no vain memorial to tell where my remains are lodged. ‘“

Are they not in thy book? - In thy book of remembrance; are they not numbered and recorded so that they will not be forgotten? This expresses strong confidence that his tears “would” be remembered; that they would not be forgotten. All the tears that we shed “are” remembered by God. If “properly” shed - shed in sorrow, without murmuring or complaining, they will be remembered for our good; if “improperly shed” - if with the spirit of complaining, and with a want of submission to the divine will, they will be remembered against us. But it is not wrong to weep. David wept; the Saviour wept; nature prompts us to weep; and it cannot be wrong to weep if “our” eye “poureth out” its tears “unto God” Job 16:20; that is, if in our sorrow we look to God with submission and with earnest supplication.

Verse 9

When I cry unto thee - This expresses strong confidence in prayer. The psalmist felt that he had only to cry unto God, to secure the overthrow of his enemies. God had all power, and his power would be put forth in answer to prayer.

Then shall mine enemies turn back - Then shall they cease to pursue and persecute me. He did not doubt that this would be the ultimate result - that this blessing would be conferred, though it might be delayed, and though his faith and patience might be greatly tried.

For God is for me - He is on my side; and he is with me in my wanderings. Compare the notes at Romans 8:31.

Verse 10

In God will I praise his word - Luther renders this, “I will praise the word of God.” The phrase “in God” means probably “in respect to God;” or, “in what pertains to God.” That which he would “particularly” praise or celebrate in respect to God - that which called for the most decided expressions of praise and gratitude, was his “word,” his promise, his revealed truth. So in Psalms 138:2, “Thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name;” that is, above all the other manifestations of thyself. The allusion in the passage here is to what God had “spoken” to David, or the “promise” which he had made - the declaration of his gracious purposes in regard to him. Amidst all the perfections of Deity, and all which God had done for him, this now seemed to him to have special pre-eminence in his praises. The “word” of God was to him that which impressed his mind most deeply - that which most tenderly affected his heart. There are times when we feel this, and properly feel it; times when, in the contemplation of the divine perfections and dealings, our minds so rest on his word, on his truth, on what he has revealed, on his gracious promises, on the disclosures of a plan of redemption, on the assurance of a heaven hereafter, on the instructions which he has given us about himself and his plans - about ourselves, our duty, and our prospects, that this absorbs all our thoughts, and we feel that this is “the” great blessing for which we are to be thankful; this, “the” great mercy for which we are to praise him. What would the life of man be without the Bible! What a dark, gloomy, sad course would ours be on earth if we had nothing to guide us to a better world!

In the Lord will I praise his word - In “Yahweh.” That is, whether I contemplate God in the usual name by which he is known - אלהים 'Elohiym - or by that more sacred name which he has assumed - יהוה Yahweh - that which seems now to me to lay the foundation of loftiest praise and most hearty thanksgiving, is that he has spoken to people, and made known his will in his revealed truth.

Verse 11

In God have I put my trust - The sentiment in this verse is the same as in Psalms 56:6, except that the word “man” is used here instead of “flesh.” The meaning, however, is the same. The idea is, that he would not be afraid of what “any man” - any human being - could do to him, if God was his friend.

Verse 12

Thy vows are upon me, O God - The word “vow” means something promised; some obligation under which we have voluntarily brought ourselves. It differs from duty, or obligation in general, since that is the result of the divine command, while this is an obligation arising from the fact that we have “voluntarily” taken it upon ourselves. The extent of this obligation, therefore, is measured by the nature of the promise or vow which we have made; and God will hold us responsible for carrying out our vows. Such voluntary obligations or vows were allowable, as an expression of thanksgiving, or as a means of exciting to a more strict religious service, under the Mosaic dispensation Genesis 28:20; Numbers 6:2; Numbers 30:2-3; Deuteronomy 23:21; 1 Samuel 1:11; and they cannot be wrong under any dispensation. They are not of the nature of “merit,” or works of supererogation, but they are

(a) a “means” of bringing the obligations of religion to bear upon us more decidedly, and

(b) a proper expression of gratitude.

Such vows are those which all persons take upon themselves when they make a profession of religion; and when such a profession of religion is made, it should be a constant reflection on our part, that “the vows of God are upon us,” or that we have voluntarily consecrated all that we have to God. David had made such a vow

(a) in his general purpose to lead a religious life;

(b) very probably in some specific act or promise that he would devote himself to God if he would deliver him, or as an expression of his gratitude for deliverance. Compare the notes at Acts 18:18; notes at Acts 21:23-24.

I will render praises unto thee - literally, “I will recompense praises unto thee;” that is, I will “pay” what I have vowed, or I will faithfully perform my vows.

Verse 13

For thou hast delivered my soul from death - That is, my “life.” Thou hast kept “me” from death. He was surrounded by enemies. He was pursued by them from place to place. He had been, however, graciously delivered from these dangers, and had been kept alive. Now he gratefully remembers this mercy, and confidently appeals to God to interpose still further, and keep him from stumbling.

Wilt not thou deliver my feet from falling - This might be rendered, “Hast thou not delivered;” thus carrying forward the thought just before expressed. So the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and Luther and DeWette render it. The Hebrew, however, will admit of the translation in our common version, and such a petition would be an appropriate close of the psalm. Thus understood, it would be the recognition of dependence on God; the expression of gratitude for his former mercies; the utterance of a desire to honor him always; the acknowledgment of the fact that God only could keep him; and the manifestation of a wish that he might be enabled to live and act as in His presence. The word here rendered “falling” means usually a “thrusting” or “casting down,” as by violence. The prayer is, that he might be kept amid the dangers of his way; or that God would uphold him so that he might still honor Him.

That I may walk before God - As in his presence; enjoying his friendship and favor.

In the light of the living - See the notes at Job 33:30. The grave is represented everywhere in the Scriptures as a region of darkness (see the notes at Job 10:21-22; compare Psalms 6:5; Psalms 30:9; Isaiah 38:11, Isaiah 38:18-19), and this world as light. The prayer, therefore, is, that he might continue to live, and that he might enjoy the favor of God: a prayer always proper for man, whatever his rank or condition.

Bibliographical Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 56". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bnb/psalms-56.html. 1870.
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